Author's Note: Last winter a group of us on the fanfic thread at TWoP were throwing out ideas for some off-beat Gilmore Girls stories, including putting the show into different genres. The idea of turning Gilmore Girls into a Western really captivated me and I spent a sleepless night scribbling out an outline. However, at that time my dear friend Jmaka was in the midst of writing her own Western tale of romance, and I didn't want to accidentally tread too closely to anything she was doing, even though (true to her generous character!) she gave me her blessing. Sadly, she has since passed away, and I've decided to go ahead and write mine after all, hoping that it may serve as a sort of clumsy tribute to her. Instead of shying away from details that were going to be similar to her story, I'm going to fully embrace them. (But probably my story will not be all that similar in many ways – I'm sure Jmaka would have found a quite different use for any handcuffs owned by the Sheriff!) In closing, let me just say that I continue to miss her humor and friendship and stories every day.

To Eledgy, my beautiful beta, a big thank you! Your input and support and enthusiasm has made writing so much fun again!

One last note about historical accuracy: probably there is none! I readily admit that my knowledge comes from obsessive childhood reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, James Michener's Centennial, and growing up watching too many Westerns on TV.

And now, our story begins...

Star-Crossed, Colorado

"Why the Sheriff Likes Wednesdays"

The tentative spring sunshine was finally beginning to warm the back of Sheriff Luke Danes' neck. He glanced upwards, judging the time by the location of the golden orb overhead. Not wanting to believe what his eyes so clearly told him, he grasped the reins with one hand, and with the other pulled out the pocket watch that had once belonged to his father. The watch confirmed the bad news.

"Come on, Cletus," he urged, digging his heels into the horse's flank.

Cletus tossed his head and looked back towards his rider with a disdainful snort. Luke swore the animal even rolled his eyes.

He was still a good two miles from town. If he had any hopes of making this meeting at all, he and Cletus needed to fly. He leaned forward in the saddle, closer to the horse's ear.

"Look, I know we're not chasing any desperadoes here, but sometimes there's more important things to consider than law enforcement. So giddy-up, will ya!"

Cletus continued his sedate trot towards the group of buildings just visible in the distance.

"Here's my final offer. Get me there in time and there's an apple in it for you."

Their pace didn't alter. Luke sighed mightily and then blew out a breath of disgust at what he was about to do. "Please," he muttered.

Cletus tossed his head again and took off running so abruptly that Luke was thrown back in the saddle. "Damn horse," he growled, pulling himself upright, but he was almost smiling as he said it.

They sped down the dusty road leading to Star-Crossed, Colorado, a nice enough community of some 3,000-odd souls in this quiet northwestern section of the state. ('Odd' being the operative word, Luke often thought.) A discovery of silver back in the '60's had led to a temporary boomtown, but when the silver went bust the area had settled back into a collection of ranchers and sugar beet farmers. Thanks to the train depot the town prospered and grew a little bit year-by-year, although it had never grown to the Denver-sized figures once projected.

That suited Sheriff Danes just fine. He appreciated not having to deal with the big-city crimes he read about in the papers. Riding out to settle a water rights claim or a property dispute was more in line with his temperament than having to chase down bank robbers. He was glad that usually the worst thing he was called on to handle was a rambunctious drunk at Miss Patty's Saloon.

Luke turned Cletus into the livery stable at the end of the main street of town. Normally he would unsaddle the horse himself, wipe him down, and make sure he was comfortable. But today he was already late for his meeting, probably the only thing he actually looked forward to during the entire week.

Sergio, one of the young stable hands, peeked around a stall at him. "Hallo, Sheriff!"

Luke dismounted and quickly handed the reins to the boy, startling him. "I'm late, Serge. Can you take care of Cletus today?"

"Sure!" The boy's eyes shone with pride at having been asked to care for the Sheriff's horse, an unexpected honor.

"Thanks." Luke found a coin in his pocket and passed it to Sergio. He nodded and started out, but remembered something else at the last minute. "Oh, and give 'im an apple, would you? Forgot I promised him one."

Sergio laughed. "Sheriff, the horse don't know that!"

"This one does," Luke refuted, rushing for the door. "I'll check back later."

He smacked at his brown leather coat while he strode down the street towards Doose's Mercantile, trying to persuade the dust to leave its long folds. Right before he opened the door he took off his hat, batting it against his thigh to clean the dust off of it, too. He kept the hat in his hand while he walked through the store, smoothing back his wayward hair as he went, nodding at the various townspeople he passed.

"Sheriff! There you are! If I may have a word?"

With a groan Luke stopped. He had fervently hoped that this would be the one day he'd be able to bypass Taylor Doose, the world's most annoying man, but apparently that was asking too much.

"Mr. Doose," he said tonelessly, turning around. "What is it today?" He tried to tamp down his impatience.

The thumb and index finger of Taylor's right hand instantly went to the waxed end of his mustache and curved it upward, just one of the irritating habits displayed by the store's owner. "The Banyan boys were in here again today. You promised me you were going to handle those hooligans. I can't keep my store afloat if I have to take a loss every time those rascals walk by the candy counter."

Luke stared down at the rotund shopkeeper. He realized all at once that everything about the man bothered him, from his fussy bow tie, the cardigans he wore throughout the year, and most especially the white apron he insisted on tying around his broad middle every day, even though he rarely, if ever, had to wait on someone behind the counter. Plus, this was a conversation they had at least once a week.

"Did anyone see them take something?" Luke asked.

"That has nothing to do with it!" Taylor snapped. "You promised me you were going to keep them out of my establishment!"

"No, I believe what I promised you was that I'd go out to their farm and talk with their mother, which I did." Luke folded his arms and ducked his head, the better to give a rather menacing look Taylor's way. "The poor woman has her hands full. Her husband's gone to try and find work in one of the mines in Utah. She's home with a baby and two other little ones. She's trying her best with these three older boys, but they're old enough to figure out where to find trouble, and too young to realize how much their mother needs them. If you really want to nip this in the bud, offer the oldest one a job sweeping up or something. It'd keep him off the streets and then he could help wrangle his brothers. It'd solve your problem."

"Offer that urchin a job?" Taylor looked horrified. "He deserves to be in jail, not profiting from the sweat of my brow!"

"I don't jail ten year olds," Luke said flatly.

From somewhere further in the store, a melodious laugh pealed out. The sheriff turned towards the sound at once, ignoring the sputtering little man beside him. "Good day, Mr. Doose."

"We are not done discussing this!" Taylor fumed, but the sheriff had already moved away.

At the notion's counter, pretty Mrs. Gilmore was poring over several spools of ribbon laid out in front of her. Luke's heart thudded in relief. Thank goodness he wasn't too late.

He moved to the other end of the counter, looking at packets of needles, trying not to stare at the dark curls escaping from the knot of hair on the back of her head. He stared at the needles and thread and the pincushions instead, trying to make his 6-foot-plus frame somehow blend in with the feminine clientele milling about in this section of the store.

"Oh, Sheriff! Excellent!" Mrs. Gilmore laughed another one of those golden-toned chuckles. "I need a man's perspective here. Which of these ribbons do you think would help to spruce up my old bonnet and show me off to my best advantage?"

Luke turned, nodding a clumsy greeting to Miss Essie behind the counter before trusting himself to look at Mrs. Gilmore's lovely face, graced with her perpetual smile.

She indicated the three choices laid out on the counter. "Which one?"

"This one," he said at once, tapping the sapphire blue in the middle.

"Really?" She held it up against the side of her face. "Are you sure? Why this one? The pink is awfully pretty."

"It matches your eyes," he said without thought, too caught up in the nearness of her and those blue eyes to edit what was coming out of his mouth.

She looked downward as if embarrassed, but she still smiled with pleasure. "That settles it then, Essie. The sheriff surely knows best. Two yards, please. And maybe I'll recount my pennies and come back next week for that pink-sprigged lawn you showed me."

Mrs. Gilmore sent a swift, saucy look his way. "I've heard tell that all sorts of entertainments are going to be available to us this summer. Concerts in the square, I've heard, and maybe even a traveling theater group. It doesn't hurt a lady to be prepared to attend such gatherings, just in case some gentleman should ask her to go."

Luke uneasily stuck his thumbs in his pants pockets and rocked back on his heels. He was used to Mrs. Gilmore's forthright speech, but habitually he found himself unsure about how to respond. Was she telling him she'd like him to ask her to go to these upcoming activities? Was she letting him know that someone else had already asked her? Or was she just stating a fact, something that didn't require him to answer at all? The woman was beautiful, and quick-witted, and probably too clever for her own good, and, more often than not, simply a complete mystery to him.

"Is that right?" he mumbled, hoping that response would suffice no matter what her motive.

She gave another merry laugh and counted out her money into Essie's hand. "So Sheriff, what lures you into the mercantile today? Do you need new ribbons for your hat, too?"

"Oh, um…" He jerked his shoulder awkwardly towards the needles. "I could use a packet of needles. Tore the sleeve on one of my shirts last week."

"Oh, were you chasing down some ne'er-do-well?" She struck a breathless, admiring pose. "Mr. Doose, perhaps?"

He chuckled and glanced down at his feet, feeling heat sear across his cheeks as she teased him. "No. Tore it on a nail while I was trying to fix a shelf up in my rooms."

"Well, by all means, bring the shirt to me, Mr. Danes. I'll wager I could get it mended more efficiently than you could. And then you are free to turn your attention to the more pressing needs of the town." Mrs. Gilmore's expertise with a needle was highly praised. Although she earned her living running the boarding house in town, her seamstress skills supplemented her income. "It would be my pleasure to mend it for you," she added, beaming at him without any pretense for once.

The heat that had warmed his face now seemed to be dripping down his chest and spreading to further points south. The thought of her elegant fingers piecing together the edges of his old work shirt seemed too intimate an activity to even contemplate. Luke cleared his throat in discomfort. "Thank you, but it's a chore I can handle. My mother made sure I could sew on a button and mend a seam. I think she suspected no woman would ever put up with me, so she wanted to make sure I was prepared."

"I suspect your sainted mother was sadly mistaken in that belief, Sheriff." Mrs. Gilmore nodded with certainty, making no attempt to hide her admiration as she took in his broad shoulders and tall frame. "I suspect a long line of women would wait upon your doorstep, willing to pay you for the privilege of mending your clothing, should you ever make that request known."

Sometimes the lighthearted bantering Mrs. Gilmore subjected him to made him as tongue-tied as a gawky boy again. Once again he cleared his throat, giving himself a chance to put some words together. "Thanks, but if it's all the same to you, I think I'll fix my shirt myself and save the ladies of the town from that spectacle. Can't have loitering, you know. Then I'd be forced to arrest 'em."

The young widow laughed at that. "Very well. But know that my offer still stands, if my sewing skills are needed at any time."

"There you are, Lorelai. Anything else today?" Essie had wrapped the length of ribbon and slipped it into Mrs. Gilmore's basket.

"No, thank you, Essie. I need to be getting home." She dipped her head apologetically towards Essie, but made sure her eyes included Luke. "I like to be there waiting when school gets out. And the train will be pulling in soon, so if any guests are looking for a room, they'll be wending their way up the hill to me directly. My afternoon out is drawing to a close, I'm afraid."

"Let me take that for you." Luke picked up the basket full of the fruits of her shopping before she could reach for it.

"Oh, but your needles!" Lorelai protested.

"I'll pick them up on the way back," Luke said casually, nodding at the sales clerk.

"Certainly, Sheriff," Miss Essie agreed, her lips quivering in a way that might have suggested she was holding back a knowing smirk.

Their progress through the store took several minutes, as Mrs. Gilmore paused more than once to exclaim over some piece of merchandise she insisted he needed. At last they reached the door, which he opened for her, standing aside so she could exit first. It was a moment he looked forward to each week, that instant when she passed close enough to him that if he dared, he could do much more than merely sniff at the light scent she'd dabbed onto her tempting neck.

"I see that yet again we've had a coincidence, Sheriff," she observed, once they'd started down the wooden planks lining the street.

"How so, Mrs. Gilmore?"

"Once again fate placed us both at Doose's to do our shopping at the same time. Our weekly habits do seem to be attuned, do they not?"

"They do indeed, ma'am." Luke glanced to the other side of the street, partly because he was ever-vigilant about their town, and partly to hide the smile on his face.

"Although I confess, rather than sewing needles, I guessed you might be looking for shaving supplies."

Luke slapped a hand over the several days' growth of whiskers on his face. Normally he stopped by the barbershop before heading over to Doose's. "My apologies for my appearance," he said with a sigh. "Caleb Turner thought he had a head of sheep rustled last night, so I had to ride out there to see to it. Took me most of the day till now to solve the crime."

She didn't notice the sarcastic slant he put on 'crime.' "Oh, no!" Mrs. Gilmore stopped and looked up at him, genuinely horrified. "Not rustlers, here? Was anyone hurt? Are you all right?"

"Everyone's fine," he assured her, although feeling a bit puffed up from her concern. "Even the dozen sneaky sheep are safe. They found a weak spot in the fence and got out, and then the Johnson's dog got wind of 'em and herded 'em over to their farm. It took some time to sort it all out, but all's well now."

"Well, that's a relief! I'd hate to think that such things could happen here."

"Bad things can happen anywhere, ma'am," he reminded her darkly.

"But surely not on such a beautiful day," she insisted with her infectious smile, and threw her arm out to encompass the clear blue sky overhead.

"It is beautiful," he agreed, smiling directly into those jewel-toned eyes that beat the color of the sky any day of the week, in his opinion.

They reached the end of the wooden walkway. Luke offered her his arm to aid her in stepping down to the dirt of the street. She nodded her thanks, tucking her fingers around the inside of his elbow, and kept her light grip there as they continued the slightly elevated trek up the street to the boarding house. Abruptly, Luke changed his mind about what constituted his favorite part of Wednesdays.

He'd known Mrs. Gilmore for years, ever since she'd appeared on her Aunt Mia's doorstep one night, probably some sixteen years ago now. She'd been practically a child herself at that time, although she was already widowed and clutching a sick, feverish infant. Mia Holloway had embraced her ready-made family with all of the love she'd been stockpiling for years, and her niece had returned the love with gratitude, helping her aunt run the boarding house and eventually taking it over upon her death three years past.

Knowing of her and being conscious of her in a heart-stopping sort of way, though, were two very different things. Luke wasn't sure what had happened several years back, to make him so keenly aware of her every move. He didn't know when the need had developed in him to know where she was during every minute of the day. Maybe it had happened at the same time he found that his overpowering grief had lifted. He only knew that he was drawn to her as a moth to a flame, burning with a fierce desire to see her safe and happy.

In the sixteen years since arriving in Star-Crossed, Mrs. Gilmore had kept herself busy at the boarding house, tending that establishment with as much energy and devotion as she showed to her daughter, Rory. It was apparent to all that she doted on the girl, who was just as bright and pretty as her mother. It was only recently that Mrs. Gilmore's more frivolous side had started to emerge. She began to attend more functions in town, stopping often to smile and speak to everyone passing on the street. She seemed to suddenly thrive on bedeviling Mr. Doose, a hobby of which Luke thoroughly approved. At about the same time those blue eyes had started to sparkle his way. Although…he could be wrong about that. It could be it was only his own potent yearning trying to convince him that was true.

"Do you mind if we go around the back?" Mrs. Gilmore asked as they approached the large two-story structure that had taken in travelers and those between homes for as long as the sheriff could remember. "I'm sure Sookie's back in the kitchen, this time of day. Wouldn't surprise me if she could be persuaded to offer you up a cup of tea."

Luke lowered his head against the bright smile Mrs. Gilmore sent his way. "I'm delighted to walk around to the back, and I'm always happy to see Sookie, but I don't need a cup of tea." He took a quick breath and continued. "Or a piece of pie, or a slice of bread with jam, or a roast beef sandwich, either." He well-knew how much Susannah Belleville, the boarding house cook, loved to feed people.

"You deserve some type of reward, carrying my parcels home for me."

"Not a bother," he asserted.

"Did you even have dinner today?" she suddenly demanded, meaning the noontime meal. "You were out at the Turner's all morning, you said. Have you eaten anything?" They were almost to the back door, but she stopped and blocked his path, looking miffed. "I don't want to have to provide alterations to your clothes because you've grown thin from lack of sustenance. You need your strength to handle the bad elements Mr. Doose is constantly warning us about. I've a mind to tell Sookie she needs to fatten you up, for the good of the town if for no other reason."

He sensed there was a hint of true concern buried in her joshing, and that was enough to bring a satisfied smile to his face. "Mrs. Turner insisted I have a bowl of stew," he assured her. "Not as good as Sookie's but it was filling all the same."

"Hmph," Mrs. Gilmore snorted, flouncing her skirts. She trotted up the steps and opened the back door. "Sookie!" she cried out, using her friend's lifelong nickname. "I'm back, and the Sheriff needs –"

A swirl of calico stopped them at the door. "Oh! Just in time! Help –" Sookie grabbed the basket from Luke and passed it to Lorelai. In the next second she thrust her six-month-old son into Luke's hands. "Just hold –"Another blur of the calico and she bobbed over to the counter, grabbing some towels, and then leaped to the oven. In a flash two pies were out and cooling on the table. "There!" she said in proud triumph.

While his mother was dancing around the kitchen, Davey Belleville regarded Luke coolly, reminding him somewhat of Cletus' doubtful expression not that much earlier in the day. Normally Luke would rather chase down a pickpocket than handle an infant, but young Davey seemed to be settling into his arms rather nicely. He was solid and sturdy, and for once Luke didn't have the fear of accidentally squishing him or dropping him or doing something that was going to make him cry. Plus, instead of sour milk, Davey smelled like he'd just been rolled in a mixture of cinnamon sugar. The baby was warm and cuddly against him, and for possibly the first time ever, Luke felt competent to hold an infant.

The shiny star pinned to his chest attracted Davey's attention. His stubby fingers reached for it, tracing over and pulling against the separate points. When the badge refused to give, Davey leaned forward, trying to capture the bright metal with his mouth.

"Whoa, now. Hold on there." Luke dipped his body and tried to reposition the little boy, not wanting the badge to hurt those tender gums. "You don't wanna do that, son."

He looked over to the women for help and found that both of them were standing still in rapture, watching him and the baby with dewy eyes. "What?" he snapped, looking down at the baby, and then his legs, and finally even holding Davey out away from him a little bit and examining his chest. "What am I doing wrong?" he demanded of them.

Sookie shook herself out of the spell first. "Nothing, Luke. You're doing nothing wrong. In fact –" she chuckled gleefully and looked slyly over at her friend, "I'd say he's doing everything right, wouldn't you, Lorelai?"

"I'd say he's a natural," Lorelai agreed, lowering her abashed face into the basket full of shopping. "Here's the baking powder you needed," she said, abruptly changing the subject. "I was able to get some vanilla, too."

Sookie hurried over to take the baking supplies from Lorelai. "Luke, can I offer you a cup of tea?"

"Not today, thanks." Since neither of them seemed in a hurry to relieve him of the baby, he began jostling the boy, hoping he'd stay tear-free for another few minutes. "Jackson around?"

"No, he rode out to the claim today. The weather's been so good, he's hoping to start planting yet this week." Sookie and her husband had finally saved up enough money to buy a parcel of land just east of town. They were working the land and putting in improvements, but hadn't yet been able to build a house on the plot or earn a living off of it. Jackson sold the produce he raised during the summer and did odd jobs the rest of the year, while his wife continued cooking at the boarding house, a job she'd excelled at since she was barely into her teens. Luke had known her even longer than that, when they were both children at school. Their long acquaintance was why he felt so comfortable standing here now in her domain. The boarding house might belong to Mrs. Gilmore, but the kitchen would always be Sookie's.

"The weather is turning nice," Luke agreed. "Finally," he added, since the winter had been long and dreary. Somewhere in the house, a clock chimed the hour, making him grimace. "If I can persuade one of you to come take the baby, here, I'd best be going. I imagine my deputy is wondering what happened to me."

Sookie came to get Davey, and he made one more futile grab at Luke's badge. "Hmm, maybe he wants to be your deputy," Sookie chuckled. Thwarted at his attempts to get the shiny plaything, Davey's face crumpled into sobs. "Aww, there, there," she soothed the boy. "It's not the end of the world." She held him against her and patted his back. "Lorelai, I'm going to go try and get him settled down into a nap. I'll be back as soon as I can to put the finishing touches on the dinner preparation. Just stir the soup when you can."

"Of course," Lorelai nodded, but she looked nervously over at the big stockpot simmering on the stove.

Luke headed to the door, Lorelai trailing behind him.

"You're sure there's nothing I can offer to entice you to stay longer, Sheriff?"

Now on the back stoop, Luke gulped in a steadying breath of the dry air. Knowing Mrs. Gilmore, it was quite possible she fully intended for her words to have a double meaning.

"Thank you, but not today, ma'am."

The silence stretched out between them. Finally Mrs. Gilmore sighed in disappointment and gave her head a shake, dislodging another curl from where it had been pinned up on her head. "Well…thank you for seeing me home. Until our paths cross again, then." A mischievous spark worked its way back into her eyes. "Next Wednesday at the Mercantile, perhaps."

"Perhaps, ma'am. Take care now." Luke tipped his hat and walked down the steps.

"Bring me that shirt!" she called after him, just before she closed the door.

Grinning, Luke let his long legs and the downward slant of the street propel him back towards the center of town. After about a dozen strides his mind shifted from his recent captivating companion to the work that lay ahead of him. He'd check in with his deputy and send him out to do a swift patrol of the streets, while he took the time to write up the facts of this morning's call out to the Turner's.

Luke spied a man climbing the road opposite him. He didn't recognize him, and figured him a traveler finding his way to the boarding house. The man had on an unremarkable weathered brown suit and a bowler hat that covered his head, making it hard to distinguish his features. Nothing about him stood out at all. It was almost as if he'd gone to some effort to make sure nothing would cause him to stand out from the scenery.

When he came abreast of him, Luke tried to catch his eye and nod a friendly greeting, but the stranger looked off to the side, seemingly studying the grass and weeds growing there.

That in itself wasn't unusual. Through the years Luke had discovered that many folks grew nervous around someone wearing a badge and did their best to avoid eye contact, whether they had done anything to fear or not. It was no surprise that this gentleman, unfamiliar with him and their town, might wish to keep to himself.

Luke took another half-dozen steps, each slower than the one before, until his lawman's sensitivity forced him to stop. He turned to look back to where the nondescript man had now disappeared. His gut was telling him that there was something wrong. Although all signs pointed to the man merely being a visitor and heading to the boarding house because he needed someplace to stay for the night, something about the way he'd tried so hard to blend in made Luke suspicious. He turned and put real effort into hurrying back up the hill. If he was wrong and she was safe, he'd let her laugh at him all she wanted.

As long as she was safe…

He drew close to the boarding house and scanned it for anything amiss. The stranger wasn't visible and everything was quiet. But still, foreboding pounded through Luke's chest. His feet barely touched the steps leading to the front porch.

Normally he'd knock at the door and wait to be admitted. But not today. Not with his ingrained sense of danger telling him so clearly that something was horribly wrong. He paused for a split second to muzzle his fears and focus his thoughts. Then he grasped the door handle, squeezing it carefully, and opened the door silently.

"Sir, you are drunk," he heard Lorelai say with disgust.

"Come on, darlin', give us a kiss. Show me a taste of what I'm payin' my money for, eh?"

Luke no longer tried to hide his actions. He burst through the parlor and grabbed the man's shoulders from behind, breaking the grip he'd had around Lorelai's waist. Gladly he slammed him back against the wall.

"Are you all right?" Luke tried to look over at her while continuing to glare at the stranger. He shoved him back against the wall once more, appreciating the solid thunk the man's head made against the plaster. "Did he hurt you?"

"No. I'm…I'm fine." She was breathing hard and her hands nervously fluttered up to her throat. "He's…He's drunk. He thought…I think he thought this was Patty's."

Luke's fingers pressed deeper into the stranger's shoulders. He tried not to gag at the smell of cheap whiskey rising up from the man's clothing. Hot anger, something he'd tried to control all of his life, poured into every bit of him. He had no doubt he could have torn this man apart, if he'd dared to hurt Lorelai.

Sensing this, the drunk cringed a bit.

"Lorelai? Good Lord, what's happened?" Sookie ran into the room, looking horrified.

"See?" the drunk blustered. "There's two of 'em. Plenty for both of us – Ow!" he exclaimed, as Luke made his head meet the wall once more.

"Momma? Why is the door standing wide open? Are you - Oh!" Schoolbooks clattered to floor as Miss Rory Gilmore arrived home and beheld the frightening sight in her front room.

"There's a comely lass!" the drunk leered, too inebriated to know when to stop. "How old are you, darlin'? Fifteen? Sixteen? Old enough to give consent, I'd wager!"

Luke leaned into him, putting his weight into it. "You say one more word and I'm taking your head off, are we clear?" he promised, making his words as intimidating as possible.

The menace in Luke's words sunk into the drunk's head. He gulped and nodded, blinking nervously.

Lorelai ran over to her daughter, throwing her arms about her and shielding her from the alarming sight of the stranger in their home.

Forcing himself away from his emotions and back into his training, Luke pulled back and jerked the man away from the wall, keeping a death-grip on his neck. He marched him towards the still-open door, making him pause when they reached the mother and daughter huddled there.

"You will apologize to Mrs. Gilmore and her daughter for the terror you have brought into their home." Luke gave him a shake for added emphasis and to show his displeasure.

Fear seemed to have sobered the man up a degree or two. "My deepest apologies," the man hiccupped. "It appears my directions were faulty."

Lorelai's arms clutched Rory to her even tighter. She turned her back to him, using her body to further guard her daughter.

Luke practically threw the man down the steps. He lockstepped him to the road and gave him a shove towards town. "Get yourself away from here! Go find someplace to sober up. If I ever catch you within sight of this house again, I promise you'll rot in my jail cell, or worse. You understand me?"

"Yes sir." The man teetered, trying to find his footing. "My apologies again. To the genteel ladies, too." He started his shaky walk down the hill, veering from one side of the street to the other.

Luke watched him stagger away, still huffing from his repressed anger. Finally, with one more cleansing breath, he turned and went back into the house.

When Luke stepped back inside he found that Sookie had joined Lorelai in her efforts to reassure Rory. All three stood together, their arms around each other, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

"Oh, Luke!" Sookie looked up and saw him. "Thank the good Lord you hadn't left yet."

He glanced at Lorelai, who slightly shook her head at him, meaning for him not to worry Sookie more by telling the whole truth about the events.

Rory broke away from the two hovering women and approached him. "Thank you so much, Sheriff! Thank you for being here and keeping us safe."

"Glad to be of service," he mumbled to the earnest young lady standing before him. With a jolt he realized just how much she was going to look like her mother when she was grown. And judging by the height the girl had already attained, that day was going to be coming very soon.

"Sookie, why don't you take Rory into the kitchen and ply her with something to settle her nerves? In fact, I'm sure we could all use something," Lorelai urged.

"Of course! Come here, Kitten," Sookie said, wrapping her arm lovingly around Rory's shoulder.

For a moment neither Luke nor Lorelai spoke, waiting for Sookie and Rory to be out of hearing range.

"You're sure you're all right?" His voice came out all gruff with concern.

"I'm fine," she whispered, not sounding at all like herself.

He didn't remember thinking that he should walk up to her, but somehow he had. His hands, also working on their own, settled gently down onto her shoulders, moving in a way that could have been a caress. "You're trembling," he noted. "He didn't – You're sure he didn't –"

"I'm fine," she insisted again, keeping her voice low, just between them. "He was trying to kiss me, as I'm sure you saw. Luckily he seemed too drunk to be truly a threat."

"And luckily I came back."

"Luckily." She tilted her head, smiling warily. "Why did you come back?"

He paused for a moment, wondering how to explain it to her. "My mother always said I had some sort of sixth sense about people. She said I could always tell if someone was hiding something, or if they were pretending to be something they weren't." He frowned as he felt another sharp tremor pass through her shoulders. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Fine, thank you." She shook off his hands and moved a step away, folding her arms across her chest. "I do thank you for your vigilance."

Now that he could see she was indeed unharmed, his fear tipped over into irritation. "I think this goes to show why I've said for years you need to have someone here with you."

Her eyes rolled in exasperation. They'd had this conversation many a day. "I do have someone here with me."

"Who? Sookie?"

"Yes, Sookie for one."

He snorted at the idea of that protector. "I'd feel better about that if she didn't have an infant in one arm and a frying pan at the end of the other. And no offense to Sookie, but we both know that she'd more likely hit herself with the frying pan than the person posing the threat!"

Lorelai huffed but knew better than to refute him because what he'd said was fair about her injury-prone cook. "Usually Jackson's here," she tried to claim.

"Not true." Luke stood his ground. "Usually he's at their place working, or peddling his crops, or finding a day's labor at a neighboring farm. Tell the truth, when was the last time Jackson spent the day here, helping you?"

Instead of arguing she once again switched her logic. "There's always Kirk."

"Kirk!" Luke didn't even try to hide his scoff. "Not that he's a valid option in any case, but where is he then?"

She looked down at the point of her shoe, shuffling it against the carpet. "I didn't have any chores for him today. He went into town to see if he could find somebody else willing to take him on for the day." Her arms went to her hips and she looked at him stormily, already knowing she was losing. "And before you ask, no, Michel is not here today either. He went to Denver to hear the famed Enrico Caruso sing at the opera house there."

"And even if they were! Even if they were…" Luke made himself take a breath, feeling the muscle in his jaw tensing with frustration. "You've got a half-wit and a fancy Frenchman here to supposedly protect you. Which means you've actually got nobody!"

"You know I run a boarding house here. Just like my aunt did for many, many years. I depend upon strangers coming to my house for my livelihood. Aunt Mia taught me caution and discretion. I am careful about who I allow to stay here!"

"But yet you let him in! A staggering drunk and you let him in!"

Lorelai flinched. "I didn't – I didn't let him in."

"Then how'd he get in your parlor?"

She sighed, obviously not wanting to admit it. "He opened the door. He walked in."

"He opened the door!" Luke threw up his hands. "You mean to say you didn't even have the door locked?"

She was trying to look confident and failing miserably. "Rory was on her way home."

He felt like the top of his head was ready to fly off. "Rory could walk around to the back. Rory should have a key to her own door!"

Lorelai squeezed her eyes shut and looked to be silently counting to ten. "I don't want to fight with you," she finally said. "What I want to do is find a way to thank you for coming to my rescue, which I admit, I needed today." She forced a smile. "Why don't you come back and eat supper with us?"

The unexpected invitation threw some cold water over his crossness. "With…you?" His shoulder motioned towards the communal dining table visible in the next room, where the boarders would soon congregate.

"No." She smiled more sweetly. "Back in the kitchen. Rory and I usually eat our meal back there, after the boarders finish. Please come join us. Mr. Medina will be with us tonight, as well. Join us and it will be like a party!"

Every bit of irritation came flooding back. "Mr. Medina? The schoolmaster?"

"Yes." She nodded happily. "He's been ever so good about tutoring Rory. You know how desperately she wants to get her teaching certificate next year, and he's been helping her with mathematics. If you were at the table I could talk to you, since the topics he and Rory discuss normally fly right over my head!"

"Because of course I wouldn't be expected to keep up with the esteemed schoolmaster," Luke complained heatedly, taking offense.

"You mistake my meaning." Lorelai looked grim. "I merely meant that it would be a relief to me to have someone else at the table who wasn't trying to find the square root of a sum."

Luke dug deep for some manners. "Thank you, but no. I've already spent too much time away from the sheriff's office today," he said curtly, turning to leave.

Lorelai followed him to the door. "You don't like him, do you?"


"Mr. Medina."

"I…" Luke floundered. He raised his hand to his head, and only then discovered that in all of the uproar over the interloper he'd never removed his hat. "Mr. Medina's…a decent man. I'm sure he's a wonderful teacher. He's just not my…cup of tea, I guess you could say."

He turned to the door, but Lorelai interrupted once again. "Do you know what I would like?"

Luke sighed, resigned to hearing her out, even after finding out she was eating supper with the smug schoolmaster. "What?" he asked.

She balled up her fists and seemed to take a breath of courage. "I would like to go horseback riding."

"I'm sorry, what?" He shook his head, thinking that somehow he'd misheard.

"I would like to go horseback riding," she repeated firmly. For a moment she rose up on her toes, breathing in some strength that was apparently available a few inches above her head, before landing back down on her feet. "I believe that you own several horses, do you not?"

He could only stare at her, trying to figure out what was going on. Maybe he wasn't clever enough to sit at a table with the brilliant Max Medina after all. "Yes. Yes, I have horses," he finally confirmed, which was a fact she already knew.

She was nodding now. "You have horses, and I…" She trailed off, but set her shoulders and finished with renewed resolve. "I would like to go riding."

Several long seconds stretched out between them while they stared at one another. A pretty rosy flush colored over Mrs. Gilmore's cheeks.

"Sheriff," she finally muttered. "I have given you an opening big enough to drive a buckboard through. If you don't take it, then I will know that I have totally misunderstood the situation. I will be embarrassed, but I will live, and I will promise to leave you alone forever after."

From somewhere deep in his past, words swirled into his head. Take a chance, Luke. It's right there, Luke. Just reach out and grab it! This time he was determined to heed them.

"Mrs. Gilmore," he began, and was immensely relieved that his voice didn't crack, "would you like to go horseback riding with me sometime?"

He would have had to be blind to miss the relief that passed over her face, too. "I'd be very happy to accept your kind invitation, Sheriff. Would next Wednesday morning be a good time?"

"That should work out," he agreed faintly. "Barring any confused sheep, that should work out fine."

"Excellent!" She looked extremely pleased and prettier than ever, having gotten her way. "I'll look forward to it."

Still not sure what had just transpired, Luke opened the door. "I should get back to my duties. I'm afraid Deputy Forester will have a posse out looking for me soon if I don't."

"Thank you." Lorelai looked at him softly. "For everything."

"My pleasure, ma'am." He moved through the door, out onto the porch. "You take care now."

She smiled once more and closed the door.

"And lock this door!" He shouted out the reminder.

He heard the lock shoot home. Smiling, he headed down the street, not completely sure about what had just happened, but nonetheless convinced that his life was about to change for the better.

The stranger looked at the handkerchief he'd pulled away from his head. The bleeding had stopped. He was fortunate he hadn't received worse.

He straightened his suit jacket and tie before pushing through the swinging doors into Miss Patty's Saloon. He raised his arm to the stringbean fellow behind the bar, the one who'd been playing the piano the last time he'd been in the premises, an hour or so earlier. "Bring me a nip of your best brandy, would you, my good man?" Then he settled himself at a table, pulling out a notebook he kept handy in his jacket pocket.

The buxom Patty herself brought the drink over to him. "So tell me, Handsome, are you going to actually drink this one? Or are you going to use it for cologne, the way you did with that rotgut whiskey you ordered before?"

"Ah, this is meant to be savored," he explained to Patty, taking a pleasurable sip. "This is a reward for what has turned out to be a very good day. A very good day indeed."

"Has it now?" Patty rested her hand upon his shoulder. "Maybe we could find something to make it even better."

"Maybe we could at that, darlin'," he said, winking at her suggestion. "Give me a minute to finish writing up my findings, here, and then let's discuss my options."

"Just give me a sign," she promised, sashaying away to check on some of the other bar patrons.

"Oh, and tell me where the telegraph office is." He gave Patty another confident smile. "Someone else is waiting to hear my good news."

Be sure to join us again for the continuing saga of the Gilmore Girls in the Old West!