The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 11)
Elliott dragged a kitchen chair outside onto the porch as the sun was going down. Both Jethro and Sadie had been asleep for a solid six hours, leaving him to stand guard alone. Not that he minded. They needed to recuperate from the long hours they'd both put in since he'd gotten shot.
While they rested, he'd walked the perimeter of the area that surrounded the house and barn, watching the surrounding hillsides for any sign of movement. Other than a doe and two fawns slipping through the trees, it had been quiet. He'd learned years ago to enjoy the few minutes of peace that life offered a man like him.
Although he hadn't been doing anything strenuous, the hours of activity had taken their toll on his energy levels. If Jethro didn't reappear on his own in the next hour or so, he'd have to roust him out to take over. For now, he settled into the chair with his feet up on the railing with his rifle within easy reach. Still keeping a wary eye on the narrow road that led toward the house, he ate an apple and a bowl of the soup Sadie had made.
He was just finishing off the last of his makeshift meal when the barn door opened. Jethro stepped out into the fading light. He paused to look around before heading over to join Elliott on the porch.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to sleep this long. How are you holding up?"
Elliott stood up, empty bowl in hand. "I'm all right for now, but your timing was perfect. I was going to come get you soon. I figured you'd be hungry when you woke up, so I left the soup heating on the stove. In fact, I wouldn't say no to another bowl myself. Sadie's still sleeping, so keep your voice down."
He followed Jethro inside. While Elliott dished up the soup and cut some thick slices of bread to go with it, his friend took another chair outside. Before carrying to food outside, he peeked into Sadie's bedroom to check on her. She was curled up on her side facing the door. Damn, he wanted to crawl in between the blankets and hold her close. Honesty made him admit that he wanted to do a whole lot more than that, but he'd settled for a cozy cuddle.
Now wasn't the time, though, when she needed her rest. He backed away before he gave into temptation even if it nearly killed him to walk away.
Outside, Jethro accept his bowl of soup. "She doing all right?"
Elliott sat down and once again propped his feet on the rail. "Still sleeping. The past few days have been tough on her."
His friend shrugged. "No tougher than they've been on you. She isn't the one who died and then got shot a second time."
"True enough, but at least we're used to this kind of stuff happening. Until those bastards tried to kill her, I'm guessing she'd never had that kind of violence directed at her."
"Maybe not, but she seems to be holding up just fine." Jethro glanced in his direction. "I'm guessing you're already starting to have a few thoughts about whether you should disappear from her life after this is over."
"And if I am?"
Jethro looked thoroughly disgusted. "Then you're being an idiot just like I was back when I first met Patience. I never expected to meet a woman strong enough to put up with me being a Paladin with all that means. I'm not saying it's been easy for her, but I believe her when she says what we have together makes it all worth it."
Before Elliott could muster up a reply, a rider crested the hill headed their way. Dropping his feet back down, he set his dishes on the porch and grabbed his rifle. Jethro did the same. "Can you make him out at this distance?"
"Not in this light. Could be Mack, but he's still too far away to be sure."
Elliott headed into the house. "Let's get inside. I want to make sure Sadie stays out of sight until we find out."
He left the door open for Jethro, who was dragging the chairs back into the kitchen. Leaving him to watch the intruder, Elliott stepped into Sadie's bedroom. Her eyes were open, but she still wasn't quite awake. "Hi, there. How long did I sleep?"
"Over six hours." He stepped closer to cup the side of her face with his hand. "We've got company headed this way. It might be Mack. Until we know for certain, we're keeping him in our sights."
She was already moving, shoving her bare feet into her shoes. "I'll get my rifle."
The last thing he wanted was for her to get caught in the middle of another battle, but they might need every gun if Putnam was sending more men after them. Before rejoining Jethro, Elliott pulled Sadie into his arms for a quick, hard kiss. "Stay away from the windows and door until we know what's going on."
She kissed him back, her blue eyes dark with concern. "I will, but you and Jethro be careful, too."
Before he could respond, Jethro joined them. "We can stand down for now. It was Mack. He's putting his horse in the barn and will be right in to tell us what he's found out."
Sadie's shoulders slumped in relief. "I'll go put on a fresh pot of coffee. Have you two eaten?"
Elliott stepped back out of her way. "Yes, we had soup. There should be enough left for you and Mack if he's hungry. Why don't you let us wait on you for once?"
"That sounds good."
When she nodded, her smile was a bit ragged. No surprise there. They both knew the fight had only been postponed, not cancelled. He hated all of this for all their sakes, but especially hers. He caught her arm and spun her back into his embrace. They clung to each other for several long seconds. He'd meant to comfort her, but he didn't make a habit of lying to himself. He needed her touch like he needed air to breathe.
When they broke apart, he offered her one last promise. "I promise we will end this once and for all, Sadie. And when we do, we'll be paying a visit to that minister you mentioned. That is, you still want to."
He cut her off before she could finish. "You should wait until the threat is past and your life is back to normal before you decide."
"Fine, if that's what you want." She rose high enough to press a quick kiss on his lips. "But just so you know, I've already made up my mind. You might have your doubts about us, but I don't."
Then she walked away, once again leaving him staring at her back and grinning like a fool.
She and Mack had made quick work of the simple meal while Jethro and Elliott kept them company at the table. The lawman looked as if he hadn't slept at all since the last time she'd seen him. He'd already told them that he planned on bedding down out in the barn as soon as he caught them up on everything.
After refilling everyone's coffee cup, she sat back down at the table. "So is the news bad or really bad?"
Mack's mouth quirked up in a small grin, but it faded quickly. "Bad enough. I took a couple of deputies and visited Putnam's home and office. No sign of him in either place, and his wife swears he's away on a business trip, not that I believed her. She said he went to Kansas City, but his office clerk said he'd gone to St. Louis. I guess they couldn't keep their stories straight."
Elliott wrapped his arm around her shoulders and tugged her in closer to his side. "So we stake out both places and wait for him to put in an appearance."
"I already have men watching both places, but I don't expect him to turn up anytime soon." Mack paused to take a long drink of his coffee. "However, thanks to the man we took prisoner, I learned of a couple of places where Putnam would most likely have gone to ground. I've recruited a posse in town and told them to be ready to ride at noon tomorrow. We could have gone after him today, but I spent the afternoon talking to the judge about what's going on. Besides, I knew both of you would want to help lead the charge."
"Damn straight we would."
Elliott glanced down at her and then back toward Mack. "Do you have any suggestions about where Sadie can stay until after all of this gets handled?"
She recognized stubborn men when she was surrounded them, but she protested anyway. "This is my fight, too. I won't be cosseted like some helpless child. I can ride and shoot. I'm coming."
All three immediately protested. Jethro slammed his cup down on the table. "We all know you're not helpless, but that doesn't mean we're going to put you in the line of fire. My wife would have my hide if I let you do something like that."
Mack spoke more quietly, but he was just as adamant. "I've never deputized a woman and don't plan to start anytime soon."
She turned to Elliott, hoping that he at least would understand her need to stand up for herself. One glance at the expression in his dark eyes told her pleas would be falling on deaf ears. "Sorry, Sadie, but I have to side with Mack and Jethro on this. None of us doubt your strength or your bravery. But the men in the posse would be more worried about protecting you than their own safety. The situation will be dangerous enough as it is."
They were right, and she knew it. That didn't mean she had to like it. "Fine. I'll stay where you put me."
And like so many other women before her, she'd wait and pray that the man she loved survived to come back to her.
She lurched up out of her chair and began gathering up the dishes, doing her best to ignore the tears streaming down her face. If not so upset, she might have laughed at the panicky notes in their voices as Jethro and Mack made their excuses and beat a hasty retreat out the door. Evidently a woman crying was a whole lot scarier than riding into a hailstorm of bullets.
As she dumped the dishes in the dishpan, Elliott moved up behind her, his big hands settling on her shoulders as he turned her to face him. His arms slipped around her and pulled her in close to the warm strength of his body. He held her with such care, his touch telling her how much he cared. That she mattered.
"I know I keep saying this, Elliott, but I don't want you hurt again. Not because of me." She snuggled closer. "I don't want Mack or Jethro to take a bullet for me, either."
"It is our duty and our honor to protect the people we care about from the evil in this world. That's why Mack's a sheriff and Jethro and I defend the barrier against the Others who mean our world harm."
Elliott crooked his forefinger and used it to lift her chin, raising her gaze up to meet his. "If you can't live with me going after Putnam and his men tomorrow, Sadie, then you need to think long and hard about linking your life with mine. He's just one man, and after tomorrow, he won't ever bother you again. However, I was born a Paladin and that will never change. The battles I fight are never going to end as long as the crazies come boiling across the barrier every chance they get. I can't walk away from my duty and wouldn't even if I could."
What her heart wanted was all too clear, but he was right. She owed it to both of them to think things through carefully.
"Let's get through tomorrow, and then we'll see."
She thought that was disappointment she saw in his dark eyes, but she wasn't done talking quite yet. "But even before that, we have tonight."
Then she took his hand and led him into her room and shut the door.