Jeanne calmly helped Manette off the horse and when her daughter skipped off through the gate to find Mark, she faced a concerned Sarah Rose.
“I am doing what I must do,” she said, her voice quiet.
“Harumph!” The landlady looked her up and down. “Don’t tuck your shirt in, honey. Look too much like a woman. Where’d you get those duds, anyway?”
Jeanne gulped. “From Mr. Ness, at the mercantile.”
The older woman narrowed her eyes. “You’re riding to Gillette Springs.” It wasn’t a question.
Jeanne looked her straight in the eye. “I will be away for perhaps four nights. Would you—?”
“’Course I will,” the landlady interjected. “Don’t you worry, I’ll take real good care of her.”
Jeanne handed down a home-made gingham duffel bag with a fresh change of clothes for Manette. Mrs. Rose caught her hand and held it tight. “Be careful.”
Jeanne nodded and patted her vest pocket. “I will. And I have my derringer.”
Mrs. Rose’s eyes went wide, but before she could say anything more, Jeanne flapped the reins and set off down the street, heading east.
The early morning sun in the eastern sky was blinding. She tipped her hat down to shade her eyes and for the tenth time in the last hour slowed her mare and wondered whether she was doing the right thing.
It was forty miles to Gillette Springs—too far to ride in a single day. “Alors,” she said aloud, “I have only to cover half that distance today. I will camp out overnight in some protected place, and ride on tomorrow morning.”
Her thighs felt the burn of five unbroken hours on horseback. She kept her focus on the road far ahead, watching for a puff of dust that would indicate a rider coming toward her. So far she had seen no one on the road except for the new young doctor in town, Nathaniel Dougherty, who had barreled past her in his buggy. “Baby coming,” he had shouted. “Sorry for my dust.”
She had drawn rein and turned the mare away from the flurry of grit and dirt, then resumed her pace.
By noon the sun rode over her head like a huge gold plate and the heat pounded down on her head and shoulders. The scant breeze died; the dust coated her skin and made her already dry throat raw. By dusk, she was fighting to keep her drooping eyelids open.
She scanned ahead for a stand of trees or large boulders where she could roll out her woolen blanket and be screened from the road. She would not risk a fire; smoke would draw attention. Perhaps unwanted attention. A shiver went up her spine and she smoothed her hand over her vest pocket where the derringer lay.
Just ahead, off the road to the left, she spotted a clump of trees. They were lush and green and would provide good cover for herself and the mare. She pulled the mare to a halt and squinted into the haze.
A single rider was moving toward her, the horse kicking up puffs of dust. She was too far away to clearly see either the rider or the horse, but she was sure it was a man. Most women rode sidesaddle.
He was coming fast. She kicked the mare and galloped off the road, headlong into the sheltering copse of leafy cottonwoods and green pines. And a spring! Was she dreaming? Water bubbled lazily into an inviting pool. Her body felt parched from her forehead to her toes.
Quickly she slid off the mare and parted the lush branches until she could see the road. The rider had not altered his pace but was still not close enough to her thicket to be a danger. She grasped the mare’s bridle, held its head down close to her shoulder and smoothed her hand over its nose. Standing motionless, afraid to breathe, she listened for hoofbeats. Holy Father, please, do not let the mare whinny.
The horseman drew closer. Close enough to see her if she pulled aside some branches, but she dared not; he might notice the motion of the trees.
The sound of hoofbeats grew louder, and still louder…and then passed on. She waited until the pounding hooves faded into silence and all she could hear was her mare’s soft breathing and air being pulled into her own lungs.
She was safe! She cast a glance at the tumble of flat stones someone had used as a campfire. “Non. No fire. I will eat cold beans and apples.”
She waited until full dark to sponge off the dirt in the small pool and lay out her bedroll. She dribbled a handful of oats into the mare’s nosebag, then wrapped herself up in the warm wool blankets and forked the cold beans straight out of the can. She felt for the derringer, drew it out and laid it within easy reach. She closed her eyes.
An incessant question hammered in her brain: what would Wash say to her?
A dry leaf crackled and her lids snapped open. A moment later a twig snapped. Very slowly Jeanne sat up and reached for the gun.