Nathan Kincaid #2 – Saving Jessica (by Jenny G)

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Summary: Joe finds more than enough trouble.  Part of the Nathan Kincaid series and written for the 2005 Convention Anthology.

Rating:  T  (7,550 words)

Nathan Kincaid Series:

Fire in the Sky
Saving Jessica
The White Shark
Anyone Who Fights One of Us

 

Saving Jessica

The two gun shots sounded in quick succession, one hard upon he heels of the other. The reverberations rolled, flat and ugly, over the landscape to be absorbed forever by the thickly forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

 

Only seconds before, Joe Cartwright, once known to all and still occasionally referred to – in forgetful moments – by close friends and family, as Little Joe, had been riding with complete unconcern through the northernmost pastureland of the Ponderosa ranch. Joe was a carefree, confident and self-contained man with a lightweight frame and a late maturing face that had only recently hardened into the flat planes of manhood. On this particular morning in spring, he was enjoying himself, gathering up the last of the widely spread cattle for sorting and branding, doctoring the sick and driving the young stock to fatten on the high, dry ranges away to the south and the west. In truth, there were not many cattle to find: the rolling grasslands were strangely denuded.

 

Joe was not unduly concerned. He fully expected to find a whole bunch of cows and their calves and perhaps a hundred two and three-year-old steers hiding out in the draws and the gullies on the ranch’s northern border. He was riding easily in that direction enjoying the warmth of the sun on his back and whistling the strains of a lively jig when the sound of the reports reached him.

 

The tune died instantly on his lips, and he pulled his pinto horse to a prancing, dancing stop. He sat up straight in the saddle and gazed around anxiously. He thought the shots came from the North: from where he was headed, the place where the richly planted and carefully tended grazing of the Ponderosa gave way to the lower, harsher country of the Comstock Valley. There was no more shooting, and the familiar sounds of the great outdoors quickly re-established themselves. Investigation was certainly in order. Joe turned his horse’s head in that direction and dug in his heels.

 

It was impossible to fence all the far-flung boundaries of the vast, sprawling ranch. The terrain was too varied, too rough and too inaccessible to build around it all, the distances were just too great and the expense, prohibitive. Joe knew where the boundary line lay. The black and white gelding under him covered a mile and more at a rapid pace. Joe had to pull hard on the bridle to slow him down as the ground became rougher and more broken and began to slope sharply downwards. He was a long way from home, and the last thing he wanted was to be left afoot by an injured horse.

 

They crested the ridge with the horse moving at little more than a walk. The gelding balked and threw up his head. The sharp smell of blood rose up like smoke out of the gully. Two red-brown and white carcasses lay down below, and the grass was stained scarlet. Joe spoke some soft words to the gelding to quiet him and gave him a pat on the neck. The horse snorted and rolled his eyes. Like all of his kind, he disliked the stench of death.

 

Joe rode along the line of the ridge ‘til he found an easy way down then rode back along the gully to the sight of the slaughter. He slipped out of the saddle and left the nervous horse ground-tied, not taking him close.

 

The carcasses turned out to be those of cattle, as Joe has assumed. They had been recently shot and then hastily and wastefully butchered. The best cuts of meat and the hearts and the livers had been taken, the bones and the hides left to rot – out on the open range it wouldn’t take long. The animals belonged to the Cartwrights; there was no doubt of that. The hides wore the pine-tree brand. What made Joe really angry that while one beast was a steer, albeit a young one, the other had been a cow, prime breeding stock, and she had been carrying a calf inside her.

 

Joe spent some minutes studying the draw and the surrounding area. The grass was well trodden around the carcasses and the ground bloody and mauled. Once away from the site of the butchery, he was able to make sense of the tracks: there had been two men on horses with two or three mules to carry away their ill-gotten gains. A well-organised party, they had acted with speed and determination, carrying out their grisly business in just a few minutes and getting away. It was easy to figure out which way they had gone – northwards into the Comstock valley. Joe, with, perhaps, more impetuosity than good common sense, decided to go after them.

 

Twenty minutes later Joe left the Ponderosa behind, passing by the well-remembered landmarks that defined the boundary line: an alignment of hills, a curiously shaped rise in the land that delineated the northernmost edge of the Cartwright’s property. Shortly afterwards, as the trail that he followed became more complex and, at the same time, easier to read, he tightened the rein, slowing the still fretful pinto to a walk and then to a stop. He leaned forward in the saddle to pat the gelding’s neck and pull at one of his ears.

 

“Well, boy, it doesn’t look like the first time our friends have been up to their tricks.” Joe spoke aloud his musings, knowing that the sound of his familiar voice would soothe the horse’s nameless fears. It was apparent that this was no case of casual theft committed by some hungry sodbuster with a family to feed or a wagonload of passing migrants. This event was part of a systematic and ongoing slaughter of Cartwright cattle and the theft of their meat. Joe hadn’t seen any more carcasses – the scavengers that inhabited these remote ranges had made certain of that – but here where he sat, several sets of tracks came together, all leading down from the ranch and heading off in the same direction, making a well-worn path. “I guess we’d better go-see what they’re up to, eh?” he suggested, not really expecting a reply. He lifted his hands and the gelding moved on.

 

The trail led downwards, following the natural lie of the land, but it didn’t meander. The men who had made it were not idle wanderers with time on their hands; they moved with a purpose. Before very long he found himself deep in the valley with lightly wooded hills rising on either side of him and the majestic loom of the snow capped mountains beyond, their feet in the mists of the distance and their peaks suspended up in the sky.

 

The valley had been well touched and brightened by the early spring. The frost-scorched grasses had sprung fresh from the roots and everywhere was green. There was no wildlife in evidence, which Joe found peculiar.  No small mammals nibbled the tender shoots or rummaged in the newly warmed earth for grubs; there were few insects and a curious lack of birdsong. The leaf-filtered sunlight and the stillness lent the landscape a brooding, abandoned air that made the small hairs on Joe’s nap prickle.

 

The path that he followed swerved abruptly around a grassy hummock and joined a wider and much travelled road. Two wide ruts cut deep into the turf, clear evidence that heavily loaded wagons came this way often. The road climbed out of the valley and away to the east. Before Joe could properly consider the implications the horse underneath him balked. Joe shortened his reins and sat more securely down in his saddle; now was not a good time to be thrown. He rubbed a hand up and down the trembling, sweat-dampened neck. “Easy, boy. Easy. What do you hear?”

 

The horse flicked his ears back and forth. Joe urged his forward with hands and heels, and he advanced with nervous, mincing steps onto the hard-packed earth of the road. A few more yards and Joe heard it as well: the steady thump, draw and hiss of a steam driven pump.

 

The sound came from the depths of the valley, from a good mile away, but was quite unmistakable to a man who had visited Virginia City most weeks of his life. Drawn by his inborn and insatiable curiosity, Joe followed the road. Gradually the aspect of the valley changed. The sides became steeper and closed in on either side. Before very long, Joe saw the signs of human occupation. Tar-paper shacks of a kind he hadn’t seen since the early days of the silver boom and crudely built, sway-backed shanties thrown together out of unpeeled, rough-hewn tree trunks, broken up packing crates and sheets of rusting, corrugated iron were interspersed with the piles of debris and detritus humankind inevitable left in its wake.

 

There were people here and there: mostly sharp-eyed women who washed linens in great iron pots and cooked on open-air fires, and children who scavenged for firewood or tended to goats or a few scrawny chickens and watched him ride past with curious faces.

 

Where the valley widened again a small settlement of cabins and workshops and crude, canvas shelters had sprung up like mushrooms on a warm summer’s day. A brisk stream splashed and tumbled out of the hills. Part of the watercourse had been diverted to run by the buildings, the rest dammed up to provide a head of water for the pumps and the nearby sluices. Joe followed the woodwork along with his eyes.

 

Ahead was a scene of absolute devastation: the working face of an opencast mine. Men swarmed everywhere, shouting and yelling to make themselves heard over the noise of the pumps. Powerful jets of water were aimed at the hillside. Vast stretches of trees and brush covered earth had already been washed away. The loosened slurry was diverted away into the network of sluices where it was washed and washed again in the search for the tiniest fleck of the precious yellow metal. The bones of the earth lay naked and exposed to the stark light of the day. Joe walked his horse carefully now, avoiding the ruts in the road for the sake of the animal’s legs, and rode into the cluster of buildings.

 

The untidy jumble of structures included offices and storerooms, a blacksmith’s shop, kitchens and some sleeping accommodation, all the assorted facilities required for the maintenance and well-being – even the comfort and recreation – of the men who worked out here in the wilds.

 

Joe was rather bemused by it all and intensely curious. He was not too pleased at finding a hydraulic mining operation so close to the ranch. The installation might not exactly have been kept secret, but its owners – whoever they were – had not been too eager to noise it abroad. Joe hadn’t heard a whisper about it the last time he’s been in town. The other thing that made him wonder was that this was clearly a gold mine. Gold had been discovered at the head of Six-mile canyon in eighteen fifty-nine and further discoveries of gold-bearing quartz had been made on the nearby slopes of Mount Davidson. The gold, however, had been quickly exhausted. It was the blue-grey mud that adhered so stickily to pick and to shovel that had proved the salvation and the fame and the fortune of the Comstock Valley for that same, sticky mud was rich silver ore. Now, in these later days, even silver could be found only far underground. Joe has to assume that a pocket of gold had been found close enough to the surface and that these men were extracting in sufficient quantities to make the work worth while. He figured he should find out more about it.

 

One stained canvas shelter was clearly marked ‘saloon’ with a hand painted sign. Joe slipped from the saddle and tied the pinto to the makeshift hitching rail outside. Within, the tent was spacious but gloomy and airless. It smelled of beer and the raw earthen floor. There was a mismatched assortment of tables and chairs and a makeshift bar: several rough planks supported on barrels.

 

Joe paused in the entrance while his eyes adjusted to the filtered light. Four pairs of eyes gazed impassively back at him. There were almost no customers at this time of day when the pumps and the men were working; only two, narrow faced men sat at the. The looks that they gave him were not welcoming. The bartender eyed him with a cold and professional gaze. The fourth person in the canvas walled room was a very attractive – and very young – lady. Joe pushed back his hat and went to the bar. “I’ll have a beer.”

 

“Sure thing, Mister,” the bartender said in an impersonal voice. He put down his cloth and the glass he’d been polishing and served Joe his beer from a keg at the back.

 

“Nice place you’ve got here,” Joe ventured. “You been here long?”

 

The barman only grunted: a taciturn type, Joe decided. Beer in hand, the youngest Cartwright turned his back to the bar and turned his attention to the young woman. She was small, of almost elfin proportions, demure and pretty in a simple white blouse and a plain, dark-blue skirt. She lifted her head and smiled shyly. Joe smiled back. She had deep-blue eyes and a mass of very dark brown curls that framed her small, pale face. She was cleaning down tables and straightening chairs in preparation for the evening trade. Joe noticed that she had tiny hands. Joe’s smile became boyishly crooked, and the young woman blushed.

 

As he watched her work, Joe sipped his beer and considered. He thought about gold. The minute specks of precious yellow metal still to be found in these half-forgotten valleys were not going to make any man rich very soon – and men got greedy. Already these men were stealing beef from the Ponderosa on a regular basis. If there were signs that gold was to be found in the soil beneath her rich pastures or in her brush covered hills, how long before covetous eyes turned in that direction? It would not be the first time that the Cartwrights had fought to keep their hold on the land. Joe felt fully justified in finding out as much as he could about the operation and the men who owned it.

 

The beer wasn’t bad. Joe had drunk half way down the tall glass when the tent flap opened for a burly, well-built figure in a sweat stained white shirt with a dark woollen coat thrown over. He was followed closely by four other men, obviously henchmen and hangers-on, all dressed much alike and wearing the same grim expressions. The big man glared around from beneath lowered black brows, and his eyes lighted quickly on Joe. Three long strides covered the ground in between them and left them just a few yards apart. “That pinto pony belong to you?” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the approximate direction of the horse tied up outside.

 

Joe eyed him thoughtfully. The big man was taller, and he had to look up to his face. “It’s my horse,” he conceded.

 

The big man growled down at him, “Who are you, Mister? What you doin’ here?”

 

Joe was aware of the other men spread out in a fan-shape in front of him and of the barman close at his back. He didn’t doubt for a moment that there was a short-barrelled scattergun hidden among the barrels stacked up behind him. He didn’t much fancy his chances if it came to a fight. The girl had withdrawn to the far side of the tent and watched with wide, frightened eyes. At least she was out of the line of fire. Joe’s response was wary, “Who’s askin’?”

 

The big man considered him. He tucked his thumbs into his broad, leather belt. He had a rough-hewn, not unhandsome face, heavily stubbled with a day’s growth of whiskers. “I’m Johanne Salisbury,” he said finally. “I’m the mine manager; I got the right to ask.”

 

“My name’s Joe,” Joe said simply and left it at that. Some sixth sense made him keep quiet concerning the rest of it. The sin of omission was better than any man’s lie.

 

The man called Salisbury looked at him curiously when he gave no second name, but anywhere west of the Mississippi it was considered more than bad manners to enquire after more names than a man was prepared to offer. The dark eyes swept over him again, hard and hostile, absorbing the curling brown hair that stuck out – just a bit – from under his hat, the clear hazel eyes with their flecks of deep green, the lean, narrow-hipped build and the clothes: linen shirt and leather vest trimmed with conchos, heavy wool pants and the casually worn, left-handed gun. It was plain that Joe was no miner.

 

“Can’t you read, cowboy?” Salisbury enquired acerbically. “Didn’t you see the ‘keep out’ signs along by the road?”

 

Joe lifted one shoulder in a lop-sided shrug. “I didn’t see any signs.” That declaration was totally honest. “I came in over the hills – saw this place and thought I might stop the night.” It was almost the truth; it was too late to ride back to ranch before nightfall.

 

Salisbury’s eyes narrowed. He was suspicious. He had things to hide, and he considered that Joe was a spy. Joe didn’t blame him; he wasn’t far wrong. Salisbury exchanged long looks with his nearest companion. “You know this fella?”

 

“I seen him someplace.” The other man scratched a chisel shaped, black bristled chin. “I just can’t place him.”

 

Joe didn’t doubt it. Most miners passed through Virginia City at one time or another, and Joe was no stranger there. He put on an air of easy confidence. “I shall be moving along in the morning.” Truth was, he needed to carry the news of this place back to his family as fast as the pinto could run.

 

Salisbury considered him a few moments longer. He didn’t much like this confident and somewhat cocky young man, and it showed. He pushed a stiffened finger into the centre of Joe’s chest – not quite touching him but near enough. “See that you do.” He turned on his heel and, with a lingering look at the girl in the shadows he stalked out of the tent. His minions exchanged looks with each other, gave Joe a few more suspicious looks for good measure, and trailed along after him. Joe caught the young woman’s eye and winked. He put his glass back on the bar; the beer had grown warm in his hands.

 

In the fading light of the afternoon, Joe rode up the valley to take a closer look at the mining operation. It was every bit as ugly and as unpleasant as he has imagined. He didn’t see any sign of gold. Great troughs had been ripped into the tender earth; enormous slabs of hillside had been washed away. The different soils, Brown, red and black were mixed together into an amorphous sludge that ran through the sluices and was carried away by the muddied, discoloured stream. The miners – sweating, hard-eyed men – watched him with distrust, some with open eyed hostility. He was a stranger, and his face didn’t fit. Few would pause in their work to exchange a remark or to answer a question.

 

The total and unparalleled opposition of Ben Cartwright, Joe’s father, to all hydraulic mining was well known throughout Nevada and a wide sweep of California. The savage rape and desecration of the landscape was a thing that old Ben despised, and he was prepared to expound the fact loudly at every opportunity. Faced with wanton destruction on a scale he hadn’t encountered before, Joe found that he shared his father’s sentiments. He had to keep his teeth clenched tight on his words. Increasingly, he became aware that he was on enemy territory – that his family name, should it become known, would be a danger to him.

 

As the last of the light faded out of the sky, the working day came to a close. The silence, when the pumps were turned off, was eerie. Joe joined an orderly line-up of miners and paid fifty cents for a bowl of hot beef stew and a hunk of tough bread. The meat was sweet and tender, and Joe knew damn well where it had come from. Afterward, he made his way back to the tent marked ‘saloon’.

 

The place was already crowded, filled to the roof space with miners and the men who handled the pumps and the mules, the cooks and the cleaners and the office workers. Their shadows danced on the bright canvas walls. Inside, all was lit by the light of oil lamps and warmed by the heat of men’s sweating bodies. It was loud with the clamour of voices and rank with the stench of sweat and cigars. All the tables were taken, and Joe had to elbow his way to the bar. He ordered a whisky and found that the rotgut was sour. He decided to make the one drink last for the rest of the evening.

 

He surveyed the crowd. There were several women mixed in with the men: ladies in bright coloured dresses and false, painted smiles. Joe looked for the young woman that he’d seen earlier and found her. The skirt and the blouse had been exchanged for a blue satin gown. Small as she was, she looked like a waif of a child all dressed up in her mother’s oversized dress. The powder and paint were out of place on her face. She didn’t look happy. In amongst the noise and confusion, she appeared rather lost. Joe waited until she turned in his direction and gave her his best, boyish smile.

 

Her face lit with pleasure. She took the smile as an invitation and pushed her way through the crowd. “I’m glad you came back,” she said, rather breathless. “I hoped that you might.”

 

“I wanted to say a proper hello.” Although Joe wasn’t overly tall, the top of the young woman’s dark, curly head came just to the hinge of his jaw. He made her the time-honoured offer. “Can I buy you a drink

 

“Yes please!” Her acceptance was a little too eager, a little too quick.”

 

Joe gave the barman a nod, and the cold-eyed fellow poured two fingers of whiskey into a glass.  Joe paid with a small silver coin.  The woman and Joe sipped at their glasses and eyed each other over the rims. The woman pulled a wry face as if the raw liqueur scorched her throat and she didn’t much like it. Someone jostled her hard from behind, and the whisky slopped to the edge of the glass. She only just caught it in time to stop it from spilling over. Joe caught her arm to steady her. “Would you like to sit down?”

 

She flashed him a swift smile of gratitude and gave a quick nod. Joe steered her away from the bar.

 

He found a single seat at the back of the tent, still warm from a big miner’s butt. He dragged it away from the table and sat the girl down on his knee. She squealed a little and giggled with girlish delight, and that made Joe laugh. “I think we should introduce ourselves,” he suggested as she settled herself comfortably on his lap and slithered one soft white arm ‘round his neck. “My name’s Joe.”

 

“I know. I heard you tell Mister Salisbury.” She slid him a glance – a shy one – then lowered her eyed. “I’m Jessica.”

 

“That’s a real pretty name.” Joe put an arm ‘round her waist to steady her. “And how long have you worked here, Jessica?”

 

“Only a week.” Her ivory cheek flushed rose pink. She sipped her whisky as if it were a duty, and he felt her shudder as the fiery fluid burned its way down to her belly. He didn’t blame her. He had been many years an adult himself before he had developed a taste for it.

 

“You don’t have to drink that if you don’t like it.” He took the glass away from her and set it down on the table. Her face sort of crumpled. She looked so sad and forlorn that he thought she might burst into tears. “You don’t seem to like it much here.”

 

He watched the shadows dance in her eyes: doubt, defiance, regret, some little fear. Her young face was suddenly lined with a wisdom beyond her few years. For all the paint and the perfume, she was a child grown into a woman too soon. “I hate it,” she said bitterly. “These men all want to kiss me and cuddle me and have me sit on their knee.”

 

Considering their present position, Joe chuckled. “And what about me?”

 

Jessica looked at him gravely; “You’re different. You have a nice face. Their faces are all pinched and mean.” It was an innocent, child-like trust. “I thought it would be such an adventure. To go out into the world and make my own living. I guess I made a mistake.”

 

“It’s not a mistake. I think you are a little too young. Why don’t you go home and see how you feel in a year or two?”

 

Now she looked like she might cry again. “I don’t think my Pa would let me come home.”

 

Joe knew how it was when a father got mad. “I’m sure he will when he cools down a bit. Is there somewhere else you could go?”

 

“I have an aunt in Virginia City.” She brightened, and then her face fell. “But Mister Salisbury would never let me go. He says that he likes me – that he wants us to be real good friends.”

 

Joe could imagine the sort of friendship that Johanne Salisbury had in mind – it wasn’t likely to be paternal. He looked around him, expecting to find the big man’s eyes burning into him, reading his thoughts. Salisbury wasn’t in sight. Joe made a decision; “I’ll take you home with me. I live on a ranch not too far from here. You can stay with my family for a few days while we get in touch with your aunt.”

 

Jessica gazed at him. Her blue eyes were almost violet in the yellow lamplight. “Will you, Joe? Will you really get me out of here and take me home with you?”

 

How could a red-blooded Cartwright man refuse? “Sure I will. Here’s what we’ll do…” Joe pulled her close to him as if to nuzzle her neck and whispered his secrets into her ear.

 

It was midnight and most of the miners were on their way to their beds when Joe emerged from the tent. The night was moonless but brilliant with starlight and cool, although not cold. The air carried the wet-earth smell of the mine. Joe had no bed to go to, but in any event his mind was too filled with plans and excitement to allow him to sleep. He took a walk through the encampment. The workshops and cook-tents were all closed up for the night, the premises dark and silent. Light leaked from the dormitory buildings, and a stray lamp shone in an unshuttered office window where somebody burned the late-night oil.

 

He had no doubt at all that his father would gladly welcome Jessica into the heart of the family – in fact, Ben Cartwright would revel in the opportunity of entertaining such a young and attractive lady for as long as she wanted to stay. Joe’s problems concerned getting her there and principally, with getting her safely away from the mining encampment and out of Salisbury’s clutches. Joe already knew that the mine manager mistrusted him and was certainly watching his every move. If he were also keeping an eye on Jessica for reasons of his own, it would make it doubly difficult to spirit her away. What he needed to do was to secure their horses. His own pinto pony was stabled in an open sided, lean-to shed down by the stream. The gelding would be rested by now, and he was always ready for a gallop in the first, fresh light of the morning. Now he needed to beg or to borrow an animal for Jessica to ride. It was time to investigate the possibilities.

 

With that purpose firmly in mind, he turned back towards the stream. He was prowling past the saloon – now in darkness – when he sensed, rather than heard a movement in the darkness behind him. He froze and stiffened, his hand hovering close to his gun. A soft woman’s voice called out his name; “Joe Cartwright.”

 

As he turned around the woman stepped out of the deeper shadows cast by the canvas walls. “I knew if I waited awhile, you’d come back this way.”

 

Joe’s blood ran cold with the shock of surprise. Her face was familiar; he recalled sharing a bottle once or twice in a saloon in Virginia City. He remembered now that she had been in the tent earlier that evening, plying her trade.

 

She had a short chunky figure in a brilliant red dress, a pale rounded face and ivory-white shoulders above the frill of the low-cut neckline. She smiled with a red painted mouth and swayed her hips as she walked towards him. Clearly, she remembered him very well indeed. Joe groped in his memory for a name to go with the face.

 

She walked right up to him and Joe took a half a pace back. “You’re the last person I expected to find here.”

 

“I could say the same,” Joe rejoined with a grin.

 

She stood very close and Joe smelled the sweet scent of her yellow hair. She reached up with soft white arms and clasped her hands behind his neck. She pulled his face down and kissed him. The kiss was also familiar. Joe’s eyes opened wide with surprise. He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness, then settled them lightly on the lady’s waist. In a moment, he kissed her back; he even began to enjoy it.

 

The woman sighed as they came up for air. “I’m not surprised you didn’t mention your family name,” she purred. “I’m sure Mister Salisbury would be very interested to know what it was. Mister Kincaid told him to watch out for you Cartwrights; he would love to get his hands on Ben Cartwright’s son.”

 

“Kincaid.” Joe repeated. He knew the name. Nathan Kincaid was a high-powered and ruthless investor recently arrived in Virginia City and already causing havoc in the business community. He had his fingers in a great many pies, and he and the Cartwrights had crossed swords before. “Kincaid owns this place?”

 

“Lock, stock and barrel.”

 

Joe whistled soundlessly. A cold sweat broke out on his neck. He was deep in a nest of hornets. His instinct was to get away from this place just as fast as the pinto could run – but he had made a lady a promise: he couldn’t leave without Jessica. He swallowed hard. “You wouldn’t tell on me, would you, Ellie?” The woman’s name bobbed into his mind like a cork float in a millpond.

 

“I might.” She drew his face close and kissed him again, long and tender. Joe felt his ears pop. “And then again, I might not.” Ellie pursed her ruby-red lips into a pout that was only partly pretended jealousy. “I saw you talking to Jessica.”

 

Joe had to agree. His smile was disarmingly boyish, but his words were sincere; “She doesn’t belong here. She wants to go home to her family.

 

“And you agreed to be her knight in shining armour?”

 

Joe gently disengaged her small white hands from behind the nap of his neck and held them gently in his larger, rougher, workman-like paws. “All I need is a horse for her to ride. We can be long gone before morning.”

 

Ellie’s professional mockery gave way to an expression of earnest concern. “You won’t find it easy. Salisbury’s kind o’ sweet on that little gal. He might just take it into his head to come after you.” She heaved a big sigh. “But you’re right. Jessica isn’t cut out for this sort of work. She’d be better off trimming hats in a lady’s shop some place. I’ll lend you my chestnut mare. You can leave her in the stable in Virginia City, and I’ll pick her up the next time I’m in town.”

 

Joe leaned down to kiss her powdered cheek. “You’re a good woman, Ellie.”

 

With an air of exasperation Ellie took back her hands. “I’ll forget you said that, Joe Cartwright. It’s not the sort of reputation a lady like me needs.”

 

Ellie’s mare stood barely tall enough to be considered a horse at all. She was a pretty thing: a light, golden brown with four white socks and a broken white stripe down the front of her face. Thoroughly spoiled, she snuffled in Joe’s hands for a treat as he fitted her bridle and lipped at his face and his neck with a velvet-soft mouth. He cinched a saddle onto her back, then turned to do the same for the more familiar pinto.

 

The mining camp was all in darkness as he led the two animals back up the hill. The stars still shone brightly and the quiet was intense. A stone turned under an iron-shod hoof was startlingly loud in the silence. As agreed, Jessica had hung the blue ribbon from her hair outside the tent that she shared with two other girls. Joe brushed his knuckles against the canvas wall in a sort of a knock. Almost at once, Jessica slipped outside. She had changed out of the shiny blue gown. Now, she wore the same serviceable skirt and blouse in which Joe had first seen her with a short, woollen coat on top. Her hair was wrapped in a cotton scarf that made her eyes huge and dark in the small-hour gloom and her tiny face pale and eager. In her hand she carried a small, cloth wrapped bundle: a few personal belongings that she couldn’t bear to leave behind. “Joe, I thought you might not come.”

 

Joe smiled at her in the darkness. “I promised, didn’t I?”

 

“I wondered if you really meant it.” She sounded just like a child.

 

Joe took her bundle and tied it to the mare’s saddle. “I hope you can ride astride. I couldn’t find a side saddle.” He turned to lift her onto the small horse’s back.

 

The crunch of metal-soled miner’s boots on the stones of the path alerted them both to danger. They froze into place, all motion stilled, his hands on her waist and hers on his shoulders; both held their breath. The footsteps came closer: those of a big man walking slowly and quietly but without undue stealth. Joe eased Jessica back against the wall of the tent and motioned her to silence with a finger pressed to his lips. Wide eyed, she nodded understanding.

 

Joe risked a slow, sly, one-eyed glance ‘round the corner. As he has guessed, it was Johanne Salisbury. Even on so short an acquaintance he had recognised the heavy, authoritarian tread. The mine manager was making a last, late-night round of the camp. A man true to his type, he was paying particular attention to the ladies quarters, and, no doubt, he was keeping an eye out for Joe. He wore a heavy duty Colt in a slim-Jim holster over his belly and he carried a pump-action Winchester rifle in the crook of his arm. Joe drew back, a sick feeling deep in his gut, and joined Jessica in the darkest shadow there was.

 

Salisbury came closer. They both heard his footfalls and the steady rasp of his breath. Despite the chill of the early hour, Joe felt a trickle of sweat run down his back.

 

The footsteps stopped. For the space of three heartbeats there was only silence – then the grind of small stones as the big man turned to go back. Joe began to breathe easier. He gave Jessica the ghost of a smile and a wink of encouragement.

 

It was at just that moment that the chestnut mare decided to make friends with the lady. She snuffled loudly and nudged as Jessica’s hands with her soft, blunt muzzle.

 

Salisbury heard the sound and stopped dead in his tracks; “Who’s there?”

 

Joe closed his eyes in agony. Now what should he do? He wasn’t about to engage in a shooting match with Salisbury. He didn’t want to injure the man or to be hurt himself. He wondered, briefly, if he had time to get Jessica up on the horse and send it galloping away with a smart slap to the rump. He dismissed the idea in an instant. He doubted the girl would get far on her own, and Salisbury might even shoot her, mistaking her for a man in the dark. He came to the conclusion that just about all he could do was surrender himself. While he kept Salisbury busy, Jessica could slip back into the tent and into bed and feign surprise at all the commotion. The best Joe could expect was a beating.

 

Salisbury raised his voice in a challenge. “I know there’s somebody there. C’mon out an’ show yourself!” He pumped a cartridge into the Winchesters breech. Joe Cartwright felt his blood pound and gritted his teeth in preparation for action.

 

A figure stirred in the deepest shadow; “You’ve left it kinda late ta come a callin’, Mister.” The voice was a woman’s, the tone, a low, throaty drawl. There was a flash of bright scarlet and a shimmer of shiny silk.

 

Salisbury turned again, sharply, his face taut and suspicious. His eyes probed the darkness. “Ellie? What are you doing up and about at this time of night?”

 

The woman emerged into the stronger light. Her pale skin was luminous. “It’s not a night made for sleeping,” she said with a smile. “I thought I’d take a little walk before I turned in.”

 

Salisbury lowered the rifle to the length of his arms and watched with appreciation as she swayed towards him. His eyes were fixed on her, his earlier doubts driven completely out of his mind. Ellie stopped in front of him, a glow of seduction lighting her eyes. Without invitation she reached up and slid her arms round his neck. Joe didn’t need to see Salisbury’s face to know how it felt when she kissed him.

 

His blood singing loudly inside his head, Joe touched Jessica lightly on the arm and led her and the horses a good many yards away before boosting her into the saddle. As Ellie had clearly intended, Salisbury was too deeply engrossed in the lady’s charms to hear them canter away.

 

The cool dawn was silver, tinted with all the rich shades of a plump, ripened peach and trimmed at the edges with gold. The distant hills were shrouded in the early mists of the morning, the valleys between, still shrouded in darkness. Joe and Jessica had been riding for hours, pushing the horses hard. The rugged pinto was still fit and fresh, and Joe felt he could run on all morning, but the chestnut mare with her shorter legs and broader barrel was tiring. It was a long time since she’d been ridden more than gently up and down. And if the horse was weary, so was her rider. Jessica wasn’t used to being on horseback, if she had ridden before. After a sleepless night and all the excitement, she was pale in the face and starting to sway in the saddle. She was falling behind. Joe pulled back on the reins and slowed the pinto to keep pace with the labouring mare.

 

“It won’t be long now!” He called encouragement across to the girl. “There’s a place up ahead where we can stop and rest for a while.”

 

They had been on the Ponderosa for more than an hour, and the big ranch was scattered with sturdy shacks where cowboys working the far-flung ranges could spend a night or a stormy afternoon. It was one of these shacks that Joe had in mind: a place not far from a source of fresh water where they could rest the horses, especially the mare, make coffee for themselves – he could almost taste it – and, perhaps, snatch an hour’s sleep before they pushed on to the ranch house, arriving there in the late afternoon.

 

Joe had a feeling that he couldn’t properly account for, that it wouldn’t be a good idea to stop out here under the open sky. It was only when he chanced to look over his shoulder that he discovered why. Out of the lifting mists of the morning, four horsemen were galloping after them. At a distance of more than a mile they were only dark figures on dark coloured horses, but Joe didn’t need to see faces to know who they were. Johanne Salisbury and his henchmen were coming to claim back a lady Salisbury regarded as his. Their horses were bigger and stronger, and they were catching up fast.

 

Joe leaned across and slapped the mare hard on the quarters, urging her on with an Indian yell. She was startled and found a fresh well of energy. She leapt into a faster run. Jessica took one look behind her, and her pale face became bloodless. She settled down over the sweating mare’s neck and dug in her heels.

 

Johanne Salisbury, his horse racing out in front of the others and clearly recognisable by his bulk in the saddle, fired his pistol. There was no chance of him hitting a target, it was a warning shot, but Joe saw the puff of white smoke from the muzzle and, a half-minute later, heard the report. It was plain that the big man meant business. Joe leaned low and kicked harder.

 

The horses ran faster. The game mare’s belly all but brushed the top of the grasses. But she was starting to heave and to falter. Joe was afraid she might fall. He nudged the pinto close alongside her. If he could reach across and lift Jessica out of the saddle, the pinto could carry them both for a while at a much faster pace. Perhaps Salisbury and his cronies would become discouraged and give up the chase. It was a forlorn hope but all that he had to cling to.

 

He risked one more swift look behind him. The four men were nearer now – almost close enough to make out the faces under the hats. Would they risk shooting and hitting the girl? Joe’s back itched for the kiss of a bullet. He gathered his reins into one hand and started to reach across the gap that parted the galloping horses.

 

“Joe! Look there!” Jessica’s voice was breathless, but her eyes were shining. She was looking ahead. The horsemen were riding down the slope of the land towards them. Joe knew them both. The older man, riding erect on the tall buckskin gelding was his father, and the huge form in the tall white hat could be none other than his big brother, Hoss. A smile split his face as he sat up straight in the saddle. He took off his hat and waved it and let out a yell. He was always pleased to see his family, but this was an extra special occasion. They pulled their horses to a shambling stop just as the mare started to stumble.

 

Ben Cartwright looked at his son with concern and some disapproval. “Joseph, we were worried when you didn’t come home. We thought you had run into trouble.”

 

Joe gave him a grin. “The lady asked me to escort her home. Those fellas,” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, “had other ideas.”

 

Salisbury and his men were milling about in confusion. The newly changed odds didn’t suit them at all. At Ben’s angry scowl, they turned their horses and galloped away. Hoss chased them a way on his big, rangy black, then turned and rode back. “They ain’t gonna stop runnin’ fer a while,” he said. “Not ‘til they’ve high-tailed it clean off the Ponderosa.”

 

“That’s a good thing.” Ben gazed after the now-distant figures with steely-eyed satisfaction. “Joe was just introducing me to the lady.”

 

Joe took his cue; “Pa, this is Jessica. I said she could stay with us until we can arrange for her to go to her aunt in Virginia City.”

 

Ben touched his hat. “We’d be delighted to have you.”

 

“Why, thank you, Mister Cartwright.” Jessica’s blue eyes sparkled.

 

“And I’ve got some things to tell you about Nathan Kincaid,” added Joe.

 

Now it was Ben’s eyes that glittered. “I shall be interested to hear them.”

 

With the chestnut mare in their midst, the three Cartwright men wheeled their horses about and rode, at a more measured pace, for home.

 

 

Potter’s Bar 2002.

Next Story in the Nathan Kincaid Series:

The White Shark
Anyone Who Fights One of Us

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