Eagle's Cry

Eagle’s Cry

***

This is my first attempt at a western genre TG story. I wrote it to stretch my comfort zone and hopefully improve my overall writing. This story contains no graphic sex, but does contain a rape scene and thus I rate the story X.

I love writing but what keeps me writing are your reviews and comments. Please consider reviewing this story. I hope you enjoy it.

***

The sun scorched the high desert heating the earth and creating shimmering air waves in the distance. Hot wind made it hard to breathe and carried bits of dirt and sand that got everywhere. I ran my tongue over my chapped lips and tasted the grit that stuck to them. The brim of my hat shadowed my eyes but I was still forced to squint as I looked at the distant mountains. Sensing we had miles more to go before any shade, shelter, or water could be found my horse shifted uneasily beneath me. I reached down and patted her rusty brown neck. “Easy, Juniper.”

I pulled my rifle from my saddle holster and looked through the scope spotting a whisper of trail dust on the farthest ridge. Given the distance, I was still half a day behind the infamous Clark gang. I re-holstered my rifle and took a deep sip of water from my water skin. My silver badge caught some rays of sunlight causing me to close my eyes as I tipped my head back.

For three weeks I’d been tracking the gang. The posse that started with me on this journey all abandoned me and departed weeks ago. I pulled a bloodied handkerchief from my shirt pocket and fingered the white letters monogrammed into the delicate pink silk. It belonged to one of the gang’s most recent victims. They robbed a train but weren’t satisfied with just taking money and jewelry. They killed and raped as many people as they could. I’d discovered this handkerchief on the body of a young woman that had been brutally raped then killed. I couldn’t let these animals get away with what they’d done. I urged Juniper forward at a slow pace to save her energy as we crossed the arid expanse.

By sunset I was camped upon the ridge the Clark gang had passed across earlier in the day. I leaned up against a fallen sun-parched tree with my feet to the fire as the sounds of the night rose as a cacophony around me. I pulled a weathered piece of parchment from my saddlebag and stared at the pictures of the twelve men portrayed on it. I’d memorized them a long time ago, but seeing their scruffy features helped drive me onward each day. Daniel Clark, the gang leader, was wanted for the murder of at least ten people. He was large and ruthless. Soon I’d see him hanging by a rope for his crimes.

An ember popped from the fire and landed on my dusty worn leather chaps. I watched the orange glow slowly ebb and die. It reminded me of life on the western frontier. At thirty-seven I was already considered an old-timer. One day, perhaps I’d give up this life. The reality was that people didn’t really retire from being a Marshall, they were involuntarily retired, usually by someone else’s gun. For all my experience, my fighting ability, and how quick I was with my six-shooter, I was one man against twelve. I never expect to return from chases like these. I pulled the brim of my hat lower, crossed my arms over my chest and closed my eyes. Tomorrow I’d get an early start to the day and hopefully by sunset I’d close in on them.

***

It had already been a long day and with each ridge I came over expecting to see the Clark gang on the other side I was reminded of just how long I’d tracked them. Their trail was very visible, but I also spotted signs of Indian activity in the area. Several tribes on the frontier were very dangerous, but most were peace-loving. I looked up as I heard the sound of a vulture but was surprised to see dozens circling overhead. They seemed to be southwest of me and I now spotted wisps of smoke coming from the same vicinity. I kicked Juniper and we increased our speed.

When I started hearing activity I dismounted, tied Juniper to a tall sage bush, and pulled my rifle from my saddle holster. I crept to the top of the ridge and looked down upon a scene of bloody carnage. An Indian tribe had been slaughtered. Two dozen men, women, and children lay dead, their blood painting the desert soil. A scream drew my eyes to the north edge of the camp. A golden haired white woman was thrashing in the grips of a large man. With my scope I caught glimpses of the man’s face. He was one of the Clark gang. Another man stood nearby holding an Indian woman by her hair.

I couldn’t rush this. I was one man against an unknown number that might still be in the area. I took my time scanning the camp and saw no other men but that didn’t mean they weren’t nearby or within earshot. Another scream and I turned my scope back to the woman as the man, Billy Rae, raised his pistol and shot her in the thigh. I lay prone and leveled my rifle on the center of the man’s back, took a breath, adjusted for the distance and wind, and pulled the trigger. Blood sprayed the woman as the bullet erupted from his chest. Billy Rae was no more, collapsing to the side, but his buddy, Silas Jackson, must have caught sight of me and opened fire. I hunkered down as his bullets raked the hillside in front of me. I waited for a pause, drew my pistols, and then ran along the ridge and straight into Casper Jepsen. His rifle was trained on me. I veered and dove over a rocky outcropping just as a bullet tore through my ribs. I managed to hang onto one pistol as I rolled uncontrolled down the ridge towards the two women.

I stopped suddenly and gasped for air. The wound in my side had most likely punctured my lungs as I felt I couldn’t get enough air. I slowly opened my dirt encrusted eyes and looked into the face of the Indian woman who indicated with her eyes that someone was coming up behind me. I winced in pain as I rolled over, took aim, and shot Casper in the chest. I breathed a sigh of relief until a bullet shattered my right shoulder; the force of the bullet rolled me completely over and onto my back. Silas stood over me with both pistols pointed at my face, his left foot stomped down on my right wrist, breaking numerous bones and causing me to drop my last pistol. I would’ve screamed if I could gather enough breath.

“Marshall Ethan Hammersmith. Yur already dead.” I watched him as he looked up into the sky. “Two hours until sunset. You’ll bleed out overnight if the vultures and coyotes don’t finish you before that.” He kicked my pistol away then fired two shots, one into each leg. This time I did scream, using whatever air I had left. My sight had gone blurry and my breathing ragged as I watched him turn away from me. My left hand gripped my knife and I swung with my remaining strength, cutting deep through the tendons on the back of his leg. He fell backwards on top of me screaming curses until my blade found his throat. His blood mingled with mine as he slid off of me. I gasped for breath and stared into the sky waiting for the vultures to drift lower and lower towards me.

I was unsure how long I laid there bleeding out onto the ground. My breathing was labored and short and darkness crept into the edges of my vision. The sky was darkening with the odd flaming orange cloud. I tried to move but my body refused to respond. Strangely and mercifully I felt no pain. The feeling of my body slipped away but my hearing and smell seemed to enhance. Perhaps in my death only my brain was still functioning as the distractions of my body fell away like chaff. I could hear the clicking of insect legs walking across the sand and smell the earthy dust, acrid smoke, and metallic scents of blood.

I closed my eyes and heard a woman scream then the piercing cry of an eagle. Through my dying haze I opened my eyes and caught a glimpse of the Indian woman. She was chanting and waving sage smoke over me. The pungent smell beckoned me and pulled at me, lifting me upwards with the slowly curling drifting smoke. I pondered the ritualism of it and wondered if she were giving me some sort of death rite. I tried to speak but I couldn’t. I closed my eyes and slid into oblivion.

***

The sound of a crackling fire was the first thing that entered into my consciousness. This was followed by the melodic chanting of a woman and then the awareness of warmth on one side of me and cold on the other. I climbed and clawed my way into further awareness. I struggled to open my eyes as they felt like they were weighed down by some invisible force. A crack of light appeared, then another. I turned my head towards the heat of the fire. The Indian woman was there kneeling beside me. Her long black hair was unbound and cascaded down across the tan-colored deer skin clothing that had colorful beads sewn into it in geometric patterns. In one hand she waved an eagle feather slowly back and forth and in the other hand a stick of blue-grey sage. She was young and beautiful.

Her dark eyes opened and fixed upon mine. I read a mixture of deep sadness yet there was a momentary flicker of joy. I watched unmoving as she raised her hands and eyes to the sky then lowered them once again. She turned her eyes on mine and in surprisingly fluent English she spoke.

“Do not move yet. The eagle spirit called to me last night. It told me I must save you so that you could avenge our people. My friend Elizabeth’s vessel was whole but her spirit was weak. She chose to fly away with the spirits of my people. Your spirit was strong but your vessel was weak. The eagle spirit showed me what to do. He told me he bestowed upon you a great gift.”

I blinked and tried to make sense of what she was saying but none of it made sense. I raised my head from the ground as a light morning breeze blew long strands of golden hair in front of my eyes. I looked down to see blue patterned cloth spattered with blood and edged with white lace. My mind simply wasn’t registering what I was seeing. I turned my head to see my own weathered face staring back at me. I jerked upright causing searing pain in my left thigh and feeling a weight on my chest shift. “What?” I stammered and choked on the feminine sound that came from my mouth.

A gentle hand rested on my shoulder. “Calm yourself. Let your spirit settle.” Her words and touch soothed me. I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. “As I told you, your vessel was weak and the eagle spirit guided me to bring your strong spirit into a better vessel.” I couldn’t comprehend what had happened and thought perhaps I was merely dreaming or had already died.

I opened my eyes again and looked down. Long golden hair fell over my shoulder, across the blue patterned fabric, and over the bumps on my chest. Looking beyond I could see blood staining the cloth where my left thigh would be. I looked to my left again to see myself lying on my back. My gray-blue eyes dull and lifeless and my lips covered in crusted blood and flecked with sand. Dark stains pooled on the ground around my chest and legs. My star was coated in a fine film of dust. Bile rose in my throat and I heaved but nothing came out. My sudden movements once again caused a searing pain in my thigh.

Slowly and carefully I turned back to the Indian woman. “I don’t…” Hearing my feminine voice once again caused me to falter. “I don’t understand.”

“Elizabeth suffered terrible loss. For the past year she befriended me and my tribe. When the men came and killed everyone, raping the women and then cutting their throats, she chose to give up her spirit. She no longer wanted to be a part of this world and wished to go on to be with the spirits of her loved ones. When you came and fought for us and you were badly injured, your vessel, your body, could no longer contain your spirit. As the sun set the eagle spirit allowed Elizabeth to give up her vessel, to move beyond to be with her loved ones. At that moment the eagle spirit called to me and guided me to move your spirit to a vessel that would allow you to avenge our people.”

I moved my hand to my face and felt the fullness of my lips and the incredibly soft smooth skin. I looked down upon myself and the dress I was wearing. “I must be dead… This can’t be…”

“I myself did not know this was possible, but here you are.” Her hand caressed my head tenderly and for a moment I leaned into her gentle touch before pulling myself away. She retracted her hand as if it was burned and a tear fell down her cheek.

“If this is true, how can I avenge anyone as a woman?” Even saying the words made me feel weak and emasculated.

“A vessel is a vessel, but a spirit is a spirit. Does this new vessel change who you truly are? You are still the same spirit as you were before. You believe women are inferior as most men do.”

“I still feel I’m the same person inside and yes, women are inferior to men. That’s why men go to war and why women stay at home. Women are weaker and more fragile than men.”

“That is where you are wrong. Regardless of your beliefs, you are now in the vessel of a woman. Elizabeth lived through many hardships. Her vessel is stronger than you may ever think.” She turned away towards the fire and poured something into a metal cup. “You have lost blood and are weak. Drink this. We must leave here soon.”

Whatever was in the hot liquid she gave me renewed my strength. Pain ebbed away as I drank but the foreignness of my new body didn’t. I glanced back at the old me and while I struggled to grasp my new reality, at least I was alive. I reminded myself that several times I had to fight for my survival. Had I stayed in my old body I would no longer be living, but to now be a woman? I shook my head in disbelief. I watched as the Indian woman was busy gathering items and loading up horses. There were four horses including my Juniper which shied away from her touch.

“The men that did this will eventually return looking for those that remained behind. We need to leave.”

“I need to see to my leg and gather my weapons first.”

“I urge you that we need to be quick or we will both have our spirits leave this world but not before our vessels suffer greatly.”

The thought of being pinned down and raped flashed into my mind. I shuddered and was afraid for the first time in my life. I pulled on the edge of the dress and the layers beneath exposing my new legs. The wound was clean and the bullet had thankfully passed through muscle and out the other side. The Indian woman handed me some leaves she had chewed into a poultice and some strips of cloth. I grimaced with pain as I pushed the poultice into both sides of the wound and wrapped my thigh in the cloth. I chose to believe she knew what she was doing and I’d seen how native medicines could help a wound. “Help me to stand. Please?”

The woman came to my left side. I put my arm around her shoulders and she put hers around my waist. The effort of standing caused me to scream out in pain. I hobbled unsteadily until she brought me a stick I could lean on. “I found this.” She held up my rifle and with her help I took it to my horse and slipped it inside of its holster.

I clung to Juniper and moved to face her. She didn’t shy away from me. “Do you know me, Juniper?” She rubbed her nose into the palm of my hand.

“Animals connect to us by our spirit. She knows you.”

I smiled a little as I rubbed her neck then hobbled over to my old body. I slowly reached out my hand and touched my old face, startled by the dry roughness of my old weathered skin and graying beard. I pulled my hand away shaking as I did so. I closed my eyes to steel myself and reached under my vest to untie my money bag. Then on a whim I unclasped my badge that showed I’d been a Marshall. I turned away, but turned back once again and fumbled with my old shirt. I pulled out the handkerchief of the woman that had been raped. I suddenly felt very frail as I ran my fingers over the monogram. With the Indian woman’s help we undid my belt and holsters and found my pistols. We attached those to my saddlebag. Then with a great deal of pain and with her help I was pushed up into my saddle. The Indian woman mounted her horse. I asked her which way we should head.

“Elizabeth’s ranch is a day’s ride west of here. I believe we should head there.”

We started out slowly as the pain in my thigh was excruciating. After the first twenty minutes and threatening to pass out from the pain the nerves finally succumbed into a dull deep throb. Unfortunately this allowed my awareness to shift to how my new body was moving. With every step my breasts bounced heavily and the noticeable gap between my legs pressed up against the hard worn leather of the saddle. The resulting combination of feelings made me question whether or not I should simply give up my spirit like Elizabeth had.

When we reached the top of the nearest ridge we stopped and looked back. I realized in all of my time this morning I hadn’t thought much about the Clark gang or the destruction they had caused. Now looking back upon the devastation I felt my breath catch in my chest. Smoke billowed across the camp and the bodies of the slain were still visible. Vultures had finally descended with the morning light. I heard a piercing cry of an eagle as the anger built inside me. They deserved death for what they had done. I looked over at the Indian woman and saw her tears falling freely down her soiled and dusty face.

“I’m sorry.”

“Their spirits are all gone from here and they live on. My pain comes from knowing I am not with them.”

We rode on in silence and took every opportunity to cover our tracks when we spotted rocky areas and streams. We stopped in the early afternoon by a slowly meandering stream. The Indian woman helped me down from my horse and I collapsed into the grass, everything going black.

My eyes fluttered open as a wet compress was put to my forehead. I looked into the Indian woman’s eyes. “You have a slight fever. You should have told me to stop sooner.”

For a moment I thought perhaps I was the old me but one slight change in my position reminded me how different my weight distribution now was. “I don’t even know your name.”

“My name is Anpaytoo.”

“Your name means radiant. It suits you.”

She smiled and I realized how beautiful she truly was. “I am surprised you know something of my language.”

“In my thirty-seven years I’ve met many Indian tribes and learned much from them.”

“Your old vessel was thirty-seven years; your new one is nineteen. There is a pool of water here. I need to get you cleaned up. What should I call you?” She reached over and began unbuttoning the front of my dress starting with the buttons just below my chin.

“I was Marshall Ethan Hammersmith. What name would you give me?”

She paused. “Hurit perhaps. Or Hehewuti. Of course everyone that knew Elizabeth would see you as Elizabeth Mackenzie.”

“I’m not familiar with those Indian names.”

“Hehewuti means warrior mother spirit. You are a warrior but you are also now a woman. Hurit means beautiful.” I must have blushed as she smiled again. No one had ever called me beautiful before and that made my reality all the more real.

“Elizabeth was your friend. I’m sorry she’s no longer with you. Would it bother you to call me Elizabeth? It seems to make sense to keep her name.”

Anpaytoo’s eyes looked distant until she once again started to undress me. “We were friends, nothing more. Elizabeth is a good name for you. I need you to stand.” She helped me to my feet and I grabbed onto her as a wave of dizziness washed over me. “We rode too long and you need food and water. We will bathe first then I will get you some food.” My dress fell to the ground and she further unclasped the corset that was underneath, then the chemise that touched my skin. I stood naked and embarrassed before her and felt significantly lighter with all the clothing removed.

Steadying myself by holding onto a branch of a tree, I looked down upon myself. My breasts moved freely and looked large to me. My light skin was unblemished and it was clear this body had not spent time exposed to the sun and outdoors as I had all my life. I looked between my breasts at the incredible flatness of my stomach and past that to the noticeable missing parts between my legs. My arms and legs looked fit and toned, which made me wonder what kind of life Elizabeth had before this. With the exception of some nausea and pain in my thigh, I felt surprisingly good. I felt none of the aches and pains that had become a constant reminder of my old life. I rubbed absently at my right hip where I had taken a bullet years ago that had always ached, especially after a long ride. There was no hint of pain from that spot.

I watched as Anpaytoo untied her leather dress and knee-high moccasins. The leather had done much to hide her lithe and beautiful body. She was extraordinary. She took my arm and led me into the frigid water. The nipples on my breasts reacted and became erect and hard. Without the restrictive clothing I now noticed the extra padding on my backside, my wider hips, and how my breasts moved and bounced freely.

The frigid cold water on my thigh wound caused me to gasp aloud, but when Anpaytoo pushed my head under the water the resulting shock of cold revived me greatly and brought new clarity to my mind. She found a bar of soap in my saddlebag and began washing me with it. She appeared completely unashamed of her exposed body and I was unaccustomed to this type of care. She washed my hair and face then carefully washed the rest of my body, including between my legs. I couldn’t help but imagine how aroused I would have been as a man at the gentle caresses of a beautiful naked woman such as Anpaytoo. Warmth spread from within me but I was unsure if these sensations from my new body were arousal.

She took particular care of my thigh then quickly washed herself before helping me out of the pool. The hot sun felt nice after the cold water of the pool. We added another poultice and bandage to my thigh before Anpaytoo found food for us both. After we were fed and dry, she helped me back into my clothes before getting dressed herself.

“I think we should spend the night here and get an early start tomorrow. You need more rest. Continuing would weaken you too much.” I agreed and lay back down on the grass. There was much disturbing about having seen myself dead. I was far more fearful about the Clark gang now than ever before. If I knew them, they would retaliate for the three men that were killed. There’s no question that they would track us and we hadn’t travelled far or fast. I suspect that we did a good job of covering our tracks, but it would only be a matter of time before they caught up to us. And when they did? I looked down at my slender form and shuddered.

“Could you bring me my pistols?”

Anpaytoo removed the packs and saddles from the horses and brought my belt and two holstered pistols over to me. I took one of them out and made sure it had six bullets in it. I noticed how weak my wrists were and how heavy the pistols now felt. I was afraid I’d break my wrist if I pulled the trigger. Trying to ignore how this body felt I focused on how I would protect us if the Clark gang attacked. By cutting the gun belt by about eight inches and making new holes I was able to fasten the belt around my now much smaller waist. Anpaytoo watched me with much interest. Eventually she came and knelt behind me and brushed out my hair with her fingers.

“Women do not wear guns.”

“You’re right. I’ve never seen a woman wear pistols, but I have seen women shoot rifles. The men that attacked your tribe, I was hunting them. They’re known as the Clark gang. They will come after us once they pick up our trail. I can’t leave us unprotected.”

She began braiding my hair into a long single braid. “I never understood what the eagle spirit was thinking when it told me you would avenge our people.”

“They need to pay for what they did, but I’m not sure I’m the one to avenge your tribe. I’m a woman. How can I kill nine men on my own?”

“When the time comes the eagle spirit will guide you.”

We chose to avoid a fire this night for the light and smoke would act as a beacon for any pursuers. As night fell Anpaytoo wrapped us both in a blanket and we held each other for warmth. My throbbing thigh distracted me from focusing on being wrapped in the arms of a beautiful woman all night. I quickly drifted into a deep sleep.

***

“Elizabeth… Elizabeth… Wake up. We need to go.” Anpaytoo’s voice was calm with no real urgency to it. I opened my eyes to the pre-dawn light. The air was cold and crisp as I was helped up into my saddle. The campsite was packed away and the horses ready before I had even woken. I know I needed more rest, but at least my thigh was feeling somewhat better.

“You’re taking such good care of me. How can I ever repay you?” I didn’t dare get angry over the fact that I was a woman now and she was to blame. I was alive and perhaps this was some strange twist of fate that would allow me to have a better life.

We started moving west before she replied. “A year ago I was trading with the white man. My English was very bad and some men accused me of cheating them. They took me behind a barn and started to tear off my clothing. Elizabeth came upon us and managed to convince the men to leave me alone. I am not sure how or what she did, but she saved me. She took me to her ranch and helped me learn better English. It was during my time with her that she told me her husband had recently been killed and she was now on her own. She had some gold they had saved together, but she knew she needed to be independent. She helped my tribe sell their goods and in turn she was able to afford food for herself and seed for her garden. I believe we are all here to serve a purpose and I am happy to have helped Elizabeth through a difficult time in her life just as she helped me and my tribe.”

“She sounds like an honorable and strong woman.”

Anpaytoo stifled a cry. “She lived with her pain and tried to be happy, yet I could see she would never love again. She was broken inside. When the men came and raped and killed my tribe, we were both tied up and made to watch the horrors unfold. They wanted to make us suffer before they raped and killed us. I believe the shock, the pain from the gunshot wound, and the fear of being raped and killed caused her to want to give up her spirit.”

I was quiet for some time thinking about my situation. My body rocked back and forth in the saddle and I found myself somewhat enjoying the rhythm of it all. Perhaps it was the extra padding on my backside, or the fact I was much lighter than I was before, but riding felt more comfortable. I knew that I didn’t miss my manhood, at least not while I was in the saddle. Even that admission in my own mind made it feel like I was giving into my new lot in life. Was I becoming so feminine so soon? Would I next want to start baking, darning socks, and having children? I shuddered at the thought of being on the receiving end of sex.

“Anpaytoo? Do you have any family left? Another tribe that would take you in?”

“No. Their spirits have all left this world. I am alone now.”

“You’ll never be alone as long as I have breath within me. I don’t know anything about being a woman or being able to take care of myself in such a frail body, but for what it’s worth, I am here for you and will care for you as best I can. That’s if you would like that.”

“You call your body frail yet I saw Elizabeth expand and build her farm with her own two hands.” She laughed and smiled. “I would like that, only it seems I am the one taking care of you.”

It was late in the day when we looked down upon a small but pretty valley with a river meandering through it. A little farmhouse stood just south of a stand of trees protecting it from the cold north winds of winter. A small barn and fenced area were connected where several goats grazed. Closer to the river a fenced area with a garden that even had irrigation ditches to use the river water. It was well designed and thought out and enough land to fully sustain a good-sized family.

“This is your home, Elizabeth.”

“Our home. You and I are the only family we have.”

“I’m glad you say that. When we get to the house I will take care of the animals while you rest. I will make food for us and then tomorrow we will prepare.”

***

The next morning I woke at the crack of dawn, hardly remembering eating and getting into bed. Anpaytoo was nowhere in sight and I wondered where she might have gone. I was still fully clothed in the blood-stained dress but I felt far better than the previous two days. My thigh gave a slight protest as I stood, but otherwise I was steady and could move around with only slight pain and limping.

The house I found myself in was small but very well built. There was even a small sink with a pipe for water, something I’d only seen in bigger cities before. I made note to find out how this was accomplished. The place was very well kept, clean, and organized. A trunk at the end of the bed suggested there might be clothing hidden inside so I opened it and found fresh clothing for myself. All of it was clothing for a woman, not that I was surprised. I pulled out a change of clothes and recalled as we rode into the farm there was a spot in the river that could be used for bathing. I found some soap and headed for the river stopping at the outhouse to relieve myself.

When I got to the river I was riveted by the sight of Anpaytoo bathing. Her long lustrous black hair was flattened against her back. Her medium-colored skin glistened with the morning sun and water. I thought I was being quiet but she turned and smiled at me, beckoning me to join her. It took quite a bit of time to unbutton my dress and strip out of all my clothes. The buttons were all backwards and the clasps for the corset were tight. Once I was free of the clothing I gingerly stepped into the cold river and waded over to Anpaytoo.

“You look much better this morning, Elizabeth.”

“I feel much better this morning. Thank you for taking care of things last night. I needed the extra rest.”

I couldn’t help how my eyes had been drawn to her breasts and shook my head trying to clear the thoughts that I knew were not good for me. I recalled when I was younger my parents would take me to church. The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah came to mind. How could this be? How could I be attracted to another woman being a woman myself? The preacher would tell me I need to confess my heinous sins or forever be sent to damnation. But I was a man. At least my spirit was.

Anpaytoo embraced me and slowly began washing my back. “You are quiet this morning. What are you thinking?”

“If I tell you the truth, I’m afraid you’ll be offended.”

“If you do not tell me the truth, then you keep a secret. Secrets hurt our spirits and make it hard for us to be happy. If I am offended, I will be truthful to you, but I will not think less of you.”

I bit my lower lip as her hands slid over my backside and carefully washed my thigh. I realized I’d seen women biting their lower lip before and wondered how I could be falling further and further into this new feminine role. “I find you beautiful and…” I hesitated. “…desirable.” Her hands stopped and I knew I had offended her. “I’m sorry, Anpaytoo.”

She gently spun me around to face her. I looked down at the clear cold water swirling between our bodies, afraid to look her in the eyes. “Elizabeth was my friend. Nothing more.”

“I understand.”

“I do not think you do. I loved Elizabeth and she loved me, but our love for each other was different. She did not find me desirable and she mourned the loss of her husband. I found her desirable.” She paused and lifted my chin with her fingers so that I was forced to look her in the eyes. “The eagle spirit works in strange ways. Your vessel was that of a man and now your vessel is that of a woman. I believe that is why you may find me desirable.”

“My father and preacher would tell me my thoughts are wrong.”

“I do not believe your father and preacher have ever been in the same situation you now find yourself. Your body is beautiful and I also find you desirable, but you are not Elizabeth and I am not in love with you like I was her.”

Being called beautiful before again made me wonder what I actually looked like. “That must have been hard for you, to keep your secret from Elizabeth all that time.”

“She knew but allowed me to be her friend. You are shaking. I need to get you dry and warm.”

She led me back to the river bank and used my soiled dress to help dry me. I put a new chemise on, then a skirt and long sleeved blouse and tall boots. It felt good not to wear a corset. That was like a torture device. I watched Anpaytoo walk back to the house. There was no question I desired her, but she was right. I was seeing her through the eyes of a man, not through the eyes of a lover. I was grateful for her presence, patience, and wisdom.

I paused at the entrance to the house and looked across the valley floor and past the barn. It was beautiful here. I checked the position of the rising sun and oriented myself. The river meandered south and a day’s ride would take me to Cascade, a small town I’d visited once before. I looked east and back up to the ridge where we had come from and reminded myself this was not the time to play house and settle in. We needed to be prepared. I turned and went inside.

As Anpaytoo prepared food for us I found a mirror beside the bed. My only glimpse of Elizabeth’s face had been brief through the scope of my rifle. The image reflecting back at me gave me pause. Elizabeth, now me, was very beautiful. Even with damp hair, the golden strands highlighted my large bright blue eyes. I’d seen many women before and most had fleeting looks. This face held a timeless beauty. Full red lips and straight teeth made my smile enticing. I would catch any man’s eye.

Anpaytoo looked up from her work and watched me look at myself. “You are very pretty, Elizabeth.”

“That is frightening to me. I know men that wouldn’t think twice to take advantage of this face and body.”

“What women lack in strength of body, they are strong of mind. Do not ever think you are helpless.”

After breakfast Anpaytoo braided my hair and I found a pair of gloves and a hat. I put on my old belt with holsters and put my pistols into them. I grabbed my rifle and headed outside. I set up a shooting range with bits of wood and pinecones. Beginning with the rifle I took a tentative first shot. The first shot hit its mark but the recoil threw me back a step and hurt my shoulder and thigh.

“Elizabeth was a good shot with her rifle. We had many meals of rabbit and wild birds. It is a shame I could not find her rifle or horse after my tribe was murdered.”

I adjusted my stance and made sure the butt of the rifle was resting against the softer tissue of my shoulder and took a second shot. Again the bullet found its mark and this time I absorbed the recoil far better. I set the rifle down and pulled out a pistol and carefully lined up my shot. I could tell the weight of the pistol in comparison to my strength was significantly different. Even squeezing the trigger took far more effort. I flinched as I pulled the trigger in anticipation of the recoil which drove my bullet into the dirt well away from the target. The recoil was enough to twist the pistol upwards painfully and I cried out in pain and grabbed my wrist with my left hand. If I was ever to shoot pistols again I’d need smaller ones. I holstered the pistol and sat back onto a stump feeling defeated.

Anpaytoo sat next to me and gently massaged my wrist. “If you feel you must use these guns then I have some ideas. May I?” She indicated she wanted to take my pistols from me. I nodded and handed them over to her. I watched as she took them into the house with her. I didn’t see her the rest of the day but I was busy hobbling around the farm and preparing defensible positions.

That evening after supper and the delicious smells of dinner drifted away Anpaytoo placed a heavy bundle into my lap as I sat on the edge of the bed. I opened the bundle to see my pistols. Gone were the heavy metal grips and in their place elk antler had been skillfully crafted to replace them. The pistols weighed significantly less now and would be easier to lift, yet the recoil would be stronger. In addition to the pistols there were two heavy leather wrist wraps. Like gloves without fingers they could be slipped on and tied to add support for the wrists.

I pulled her into a hug. “Thank you, Anpaytoo!”

“Tomorrow, I will leave early in the morning and hunt for game. We are low on meat.”

“I should go with you.”

“You already overused your leg too much today and your walking makes too much noise as you are unbalanced. You must stay and rest. I will be back by nightfall. There is no sign of the men and we need the food.”

I wasn’t feeling overly confident or secure without her, but she was right. I lifted my skirt and my new bandages had fresh blood on them. I sighed and took her hand in mine and put on a brave face. “You have also worked hard. Rest with me.”

***

The next morning I was surprised to find Anpaytoo already gone. I must have really needed the sleep and was so deep in sleep when she left I hadn’t even heard her. As it was on the night we were on the trail we shared body warmth but there was nothing sexual in our time together last night. I got up and once again went down to the river to bathe. I knew enough about healing wounds that keeping them tended and clean was important and I had been enjoying the chance to be free of the heavy layers of clothing.

I waded out into the river and let the cold water wash the dust from me. Being alone for the first time I took the opportunity to truly examine myself. While I was familiar with female parts, I was by no means an expert. I never married as my job required that I was away often and that wouldn’t be fair to a woman raising a family. Besides, as I could recently attest to, being a Marshall was a death sentence.

This morning I waded into shallow water and sat on a rock as I washed myself. I took extra time to examine my breasts and found them to be extremely sensitive. Gently squeezing the nipples sent pleasurable waves coursing through my body and caused a warm moistness between my legs. My new female parts down below were intriguing. Sliding my fingers between my lips caused me to moan audibly and there was one spot that was so sensitive I almost fell backwards into the water when I touched it.

Climbing out of the river I had to admit that the extra energy I now had, my smaller frame that fit better on a bed, the lack of things dangling and chafing between my legs especially on horseback, the incredible sensitivity of my body, my increased flexibility, and lack of constant pain was enough to make me marginally grateful to the eagle spirit. I bandaged my thigh once again and dressed, but I couldn’t figure out how to braid my hair on my own so I found a strip of cloth and tied it back into a pony tail. With some breakfast in me, my hat on my head, and my new lighter pistols on my hips I headed back to my makeshift firing range.

Using my teeth I tied the new leather wrist supports on, added some thin leather gloves, and drew my pistol. I could immediately feel the change of weight and that made it much easier to draw a steady bead on my target. My first shot went wide but I was pleased the wrist support worked so well. While there was a little pain, I realized I needed to let my arm raise more to take up some of the force of the recoil. I shot a dozen more times with both hands and by the end, if I was not hitting the targets, I was coming very close. Certainly close enough to hit the chest of a man.

Throughout the day I rested and watched. I hoped to see Anpaytoo on the horizon but she had said most likely it would be after dark before she would return. It was late in the afternoon when I spotted men up on the eastern ridge. With my scope I could see nine of them. The Clark gang had found me and it was clear they spotted me as they spurred their horses towards the farm.

I had a little time and the advantage of having the sun behind me. I moved into the barn and climbed up the short distance into the loft. By the time I got myself situated the Clark gang was closing in fast. I’d tracked them for a long time and knew not to hesitate. I lined up my first shot on the southernmost rider of their line. I pulled the trigger and watched the man fall from his horse. They rest of the gang veered north which is what I was hoping they would do.

They were close now so I targeted a board with rope tying it to the ground and suspended by a weight in a branch above. My shot was true and the board shattered causing a weight to drop from the tree and raise some wire fencing horse-head high across the farm’s main gate. I watched as the first rider’s horse ran straight into the wire cutting the neck of the horse and throwing the rider off into the feet of the horses behind him. Unfortunately the wire snapped and the remaining gang road through the gate unhindered.

It was clear they now knew where I was as wood began splintering off the barn’s shingles as they targeted me. I rolled back out of the way and lined my rifle up on the barn’s main door. I heard the men shouting back and forth.

“The house is clear!”

The door to the barn flew open and the first man to step inside went down with a bullet to his chest. The other men ran in, guns blazing as my rifle jammed. I hastily drew a pistol just as a man climbed to the top of the loft ladder. I fired and watched as his head snapped back. Suddenly the wooden boards I was lying on erupted with bullets from below. I rolled quickly but screamed as a bullet tore through my side. Another bullet grazed my right forearm and I dropped my pistol.

I was face down and gasping for air when I felt rough hands grab my hair and pull me off the loft. I crashed down onto a pile hay below. I was roughly rolled over and a gloved hand slapped me hard across my face then it closed around my throat. I stared wide-eyed into the face of Daniel Clark. He took one look at me and let go of my throat, reaching behind me and ripping the cloth from my hair. I tried to get my breath and reached for my knife when he rolled me over onto my stomach and pulled my arms tightly together, binding them with the cloth from my hair. He then rolled me onto my back.

He leaned over me and grabbed my blouse and ripped it and the chemise from my body. I screamed at the pain from the wound in my side. I knew I was about to die and thought of the handkerchief I’d left at the side of the bed this morning. I struggled and thrust my thigh upward between his legs. I watched as his eyes rolled up into his head but as soon as they did they rolled back and his eyes fixed on mine with lust and loathing. “Yur a feisty filly. I like that.” His left hand crashed into my face and I temporarily lost consciousness. When I came to he was still leaning over me but he had drawn his knife and was trailing it down between my breasts. With a quick movement he cut through my gun belt and kicked my legs outside of his. He began unbuckling his trousers and let them drop around his ankles, his member standing disgusting and firm. Another quick move and my skirt was torn from my body leaving me naked and squirming.

He spit to the side leaving some spittle dripping through his unshaven beard. I thrashed back and forth but with my hands behind my back I was pinned tight. “Stop yur thrashen, filly.” He dropped to his knees and lined himself up. I screamed and yelled but heard nothing in response but the cackle of his gang members.

“Git her good Daniel!”

His face came forward as he roughly grasped and pulled at my breast. His fetid breath and rough beard assaulted me. His lips pressed hard against mine and I felt pressure between my legs. I bit his lip and tasted the coppery tang of blood. He yelled and pulled back enough for me to throw my head forward and collide solidly with his nose with a resounding crack. Blood dripped from his nose and mouth onto my chest. His fist connected again with my face causing me to almost lose consciousness. I could taste my own blood in my mouth but the worst was yet to come.

“Bitch!” He screamed and thrust himself inside me. The violation was so utterly complete I wept and screamed. Without any arousal or lubrication, his member tore at me. His body fell upon mine as he thrust into me. I closed my eyes and cried. He didn’t last long and I felt his wretched seed spill inside of me. He got up and kicked my now bleeding thigh. He simply turned and walked away. I lay there humiliated and broken when I felt more hands upon me. I was turned over and my face pushed into the hay as the next gang member took me from behind. When he was done three more had their way.

It was dark when I heard them finally retreat from the barn. I was covered in blood, cut, and bruised all over. I tried to move but I had nothing left inside me. I now fully understood why Elizabeth had wanted to give up her spirit. Tears fell from my bloody and swollen eyes. I shook uncontrollably. Then I heard it. A whoosh of fire as a torch was thrown into the barn and yelps of laughter as their horses raced away.

Smoke filled my lungs and I could feel the heat of the fire. I yearned for death to swallow me. How long I lay there I wasn’t sure. The sound of fire filled the night. The neighing of horses and screams of animals came to my ears. I could feel the fire closing in and all I could do was await its blessed touch. An eagle’s cry sounded and I drifted towards it.

***

I’d hoped I was dead but fortune or the eagle spirit hadn’t smiled upon me. I screamed in pain as every part of my body came to my awareness at once. I could still feel Daniel’s member tearing me apart. My hands were free as I thrashed from side to side until I heard her voice singing. “Elizabeth. It is me, Anpaytoo. You are safe. You must stop screaming and thrashing about as you are opening your wounds.” I focused on her words. I heard her crying. I tried to speak to tell her to let me die but my mouth was so dry it wouldn’t work. I tried to open my eyes but they were swollen shut. I whimpered and cried.

***

I have no idea how much time had transpired rather my only knowledge of time passing was from the tender touches of Anpaytoo and intense pain. I found I could speak before I could see and my first words were “Please just let me die.” Anpaytoo refused to give in to my words of defeat and hushed me with warm broth. I thought perhaps it had been three or four days when my eyes were able to finally open a little and I could see again. My first sight was of Anpaytoo looking worn and tired. I reached up to her and grabbed her hand. “You need to rest.”

“I will after you are fed and your wounds bandaged again.”

“How long?” My voice was still hoarse and my jaw hurt as I spoke.

“Two weeks. You’ve been recovering for that long. The first week you stayed unconscious most of the time.”

I turned and looked away as the tears fell from my eyes. “How can you look at me? Why didn’t your eagle spirit take me?”

“The eagle spirit would not let you leave if he felt you had more to accomplish. Do you feel strong enough to tell me what happened?”

I recounted my story but choked when describing being raped five times. “How can anyone live with this?” My sobs racked my body.

Anpaytoo’s gentle touch soothed me. “I have been raped twice. The first time when I was only twelve years old. A member of another tribe visited our chief. Our chief wanted to establish good relations so he gave me to him, telling me that I was to serve the man food. When I went to his tent he raped me. The next day our chief refused to hear from me what had happened. The second time was two years ago. I was captured by a group of four men and they were going to sell me to a brothel. One man wanted me for himself and ran away with me in the middle of the night. The next morning he raped me and left me tied to a tree without food or water. It took me two days to escape the ropes.” She held up her wrists and I could see the faint marks of scars. She continued as my anger seethed at all men. “You ask how anyone can live with the pain and humiliation. It never leaves you, but, over time, you can live again.”

I managed to roll over on my side as my sobs shook me. As I lay there with Anpaytoo’s hand stroked my hair I thought about my life before. I avenged the injustices visited upon others but now I felt something else altogether. I felt a need for revenge. I reached out and grabbed the handkerchief and squeezed it so hard my palms bled into the silk fabric. I rolled back over and looked into Anpaytoo’s eyes. “It seems like ever since I’ve met you you’ve been taking care of me. Perhaps I’m just a foolish young woman, but those men are going to pay. They will pay for what they did to you and your tribe and for what they did to me.”

“Do not let revenge take away your life, Elizabeth. We could live at peace here the rest of our lives.”

“I’ll be at peace when those monsters are dead and gone and their spirits have fled this world. If I do nothing I let them do what they did to you and me again to someone else.” I pulled myself to a sitting position and winced at the pain it caused me. My arms and legs looked thin and unhealthy. Even after two weeks my bruises were still visible and I still hurt between my legs. I looked at myself in a mirror and gasped. My eyes were still swollen and dark and my lips cracked. My hair was knotted and stringy. I grabbed for some soap and tried to stand only to collapse back onto the bed.

“If you are determined to do this at least let me get you healthy first. Let me help you.” With that she lifted my arm and placed it around her shoulder and slipped her other arm around my thin waist. It took every ounce of strength I had to walk with her to the river, wash, and come back to bed. She fed me my first solid food in weeks.

***

Over the next few weeks I grew stronger day after day. My bruises were gone and my gunshot wounds were well healed. My body weight had come back to more normal levels and I was getting around on my own more and more. I was helping fix up the farm and cooking meals for us. The house had been ransacked by the Clark gang and there were many objects broken that needed to be repaired or replaced. All my weapons had burned in the fire and the barn was a total loss. One horse was still recovering and my mare had escaped the blaze by running away but she returned the next day. There was a wagon that needed some repair and with Anpaytoo’s help I managed to get it working again.

It took two more weeks to recover enough physically that I could do everything I could before. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be emotionally healed. I felt extremely vulnerable all the time and slight sounds outside the home, especially at night set me to fright. We needed to get some supplies and I wanted to speak with the Sheriff in Cascade. I still had some money from my coin purse that hadn’t been discovered by the Clark gang but it wouldn’t be enough for what I had in mind. Anpaytoo led me to the place that Elizabeth had hidden some gold. It was buried under some floorboards. Elizabeth had been wise to put aside this gold in case of emergencies. I took only enough to get what I needed and some supplies for the house and rebuilding the barn.

Indians were still frowned upon in most towns so it was decided I would head alone into town the next day with the wagon. I’d have to leave very early in order to get back before dark. We prepared a list together of those things we needed and got the wagon ready for the morning.

“I know I’ve told you thank you before, but I’ll never feel I’ve ever repaid you enough for saving me and taking care of me.”

“There is nothing to repay, Elizabeth. I know you would do the same for me. Do you blame me for helping the eagle spirit give you a second chance at life, but being put into a female vessel?”

Her words hung out there. They’d been unspoken up until now. Had I died that day when I first came upon the Indian camp, I would never have experienced the pain, suffering, and humiliation of being raped. Yet, for all the pain I’d been given a chance to live, and hopefully love again, even if it was not in the way I would have liked it. “I don’t blame you, Anpaytoo. Although the pain I suffered, and still suffer from is a direct result of being put into the body of a woman, I would have died otherwise. Four more of the Clark gang are dead because I had that chance to live, and some small part of me believes that my pain was worth their deaths. I hope to kill more of them before I die.”

I paused and hesitated before speaking more. “Had I not been given this chance, I would have never met you. I know that I may never be touched and loved by another person again in this life, but I also know that I’ve never been happier, even with all the suffering. It feels good living here with you. Your nearness brings joy to my heart.” That’s as far as I dared speak from my heart. I felt more, but Anpaytoo had made it clear she did not love me.

Her hand brushed my cheek and pushed away the hair from my face. I closed my eyes and leaned into her hand and reached up to hold her hand there. I felt her lips tentatively touch mine. They were soft and moist. I opened my eyes and pushed aside the words that rattled through my brain that what just happened was sinful. She took my hand and led me inside. She was gentle as she whispered to me and carefully removed my clothing. She had me lie down on the bed and crawled naked into it next to me. She kissed me again and held me the rest of the night. She knew I wasn’t ready for anything else and I thanked her for that.

***

In the morning and just before the sun rose I got out of bed and got dressed. I pulled the blanket over Anpaytoo and kissed her forehead. I slipped away and hitched up the horse and rode south towards town. It was late morning when I arrived in town and I felt very self-conscious. This was the first time I had been anywhere near a man since I was raped and I felt like a frightened deer ready to run away at the slightest sound. I tied off my horse and headed to the sheriff’s office.

“You’re Miss Mackenzie. You live up river I seem to recall. I’m Sheriff Wilson. How can I help you?”

“You’re aware of the Clark gang, Sheriff?” He nodded warily. “I was trading with an Indian tribe northeast of here just over a month ago. They came and slaughtered the entire tribe and I saw them kill Marshall Ethan Hammersmith.” I tossed my old badge on his desk. “They had left a few of their gang behind to rape me when Marshal Hammersmith saved me. He killed three of their gang, but ultimately died of his wounds. I fled to my ranch but the Clark gang found me there. I killed four of their gang before I was captured and raped multiple times. They set fire to my barn leaving me inside to burn to death. I’m asking for your help to bring the remaining Clark gang to justice.”

He raised his eyebrow and spit into a spittoon next to his desk. “I’m not saying you’re lying, Miss Mackenzie, as I’ve been to the scene of the massacre and found Marshall Hammersmith’s body, but you do not look like the type to be able to kill four members of the Clark gang.”

“Do I need to lift up my blouse and show you the gunshot wounds I sustained? Do you need to come to my ranch so I can show you the blood soaked rags I used to clean myself up with? Do I need to show you the burns that are still healing on my legs?”

He put up his hands. “I’m not saying you weren’t attacked, but I question the truthfulness of your story. These are ruthless men. I’m sorry, Miss Mackenzie, but I can’t help you. There is only me and my deputy in town and no one here will help us form a posse. Even if what you said is true, two against five is no good odds. Hopefully they think you’re dead and will never come around again.”

“That’s not the answer I was expecting coming from a man of the law. You have a sworn duty to uphold the law and to protect citizens like me.”

“I’ll not be guilted into going to my death, young lady. If you say you killed four of them, then be my guest and take them on yourself. Daniel Clark is worth ten thousand dollars and the rest two thousand apiece. That’s dead or alive. But you and I both know you’d best just hole up and keep quiet.”

I was furious and grabbed the star from his desk waving it at him. “Marshall Hammersmith was willing to take on the entire gang by himself to see justice served. Just be prepared to pay up. If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll put a stop to these filthy men myself.”

“Marshall Hammersmith’s bravado put him six feet underground.” He leaned back and chuckled. “If you think going after filthy men will make the world a better place you’ll quickly find there are more than enough to fill in the void for every one you take out. Good day, Miss Mackenzie.”

I spun on my heels and slammed the door behind me. I took a deep breath before walking across the dusty street to the mercantile. I opened the creaking door and stepped inside.

“Miss Mackenzie. It’s very nice to see you again. How may I help you?”

“I need forty pounds of grain seed, flour, salt, and sugar. I will also need timber and tools to rebuild my barn that I hope that can be delivered to my ranch six hours up river. I need that scoped rifle behind you, the .41 Derringer in your case, and that Colt .45 revolver. I want two hundred rounds of ammo for the rifle and the revolver, and fifty rounds for the .41. Oh… That dress in the window? I’d like that as well. Please.”

He frowned and the other ladies in the store looked at me like I was a lunatic. They started gossiping right away. “Are you planning on starting a war, Miss Mackenzie?”

“As a matter of fact, I am. Since our Sheriff is too scared to take care of our vermin problem, I guess I need to take care of it myself.” I dropped my money pouch on the counter. “I’ll pull my wagon around for the other items. Have you seen or heard anything about the Clark gang?”

His eyes went wide. “No, ma’am. But if you really are looking for them, which I wouldn’t suggest, you might consider heading to the town of Sunset four hours west of here.”

“Many thanks, kind sir.” I looked at the gossiping ladies and tipped my head. “Ladies.”

***

I was all too anxious to leave town and be as far away as I could get from the prying eyes of the men there. I’ve never been stared at and apparently it was well known Elizabeth was a widow. The men of Cascade made it very clear they thought I was a good target for their future conquest.

The ride back was thankfully uneventful and I spent much time contemplating my next steps. I needed to get into better shape and I needed to improve my gun handling skills. As I bounced along in the wagon I was very aware of my body. My long hair blew in the breeze, my breasts moved with the rhythm of the wagon, and I was aware of a sticky wetness between my legs.

I stopped momentarily and found I was bleeding from my vagina. At first I was frightened and then I became very relieved. I was having my first bleeding. I had been a woman now for almost seven weeks and this was my first experience. I thought about it before and I’d become increasingly worried that I might possibly have become pregnant from the Clark gang rapes. I was by no means an expert and only knew small bits of information regarding female cycles. I’d been told that women had bleedings and when those bleedings stopped that it might indicate they were pregnant.

It was with mixed emotions I wiped myself clean and put a rag between my skin and my already bloodied chemise to absorb any additional blood. I was happy to not be pregnant, but now I realized I had to deal with the bleeding and I was also beginning to feel bloated and have cramps.

“How do women deal with this?”

I climbed back into the wagon and continued on towards the ranch feeling the rag rather uncomfortable. I emitted a very feminine giggle as I realized that I had much more between my legs when I was a man and how I’d already become accustomed to the freedom as a woman.

When I arrived at the ranch Anpaytoo helped me unload the wagon and noticed that I took a moment to put a hand on my stomach. “You are having your bleeding?” I nodded, embarrassed. “I will make you some willow tea to help with the discomfort. She reached into the trunk and pulled out what looked like a chemise but it was only for covering my vagina. “She would wear this under her chemise to help absorb the blood.” I nodded and took them from Anpaytoo before heading down to the river to clean myself up and change.

Upon returning from the river, Anpaytoo handed me some tea and sat me down on the bed. “You know your bleeding is a good sign?”

I blushed with embarrassment. “If I didn’t fully believe I was a woman before, I certainly do now.” I said this with a certainty of my situation and rather sadly at that.

Realizing I was upset, Anpaytoo held me. “Your bleeding means many wonderful things. You are not with child by those horrible men. Your body is healthy enough to have children and no permanent damage has been done. Do not be ashamed for women are honored by the spirits to bring life into the world.”

***

Over the next three days I struggled keeping my emotions level and drank lots of willow tea. My emotional ups and downs did help motivate me to train and practice shooting with my new rifle and pistols. Anpaytoo designed and made a new belt and holster for my .45 and a thigh holster for the .41. I was now always wearing them during the day and keeping the rifle close at hand.

It was the day that my bleeding had finally stopped that the material for the barn arrived. As them men approached the ranch I made sure that they could see I was armed and willing to use my guns for protection should I need to. The materials were unloaded very quickly and the men were on their way without so much as a backwards glance. I suspected that they were told I’d gone a little crazy by the town gossips.

Anpaytoo approached me the next morning as I was training with the guns. “You are determined to seek revenge and I cannot persuade you otherwise. I can help you grow stronger. In our tribe, we wrestled. I was very good at it. When you can pin me to the ground, you will be ready.”

The thought of wrestling Anpaytoo brought a smile to my face. I was feeling rather smug as I was in a lot of fights as a man. This was going to be easy. “Let’s make it more interesting. Every day you win, I make dinner and clean up. When I win, you make dinner and clean up.”

“I will enjoy laying back and watching you cook and clean then.”

I stripped off my guns and placed them nearby. Anpaytoo stood confidently. I took hold of her hand in mine and stared into her eyes. She was beautiful and she was… strong. In moments I was pulled forward, she lowered her shoulder, let go of my hand and grabbed me around my thin waist and used my own momentum to lift me over her. I plopped down on my backside just as she spun around and sat across my stomach, pinning my wrists to the ground. She smiled and bent down to kiss me passionately. All at once I felt on fire with passion and frigidly cold at the same time.

Her hand stroked my cheek as a tear fell from her eyes. “I am sorry, Elizabeth. You are not ready.”

I wiped the tear from her cheek and pulled her down on top of me and held her tightly. “I’m frightened.”

“This is understandable. Time will heal you. What is for dinner?”

I laughed and it felt so good to laugh.

For the next four weeks I found myself cooking every meal and cleaning, but I was getting stronger and faster. It was several days after my second bleeding that Anpaytoo and I squared off from each other. She was so strong and quick that I wondered if I’d ever pin her. This time I gave it everything I had and after nearly thirty minutes neither had pinned the other. I watched Anpaytoo feint to the right but I caught her arm spun her around and managed to trip her with me landing on top of her. She struggled hard but I had her pinned. I watched her heaving chest and her dark windblown hair fall across her face. I leaned down and kissed her and she let my tongue taste hers.

We kissed several more times before we got up and I took her hand and led her to our bed inside. I slowly removed her clothing as she removed mine. We climbed into bed and I knew she was hesitant so I took the initiative and began kissing down her neck to her breasts. Anpaytoo moaned and I let my fingers gently slide along her body, ultimately resting between her legs. The slightest touch of my fingers caused her back to arch as she barely said my name over and over as the barest of whispers. It wasn’t long before she pulled me to her and clenched herself around my fingers, moaning with pure delight. She pulled my face to hers in a tender and lasting kiss. Her hands sought my face and held me tight as she sought permission to touch me. I gently whispered to her. “Please.”

Anpaytoo began kissing me softly and gently, moving down my body. Her lips found my nipple and sucked gently causing waves of heat to emanate throughout my body. Her hands began massaging my breasts as she kissed her way down my stomach. When she kissed me between my legs, my back arched involuntarily and I moaned. I was still afraid, but she was so gentle that I closed my eyes and began to fully enjoy the sensations this body was sending to me. Her tongue probed between my vaginal lips and she found that place that made me squirm with pleasure.

Time seemed to slow as my hands caressed her hair and her tongue tenderly touched my most sensitive spots. The pleasure was undeniable and building slowly. My body began to tense and I exploded with overwhelming release. My emotions unleashed with every powerful wave of pleasure that ripped through my entire body. The pleasure was far greater than anything I’d ever felt before. So tied to the tender and loving touches of Anpaytoo was the pleasure that I found myself weeping as I pulled her up into my arms to kiss her. I tasted myself on her lips and found myself whispering. “I love you, Anpaytoo.”

I watched her smile and felt her lips on mine again. “I love you, Elizabeth.”

***

The next morning I struggled as I said goodbye to Anpaytoo. I thought about staying and never leaving her but my desire for revenge won over my heart. I felt I couldn’t be truly free knowing that the Clark gang remained at large so I tearfully packed my new dress and guns and headed to Sunset with a promise to Anpaytoo that I’d return safe to her arms.

Upon arriving at Sunset I found a room I could rent across from the town saloon. There I sat and watched the comings and goings of the patrons. As luck had it I didn’t need to wait long as Hank Moran wandered into the building. I changed my clothes and got into the new dress that was apparently the new sensation in female attire back east. It certainly flattered my shape and would easily draw the eye of any man.

Anpaytoo had taught me how Elizabeth styled her hair in different ways and I spent a few minutes working on it to make sure it was just right. Women rarely went into saloons and if they did they were stigmatized by the townspeople. I did however have an idea to minimize the defamation of my character even though I doubted anyone would even know who I was.

Simply walking downstairs of the hotel and outside was an ordeal with the close fitting dress. Every man and woman had their eyes on me as I’m sure I was a beautiful sight to behold. I walked purposefully over to the saloon and gently pushed on the two swinging doors and stepped inside. Music, piano, drinking, and poker games all stopped the moment the doors closed behind me. Men stared at me with open lust and slack jawed mouths. I shivered at the thought of any man even coming close to me. When I spotted Hank I marched right up to him.

“Hank Moran! I’ve been waiting for you in my room for more than an hour. You know it’s impolite to keep a lady waiting.”

It was clear he didn’t recognize me. Perhaps it was the lack of light in the barn, or my beaten, bruised, body, or maybe he was drunk at the time, or that I was just one of many as to why he didn’t seem to remember me. I certainly remembered him and his filthy calloused hands, his fetid breath that smelled of chewing tobacco, and his unbuckled gun belt that dug into my hip when he… I had to grab hold of the bar to steady myself.

He looked me over with such lust-filled eyes I almost vomited. “Let’s go then, woman.” I felt his disgusting hand on the small of my back as he pushed me towards the entrance of the saloon. I closed my eyes and winced at the touch and tried to remind myself this man needed to be brought to justice.

We walked across the dusty street and into the hotel. My room was on the second floor and knowing he was watching me as I led him upstairs made my confidence erode little by little with each step. As soon as I opened the door to my room he pushed me roughly inside and closed the door behind him.

“Not sure what yur game is, Missy. But don’t matter none.” He pulled his gun from his holster and pointed it at me. “Yur fine lookin and Ima gonna enjoy this.”

Inwardly I sighed when he placed the gun down but within his reach on a stand by the door. He grabbed me roughly and spun me around slamming my back against the wall. I hit so hard a picture fell off the wall with a crash. Momentarily stunned I gasped for breath as he grabbed my wrists and raised them above my head, his body pressing hard against me. His rough beard burned my cheek as he pressed his lips against mine. I shuddered with disgust.

He let go of my wrists and reached to grab the bodice of my dress but I grabbed his hand and held it back. “No need to ruin this beautiful dress. Let me take it off slowly for you.” My hair had come undone and fell, slightly disheveled across my face. I pushed it back as I watched his mouth form a crooked grin. “Why don’t you sit down here? We have all night.”

I led him to a chair in the corner and lifted my foot up onto the bed as I slowly pulled my dress back to reveal my leg. His eyes were transfixed as I continued to slide the hem up and over my stocking covered thigh. There I paused and pulled the .41 from its holster. I levelled the gun at Hank’s chest.

“What the hell?”

“Hank Moran, you’ve been found guilty of robbery, murder, and rape.”

“I’m innocent. Ya got the wrong guy.”

I watched as sweat pooled on his forehead. “It’s hard to forget being shot and raped over and over again. I’ll never free myself of your ugly face from my memories but I can free this world of a piece of worthless scum like yourself. You don’t remember me, do you?”

“Yur just another whore.”

“Let me help you remember. After you slaughtered an Indian tribe you tracked me down to my farm. You raped me in my barn then set it on fire in a hope I’d burn to death.” I watched with some satisfaction as his eyes went wide with recognition. “Where is the rest of the Clark gang?”

“Ye get nothin from me.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.” I carefully kept my gun trained on him as I reached into a drawer and pulled a hunting knife out. He made his move and reached for his gun but I drove my knife down through his hand, pinning it to the table, mere inches from his gun. His scream cut through the night. “I ask you again. If you’re going to live, you’ll give up the location of the rest of the gang.”

“Ima gonna kill you.”

“Wrong answer.” I twisted the blade and felt the metal drag along the bones in his hand. When his screaming died down I asked him again.

“Two hours south at Buffalo Gap.”

“Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?” I aimed the gun at his chest and pulled the trigger. I felt no remorse but what frightened me more was I felt no satisfaction. Was Anpaytoo correct? Would revenge ultimately destroy me?

There was knocking at the door and I absentmindedly opened the latch. The hotel owner stood with a rifle in hand and looked at the bloody mess then at me. “Miss, I’m going to have to take you to the Sheriff for this man’s murder.”

“This man’s wanted, dead or alive. He’s, Hank Moran, a member of the Clark gang. He raped me and left me to burn inside my barn. I’m sure you’ll find his poster downstairs.”

“Damn, woman! You’re going to bring the wrath of the entire gang on me.”

“Not if I get to them first. I apologize for the mess. Whatever money he has on himself is yours for the inconvenience. All I ask is you load him into the back of my wagon for me.”

***

I rode early the next morning to Cascade and pulled up outside of the Sheriff’s office. I opened his door and shouted inside. “Sheriff Wilson? I have something for you.” When the Sheriff stepped outside he took one look at me and went to turn back into his office.

“I told you once before, Miss Mackenzie, that I can’t help you.”

“I hope you’re returning to your office to get my reward. I seem to recall Hank Moran is worth two thousand dollars.” I turned and pulled the tarp off Hank’s corpse as the Sheriff turned back towards me. A small crowd of people had gathered and the women were already gossiping away about the crazy golden-haired lady that lived upriver. He waved me inside.

“I have to send confirmations before the reward is sent back to me to give to you. I’ll provide you a note you can use to secure an account anywhere in town. I’m not even going to ask how you accomplished this, Miss Mackenzie, but I promise you that you got lucky this time. Give it up.”

“You might never understand what these men did to me, but if you had a daughter and they had done this to her, would you still be sitting on your backside?” I saw him visibly wince as I obviously struck a chord. “There are only four of them left. I’m happy to go home and no longer pursue this if you promise you’ll go after the rest. I even know where they’re holed up.”

He put up his hand. “You’re asking me to commit suicide. I’ll not do that.”

“You should turn in your badge, Sheriff, or perhaps I should merely call you Mr. Wilson since the title of Sheriff connotes something you’re obviously not.”

“You overstep your bounds, Miss Mackenzie. Now get out of my office.” He handed me the promissory note for two thousand dollars and sent me on my way, not even looking up to watch me go.

With the note in hand I loaded up my wagon with additional supplies and headed home.

It had been a long few days and I was so happy to behome. I was beginning to truly feel this was home for me now. Anpaytoo ran out to meet me and checked me over carefully to make sure I was fine. “I am so glad you came back to me.”

“I’ll always come back to you, Anpaytoo.” I held her fast against me and kissed her.

***

Several days later I headed out again. This time I rode Juniper and left the wagon behind. I’d make better time and would sleep outside for the night instead of in a hotel. I rode southwest almost to Sunset before angling south. I was about an hour from Sunset when I found a good place alongside a rocky bluff to camp for the night. By now I was feeling fully healed and I still marveled at how pain free this body was. I’d now been a woman over two months and I’d grown accustomed to my long hair, smaller frame, missing pieces between my legs, and my breasts bouncing around all the time.

Anpaytoo had been right. I’d vastly underestimated women. They were far from the fragile creatures I once thought them to be. Every day I woke up proud to have been given this chance. I looked up into the early dusk sky and saw an eagle flying high in the sky. Its piercing cry brought tears to my eyes. I heard it the night I died and the night I was raped and left for dead. I could only hope and pray the eagle spirit was not here to take me home. I had too much life left to live.

I settled in for the night and built a small fire sheltered from view. I laid out my bedroll and thought of Anpaytoo. She’d saved my life in more ways than one. She was right. I needed to give up this quest. In the morning I decided I’d head home.

***

I was woken by the sound of a trigger being cocked. I opened my eyes to find myself staring down the barrel of a shotgun. The morning sun lit up Welsh Hamlin’s face. He was second in command of the Clark gang.

“Your goin to get up slowly. I remember you. You were the feisty bitch we had a lot of fun with.” I stood but didn’t say anything. “It’s funny you’re here near Sunset. Our boy Hank has gone missing. You know anything bout that?”

The shotgun barrel was close enough that I grabbed and pushed the barrel away from me just as the startled Welsh shot. The noise stunned me and the heat from the barrel burned my hand but he’d used both rounds and the shotgun was now useless. He was quick to respond with a backhanded swing to my face that I managed to duck out of the way from. It threw him off balance and presented enough of his back to me that I jumped up onto his back and wrapped my arms around his throat and used my weight to bring him down to the ground.

I threw an elbow into his face and rolled away, scrambling to my feet and reaching my pistol. I had my gun trained on his head by the time he staggered to his feet. He started to draw his pistol when I shot his hand, his gun dropping to the ground. He held his bleeding hand and cursed. “You don’t have it in you.”

“You can confirm that with Hank when you see him in Hell.” I leveled my gun at his groin. “How many women have you raped?”

“Is that what this is bout? Just lie down and spread your legs as Ima happy to oblige your desires.”

I shot him and watched him collapse on the ground and writhe in agony. I leaned over him. “Perhaps the eagle spirit will be kind to you like he was me, but I think not.” I watched as he passed out. I moved to my saddlebag and pulled out several stakes and some rope. Welsh wasn’t dead, but he deserved to suffer for his crimes. I dragged him away from the campsite tied his wrists and ankles to stakes I hammered deep into the ground. When he came to he’d be weak from loss of blood and the sun and vultures would likely finish him off.

Last night I considered ending this, but after this morning I had the feeling it wouldn’t end until they were all dead or I was. Welsh seemed to know I had something to do with Hank’s disappearance. I had no desire to lead any of them back to Anpaytoo.

I found Welsh’s horse and tied it to Juniper, gathered my things, wrapped my hand in some cloth to protect the sensitive burned skin, then started heading south towards Buffalo Gap. Welsh came to just as my shadow passed over him. I paused and got off Juniper and leaned over him.

“You whore! Let me go!” I watched as he weakly struggled against the ropes. I looked up at the sun.

“Going to be a real hot day today. Even if you find a way to free yourself, I doubt you could walk far with a hole blown between your legs. The Indian tribe you slaughtered a few months back… You left them to bleed out and die. Men, women, and children. You’re not deserving to even breathe the same air as they did. Good day, Mr. Hamlin.”

“Don’t leave me here!”

I got up onto Juniper and didn’t even look back. It wasn’t long before Welsh’s screams faded into nothingness.

An hour later I tied the horses to some sage and looked over the edge of Buffalo Gap. A small creek meandered through the flat bottom of the canyon and a medium-sized house and corral made the scene look rather tranquil. I pulled my rifle from my saddle holster and spotted three horses. I sat down behind a rock and watched for about a half hour until I spotted two men gear up their horses and ride out. Daniel Clark and Harvey Quenton were riding south and the amount of gear on their horses was enough to tell me they’d be gone overnight.

I waited an hour before riding into the gap from the north. Once again I tied up the horses and taking my rifle I moved stealthily towards the house. I waited another thirty minutes but there was still no sign of the remaining Clark gang member, Frank Dodd. I needed him out in the open. On the northeast corner of the house sagebrush had piled high from the wind over the previous months. I took a calculated risk and crept to the house, staying as hidden as I could. It would have been better to have flaming arrows to light the house from a distance but I didn’t have that luxury. I worked to start a fire when I glanced over at the horse in the corral. It was tied and close enough to the house that it would be injured from the fire. When I got the fire going I rushed over to the horse, untied it, opened the gate, and climbed onto the bare back of the horse to ride back north.

Frank obviously noticed the commotion as he came out shooting. I was far enough away that his pistol accuracy wasn’t good but several bullets came very close. When I approached a rocky outcropping I slowed the horse and slid off taking cover behind some large rocks. Several bullets ricocheted off the rocks as I lined up my rifle. “Frank Dodd! Give yourself up.” His response was another volley of bullets forcing me back behind the rocks. I dropped down onto my stomach and crawled around the rock, lining up my shot on Frank’s chest. I recalled being turned over and his hands around my neck as he raped me. I closed my eyes wishing for an end to all of this as I squeezed the trigger. Frank fell backwards as the bullet tore into his chest and his pistols falling to the sides.

I waited several minutes watching him kick at the dirt with his boots. Keeping myself at the ready, I walked slowly towards him, now feeling the heat of the fire that engulfed the house. By the time I reached Frank’s side, he was dead. I collected his things and pulled him away from the fire, enough that the horses would be of help. I tied his hands together and used another rope attached to Juniper’s saddle to help lift him onto his horse. Once on his horse’s back I secured him there with rope and turned back towards my campsite.

It was late in the afternoon when I arrived back at the now dead Welsh. I removed the stakes and in a similar fashion to Frank I managed to get Welsh tied to his horse. There were still several hours before sunset so I led the grisly train of horses and dead men towards Cascade.

It was early evening when I arrived at Sheriff Wilson’s office. The light was still on so I took a chance, tied the horses, and went inside. “Sheriff?”

“You just don’t go away do you, Miss Mackenzie?”

“I’m here to collect the bounties on Frank Dodd and Welsh Hamlin.”

“Let’s go see them.” I led the Sheriff back outside and I cut the ropes free letting the two men fall to the ground. “What the hell did you do to Welsh? He’s a mess.”

“I think he looks a whole lot better than I did after he left me to die. Certainly better than the children of the Indian tribe he slaughtered and left to bleed out.”

“Miss Mackenzie, you’re one frightening woman.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. There’s only Daniel Clark and Harvey Quenton left. I sort of burned their house down so you might see them in town in the next few days. I trust you’ll take care of them?”

“Damn, woman. They’re going to be spitting mad. You’re not going after them?”

“I have a barn to rebuild and a life to live, Sheriff. The Clark gang is decimated. Revenge isn’t as fulfilling as I thought it would be.”

“You really believe you can simply walk away from this? That they’ll not find out who has been killing off their gang?”

“You didn’t believe me before when I said I killed four the day they raped me. Do you really think they will believe rumors that a woman has single handedly brought down their gang? I’m going home to live my life. I’m finished here.”

I waited long enough for him to write me the notes. I didn’t bother staying in town, rather I wanted to get back to Anpaytoo. I rode Juniper through the moonlit night, stopping only briefly to let the horses feed and drink. I arrived under a flaming orange sky with the sun casting long rays through the morning mist. I was so happy to see Anpaytoo that I rushed into her arms before unpacking the horses.

“I see you returned to me once again and we seem to be adding to our horses.”

“You were right, Anpaytoo. It was foolish of me to seek revenge. I was about to turn around and be done with my quest when I was given no choice. I’m hoping this is all over, but I fear there is more to come. My foolishness has reduced the Clark gang by another two men, but I’m afraid the remaining will eventually come for me.”

“The important thing is how your spirit is. Are you finally at peace?”

“I want nothing more than to live out my life without the fear of these people and to be with you.”

“Then your journey accomplished what you needed.” She looked down at my bandaged hand. “You are hurt?”

“Just a minor burn, nothing to be worried about.”

“I am always worried about you, Elizabeth.”

“Let’s hope that your worrying days will soon be over. I’m done. No more hunting the Clark gang from here on out. Do you sense your people have been avenged?”

“Sometimes I wonder if perhaps the eagle spirit justified you becoming Elizabeth more for my benefit than avenging our people. I feel confident that both have been accomplished and I may be selfish but I do not want to see you at risk any longer.”

***

Over the next few days my spirits lifted and I felt I was fully letting go of the worries and fears surrounding the Clark gang. I felt like I could finally start building a routine for our lives and none too soon as the nights were turning colder. I needed to build the barn to protect the animals in winter.

It was a beautiful warm day that I found myself framing the front wall of the barn when I looked out at the horizon and wiped the sweat that had formed on my brow. In the distance I could see the telltale signs of dust in the air and two riders. “Anpaytoo! Run!” I grabbed my rifle and rested it on some timber that I knelt down behind. I looked through the scope to see Daniel Clark and Harvey Quenton bearing down on the farm. I saw them raise their pistols and saw the smoke before I heard the sound of their shots. Several bullets hit the timbers sending splinters of wood shooting into the air. I took one shot and missed, then adjusted for their speed and wind before taking another shot. Harvey Quenton fell from his saddle and Daniel veered off and behind a stand of trees.

I waited several minutes for Daniel to appear in the next gap but he never did. Suddenly two strong hands grabbed my shoulders and threw me backwards. I landed on my back, my breath knocked out of me. Harvey stood there with a bleeding side and a large hunting knife in his hand. I rolled and scrambled over to where a hatchet lay, putting myself into a defensive stance and trying to catch my breath. Harvey slowly began circling me and several times swung viscously, narrowly missing my torso. He had much longer reach than I did.

He swung again but this time I brought up the hatchet, the handle catching his blade and nearly ripping his knife from his hand. Now more wary, he tried to back me into the barn timbers but I stood my ground. He swung again but I ducked low and lashed out with the hatchet towards his right knee. The blade smashed into his knee with a resounding crack. His leg buckled and I remembered Anpaytoo’s wrestling practices to take advantage of an opponent’s shifting weight. I dove to his now weakened side, rolled under his falling body, and brought the hatchet down on his face. I staggered to my feet and wrenched the hatchet out, Harvey’s blood dripped from the blade. I turned and froze.

Daniel Clark had Anpaytoo held by her hair and a pistol to her head. His face was bloodied but he was otherwise unhurt. “Who the hell are ya, lady?”

I took a step towards them but stopped when he pulled Anpaytoo’s hair and tensed. “I’m just a woman trying to live my life in peace.”

“Yur not just any woman. You’ve killed eight of my men, eight of the toughest fighters west of the Mississippi. Ya burned my house to the ground. Ya have a lot to pay fer.”

“You say I have much to pay for when you have raped women, slaughtered children, murdered, and stolen? Let her go.”

“This Injun mean somethin to ya?”

“As far as I’m concerned, this is between you and me.”

“Fine.” I watched in horror as he lowered his pistol and shot Anpaytoo in the stomach and then shoved her away like a piece of trash. “Now it’s just ‘tween us.”

I ran to Anpaytoo’s side but before I could reach her Daniel’s hands grabbed my arm and threw me to the ground, my hatchet spinning off to the side. I looked up into Anpaytoo’s eyes. She was losing so much blood. I scrambled to my feet but was now weaponless. I stood over Anpaytoo protectively. “What do you want from me?” I screamed at him.

“Ima gonna beat ya. Then Ima gonna screw ya. Ima gonna repeat that until ya die.” He tossed his gun and knife to the side and taunted me with his hands. “Come on, bitch.”

I moved closer to him. He swung his fist at my face and I dodged to the side, throwing my elbow up into his face with a resounding thud. It didn’t even shake him and he quickly reached for my hair and pulled me back roughly, his fist hitting my face. I collapsed in the dirt as his foot connected with my stomach. I gasped and spit blood. I spotted Harvey’s knife nearby. I feigned staggering to my feet and falling back to the ground, grabbing a handful of dirt in the process. When Daniel got close I threw the dirt into his face and kicked my way to the knife. I stretched to grab the knife but was pulled roughly away by Daniel’s hands on my ankle. I kicked, letting the hard heel of my boot hit his fingers. He growled and let go. I scrambled again towards the knife and wrapped my fingers around it. I spun, lashing backwards, the blade slicing through Daniel’s forearm.

I scrambled to my feet as Daniel grabbed his bleeding arm. He was looking wildly around for his weapons. He was close to his pistol and reaching for it when I threw the knife. It flew true and the blade wedged itself into his lower back. He stood and frantically tried to reach behind him to grab the knife. I ran around him picked up his gun, turned, and fired. The first bullet hit his left shoulder, spinning him around. The second took off his ear. I paused watching him fall screaming to the ground facedown. I moved any weapons away from him and pulled the knife from his back. He began flailing around and trying to get back to his feet. I jumped on his back and pulled his head up by his hair, exposing the front of his neck. I placed the knife blade against his throat.

“Do it!” He rasped.

“That would be too merciful.” I turned around and sliced through his hamstring and then tossed the knife far away. I ran to get some rope and quickly tied his hands behind his back and his feet together. Once he was secure I ran to Anpaytoo and cradled her in my arms. Tears were falling from my eyes as I struggled to get her into the house. I managed to get her into the bed and I pulled away her clothing. Somehow, miraculously, the bullet had passed through her side. I wasn’t an expert, but I’d seen more than my share of bullet wounds, and this didn’t look fatal. I cleaned her wound and bound it, then crawled into bed with her and held her tight.

She was unconscious and I prayed to the eagle spirit to save her and to give her strength. When I heard the eagle’s cry I froze. Did this mean he was taking her? I held Anpaytoo tightly to keep her. I wouldn’t let the eagle spirit claim her. Then I felt her stirring. She was trying to speak. I placed my ear next to her mouth. “The eagle spirit said he was not finished with me yet and to thank you for avenging his people.” I cried into her neck with relief. “He also said you can give up your spirit now if you wish to.”

“You can tell the eagle spirit thank you for me, but I’m staying here with you.” I placed my hands on her face and kissed her. “You need to rest and I need to take care of some things outside. I love you.” I kissed her again and watched her smile and fall asleep. I pulled the blankets up over her and made sure the fire was going to keep her warm.

When I stepped outside I felt my spirit settle. I took a deep breath of warm sage-filled desert air and looked around at the carnage. Daniel Clark still laid face down struggling against the ropes. It was clear he was weak and wouldn’t be going anywhere. Harvey was dead and was a bloody mess. I gathered my weapons and rolled Daniel over onto his back, wincing as I did so from the pain I felt in my ribs where he kicked me. “Jus kill me an git this over with.”

“You certainly deserve death, but I won’t kill you.” I pulled a silk handkerchief from my skirt and ran my thumb over the monogrammed letters. “You made the mistake of leaving me alive. You underestimated me and now, because of your desire for revenge, you’ll be tried and found guilty. You’ll be put to death by hanging. I hope you ponder your fate well over the next days and weeks.”

I looked up and in the distance saw three men on horseback riding fast towards the farm. I stood and raised my rifle to show my intent, but I had nothing left to give. It was a move of pure bravado in the face of overwhelming odds. I couldn’t keep fighting.

I held my rifle trained on the three men until I could make out Sheriff Wilson. He raised both his hands as he approached. “We’re here to help you, Miss Mackenzie.”

“You’re a little late for that unless one of you is a doctor.”

“As a matter of fact, my deputy here trained to be a doctor before coming out to the frontier.”

I lowered the rifle. “My partner is inside with a gunshot wound. I’d appreciate it if you could tend her. And if you have some alcohol, you might want to pour it on this man’s ear to wake him up a bit.”

The Sheriff and the two men dismounted and I moved to sit down on some timber. The Sheriff sat down next to me as the third man pulled Daniel into a sitting position and leaned him against a tree. “I’m sorry I was late, Miss Mackenzie. I admit I was weak and not worthy to be Sheriff. Five years ago my wife and daughter were kidnapped back east by men just like the Clark gang. I’d gone to rescue them but was captured and forced to watch them rape and kill my wife and daughter. I managed to escape, but I was never the same. Out of desperation I moved out to the frontier hoping to put those memories behind me. When you graced my door with your story, it all came back. I couldn’t bring myself to fight these men. When I heard they were coming your way I got my men together. Your bravery inspired me. I’m so sorry I wasn’t man enough to take them on.”

I reached out and squeezed his hand. “You’re here now and that’s all that matters.” I stood thinking about saying something about being man enough, but turned and walked into the house to check on Anpaytoo. The deputy was stitching up her wounds and confirmed that she’d be fine. A few hours later we’d hitched up the wagon and loaded Harvey and Daniel into the back. They’d take them back to town and I’d stay so I could watch Anpaytoo. I’d head into town next week to collect the wagon.

“You’ve another twelve thousand dollars coming to you. You’re a rich woman, Miss Mackenzie.”

“I’m not well received in Cascade. I’m afraid my reputation for being less than what a woman should be has gotten out of hand.”

“Once the people of Cascade find out you’ve single handedly taken down the Clark gang, I expect they’ll see you a little differently. You’re always welcome in my town and I’ll make sure you’re treated well.”

“Thank you, Sheriff. I mean that.”

***

Three days later Anpaytoo was resting in bed and I was back out working on the barn. I was becoming increasingly worried I wouldn’t finish in time. I took a sip of water and saw a line of wagons coming my way. I couldn’t imagine why they were coming here. When the first wagon pulled up I noticed it was my wagon and it was filled with supplies. Sheriff Wilson hopped down and tipped his hat.

“Miss Mackenzie.”

“What’s all this about?”

“When word spread about what you’d done, there was no stopping the ladies organizing this for you.”

“Organizing what?”

“A barn raising.”

I started to tear up as women began unloading food and men quickly organized themselves with their tools. “Thank you!”

I rushed over to help the men but one of the women from the mercantile came and took my arm to lead me to the house. “Let the men do their work. They’re going to need meals and we ladies need your help.” I started to protest, but she dragged me along. “Besides, we want to hear everything. You’re a celebrity and all the young girls are saying they want to be just like the lady from upriver.”

When we got into the house Anpaytoo was sitting up and looking worried about all the commotion outside. “What is happening, Elizabeth?”

I sat next to her on the bed and held her hand. “The people of Cascade have come to help build the barn.” Anpaytoo smiled. “The eagle spirit likes you for what you did for him.”

Several of the ladies stopped to stare at Anpaytoo. “You have an Indian woman living here?”

“She’s my closest friend and saved my life many times.”

“Is she a savage?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, no! I was trading with her tribe, a friendly and peace-loving tribe, when the Clark gang came and slaughtered them all. Many wonderful men, women, and children were raped and killed and we barely escaped with our lives.”

The ladies found places to sit. “That’s a story we’d all like to hear.”

***

It took two days to complete the barn. The ladies fell in love with the gentle beautiful Anpaytoo and doted on her while they stayed in the house. The men worked on the barn and slept in the wagons overnight. I’d never been a part of a community like this, where people came together to help each other. It was heartwarming and deeply touching. When they all left I made sure I said my goodbyes and thanks to each one personally. I watched them ride off while promising to take Anpaytoo into town on a regular basis. I walked into the barn and shuddered slightly remembering the last time I was in a barn. I pushed the thoughts away and found Anpaytoo standing and waiting for me on the front porch of the house. There I took her in my arms and kissed her.



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