Jennie (by Rona)

Summary:  A mysterious young woman rescues Joe from the Truckee River. But who is she really?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  T
Word Count:  9,015


 

Lying wrapped in blankets by the fire, the young man stirred. After a moment, he groaned slightly as consciousness returned to him. His eyes slit open and he peered around blearily. His head throbbed ferociously, and his body ached in time with it.

“Welcome back,” said a light, female voice. “I was getting worried about you, young man.”

Frowning, not recognizing the speaker, the young man propped himself up on his elbow. “Who are you?” he asked, hoarsely. “Where am I?” He suddenly realized that his shoulder and arm were bare and a quick glance at the fire showed that his clothes – all his clothes – were lying out to dry. He blushed, realizing that this lady had seen him naked.

“My name’s Jennie,” she replied, smiling as she realized the source of his discomfort. “And what might your name be?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he replied, flustered. “My name is Joe Cartwright.”

*****

Slouching in the saddle, Adam and Hoss Cartwright were glad to be nearing home. It had been a long three weeks away, and they were tired of sleeping on the ground and eating trail food. But they would be home soon, and the horses, as if sensing their riders’ feelings, broke into a trot.

“Sure be nice to be home, huh, Adam?” Hoss said. “I’m plumb starvin’ for one o’ Hop Sing’s meals.”

“Anything in particular?” Adam enquired, knowing his brother’s legendary appetite. “Or just everything in general?”

“Anythin’s better’n the stuff we been eatin’ for the last few days,” Hoss retorted amiably. “Them beans weren’t tasty the first night, never mind the last one!”

“Ah, quit belly-achin’,” Adam said. “You don’t look any smaller.”

Ignoring his brother’s tart comment, Hoss said, “Wonder if Joe ever finished that fence?”

“I’d hope so, after three weeks,” snorted Adam. “But we could have used his help, I’ll admit.” He and Hoss had been taking some barren cows to the markets. It had been a slow trip, for the weather had been bad all summer. Many nights, they had tried to sleep in the pouring rain. “Bet he’s glad he didn’t come with us, though. He’s been sleeping in his own warm, dry bed every night.”

The house came into view and the boys’ hearts leapt. They urged the horses on a little faster.

Hearing the sounds of the hooves, Ben Cartwright came out of the house. He grinned at his sons, and went over to welcome them. “Good to have you home, sons,” he said, clapping Adam on the back, and hugging Hoss.

“Its good to be back,” Adam responded, coolly, but with a warm smile. He looked round. “Where’s Little Joe? Not here to greet us?”

“No, he’s out marking timber for thinning on the lower slopes of Wild Horse Ridge.” Ben called for a couple of hands to tend to the boys’ horses, and led them into the house. Hop Sing came out of the kitchen to greet them, and went to fetch coffee and cookies to welcome them home.

“Well, it would have to be the lower slopes of Wild Horse Ridge,” Adam commented. “Neither he nor I would be keen to go back up to the top again.” Adam was referring to an incident when they had both been attacked on Wild Horse Ridge, and Adam seriously injured.

Shooting his oldest son a glance, Ben smiled. “Indeed it would have to be,” he agreed, softly. He had come close to losing all his sons that time. “He should be back in time for supper.”

“Unless he takes a detour into town,” Hoss joked.

“Not tonight,” Ben laughed. “He thought this morning that you might be home tonight.” Smiling again, Ben remembered Joe’s enthusiasm when he asked if his brothers would be home that night and got Ben’s confirmation that he thought it quite likely. “I think he’s missed you, boys.”

Sitting down in front of the fire, they tucked into the coffee and cookies, chatting about the trip, telling their father about the people they’d met at the sales. Time passed quickly, and finally Adam rose. “I’m going to have a wash and change my clothes before supper,” he said.

“Good idea,” Hoss agreed, heaving himself to his feet. “Guess you’ll be glad o’ that, huh, Pa? We cain’t be too fragrant right now.”

“I didn’t want to say anything,” Ben began, hiding a grin. “But now that you mention it…” At the looks of outrage on his sons’ faces, Ben couldn’t keep a straight face any longer, and burst out laughing. “Go on and get changed,” he said. “Supper will be ready soon, and I expect Little Joe back any minute now.”

*****

The meal was over, and Joe still hadn’t appeared. Ben had gone from looking angry to looking concerned. Just as Adam and Hoss had gone to get changed, a terrific storm had blown up, seemingly out of nowhere. They all knew that the storm would have slowed Joe down, but he still should have been back hours ago. The weather seemed to have improved slightly, which was something in his favor, but there was an undercurrent of unease in the room.

Nothing was said, but when the hooves sounded in the yard, they all looked relieved. Ben was on his feet and crossing the room, probably without conscious thought, Adam mused. He rose more slowly to join his parent and sibling by the door, and once there, he saw immediately why they hadn’t gone any further.

It was Cochise, Joe’s pinto horse, in the yard. But his saddle was empty, and the horse was splattered with mud and blood, and holding his rear offside hoof off the ground. Hoss went across to the injured animal, murmuring nonsense as he caught up the trailing reins and looked the animal over more closely.

“He’s sure had a bad fall, Pa,” Hoss said, straightening up. “He’s covered in cuts. Sprained that fetlock, too, by the looks o’ things.”

“Where’s Joe?” Ben fretted, his eyes dark with worry.

“There’s nothing we can do tonight, Pa,” Adam said, looking at the darkening sky. “It’s too dark to go looking for him now.”

“I know,” Ben returned, anguish in his tones. “I know.” He sent up a prayer for his youngest son’s safety. Ben knew he wouldn’t be sleeping that night.

*****

“A Cartwright from the Ponderosa?” Jennie said. “Well, well. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Joe,” said he. “Mr. Cartwright is my father.” He lay back down and looked around. It was almost dark. “How did I get here?” he asked. Jennie had given him a drink, and Joe could feel his head clearing slightly. It still throbbed. He shivered, and snuggled under the blankets again.

“Well, I can only answer part of that,” Jennie said. “I found you lying on the river bank, unconscious. I managed to pull you out, and get you onto the back of my wagon there, and brought you to my camp. You were soaked through, so I stripped your clothes off and dried you off. Couldn’t have you catching pneumonia, now could I?” Joe blushed at the thought, and Jennie laughed. “Land sakes, boy, I’ve seen it all before. And surely your ma’s seen you without clothes?”

“My mother died when I was small,” Joe said, feeling the embarrassed flush die away from his face. He liked Jennie. She was a few years older than him, perhaps closer to Adam in age, he thought. There was something about her that made him trust her implicitly. He found that he no longer minded the thought of her seeing him naked. It was very odd. “It’s just me and my Pa and brothers.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jennie said, softly. After a moment of silence, she smiled again. “Now, can you tell me your side of the story?”

Closing his eyes for an instant, Joe thought back. He could remember riding along Wild Horse Ridge, heading towards home. He frowned, and opened his eyes to meet Jennie’s worried face close to his. “Are you all right, Joe?” she asked, and put a soft hand on his brow. “Hmm, a little fever, but not too bad.”

“I’m okay,” he insisted, shivering once more. He watched as Jennie turned away and threw some more wood on the fire. It flared up brightly, revealing Jennie’s slim figure and long dark hair. “I was just trying to remember.”

“Don’t force yourself,” Jennie warned. “You had quite a bang on the head.”

“I was riding along Wild Horse Ridge,” Joe said, his eyes glazing slightly as he thought back. Jennie sat down beside him, listening quietly. “I was going home. A storm blew up, and I didn’t see it coming, because I was in amongst the trees. I was marking them for Pa.” He glanced at Jennie, who smiled and nodded. “The ridge there is just above the Truckee River.” He frowned. “A branch came down, and hit Cochise, my horse.” Joe suddenly sat up and looked round. “Where is he?”

“I didn’t see any sign of a horse,” Jennie said, preventing him rising with gentle fingers. “Just you, Joe. I’m sorry.”

Tears filled Joe’s eyes and he blinked them away. He lay back down again, and swallowed the sickness that had risen in his throat at the sudden movement. He closed his eyes again, telling himself that Cochise was just a horse, but it didn’t work. He loved his horse. A damp cloth smoothed its way over his head, and he felt obscurely comforted. A faint memory of his mother came back to him, and he had to struggle to contain his sobs.

After a while, he opened his eyes and continued on with his story. “He stumbled – Cochise that is – and we fell….” Joe’s voice trailed off as he remembered the horror of that fall. Fortunately, the memory was cut short when he blacked out, but it still made him shudder.

“Oh, you poor boy,” Jennie said, still softly, her hand stroking his head. “What a dreadful thing to happen!” She shook her head. “I never thought of anything like that happening to you. You try and rest now, Joe. We’ll see how you are come morning.”

Settling down obediently, Joe caught her hand as she tucked the blanket closer in beside him. “Are we close to the Ponderosa?” he asked, hopefully.

“No,” Jennie answered reluctantly, seeing the hope go out of his eyes. “We’re many miles away from there, Joe. Many miles.”

Closing his eyes, Joe struggled with the tears once again. He had hoped they were still on the Ponderosa, and that he would be home by the next day. Now, he knew they wouldn’t be, and although Joe felt sick and miserable and wanted to get home just for his own sake, he also wanted to get home so that his family didn’t worry. That was now a forlorn hope, and all he wanted to do now was sleep, and forget.

*****

At first light, Ben, Adam and Hoss mounted their horses and set out to search for Joe. They followed the most direct route to Wild Horse Ridge, reckoning that that would be the one Joe was most likely to use. There wasn’t a sign of him anywhere.

By noon, it was all too clear what had happened to him. The signs were unmistakable. The place where Cochise had fallen over the edge was all churned up, and the slope leading to the river was marked all the way down. However, there they lost Joe’s trail. Cochise had regained his feet and made it out of the river only a few feet downstream. The prints indicated that the pinto had been hopping lame by then, and they privately thought it was a miracle that it had got home at all.

But of Joe, there was no immediate sign.

*****

It was a difficult night for Joe. His fever crept up, and he developed a hacking cough. When he did sleep, his dreams were haunted by the fall from the ridge. In them, he sometimes lost consciousness, as he had done, but other times, he remained awake as he and Cochise crashed into the water below.

Awakening once more, thrashing and gasping for breath, Joe decided to stay awake if he could. The dreams were too much for him to take. He wondered if he sub-consciously remembered fighting to get to the surface of the water. If so, he was kind of glad he couldn’t really remember, for how much worse would his dreams have been then?

At the other side of the fire, Jennie was aware of the troubles her young guest was having. She didn’t go to him, not wanting to cause him any further embarrassment. It hadn’t occurred to her the evening before that Joe was so young. His face was bruised and scraped, and so dirty, that it was difficult to judge his age. By the time she was washing away the dirt, she had already stripped him. And the last thing he needed then was to get wet clothes put back on.

It had taken some time to get Joe warmed back up. Jennie had wrapped him in almost every blanket she possessed, and gradually, he had warmed up. Supporting his head, Jennie had given him sips of water, and been reassured when he was able to drink them. Finally, about an hour after she dragged him, half-drowned, from the Truckee River, Joe had revived.

Whatever story she had expected, it wasn’t the one Joe had told her. His clothes were well made, but not exceptional; his gun belt was well used and plainly tooled. His boots needed heeling. Nothing suggested to her that this unfortunate young man was one of the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa, one of the richest families in the area. She thought of the long miles they would have to travel to get Joe back home. She hoped he would be well enough to travel in the morning. Something told her he would be desperately disappointed if he couldn’t.

*****

Neighbors and friends all turned up at the Ponderosa the next morning. Ben was overwhelmed by the support, but made an effort to remain calm. He outlined what they had found the previous day, and organized the men into groups. Each group would search one side of the river. If they found anything, they were to signal with the standard three shots that the Cartwrights always used.

The searching was one of the most difficult things Ben had done. Every moment was filled with a mixture of hope and fear. With every bend of the river, he hoped he would see Joe huddled on the bank, alive, and somehow miraculously unharmed. It didn’t happen, although he couldn’t abandon hope altogether. He had to believe Joe was alive, for to do otherwise would have killed him. Over the years, he had lost so much; Elizabeth, Inger and Marie. He couldn’t bear to lose one of his sons, too.

On the opposite bank from their father, Adam and Hoss were feeling similar things. Hoss was Joe’s confidante and best friend. He and Joe had been in more scrapes together than they had had hot dinners – or that was the way it seemed to Hoss. He adored the younger brother who had tagged behind him as a small child, and had then gone on to lead the way in their partnership. It didn’t matter to Hoss that Joe had a quicker brain, and often landed his older sibling in trouble. That was just Joe. Hoss had loved him from the moment that Marie had confided there was to be a child. He had looked out for Joe all his life, and never counted the cost. Joe was his brother, and Hoss loved him. All he wanted was to find Joe safe and sound.

For Adam, the feelings were more complex. He often found Joe infuriating, and they quarreled quite frequently. He was irritated by Joe’s refusal to further his education, when he had such a fine mind. But he loved and respected his youngest sibling. Joe was stalwart in his defense of his family, and had put his life on the line for Adam many times. He was entertaining company, and you were never bored with him around. Adam smiled to himself ruefully. You never knew what kind of mood Joe would be in, and he could charm the birds from the trees if he put his mind to it. Adam knew that people wondered if he was sometimes jealous of his younger brother, who had been blessed with so much. But he wasn’t. Adam was his own person, as were Joe and Hoss both. Ben had done a good job in giving his sons self-confidence.

By nightfall, they had covered 10 miles, and still there was no sign of Joe. Their friends and neighbors all headed off for home, and the Cartwrights suspected that few of them would be back the following day. Most of them thought that Joe was dead.

After supper, which they barely touched, Ben told his sons what he planned to do the next day. “I think we ought to take camping gear with us,” he said. “Start where we finished today, and go further downstream. The river is big right now,” he went on. “Joe could’ve been washed quite a ways down.”

“How long are we going to go on looking?” Adam asked, quietly.

“Until we find him!” Ben retorted sharply. He swallowed, and looked away, controlling himself with difficulty. “We must find him, Adam, we must.”

Hating himself for doing it, Adam persisted, “But what if we don’t find him, Pa? What then?”

Tears filled Ben’s eyes, although they didn’t fall. Adam cursed himself anew for asking, but he had to know. “I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “I just don’t know.”

*****

The arrival of morning didn’t improve Joe’s condition. He was still coughing away and his temperature remained quite high. Sitting up caused his head to swim violently, and he was unable to eat anything. Jennie made some coffee, and Joe was able to drink that. It eased his shivers somewhat, and he was relieved to discover that his clothes were dry. Somehow, having clothes on made him feel less vulnerable. However, the effort to get dressed, even with Jennie’s discreet help, had exhausted him, and he fell asleep again.

Doing the few chores that needed it round the camp, Jennie found herself looking at Joe frequently. By the light of day, she could see how handsome he was, under the scrapes and bruises. After she had tended to her horse and tidied up the few dishes from breakfast, she was left with nothing particular to do except think.

Her thoughts were all on how to get Joe back to his beloved home. She knew roughly where the Ponderosa was, and by her reckoning, they were almost 25 miles away by road. She wasn’t sure of the direction if they went across country, but perhaps Joe could help her there. But was he up to a bumpy journey like that? He was clearly concussed, and she had seen the scrapes and bruises all over his body, no doubt caused by the fall into the river. The cough was wearing him out, and she couldn’t be certain that he didn’t have any broken bones, although she hadn’t spotted any the previous night.

One thing was certain, she thought, as Joe began to cough, and wakened himself. He wasn’t fit to travel anywhere that day, and she wasn’t going to leave him alone long enough to ride to the nearest town with a telegraph office. Rising gracefully, she went over to help Joe drink from the canteen.

*****

All that day, Joe ran a high temperature. Jennie was thankful that she had decided against leaving him, for he was wracked with nausea, caused no doubt by the bang on the head he’d received the night before. For most of the day, Joe drifted in and out of a light sleep, but it was plain to see he wasn’t fit to travel, and in fact he never mentioned it. By nightfall, he was exhausted, and willingly drank the bitter willow bark tea Jennie brewed for him, and took the spoonful of honey he was offered. It was the only thing he’d eaten that day.

The willow bark did its job, and he soon fell asleep, his troublesome headache eased slightly at last. Almost as tried as Joe, Jennie lay down, too, thankful that the rain she’d feared was coming hadn’t arrived during the day. She had moved the wagon, and fixed up the makeshift tent she used, so that if rain did come through the night, both she and Joe would keep reasonably dry. The last thing he needed was to get wet again, and catch a chill.

Sometime after midnight, Jennie was wakened by Joe’s cries. “Oh, Coochie, no!” he called, thrashing around. “Cooch!” His voice trailed off as a fit of coughing over took him. “Cooch.” He groaned as Jennie reached his side.

“What hurts, Joe?” she asked, seeing he was awake.

“My ribs,” he answered, reluctantly. His voice was hoarse. “And my throat.” He coughed again, clutching his ribs, now that he had admitted that they were sore.

“Anything else?” Jennie asked, poking up the fire to make more light. She offered Joe some willow bark, and he drank it, making a face while he did so. “Come on, Joe, don’t lie to me. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”

“My legs,” he admitted. “They ache so.”

Gently moving the blankets aside, Jennie felt down Joe’s legs, and decided there wasn’t anything broken. But his knees were hot to the touch, as were his ankles, and she thought they might be sprained. Getting out her bandages, she strapped up Joe’s ribs, and his ankles. She didn’t have enough bandage for his knees, and anyway, wasn’t sure about treating them. “No walking about,” she warned. She felt his forehead, but his temperature had dropped to near normal. “Tomorrow, depending on how you are, we’ll set off for your home. We’ll come to a town soon with a telegraph office, and we can send a message to your Pa, to let him know you’re safe.”

“Thank you,” Joe said, gratefully. He wanted his Pa, more than anything, but was thankful that Jennie had found him. It wasn’t long before he slept once more.

*****

Come morning, Joe’s temperature was still low, and Jennie decided that she could risk moving him if he would eat something. The ham and eggs she fried up smelt great, and Joe ate hungrily. After that, he watched as Jennie packed up the camp. A twinge of guilt kept Joe silent as she did so, for he wasn’t used to a woman doing the work. However, there was nothing he could do to help, and when the time came for him to get onto the back of the wagon, he found it took all the strength he could muster.

Finally settled, he lay back, breathless after a bout of coughing. “I don’t know why I’m so sore,” he said, ruefully as he thanked his benefactress once more.

“I can think of a few reasons,” Jennie responded, laughing. “Being tumbled around in a river isn’t all that good for you, you know. Plus you fell, with your horse. I assume you were riding him at the time?” At Joe’s nod, she said, “Well, then. When you started to fall, you were on him. At some point, you fell off, and bounced down the hill. I don’t think the horse fell on top of you, because you might not have survived that. But all the same, you’ve had a rough time of it, honey lamb, and I’m not surprised you’re so sore!”

Climbing onto the wagon seat, Jennie chucked her horse, a big grey cob mare and they set off. “How long will it be before we reach the Ponderosa?” Joe asked. His aches and pains were dying down, now he was still again.

“Several days, depending on the weather,” Jennie answered. “My old horse here doesn’t go very fast any more. But don’t worry, we’ll get there.”

“Where are you from, Jennie?” Joe asked, curiously. “Is it near here?”

Jennie laughed, a low, rich chuckle. “Where am I from?” she repeated. “Lots of places, Joe. I was born in New York State. I’ve lived in Washington and Philadelphia. But I don’t have a home any more. I’m going to Oregon, to get myself some land and start farming.”

“Alone?” Joe asked, horrified. “That’s a long way. How will you manage?”

Again, Jennie laughed. “Joe, my sweet, I’ve managed this far, haven’t I? Don’t worry about it. I’ll get there, someday.”

Puzzling this over, Joe was intrigued. “Have you any family?” he asked. He suddenly remembered his manners, and blushed, although Jennie couldn’t see it. “I’m sorry, that was nosy.”

“I don’t mind,” she replied. “After all, I asked you about your family, didn’t I?” Not waiting for confirmation, she went on, “I was married, but he died, and we didn’t have any children. That was a few years ago, and I worked as a nurse to support myself. I have a bit of money saved up, and I thought I fancied a change. Oregon sounds about right to me.”

“A nurse?” Joe said. “You ought to stay in Virginia City,” he suggested. “Doctor Martin is always saying he needs a full time nurse.”

“D’you see a lot of the doctor?” Jennie asked. “Sounds like you know him well.”

“Too much,” Joe said, ruefully. “He says I’m his favorite patient, but I don’t believe him. I’m not a good patient.”

“A healthy young man like you?” Jennie joked. “I’d say you aren’t a good patient. Too eager to get back on your feet and get going!”

Smiling, Joe admitted, “Yes, Pa and Doc Martin are always at me to stay in bed when I’d rather get up and moving around.”

“So you’ve known some illness,” Jennie probed, gently.

“Some,” Joe admitted. With no more than an interested sound, Jennie got him to open up, and Joe recited his list of injuries.

“Good Lord!” Jennie exclaimed. “Some illness? You’re a walking disaster zone.” For a moment, she wondered if she’d offended Joe, and glanced anxiously over her shoulder at him.

But there was no worry in that direction. Joe was trying not to laugh. “Oh, don’t,” he wheezed. “It hurts to laugh!”

*****

As darkness drew down, Adam and Hoss forded the river and joined Ben. Silently, they set up camp for the night. There hadn’t been any sign of Joe anywhere, and they were all growing discouraged. Ben sat hunched over by the fire as Adam and Hoss prepared a meal between them. None of them felt like eating, but they forced themselves. Ben required more coaxing, but finally ate a few bites.

“How far d’you think we’ve come?” Hoss asked.

“Perhaps 10 miles,” Adam replied, thinking back over the journey they’d made that day. He glanced at Ben, who appeared not to be listening. “Tomorrow, why don’t you ride with Pa,” he suggested, quietly.

Glancing at Ben, too, Hoss nodded. “Sure thing, Adam,” he said. “But I don’t mind if’n you want to ride with him.”

“Thanks, Hoss,” Adam replied. “But I think it might be best if you ride with him tomorrow, and then we’ll see. If we cover another 5 miles tomorrow, and don’t find Joe, we might be best to try and persuade Pa to go home.”

Gazing at Adam, Hoss thought how controlled his brother appeared to be. But not to Hoss. He could read Adam’s distress in the very stillness of his face and body. Adam had the reputation of being the coldest of the Cartwrights, emotionally. But it was all a façade, Hoss knew, caused mostly by the loss of Inger and Marie when Adam was quite young. The loss of his own mother at his birth had also contributed. Although none of the boys had known their birth mother for more than a short time – Joe’s mother dying when he was 4 made him the one whose mother had lived longest – Hoss had had Adam and Ben, and later Marie and Joe. Joe had had all of them. Adam had only had Ben and then Inger for a short time, and this had made him wary of giving affection. Hoss was more open, and Joe was the most demonstrative of them all.

Tears filled Hoss’ blue eyes. “D’you think Joe’s dead?” he asked, more loudly than he intended.

“No! Don’t say that!” Ben ordered. “Joe isn’t dead! D you hear me? He isn’t dead!”

“Pa,” Adam said, gently. “We have to face it. He might be dead. We’ve come a long way, and there hasn’t been a single sign of him.”

“He’s not dead, I tell you!” Ben insisted, fiercely. Then he slumped and tears began to streak down his face. “Oh, Joe!” he whispered.

Kneeling, Adam put his arm round Ben’s shoulder. He could feel tears in his own eyes, and hoped that, if they found that Joe was dead, he would be able to be strong for his father and brother. His spirit called out against the unfairness of a young life being cut short, and Adam said one of the most fervent prayers of his life that Joe’s life be spared.

*****

At the end of their second day of travel, Jennie and Joe arrived in a small town that had a telegraph office. She went in and composed a wire to Ben, while Joe waited impatiently in the wagon. He was still feeling quite ill, the throbbing headache of his concussion reluctant to loosen its grip. The constant jolting of the wagon didn’t help, but Joe hadn’t once complained. He wanted to get home, and let Pa know that he was all right.

“That’s the wire sent, Joe,” Jennie said, coming out of the telegraph office. “That’ll relieve your Pa’s mind some. I said I thought we might get there tomorrow, late on.” She smiled as Joe beamed at her. “That’s if you don’t mind some more jolting?”

“Jolt all you like,” Joe agreed, not realizing that he’d just admitted that he found the jolting a trial. “Jennie, you’re wonderful.”

“Sure am, kiddo,” she joked, climbing back onto the seat, and picking up the reins. “Ready?”

“Ready,” Joe confirmed. He drew in a deep breath as the wagon started moving again, ignoring the stab of pain from his ribs. He’d be home tomorrow.

*****

It rained all the next day, a persistent thin rain that trickled under collars and soaked through slickers. The road was awash with mud, but Jennie persevered. Joe was coughing again relentlessly as the damp revived his cold, which had eased slightly. However, he roused himself form his misery long enough to give her instructions on how to find the ranch. As they drew closer, Joe tried to sit up and look healthier. He was longing to see his family.

It was a bitter blow to find the house in virtual darkness. He gazed at disbelief at the closed door. “I don’t understand,” he said, sounding desperately and heart-breakingly young. “Where are they?”

“Would they be out looking for you?” Jennie asked, coming to stand by the wagon. She looked tired, and was soaked to the skin. She’d been looking forward to a hot meal and a dry bed.

“They might be,” Joe said. “But we sent that wire…” His voice trailed off as movement at the side of the house attracted his attention.

The kitchen door opened slowly, and the muzzle of a shotgun protruded. “Go way!” ordered an unmistakable voice.

“Hop Sing!” Joe exclaimed, relieved. “It’s me, Joe.”

“Lil’ Joe?” the cook said, and came all the way out. “Lil’ Joe! Family thought dead for sure.”

“Where are they?” Joe asked, anxiously.

Before Hop Sing could answer him, they heard hooves approaching. Only one set, but Joe still looked round hopefully. But he was to be disappointed. It wasn’t any of his family, just Roy Coffee, the sheriff, and long-time friend of the family.

“Well, boy, its good to see you,” Roy said. “I brung out that wire about you for your Pa yesterday, but there weren’t nobody here.”

“Hop Sing here,” the Chinese cook protested.

Ignoring the interruption, Roy went on, “I went out lookin’ for your Pa an’ brothers, but I didn’t see no sign o’ them. Where did they go, Hop Sing?”

“They go look for Lil’ Joe,” Hop Sing said, in tones of strained patience. “Long banks of river.”

“The river’s pretty high,” Roy said, doubtfully, and Joe began to look strained. Jennie noticed at once.

“Can this wait until we have Joe inside and settled?” she asked. “He really shouldn’t be out in the rain. He’s not well.”

That was all it took, and Joe found himself being carried into the house by a couple of the ranch hands. Roy had sent another couple out to look for Ben and the boys, but he didn’t expect them to get far in the rain. Yet another hand was sent into town for the doctor.

Seeing that Joe was in good hands, Jennie took the chance to go to the room Hop Sing showed her, and changed into something dry. Then, she went and sat in front of the roaring fire that he had hastily built in the main room. Shortly after, Roy and Hop Sing came downstairs. Hop Sing went straight into the kitchen, muttering to himself in his native language. Roy sat down near Jennie.

“Joe says you pulled him outa the river, Miss…?”

“Jennie,” Jennie supplied, helpfully. “Yes, I did. I’d gone to get some water, and saw him lying on the bank. I pulled him out and looked after him. When he woke up, he told me who he was. We spent the day after that at my camp, because Joe really wasn’t well. Then we headed for here.”

It was a succinct piece of reporting, and didn’t really tell Roy what he wanted to know – which was who Jennie really was. However, he couldn’t quibble with what she had told him, as it jibed with what Joe had said.

“We’re real grateful to you, Miss Jennie,” he said. “I know Ben’ll be wantin’ to thank you. He thinks the world o’ Joe.”

“I think it’s mutual,” Jennie said, softly. “Joe thinks the world of his father, too. And his brothers.” She smiled at him. “Tell me about them?” she asked.

As Hop Sing prepared a meal and they waited for the doctor, Roy told Jennie about the Cartwrights. By the time he had finished, she quite understood why Ben was out looking for Joe. It was a natural reaction of any parent to hunt for a missing child, but after his other losses, Ben would be particularly vulnerable to further loss. Especially as Joe was so enchanting.

The door opened and let in a lot of rain with a middle-aged man Jennie didn’t know. However, Roy obviously did. “Evenin’, Paul,” he said, cordially. “Joe’s in his room. This here’s Miss Jennie, who found him.”

“I’ll come up with you, Doctor,” she said, rising. “And tell you what I did and why.”

“That would be a help,” Paul Martin said, eyeing her covertly. He felt there was something familiar about her, but he didn’t know what it was. He shed his dripping rain slicker and started upstairs, completely familiar with the house. Jennie quickly filled him in on Joe’s injuries.

“Well, Joe, this is a new one, even for you,” Paul said, throwing open Joe’s bedroom door. “How do you feel?” He was examining the youth closely with his eyes, taking in the pallor and the circles under his eyes.

“I like to keep you on your toes,” Joe replied, but the witticism was tired. His voice was hoarse, and he coughed.

It didn’t take Paul long to complete his examination. “You’ve got a cold,” he said, stating the obvious first to make Joe smile. It worked. “And your muscles are all protesting at the unusual way you dismounted your horse – who is out in the stable, by the way.” Joe’s face lit up, for he had been thinking about Cochise a lot. “Your knees and ankles have taken quite severe knocks, but they aren’t actually sprained. However, you won’t be walking about on them for a week or two, until the swelling and heat is out of them. And that is quite a lump you have on your head, mister!” He smiled. “Joe, you were incredibly lucky. You should’ve died after a fall like that. Your guardian angel was working over time.”

“I know I’m lucky,” Joe responded. He coughed once more. “I just wish Pa was here.”

“He’ll be back soon, Joe,” Paul soothed. He patted the youth’s shoulder. “You get some sleep, and perhaps he’ll be here when you wake in the morning.”

“Perhaps,” Joe agreed, but he couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling that had been growing in his heart all evening.

*****

“This is terrible,” Adam said, as they tried to make camp that night. He had insisted that they move away from the riverbank as the water rose once more. Ben had protested that they would lose time in the morning, and he and Adam had ended up having a heated row about it. However, Hoss had intervened, cooled everything down and persuaded Ben that Adam was right. Since Ben had known all along that Adam was right, he had given in quietly. “We’re going to be soaked through by morning.”

“I suppose you want to go home?” Ben asked, acidly.

“Yes, I do,” Adam admitted quietly. “We’ve come about 15 miles, and we haven’t seen any sign of Joe. Pa, I think we have to accept the fact that he’s gone. Let Roy wire to sheriffs further downstream, and see if anyone’s found a body. We can’t go on like this. We haven’t been dry all day, and if this goes on, we’ll end up sick. You especially, Pa. You haven’t eaten enough to keep a sparrow alive.”

Glaring at Adam, Ben tried to think of a way to refute what his oldest son was saying, but he couldn’t. He was bone tired and wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep. Deep in his heart, he feared that Joe was dead. His shoulder slumped.

“I’m sorry, son,” he said, wearily. “You’re right. We should go back.” He avoided making eye contact with either son, afraid that they would see that he’d given up hope of finding Joe alive. “I’ll go and get some water,” he said, and headed down to the river without looking back.

Crouching by the water, Ben let the tears come. He had so many memories of Joe, stretching from his birth until the last time he had seen him. Each one confirmed Joe’s love of life, and made it more difficult to accept that he might never see his son again, and might never even have the dubious comfort of finding his body. Rising stiffly, Ben stumbled on the loose shale of the riverbank, and tripped. He let out a startled yell as he fell into the churning waters.

For an instant, the icy waters caught at his breath, and Ben struggled to get his head back above water. He had no breath to shout for help, and he flailed helplessly, until he finally surfaced.

“Pa!” He heard the shout, but he was still in the thrall of the water, and finding it difficult to get his limbs moving. He sank again.

Moments later, and hand grabbed his coat, and he was dragged to the surface. A strong arm was under his, and Adam’s reassuring voice spoke in his ear. “It’s all right, Pa, I’ve got you.”

It was a relief to allow someone else to take over and get him to safety. It took only seconds for Adam to swim with Ben to the bank, and Hoss helped them both out. Ben sat on the bank and coughed the water from his lungs, shivering helplessly in the rising wind.

It didn’t escape any of them that they were in a far more dangerous situation than they had been just a few scant minutes ago. Adam and Ben were soaked through. The rain was continuing, and the wind was rising. If they didn’t get to some kind of shelter soon, they could end up suffering from hypothermia.

As soon as Ben’s breathing was under control, they went back to the horses, and Hoss wrapped blankets round his shivering family. He swiftly saddled the horses, and they all mounted, instinctively heading back towards home, although they were unlikely to get there in the dark, given the weather.

Lifting his head to peer into the lashing rain, Ben wondered if this would be the end of the Cartwright family.

*****

As the weather worsened, Roy Coffee, who had elected to stay the night at the ranch, began to look more and more concerned. The hands he’d sent out looking for Ben had returned without him, and he couldn’t, in all conscience, blame them for coming back.

The meal Hop Sing had produced was excellent, as usual, and Jennie had found herself dozing in front of the fire. She finally roused herself to go and check on Joe, who was sleeping restlessly. She left him undisturbed, and went back downstairs.

Spying the photos on Ben’s desk, she looked closely at each of them. Three handsome women, all different. She guessed which woman was which from what Roy had said. She hadn’t met Adam and Hoss, but Roy assured her they resembled their mothers almost as much as Joe resembled his.

This was a special family; she could tell that from the atmosphere of the house. The house felt happy and welcoming. Jennie was extremely sensitive to atmospheres, and she could feel nothing but good in this one. It would be tragic if anything happened to any of the family. Bidding Roy goodnight, Jennie went to her room. There, she knelt by the side of the bed in earnest prayer, then rose, knowing what she had to do.

*****

It seemed that they were making no headway at all. The rain lashed down relentlessly, and the wind clutched at their sodden clothes. Ben looked frail and old all of a sudden, as the cold took its toll on his weakened stamina. Adam wiped at his dripping nose with a saturated sleeve, feeling an ominous tightening in his chest. He had always had a tendency towards a weak chest, and this soaking, combined with the emotional stress he was under, had weakened his resistance.

They had been riding all night. Hoss led the way, following his instincts to get them home, if nothing else. But he was worried, too. They needed shelter, and warmth, and there didn’t seem to be any way to get either. Hoss wondered how far they had come. Not far enough, he suspected. The rain made it impossible to pick out any landmarks. Glancing round, Hoss wondered if they ought to stop. Ben looked done in. However, a particularly virulent gust of wind made him change his mind. Not yet, he thought. It’s too cold here. We’ll go on a bit further.

Lifting his head at the sudden outburst of coughing from his right, Ben finally allowed himself to admit how concerned he was. He and Adam were soaked; they were miles from any shelter, and for all he knew – for all any of them knew – they were riding in circles. He knew he ought to take charge, and get them to somewhere dry, but he couldn’t seem to focus his thoughts properly. He was too cold, too tired, and too sad to make the necessary effort.

“What’s that?” Adam’s voice shouted over the howling wind. Ben lifted his head, squinting into the needle-like rain blowing into his face.

“Dunno,” Hoss bellowed back. “Hello!” He waved, and the bobbing light turned in their direction.

Whoever they had been expecting, it wasn’t this young woman, dressed in a traveling cloak and carrying a lantern. They all gaped at her, wondering who she was. “Thank goodness I’ve found you,” she said, her light voice carrying clearly above the noise of the wind. “Come along, follow me.”

“Who are you?” Ben stuttered, his teeth chattering so hard he could barely speak.

“I’m Jennie,” she replied. “I brought Joe home, then came out looking for you. Come along, don’t dawdle. It’s cold and wet out here, in case you hadn’t noticed.” She turned her mount, a large grey cob, and headed back the way she had come. Bemused, they all followed her.

Although they rode for what Adam estimated to be another hour, the weather seemed to moderate slightly, and it seemed to be less cold. And at the end of that hour, they arrived back in the yard of the Ponderosa.

Gazing round in disbelief, Adam noticed Jennie leading her horse into the barn. He wanted to follow her, and ask how she’d brought them home so quickly, when she was a stranger to them. But his limbs were stiff with cold, and he had difficulty getting down off his horse. Then he noticed that Ben was still sitting on Buck and went over to help him down.

The front door opened, and a familiar figure stood there, holding a lantern aloft. “Land sakes!” Roy Coffee exclaimed. “Where have you folks bin?”

*****

Standing in front of the fire, Adam cautiously sipped the cup of hot coffee Hop Sing had thrust into his hands. His clothes still dripped onto the floor, but he was feeling warmer by the second. He exchanged a smile with Hoss, who was seated on the stonework. “It feels good to be back,” he said, hoarsely.

“Sure does,” Hoss agreed. “Wish Pa looked a bit better, though.”

“He’ll be all right once he’s warm, and has seen Joe,” Adam said. “We’ll all be all right when we’re warm and have seen Joe.”

“It’s sure enough good to know that Punkin is all right,” Hoss said, and his voice cracked.

Unable to speak for the sudden lump in his throat, Adam simply nodded. He put down the coffee. “Let’s go see him,” he croaked, and they went upstairs together.

On the way up, they met Roy on his way down. “I’ve got yer Pa into bed, boys,” he said. “You two run along, too, so’s I c’n get my sleep.”

“We’re just going to look in on Joe,” Adam said.

“Don’t disturb him,” Roy warned. “He’s had a hard time o’ it too.”

Promising that they wouldn’t the brothers obediently stuck their head round the door, saw Joe and went to bed, to sleep the sleep of the exhausted and relieved.

*****

Next morning, it was pandemonium in the house. Ben had wakened to find it was well into the morning, and suddenly wondered if he’d dreamed that Joe was all right. He got out of bed in a panic, and donned his robe, hurrying along the hallway to Joe’s room.

As the door opened, Joe turned his head to see who it was. His whole face lit up with a brilliant smile as he saw Ben and he pushed himself into a sitting position, wincing as he did so, but the smile stayed in place. “Pa!” he said. “It’s so good to see you!”

“Joe, I was so worried about you!” Ben exclaimed and hurried across to sit on the edge of the bed, and take Joe into his arms. “Are you all right? Really?”

“I will be,” Joe assured him. “Now that you’re back.” They smiled at each other. “Jennie saved my life, Pa,” he said. “She’s staying here, so you’ll meet her.”

“Jennie?” Ben said, remembering the young woman who had met them last night. “Does she have long dark hair? About Adam’s age?”

“That’s her,” Joe agreed, sounding surprised. “Have you met her? Oh, last night when you got in.”

“No, not when we got in,” Ben said, slowly. He frowned, but before he could say anything else, there were footsteps in the hall, and Paul Martin came in.

“Well, what a surprise finding you in here,” he said, cheerfully, to Ben. “I hear you dragged in about 3 am, soaked to the skin, and looking not unlike a drowned rat. I hear tell you fell in the river.”

This was news to Joe, who shot his father an anxious glance. Ben intercepted it and smiled. “I’m all right,” he said. “It was rough last night, but I’m fine.”

“You won’t be surprised to hear that Adam has a good going cold in his chest,” Paul continued, as he began to examine Ben. “Or to hear that Hoss came through the whole thing unscathed. And by what I was told, you shouldn’t be so healthy looking!”

Ben made a face at Joe, who laughed. It was nice to see someone else squirming under Paul’s friendly treatment. “It’s your tune next, young man,” Paul said, threateningly.

“How is Joe?” Ben asked, as Paul finished examining him.

“He’s fine,” Paul replied. “Just a cough to get rid of, and those knees and ankles to heal. Another week or so should do it, Ben. He was lucky.”

“Yes, lucky Jennie was passing,” Joe said, soberly. “You must meet her, Pa.” He grinned at Paul. “Is she downstairs?”

“I think she’s gone, Joe,” Paul said. “Certainly, her wagon and horse are gone. Roy hasn’t seen her this morning either.”

“Gone?” Joe echoed, disappointment in his tone.

“Wait,” Ben commanded, feeling confused. “A young woman called Jennie met us last night and led us back here.”

“Pa,” Joe began, bewildered, but he was interrupted when his door opened again, and the rest of his family, along with Roy Coffee, came in.

There was a round of jovial teasing greetings between the brothers, where they all tried – and failed – to hide their joy and relief at finding each other whole. Ben sat back and watched his sons, thankfulness in his heart. At one point last night, he had thought they might all die, and yet here they were, together and safe. It was a miracle.

“Roy, when did Jennie leave?” Joe asked, at last.

“I didn’t see her leavin’, Little Joe,” Roy said, scratching his head. “When I got up this mornin’ she was gone. Hop Sing didn’t see her go either.”

“Jennie led us home last night,” Adam said, his voice still hoarse. “How did she know where to find us?”

“Who was she anyhows?” Hoss asked.

Patiently, Joe repeated his story of how Jennie found him and brought him home. Roy explained about the telegram, and coming out to find Ben. Then Ben, Adam and Hoss told of their adventures leading up to the night before.

“I don’t understand how she found us and brought us home so quickly,” Adam commented. “She was a stranger hereabouts, and we were a long way down the river. There is no way we could have got home as quickly as we did after she found us.”

“Why didn’t she wait to speak to us?” Ben wondered. “I wanted to thank her for everything.”

“Well, I’ll leave you folks to figger it out,” Roy said. “Some o’ us have work to do.” He rose. “I’ll have a look for her in town, Ben. Joe, what was her last name?”

“I don’t know,” Joe admitted. “She just called herself Jennie, and insisted I do the same.”

“She did the same to me,” Roy said.

“And us,” Hoss chimed in.

“I’ll find her,” Roy assured them and left.

*****

The Cartwrights spent the next few days recovering from their experiences. Adam’s cough settled into his chest, and he and Joe spent their days coughing at one another. Ben made a miraculous recovery from his dip in the river, without a single ill effect. Hoss sneezed once or twice, but that was about it for him. Within a week, Joe was up on his feet again, although still rather sore.

The weather improved, until the summer looked like a summer, not like winter. They reveled in the warmer weather, although there was plenty of work to do, as always. But some how, it didn’t seem as hard work this year. Ben put it down to their near loss of Joe. Whatever it was, they worked and played harder that summer, and got more done than they ever had. Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold.

The herd sold for the best price ever in the autumn sales. They lost fewer calves to pumas and wolves. No hands were hurt in the round up, and even Joe got through the rest of the summer unscathed, which was something of a miracle by itself.

As Ben said, it was as though they had been specially blessed, although he didn’t know why.

But they never found a single trace of Jennie.

They speculated many nights as they sat by the fire. Was she a real person? Was she an angel or a fairy? How did she manage to bring Ben, Adam and Hoss home so quickly that night?

The questions never got answered, but Jennie was remembered, thanked and blessed many times that year as a special gift from God, sent when they needed her the most.

*****End*****

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