~ Hope's Path ~
by Carrie Carr

Disclaimers: The characters in this story, and the two stories before, are mine. There may be some violence, and a general theme of two women who are in love with each other, but nothing more than PG-13. If it's illegal where you live, or you don't care for this sort of thing, hit the back button. This story can stand alone, but you may want to read the other two to find out what earlier trouble Lex and Amanda have gotten into.

I'd still like to know what you think, just drop me a note - cb.zeer@worldnet.att.net

This is dedicated to AJ, who holds my heart and inspires my thoughts. I love you!

Part 1

Chapter 1

The brooding figure on the porch swing peered tiredly into the evening gloom. Blue eyes scanned the darkened road anxiously. She should have been home hours ago, Lex worried. Maybe I should jump into the jeep and make sure she didn't break down on the road somewhere. The dark-haired woman groaned softly as she climbed to her feet. I should never have sat down, she thought disgustedly as she felt the ache of overused muscles.

"Lexie! What are you doing out here without a coat on? You're gonna make yourself sick!" Framed in the doorway, a short sturdy looking woman fussed at the rancher. Hands on her hips, the middle-aged housekeeper cocked her graying head at the tall form that had suddenly appeared in front of her. "Now get yourself into this house and go upstairs to get cleaned up for dinner." Her nose wrinkled in disgust. "Maybe you should soak in the tub for a bit. I don't think a shower will get all of the…dirt…off."

Lexington Walters crossed her arms across her chest and glared down at the older woman. "Are you saying that I smell?"

Martha swatted the imposing figure with a dishtowel and grinned. "No…if you could smell, I wouldn't have to tell you to take a bath," she tsked. "Is there any particular reason that you're sitting out here in the dark in just your jeans and tee shirt?"

Lex bit her lower lip and released a heavy sigh. "My coat and boots are in the mud room, and I was just…umm…sitting out here thinking for a bit." She tried to look innocent, but failed miserably.

"Honey…Amanda will be home anytime now. She called about twenty minutes ago." Martha reached out and grasped a muscular forearm. "Good lord, child! You're like a block of ice!" She pulled the tall woman into the foyer and closed the door behind them. "Now get upstairs before you catch your death." Martha continued to lead her charge through the house until they were at the foot of the stairs.

Lex pulled out of the housekeeper's grasp. "I'm fine, Martha. I'm just worried about the problems we seem to be having with the fence." She had spent the entire day in the sleeting rain repairing yet another section of fence. Three sections in two weeks. There's got to be something, or someone, causing this. What compounded the problem was the slow, freezing rain that had been falling off and on for the past week. No way of tracking whoever is responsible since the rain just washes the evidence away, she thought angrily. I'm just glad it hasn't begun to freeze completely. That would make this damned uncomfortable to work in. Lex felt a warm hand on her chilled cheek absently wipe at a spot of mud. "What?"

Sympathetic brown eyes gazed into her own. "Go on and get into the tub, Lexie. I'll send her up as soon as she gets home, okay?" Martha pulled the soaked black cowboy hat off of the dark head.

"Am I that transparent?" the rancher asked as she wiped the damp hair away from her eyes. "She's only been gone for one night." When Lex saw the knowing look on Martha's face, she gave the older woman a wry smile and shook her head. "Never mind. I don't want to know the answer to that." She gave the small shoulder nearest her a gentle squeeze and turned to trudge wearily up the stairs.

As she walked through the master bedroom, Lex glanced around and smiled at the subtle changes in the once spartan room. One month. She noticed the small knicknacks that now adorned the dresser and several bookshelves by the fireplace. And it already feels more like a home. A quilt that had been made by Amanda's great-grandmother was spread out across the foot of the massive oak bed. The colorful covering gave the otherwise dark room a sorely needed splash of color. The two women had a long and thoughtful discussion and decided to just share the master bedroom. Amanda had been afraid of crowding Lex who thought that having separate rooms were a complete waste. The older woman was only able to sway her partner by pointing out that it would be less work for Martha this way. Lex also had argued that the master closet had more room than the guestroom closet, even with her clothes already inside. Damn, I miss her. The rancher started her bathwater with a heavy sigh.

Amanda Cauble shook her head as she walked up the stairs. She had just been thoroughly chastised by the feisty housekeeper for working too many late hours. Martha certainly has no trouble expressing her opinion, she marveled as she stepped into the master bedroom. Amanda ran her hand through her shoulder length blonde hair. I can't help it if it's taken me over three weeks to reorganize the office. But I think that the worst is over for now.

The young woman sighed deeply, sat down on the bed, and removed her high top sneakers. "Ooh…that feels great." She stretched her legs out and wriggled her toes. Amanda looked around the darkened room. Martha said Lex was upstairs, but I don't see her anywhere. The only light was the flickering fire in the fireplace, and… "Ah-ha!" Green eyes sparkled mischievously when she noticed the light that peeked out from under the bathroom door. The petite woman rose from the bed, stepped quietly to the closed door, and opened it slowly. She slipped in and smiled tenderly at the sight in front of her.

The rancher was slumped so low in the bathtub that her dark head was barely visible above the water. Amanda could see the dark rings that were prominent under Lex's closed eyes. Her friend looked so peaceful that the young blonde almost hated to disturb her. She hasn't been getting much sleep…or at least that's what Martha told me. The housekeeper had confided to her downstairs that Lex had been up early every morning for almost two weeks. The rancher would work on the sections of downed fence under the headlights of the jeep and then come back to the house for breakfast. Amanda felt bad. She knew that Lex was always up before her but never thought about how early. More than once, she had found herself being awakened tenderly from the attentions of the already dressed rancher. Which had its own perks, she remembered with a fond smile, I enjoyed helping her get undressed. But I should have realized something was going on with her before now.

"Hey…" Amanda murmured softly as she stepped closer to the tub. "Lex?"

Blue eyes blinked open slowly and a slightly dazed look appeared on Lex's face. "Amanda?" she croaked, then cleared her throat. She sat up slightly and rubbed her eyes. "You're home." Brilliant, Sherlock. What are you gonna do for an encore? Tell her you're taking a bath?

"I sure am." Amanda knelt beside the tub. She reached over and placed her hand on a tanned cheek. "You look totally worn out, honey."

Lex leaned into the touch. "Been a long day." She turned her head and kissed the delicate hand. "God, I missed you." Her voice broke slightly on the last word as Amanda met her halfway. Small hands tangled themselves into her damp hair as the younger woman pulled her close. Lex accepted the kiss eagerly, needing the contact with her partner to reaffirm that Amanda wasn't a dream.

Amanda could feel the almost electrical surge course through her as the rancher desperately deepened the kiss. She pulled back and inhaled deeply. "Why don't you get out of the tub so we can continue this conversation in the other room?" She gasped as Lex raised her slender form out of the water. Six feet of combined softness and muscle stood in front of Amanda as water sluiced from the rancher's well-toned body. God, every time I see her like this my knees go weak, her mind sputtered. Amanda found herself being lifted and then carried into the bedroom as insistent lips captured hers once more.


The ringing of the telephone beside the bed woke Amanda. She reached quickly to answer it as her eyes fuzzily tried to see what time it was. One-thirty in the morning? Who on earth…? "Hello?" she whispered quietly, trying not to disturb the still sleeping figure wrapped tightly around her body. Lex's soft cheek nuzzled her belly gently.

"Who the hell is this?" an annoyingly nasal voice demanded. "Put my damn sister on the phone!"

Hubert. That figures. Amanda rolled her eyes. She really didn't want to wake Lex up since the older woman seemed to finally be resting for the first time in almost two weeks. "She can't come to the phone right now." Amanda winced slightly as the rancher mumbled and snuggled even closer. "Can I take a message and have her call you back?"

The voice on the other end of the phone exploded. "You're her little…piece…aren't you?" Hubert practically screamed. "Put Lex on the goddamn phone, you worthless whore!"

Amanda held the phone to her chest for a moment. She didn't want Hubert's raving to wake her lover. As she forced her emotions under control, Amanda whispered into the handset, "You can either leave a message, or I can just hang up on you now. I'll tell Lex in the morning that you called. It's your choice, Hubert." She jumped slightly when the phone was slammed down from the other end. Jerk. She carefully turned off the ringer and replaced the handset. Amanda smiled as she felt the rancher worm her way up her body until her dark head was nestled snugly under the younger woman's chin.

She felt a sudden surge of emotion and hugged the rancher to her tightly as she tried to hold back tears. I won't stand by and let anyone hurt you Lex, she swore silently. Even your own brother. The young woman took a deep, shuddering breath and buried her face into the thick dark hair.

Lex woke up and lifted her head slightly. "Hey." She shifted her body until she was lying next to Amanda. The rancher raised a hand to turn on the lamp next to the bed. Seeing the tears on the blonde's face, she pulled Amanda into a strong hug. "What's wrong, sweetheart?"

"Nothing, really." Amanda sniffled, as she snuggled deeper into the embrace. A gentle kiss on her head caused her to lose her composure again. Damn…

"Amanda." Lex gently forced her lover's face upward. "Look at me, please." The rancher felt her heart ache as she wiped the tears away with her fingertips. "Don't tell me it's nothing, love." She took a deep breath and tried to get her own emotions under control. "I can't stand seeing you like this."

Amanda sucked in a huge gulp of air then pulled one of the rancher's hands to her face and kissed the palm. "Sshh…it's just after I hung up the phone, I got to thinking." She smiled ruefully. "And I guess it's getting close to that time of the month for me, because my emotions went completely off the scale." She leaned up a little and gave the older woman a tender kiss.

"Mmm." Lex returned the offering, then pulled back suddenly. "Wait a minute. What do you mean, you hung up? Did the phone ring?" Not giving Amanda time to answer she continued, "Who in the hell would be calling at…" she glanced at the alarm clock, "almost two o'clock in the damn morning?"

Oops. Should I…? "Umm…it was your brother. He thought that he had to talk to you right then, but I got him to think otherwise." Amanda braced herself for the impending explosion, which oddly enough didn't come.

Lex chuckled. "Oh, really?" She reached over to turn off the light, then scooted into a more comfortable position on the bed. "Good for you." The rancher pulled Amanda into her arms and placed a soft kiss on the younger woman's head. "Thank you, sweetheart."

Amanda tucked the covers up around them to ward off the chill of the room. "You're welcome. But aren't you curious as to why your brother would be calling in the middle of the night?" She wrapped her arms tightly around Lex and snuggled closer.

"Not particularly." The older woman sighed as she felt sleep pull at her once again. "He used to do it all the time, because late at night is the only time I'd ever be in the house." She struggled to hold back a yawn. "It had gotten to the point that he was calling at least two or three times a week. So I turned off the phone up here and let him rant at the machine." The last few words quietly faded away as Lex dropped off to sleep.

"Goodnight, honey," Amanda whispered as she gently lay her head back on the rancher's chest and joined her in slumber.


"I'm glad to see that you two are still alive," Martha teased as Lex followed Amanda into the kitchen the next morning. "I was about to send up a search party," she smirked as Lex stuck out her tongue.

The rancher pushed her companion into a nearby chair and grabbed two coffee mugs from the cabinet. "Good morning to you too, Martha." Lex kissed the housekeeper's graying head and then swatted her on the rear.

"Aaaack!" The older woman spun around and waved a spatula. "You're not too big for a whipping, young lady!"

Lex backed away and lifted her hands up to ward off any blows. "Now hold on, Martha. You wouldn't want to break a perfectly good…um…thingy-whattzit, would you?" She turned towards Amanda, who had a hand over her mouth to try and stifle her laughter. "You're not helping, you know."

"Don't blame me! You're the one who can't keep her hands to herself," Amanda snickered. She quickly wrapped her hands around the steaming mug that Lex had placed in front of her. "Mmm…thanks." The young woman leaned over the cup and deeply inhaled the rich aroma.

"I've never seen anyone enjoy their coffee quite as much as you do, sweetheart." The tall woman sat down next to Amanda and leaned back in her seat. The front legs of Lex's chair rose a few inches off of the ground.

Martha walked by and slapped Lex lightly on the back of the head. "How many times do I have to tell you not to lean back in your chair?" She placed a full plate in front of each woman. "I swear, you haven't changed a bit in fifteen years." Before the housekeeper could turn away from the table, she found herself sitting on the grinning rancher's lap. "What!?"

"I don't think I could do this fifteen years ago, could I?" Lex stood up and lifted the older woman with her.

"Put me down, you little rat!" Martha quickly clasped her hands behind the tall woman's neck. "You're gonna hurt yourself. Lexie!" she squawked as the rancher tossed her gently in the air and caught her again.

Lex sat back down, but kept her hold on Martha. "That any better?" she asked, as the older woman climbed off of her lap.

"You!" Martha swatted her on the shoulder and then walked across the room. Neither woman at the table noticed when she reached into the sink.

The rancher gave Amanda a saucy grin. She completely missed the diabolical smile on the housekeeper's face.

* Splat! *

There was total silence in the kitchen. The quiet was finally broken when Amanda began to laugh so hard that she fell out of her chair with a solid thump.

The dark-haired woman stood up. A wet dishtowel hung off of her head and soapy water dripped down her face. "Martha…" Lex growled as she pulled the sodden clump from her head. She stalked slowly towards the older woman who had her hand to her mouth with a shocked look on her face.

"Oh, Lexie. I didn't realize that my aim would be that good." Martha's eyes widened when she noticed the look on the tall woman's face. "Now, honey. Don't do something that you might regret later." She began to back away slowly.

Halfway to her quarry, Lex stopped. As a slow smile spread across her face, the rancher gently tossed the wet cloth back into the sink. "Paybacks, Martha." She glared at the housekeeper and wiped her face off with a sleeve.

Martha laughed. "Whatever you say, dear." She tossed a dry towel to Lex, then turned her attention to the stove. "Just remember who cooks your meals and cleans your clothes."

"Yeah, yeah…I've been telling you for years that I could do all that myself, you know." Lex sat back down at the table. She looked down at the young woman still in the floor next to her. "Are you going to sit down there all day?" She offered a hand to Amanda.

"Thanks." The blonde allowed herself to be pulled up off the floor. "You two are hazardous to my health." Amanda sat back down in her chair and shook a warning finger at Lex.

The dark-haired woman smirked over the rim of her coffee cup. "Not my fault you can't control yourself," she chuckled. "But I'm not complaining."

Amanda blushed and directed her attention to the plate of food that the housekeeper had placed in front of her. "Thanks, Martha," she murmured as a small hand patted her shoulder gently.

"Don't worry, honey. She's always been sassy like that. I'm used to it by now." The older woman sat down at the table with a heavy sigh. She looked over at Lex, who still had a devious grin on her face. "Stop looking at me like that, or I'll have to break a spoon on your backside for sure."

"Like what?" Lex was the picture of wide-eyed innocence. "I'm just eating breakfast." She took another large bite of food and winked at Amanda.

The blonde rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Save it for someone that doesn't know you like we do. Now behave yourself, or I won't tell you who I saw at the office yesterday." Amanda began attacking her own plate with gusto as she ignored the blue-eyed glare from across the table.

"Well?" Lex asked patiently. She leaned forward until she could look into Amanda's eyes. With a teasing note in her voice, she whispered, "You gonna tell me, or will I have to force you to talk?"

Amanda leaned forward and placed a quick kiss on the rancher's nose. "I'm sooo scared." She leaned back in her chair with a sweet smile. "But, I guess I might as well tell you. Do you remember the dinner party at my parent's house?"

Lex rolled her eyes. "How could I forget? It was the most fun I've had in years."

"Smart aleck." Amanda slapped Lex lightly on the arm. "Now hush, or I won't finish my story."

"Fine." Lex zipped her mouth shut and threw away the imaginary key. She raised her eyebrows at Amanda who shook her head and sighed.

"Thank you, I think. Do you remember the man sitting next to you at the table? Mark Garrett?"

Lex nodded, but didn't say anything. She smiled at Amanda who gave her an exasperated look.

"Oooh, you!" The younger woman threw her napkin and hit the smirking woman in the face.

"What is it that makes you two throw things at me this morning?" Lex asked as she tossed the napkin back to Amanda. She gathered more food onto her fork and began to eat again.

Amanda sighed. "You really don't want an answer to that question, do you?" She took another bite of food. Swallowing hastily, she continued. "Anyway, Mark came into the office yesterday and said that he had quit his job."

"Really? Well, that doesn't surprise me much…he seemed pretty tired of it all." The rancher stood up and started to carry her plate to the sink. Lex noticed that Martha had finished, so she quickly grabbed the housekeeper's plate as well.

Martha sputtered and stood up. "I can do that, you know." She was about to continue when she noticed the serious look on the blonde woman's face. "But, if you two will excuse me for a minute, I have a load of laundry that needs to be checked." She quickly slipped from the room, allowing Lex and Amanda some privacy.

Amanda smiled at the retreating figure, then sighed. "Where was I? Oh, yeah. Mark said that he'd quit about two weeks ago, but kept getting threatening phone calls and nasty letters - and he was becoming afraid for his family's safety." Amanda put her fork down on her plate. She looked up at Lex, who was standing with her back against the sink. "And he thinks that my father is behind all the threats."

Lex crossed the room quickly, and knelt down beside Amanda's chair. "What makes him think that, sweetheart?" She placed a hand on the younger woman's thigh and squeezed gently.

Amanda looked down into concerned blue eyes. "Because Mark has a lot of inside information on my father's company. Information that could do serious damage to him if it ever got out."

"I don't think Mark is the type to do that sort of thing, do you?" Lex murmured, raising a hand to caress Amanda's cheek. She smiled as the green eyes closed, and Amanda leaned into her touch with a soft sigh.

"Mmmm…" Amanda turned her head slightly and kissed the callused palm. "No, he's not." She opened her eyes again and gave her partner a sad smile. "But you know my father. He doesn't trust anyone." She watched as her hand dropped to Lex's head and her fingers slowly combed through the dark hair.

The rancher smiled again. God, I love the feel of her hands in my hair… one touch turns me into a quivering mass of jelly. "Umm…Amanda?" Lex blinked, trying to fight the lethargic feeling coming over her. "You were going to tell me why Mark was in your office yesterday, right?"

Amanda took a deep breath, then released it slowly. "Sorry…" she smiled down at the older woman. She captured the hand that still caressed her face and stood up. "C'mon. Let's go sit in the den. You can't be too comfortable kneeling on the floor."

"Oof." Lex grunted, as she allowed Amanda to pull her to her feet. "You're right about that." She stretched and sighed with relief when several audible pops came from her back. "God, that feels better." The dark-haired woman grinned at the look she was getting from Amanda. "What?"

"That sounds so painful. One of these days you're going to do that, and part of you is going to fall off." Amanda teased, pulling Lex out of the room by her hand. She led the rancher down the hallway. "I swear, you pop and creak more than my old car."

Lex laughed. "Yeah, I guess I do. And it's a hell of a lot older than I am!" She glanced through the large window in the den. "Damn…it's nasty looking out there this morning." Lex guided the smaller woman towards the window, where they both could see. "This is the coldest it's been around here in years. It might even get cold enough today or tomorrow to freeze." She looked down at Amanda, who was firmly attached to her side. "I'm glad you made it home last night before it started getting bad, sweetheart."

As she snuggled even closer, the blonde woman nodded. "Me too. I'd much rather be stuck out here with you than sitting at my grandparent's house worrying about what kind of trouble you can get into."

"Me? Trouble?" Lex turned them away from the window and towards the sofa. "I don't seem to get into any trouble unless you're involved." She flinched as an elbow jabbed her in the ribs. "Ouch!" She sat down and suddenly found her lap full of a green eyed blonde. "Oh, so now I'm furniture?"

Amanda chuckled and wrapped her arms around the taller woman's neck. "Yep." She leaned forward and kissed the tip of Lex's nose. "Pretty comfortable too, I might add."

Lex slid her arms around the smaller woman's back and pulled her closer. "Oh, yeah?" She captured Amanda's lips in a gentle embrace. As she felt small hands tangle themselves in her hair, Lex moaned. She tried to pull back slightly. "I thought we were going to talk?" She whispered, just before those same hands pulled her closer to Amanda's face.

"Later," Amanda breathed, just before she gently wrestled the older woman onto her back and continued her attack.


"Mmm…" Amanda sighed from her sprawled position on top of Lex. "Sorry about that." She idly played with a button on the older woman's shirt. "I can't believe I fell asleep like that."

Lex continued her gentle stroking down the smaller woman's back. "Don't worry about it, sweetheart. We didn't get much sleep last night. A short nap didn't hurt either one of us," she chuckled. "Besides, if we would have continued what we started, Martha would have gotten an eyeful. I didn't close the door when we came in."

"Oh, god. That could have been embarrassing." Amanda raised up and peered over the sofa. "Although with the way the sofa is facing, she couldn't see anything anyway." She was about to pick up where they left off when there was a frantic knocking at the front door.

"Who in the hell could that be?" Lex grumbled, as she worked her way out from under Amanda and started towards the door. She almost ran into Martha in the hallway. "I'll get it." Lex assured the housekeeper who stopped and stared at her. "What?"

Martha stepped forward and began to button the dark-haired woman's shirt. "You open the door dressed like that, and you'll catch a chill," she teased.

"Oops," Amanda laughed from the doorway. "My fault. I was trying to find a place to warm my hands." She smiled sweetly at the rancher.

Lex glared at her, then turned to answer the door. "I'll warm your…" she mumbled. Opening the door, she stepped back in surprise. "Ronnie? What are you doing out in this weather?" She opened the door further to allow the young man to step into the house.

"Sorry, Ms. Walters…but Roy asked me to come and get you." The teenager pulled a damp baseball cap from his head. Ronnie Sterling had been working for the Rocking W Ranch for only a few weeks - ever since Lex had signed the papers to be his legal guardian. His older brother Matt was sitting in the county jail awaiting trial for the theft of several thousand dollars worth of cattle, breaking and entering, as well as the attempted murder of Lex.

Amanda stepped forward and grabbed the young man by his arm. "Come inside by the fire and get warm…you can talk to Lex in the den." She led Ronnie into the den and made him strip off his coat. "Sit down here…." She directed him to the chair closest to the fire, "…and Lex will bring you some hot chocolate." The young blonde gave her lover a smile.

"Hot chocolate…right." Lex turned around and almost knocked the housekeeper over. "Sorry about that, Martha."

Martha laughed. "Honey, you go on in there and find out what that young man has to say. I'll bring enough hot chocolate for all of you." She patted the tall woman on the side and turned towards the kitchen.

Lex started into the den then stuck her head around the doorway. "Don't forget the marshmallows!" she shouted out to the retreating figure. She turned back around and smiled at the two sitting in front of the fireplace. "Well? What good is hot chocolate without marshmallows?" The rancher stepped over to where Amanda was sitting across from Ronnie. She sat down on the arm of the smaller woman's chair. "Okay, Ronnie…what is it that Roy wanted you to tell me?"

"Another section of fence was cut last night, Ms. Walters," the young man started then began to blush when he saw Amanda place her hand on the rancher's thigh. He had heard from the men in the bunkhouse about the relationship between the two, but found it hard to believe that these two beautiful women could be 'that way'. I thought that all gay women wore leather and chains, and had lots of tattoos. Maybe Matt was wrong… When Lester had explained to him about Ms. Walters and her friend, he told the cook that his brother said that those kind of people were sick and perverted. Boy, did I get yelled at that night. But, they don't look like perverts… just like two people who care about each other. Hmm…

"Damn! This is getting ridiculous!" Lex jumped up and began pacing the room. Turning her attention back to the young man, she sighed. "Okay…which section?" She noticed the look on Amanda's face and saw the young woman raise a hand to beckon her. Lex walked back over to the chair and grasped Amanda's hand and allowed herself to be pulled back down.

Ronnie looked at their joined hands then quickly turned his eyes toward the fire. "Umm… he said it was the northwest corner. He's moved the herd out of that section, because he was having trouble getting to the fence to repair it."

"Hot chocolate, with marshmallows, as requested!" Martha bustled into the room with a large tray. She carried it over to a nearby table and sat it down. "Well? Get yourselves over here before it gets cold! I've got a pot of chili cooking, so if you'll excuse me." The small round woman scurried out of the room before anyone could say anything.

Lex laughed. "You heard the lady, Ronnie. C'mon." She stood up and grabbed a mug then handed it to the young man. The rancher then picked up another steaming cup and turned towards Amanda, who had stepped up beside her.

"Thanks, honey." Amanda accepted the warm drink gratefully. "Why is it so hard to reach the fence in that section, Lex?" She followed the tall woman over to the nearby loveseat and sat down. "Is it because of the weather?"

"No, not completely. Although with the weather being the way it is, it's gonna be more difficult to reach." Lex watched with a smile as Ronnie sat back down in front of the fire, his attention directed towards the flames. "The fence blocks off a small canyon, which has a nasty little drop off to the adjacent property. About the only way to actually reach it is by horseback, because of the rough terrain."

Amanda turned slightly, so that she could study the older woman's eyes. "You're going, aren't you?" said as more of a statement than a question. "Isn't that what you pay all those men to do?"

Lex sat her mug down on a side table. "Yes, I am." She reached over and grasped the small hand nearest her. "And yes, it is what I pay them for…but everyone except Lester, Roy, and Ronnie went into town yesterday for the weekend. They've been working themselves extra hard these past couple of weeks, so I thought they deserved a break." Lex looked into Amanda's eyes with determination. "And I won't ask them to do anything that I won't do, sweetheart. You know that."

"I know that, Lex…it's just that you've been working harder than any of them. When do you get a break?" Amanda pulled the large hand up to her lips and kissed the knuckles gently. "And don't bother denying it, either. Martha filled me in last night." She saw the slight grin on the rancher's face.

"Martha has a big mouth." Lex opened up her hand and ran her fingertips along the younger woman's jaw. "But I had already decided that since you'll be home all next week helping Martha get ready for Thanksgiving, I'd take the week off too."

Amanda smiled and leaned into the rancher's touch. "I think I'll like that. This past month has been so busy for us both; it will be nice to spend some quiet time with you." She allowed her eyes to leave Lex's face for a moment and focus in on the young man near the fire. "I think we're embarrassing our guest, love."

Lex glanced over at Ronnie. "Yeah, I think you're right. Why don't I go upstairs and get changed, and you spend a little time with our friend? Maybe find out what his plans are for the holiday?"

"Good idea, honey." Amanda smiled as the rancher stood up. She regretfully released Lex's hand. "Please wear a warm shirt. I hate when you go out with just a tee shirt under your coat." Before Lex could open her mouth to argue, Amanda continued, "Hush. I heard about what you wore yesterday."

The tall woman lifted an eyebrow at that remark. "Damn that woman. Do I have no secrets left?" Lex shook her head. "I'll take care of her later." She started for the door when Amanda's voice stopped her.

"You'll do no such thing, Lexington Marie Walters! All she did was answer my questions. So you leave that poor woman alone!" Amanda waggled a warning finger at the older woman.

Lex stood in the doorway and grinned. "Yes, dear!" She gave the blonde a mock salute and started for the stairway.

Chapter 2

Amanda stood at the back door fussing with Lex's coat. "You have the radio, right?" She asked as the straightened the collar for the third time. "And the thermos of coffee that Martha poured up for you? And…"

Lex leaned over and captured the younger woman's lips in a soft kiss. She pulled away after a moment, effectively silencing Amanda. "Yes, sweetheart. I have so much damn stuff that Cannonball is never going to speak to me again. Stop worrying. I've done this dozens of times." Cannonball was the horse that Lex had purchased last week at an auction. He was a couple of years older than her horse Thunder, but the black stallion had thrown a shoe yesterday afternoon. Lex knew that she could replace the shoe, but then would never hear the end of it from Dan, the man that she had hired specifically for that job.

"Maybe…but I've never been stuck at home waiting for you when you were out those dozens of times." Amanda lifted her hand and tilted the black hat away from Lex's eyes. "You'll be back by this afternoon, right?" She searched the tan face above hers, memorizing every inch. "Something just doesn't feel right to me, Lex. Please be really careful?"

"I promise, love. I'll be very careful." Lex assured her. She placed a gentle kiss on the blonde's forehead. "I've got too much around here to stick around for." The rancher stepped back a pace and grinned. "And, I promised to go Christmas shopping with you next weekend. There's no way in hell you're gonna let me get out of doing that, is there?"

Amanda laughed. "You're darn right about that, Slim. Who else can I wrangle into carrying all my packages for me?" She sobered when Lex reached for the doorknob. "Could you do me a big favor?"

Lex stopped, and gave the young woman a questioning look. "Sure, baby…name it."

"Well, since I was going to work in the office this morning, checking some stuff on the computer…" Amanda bit her lower lip, "…do you think that you could radio in every once in a while and let me know you're okay?"

"Umm…okay. How about on the hour? That way I won't be disturbing your work too much." Lex smiled. She's just so damn cute when she looks at me that way. I just can't tell her no. God, I've turned into a complete wad of mush!

The younger woman stepped up and gave Lex a bone-jarring hug. "How about every half hour, so I'll be able to concentrate on my work and not worry about you so much?" She felt strong arms wrap around her and return the squeeze. Soft lips captured hers once more, and for an instant, the world around them melted away.

Lex finally broke off the kiss and took a deep breath. "Yeah. Okay. Thirty minutes. No problem." She let her forehead rest on Amanda's. "You're really good at that, you know." Lex took a deep breath and reluctantly released the smaller woman. "God, Amanda…I love you. But, I really gotta go, now."

"I know, sweetheart. I love you too. Every thirty minutes, right?" Amanda opened the door and shivered. "God! That north wind is horrible!" She pulled on Lex's sleeve. "Come back sooner if the weather gets any nastier, okay?"

The rancher turned slightly. "Yes, dear." She winked and then stepped off the porch to where Cannonball was patiently waiting. Lex climbed up onto the saddle and adjusted the saddlebags that held the thermos of coffee. "Thanks for getting me a bag of stuff together, Amanda. Now get into the house before you freeze!" She waved and turned Cannonball towards the north trail.

Amanda closed the door and then peered out the window until she could no longer see the horse or rider. "Be careful, love," she whispered, her hand touching the slightly cold glass.

"I take it that she's gone?" Martha stood in the kitchen doorway, drying her hands on a dishtowel.

The blonde woman sighed and turned away from the door. "Yeah. I don't know why she doesn't just leave it for the guys to take care of tomorrow or even Monday." Amanda looked at her watch then followed the housekeeper into the kitchen.

Martha guided her over to the table and sat down in the chair next to her. "Honey, I asked her that very question before she went upstairs to change." She poured coffee from the nearby carafe into a waiting mug. "Here…you look chilled."

"Thanks, Martha." Amanda held the mug close to her body and took a cautious sip. "You did? What did she say?" She reached over and grabbed a cookie from the platter.

"Lex was afraid that even though Roy moved the herd from that pasture, some of the cattle or horses would get back in that area and fall off that drop off." The housekeeper shook her head. "We've never had this kind of trouble before. I sure would like to know why someone is doing this. It just doesn't make any sense."

"I know; it's so strange. Right now it's only vandalism. Lex told me that there were no cattle hurt, or missing, that she's aware of." Amanda looked at Martha with a worried expression. "Oh, god! What if this is my father's way of getting back at Lex…and me?"

Martha reached over and patted the young woman's hand comfortingly. "Let's not jump to any conclusions, dear. There could be all sorts of reasons for why this is happening." She leaned back in her chair with a smile. "I talked to Charlie yesterday. He's going to have some deputy's help patrol the fence line with the hands. We'll get this figured out."

Amanda returned the older woman's smile. "Did you invite Charlie to dinner on Thursday?" She knew that Lex had already invited the sheriff, but Amanda enjoyed making the housekeeper blush for a change.

"Well…as a matter of fact, I did. He said that the Wade's were going out of town to her sister's for the holiday, so he was just going to have a microwave dinner and watch football. I straightened him right out!" The older woman chuckled. Sheriff Charlie Bristol was Martha's long-time boyfriend, and he had been trying for years to get the sweet woman to marry him. At the moment, he lived in a modest boarding house in town. But, if Lex and Amanda had their way, he'd be taking up residence in Martha's comfortable home in the near future. The rancher had given Martha a modest home built near the main house once she began remodeling the ranch several years ago. Lex refused to let the woman go on living like a common servant in a small room behind the kitchen since the housekeeper had refused a room in the main house.

"Good. My grandparents will be here, and I hope to hear from my sister in the next day or so." Amanda had even extended an invitation to her parents, but her mother had called Anna Leigh and asked that she pass along their regrets. She wouldn't even talk to me…I had to get the message from my grandmother. Which is just as well, I suppose. I have no idea where we'll seat everyone as it is. "Umm…Martha? I hate to ask a silly question, but so far we have at least eight people confirmed for Thanksgiving dinner. Where on earth are we going to seat them all?"

The housekeeper laughed. "Oh, honey…don't you worry. We have a huge table that we set up every year in the sitting room. Lexie always moves everything out of there for the day." She glanced around the kitchen. "Since the mudroom opens up to both rooms, we always haul all the food and goodies through there. It also keeps traffic in the cooking area down, so I don't have quite so many feet to trip over."

"Good idea." Amanda glanced down at her watch. "Oh! I've got to get to the office - Lex should be radioing in anytime now." She refilled her coffee mug and stood up. "I've got some work to do on the computer, Martha. Just holler if you need me for anything." The young woman left the room before the housekeeper could say a word.

"I can't believe that young woman actually got Lexie to agree to check in with her." Martha shook her graying head as she cleaned up the table. "That's absolutely amazing."


The cold wind cut through Lex like a knife, which caused the rancher to pull her hat down a little further over her eyes. Damn…I must be getting soft - this never used to bother me before, she sighed to herself. But at least the rain has stopped for now. Lex glanced at her watch, smiled, and pulled the hand-held radio from her coat pocket. "Amanda? This is Lex."

A slight crackle from the radio, then a breathless voice returned, "Hi, Lex. Is everything okay?" Amanda sounded slightly breathless.

"Everything is just fine. I'm almost there." Lex nearly dropped the radio when Cannonball stumbled on the path. "Easy there, fella." She patted the dun-colored gelding gently on the neck. A garbled message from the radio caught her attention. "What was that, Amanda? This gully I'm in seems to be blocking your signal."

"Oh! Well, I just asked if you're warm enough. The wind seems to have picked up here at the house. And…the weather…a little later in the day." Amanda's voice continued to break up.

Even though it was close to noon, the heavy cloud cover made visibility poor. Lex strained through the gloom to see her destination. The fence stood barely a hundred yards away from where she was. Another blast of cold damp air almost took her breath away. "Sweetheart, you keep breaking up. Can you read me okay?" She had to pull up on the reins as Cannonball started prancing sideways, obviously agitated. "Whoa, boy. Easy there."

Another burst of static came through the radio. "…ex? I can't…you. Are you…yet?" Amanda was beginning to sound frustrated. "Can you…me? Lex?"

"Amanda? I'm in a bad spot, love. I'll radio you when I get onto higher ground, okay?" Lex pocketed the radio and climbed down from the saddle. She led the nervous horse to a large tree near the broken fence and tied his reins loosely to a branch. "You stay here, Cannonball. These trees should block off the worst of the wind." The tall woman gave the restive horse another gentle pat, then grabbed her bag of tools and moved towards the break in the fence.

Lex pulled the collar of her coat tighter, trying to ward off the icy wind. "Damn! I think it's getting colder. And those clouds look like they could break loose any minute now." She dropped to one knee and studied the strands of wiring lying on the ground. Not broken…definitely cut. A far off bawling sound from in front of her caught the rancher's attention. What the… she climbed to her feet and stepped forward cautiously to investigate.

Up ahead, near the edge of the drop off, stood a small calf. It appeared to be tangled up in some small brush since it stood in one place and continued to cry. Rust colored with a white face, the young animal cried more plaintively when it spotted the tall figure walking it's way.

"Hold on, little guy, " Lex tried to sooth, "I'll get you out of that mess in no time." She held out her arms in a non-threatening matter as she tried to keep the animal calm with her voice. Glancing to her right, Lex noticed the drop off. "Now you try to stay calm, or we'll both end up down there." She squatted down beside the calf and cleared the brush away with one hand. Leaning down to get a better look, Lex cursed. "How in the hell did you get a rope tied around…" A heavy weight slammed into the back of her head, and Lex felt a moment of weightlessness before everything went black.


The blonde woman paced frantically around the office, mumbling under her breath. "I don't like this at all…something just doesn't feel right." Amanda stopped next to where the radio was stationed. She reached for the microphone then stopped. "She said she would radio me back as soon as she got to a better spot. It's only been about ten minutes."

"Everything okay, sweetie?" Martha walked into the office carrying the carafe of coffee. "I thought you could use some more coffee." As she watched the young woman pace the floor in front of her, she amended, "Maybe not. Amanda?"

"Oh! God, Martha. You startled me." Amanda spun around suddenly. "Did you say something?"

The housekeeper sat the carafe down and walked over to stand by Amanda. "I asked you if everything was okay." Martha placed a small pudgy hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "You look a little frazzled, honey."

Amanda patted the hand gently. "I don't know, Martha. Something just doesn't feel right. Lex told me that she would radio me right back, and that was almost fifteen minutes ago." She took a deep breath and shook her head. "I know…I'm probably just imagining things, but I can't help it."

"Maybe not, child. Sometimes our hearts tell us more than we know." The older woman steered Amanda to the chair behind the desk. "Sit down for a minute and try to relax." After the blonde followed her instructions, she continued, "Now tell me all about it, dear."

"It's hard to describe, Martha. Like an ache in my stomach, and a heaviness in my chest." Amanda had a faraway look in her eyes. "And the longer I sit here, the worse this feeling gets." She jumped up and grabbed the microphone from the radio. "Lex? Honey, can you hear me?" Releasing the catch, all she heard was static. "Come in, Lex. Please?"

Martha stood next to her, a worried look creasing her face. "She should be there by now. And the reception from that part of the property has never been a problem in the past." She walked over and picked up the telephone. "I'm going to call Roy and get him over here." The housekeeper dialed a number on the phone and waited patiently for an answer. "Lester? This is Martha. Is Roy over there?"

"Yeah, he just finished up at the barn and is on his way to get cleaned up. What do you need?" The old cook grumbled.

"I need him over at the main house, pronto! And tell him to dress warmly. We've got an important job for him to do." Martha snapped, not in the mood for their usual good-natured fighting.

Lester stopped when he realized that something was up. "Right. He'll be over in a couple of minutes." He paused for a moment, then continued, "If you need anything, Martha, you just let me know, okay?"

The housekeeper allowed a tiny smile to escape. "I will, Lester. Thank you." She hung up the phone and saw Amanda heading towards the doorway. "Where are you going?"

"Upstairs to change. I'm going with Roy when he gets here." Amanda left the room before Martha could stop her.


A throbbing ache in her head caused Lex to slowly open her eyes and try to look around. Ahh…bad idea, Lexington, she berated herself, closing her eyes as she took a shallow breath. Damn, that hurts! Lex tried to move but found herself partially buried underneath several large tree branches. If I fell, how did I end up under this stuff? The dark-haired woman searched her fuzzy brain for an answer. Wait a minute…I didn't fall. Something or someone hit me from behind. Probably tossed this crap down on top of me afterwards. She tried to turn her body upwards, but the weight of the branches and several sharp pains stopped her. "Aaah…damn!" Lex groaned. Sounds of static coming from her right coat pocket caught the rancher's attention.

"Lex? Honey, can you…me?" Amanda's worried voice broke through the static.

"Amanda?" Lex tried to reach the radio in her pocket, but her right arm was pinned across her chest. "Shit!" Another sharp pain made her stop moving immediately. She closed her eyes and concentrated until the pain eased into a more manageable level. Okay…let's just try to figure out what hurts so damn bad. She decided the best place to start would be her toes, so Lex tried to wiggle them inside her boots. "Ow! Wrong idea!" The movement caused more pain along her back.

The radio crackled again. "Come in, Lex. Please?"

The injured woman tried to reach the radio again, this time with her left hand. But her left arm was twisted up around her head, and the debris covering her had Lex completely pinned down. "Dammit!" she growled, then winced as the movement caused more discomfort. Her pounding head was beginning to lull the rancher into a dreamy haze. She tried to fight her heavy eyelids, but to no avail. Maybe if I just rest for a minute, I'll have enough energy to get out of this mess before Amanda worries too much. The darkness pulled at her once again.


"Are you sure about this, Miss Amanda?" Roy questioned as he saddled the two horses in the barn. The young blonde woman was standing just outside the stall bundled up against the cold. "She probably just had some radio trouble because of the weather and stayed to finish repairing the fence." The ranch foreman glanced over at Amanda's steadfast form. "We'll probably meet her along the trail."

Amanda uncrossed her arms and sighed. "I'm sure, Roy. I've got to do this, okay?" She walked over to where a sturdily built brown and white horse was standing, saddled and all ready to go. "Hey there, Stormy." The paint pony was a recent gift from Lex, and she was constantly being teased about the gentle animal's size. Amanda rubbed the horse's nose and whispered, "You're going to help me find her, aren't you, girl?" A light nuzzle to her chest was the pony's only answer.

Roy led his horse out of the stall. "Okay. But don't look to me for protection when she catches us, okay?" he teased, trying to lighten the mood. Truth be told, the foreman was concerned as well. It wasn't like his boss to be out of contact when she promised differently. But I'm not about to tell this young lady that…Martha would have my hide for sure!

"Don't worry, Roy. I'll protect you." Amanda smiled slightly as she pulled Stormy from her stall. "I'll take full responsibility for this little trip, okay?" The small blonde and her horse followed Roy outside. Amanda mounted up and waited to see which direction the foreman would take. "Well? Let's get this party started before the weather gets too nasty."

The older man sighed. "Yes, ma'am." He directed them towards the north trail without another word.

Half an hour later, they came upon Cannonball, looking comfortable under a large tree. Roy pulled his horse up near the jittery animal and dismounted. He stepped over to the horse, which stomped and then glared at him. "Hey, there." The foreman ran his hand along the horse's neck, checking for anything out of the ordinary. He turned and looked at Amanda, who had climbed down from her mount and stood behind him. "He's tied to the branch, and everything looks okay." They both looked around, hoping for a glimpse of the missing rancher.

"Right. So that means she's got to be around here somewhere." Amanda shivered as a strong gust of cold, wet air blew her slightly backwards. Great. Just what we needed. More rain. She followed Roy's lead and tied her horse to a nearby tree. "Where do we go from here?"

The foreman pointed to the north. "If I have my bearings right, the fence line should be just over there." He pulled a rifle that had been hidden in a scabbard on his saddle. "C'mon. It's less than a hundred yards this way." Roy led Amanda through the trees until they came to the fence. The broken strands of wire were still lying on the ground, and a large canvas bag was sitting nearby. "She made it to the fence okay." He knelt down and checked the ground near the fence. "Nothing unusual here."

Amanda stood next to him, trying to see through the now misting rain. "Did you hear something?" she asked the still kneeling man.

Roy looked up at the young woman. "Hear what?" he cocked his head to one side, listening intently. "All I hear is the damn wind and rain."

"Shh! There it is again." She held up a warning finger. "It sounded like a cry."

He closed his eyes and concentrated. "I don't…Wait! Yeah…I think it's coming from over there." The foreman pointed past the fence towards a pile of shrubbery. "Do you see that, Miss Amanda?"

The young woman nodded. "I think so. It looks like a small animal." She started towards the sound.

"Wait! That's near the drop off!" Roy grabbed her arm and held her back. "Let me go first, okay?"

Amanda stopped and shrugged. "Sure." She helped him to his feet and gave a small smile. "Well?"

Roy shook his head. "Yes, ma'am." He picked up the rifle and started towards the brush. "Stay right behind me though, okay? That's a really nasty drop off over there."

"No problem." Amanda placed her hand on his back and followed in his footsteps. "Lead on."

The small calf was standing in the chest-high brush, crying, as the two people worked their way closer. It tried to step towards them, but seemed to be stuck.

"Look like it's tangled up in something." Roy turned to Amanda. "I'm going to check it out. Why don't you stay here, away from the edge?" He waited until the younger woman nodded. "Could you hold this for me, please?" The foreman handed her the rifle.

Amanda held the gun and looked around nervously. "Is this thing really necessary?" she asked as he slowly crept towards the bawling animal.

Roy glanced at her over his shoulder. "Probably not. But I'd rather be safe than sorry." He turned his attention back to the calf. "Take it easy, little guy."

"Okay, I can see that." Amanda agreed, looking down at the ground under her feet. There were several pairs of footprints in the mud, and she noticed that one pair looked to be sneakers. She looked at Roy's feet, then her own. They were both wearing boots. And Lex ALWAYS wears boots. Where did these tennis shoe prints come from? She bent down to look a little closer when she heard Roy curse.

"Damn! This little fella has been tied to the brush with rope! Who in the hell would do something like that?" He worked carefully to free the calf from its snare. "This was no accident." A few more flicks of his wrist, and the calf scrambled away, running towards the opening in the fence. "You're welcome!" Roy yelled, looking up at Amanda with a smile. He could see the intense concentration on her face as she studied the ground around them. "What's up?"

The young woman pointed to the churned up ground beneath their feet. "What does this look like to you?"

Roy peered down at the ground, touching the earth with his gloved hand. "Sneakers? And pretty recent, too." He watched as Amanda slowly stepped towards the edge of the drop off, leaning forward to look below. "Careful, now!"

Amanda dropped to her knees weakly. "Oh, no." she cried, slanting her body near the edge. "Roy, look!"

The foreman rushed to her side to peer down the side of the overhang. "Jesus. How in the hell…" he could barely make out the sprawled figure below, due to the amount of branches and limbs that covered it.

"Lex!" Amanda yelled, searching frantically for some way to reach the bottom. "Can you hear me?" She turned sideways to grab Roy's arm. "We've got to get down there! She could be seriously hurt!"

"Hang on just a minute, Miss Amanda. Let me go get some rope, all right?" Roy jumped to his feet and raced back towards the horses.

The blonde woman continued to look for a way to reach her lover. "Lex! C'mon, honey. Let me know you're okay, please?"

A familiar voice called to Lex, nudging her from unconsciousness. Amanda? The dark-haired woman slowly opened her eyes. God, I must be hallucinating. She struggled to take a deep breath, then gasped as the movement caused her extreme pain. Lex listened and heard the voice again.

"Lex? God, please. Answer me, or move, or something!" Amanda half-shouted, half-cried. "Dammit! Listen to me!" she pleaded as she wiped tears from her face.

"Amanda?" Lex murmured quietly. It really is her! "Can you hear me?" she choked out, the pain becoming more intense. Gotta do something so she'll know I'm okay. Lex took a quick inventory of what she knew. Not much I can do, but maybe…

The small blonde practically lay on the edge of the overhang, looking for any sign that her partner was alive. Roy suddenly returned carrying a long coil of rope. "Okay…if I can find something to tie this off to, I can drop over the edge and check her out. We're gonna have to get back to the house and get the jeep, though." He looked frantically around for something to anchor the rope to.

"The jeep? But I thought we couldn't get it up here?" Amanda continued to keep an eye on the unmoving rancher below.

Roy tied one end of the rope to a small tree stump. "We can't. But if we take the east road from the bunkhouse, we'll end up on that path down there." He pointed to what looked like an indention in the grass below, not far from where Lex was lying. "It'll take about and hour and a half to get to the ranch house and then drive back here. But we really need to check her out, first." He pulled on the rope to check its sturdiness. "I sure hope this damn thing will hold me."

Amanda grasped his hand with a fierce strength. "It probably won't hold you, but I know it would hold me." Her green eyes blazed with determination. "You can help hold it, and once I get down there, get back to the house and bring the jeep." When she saw him try to argue, Amanda held up a hand. "Wait. Listen to me, please." She nodded to the still figure below them. "I'm lighter, younger, and would be able to keep her calmer than you would. Besides," she flashed him a tired smile, "you know the way back up here…I don't." They both looked down at Lex.

"Hey! Did you see that?" Roy pointed, excited. "I think I saw her hand move!"

Amanda bit her lip and stared at the unmoving form. "Are you sure? I don't…" then she saw it. The fingers on Lex's left hand wiggled slowly. "Yes!" She wrapped her arms around the startled man and laughed. "She moved!"

Roy blushed and pulled away slightly. "Umm…okay. Let's get you down there so I can get back to the house, okay?" He tied the rope around Amanda quickly, making a harness. "Once you get down there, I'll lower the supplies to you, okay?" he unloaded the rifle and handed her the cartridges.

"What's these for?" Amanda gave him a funny look.

"However Ms. Lex got down there, it wasn't an accident. I want you to have the rifle with you just in case." He handed over the weapon and helped Amanda drape it over her shoulder with the leather strap that was attached.

Amanda took a deep breath and nodded. "Okay. I don't like it, but you're right." She shifted the gun around until it was somewhat comfortable on her back. "Be sure you get in touch with Sheriff Bristol before you leave, okay? He needs to know about this."

Roy nodded. "Right. C'mon…let's get you down there, Miss Amanda." He stood up and coiled the rope behind him, using his right arm and back to brace the strands.

"Okay." Amanda slowly worked her way over the edge, sliding down until only her head was visible to the foreman. "See you in a bit, right?" She gave Roy a halfhearted smile.

"You sure will, Miss. Just sit tight, and I'll be back in no time." Roy winked at Amanda as he lowered her from sight.

Moments later, Amanda found herself at the bottom of what appeared to be a ravine. She quickly untied the rope from around her and allowed Roy to pull it back up. The small woman stumbled over to where Lex lay, once again unmoving. "Lex?" She began to remove the debris from her lover. "Honey? Can you hear me?"

"Amanda?" Lex gasped, as she felt small hands lightly touch her hair. "Are you really here?" Her voice was a bare whisper.

"I'm here, love. Let me try to get some of this stuff off of you." Amanda began to carefully clear away the smaller limbs and brush. "What happened to you?" She leaned down to hear what Lex tried to say.

The rancher almost cried in relief when she realized that Amanda was actually with her. "God…I thought you were a dream." She felt a gentle hand on her face. "I…I don't remember much." She felt another large limb being removed from her body, and groaned in appreciation.

Amanda heard the groan and stopped. "Oh, god! Did I hurt you?" She had removed enough to get a close look at Lex's face. The rancher's eyes were closed, and there were several still-bleeding scratches on her cheek and forehead. She was afraid to move Lex since she knew that the rancher had fallen almost thirty feet.

"No…didn't hurt." Lex mumbled, fighting off another bout of unconsciousness. "Relief…"

A shout from above got Amanda's attention. "Miss Amanda! I'm sending down all the supplies now. How is she?" Roy had tied the saddlebags to the rope and was cautiously lowering them to the ground.

Amanda looked up at the foreman. "She's out again, but she seemed pretty coherent when she was awake." She untied the bags and carried them over to where the rancher laid. "Please hurry, Roy… I don't know what kind of injuries she has."

The foreman waved at her. "On my way. I left the radio in one of the bags, in case hers is broken." He disappeared from sight.

"'Manda?" Lex's voice was a hoarse croak.

The younger woman dropped to her knees beside the still-pinned rancher. "I'm right here, sweetheart." She brushed dark bangs away from Lex's scratched and muddy face. "Roy's gone for help. He'll be back really soon." She felt tears burn her eyes.

"Cold." Lex could feel the pain take over again. "Can't feel…"

Continued in Part 2.

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