Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jesse's Homecoming by Jude Mason

Closing her eyes against the blinding glare of the August sun, Jesse rubbed a sweaty, dirt-grimed forearm across her brow. Her battered, dusty Stetson tipped back to reveal cropped, tightly curled, dirty blonde hair plastered to her head. She was sun-bronzed and lean. Some might say too lean, but she was satisfied with herself, and that was more than a lot of women in their mid-thirties could say. Snug jeans and a man's red plaid work shirt protected most of her skin from the sun. The low-heeled boots she wore rested easy in the stirrups, and were good for walking when her horse needed relief from her weight.

Looking at the sun, she watched the bottom arc of the fiery yellow ball approach the horizon. The ranch was still half a dozen miles ahead, and she knew she'd never reach it by dark. Taking up the reins, she urged Pepper, the agile roan gelding she favored, ahead with the slightest movement of her foot. The inside of her thighs felt as if she'd been straddling a sandpaper saddle for the past two days, but she'd needed to get away from the ranch.

Jesse smiled. Meg had understood and almost pushed her out the door when she'd asked if she could manage the current batch of hired help on her own for a few days. Thoughts of Meg were what had turned her around and made her head home. She missed the older woman's arms around her and the way they fit together in their large, homemade bed.

Still smiling, she turned Pepper's head to the right, heading him toward a stream she remembered from past excursions and toed him into an easy trot. Going off the trail, she ducked repeatedly under low-hanging branches and cursed when she had to lay flat against his neck to dodge one. Her thighs burned. She could hardly wait to get out of the saddle, strip out of her two-day dust-covered clothes and get into the cool water she knew lay ahead.

Pepper's head rose. He must have smelled the water. He'd be as anxious as she was to get there. A cool drink for him--he might even join her in the stream.

"Come on, Pepper." She nudged him with her heels. "Almost there, fella, and I need a bath." The horse moved a little faster, his ears twitched. Jesse ducked again as they moved through the last few yards of brush before it opened onto the bank of the stream. The temperature dropped several degrees as soon as they neared the gravel bank.

Pulling the horse to a stop, she swung her leg over his haunch, and dropped to her feet. Quickly unbuckling the belly strap, she hauled the saddle and rough horse blanket off and dropped it to the ground. Pepper whinnied, pawed the rocky ground, and then snorted, as if asking if he could go. Jesse pulled his head toward her and eased the bit out of his mouth. She scratched his soft nose and said, "Off you go. Get a drink."

As if he understood, the big chestnut horse turned and headed for the stream. The willows along the opposite bank shielded the water from the direct sunlight and the moss-covered ground a few yards away were like a velvet beacon calling to her. She flipped off her hat and smiled when it landed in the only patch of long grass on that side of the stream. Running her fingers through her sweat-damp hair, she felt goose bumps rise on her gritty neck. She had to wash it; the trail dust was driving her crazy. Reaching for the buttons of her shirt, she scanned the sun-dappled area to reassure herself that no one had found her secret swimming hole.

Free of the shirt, the light breeze cooled her over-heated flesh. Her nipples rose, sending a shiver down her spine. She cupped the small mounds and sighed when the rough callused tips of her thumbs inadvertently brushed her nipples.

"Oh, Meg," she breathed and pinched the hardened nubs. She tweaked them, and gently tugged on the puckered flesh, until with a shudder, she forced her hands away. "Damn, I miss you, girl."