A Long Way to Home (by Susan)

Synopsis:  Returning home from running a simple errand for Pa takes a dangerous detour when the stage only runs once a week, and the passengers on this one are a marshal with a prison who says no other tickets are to be sold.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  17,215


 

Joe Cartwright had never been so happy to see a stagecoach arrive in his life. He had been stuck for a week in Dawson, a place which surely must be the dullest town in earth. It had all seemed so simple when his Pa had told him what to do. On the way back from ordering new equipment for the sawmill in Sacramento, he was to get off the stage in Dawson. The stage had a four hour lay-over while they changed the horses and the driver ate a meal. He would order the new blades for the sawmill from Will Carson during the lay-over and then get back on the stage for home.

Only things hadn’t worked out the way they planned. When Joe got off the stage, he went directly to Will’s shop. He had found the shop dark and bolted, with a crudely lettered “Closed” sign in the window. Joe had pounded on the door, more in frustration than expecting an answer, but no one had had responded. Joe had asked around and found out that Will had gone to visit his sister who had just had a baby. Joe was told repeatedly that Will was due back “anytime now.”

Joe had watched the stage leave a week ago while he settled down to wait for Will. He had rented a room at the Dawson hotel, a seedy looking place. The room was small, the bed was hard, and Joe spent as little time as possible in the hotel. He had sat in the saloon, drinking a bitter brew that was supposed to be beer. He had played endless games of solitaire in the saloon, having found no one in town who seemed interested in a poker game. The saloon didn’t even have a barmaid with whom Joe could flirt and exchange sweet lies.

After two days of waiting, he had sent a wire to his father, explaining the situation. Joe played even more games of solitaire as he awaited a reply. After another seemingly endless night in the hotel, dreaming of soft beds as he laid on a mattress that was hard and lumpy, Joe received his answer. His father told him emphatically to stay in Dawson and wait for Will Carson. The sawmill needed those blades, and Joe wasn’t to leave Dawson until he had ordered them.

Joe knew what the wire was going to say before he even got it. The sawmill needed new blades and Will Carson made the best saw blades in Nevada. People came from three states to buy his goods. Will’s saws never broke, and they held their sharp edges for an extraordinarily long time. He was a true craftsman, although why he chose to live in Dawson was beyond Joe’s understanding. On the other hand, Joe reflected, maybe that’s why Will’s saws were so good. There was certainly nothing in Dawson to distract him from his work.

Thinking he would rent a horse and take a ride, Joe had gone to the livery. Anything to relieve the tedium of waiting in such a boring place would be welcome. However, Joe quickly changed his mind when he saw the horses at the livery. Other than the team for the stage, there were only three animals in the barn. All of them were old and tired-looking horses, and Joe could tell by their conformation that their gait would be uneven and uncomfortable. He left the livery without bothering to take any of them out of their stalls.

Joe had waited for three more days, thinking he would go crazy with boredom the whole time. Finally, yesterday, Will had returned. Joe had rushed to the shop as soon as he had heard the news. He finished his business with Will in less than an hour. Will promised the new saws in a month, and Joe knew he would deliver on time.

The stage was due the next day, and Joe had forced himself to spend one more day in the dullest town in Nevada. Now he saw the stage pulling up in front of the building across the street. Joe grabbed his saddlebags off the bed and hurried out of his room.

“I’m checking out,” Joe told the clerk as he threw some money on the counter.

The clerk counted the money slowly, then nodded. “Thank you for your business. Hope to see you again real soon.”

Not if I can help it, Joe thought as he left the hotel and hurried across the street. He couldn’t wait to get out of Dawson, and he promised himself he would never come here again.

Walking into the small building which acted as the stage depot, Joe saw two passengers sitting on the bench against the far wall. One was a U.S. Marshall; Joe could see his badge. The Marshall looked to be in his forties, a tall thin man with gray hair. Next to him sat a young woman wearing a split riding skirt and tall boots. A blue checked shirt clung to her tightly, outlining her fine figure. Joe’s gaze quickly moved from her clothes to her face, one of the prettiest ones he had ever seen. The woman’s coal black hair fell loosely to her shoulders in soft curves, framing the face nicely. Her blue eyes had a deep, soulful look to them. Her face was a perfect oval, topped by a small nose and sensuous lips. Joe tipped his hat at the woman as he stood in the doorway. She looked at him coolly and nodded back.

Well, the ride home was certainly going to have some pleasant scenery, Joe thought to himself as he walked to the desk where the stage manager sat. It might even be fun.

“I need a ticket on the stage,” Joe declared as he neared the desk. “Book me straight through to Virginia City.”

“Can’t go on today’s stage,” the manager replied without looking up. “You’ll have to wait until next week.”

“Next week!” Joe cried in dismay.

“Yep,” the man said. “Stage only comes through here once a week. And I got orders not to sell tickets to any passengers on this one.”

“Orders?” Joe asked with a frown. “Who gave you those orders?”

“I did,” a deep voice answered from behind Joe. Joe turned to look at the Marshall sitting on the bench.

“I told the clerk not to sell anyone a ticket on the stage,” the Marshall continued in his deep voice. The Marshall raised his hand, and Joe was stunned to see he was handcuffed to the girl. “I’m escorting a prisoner back to Cold Springs,” the Marshall explained.

Joe walked toward the bench. “My name is Joe Cartwright,” he explained. “My family has a ranch near Virginia City. I’ve been stuck in this town a week, and I need to get home. I promise you, Marshall, I’m not going to help your prisoner to escape.”

The Marshall looked at Joe for a minute. “Cartwright, eh?” he said. “You one of Ben Cartwright’s boys?” Joe nodded. “I know your Pa,” acknowledged the Marshall. “He’s a fine man.”

“Yes, he is,” Joe agreed, his voice tinged with pride and affection.

The Marshall shook his head. “I still can’t let you ride on the stage,” he stated firmly. “Why don’t you just get yourself a horse and ride home?”

“You wouldn’t ask that if you saw what passed for horses in this town,” Joe said in reply. “Look, Marshal…”

“Benton, Jim Benton,” the lawman interjected, supplying his name.

Joe nodded. “Look, Marshall Benton,” he continued. “I really need to get out of here, and the stage is the only way. I promise you I won’t cause any trouble.”

“You don’t understand, son,” Benton stated. “This here is Jenny Coulter. She’s Billy Mason’s girl.”

Joe looked at the young woman sitting on the bench. She had been watching Joe speculatively, but now she lowered her eyes. Joe had heard of Billy Mason; he was wanted for bank robbery and murder. He couldn’t believe this beautiful girl was associating with scum like Mason.

“About a week ago, Mason’s gang robbed the bank in Cold Springs,” the Marshall explained. “The sheriff there saw them as they were leaving the bank. He killed two of the gang, but the rest of them got away. Billy had the money. We caught up with him as he was leaving her place in Black River. Billy tried to shoot it out and got himself killed. But we didn’t find the money. We figure she knows where it is.”

Jenny looked at the Marshall. “I told you that you were barking up the wrong tree,” she protested in an angry voice. “I don’t know where the money is. Billy didn’t tell me anything.”

“That’s for the judge to decide,” Benton advised the girl with an indifferent shrug. “He issued a warrant for your arrest as an accessory.”

“Accessory!” Jenny exclaimed. She turned to Joe. “They tore my place apart looking for the money,” she complained. “You should have seen it. It was a mess.” Jenny smiled sweetly at Joe. “They didn’t find anything,” she added in a soft voice. “Nothing. This is all a big mistake.”

“Don’t be trying your wiles on him, girl,” the Marshall advised. “He ain’t going with us.”

“I still don’t understand why I can’t ride on the stage with you,” Joe said with a frown.

“Three of Mason’s gang are still running around loose, including Billy’s brother,” the Marshall answered. “I figure they’re going to try to get Jenny here away from me so she can tell them where the money is. If they make a try for her while we’re on the stage, I don’t want any innocent passengers hurt…or getting in the way.”

Joe thought for a minute. The idea of staying another week in Dawson appalled him. In fact, he hated the idea of staying in this town more than he hated the idea of facing three outlaws. Mason’s gang might not even attack the stage. It was a risk Joe was more than willing to take. Anything to get out of this town, he thought.

“Marshall, if Mason’s gang comes after you, it’ll be three against one,” Joe pointed out. “Those aren’t very good odds.”

“I’ve faced tougher odds,” the Marshall told Joe with a shrug.

“Yes, but if you let me come with you, that’s an extra gun,” Joe declared. “Two against three. That’s much better odds. In fact, it might even discourage them.”

“I can’t take the chance that a civilian might get hurt,” replied the Marshall. “Sorry.”

“Listen, Marshall,” Joe said, his voice tinged with desperation. “I’ve ridden with posses and I’ve helped out Roy Coffee, the sheriff in Virginia City. You could deputize me and take me along. Then I wouldn’t be a ‘civilian’. I’d be a lawman, just like you.”

The Marshall studied Joe for a minute. “You handy with a gun?” he asked. Joe nodded. The Marshall thought a minute longer. “You understand that this ain’t no picnic,” he added. “You’ll do what I tell you.” Joe nodded again.

The Marshall thought some more. Finally, he nodded his head. “All right, son,” he agreed. “If you’re fool enough to want to go along, I could use the extra gun. It just might come in handy.”

Joe sighed with relief. “Thanks, Marshall. You won’t regret it.”

“I just hope you don’t regret it,” the Marshall countered. “Raise your right hand.”

Jenny turned her most radiant smile on Joe.

*****

As the stage finally pulled out of Dawson, Joe felt the relief washing over him. He hoped never to see that place again. He was sprawled over the seat in the stage, comfortable to have it all to himself. Jenny and Marshall Benton sat on the seat opposite him, their backs to the driver.

Jenny smiled at Joe, her pretty face lighting up as she did so. She looked demurely to the floor, but raised her eyes to look at him. Joe grinned back at Jenny.

“So Irwin didn’t still doesn’t have any decent horses in that stable of his,” Jenny remarked to Joe, her smile widening.

“Yes, but how did you know?” Joe asked in a startled voice.

“I grew up around here,” Jenny answered. “I remember those nags Irwin used to keep. He never got anyone around Dawson to ride them.”

Joe thought about the sad-looking horses he had seen in the livery. “I know why,” he said ruefully.

Jenny laughed. Her laugh was like the tinkling of glass, Joe thought.

“I know why you were anxious to get on this stage,” Jenny continued. “Dawson has to be the more boring place on earth.”

“Well, if it isn’t, then I don’t want to visit the place that is,” Joe agreed with a smile. Jenny laughed again.

“You sure that’s the only reason you wanted to ride on this stage?” Jenny asked in a seductive voice.

“Well, maybe not the only reason,” Joe replied, his boyish grin on his face.

“Perhaps the Marshall would let you trade places with him,” Jenny suggested, her voice even more inviting.

“You just be quiet,” the Marshall ordered in a rough voice. When Jenny turned and made a face at him, Joe laughed.

“Marshall, you’re just wasting your time,” Jenny told the lawman. “I don’t know anything. I can’t tell that judge what I don’t know.”

“Like I keep saying, it ain’t up to me,” the Marshall growled. “Tell it to the judge.”

Jenny turned away from Benton, her face in a pout.

“What were you doing in Dawson, Mr. Cartwright?” Jenny asked, turning a radiant smile on Joe.

“Call me, Joe,” said Joe, smiling in return. “I was ordering some saw blades from Will Carson.”

“Will makes the best blades in the world,” she agreed. “How come you got stuck here for a week?”

“Will was out of town,” answered Joe. “I had to wait on him.”

“Poor you!” Jenny sympathized with a sweet smile. “There’s nothing to do in Dawson.”

“Yeah,” Joe answered ruefully. “I found that out.”

“Do you own a timber camp?” Jenny asked, her eyes alight with curiosity.

“My Pa does,” Joe explained. “We have a ranch just outside of Virginia City. Cattle, horses and some lumbering. Keeps me pretty busy.”

“Not too busy, I hope,” Jenny said with a smile. “I have a feeling there are a lot of women in Virginia City who wouldn’t want you to be tied up on your ranch all the time.” Grinning, Joe shrugged his shoulders a bit.

“You said you grew up around here. When did you leave?” Joe asked.

An odd look came over Jenny’s face. She turned and looked out the window. “A lifetime ago,” she answered quietly. She continued to look out the window, her thoughts focused on something other than Joe.

“I think that’s enough chit-chat,” growled Benton. “Boy, you keep your mind away from her. She’s nothing but trouble.”

The trio rode in silence for several miles. Joe would have like to talk with Jenny some more, but the scowl on the Marshall’s face discouraged him. Jenny also was ignoring him, staring out the window with a wistful look on her face. Finally, Joe pulled his hat down over his face and started to doze.

Joe woke abruptly when the coach suddenly lurched hard to the right and skidded to a stop. He pushed his hat back and looked out the window.

The stage had stopped in the middle of nowhere, at least as far as Joe could tell. He could see rolling hills and tree-covered field, but no sign of a building or people. He wondered briefly where they were.

“What happened?” Joe asked as he saw the Marshall leaning out the window. The Marshall pulled himself back inside the coach.

“Stage hit a rut in the road,” the Marshall replied with disgust. “Looks like we lost a wheel.” He turned to Jenny. “C’mon, we’re getting out.” The Marshal started climbing out of the coach, pulling Jenny along behind him. Following the pair, Joe tried to help the girl get down from the coach. Jenny threw a grateful smile over her shoulder at him.

When he climbed out of the coach, Joe could see the right front wheel was off. The driver was standing next to the wheel, scratching his head. Benton and Jenny stood a few feet away, the handcuffs holding them together gleaming in the sun.

Walking up to the driver, Joe asked, “What are we going to do?”

The driver shook his head. “Don’t know,” he admitted with a frown. “Guess we’ll have to try to put the wheel back on. Looks kind of bad, though.”

Inspecting the axle, Joe could see it looked intact. If they replaced the wheel and secured it somehow, the coach might be able to limp along until they got to a way station where it could be fixed properly.

“Marshall, we think we can get the wheel back on,” Joe shouted to Benton. “But we’re going to need your help.”

Nodding, Benton walked over to Joe and the driver, pulling Jenny along behind him. The Marshall reached into the pocket of his shirt and pulled out a small key. He put the key in the bracelet of the handcuff around his wrist, and with a turn, opened the cuff. After looking around for a minute, Benton pulled Jenny forward again. Standing her next to the coach, he put the open bracelet around one of the spokes of the wheel on the left side of the coach and snapped it close. With a satisfied nod, Benton brushed his hands and walked to the other side of the coach.

Joe had watched Benton cuff Jenny to the wheel. Now, as the Marshall approached, he asked, “Do you really think that was necessary?”

“You don’t know what I’ve been through with that girl,” Benton retorted with disgust. “She’s tried everything to get away. I’m not taking any chances.”

Joe looked at Jenny, who smiled at him and slowly shook her head. Shrugging a bit, Joe turned back to the coach.

It took some time for the men to figure out how to lift the coach to replace the wheel. A look in the boot of the stage showed them that there was no jack or other equipment. There weren’t any trees close enough to use a rope over a branch. After much discussion, they finally decided to let the Marshall and the driver lift the axle while Joe slipped the wheel back on. Joe was doubtful that the two men could lift the heavy coach, but they insisted they could. All the while, Jenny listened and watched.

The driver unhitched the horses and led them a few yards from the coach then walked back to the coach, dusting his hands on his pants as he crossed the grass. While Joe went to get the wheel, Benton and the driver moved near the axle. After rolling the wheel back to the coach, Joe positioned it so he could slide it quickly on the axle. With a nod, he told the other two men he was ready.

The Marshall and the driver pulled on the axle, grunting as they tried to lift the stage. At first, nothing happened. Then slowly the axle began to rise. Joe waited anxiously, ready to slip the wheel on as soon as the axle was high enough. The axle rose with infinite slowness. It was almost at the right height when suddenly the stage began to rock. Surprised, the Marshall and the driver began to lose their grip. The stage rocked harder and both men dropped the axle.

The driver quickly jumped back from the stage, but Benton wasn’t as agile. He hung on to the axle a fraction too long. The axle came crashing down on the Marshall’s leg, with the full weight of the stage landing on top of it.

Benton screamed in agony as his leg was crushed under the axle. Dropping the wheel, Joe rushed forward. “Help me get it off him!” Joe yelled to the startled driver. Both men grabbed the axle, and with a heave, they lifted the wooden about a foot and Benton quickly pulled his leg out. As Joe and the driver dropped the axle, the stage crashed back to the ground.

“What’s happening? What’s going on?” a voice from the other side of the coach shouted. Ignoring the questions, Joe bent to examine the Marshall’s leg and was sickened by what he saw. There was no doubt that Benton’s leg was broken; a piece of bone was jutting out of the skin and blood ran pouring freely down the leg. Joe glanced up at the Marshall’s face. Benton was barely conscious, his face pale. Joe could only guess what pain the man must be feeling.

“What’s wrong?” a voice shouted from the back of the coach.

“The Marshall broke his leg,” Joe yelled in reply. “The stage came down on it.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” came the response. Joe detected a lack of sincerity in the supposedly sympathetic comment.

“You ever set a leg, boy?” a barely audible voice asked. Joe turned to see Benton looking at him.

Joe took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’ve set a leg,” he admitted. “But never one broken as bad as this. I don’t know if I can do this right.”

“Guess we’re going to find out,” Benton said softly.

Nodding, Joe turned to the driver. “See if you can find some wood or something we can use as a splint,” Joe told the man. The driver nodded and hurried off. Getting to his feet, Joe walked to the back of the stage. The jack had been left behind, but not the emergency kit. Joe pulled a leather sack from the boot of the stage. He opened the flap of the sack and started rooting through it. Joe pulled a canteen and some bandages from the sack, then dropped the sack to the ground.

“Can I help?” Jenny asked. She had pulled herself as far as possible toward the back of the stage.

“Do you know anything about setting a leg?” Joe asked hopefully.

Before Jenny could answer, the Marshall roared out with a loud “NO!” Joe looked back at the man, a startled expression on his face.

“Don’t let that she-wolf near me!” cried the Marshall. “She’s the one who started rocking the stage. She tried to kill us.”

“Marshall, I never did,” Jenny protested in a pouty voice. “Honest.” But Joe thought he detected a ghost of a smile on the girl’s face.

“You just wait here,” Joe told Jenny. He grabbed the canteen and bandages, then hurried back to the fallen lawman. Joe gave Benton the canteen, and the Marshall gulped the water gratefully.

Joe studied the broken and bloody leg before him. He felt his stomach churn as he thought about what he had to do.

“Go ahead, boy,” a voice said. Joe looked up at Benton. The Marshall had put the canteen on the ground and was lying on his back. He nodded encouragingly at Joe.

Taking a deep breath, Joe maneuvered himself to the bottom of Benton’s leg. He grabbed the Marshall’s ankle with a tight grip. Then he pulled.

Joe heard two sounds almost simultaneously. He heard the howl of agony from Benton and the snap of the bone as it clicked back into place. Joe quickly released Benton’s ankle and ran his hand up the Marshall’s leg. He couldn’t feel any sharp edges, but he wasn’t sure the bone was set in place either. He glanced at Benton’s face, but the Marshall was passed out on the ground. Joe hesitated, wondering what to do next. He finally decided that no action was probably the best action.

Grabbing the bandages, Joe quickly tied them around the split skin, hoping to stop the bleeding. He looked around and saw the driver walking toward him from a small stand of trees. The man was carrying two pieces of wood.

As he waited for the driver, Joe chewed on the bottom of his lip. Once he splinted the leg, Joe knew he had to get the Marshall to a doctor. He just wasn’t sure how they were going to do that.

The driver dropped the two pieces of wood on the ground next to Joe. Giving a brief nod of thanks, Joe quickly tied the Marshall’s leg in between the wood, hoping they would hold the bone in place.

“I’m hot and thirsty,” came a plaintive cry from the other side of the coach.

Joe looked at the Marshall, who was still unconscious. Then he grabbed the canteen and walked to the other side of the stage.

“Here,” Joe said, handing the canteen to Jenny. “But go easy. That’s all the water we’ve got.”

Nodding, Jenny took a sip from the canteen. “Thank you,” she murmured, flashing a grateful smile. “How’s the Marshall?”

“His leg is in pretty bad shape,” admitted Joe. “We need to get him to a doctor.”

“Dawson is probably the closest,” Jenny advised thoughtfully. “That’s about three hours from here. Cold Springs is too far away.”

“Hey, son, he’s coming around,” the driver shouted from the other side of the coach. Grabbing the canteen from Jenny, Joe rushed back to the Marshall.

Benton had propped himself up on his elbows and was looking at the splint on his leg. Joe quickly handed the canteen to the Marshall who took a long drink before giving the container back to Joe. “Looks like you did a good job,” commented Benton.

“I don’t know,” Joe replied doubtfully. “We’d better get you to a doctor right away.” He turned to the driver. “Do you think the two of us can get the wheel on?”

The driver shook his head. “We can’t do it by ourselves,” the driver declared. “But it don’t matter. I look a look at the axle. When the coach fell, that axle busted. Even if we could get the wheel on, this stage ain’t going anywhere.”

Giving a distracted nod, Joe began thinking. He had to figure out a way to get the Marshall back to Dawson. After a few minutes, he turned to the driver.

“Unhitch the horses,” Joe ordered. “We’ll make a travois and ride the horses back to Dawson.” As the driver walked to the horses, Joe turned to face the Marshall. “It will be a rough ride,” he said apologetically. “But it’s the best we can do.”

Joe spent the next hour making a travois out of the rope he found in the back of the stage and some long pieces of timber the driver found near the strand of trees. Jenny complained about being hot and thirsty several times as Joe worked, but he ignored her. He couldn’t waste time looking after her. He needed to get the travois finished and the Marshall back to Dawson as quickly as possible.

Finally, the travois was finished and tied securely to one of the horses. Joe walked over to the Marshall. “I’ll be as easy as I can getting you on the travois,” Joe promised.

“Before we do that,” Benton interjected, “I’ve got something to ask you. I’ve been thinking. The driver can get me back to Dawson. I want you to take Jenny on to Cold Springs.”

“What!” Joe exclaimed in surprise.

“I’ve been watching you,” Benton continued. “You’re a pretty responsible young man, and I know Ben Cartwright raises his boys right. I can trust you to take Jenny to Cold Springs.”

Joe shook his head. “Marshall, I’m not really a lawman,” he said. “I just told you that to get a ride on the stage.”

“Don’t matter,” Benton insisted. “You took an oath.”

“What’s the rush?” Joe asked. “We take Jenny back to Dawson and we catch another stage to Cold Springs. A few days, a week at the most, and she’ll be there.”

“The bank in Cold Springs doesn’t have a week,” Benton explained. “The money Billy took? That was the bank’s reserve. If they don’t get the money back in a few days, the bank is going to have to call in its loans, most of which are to small farmers and ranchers who haven’t got the money to pay off all their debt. All those farmers and ranchers will lose their places.”

“But Jenny says she doesn’t know where the money is,” Joe protested.

“She’s lying,” the Marshall growled. “She knows.”

“Even if she does, how is getting her back to Cold Springs going to help?” Joe asked. “If she won’t talk, she can’t help the bank.”

“I think a night or two in the Cold Springs jail will bring her around real quick,” the Marshall commented with a grim smile.

“I don’t think so,” Joe said, shaking his head. “She seems pretty, well, determined.”

“Maybe,” admitted the Marshall. “But we got to try. It’s up to you to get her to Cold Springs. You two can share a horse. It’s a seven or eight hour ride, but you should get there by nightfall.” The Marshall reached into his shirt pocket. “Here’s the key to the cuffs.”

“No,” Joe protested. “I don’t want to do this. We’ll get you back to Dawson, and find someone there to take Jenny to Cold Springs.”

“Dawson?” the Marshall said with disgust. “You’ve seen that town. Who you going to find there who will take Billy Mason’s girl to Cold Springs? We’d have to wait for another Marshall. And that will take too long. Those people in Cold Springs will loose their farms and ranches before we get her there.”

Joe chewed his lip, trying to decide what to do.

“You going to let all those people lose their homes because you’re squeamish about taking a girl to jail?” pressed the Marshall. “I didn’t figure one of Ben Cartwright’s boys would be so hardhearted.”

“Marshall, that’s not fair,” protested Joe.

“I don’t play fair,” the Marshall replied with a smile.

Joe sighed. “All right,” he said reluctantly. “I’ll do it. But somehow, I think I’m going to regret this.”

*****

Joe watched as the driver and Marshall Benton traveled down the trail. The driver was on one of the horses that had been pulling the stage. He led another horse to which the travois carrying the Marshall was tied. Joe and the driver had tried to be gentle as they had eased the injured man onto the travois, but Joe could see the pain etched on the Marshall’s face. Now Joe watched as the two horses walked slowly down the trail toward Dawson.

With a sigh, Joe decided he had better get started on his job. He walked to the back of the stage, looking for any useful items that might be in the boot. The Marshall had insisted that Joe keep the canteen. Benton said Joe would need it more on the eight hour ride to Cold Springs than he would need it on the trip back to Dawson.

Pushing his saddlebags aside, Joe looked into the stage’s boot. The only item left was a blanket squashed into the corner. Joe pulled out the cloth and shook it open. The blanket was dirty and moth-eaten, and the edges were frayed. But at least he could throw something over the back of the horse he and Jenny would ride. It wouldn’t help much, Joe decided, but it was all he had.

Tucking the blanket under his arm, Joe slung the strap of the canteen over his shoulder. With another sigh, he walked slowly to the side of the stage.

Jenny was sitting on the ground, her legs curled under her. Her right arm reached above her head, still cuffed to the wheel. She smiled with relief when she saw Joe approaching.

“Thank goodness,” Jenny said. “I thought you had forgotten all about me.”

“Not much chance of that,” Joe replied with a wry smile. He reached up and unlocked the handcuff from the wheel. Joe noted that the chain between the cuffs was about eight inches long. He had enough chain to be able to move around and still be close to his prisoner. “Come on,” he announced. “We’d better get started. It’s a long ride to Cold Springs.”

Rising to her feet, Jenny brushed the dirt from her skirt. “That’s all right, Joe,” she told him with a smile. “You don’t have to pretend with me. I know you don’t want to take me to Cold Springs. Just uncuff me and I can find my way from here.”

“What?” Joe exclaimed in an astonished voice.

“Really,” Jenny continued smoothly. “I grew up around here. I know how to find my way. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“What about Billy’s brother and the rest of his gang?” Joe asked, cocking his head a bit.

“Oh, don’t worry about Johnny,” Jenny replied with a dismissive air. “Without Billy, he couldn’t find his way down the street, much less chase after me. The other two are worse. Billy got men for the gang because of their guns, not their brains.”

“And the money?” Joe prompted.

“I like you, Joe. I really do,” Jenny noted with a smile. “But not enough to tell you anything about the money.”

“I thought you didn’t know where it was,” Joe said.

“Well, maybe I do, and maybe I don’t,” Jenny answered coyly. “But I’m not going to tell YOU anything.”

“All right,” Joe stated, snapping the open handcuff around his wrist. “You can tell the judge in Cold Springs what you know, and maybe he’ll be able to find it.”

“What!” Now it was Jenny’s turn to be astonished. “You don’t really mean to take me to Cold Springs, do you?”

“I told the Marshall I would,” declared Joe.

“What? Are you crazy?” said Jenny. “You’re not a Marshall. You’re not even a real deputy. Why should you care whether I get to Cold Springs or not?”

“I told the Marshall I would get you there,” Joe stated firmly. “I made him a promise.”

“What are you? Some kind of Knight of the Round Table?” Jenny snapped angrily. “My Ma used to read to be about those guys. They were always doing crazy things because they promised people. And it got a lot of them killed.”

“No, I’m not a knight,” Joe admitted with a smile. “I left my armor at home. Besides, I don’t quite picture you as a maiden in distress.” He ducked as Jenny flung her arm at him, trying to slap his face.

“You self-righteous, pig-headed fool!” Jenny shouted furiously. “You are going to land me in jail!”

“Well, I think that’s up to you,” Joe said with a grin. He took a step and pulled Jenny behind him. “Let’s go. It’s a long ride.”

Stamping her foot, Jenny looked away and refused to move; Joe pulled her arm a little stronger, but she still didn’t budge. Finally, he turned, and with a quick move, picked the girl up and threw her over his shoulder.

“Put me down!” Jenny cried, banging her fists furiously against Joe’s back. “You put me down right now!”

Ignoring both her cries and her blows, Joe carried Jenny to the horses. He stopped in front of one of the horses, and unceremoniously slid the struggling girl to the ground. He quickly threw the blanket over the back of the horse.

“Now you have two choices,” Joe announced as Jenny glared at him. “You can either ride this horse sitting upright, or I’ll sling you face down across it. But one way or the other, you are going to get on that horse.”

Jenny stood looking at Joe, her face showing the fury she felt. But Joe looked back at her with an unwavering stare.

“Have it your way,” Joe said, taking a step forward.

“All right, all right,” Jenny agreed quickly. “I’ll get on.” She turned her back to Joe and faced the side of the horse. “Give me a boost, will you?”

Grabbing Jenny around the waist, Joe lifted her onto the horse. She felt as light as a feather. He reached to gather the leather traces hanging from harness to use as reins. He was still handcuffed to Jenny, but there was enough chain between them to give him room to take a step forward. Suddenly, Jenny yelled and kicked the horse forward. The startled animal started to run.

Only Jenny had forgotten she was still handcuffed to Joe.

With a scream, Jenny fell backwards off the horse. Joe caught her just as she was about to land in the dirt. Both fell to the ground with a thud.

“That was pretty stupid,” Joe declared as he scrambled to his feet. Jenny stood and brushed herself off.

“Thank you,” Jenny said primly. She looked around. The horse was running down the trail. “Now what?”

“Well, lucky for you there’s another horse,” Joe stated, gesturing to the animal still tied to a tree nearby. “Otherwise, it would be long walk to Cold Springs.” Picking the blanket up off the ground, Joe started walking toward the other horse pulling Jenny behind him. He didn’t bother to look to see if she was able to keep up.

Stopping in front of the horse, Joe untied the animal from the tree and gathered the reins in his hand. Once more, he threw the blanket over the animal’s back. He turned to Jenny. “Let’s try this again,” he said in a grim voice. Without waiting for a reply, he scooped Jenny off the ground and put her firmly on the horses back. Before she could react, Joe vaulted from the ground and onto the horse’s back, landing behind her.

Jenny could feel Joe’s arms going around her. For a moment, she leaned back against him and felt his chest against her back. Jenny closed her eyes and enjoyed the feel of a strong man with his arms around her. Then, suddenly, she remembered where Joe was taking her…and why. Jenny pulled herself away from Joe.

Joe had felt Jenny relax against him, and he too enjoyed the feel of soft body leaning against his. Then he felt her stiffen. With a sigh, Joe tightened his grip on the reins and kicked the horse under him. “Might as well get comfortable,” Joe advised. “It’s a long ride to Cold Springs.”

“If we get there,” Jenny remarked slyly.

*****

Joe and Jenny rode in silence as the horse plodded down the road. The animal had a comfortable gait, though a slow one. Joe figured at the rate they were going, they would be lucky to reach Cold Springs by midnight. Joe’s thoughts drifted to everything that had happened since he got off the stage in Dawson a week ago. Nothing had turned out as he had planned. He began to think about the Ponderosa, where things seemed to run with clockwork precision. For once, Joe was really looking forward to getting home.

Jenny sat in front of Joe, her back still ramrod stiff. Joe couldn’t see the thoughtful look on her face as her eyes darted around the countryside. Jenny was in no hurry to get to Cold Springs. In fact, she was thinking hard about a way not to get there at all.

After riding for about three hours, Joe pulled on the leather traces he was using as reins and halted the horse. “We’d better give the horse a rest,” Joe advised Jenny. “He’s not used to carrying two people like this.” Jenny said nothing.

Guiding the horse to the side of the road, Joe slid off the animal’s back. He reached up to help Jenny down, but she shrugged away his hand and slowly eased herself off the horse.

The horse immediately began to graze on the grass by the road. Pulling the blanket off the horse’s back, Joe led Jenny to the shade of some trees nearby. He spread the blanket on the ground, then slid the canteen strap off his shoulder; Joe handed the canteen to Jenny. She took a long drink, then handed the canteen back to Joe. “Thank you,” she said shortly.

“Why don’t we sit and rest for a few minutes,” Joe suggested, indicating the blanket on the ground. Jenny nodded curtly and abruptly sat down. Her sudden movement yanked on Joe’s arm and he lost his balance. Joe fell forward and found himself sprawled face down on the blanket.

Joe could hear Jenny’s laugh as he quickly righted himself. He still thought it sounded like tinkling glass. “You ought to do that more often,” he said with a smile.

“Do what?” Jenny asked with a frown. “Pull you off your feet?”

“No, laugh,” Joe answered. “You have a very pretty laugh.”

“Not much to laugh about these days,” Jenny declared bitterly.

Sitting up, Joe took a quick drink from the canteen. He set it down on the blanket beside him and then looked at Jenny. “I don’t understand you,” he admitted as he studied the girl. “You’re pretty, and you’re smart. Why are you throwing everything away for some money that isn’t even yours?”

Jenny turned to Joe. “I’m not saying I know where the money is,” she said slowly. “But if I did, I could use that money to start a whole new life.”

“At the expense of the farmers and ranchers whose savings were stolen from them?” Joe countered. “Built on the ashes of a dozen or more small farms and ranches that would go under? I don’t think that’s much of a way to start a new life.”

“I’d be doing them a favor,” Jenny answered with a bitter laugh. “I grew up on one of those small farms. It was nothing but dirt, hard work, and boredom. I’d be forcing those people to get a real life.”

“I don’t think they’d agree with you,” advised Joe. “Most people are pretty fond of their homes, no matter how small it might be.”

“Not if you don’t have any choice in the matter,” Jenny said. “Not if all you can think about is trying to get away from it.”

“Is that what happened to you?” Joe asked curiously. “Did you run away from home?”

“It’s really none of your business,” Jenny replied in a cold voice.

“Look, Jenny, I’d like to help you,” Joe told the girl. “But you have to let me. You have to stop fighting me, and start trusting me.”

“Trust you?” Jenny said. “The man who wants to take me to jail in Cold Springs? No thanks. I’ve gotten along just fine with trusting no one but me.”

Joe sighed. “All right, have it your way.” He stood and pulled Jenny to her feet. “We’d better mount up and get going.” Joe reached down and grabbed the canteen from the blanket.

“I’ll get the blanket,” Jenny offered quickly, and snatched the cloth from ground. She folded the blanket over her arms in front of her.

Joe started walking toward the horse, pulling Jenny gently with him. Suddenly, Jenny stopped dead. She let out a piercing scream. As the startled horse looked up, Jenny screamed again and began flapping the blanket. Frightened by the noise and the blanket, the animal started running and quickly disappeared into the woods behind Jenny and Joe.

Joe started to run after the horse, but Jenny dug her heels into the ground. Joe dragged her a foot or so before he stopped, realizing he would never catch the horse with Jenny in tow.

“Now look what you’ve done!” Joe shouted in an angry voice as he turned back to Jenny.

“I thought I saw a snake,” Jenny explained with a sly smile. “I don’t like snakes.”

“Yeah, right,” Joe said in a disbelieving voice. He looked around. The road ahead of them meandered through some small hills. Joe could see no sign of a farm or ranch. He looked behind them at the woods. The woods were thick and dense. Joe stood thoughtfully, trying to decide what to do now.

“It’s a long walk to Cold Springs,” Jenny pointed out in a sweet voice. “We’ll never get there by tonight. Maybe the best thing to do is just sit here and wait for someone to come by.”

“We could wait a week,” Joe advised. “This road doesn’t look like it gets much use. I haven’t seen another rider or wagon since we’ve been on it.”

“Well, that’s true,” Jenny agreed. “I don’t think many people use it. I guess we won’t get to Cold Springs for at least several days. By then, it’ll be too late for the bank. Doesn’t seem much point in even trying. Why don’t you uncuff me, and go on your way. You can travel much faster alone, and I’ll be fine. I know my way around this country.”

Joe looked at Jenny with narrowed eyes. “We’re going to Cold Springs together,” he declared flatly. “And we’re going to get there in time.”

“And just how do you propose to do that?” Jenny asked in a huffy voice.

Joe looked around again, then closed his eyes. He tried to visualize the area. He wasn’t really familiar with the territory, although he had been through it a time or two. Now he wished he had paid more attention. Joe opened his eyes and looked at Jenny.

“We start walking,” Joe commanded.

“Joe, it will take us at least two days to get to Cold Springs on foot,” Jenny stated, shaking her head sadly. She looked up at him with a twinkle in her eye. “Maybe longer. I heard the Marshall say the bank needed to get that money in a few days. We’ll never make it in time. Besides, I don’t know where the money is. We’re going to get hot and tired and dusty walking down that road, and it’s all for nothing.”

“We’re not going to follow the road,” Joe told the girl. “We’re going to cut through the woods. That will save us at least ten miles. Once we come out of the woods, there’s a way station about a mile down the road. We can get another horse there.”

“Through the woods!” Jenny cried with dismay. “I can’t do that! The country is way too rough! There’s streams and gullies and, and…”

“And snakes?” Joe added in an ironic voice. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you through.”

Jenny stomped her foot. “I won’t go!” she shouted angrily. “You can’t make me.”

His face hard and his eyes cold, Joe looked at Jenny. “You’ll go,” he declared. “Either you will start walking, or I’m going to pick you up and carry you. It’s your choice. One way or the other, you’re going.”

Jenny stared at Joe. She remembered what had happened when she refused to walk over to the horse. Joe had the same look on his face. She knew he wasn’t bluffing.

“Oh, all right,” Jenny agreed, her voice filled with resignation. “I’ll walk. But you’re going to be sorry you ever suggested this.”

Joe picked up the blanket from the ground where Jenny had dropped it. “I’m already sorry about a lot of things on this trip,” he said as he tucked the blanket under his arm. “Now let’s start walking.”

*****

Joe and Jenny walked through the dense woods, picking their way carefully over fallen limbs and protruding roots. At first, Jenny walked slowly, hanging back and making Joe drag her through the woods. Joe didn’t slow to help Jenny; he marched grimly on, pulling the unwilling girl behind him. As the terrain got rougher, and Joe continued his unrelenting pace, Jenny walked faster. She was worried she might fall, and half-afraid that Joe would just continue walking, dragging her behind him.

“You’re going to get us lost,” Jenny grumbled as the pair continued their trek. “I bet you don’t even know where we are. We’re just going to wander in these woods forever.”

“I can see the sun,” Joe answered. “We’re heading west.”

“Well, what happens when you can’t see the sun?” Jenny asked in a whinny voice.

“I guess you’d better hope I don’t lose sight of the sun,” Joe answered shortly. He pulled on Jenny’s arm a bit. “Keep walking.”

“I’m tired and I’m thirsty,” Jenny complained. “I want to rest.”

“We’ll rest in a bit,” Joe advised.

“I want to rest NOW,” Jenny cried. “I’m tired.”

Letting out a big sigh, Joe stopped. “All right,” he agreed reluctantly. “We’ll stop for a few minutes.”

“Thank you,” Jenny replied, her voice dripping with irony. “You’re so considerate.”

Joe slid the canteen off his shoulder as Jenny seated herself on a fallen log. He handed the container to the girl. “Go easy,” he said as Jenny took a long drink. “That’s all the water we have until I find a stream. That might have to last a while.”

“Oh, there’s a steam just up ahead…” Jenny started to say then stopped abruptly.

“I thought you were worried about getting lost,” Joe told the girl with a grin. “You know exactly where we are, don’t you?”

Jenny looked away for a minute, then turned back to Joe. He simply stood there, grinning at her.

“Oh, all right,” Jenny admitted ungraciously. “Yes, I know where we are. I told you I grew up around here. I used to cut through these woods with my Pa when we rode to that stage station to sell them ham and bacon. There’s a stream about half a mile ahead. You can fill up your silly old canteen there.”

Joe glanced up at the sky. “It’s going to get dark soon,” he said almost to himself. “Sounds like a good place to make camp for the night.”

“You don’t mean we’re going to sleep out here?” Jenny exclaimed in astonished voice.

“How far is it to the other side of the woods?” Joe asked. “Can we make it before dark?”

“No,” Jenny admitted. “It’s about four more hours at the rate we’re going.”

“Well, I don’t fancy walking around in these woods in the dark,” advised Joe. “We’ll make camp by the stream, then head for that way station in the morning.”

“I’m hungry,” Jenny complained. “And it’s going to get cold. Are you planning to freeze me to death or merely starve me?”

“I think you’ll survive,” Joe answered with a smile. He pulled Jenny to her feet. “Why don’t you show me where that stream is?”

As she stood, Jenny sighed. She thought briefly about leading Joe away from the water and deeper into the woods, but knew she would be the one would get thirsty first. Besides, she didn’t think it would work. Joe seemed to know how to find his way without her. “This way,” she said in a tired voice. Jenny started walking.

As they plodded through the woods, Joe kept pace with Jenny. He was frankly amazed that such a fragile looking woman had lasted this long. He had thought she would have collapsed in a tired heap long before now. Joe began to suspect that there was iron beneath Jenny’s soft exterior.

Jenny walked briskly through the fallen leaves and twigs on the ground, confident of where the pair were heading. Before long, the ground started sloping downward. Joe heard the splash of water before he saw the stream.

A thick wall of bushes guarded the stream, their roots growing toward the water. Joe scanned the bushes until he saw an opening just to his left. He pulled Jenny toward the break in the growth.

As Jenny walked to the edge of the water and sat down, a tired sigh escaped from her. She immediately began drinking from the stream and splashing water in her face. Joe knelt next to her and also drank from the stream. He was still handcuffed to Jenny, and he was trying to make things as comfortable as possible for the girl, under the circumstances.

Bending forward, Joe began to drink again from the stream. As he looked at the water, Joe saw a fuzzy reflection. The blurry image was Jenny bending over him, a rock in her hand.

Joe rolled to his right as the rock came crashing down.

Joe’s sudden move pulled Jenny to the ground. She had picked up the rock with her left hand, and had been leaning precariously as she tried crack Joe on the head. His roll pulled her off balance and Jenny fell on to the dirt, landing on her side. Joe quickly grabbed the rock from her hand and threw it away.

“You little wildcat!” Joe shouted furiously. “You tried to bash my brains out!”

“I wasn’t going to hurt you…much,” Jenny protested as she righted herself. “I just wanted to knock you out long enough to get the key from your pocket.”

“Oh, then, that’s all right,” Joe said, his voice still filled with anger. “You were only going to crack my skull a little bit.”

“Well, if you would be smart and let me go, then you wouldn’t have worry about getting your skull cracked,” Jenny countered, her voice as angry as Joe’s. “Don’t you think you’ve played Sir Galahad long enough? You don’t even know those people in Cold Springs.”

“I’ve had enough of you for awhile,” Joe declared. He stood and jerked Jenny roughly to her feet behind him. Then Joe started back up the trail.

“What are you going to do?” Jenny asked, her voice tinged with fear.

“Put you someplace where you can’t cause any more trouble,” Joe answered angrily. He looked around for a minute, then walked purposely toward a thin tree, pulling Jenny behind him. He stopped in front of the tree, reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the key to the handcuffs. In a quick motion, he uncuffed the bracelet from his wrist and cuffed it around the tree. Then he started to walk away.

“Where are you going?” Jenny cried.

Turning abruptly, Joe faced the girl. “I’m going to try and find us something to eat,” he declared. “And I’m going to get away from you for awhile.”

“You can’t just leave me here!” Jenny wailed. “What if something comes out of the woods? What if a bear comes along?”

“Well, that is a consideration,” Joe admitted, rubbing his chin. “But if a bear comes, I guess he’ll just have to take his chances.”

As Joe walked away, Jenny called him every foul name she could think of. Joe grinned to himself as he hiked into the woods; he could hear Jenny screaming at him as he pushed his way into the brush.

After watching Joe disappear into the woods, Jenny stopped screaming and plopped down on the ground. She yanked hard at the chain, knowing it was a futile effort, but it was the only way she could think of to release her anger and frustration. The chain held fast. Jenny leaned back against the tree, and waited for Joe to return.

About twenty minutes later, Joe emerged from the woods, carrying a fat rabbit he had shot. He was surprised to see Jenny was asleep, her head resting on her arm as she lay at the base of the tree. He stopped and watched her sleep for a minute. Jenny was such a pretty girl, and asleep, she looked so sweet and innocent, Joe thought. Then he shook his head. He’d better remember she was Billy Mason’s girl and had already tried to escape several times. Keep you mind on your business, Joe told himself.

“Hey, wake up,” Joe shouted as he neared Jenny. “I got us a rabbit for dinner.”

Yawning, Jenny stretched as she awoke. “Rabbit, eh?” she said sleepily. “Is that the best you could do?”

“Well, I couldn’t seem to find a steer to shoot,” Joe answered with a grin. “You’ll have to wait until you get to Cold Springs before you eat steak.”

“Do you want me to skin that for you?” Jenny asked. “I know how to do it.”

“Yeah, that would be real smart, giving you a knife,” Joe replied as he set the rabbit on the ground. “You’d probably stick it in my ribs.”

“Joe, I’m sorry about what happened at the stream,” Jenny said contritely. “I really am. It’s just the thought of going to that jail in Cold Springs…” Jenny shuddered.

“You should have thought of that before you took up with Billy Mason,” Joe advised. He pulled a pocket knife from his jacket pocket and opened it. Joe started to skin the rabbit.

“Billy wasn’t all bad,” Jenny commented as she watched Joe work. “He was funny and he could be sweet.”

“He also killed people and robbed banks,” Joe pointed out.

“I never saw him do it,” Jenny protested. “When he was with me, he was real nice. Well, most of the time, he was nice.”

“And that makes it all right,” Joe said with a shake of his head. He finished with the rabbit, and stood up. “I’m going to get some wood for a fire. I’ll be right back.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Jenny advised with a smile.

*****

Joe and Jenny dined on the rabbit. It was dry and flat tasting, but to the two weary travelers, it tasted the like best meal they had ever eaten. Jenny ate still chained to the tree. Joe was taking no chances.

After eating, Joe built the fire up so it would burn through the night. He threw the blanket at Jenny. “You’d better wrap this around you,” he suggested. “It can get cold in these woods.”

“Aren’t you going to unchain me from this tree?” Jenny asked.

“You seem fine just where you are,” Joe answered. He grinned as Jenny huffed at him, but she took the blanket and wrapped it around herself. Joe unbuckled his gunbelt and laid it on the ground, making sure it was far enough from Jenny so she couldn’t reach it. Then he stretched out next to the fire. In a few minutes, Joe was asleep.

A hand slowly caressing his chest woke Joe. Joe opened his eyes to see Jenny leaning over him.

“Shhh,” she murmured softly as her lips brushed his. She kissed him on the cheek, then began to nuzzle his neck. Her hand continued to stroke his chest, unbuttoning his shirt. Her head moved down and she kissed Joe on the chest just above his open shirt. Her hand moved down the side of his body, and began to circle his waist. She stroked Joe’s thigh as she continued to lick and kiss his chest. Then she moved her head back up so she could kiss Joe on the lips, and her hand moved to caress the other side of his chest.

“Jenny?” Joe said softly as she kissed his shoulder and caressed his chest.

“Shhh,” Jenny crooned as she nuzzled his neck again.

“The key’s not there,” Joe whispered as he kissed her on the cheek.

“What!” Jenny sat up abruptly.

“But don’t stop,” Joe advised with a grin. “You might just find it. It’ll be fun for me while you look.”

“Why you…” Jenny yelled angrily. She slapped Joe’s face.

Joe sat up. He could see Jenny had stretched the chain to the limit, and then stretched her arm as far as possible. “You look kind of uncomfortable like that,” Joe suggested with a smile. “Maybe you’d like me to move closer…”

“You rat,” Jenny said in an angry voice. “You knew exactly what I was doing.”

“Yes, but I did enjoy it,” Joe admitted with a grin.

Turning her back on Joe, Jenny crawled back to the tree. “You keep away from me, you, you…” She was so angry she couldn’t even think of a name to call him.

“Oh, well,” Joe sighed with a smile as he settled back to the ground. “I guess our love affair is over.” He laughed and stretched out again next to the fire.

*****

The sunlight filtering through the trees woke Joe. He sat up and stretched his arms, then looked around. Jenny was curled up in a blanket next to the tree. Joe smiled as he thought about her little visit during the night.

The fire had died out, and the air had a chill to it. Joe debated about hunting for some breakfast and decided that it would take too much time. He buckled on his gunbelt and rolled his shoulders a bit. Then he turned to Jenny. “Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” he called. “Time to get up.”

Slowly, Jenny sat up and yawned. Her hair was mussed, and her eyes were puffy from sleep. And she was still one of the prettiest women Joe had ever seen.

“What time is it?” Jenny asked in a sleepy voice.

“Time to get moving,” Joe answered. “We should be at the way station by noon.”

“I’m hungry,” Jenny complained.

“We’ll eat at the way station,” Joe advised. “I’m going down to the steam and fill the canteen.” He turned and walked away, giving Jenny some privacy. Joe returned a few minutes later, carrying the full canteen.

Jenny had managed to comb her hair with her fingers and straighten her clothes. She sat by the tree, watching. Joe approached her warily.

“I don’t want any more tricks,” Joe warned. Jenny watched as Joe reached into his boot and pulled out the key to the handcuffs. He unsnapped the bracelet from around the tree and quickly snapped it on his wrist. Then he slid the key back into his boot.

“We ought to be able to get to the way station in a few hours…” Joe began. Suddenly, his attention was drawn to the sound of something crashing through the woods. Joe drew his gun as two men leading horses emerged from in between the trees. Both wore scruffy beards and dirty clothes. They had gunbelts around their waist and carried rifles in their hands.

“Well, look what we found!” one of the men exclaimed.

“Looks like a love nest,” another said with a grin. “You got to chain women to you to keep ‘em, boy?”

Joe watched the men carefully. “Who are you?” he asked warily.

“Nobody special,” the first man answered. “We’re just cutting through the woods.” He looked meaningfully at Jenny.

Jenny stared at the men, then turned to Joe. “That’s Johnny, Billy’s brother,” Jenny declared in a breathless voice. “The other one, he’s called Charlie.”

“Now, Jenny, why’d you go and spill the beans?” asked Johnny. “We was going to rescue you.”

“Stay where you are,” Joe said in a flat voice, pointing his gun at the men. “Anybody makes a move and I’ll shoot.”

“We ain’t going to do anything foolish,” agreed Charlie. But he kept his hand firmly around his rifle.

“Jenny, it’s been a heap of trouble finding you,” Johnny added. “We found the wrecked stage and a couple of loose horses. When we couldn’t find you on the road, we had to backtrack. It took a long time to find you in these woods.”

“Thank you for your concern,” Jenny said ironically.

“We couldn’t let Billy’s girl go to jail,” Johnny answered.

“You mean, you couldn’t let me go to jail until you found out where the money is,” Jenny stated.

“That, too,” Johnny admitted. “We was going to rescue you and then when you told us where the money was, we was going to let you go free.”

“How nice,” observed Jenny. “I don’t suppose you planned to split the money with me.”

“It don’t hardly seem fair to give you any,” Charlie argued. “I mean, we done all the work.”

“Nobody is going to get any money,” Joe stated. “You two get out of here. Move!”

“Now that ain’t very polite of you, boy,” Johnny said. “Especially since Sam over there has his rifle pointed at you.”

Joe turned as he heard the sound of a bullet being levered into a rifle. A third man, scruffy and dirty like the others, came out of the woods to Joe’s right. His rifle was pointed at Joe’s chest.

“Just drop the gun,” Johnny ordered. “And uncuff the girl. We don’t want anybody to get hurt, do we?”

Joe stood with his gun pointed at Johnny. “If he pulls that trigger, I’ll pull mine,” Joe threatened. “You’re the ones who are going to drop their guns.”

“Three against one, son?” Charlie shook his head. “You ain’t got a chance. One of us is bound to get you. Then we’ll just take the key off your dead body. Don’t be a fool. Drop the gun.”

Joe turned his pistol so it pointed at Charlie. “Maybe you’d like to be the one I shoot,” Joe suggested in a grim voice. Charlie glanced nervously at Johnny.

“Nobody’s going to get shot!” Johnny yelled. “You’re being plum silly, boy. Just drop that gun!”

Jenny stood nervously next to Joe. If bullets started flying, there was no telling who might get shot. “Listen to him, Joe,” she urged. “It’s not worth dying over.”

“You think these three are going to let you go after they get the money?” Joe said, his eyes never leaving the men in front of him. “They’ll kill you as soon as you tell them what they want to know.” Jenny’s eye widened.

“We was going to let her go,” protested Charlie. “Maybe not right away, but eventually.” He leered at Jenny and licked his lips. Jenny shuddered and moved closer to Joe.

“You have exactly five seconds to get out of here, “Joe stated firmly. “ Then I start shooting. You shoot at me, and you’re liable to hit the girl. Then you’d never find that money.”

Johnny and Charlie looked at each other. “He’s got a point,” admitted Charlie.

“Yeah,” growled Johnny. He looked around uncertainly, then back to Joe. Joe stood frozen, his gun pointed at Johnny; Jenny stood close to Joe. Johnny couldn’t figure how to shoot the fellow without maybe hitting the girl. He looked back at Charlie, who shrugged his shoulders. Johnny turned back to Joe. “You win,” he admitted in a low voice. “At least for now.” He motioned to Sam. “C’mon, Sam. Let’s get out of here.”

Joe watched carefully as the three men slowly backed away from him. In a minute, they disappeared into the woods.

Abruptly, Joe grabbed Jenny’s arm. “Come on, let’s go,” he shouted. Joe turned and raced toward the stream, pulling Jenny behind him. As the girl ran beside him, Joe plunged into the bushes. The two splashed their way across the stream and quickly climbed up the bank on the other side. As soon as they were on level ground, Joe started running again with Jenny struggled to keep up with him.

Joe and Jenny ran for ten minutes or so until they were deep into the woods again. Finally, they stopped. Both were breathing hard and sweating.

“Do you think they’re following us?” Jenny gasped as she leaned against a tree.

“Yeah, they’re following us,” Joe answered as he tried to catch his breath. “I can’t believe they bought that story about hitting you. They had us cold.”

“I told you they weren’t too smart,” Jenny said. She looked up at Joe. “Thank you. You saved my life.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” Joe advised as he started to walk. “They’re still after us.”

Jenny looked around fearfully. “Where do you think they are?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Joe admitted as he pulled Jenny behind him. “Just keep moving.”

The pair walked rapidly through the woods, not bothering to try to hide their tracks or quiet their movements. Speed was more important than stealth. Joe tried to look for the men as they walked, but the thick brush made it impossible to spot anyone moving near them. He only hoped the same held true for them.

The two had gone about a hundred yards when a bullet crashed into a tree above their heads.

Jenny screamed as another bullet hit the ground near her feet. A third shot rang out and Joe fell to the ground. Jenny screamed again.

“Joe!” Jenny yelled hysterically as she looked at the body face down in the dirt. She grabbed his arm and tried to pull him to his feet. “Get up!” she shouted. But Joe’s body was a dead weight.

“Over here!” a voice called from the trees. “I got him!”

Jenny screamed again as someone pushed his way through the brush. Charlie approached cautiously, his rifle ready. But Joe laid unmoving on the ground. Charlie grinned at Jenny and lowered his rifle.

Suddenly, Joe sprang to his knees, pulling his gun from his holster as he got up. He fired the pistol as soon as it cleared the holster, hitting Charlie in the middle of the chest. Charlie took a step back, then crumpled to the ground.

“Come on, let’s move,” Joe gasped as scrambled to his feet. Jenny needed no further urging. She began to run into the woods, with Joe trailing behind her.

Sheer terror kept Jenny running. For the first time, she took the lead. Jenny ran blindly through the woods, pulling Joe after her. She was surprised he seemed to have a hard time keeping up with her. “Come on, hurry,” she shouted over her shoulder at Joe.

Jenny ran toward the deepest brush she could see. She felt Joe’s weight dragging on her arm. She pulled at him as she pushed through the brush. She was running toward a small stream when suddenly she felt Joe fall to the ground behind her. His fall yanked her to the dirt.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jenny yelled as she scrambled to her knees. She turned back to look at Joe who was face down on the ground. She gasped as she saw a patch of red spreading across his lower back.

“Joe! You’re hit!” Jenny cried.

Joe lifted his head. “One shot high, one shot low, and one on target,” he said as he grimaced in pain. “Charlie must have been in the army.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?” Jenny asked.

“There wasn’t really a chance,” Joe answered with a weak gin. He grimaced again. “Help me up,” he ordered in a tired voice.

Reaching down, Jenny helped Joe to his feet. She put her arm around him and helped him to walk. Joe staggered forward a few steps. Then his knees buckled, and he fell to the ground.

“I don’t think I can go any further,” Joe gasped. He coughed and grimaced. Joe lifted his head. “Get me over by that stream,” he said.

Jenny nodded and put her arms around Joe once more. She pulled him to his feet, but just barely. The two staggered forward for a few feet. As soon as they reached the stream, Joe fell to the ground again.

Inching his way forward, Joe stuck his hand into the stream. He cupped the water into his mouth and splashed his face. Jenny knelt next to him. “How bad are you hurt?” she asked with concern.

Joe looked up at her. “I haven’t exactly had a chance to look,” he admitted. He grimaced once more. “But I think it’s worse than a flesh wound.”

Reaching down, Jenny pulled Joe’s jacket and shirt up. She paled as she saw the blood oozing out of a wound in Joe’s back. There was another, larger wound in his side, and it was bleeding freely.

“Looks like the bullet went clean through,” Jenny told Joe. “If we can stop the bleeding, you’ll be all right.” Jenny reached up and grabbed the sleeve of her shirt at her shoulder. With a rip, she pulled the cloth off her arm. She folded the cloth and placed it against Joe’s side and back, covering both wounds, then pressed down hard. Joe groaned in pain, but Jenny ignored him. She continued to press against the wounds for several minutes, then lifted the now bloody cloth. The wound in Joe’s back had stopped bleeding, and the blood coming from his side had slowed considerably. Jenny reached up to her other shoulder and ripped her shirt again, pulling the second sleeve off. She took the bloody cloth and pressed it hard against Joe’s body. As Joe moaned again, Jenny wrapped the second strip of cloth around Joe’s waist, and tied it tight, holding the folded cloth in place.

“That’s the best I can do,” Jenny admitted.

Joe nodded. “Thanks.”

“Do you think you can walk?” Jenny asked with concern.

Joe tried to push himself up off the ground but only raised his shoulders a few inches before he fell back to the dirt. “I don’t think…” Joe started. He stopped as he grunted in pain.

Breathing hard, Joe laid on the ground for a minute, trying to gather his strength. Then he lifted his head and looked at Jenny. “The key,” he said. “It’s in my boot.”

Jenny nodded and reached into Joe’s boot. She found the key at once and pulled it out. Quickly she unlocked the handcuffs on both her wrist and Joe’s.

“You make a run for it,” Joe advised. “Head for the way station.”

“What about you?” Jenny asked.

“Can’t go…” Joe coughed. “I’ll stay. Hide. Cover you.”

Jenny bit her lip, wondering what to do. She hated to leave Joe. But at the same time, she knew what would happen if Johnny or Sam found her.

“I’ll drag you into the bushes,” Jenny declared as she grabbed Joe under the shoulders. Joe moaned as he felt the pain radiating through him. Jenny started to drag him across the dirt. Joe used his legs to push as best he could.

Jenny pulled Joe behind some bushes near the stream, then laid him as gently as possible on the ground. She could see the pain on his face, and saw the sweat beading on his forehead.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Jenny said regretfully. “But I’ve got no choice. I have to leave you.”

“I know,” Joe replied. He looked into her eyes. “Good luck.”

Looking down at Joe, Jenny hesitated for a moment, then turned and ran. Joe watched her until she was out of his sight, then closed his eyes. He laid there, breathing hard and grimacing in pain. He tried to listen for the sounds of someone coming. The pain in his back and side were intense, and Joe found it hard to concentrate.

Joe wasn’t sure how long he laid in the bushes before he heard the sounds. The pain in his back and side were now a dull ache, and his breathing was more regular. Joe pulled the gun from his holster. The pistol felt as if it weighed a ton. He tried to lift it, but his hand fell weakly to the ground. Joe managed to raise the gun a bit as the bushes in front of him parted.

“Don’t shoot!” Jenny cried.

Joe stared at Jenny. “What are you doing here?” he gasped.

“I don’t know,” Jenny admitted. “But I just couldn’t leave you here to bleed to death.”

“Get out of here!” Joe ordered. “Those two could show up any minute.”

“Not without you,” Jenny said firmly. “I found a cabin about a mile from here. We can hold up there. It’s on a hill, so we can see those two idiots coming.”

“I don’t think I can make it,” Joe admitted in a weak voice.

“Don’t give me that,” Jenny replied angrily. “You men are all the same. You get a little tiny gunshot and you fall to pieces. And you call us women the weaker sex. Now, you get on your feet and start walking, or I’m going to drag you to that cabin.”

Smiling weakly, Joe put the gun back in his holster. He took a deep breath and started to pull himself up. Jenny grabbed his arm and helped him to stand. Joe’s knees started to buckle, but Jenny put herself under his shoulder and held him up. Joe hung on to her, and managed to stand. He looked down at Jenny. “You’re crazy,” he murmured.

“Well, if I am, I caught it from you,” Jenny grumbled. “Start walking.”

As Joe staggered and Jenny pushed, the pair somehow managed to move forward. The ground was rough and uneven, and that made walking even harder. Joe lost all track of time. His back and side burned, and he felt as if he couldn’t breathe in enough air. But he grimly kept putting one foot in front of the other.

Joe figured they had covered maybe half a mile when his legs felt as if they could no longer support him. He leaned even more on Jenny, and felt her sag a bit. “Go to rest,” Joe gasped as he felt his legs buckling beneath him.

Stopping, Jenny looked around. “Over here,” she said. “There’s some bushes. We can hide in there.”

Joe wasn’t sure how he managed to walk those few steps to the bushes. But somehow he did.

Jenny pushed the brush aside. A small bit of clear ground lay between the bush and some rocks. Joe sank to the ground in a heap.

Breathing hard and grimacing in pain, Joe laid on the dirt. His face was covered with sweat. He was so tired, and all he wanted to do was sleep.

“Stay awake, Joe!” Jenny ordered as she saw Joe’s eyes beginning to close. “I can barely manage you now. You fall asleep and I swear I’ll leave you here.” Joe nodded and tried to keep his eyes open.

Joe’s eyes sprang open when he heard the sound of a horse. He looked quickly over his shoulder but the bush which concealed them also hid the rider from view. Joe looked at Jenny. She was staring at the brush, her face full of terror.

“Sam! Sam!” a voice called. “You around here, Sam?”

“I’m here,” another voice answered. It seemed further away. Jenny and Joe lay frozen as they heard the sound of a second horse approach.

“You find anything?” asked the first voice. Joe thought it belong to Johnny.

“Naw,” replied Sam with disgust. “I saw a cabin up ahead, but it’s empty. Ain’t no sign of them anywhere.”

“They got to be around here someplace,” Johnny insisted. “They killed Charlie. They can’t be too far away.”

There was a moment of silence. Then Sam asked hopefully, “Did you see any tracks or anything?”

“You know I don’t know nothing about tracking,” Johnny admitted. “Charlie was the only one who knew how to track. Without him, you and I will lucky to find our own way out of these woods.

“Look, Johnny, why don’t we just forget it?” Sam suggested. “Let’s just get out of here. Maybe head to Mexico or California.”

“Because I want that money,” Johnny declared. “It’s going to have to last us awhile. Without Billy to do the planning, I don’t think we’re going to be robbing many banks.”

“What if the girl won’t tell us?” Sam asked.

“I’ll get it out of her,” Johnny answered in a grim voice. “By the time I’m done with her, she’ll be more than ready to talk.”

Joe glanced at Jenny. Her face seemed even more terror-stricken than before. He reached out and patted her hand. At first, Jenny recoiled from his touch. Then she turned and gave him a weak smile.

“What do you want to do now?” Sam asked.

There was a long silence as Johnny seemed to be thinking. “Why don’t you ride toward that stage stop?” Johnny said finally. “They might be heading there for help. I’ll double back to where we found Charlie and then work my way toward you. We’ll meet at the stage stop in a couple of hours.”

“All right, I guess that’ll work,” Sam agreed, his voice full of doubt. “What’ll I do if I find them?”

“Kill the kid and grab the girl,” Johnny stated. He laughed. “Just be sure you don’t get it mixed up.”

“Oh, you’re funny, real funny,” Sam said dryly.

Jenny and Joe laid unmoving as they heard the sound of the horses walking away. After a few minutes, Jenny turned to Joe. “Do you think they’ve gone?” she whispered.

Joe listened for a minute before answering. “Yeah,” he said. “I think they’ve gone. Not too bright, are they?”

Jenny laughed. “I told you Billy kept them around for their guns, not their brains,” she stated. Her face sobered. “Do you think you can walk? The cabin’s not too far from there. We should be safe there. Doesn’t sound like they’ll be heading back to it.”

Grunting in pain, Joe pushed himself up with his arms. “How far is it to the cabin?” he asked.

“I don’t know exactly,” Jenny admitted. “Maybe ten or fifteen minutes from here.”

“I think I can make it that far,” Joe declared, a grim look on his face.

Jenny helped him stand, then threw his arm over her shoulders again. She slowly pushed the bushes aside and looked around. The woods seemed empty. Jenny shouldered her way through the branches, pulling Joe with her. She took another quick look around, then turned Joe to his left. Jenny started walking, pulling and tugging Joe as she moved.

The pair staggered through the woods. Joe’s back was starting to ache again and each step seemed to jar it more. He began to wonder if he could make it to the cabin. Ten or fifteen minutes, Jenny had said. He hoped she was right.

Joe felt as if he had walked a hundred miles when he finally saw the cabin.

Jenny was breathing hard also, both from the walk and from Joe’s weight on her shoulders. But she smiled when she saw the cabin ahead. “Just a little further,” she gasped as she urged Joe forward. Joe nodded dully, and tried to keep walking.

They made it as far as the doorway before Joe’s strength gave out. As Jenny pushed open the door, Joe’s knees buckled again. He tried to stand, but his legs felt like jelly. He saw the cabin but it seemed to be spinning. He heard a voice talking to him as he fell to the ground but it seemed a long way away. Then he sank into a pool of darkness.

*****

Joe woke to find himself in a bed, lying on his side, with covers pulled over his shoulders. He tried to figure out where he was, then remembered the cabin. Joe moved his head slightly, trying to look around. But it was so dark he could barely see. He wasn’t sure whether it was night, or if the cabin was just a naturally dark place. Joe decided he couldn’t tell much from lying on his side, staring at a wall a foot or so away. He turned, and then groaned when the movement sent a stab of pain through him.

“Well, you’re finally awake,” a voice said.

Joe lifted his head slightly and saw some movement in the dimly lit cabin. Jenny emerged from the shadows and sat on the edge of the bed. “Are you feeling better?” she asked with concern.

Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His side and back still ached, but the pain seemed to be less than before. “Some,” he answered truthfully. “How long have I been asleep?”

“I don’t know exactly,” Jenny admitted. “A long time.”

Nodding, Joe looked around. In the semi-darkness, he could tell he cabin was small, just big enough for a bed, a table and a couple of chairs. Joe could see a fireplace against the far wall, but the hearth looked empty.

Jenny saw where Joe was looking. “I was afraid to light a fire,” she explained as she followed his gaze. “Even though they’re dumb, Johnny and Sam are smart enough to smell smoke.” Joe nodded in agreement.

“We have none of the comforts of home,” Jenny continued with a smile. “No food, no fire, and just a couple of old blankets on the bed. I hope you like it.” Jenny stood and walked away from the bed. She returned in a minute with a battered tin cup. “I did go back to the steam and fill up a pot with water,” she added. “It’s probably warm by now, but at least it’s wet.”

Taking the cup, Joe drank gratefully. Jenny was right. The water was tepid, but Joe didn’t care. He was thirsty, and the water tasted better to him than champagne. He drank every drop.

“Thanks,” Joe murmured as he handed the cup back to Jenny. He studied her for a minute. “Thanks for getting me here and staying,” Joe added.

Jenny dismissed Joe’s thanks with a wave. “It was nothing,” she said. “All I had to do was drag you through the woods while two killers were searching for me.” Then her face turned serious. “I thought I could leave you behind, but I couldn’t. Guess that makes me as big a fool as you.”

“No,” Joe replied with a smile. “It makes you human.” Jenny smiled back at him as she sat down on the bed.

“Can I ask you a question?” Joe said. Jenny nodded warily. “How did you end up with the likes of Billy Mason?”

Jenny looked away for a minute then turned back to Joe. “I told you I grew up around here. My folks have a farm a couple of miles from here. It’s not much. Just a couple of acres of dirt. But my Pa loves that place. And my Ma loves my Pa. She didn’t care where they were as long as they were together. Me, I hated it.”

Looking at Joe with an earnest expression, Jenny continued, “You have to understand what it was like. Nothing to do except feed the chickens and slop the hogs. No one to talk to except my Ma and Pa, and they didn’t seem to be interested in anything I had to say. And when we did go to town, we went to Dawson. You’ve seen what an exciting place that is.”

Joe smiled ironically as he remembered the week he spent in Dawson. It had seemed like a year.

“So, one day, I ran off,” Jenny explained. “I walked all day but I made it to the way station. I had a little money, not much, and bought a ticket as far away from here as I could go. It wasn’t very far. I ended up in Black River. But, at the time, I thought it was the most exciting place I had ever seen.”

“What did you do when you got there?” Joe asked.

“Well, I didn’t have any money,” Jenny answered. “So I got myself a job in the saloon. I thought it would be fun, exciting, and full of adventure.” Jenny laughed bitterly. “Boy, was I wrong. Instead of excitement, I got to let old men buy me drinks while they cried on my shoulder. Instead of fun, I had to dance with drunken cowboys who stepped on my feet.”

“And Billy?” Joe prompted.

“One day, Bill Mason walked into the saloon and bought me a drink,” Jenny said. “He seemed to be everything I wanted in a man. He was charming, he had money, and he made me feel special. I thought I was in love with him.”

“Thought?” Joe asked. “You mean you weren’t?”

“The bloom went off the rose pretty fast, as they say,” Jenny admitted. “He was charming all right. But he could also be mean. He’d get mad if I didn’t do what he said. He never hit me or anything, but he scared me. By the time I figured out what Billy was, it was too late. I was stuck. I didn’t have enough money to go someplace else and besides, I was afraid Billy would follow me. So I just stayed where I was. Billy came around whenever he had money or was bored. At least when I was with Billy, I could pretend I had some kind of a life.”

“What about your folks?” Joe asked. “Didn’t they come looking for you?”

“My Pa did,” Jenny admitted. “I saw him one day in the Black River. I hid out until he left.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t find you,” Joe said. “Black River’s not that big.”

“Jenny Coulter isn’t my real name,” Jenny explained. “I changed it when I got to Black River because I thought it sounded better.”

“What’s your real name?” Joe asked curiously.

Jenny looked away for a minute and then looked back to Joe. “Emma,” she said reluctantly. “Emma Hornsby. And if you laugh, I swear I’ll box your ears!”

Joe’s lips twitched but he managed to keep his face straight.

“That’s why the money is so important to me,” Jenny went on. “I want to go back to being Emma. I want to use the money to lead a normal life. Heck, I might just buy a farm and raise chickens!”

“Why don’t you just go home?” Joe asked.

“I wish I could,” Jenny said wistfully. “But I can’t. My Pa and Ma, they’d never understand. I can’t tell them what I’ve done, who I’ve become.”

“I think you’re selling them short,” advised Joe. “I’ll bet they’d be happy if you came home.”

“Maybe,” Jenny said. “But I’m too scared to find out.”

“So you keep the money and all those farmers and ranchers go broke,” Joe stated with a shake of his head. “Jenny, that’s not right.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Jenny countered angrily. “You’re not the one stuck in a saloon, working ten hours a day, and barely making enough to keep a roof over your head.”

“No, I’m not,” Joe admitted. “But at least you have some choices.”

“Choices?” Jenny said in a confused voice.

“Sure,” answered Joe. “You can choose to do what you want with your life. You can choose to give back the money, or you can choose to go to jail. You can even choose to go home if you want. But those people in Cold Springs, they have no choice. If the money’s not returned, they’ll lose their homes. Whether they like it or not.”

Frowning, Jenny didn’t reply. She saw Joe’s eyes were growing heavy, and he winced as he shifted on the bed. “Why don’t you get some rest,” Jenny suggested. She stood and walked away from the bed.

Suddenly, the door burst open. Joe saw a lone figure standing in the doorway, gun drawn. He heard Jenny scream, and instinctively, Joe reached to his hip to draw his own gun. But his gunbelt was gone. Jenny must have taken it off when she put him in the bed.

“Now, ain’t this sweet,” Johnny said in a low voice. “You two been having some fun?”

“Hello, Johnny,” Jenny acknowledged the intruder in a quivering voice. “I was wondering when you’d find us.”

“Oh sure,” Johnny declared. “You’ve been just waiting for me.”

“I have,” Jenny said. “Why do you think we’re holed up in the cabin? I left a trail even you could follow.” She looked past the man. “Where’s Sam?”

“He got tired of looking and lit out,” Johnny answered. “I came back here to get me a little rest before deciding what to do. I guess I hit the jackpot instead.” He looked at Jenny suspiciously. “So you’ve been waiting on me, eh? That why you ran? That why you killed Charlie?”

“That was his doing,” Jenny responded, jerking her head over her shoulder toward Joe. “I never wanted any part of it.”

Johnny stood by the door, looking uncertain.

“Why don’t we just get on your horse and get out of here?” Jenny continued. “I’ll show you where the money is and the two of us, we can have a good time.”

Johnny lowered his gun a bit. “Just like that, eh?” he said.

“Just like that,” Jenny replied evenly.

“Let me finish him off,” snarled Johnny. “Then we can go.”

Jenny took a step so she was standing between Joe and the gunman. “NO!” she cried. “You hurt him and I’ll never show you where the money is.”

“What’s he to you?” Johnny growled. “He’s just a lawman. If we don’t finish him now, he’ll follow us.”

“He can’t follow us. He’s hurt,” Jenny pointed out. “Charlie shot him. Like as not, he’ll die anyway. I just don’t want to be part of any murder.”

Johnny stood still. His uncertainty was even more evident.

“Forget him,” Jenny said quickly. “You and me, we’ll just ride out of here. He’ll never find us.”

Johnny said nothing for a minute. “All right,” he agreed reluctantly. “Let’s go.”

“Jenny, no!” Joe cried as he struggled to sit up in bed.

“So long, Cartwright,” Jenny said easily over her shoulder. She started to walk slowly toward Johnny.

“Jenny, don’t do this!” Joe shouted.

But Jenny ignored him and continued toward Johnny. As soon as she was next to the outlaw, she turned back to Joe. He was still trying to get out of bed, but was finding it difficult. He doubled over in pain as he swung his legs to the floor. “He won’t be any trouble,” Jenny said with a laugh. Johnny nodded in agreement.

Suddenly, Jenny grabbed Johnny’s gun hand and jerked it against the wall. Surprised, Johnny dropped the gun. But he grabbed Jenny and swung as if to hit her. Jenny ducked and drove her fist into Johnny’s middle as hard as she could. Johnny let out a whoosh of air and grunted. He pushed Jenny to the floor and bent over.

Ignoring the pain in his back, Joe jumped to his feet and rushed Johnny. He drove a fist into Johnny’s middle with all the strength he had. But his punch was even weaker than Jenny’s. All Joe managed to do was anger Johnny even further. Johnny grabbed Joe and threw a punch that landed on Joe’s jaw. Joe’s head snapped back and his body sagged. Johnny threw him to the ground and Joe landed on his back with a thud. He groaned in pain as his injured back hit the floor. He laid on the floor, too weak to move.

Grinning, Johnny took a step toward him. He lifted his foot as if to kick the helpless man on the floor. But before Johnny could follow through, a shot rang out. Johnny froze, a startled expression on his face. He arched his back slightly and fell to the floor.

Lifting his head, Joe could see Jenny kneeling a few feet a way. She had Johnny’s gun gripped in both hands, and the gun was smoking. Jenny looked stunned.

Joe crawled across the floor until he reached Jenny. She still knelt on the floor, holding the gun, a look of horror on her face. Joe reached up and gently took the revolver from her hands. Joe’s movement seemed to bring Jenny out of her daze.

“Are you all right?” she asked quickly.

“Yeah, I’m all right,” Joe answered. “How about you?”

“I’m all right,” Jenny echoed Joe’s words. Then, she turned and buried her face into Joe’s shoulders. Jenny began crying hysterically. Joe stroked her head and let her cry.

After a few minutes, Jenny raised her head. Her eyes were red and her face was tear-stained. She sniffed twice and quickly ran her hand across her nose. “I bet I’m a sight,” Jenny said in a shaky voice.

“I think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” Joe replied with a smile. He pushed himself up to a sitting position and kissed Jenny lightly on the cheek.

Jenny gave him a wry grin. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“Only the ones who save my life,” Joe said with a grin. Jenny smiled back at him.

“You know, I bet if we rode Johnny’s horse, we could get to Cold Springs in a couple of hours,” Jenny suggested. “We might get there in time to keep that bank open. Think you can ride?”

Joe smiled weakly and nodded his head. “I think I can get there….if you help me,” he answered.

“I’ll get you there,” she said confidently.

*****

Sitting in the warm sun in a chair outside the doctor’s office in Cold Springs, Joe waited patiently for his Pa and his brother Hoss to appear and take him home. His eyes searched the street, looking for any sign of Jenny. But all he saw was two cowboys heading toward the saloon, a well-dressed man walking down the street, and two women holding baskets talking in front of the general store.

Sighing, Joe wondered for the hundredth time where Jenny was. The ride to Cold Springs was a blur in his memory. All he could remember was how painful it was to ride. But he also remembered holding on tight to Jenny as they rode. Joe smiled as he thought about how good it felt to have his arms around her. Admittedly, he didn’t remember much of the feeling, but what he did remember was good.

Joe vaguely remembered arriving in Cold Springs and several hands pulling him off the horse. After that, his memory was a blank. He remembered nothing until he woke up in a bed in the doctor’s office, with his Pa and brother standing over him.

He had asked about Jenny but no one seemed to know where she was. The doctor informed him she had told the judge where to find the money from the bank robbery. She waited at the doctor’s office until the doctor assured her that Joe was going to be all right. Then she disappeared.

“Well, Joseph, are you ready to head for home?” a voice said to Joe’s right. Joe looked up to see his father, Ben Cartwright, standing over him.

Joe took another quick look around the street and then sighed. “I guess so,” he said reluctantly.

“Hoss should be here with the wagon any minute,” Ben advised.

“I still think the wagon isn’t necessary,” Joe grumbled. “I made it to Cold Springs on a horse. I can make it home on a horse.”

“You barely made in to Cold Springs on a horse,” Ben corrected him. “The doctor said you were bleeding pretty badly when you got here. That’s why he had the judge sent us the telegram. He wasn’t sure you weren’t going to bleed to death right there in his office. We’re not taking any chances of you opening those wounds again. You’re going home in the back of a wagon.”

“Yes sir,” Joe answered with a sigh.

A wagon came slowly down the street; Joe saw his brother Hoss was driving it. Joe took one last look around Cold Springs, his eyes searching desperately for Jenny.

Pulling the wagon to a stop in front of the doctor’s office, Hoss climbed down off the driver’s seat. “Well, little brother, we got the wagon all fixed up for you,” Hoss declared with a smile. “A nice soft mattress, a pillow and some blankets. Be like riding home in a feather bed.”

“Not the way you drive,” Joe answered with a snort. “Do me a favor and try avoid at least some of the ruts in the road.”

“Pretty cranky, ain’t he,” Hoss said to Ben. “Just ‘cause he’s some kind of hero, saving the bank and all, he thinks he can order us around.”

“Hero?” Joe stated with a wry smile. “I don’t think I’m a hero.”

“Well, the people in Cold Springs think you are,” explained Ben. “And so does Marshall Benton. The doctor in Dawson wired us that he’s going to fine. Said you did a real good job setting his leg.”

“That was mostly dumb luck,” Joe admitted. “I wasn’t sure I did it right.” He shook his head. “No, Jenny’s the real hero. She saved my life, Pa. And she’s the one who saved the bank from going under.” Joe looked around. “I wish I knew where she was,” he added in a wistful voice.

“Once she turned over the money, there were no charges against her,” Ben said. “The judge told her she was free to go.” Ben saw the sad look on Joe’s face. “Son, she’s old enough to make her own decisions.”

“I know, Pa,” Joe answered. “I just wish…” Joe’s voice trailed off as he looked back down the street. He wasn’t sure what he wished.

“Mr. Cartwright? Mr. Cartwright?” a voice interrupted Joe’s thoughts. He looked up to see a man wearing a white shirt, string tie and vest walking toward him. The man had a paper in his hand and was waving it in Joe’s direction.

“You Joe Cartwright?” the man asked as he approached Joe.

“Yes, I’m Joe Cartwright,” Joe answered.

“Got a telegram for you,” the man explained. “Just came in. The telegrapher in Dawson added that I was to deliver this to you right away.”

“Thanks,” Joe said as he took the paper from the man. He opened the folded message, then smiled as he began read it. His grin widened as he finished.

“Who’s it from?” Hoss asked curiously.

“Jenny,” Joe answered. He read from the paper. “ ‘Arrived home safe. Found it wasn’t scary. Folks happy to see me. Even chickens happy. Come see me sometime. Emma’.”

“Emma? I thought you said it was from Jenny?” Hoss said with a puzzled expression on his face.

“There is no Jenny,” Joe replied mysteriously. “At least not any more. There’s only Emma. And Emma is pretty special.”

Hoss looked at Ben, his face showing his confusion. Ben just shrugged.

Smiling, Joe read the paper again, then looked up at Ben. “Hey, Pa, I’m not going to be able to do much work for awhile. Is it all right with you if I take few days off when I’m fit?”

“I suppose so,” answered Ben slowly. “But why?”

“Oh, there’s a little farm near Dawson I want to visit,” Joe explained with a smile. “I want to see how they raise their chickens.”

Ben shook his head, then stopped as understanding dawned on him. He smiled at Joe. “I think that would be an excellent idea, Joseph,” Ben agreed. “You can’t know enough about raising chickens.”

Hoss looked at Joe and Ben, now thoroughly confused. “Pa…” he started. But Ben held up his hand.

“I’ll explain it to you later,” Ben promised. “Right now, I think we ought to get started for home. We have a long way to go.”

“Yeah,” Joe agreed. “Sometimes home is a long way away. But that’s the nice thing about home. No matter how far away you go, it’s always there waiting for you. Getting there isn’t easy sometimes, but there’s nothing better than going home.”

*****End*****

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