The long ride away from the outlaw camp tired both Joshua and Nathan. When they covered several miles, Joshua felt it was safe enough to stop and sleep for at least a couple of hours. He was concerned about Nathan. The youngster probably hadn't had a decent night's rest.
Joshua closed his eyes for a moment when suddenly he heard a branch snap. He reached for his gun but was stopped by a male voice.
"Hold it! Don't try it!" Jimmy approached Joshua and kicked the gun away from Joshua's reach.
"Mister, I don't mean the boy any harm." Joshua said, holding up his hands. Teaspoon and Buck walked over to where Nathan slept. Buck gently woke the boy. "Nathan, wake up."
When he opened his eyes he was surprised to see Buck . With a big smile he hugged the express rider. Nathan looked at Jimmy holding a gun at Joshua.
<He is my friend> Nathan signed.
"Teaspoon? Buck, Jimmy?" A female voice captured everyone's attention. It was Lou and Ike. They rode their horses through the thick brush, ducking from the low lying branches.
"I thought you two were at the station." Teaspoon said
"The more folks it takes to get Nathan back, the better," Lou answered. "Cody and Noah are running the mail, while Kid is helping Rachel take care of things at the station."
Ike dismounted, and Nathan ran to him. Ike picked him up and hugged him.
"The men that we are after, picked up and left sometime during the night. Signs from the campfire show that it hadn't been put out too long ago. I figure they went the opposite direction; otherwise we would have ran into them by now." Teaspoon said
"They are lookin' for me," Joshua said.
"You have some explaining to do… just who are you?" Jimmy asked still pointing the gun at Joshua.
"If you'll put that gun away; I'll be a lot more relaxed to explain everything to you," Joshua said staring at the pistol Jimmy held.
Jimmy put the gun back in his holster. Crossing his arms in front of his chest, he stood silent waiting for Joshua's answer.
"I'm trying to get the kid away from Frank and the rest of the gang. Frank only wants the boy because he witnessed…"
"Witnessed what?!" Jimmy ordered.
"Frank killed Nathan's father during a raid. A raid that… a damn raid that I took part in. I didn't kill anybody!! I was responsible for takin' the horses." Joshua lowered his head and shut his eyes as if trying not to relieve the raid that ended the life of Nathan's father. "I kept telling Frank NO!! Nobody has to die!! I'll never forget the smile on Frank's face when he pulled the trigger… He didn't have to kill Nathan's dad. I should have done something!! I SHOULD HAVE DONE something!! Maybe Nathan wouldn't be in this mess…"
Joshua looked at everyone. "Let me help you capture Frank and the others. I want him stopped. I… I also understand that I still have to be locked up for being a part of this mess, but please… let me help you get him!" Joshua waited for an answer. Lou, Buck, Ike and Jimmy all looked at Teaspoon for a decision.
"All right. Let's go find Frank. Then again, he might find us first!" Teaspoon said.
Rachel, Kid and Noah sat at the dinner table in silence. Noah was the first to break the silence. "Wonder how Cody is doing with that new express horse? I heard he wasn't easy to ride."
Rachel pushed herself away from the table and stood in front of the window, staring out at the evening sunset.
"Rachel, everybody is gonna be fine. Nathan is fine." Kid tried to reassure her.
"I agree with Kid," Noah said.
Rachel sat back down. "I want them all back now," She said softly. "I want our family back…"
Frank sat on his horse and studied the tracks that lead several feet ahead into a brushy area. A gang member reined up beside him and said, "It would be hard to get a horse through all that, with the low lying tree limbs and thick brush."
"Yeah. It can be done though." Frank reached into his coat pocket, and pulled out a cigar. "They couldn't have gone too far in all that. The tracks do lead in that direction." Frank lit the cigar and puffed on it. "Well, best we get going. We've got a boy to get and Joshua." Frank ordered the men.
Frank grinned at the question, and then answered, "Kill them! Something I should have done in the first place!" The men spurred their horses forward through the thick brush.
"So, what's the plan Teaspoon?" Jimmy asked.
"I haven't quite figured one out yet. I've been wondering about that Joshua fella." Teaspoon answered, taking a long look at Joshua.
Jimmy noticed and said, "Something about him ain't right. There's always the chance he might lead us into a trap."
"Well let's get goin'. Keep a keen eye on him Jimmy."
"Yes sir." Jimmy mounted the palomino, and stayed a few feet behind all the others. Teaspoon and Buck lead the way, while Lou, Ike and Nathan followed. Joshua had his hands tied behind his back. His reins were looped around Ike's saddle horn. The tightness of the rope was beginning to chafe his wrists. With each step the horse took, he grimaced at the raw wound.
Sometime during the journey, Nathan fell ill. A high fever overtook the youngster. Lou agreed to take Nathan back to Rock Creek herself, while the others continued to look for Frank and the gang.
"Nathan?" Lou halted her horse and put her palm against the youngster's forehead. "Your burning up."
Lou remembered seeing a small stream a few feet away. She slid from her horse, and carefully lifted Nathan from the saddle onto the ground. Taking a cloth from her saddle bag, she raced to the stream to soak it with cool water. If I can get his fever down, then we can make it back to Rock Creek… she thought. Rising slowly to keep from slipping on the rocks, she had a strange feeling that she was being watched. Suddenly, a large hand covered her mouth, fighting to flee the abductor; she lost her balance and was being dragged from the stream.
“Son, what is bothering you?” Teaspoon asked Jimmy. Jimmy was quiet the rest of the day, and seemed to be inattentive to the conversations that took place.
“I hope that Lou and Nathan made it back safe to Rock Creek.” Jimmy answered in a voice of uncertainty. “I’m not doubting Lou’s ability to take care of herself, but I feel like we’ve been going around in circles. Why haven’t we ran into Frank, or why hasn’t he ran into us by now?”
Teaspoon pondered the thought. “You and I have been thinkin’ the same thing. We may have been had…”
Jimmy searched Teaspoon’s gaze. “Sure looks like it!”
Jimmy fixed his gaze on Joshua, who was sitting by the fire. Walking up to where Joshua sat, Jimmy grabbed Joshua by the shirt collar. “Now you tell me what you know, and you tell me now!!”
“Jimmy!” Teaspoon said.
Never taking his gaze away from Joshua, Jimmy shouted, “Let me handle this Teaspoon! It’s because of him that we are all in this mess!”
Suddenly Jimmy hit Joshua twice in the face. Hard.
“Dammit Jimmy! I said stop! This ain’t the way to do this!” Teaspoon ordered.
Jimmy pointed his finger in Joshua’s direction and said, “I have a mind to kill you right now!”
The sound of an approaching rider broke the commotion. “It’s an express rider,” Buck said. “Looks like Noah…”
Noah rode into the camp, surprised to see Teaspoon and the others. “How long have you all been here? Rachel is worried sick.” Noah asked.
“Son, we will explain all that later, but first we need to know if Lou and Nathan made it back to Rock Creek yet?” Teaspoon asked.
Noah’s expression turned to worry. “When did they leave? I just came from the way station to run the mail, and haven’t seen either of them.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. C'mon we are taking the same route Lou took. We better find them on time.” Teaspoon said fighting the worried thoughts about what they may have already done to Lou and the youngster.
“So she gave you a hell of a fight huh?!” The gang member asked Frank. Frank was nursing a few scratches on his face, and one on his neck. Frustrated by all the jokes from the others, he said “Hush up! Keep a close watch on her.”
Lou placed a cool wet cloth on Nathan’s forehead. The youngster slept peacefully. She kept checking his temperature periodically, and noticed improvement.
The gang member with dark stains on his teeth, walked up to where Lou sat. “How’s the boy doing?”
Lou cast a cold stare at the man and asked, “Why do you care!”
“Lady, I have a good mind to teach you a lesson. But first I’d like to have a little fun… with you.” His stare made Louise very uncomfortable. Her stomach turned as she knew what kind of thoughts were playing in his mind.
Lou courageously met his stare. “Look mister! You lay a hand on me, or this boy; and you will die! If I don’t kill you first, believe me there’s someone out there who will!”
The gunman backed away slowly. Grinning. “All right I’ll leave you alone… for now anyway.”
Joshua’s hands were raw with pain. Jimmy noticed him flinching from the discomfort. “Rope is a little too tight, huh?” Jimmy asked him.
Joshua looked at Jimmy. “Look my wrists are raw and blood-streaked, will you please untie them. I am not gonna make a run for it. I really don’t have anywhere to go.”
Jimmy cast a sarcastic grin. “All right.” He untied the rope that held Joshua’s hands together. As soon as he released the rope, Joshua breathed a sigh of relief. The skin burned as he gently touched the wound.
Suddenly, Jimmy hit Joshua in the face again. Hard enough to knock him down to the ground. Jimmy took one of his pistols and threw it on the ground next to Joshua.
“Pick it up!” Jimmy ordered. He stood there with one hand on his other pistol, ready to draw.
Confused and surprised by what just occurred, Joshua said, “Look, I don’t want to fight. “
“Pick it up, I said!”
Teaspoon saw what was going on and approached Jimmy from behind. “Son, I thought I told you not to do this! The devil is eating you up inside, and your doing things that you wouldn’t normally do.”
Jimmy turned around and walked away. Teaspoon watched, and then turned his attention to Buck.
“See any tracks?” Teaspoon asked
“Yeah. We are heading in the right direction,” Buck said. “As thick as these woods are, they have to be camped pretty close.”
“Well, let’s keep going. We need to get them now!” Teaspoon ordered. He kept glancing over at Jimmy, who didn’t seem at all like the young man he once knew.
Lou placed the blanket over her and Nathan. Over the past several hours his fever had left. Relieved, Lou made sure that the youngster had enough of the blanket to keep him from the chilly night air. Exhausted, Louise found herself drifting into sleep.
Sometime during the night, Louise awoke. She found the gang member who harassed her earlier, pinning her down on the ground with a knife in one of his hands.
"Leave her alone!" Frank said. He held a pistol at the back of the outlaw’s head.
"Uh, Frank… I really wasn’t gonna harm her in any way."
"Hush up! Now get up and don’t you ever try that again! Cause, if I catch ya, I’ll put a bullet in ya!" Frank’s stare never left the gang member’s face.
Louise fought back tears of anger and fear, as she watched the man walk away. She couldn’t understand why Frank protected her when she and Nathan were being kidnapped. Maybe there was a good side to this Frank? Then again, maybe not.
Finding it hard to sleep, she sat there and watched Frank as he sat near the fire puffing on a cigar. He seemed to stare into the fire for long periods of time; as if going over plans, or possibly going over all the wrong things he’s ever done in his life. Sensing her stare, Frank turned around and looked at her. Lou quickly turned her attention to Nathan who was sleeping soundly.
"You’re what?!" Buck couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He stood there listening to Jimmy as he continued.
"I said that after this is all over, I’m leaving the pony express. I’ve got too much anger to deal with; one false move, and I out of the express anyway," Jimmy said.
Buck walked up to Jimmy, and looked him in the eye. "You don’t know what your saying Jimmy! What you have to deal with is inside of yourself; it has nothing to do with your job!"
<You need to think this over, Jimmy> Ike signed
"Boys, let’s ride! We found the campsite, which is less than a mile away. Frank isn’t alone, and he does have Lou and Nathan," Teaspoon shouted as he rode toward Buck, Jimmy and Ike. Jimmy took out one of his pistols and rubbed the barrel with his thumb. Buck watched him. As he walked past Jimmy, he said sarcastically, "Bet you just can’t wait to use that!"
Frank took one more drink from his tin cup, before they rode out. He threw the rest of the coffee on the campfire, putting it out. "Where to, Frank?" The outlaw asked, bringing his horse to a halt.
Frank didn’t answer at first. He studied the land before him. Thinking of the quickest way from the campsite. "Damn, there isn’t an easier way out of these woods. No matter which way we go, these thick trees will slow us down," Frank said.
Lou and Nathan followed behind Frank. The outlaw rode behind everyone. Along the way, Frank halted his horse. Stopping everyone else in their tracks.
"This can’t be right…" Frank muttered. Turning his horse around, he stopped again.
"What’s wrong ?" The outlaw asked, looking around nervously.
"Gotta find a way outta these woods," Frank said. He aggressively urged his horse forward. The horse avoided moving forward through the thick weeds covered with sharp needles. Again he kicked his horse forward. The horse reared, Frank lost his balance and fell backward.
Turning around, the outlaw saw Teaspoon and the others riding toward them. "Frank!" the outlaw shouted, while grabbing his gun. He was met with a bullet to the arm.
Frank rose up and reached for his gun. Teaspoon aimed his pistol at Frank and shouted, "Don’t do it!"
Lou told Nathan to run for cover. As the youngster swung from the horse, he ran, but not fast enough. Frank grabbed him and aimed the pistol at Nathan.
"Don’t think that I won’t do it!" He shouted to Teaspoon. Joshua carefully walked up to Frank. "Frank, let the boy go!"
Laughing with sarcasm, Frank turned the boy loose. As Nathan was running toward Joshua, Frank aimed the gun at Nathan, and cocked the barrel. Joshua ran toward Nathan, grabbing him and pushing him to the ground. Frank fired, hitting Joshua in the chest. Jimmy fired back at Frank. Frank fell backwards, hitting his head on a large rock. Jimmy ran toward where Nathan was lying, and helped the youngster back on his feet. Ike ran toward Nathan and hugged the boy.
Teaspoon and Buck ran over to Joshua, who showed signs of labored breathing. He tried to talk but couldn’t. Seconds later he died.
Rachel prepared a large dinner for the celebrated homecoming. Everyone sat at the dinner table. Conversations varied from how much everybody was missed, to how Cody was managing with the new pony express horse. Rachel even had a bag filled with every kind of candy that Nathan would enjoy.
Even through all this, Ike and Buck still hid their hurt about Jimmy’s decision. None of them could bring themselves to break the news to Teaspoon. But, somehow Teaspoon could sense what was going on.
The next morning, Jimmy cinched up the girth, and gathered the reins as he prepared to mount up.
Curious, Lou walked up to Jimmy. A pretty smile graced her face. "Jimmy where are you going?"
"Lou, I’ve got to do this," Jimmy said.
The smile slowly faded, as she sensed the sad news. She looked at the other riders, who stood by. Each stood silent as they saw what they never wanted to happen. Jimmy leaving…
Teaspoon and Rachel stood on the front porch, heartbroken. Jimmy avoided looking at Louise. For he too could sense her sorrow.
"Are you coming back?" Kid asked. He tried to think of something to say that would change Jimmy’s mind.
"I can’t answer that right now," Jimmy answered. He turned his horse around. Before leaving, he looked at Teaspoon and politely gestured a goodbye. He looked at Nathan who was standing next to Rachel. He noticed a tear on the youngster’s cheek. The riders watched as Jimmy rode off.
"Ride safe Jimmy," Lou whispered. "Hope you come to peace with whatever it is that is tormenting you…"