Episode 4

Incident at Sutton's Creek

Jess stood with Lily, Amanda, Elizabeth and Benjamin, watching as Nick and Kevin finished loading the buckboard with supplies - and one medium sized trunk. "I still don't understand why you need so many clothes if you're just going to Braddock for a murder trial," Kevin complained, tossing the rope across to Nick so he could finishing tying things down.


"Because I have no idea how long the trial will take - and I have to wear dresses in court," Jess informed him. "You know the rules by now, brother dear."


"At least it means you're taking the buckboard and not a buggy or riding horses," he continued. "Having the buckboard gives you a place to sleep."


"I wouldn't dream of sleeping in the back of the wagon," she informed him.


"Are you sure you don't need me to go in and help at the saloon, Nick?" Lily asked.


"It's not payweek, so I think Jake and Cara can handle things. If not, they know where you are to ask for help - But they've been told to make that their *last* option. You're the silent partner now, remember? You have more important things to take care of," he said, grinning at his godson. "You be a good boy, Benjamin."


"I'm always a good boy, Uncle Nick," he replied. "Are you going to be gone for very long?"


Jess knelt beside him. "Let's see. It's a little over two days up to Braddock, and about that back. It might be a week or a little more."


"That's a long time."


"It'll be over before you know it," she promised, giving him a hug. "You'll see."


"Do you have enough blankets?" Elizabeth asked. "It gets cool at night in the mountains even in the summer."


"And there aren't any places to stay up there," Amanda nodded. "There aren't any real towns between here and Braddock."


"I think we have enough," Nick said. "We'll be okay." He looked at Jess. "Are you about ready to go?"


She nodded and let him help her onto the seat before he climbed up after her.


"You two take care," Kevin said. "Send a telegram when you get to Braddock."


"We will," Nick responded, picking up the reins. "See you all later."


As the wagon pulled out of the compound, Benjamin stood watching. "We didn't say a prayer for them," he said, looking up at his mother. "Ma?"


"We'll say a prayer for them tonight when we have supper," she told him. "And you can say another when you say your prayers before bed."


"Can we say one now?" he asked.


Something in his tone sounded sad, Kevin thought. "Sure, buddy. Why don't you say it?" He looked at Lily and his sisters, holding out his hands as Benjamin started the prayer.


"Dear God, please watch over Aunt Jess and Uncle Nick on their trip and bring them back to us soon. Amen."


"Amen," four voices echoed.




Jess held onto the wagon seat as they went over yet another bumpy road through the valley. "I'll be glad when we get to Braddock," she said. "I mean, I don't mind roughing it, this road isn't much better than a mule trail -."


"I don't think we can make it tonight - unless you want to keep going all night."


Another bump, and this time she grabbed his arm to hold onto it as well as the seat, and saw one of the horses stumble slightly. "The horses are tired," she told him.


"I know. Why don't we stop and make camp early, then get up early tomorrow and head on in?"


"Sounds like a good idea," Jess said.


Nick found a wide spot in the road, then helped Jess from the wagon before unhitching the horses. As he was pulling out bedding and supplies she asked, "You want to sleep in the wagon tonight?"


She grinned at him, grabbing the coffee pot. "I'd prefer to be close to you so I can stay warm," she said, and Nick sighed, shaking his head.


"You know if anyone in town found out that we were sharing a bedroll, Miss Donager -"


"*I'm* not going to tell them," Jess assured him. "Besides, same bedroll, but separate blankets. We're just sharing body heat to keep warm." She laughed softly before lifting the pot. "I think the stream's right down there. I'll get some water for coffee, then gather kindling for a fire."


"And I'll gather the firewood. Be careful," he warned.


"Of what? We're the only people for miles. And wild animals don't scare me."


"Just be careful," he repeated. "I told your brother that I'd bring you back in one piece."


Jess was smiling as she reached the stream. Taking a handkerchief from her pocket, she dipped it into the cool water and used it to wipe her face and hands before scooping some water with her hand to her mouth. Then she dipped the coffee pot into the water and took it back to the camp.




"Hard to believe that we're the only ones up in these mountains," Nick said after they had finished the beans and bacon - the only thing Jess claimed to know how to make over a campfire - and they were sitting next to each other on a large rock, drinking coffee.


"There was a time when that wouldn't have been the case," she told him. "There was a gold mine just -" she thought for a moment before pointing to the west, "that way. Pa told me that a whole town sprang up overnight, and a few years later, it was basically abandoned."


"What happened?"


"The gold vein disappeared. I think Pa said it was called Sutton's Creek. Said they pulled over a million dollars in gold out before that. The town's still over there. Or what's left of it."


"Interesting. Ghost towns are sad, I think. Such promise that ended in abandoned buildings just falling apart."


"I agree. There used to be a few scattered around the territory. Kevin and I explored one to the east of the ranch when we were younger. Looked like the people had just walked away. There was still furniture in the houses - even books and clothes - Pa said no one knew what had happened to the place - that it was that way when he got here."


Nick put his arm around Jess' shoulders, pulling her close to him. "You're going to have nightmares if we keep talking."


"I don't have nightmares," she told him.




"Bad dreams, yes. Nightmares, no."


"What's the difference?"


"I've never woken myself up screaming or crying. A bad dream - I wake up scared."


"Well, if you get scared, I'll be right here."


"Good to know," she said, turning to look at him.


"Always," he told her, giving her a kiss. "And now, I think we should turn in for the night, if we're going to get an early start tomorrow morning."


"You do realize that it's still light," she pointed out, looking around.


"It will be dark soon enough," he told her.


Jess sighed and rested her forehead against his. "I'm going to miss this when we get back home."


"There's a way you won't have to," he pointed out, standing up. "Just one little word."


She sighed. "I know." Holding out her hand, she waited for him to pull her to her feet as well. "I'm going to get another blanket out of the wagon. It'll get colder once the sun goes down."


Nick was used to the change of subject, and nodded, turning to spread the bedrolls near the fire and putting the coffee on a rock next to the fire to be reheated in the morning. "Jess?" he called when he didn't hear her moving around the back of the wagon.


Two steps forward, and he saw Jess standing there near the back of the wagon, frozen in one spot - and heard the sound of a rattlesnake poised to strike. "Where is it?" he asked.


"To my left," she whispered in a shaky voice. "Close."


The rattle sped up, and Nick new that he didn't have much time. His eyes finally found the reptile, far too close to Jess' left leg. "When I tell you to, step back slowly and jump to the right," he told Jess. Pulling his gun, he said, "Now," and fired toward the snake as Jess jumped in the other direction. Another shot for insurance, and he knelt to make sure the animal was dead. "I got him," he said.


When his announcement was met with silence, Nick turned to see Jess laying on the ground, her head laying on a rock. "Jess!" he called out, moving over to her. "Oh, God," he said, unsure if he was saying it as a prayer or something else. Touching her neck, he felt movement, then placed a hand over her nose, breathing a sigh of relief as he realized she was still alive. "Thank you, God," he muttered, inspecting Jess for injury. He finally decided that she had hit her head - and there was blood on the rock beneath it, and her right ankle was already swelling. He couldn't tell if it was broken or just sprained. "Jess?" he said again, but she didn't respond. "You're gonna be all right," he said, more to himself than to Jess, since she couldn't hear him. "I'll find someone to help you," he promised. Going to the fire, he smothered it before grabbing the bedrolls and tossing them into the back of the wagon, making a place for Jess to lay before putting her into the wagon and covering her with one of the blankets. As he was hitching the horses to the wagon, he said, "I hope you're feeling rested. We've got to get Jess some help."




Glancing back at Jess as often as he could, Nick drove the wagon as fast as he dared on the bumpy road. Suddenly, he pulled the horses up as he spotted a signpost in the quickly fading light. The only sign readable pointed up another bumpy road with the words "Sutton's Creek" painted on the newer board. Deciding that if someone was maintaining the signpost, that meant that there would be people still in the old gold town. Maybe one of them could help Jess - or would be willing to ride to Braddock to get the doctor for her, since he didn't want to risk taking her all the way there.


Turning onto the side road, he kept watching for signs of a settlement, all the while keeping an eye on the still unconscious woman laying behind him.


The road widened out at last, revealing a sad town with tumbleweeds blowing along the street. Most of the buildings were boarded up, with the only signs of life revealed by lights in two buildings. Both were marked by a faded signs that read "Saloon", and "Hotel".


"Is anyone here?" Nick called out, and almost immediately heard the sound of a squeaking door hinge from the direction of the hotel.


"No need t' holler," an old woman said, stepping into the street and looking up at him. "What can we do for ya?" Nick wasn't sure how old she might be - her white hair was piled up in a haphazard bun on the back of her head, and the jeans and shirt she was wearing had seen better days.


"Is there a doctor in town?" he asked, jumping down from the seat and going to the side of the wagon to check on Jess. She was still unresponsive, but breathing.


The woman cackled. "Ain't been a doc here in a long time. I do most of the fixin when people get hurt - broken bones, cuts -" She peered into the wagon. "What happened to her?"


"She fell and hit her head on a rock back on the main road trying to get out of the way when I shot a rattlesnake -" he said.


"Rattler? She get bit?"


"No, thank God," he answered. "But she hurt her ankle, too. Her head's bleeding. Is there anyone who can help?"


"I'll do what I can," she told him. "Bring her over t'the hotel. I got a couple of rooms ready. Keep 'em ready in case we get visitors. Don't happen often, tho," she continued as Nick followed her, carefully carrying Jess into the building. The interior didn't look much better than the exterior had, but Nick barely noticed. She picked up the single lamp on the desk, and led him up the stairs. "Watch out for the third step from the top. Needs replaced." She paused near the top to make sure he made it past the step, then continued into the first bedroom, turning down the covers on an ancient iron framed bed before stepping out of the way.


Nick put Jess down and moved back slightly as the old woman examined Jess' head, then her ankle. "Don't think the ankle's broke. I'll wrap it tight for right now."


"What about her head?" he asked. "She's been unconscious since it happened."


"Head wounds is hard to figure. I've seen people get wacked on th' head in the mines and be right as rain an hour later. But I've also seen them linger for days and never wake up."


"Is there someone here that can ride into Braddock to get the doctor from there?" Nick wanted to know. "I'm willing to pay -"


"Braddock? Not sure anyone here would be willin' t'go there right now, with things bein' the way they are."


"What things? She needs a doctor!" Nick said, keeping his voice softer than he wanted to.


"My youngest is bein' held there for killin' a man in a saloon," the woman told him. "The townies don't much take to us from Sutton's Creek. If I was to send anyone down there - if I was able to find someone willin t'go - they'd just as likely lock him up as they would be to send the doc up here."


"Look, I can't just leave her here," Nick said, glad that his legal training and years of playing poker kept him from reacting to her statement about her son.


"Means a lot to ya, don't she?"


Just my life, Nick thought, but heard himself telling the woman, "She's my wife." He silently prayed that God would forgive the lie. After all, it *was* going to be true - someday. If Jess survived this. And if she did, Nick wasn't at all sure that Jess would forgive him for having said it.


"Kinda figured that much," the woman told him. "'Cept, she's not wearin' a ring." She indicated Jess' bare left hand.


"We- haven't been married very long, and the ring was too big. Jess was afraid she might lose it, so -" he pulled the gold band that he'd been carrying around since shortly after meeting Jess from his pocket, "I have it. We were planning to visit a jeweler in Braddock while we were there and get it fixed."


"I'll go get some clean water and somethin' to use as bandages for her ankle and head," she told him. "I know her name is Jess, what's your's?"


"Nick," he told her.


"They call me Ma," she said. "Ma Sutton.," before leaving the room.


Nick knelt beside the bed, brushing Jess' red hair away from her brow. "Jess, you get better, and I won't care how mad you are at me for saying what I did. I love you, darlin'. Just don't leave me, please."




When Ma returned with a bowl and some white strips of cloth, a bottle of whiskey tucked under her arm, she wasn't alone. A tall man about Nick's age was with her. He looked rough, with stringy dark hair and chin stubble the same color.


"I told you t'go down and put their wagon and horses into the stable, Josiah," Ma was telling him.


Josiah glared at Nick, then glanced at Jess. "Ma, you don't know who they are," Josiah said.


"Right now, I know that the woman's hurt and needs doctorin'. And since there ain't no doctor closer than Braddock-"


"Would you be willing to go to Braddock?" Nick asked the man. "I'll pay you whatever you ask -" Nick saw the man's eyes narrow for a moment, as though he were considering the idea. "When you get back with the doc, I can get money from Braddock -"


Josiah shook his head. "No. No one goes to Braddock from here," he declared. "They're gonna hang my little brother for somethin' he didn't do."


"Go take care of the wagon," Ma said again, "and let me get to my doctorin'. And send Grace up when you find her." When he stood there, she turned to look at him. "Don't make me take a strap t'you, boy." Evidently, it was a threat that Josiah believed could happen, because he turned and left the room. "Sorry 'bout that," she said, opening the bottle of whiskey and pouring it on one of the strips of fabric. "Sometimes I think that boy ain't got the sense that the Good Lord gave a gnat." She moved to turn Jess' head so that she could see the cut there. "You might want to hold her in case this whiskey makes her buck a little." Nick sat on the edge of the bed and put his hands on Jess' shoulders. "Never seen anyone with such red hair," Ma observed, dabbing the cut with the whiskey soaked rag. Jess moaned softly. "That's a good sign. Means she can still feel pain."


"Thank God," he breathed.


"You a believin' man?"




"Good t'hear. She's gonna need prayer."


"Who is Grace?" he asked.


"My daughter. My only daughter. Four boys and one girl." Once she cleaned the wound, she declared, "Looks like it's just a skin wound. There's a bump the size of a goose egg, but we'll have t'wait and see what happens." She turned and picked up some of the strips, wrapping one around Jess' head. Once done, she turned her attention to Jess' swollen ankle. Removing the slippers on both feet, she wrapped the ankle tightly. "I'll take it off in a while and see how it looks. Should be able to tell then if it's more than a sprain. Settin' a broke ankle isn't as easy as an arm or leg. More bones involved. Her foot's warm, so I'm gonna lean toward a sprain."


"You've done a lot of this sort of thing, I take it?"


Ma grinned. "Had to, workin' a mine is dangerous. Cave ins, falls, pick-axe wounds -. A cave in's what killed my husband."


"I'm sorry."


She sighed. "He was sure that he'd find the vein again. I told him it was too dangerous, but he had the gold fever."


"So how many are still in town?" Nick asked, watching she checked Jess' breathing.


"There were twenty of us when the vein went bust, but now, it's just me and my boys and Grace. That makes six."


"What do you do for food and supplies?" he asked.


"We have a little garden behind the hotel. And Josiah usually goes into Braddock every few months to buys what we need with what little gold we've managed to scratch out of the mine. Less and less gold, tho. The boys don't want to leave - except for my youngest - and he might get out of here at the end of a rope."


"You're very - calm about the idea of your son possibly being hung," Nick observed.


"Ain't nothin' I can do 'bout it," she said. "It's all in God's hands. If he did kill someone -"


"But you don't think he did." She shook her head as a soft knock came at the door and a young woman entered. She was wearing old clothing, but at least it and her dark hair was clean and her face was washed.


She smiled shyly at Nick. "Josiah said you wanted to see me, Ma?"


"Yeah. Need to get this woman out of her things so's she can rest properly." she looked at Nick. "Unless you'd rather do it -" Ma said, giving Nick a searching look.


Nick thought quickly. "I - might hurt her - make her worse -"


Ma nodded. "That's true. Grace is used to helpin' me take care of her brothers when they get banged up. She got more clothes down there in that wagon?" she asked.




"That makes things easier. Get me that pair of scissors on the bureau, Grace."


Ten minutes later, Jess, wearing only her chemise and bloomers, was resting in the bed, the covers pulled over her. Nick had turned away to look out of the window that overlooked the street below during the process, turning only when Jess moaned a couple of times as they moved her injured foot. Both times, he noticed Grace looking at *him*, and realized that she probably hadn't had much interaction with men other than her brothers - and if Josiah was any example of them, Heaven help the poor girl.




Nick sat beside the bed, close enough to keep an eye on Jess, while Ma sat across the room in an old rocking chair, a worn book in her hands that she had picked up from the table beside the bed. "This is your room, isn't it?" he asked.


She nodded. "Yep."


"And we're putting you out -"


"I don't mind in the least. Good to have someone new t'talk to. I miss talking to people. My boys aren't much for talkin'," she confided. "All they think about is how much gold they're gonna find." She shook her head, looking sad. "I used to read to 'em from the Good Book every night when they was little. Tried t'make 'em see that lookin' for gold isn't what we're meant to be doin'. I think Grace understands, some. And Eban."


"Is Eban your youngest?"


She nodded again. "Born right after his Pa died. Never knew his Pa."


Hoping to change the subject, Nick pointed to the book she was holding. "Looks like it's seen better days."


Ma ran her knarled fingers along the cracked, loose binding. "I brought it with me when Ethan and I first settled here," she told him. "Read it from front t'back so many times that I can just about quote chapter and verse," she continued. "Not much else t'do here at night. Not sure what I'll do when it finally falls apart."


"Perhaps by then you'll have a new one," Nick said, reaching over to make sure the blanket was over Jess and that she was still breathing.


The sound of glass breaking and male laughter drew Nick to his feet and to the window, where he saw two men roll out of the saloon and into the street. "Just the boys," Ma said, opening the Bible onto her lap. "Thomas and Micah. They're always fightin'. Once they tire themselves out, Josiah'll get 'em into their beds so they can sleep it off."


Nick nodded and returned to the chair. "Have you ever thought about taking them all away from here?" he asked.


"Yep. They won't go. Josiah says that he's the head of the family now, and that his Pa would have stayed to get every ounce of gold out of that mine." She read for a minute. "Ya never said why you and she were headed t'Braddock."


"We were going to visit some friends," he told her. It was true, in a way. Otis Maxwell was probably already in town, and expected them to arrive sometime tomorrow.


"Didn't say where you're from, either."


"Providence," Nick answered, watching her face as he did so. "I - well, I own a saloon there." That made her look up from the book.


"I thought you claimed t'be a believin' man?"


"I didn't lie. I am. Have you ever been to Providence?"


"Nope. Met John Donager once a few years ago. Seemed like a good man. He was a believin' man."


"That he was," Nick agreed.


"So how is it that you run a saloon?"


"You're thinking about 'painted ladies' and drunks, am I right?" She grinned. "Well, the 'ladies' who work for me aren't allowed to take men up to their rooms. They are there to serve and sell drinks, nothing more. And when I see someone who has had too much to drink, I make sure they get home safely." He saw the doubt in her eyes, and chuckled. "I know. But believe it or not, that's the way the place was being run when I bought it, and I decided not to change it."


"Hard to believe," she said.


"You brought whiskey up here," he reminded her.


"For medicinal purposes," she said. "I haven't touched a drop of it. If I could stop the boys from buyin' it, I would, but they'd most likely set up a still if I did." Ma nodded toward Jess. "And does she believe?"


"Even more than I do," he assured her, smothering a yawn. "Excuse me."


"Don't blame ya for bein' tired. Why don't ya stretch out in that chair and rest? I'll be here t'keep an eye on your wife."


Nick reached over to touch Jess' face again before leaning back in the chair. He'd rested in worse places, he reasoned, closing his eyes, not intending to do anymore than that.




The sound of Jess moaning brought him instantly awake, and Nick realized the sun was streaming through the window. Ma and Grace were changing the bandage on her ankle, Ma glanced back at him. "She's fine," she told him. "Just reacting to the pain in her ankle. I still don't think it's broke, though."


Nick stood up, wincing the bruising on Jess' ankle that was being covered up by another bandage. "What about her head?" he asked.


"The wound didn't bleed much - and the goose egg ain't as big. And her eyes look good. I told you last night that head wounds can be tricky."


Nick nodded, taking Jess' left hand in his. "Time to wake up, darlin," he told her, sighing when she didn't open her eyes. "I love you, Jess," he whispered. Even if she couldn't hear him, he was still going to say it.


"Go get Mr -" Ma began, and then cackled again, "I still ain't asked your last name."


"Everett," Nick replied, cupping Jess' check gently.


"Go get Mr. Everett some coffee and some eggs and bacon," she continued.


"Don't go to any bother," Nick told Grace. "Coffee will be fine -"


"Nonsense, you need t'keep up your strength," Ma chastized. "Won't do that girl any good if you collapse from hunger." To Grace, she said, "Now, go on, do what I told you."


"Yes, Ma," Grace said, leaving the room.


"She seems like a good girl."


"Told you last night she was," Ma nodded. "She really needs to get out of Sutton's Creek and find a husband. Only men who come here are drifters or have the fever. Don't want that for her."


"I don't blame you. Ma, last night you said that you don't think that Eban killed anyone -"


"Yep. That boy never drank liquor, and I don't believe that he ever saw the inside of a saloon."


"What happened? Do you know?"


"All's I know is what Josiah told me when he got home."


"Josiah was with him?"


Before she could answer, Grace returned with the food on a tray. "Here you go, Mr. Everett," she said, smiling at him.


"Thank you, Grace," he said, taking the tray from her.


"Ma, Josiah says to tell you that he needs to talk to you."


"About Eban?" Ma inquired.


"I think so. He wants to go get Eban out of jail."


"With more people killed in the gettin'," Ma sighed. "Tell him get hisself up here and we'll talk."


Grace glanced at Nick. "He won't like that. But I'll tell him." She nodded in Nick's direction before leaving the room again.


Ma went over to check on Jess while Nick finished the food. "Who's the cook?" he asked.


"Grace does most of it. Got a feelin' when it comes to cookin'. Took to it right off when she was little." She sat back down in the rocking chair.


"Ma, about Eban - I might be able to help him - will you tell me what you know?"


"Josiah told me that Eban accidentally bumped into a man in the saloon, and the man started yellin' at Eban. Pushed Eban aside when Eban tried to apologize. Later on, after the man spent some time in the saloon, he came out all liquored up and they found him in an alley, knifed in the gut. His wallet and pocketwatch was both gone. Eban and Josiah were leavin' town when the Sheriff stopped them and found the dead man's things on Eban. The knife was Eban's - had his intials carved into the handle. Ya said ya can help?"


"Maybe. I - I haven't been entirely truthful with you, Ma -" Nick began, as Jess stirred, opening her eyes.


The sight sent both Nick and Ma to their feet as Jess winced. "My ankle hurts."


"It's just a sprain," Ma said in a soothing tone. "How's your head?"


Jess lifted a hand to touch the bandage there. "Hurts."


"Thank God you're awake," Nick breathed, reaching out to her, only to stop as she pulled away from him.


"Who are you?" she asked. "Where - am I?"


"Jess, look at me. It's me, Nick. What -"


"Jess? Nick?" she shook her head, then closed her eyes. "Ohhh. Dizzy."


"If your name's not Jess, what is it?" Ma asked.


Jess opened her eyes, staring at them. "I - I don't know."


"Do you remember anything?" Nick asked.


"No." She was clearly frightened by her inability to recall anything about her life. Her blue gaze found Nick. "My name is - Jess?" she questioned.


"Yes. I'm Nick - and this Ma Sutton. We were on our way to Braddock and there was an accident." She touched her head again. "You hurt your head and your ankle. I brought you here to Sutton's Creek to get help." He was relieved when she grabbed his hand and held onto it.


"You hungry?" Ma asked. "I got some broth on the stove downstairs. Be a good idea if you sip a little t'keep your strength up."


"I can- try," Jess told her.


Ma turned to Nick. "Why don't ya help her sit up some, put some pillows behind her so's she can eat and I'll go fetch it." She grabbed the tray that Grace had brought in and disappeared from the room.


Nick brought her hand to his lips, pressing a gentle kiss onto the knuckles. He watched her eyes as he did so, seeing the surprise - and, he thought, an acknowledgment of their connection. "Now, put your arms around my neck, and I'll pull you forward slowly. If you get too dizzy, let me know. Okay?"


"Okay." The feel of her shaking hands on the skin at the back of his neck almost broke Nick. Only a few hours ago, he'd been worried that he would never feel this way again. But he pushed his doubts and fears aside and pulled Jess forward, grabbing the pillows and stacking them behind her back before slowly lowering her back onto them so that she was resting.


"Better?" he asked, with her arms still around his neck.


"Thank you," she nodded slowly. Pulling her hands away, she touched his beard-roughened cheeks, causing him to smile.


"I haven't had a chance to get my razor out this morning. I'll go get it later - and get you some clothes."


She suddenly seemed to realize that she wasn't wearing very much, and drew back slightly, modestly pulling the covers higher. Nick laughed softly, aware that if she'd been herself, Jess wouldn't have cared about the lack of propriety. But even if she never regained her memories, the connection was still there. It would always be there.


Nick moved from the bed, but Jess grabbed his hand again, refusing to let go. "I'm not going anywhere," he told her, reaching out to grab the chair so that he could sit in it. "There. Is that better?"


"I'm confused," she said. "Why don't I remember anything?"


"You hit your head."




"You were trying to get away from a rattlesnake," he told her, saw her look of fear. "No, you weren't bitten. I shot it as you jumped away."


"Oh." She shuddered, and for a moment he thought she might be remembering that moment. But her next words proved otherwise. "I don't remember why, but I'm terrified of snakes."


Ma tapped on the door before entering, carrying a bowl and a glass of water. "Wasn't sure if I should just barge in," she said with a smile. "Been awhile, but I remember what it was like for a man and wife bein' alone."


Oops, Nick thought as Jess' eyes widened in surprise. "She doesn't remember that, either," he told Ma.


"We're - married?" Jess questioned.


"We'll talk about it later," he said, taking the bowl from Ma. "Let's get some of this broth in you. You haven't eaten anything since early yesterday evening." Not telling Ma the entire truth was one thing. Lying to Jess was something he'd promised to never do.


After eating half of the broth and drinking some of the water, Jess said that she was tired. Closing her eyes, she quickly fell asleep.


"Think it would safe for me to take her on into Braddock now?" Nick asked Ma, speaking softly to keep from disturbing Jess.


Ma nodded. "Hate t'lose the company, but I think if you take it slow, she'll be ok. Do ya really think that you can help my Eban?"


"I'll try my best. I was going to tell you that - I told you that I own a saloon - but I'm also a lawyer. Your son's case was the reason we were on our way to Braddock. Once I get there, I'll talk to Eban, find out his side of all this -"


"You don't think he killed that man either." It was a statement. "But why? You've never met my boy."


"No, but I've met his Ma," Nick told her, smiling. "And from what you've told me, I don't think Eban is the kind of man who would kill someone for his money and his watch."


"I been prayin' since Josiah came back from town that God would send someone t'help Eban," Ma said. "I think He answered my prayers when you came." Her eyes were filled with unshed tears as she bowed her head. "I'll go tell the boys t'get your wagon ready. We'll fix up the blankets in back in case she wants to lay down for the trip. Hope she starts rememberin' things."


"Even if she doesn't, I don't care, as long as she's alive and well. Memories can be remade." He smiled. "But why don't I go down and take care of the wagon?" he suggested, rubbing his chin. "I need to get my razor and a change of clothes - and something for Jess to wear."


"I'll stay with her then. Wouldn't do for her to see another stranger if she wakes up."




"What're you doin'?" Josiah demanded to know as Nick jumped into the back of the wagon and opened the latch on Jess' trunk.


"Jess is awake, so I'm taking her into Braddock to see a doctor there." Grabbing a skirt and a blouse, he closed the trunk again before grabbing his valise with the same hand and jumping back down. "Ma wants you and your brothers to get the wagon ready for us."


Josiah stood in the doorway, blocking Nick's way, his eyes narrowed in distrust. "Thomas and Micah are in the mine, diggin'."


"Since you're not, then if you'd be so kind as to do as Ma asked -" Josiah still didn't move. "Never mind. I'll do it myself before we leave." Josiah reached close by to grab a length of wood and slap the end into his other hand. Nick pulled his gun from its holster. "I've never seen a club that could beat a gun, Josiah. Drop it." The makeshift club fell to the ground. "Now, step aside." He motioned with the gun. Josiah stepped back, out of the stable, so that Nick could walk out. "Don't worry, I won't tell Ma about this," he told the man, keeping an eye on him as he put the gun up.




Half an hour later, Nick, now clean-shaven, carried Jess out to the wagon that had been left outside the hotel. "Would you rather lay down in the back or ride on the seat?" he asked.


"The seat," she decided. "If I start feeling bad, we can stop and I'll move into the back."


Grace and Ma followed them from the building as Ma looked around. "Wonder where Josiah got off to?"


"Probably the mine, Ma," Grace said.


"He mentioned something earlier about Micah and Thomas already being there," Nick agreed. "He also mentioned going to join them after he hitched the wagon." Turning to Ma, he said, "I don't know how to thank you for your help."


"Just doin' my Christian duty," she told him. "When you see Eban, tell him- tell I love him and that I'm prayin' for him."


"I will, Ma. And I'll do whatever I can to get him back to you."


"I know you will. You take care of each other," she said.


"Bye, Grace," Nick said, climbing up onto the wagon beside Jess.


"Goodbye," the girl called back, waving as the wagon rolled away down the dusty street.




Not too far from town, Nick pulled the wagon up, his gaze surveying the area.


"What's wrong?" Jess asked, frowning.


"I think it might be a good idea for you to get into the back," he told her.


"Why? I'm fine. The dizziness is gone - I can keep my ankle up -"


"It would be better for you to lay down for a little while," Nick stated.


"Have always been this bossy?" she asked.


"Look, will you please trust me and let me help you into the back of the wagon?"


Jess shook her head, crossing her arms. "No, I will not. At least, not until you tell me why I should."


"I don't have time right now -"


"Then I'm staying right where I am," she declared.


Nick took a deep breath, shaking his head. "Okay." Taking his hold gun out of his boot, he held it out to her. "Do you remember how to use this?"


Jess took the derringer from him. "I knew how to before I lost my memory?"


"You did."


She tucked it into the waistband of her skirt, patting it. "There. Shall we go now?"


Nick chuckled softly. "One thing's for sure. Losing your memory hasn't made you any less stubborn. Just keep an eye out for anyone else, and then don't use that pea shooter unless you're sure you can make the shot." Flicking the reins, he set the horses back onto the road.


"So, how long have we been married?" she asked.


"I said we'd talk about it once I get you into town and to a doctor," he reminded her.


"I want to talk about it now. Is there some reason why *you* don't want to?"


"It's a long story -"


"You said that about why I needed to get into the back of the wagon."


"I didn't. I said that I didn't have the time to give you the reason. Different answer."


"Semantics," she pointed out. "While she and Grace were helping me get dressed, Ma mentioned that we live in a placed called - Providence?"


"We do."


"What's it like?"


Nick considered the question for a moment. "It's hard to find words to describe Providence," he told her. "Every Sunday, all the stores in town close, and everyone - or almost everyone - attends church."


"Really? And no one complains?"


"Not that I've heard. It's a nice, quiet, friendly town."


"She also mentioned that you run a saloon there."


"Ma told you a lot," Nick said, sighing. "Yes, I run the only saloon in town. Well, I own half of it." Ahead of the wagon, Nick caught sight of something that might have been the sun glinting off of a gun barrel. "Don't look now, but we're not alone," he said quietly so that his voice didn't carry. "Be ready."


Jess nodded, repositioning her injured foot in the well. "Where?" she asked.


"Ahead and about ten foot to the left."


As they neared the spot, Josiah appeared on the road, a gun in his hand, forcing Nick to pull back on the horses' reins.




"Keep your hands on the reins," Josiah ordered.


"What's going on?" Jess asked. "Who is he, Nick?"


"Josiah Sutton," Nick told her. "Ma's oldest son."


"We have to get to Braddock," she insisted. "I'm not feeling well -" Having said that, she fell against Nick's left side, forcing him to drop his arm and put it around her waist.


"Jess," Nick said, but her eyes were closed. He could feel her heart beating, and noted that it was faster than it should have been if she were really unconscious.


"Sorry about that," Josiah said, "but it's probably for the best that she won't see what's about to happen."


"Look, why are you doing this? I'm going to Braddock to try and free your brother Eban."


"That's why I'm doing it," Josiah told him. "I can't let ya get there and talk to him. He's prob'ly scared half outa his skin by now, and he might talk, even if I told him not to."


"You told him - You killed that man, didn't you?"


"Why don't you pull your gun out and toss it on the ground?" When Nick started to lower his right hand, Josiah shook his head. "Slowly."


"Listen, Jess doesn't know anything. You don't have to hurt her -"


"Drop the gun."


Jess moaned, lifting her hand to her waist as she sat up, pulling out the hold gun as she did so. "I think that *you* need to drop *your* gun," she said, pointing the derringer at Josiah.


Josiah's surprise gave Nick a chance to complete his move to grab his own gun and pull it out. "And if she misses - I won't."




By the time they rolled into Braddock, Jess was leaning against Nick's shoulder again - and this time, she wasn't just pretending to be ill. She'd become more quiet, almost lethargic on the way in, and Nick's first thought was to find the doctor for her.


He stopped at the first person that he saw - "Excuse me, where could I find the doctor?"


The man pointed to a building just down the road. "Doc Porter's office is just down there."


"Thank you. Would you ask the Sheriff to join us there, please? And is Judge Maxwell in town?"


"He is."


"Will you let him know that Nick and Jess are here and at the doctor's office?"


"I'll get both of them," the man said, giving the man tied up in the back of the wagon a glare of dislike before moving toward the Sheriff's office.


Nick pulled the wagon up in front of Dr. Porter's office, and was lifting her down when Sheriff Thompson arrived. "Oh, Sheriff. I'm Nick Everett -"


"The judge has been waiting for you-"


"I know. We had a little trouble - I need you to take this gentleman into custody," Nick said, nodding toward Josiah.


"Josiah Sutton? Why? What's he done?"


"Well, we'll start with attempting to kill this lady and me. The rest can wait until I get over to the office and talk to his brother."


"Eban won't say nothin' agin me," Josiah growled as the Sheriff began to untie him from the wagon.


Seeing that he was in safe hands, Nick carried Jess into the doctor's office, quickly explaining what had happened to her, and telling him that Judge Maxwell would be there any moment in case he needed any further information about his patient. Bending over her on the examination table, Nick whispered, "I love you, Jess, darlin'," before leaving the office and crossing to go to the jail.




"Josiah and me was leavin' town when he told me to wait fer him," Eban told Nick and Sheriff Thompson. He was a clean shaven young man with dark blonde hair. "He come back a few minutes later and told me to hold the wallet and watch he was carryin'. I asked why, but all he would tell me was that I wasn't to say nothin' about him, 'cause it would hurt Ma. He said that he'd be back t'get me out, then took off."


"What about your knife?" Thompson asked. "It was still in Jim Banks when they found him."


"Josiah borrowed it, said he couldn't find his, and that he felt nekkid without a knife. Things like that was never important to me."


"You'd met the dead man earlier, hadn't you?" Nick asked.


"That weren't nothin," Eban said. "We was in the saloon, and the man - Mr. Banks - was havin' a drink at a table where he was playin' cards. Josiah bucked inta me, and made me hit Mr. Banks' spillin' his drink. Mr. Banks said I was clumsy and - called me a few names affore I left the saloon. I hadn't wanted t'go in there anyway, but Josiah insisted it was time I went."


Nick glanced at Thompson. "Eban, do you have any idea why your brother would try to get you hung for a murder that you didn't do?"


"Hesh up, boy," Josiah called from the next cell. "If you say anythin-"


"Eban?" Nick asked. "He can't hurt you. And Ma will be glad that you're ok. Why would he do it?"


"Because of the gold," Eban said quickly as Josiah lunged, stretching his arms through the cell bars toward his younger brother. "I'm sorry, Josiah, but Ma always said that -"


"What gold?" Thompson asked.


"Josiah - he found the vein that Pa lost in the mine. He had too much to drink in the saloon, and told me about it. Said he'd been sendin' Thomas and Micah to the other side of the mine so's they wouldn't find out."


Nick nodded, having guessed the reason. "Did he tell you this before or after he pushed you into Mr. Banks, Eban?"


Eban thought a second before answering. "Affore."


Turning to the next cell, Nick asked, "Where is the gold, Josiah?"


"I ain't tellin' you nothin'!"


"You would let your mother and sister and brothers suffer because of your greed?" Nick asked accusingly. "It's bad enough that you've had access to that gold for all this time and haven't done one thing to help them! What was your plan? Stockpile all the gold you could dig and then just - disappear? Leave them in Sutton's Creek without any means to survive?"


"You got no idea what I was plannin! Maybe I just didn't want my stupid brothers to spend it all affore I was ready to show it t'Ma."


"That still doesn't excuse keeping it a secret, Josiah," Nick pointed out. "If Ma had known about that gold, do you think she would have let any of you spend it without her sayso? Or maybe that was the problem. You didn't want anyone to tell you how to spend it."


"*I* found it!" Josiah screamed. "It's *my* gold! I wasn't gonna let Eban tell Ma or anyone about it! She woulda taken it from me."


"So you decided to get him hung for a murder that you committed," Nick stated. "How do you think Ma will feel about that?"


Josiah sat heavily on the bed, his head in his hands. "It was my gold," he kept saying. "It was *mine*."


Nick put a hand on Eban's shoulder. "I think you're going home, Eban. Finding where he hid that gold, however -"


"I know where he prob'ly hid it, sir," Eban told him. "I'll make sure Ma's taken care of."


"Good boy."




Otis Maxwell was just coming out of the doctor's office when Nick crossed the street. "Judge. How is she?"


"Sleeping. Dr. Porter said she probably overdid it on the trip from Sutton's Creek. He also told me how it happened and what Mrs. Sutton did to help her."


"Thank God. What about her ankle?"


"It's just sprained. Should be good as new in a week or so."


"I'm going to go in and -" Nick began, but Otis grabbed his arm, shaking his head.


"Dr. Porter said that what she needs now is rest. Right now, I have some questions. And you have a telegram to send to Kevin. If you don't, he's likely to be on his way up here tomorrow."


"Where's the telegraph office?" Nick asked.


"Down the street. The boy who came to get me mentioned that you Josiah Sutton tied up in the back of the wagon when you came into town."


"Yep. He's the one who killed Mr. Banks, not Eban." As they walked, Nick gave him the details of Eban's story and Josiah's confession.


"So Josiah found the gold and wanted it for himself," the Judge said.


"He did. But I think everything will work out," Nick told him as they entered the telegraph office. After Nick sent a short message to Kevin that they had arrived in Braddock and were ok, he glanced at the judge. "I really need to go and see Jess."


"No, you need to get some rest. I'll wager you barely slept last night."


"I managed."


"Why don't you go up and lay down for awhile? Doc said that he would send someone to let us know when she wakes up."


"I can't sleep until I know she's okay."


Otis shook his head. "You've got it bad, boy."


"You already knew that."


"Yes, I did. How about something to eat, then? And if she's still sleeping, we can play a game of poker to pass the time."


"Now you're talking my language," Nick said. "Lead on, Judge."




They were playing their second game when a young man entered the saloon and came over to the judge. "Excuse me, Judge?" he asked, looking nervous about interrupting a game with so much money in the pot.


"Yes, young man?" Otis asked without taking his eyes off of the cards in his hand.


"Doctor Porter said to tell you that that lady is waking up."


"Thank you," Otis said, fully intending to finish the hand.


But Nick slid his chair back. "I'm out, gentlemen. Coming, Judge?" he asked.


"Right behind you, Nick." As Nick left the saloon, Otis tossed more money into the pot. "I raise twenty," he declared.




"Jess," Nick said, reaching out to take her hand as she smiled at him. "How are you?"


"Better, I think. Where is Uncle Otis?"


"Still playing poker, I suppose. You remember who you are now?"




"What's my name?" he asked, wanting proof that she really did remember.




"My full name."


She sighed. "Nicholas Everett."


"Nicholas Everett - what?"


Another sigh. "Nicholas Everett Mason. My brother is Kevin, my sisters are -"


"Never mind," he told her, smiling and kissing her knuckles. "I'm convinced."


"What happened?" she asked.


"Which time?"


"The accident. The last thing I remember clearly is having dinner on the trail. After that, things get - muddled."


"We were getting ready to settle in for the night and you found a rattlesnake," he told her, feeling her shudder again. Nick quickly thought back over all of their conversations since their first meeting, trying to recall if they had ever discussed snakes. He didn't remember any. "You really *are* afraid of them, aren't you?"


"You've discovered my Achilles' Heel," she told him. "I'm not as tough as I claim to be."


"Don't shatter my illusions, darlin'," he told her. "I won't hold it against you. Why the fear?"


"When I was fifteen, I was bitten by a - rattlesnake. Thank God Pa was there and sucked the venom out, but I was still pretty sick for awhile. I still have the scar on my leg," she reached down to touch her left leg through the sheet and quilt that covered her.


"I'm sorry you had to go through that."


"No more than I am. But - back to the other evening -"


Nick told her about the events leading up to their arrival in Sutton's Creek and Ma taking care of her. "She's really a remarkable woman," he told Jess. "I think you'd like her."


"Maybe we can stop back by there on the way home," Jess suggested.


"I'm sure we will," he nodded as Otis came into the room.


"How are you doing?" he asked Jess. "You certainly look better than you did a few hours ago."


"I feel almost like myself," she assured him. "I think the doctor said he would let me sleep at the hotel tonight. So, how was the game?" she asked.


"I won," he said with a grin. "Thanks to Nick folding his hand to come here."


Jess gave Nick as look of surprise. "You mean that I took priority over a game of poker?" she asked.


"Always, darlin'," he answered. Jess lifted her other hand and touched his cheek. "You need to get some sleep. I'll see you later."




"I promise. Uncle Otis, will you take him over to the hotel and make sure he gets some rest before he collapses?"


"Will do. Com'on, Nick. You heard the lady."


Nick leaned down to give Jess a brief kiss. "Don't go anywhere."


"I'll see you for supper."


"Love you."


"Go." She waved her hand toward the door, smiling as Otis opened the door and waited for Nick to leave.


"I'll be back in a bit, Jess," Otis told her before following Nick.




As the three of them were having supper, Eban stopped by the table and sat for a cup of coffee. As they drank it, he told Nick, "I want to thank ya for fixin' it with the Sheriff so's I can go home, Mr. Everett."


"Since Josiah admitted to killing Mr. Banks, there's no reason for you to testify against him," Nick explained. "Judge Maxwell will take his official plea, and then pronounce sentence."


"I know Ma's gonna be upset about all this. Thing is, Josiah and my other brothers, they's all gold hungry. Josiah's the worst."


"You're not?" Jess asked.


Eban shook his head. "I go with the Good Book, ma'am," he told her. "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. Matthew 6:19," he quoted. "My reward ain't in this world. Ma's read that passage to us lots of times. Long as I got family and my health, I'm happy." He sighed, shaking his head. "What's gonna happen to Josiah now?" he asked.


"You were wronged by him as well, Eban," Nick pointed out. "What do you think should happen?"


"Well, I know the Book says that a murderer should pay a life for a life. But I also know that Josiah wouldn't take t'bein' cooped up in a cell for very long. I know how crazy it was makin' me after a few days. He don't even sleep inside unless it's cold out. I think it comes from spendin' so much time in the mine."


"Very likely," Otis nodded. "So you think that the worse punishment for Josiah would be sending him to prison?"


"I didn't say that, did I?" Eban replied. "I'd hate t'think about him bein' in a place like that, cooped up an' all."


"I think I understand," Otis nodded. "Well, I'm going over to the saloon and see if I can't win another hand or two. Nick?"


"Not tonight, sir," Nick said, reaching over to take Jess' hand.


"If you want to go, Nick -" she said, but he shook his head.


"Nope. I know that Jess is supposed to get more rest, and I probably need to do the same before court tomorrow morning."


"Shouldn't take very long. Are you still determined to represent him?" he asked Nick.


"I promised his Ma that I'd do what I could for her son. I'm not sure it matters which son."


Otis nodded and left the cafe, heading toward the saloon.


"Thank you, Mr. Everett," Eban said. "It was nice meetin' you, ma'am. I'm gonna head toward home."


"At this time of night?" Jess questioned. "Wouldn't it be better to wait until tomorrow morning?"


"Ma always says I got eyes like a cat, ma'am," he told her with a grin. "See better at night than I do during the day. Besides, I'm anxious to get back home and see her and Grace."


"What about the gold?"


"You're gonna be coming thru that way tomorrow, you said?"


"That's the plan," Nick confirmed.


"I think I'll wait until you get there t'look for the gold. Won't be easy t'keep Micah and Thomas away from the mine, but I'll figure out somethin'."


"Just don't tell them about it until I get there," Nick suggested. "Think you can manage that?"


"I'll try." He nodded at Jess again, and then turned to leave.


"Another cup of coffee?" Nick asked Jess.


"No, thank you. I think I've had enough. You're going to argue against hanging Josiah, aren't you?"


"I haven't decided yet. I have to talk to my client about it. But it will be up to the judge in the end, won't it?"


"He tried to kill us, Nick," she reminded him.


"I know that -" he stopped, looking at her. "He did," Nick confirmed slowly. "And I haven't thanked you for saving both of us with that pretense of fainting."


She shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea. I figured that if he thought I was unconscious, he'd pay less attention to me and give me a chance to get to the derringer."


"You remember that, don't you?" he asked.


"I told you that things were a bit - muddled about things that happened after the accident," she reminded him." Looking around, she asked, "Where is that crutch that the doctor gave me? I'm ready to go upstairs."


"You can't get up those stairs with a crutch," he told her, grabbing the crutch that was leaning against the wall behind her and handing it to her before bending down to pick her up. "I'll just carry you."


Seeing that everyone in the cafe was looking, Jess protested. "Nick, put me down."


"Sorry. I'm not going to risk you falling trying to use that thing."


Holding onto the crutch, Jess stopped trying to argue with him and allowed him to carry her up the stairs and to the door of her room. "Are you going to be able to manage?" he asked, opening the room before allowing her to use the crutch. "I mean, you had Ma and Grace to help in Sutton's Creek -"


"I'll manage. I broke my leg once, remember? I learned how to use a crutch then. But thank you for carrying me up the stairs - even though I could have made it on my own."


Nick chuckled. "Even when you thank me, you have to turn it around. Oh, I do love you, Jess. When you got hurt, I -"


She lifted her hand to his lips, stopping him. "It's over now. I'm fine. Or, I will be once this ankle heals." He pressed a kiss against her fingers, and Jess moved her hand to run her thumb over his lips. "I love you, too," she whispered as her hand moved to his shoulder.


Nick sealed her words with his lips on hers, and Jess dropped the crutch, balancing on one foot as her arms slid around his neck, extending the kiss and the embrace that followed.


As they finally pulled apart, Nick said, "Let me get your crutch." Once done, he said, "If you need any help, -"


"I'll be fine, Nick. Really. Why don't you go down and play some cards?" He shook his head. "You know you want to. After all, you lost out on one pot this afternoon, so -"


"Maybe - one game," he finally said with that funny sideways grin.


"Good luck - and goodnight," she told him, watching him walk back toward the stairs before closing the door.




After the trial the next morning, Nick and Jess said their goodbyes to Otis Maxwell and set out toward Sutton's Creek. Jess sat beside him in silence before sliding her arm through his. "You're still upset about the sentence, aren't you?"


"I know Josiah said he'd prefer the noose over prison, but I'm not sure how I'm going to tell Ma about it. I promised to help him -"


"I think she'll understand," Jess told him. "Besides, it *is* what he wanted. And even he said that he might likely kill again if he was locked up in prison."


He sighed, nodding. "I know. I wonder if Eban has told her about the gold yet?"


"I wonder if he managed to do it without his brothers finding out," she said. "From what he told us last night, those two might just find the gold and take off."


"And I don't think Ma would mind in the least if that happened. I hope I can convince her to leave here. She needs to be with people other than her children."


"You like her, don't you?"


"Yeah. I do. Uh, Jess, before we get there, I need to tell you something -"




"When we arrived in Sutton's Creek, I had no idea what the situation was. I didn't know them, and before I knew what I was doing, well, Ma noticed how worried I was about you. And, I guess I wanted to make sure she didn't try to separate us, so I - well, I told her that -" he drew a long breath before continuing. "That you were my wife." He braced himself for the explosion, and had to pull the wagon to a stop when she burst into laughter. "Jess?"


"I'm sorry," she apologized. "I *do* remember Ma saying we were man and wife. I told you that things were a bit muddled, but I remember that."


"You never said a word - you just let me stumble and hem and haw -"


"I know," she said, still laughing softly. "It's okay. I mean, I understand. Sort of. Are you going to tell her the truth?"


"I have to. I didn't like lying to her. At that moment, though, I didn't even care that you might be angry with me. I just wanted you to get well."


"And I have, partially because of Ma's help. So let's go and help her."


"Not just yet," he said, turning toward her and pulling her against him, giving her a long kiss. "I love you even more today, Jess Donager."


Jess returned the kiss and stayed close to Nick's side as he got the horses moving again.




They heard Grace calling out as they approached the road into town. "Ma! They're here!" The girl ran down the street toward the hotel as Ma and Eban came from that building.


"Whoa!" Nick called to the horses as he pulled them up.


"Eban said you'd be here this afternoon," Ma said as he got down from the wagon. She smiled up at Jess. "And he tells me that you got your memories back."


"That's true," Jess confirmed, letting Nick lift her from the wagon.


Ma led them into the hotel, where she had placed several chairs. "You can put her down there," she told Nick, pointing to one of those chairs. "Can I get ya somethin'?" she asked. "Coffee? Water?"


"Some water would be nice," Jess nodded.


"I'll take some coffee," Nick said.


"Coffee and water, Grace," Ma told her daughter before sitting down as well.


"Mr. Everett, what about Josiah?" Eban asked, understandably anxious to know about his brother's fate.


Jess reached out to take Nick's hand as he looked at the worn floorboards beneath his feet. Perhaps it was that action that caused Ma to speak. "Don't worry, Nick," she said as Grace returned with coffee and water. "Whatever happened, I know you tried your best t'help him."


"I was going to ask the judge for leniency - to send Josiah to prison for the things he did. But when Josiah found out, he said he'd rather face - face the hangman's rope rather than be locked away like that. I'm sorry, Ma."


"It weren't your fault," Ma said in a sad voice. "Never knew where I went wrong with Josiah. He was the only one of my children that I ever had to take a strap to." She sighed sadly. "When's it gonna happen?"


"Day after tomorrow at six am," Nick answered. "Judge Maxwell set that day so you can go and see him if you want. But Josiah wanted me to tell you that -"


Ma nodded. "He don't want me there," she finished for him. "Probably knows I'd end up preachin' at him." She sighed deeply. "I'll respect his wishes, and say a prayer for his soul." She sipped her coffee as Grace finally spoke again.


"Now that they're here, Eban, are you gonna tell us where Josiah hid the gold he found?"


"That's another thing," Ma stated, as if trying to keep Eban from answering that question. "I should have known somethin' was goin' on when that boy started spendin' time in the mine. He'd usually send Micah and Thomas in and stay out here, drinkin."


"Speaking of," Nick asked, looking around, "Where are those two?"


"In the mine," Ma told him, grinning slyly. "I told 'em that Josiah would be home later, and he'd expect 'em to be working. Think the Good Lord'll forgive me for lyin'?"


"I'm sure He will, Ma," Jess nodded. "So, Eban, where *is* the gold?"


"In the mine, near where it caved in with Pa," he said. Looking at Nick he asked, "Would ya like to help me find it and bring it out?"


"It's been awhile since I've been inside a mine," Nick said, "but I'd be honored."


"Get that old sled from the stable, Eban, and hitch the mule up to it-"


"I did that earlier, Ma," he told her. "We'll be back," he told everyone else.


Nick leaned down to kiss Jess on the cheek before following the younger man. "Will you be okay?" he asked.


"I'll be fine," she nodded.


Once they were gone, Ma looked at Jess as she picked up her coffee. "That man's in love with you."


"I know," Jess nodded.


"And you're in love with him."


Jess smiled at her statement. "Yes."


"Then why aren't you married?"


Surprise caused Jess to nearly drop the glass of water in her hand. "Nick's been trying to figure out to how to tell you -"


Ma waved her hand. "I understand why he lied about it. Didn't want to risk my puttin' him outa the room. We were strangers, livin' out here in the middle of nowhere. I still wanna know why you and he aren't married."


"It's complicated, Ma," Jess said.


"You love him, he loves you. 'Nuf said."


"If he was of a mind to look my way, I'd never give him up," Grace said in a dreamy voice as she watched the street from the doorway.


"You go outside and watch for 'em comin' back this way, girl," Ma told her. To Jess, she said, "You don't have to worry 'bout Grace. She's never seen anyone like your Nick. Afraid I'll have my hands full watchin' out for her once we leave here."


"So you're planning on leaving?" Jess questioned, jumping on a chance to change the subject.


"I figure it'd be best if we did. No future here for Grace or Eban. Now, the other two, they's grown men. I can't tell 'em to leave unlessin' they want to. If there's still gold in that mine, they'll be wantin' t'dig it out. They's both gold hungry, just not so much that they would have tried t'do what Josiah done. Iffin' those two had found the gold, they wouldn't have been able t'keep it a secret for moren' a minute." They smiled at her statement. "You got any family in Providence?"


Jess smiled, nodding. "An older brother and his wife and their son, and two younger sisters."


"Eban said that your last name is - Donager?"


Jess nodded. "Yes. John Donager was my Pa."


"I met him once. Came thru here on his way up to Braddock, stopped cause his horse threw a shoe."


"He told me about that visit," Jess told her. "And I told Nick about it just before I had my accident."


"Don't surprise me. God was workin'."




In the mine, Nick and Eban met the brothers as they were coming out for the day. "Any luck?" Eban asked them.


Both men shook their heads. "Ain't nothin in that hole but dirt and rocks," one of them answered in disgust, staring at Nick. "You're the man who was here th' other day with the woman that Ma took care of, ain't ya?"


"This is Nick," Eban said. "My brothers, Micah and Thomas," he introduced. "I got somethin' t'tell you two about Josiah. He's been lyin' t'us."


"'bout what?" Thomas asked.


"He found the vein that Pa lost."


"What?!" Thomas shook his head.


Micah spoke at the same time. "Where?!"


"Near where Pa was lookin'. He's been packin' the gold back for hisself."


"Why that -" Micah growled as Thomas made a fist with a hand that was as big as a hamhock.


"I'm gonna punch him clear into next week," he promised.


"We'll talk about that later," Eban said, and Nick was amazed at the boy's ability to talk to his brothers. "I think I know where he put the gold, but we need your help to get it out of the mine for Ma." He held up the lantern he'd grabbed upon entering the mine and led them down the shaft. "I think he'd been working down that way," he indicated, pointing to a tunnel to their right.


"Yeah. Said it wasn't any better than were we been workin'," Thomas nodded.


"And this shaft," Eban said, turning to the furthermost right tunnel, "was where the cave in happened that killed Pa." He led them down that tunnel, surveying the floor and walls. "This earth is fresh moved," he told Nick, putting down the lantern and digging with is hands to uncover several bags. "And there's more down there," he said, opening one of the bags up, pouring the contents onto the solid ground.


The gold nuggets glinted in the flicking lantern light. "It's gold!" Micah declared. "We're rich!" he said, causing bits of earth from the roof to fall down.


"Let's get this out of here," Nick suggested, "and then you can celebrate."


In the end, they found twenty bags of varying weights, placing them all on the wooden sled before Micah said, "What about the shaft where he was workin? They might be more in there."


Eban sighed, looking at Nick. "Gold fever," he said. "Let's go look," he told his brothers, following them this time.


Turning a corner, even Nick was surprised to see how much gold was still in the wall before them. "Oh, brother Thomas, we are so rich."


Micah pulled some nuggets out of the dirt, holding them in his hand as Eban said, "Let's go see Ma."


"But Eban, the gold -"


"It'll still be here later, boys," Nick stated. "I think your Ma might like to see you right now." He put a hand on each of their shoulders, gently guiding them back down the shaft to the entrance, surprised at their lack of resistance. He was certain that he would never have been able to do that to Josiah in the face of that much gold.




"Here they come, Ma!" Grace called into the hotel.


"Grace, can you get my crutch from the wagon, please?" Jess called back, not happy with waiting the few minutes that it took before Grace carried the crutch in so that she could go out onto the boardwalk.


"How much did he have?" Ma asked as the mule pulled the sled down the street to stop next to Jess and Nick's wagon.


Eban brought two of the bags over to her. "There were twenty bags, Ma. Some are heavier than others."


Nick joined Jess on the walk, watching the scene. "Do you have a scale in town, Ma?" he asked.


"There's still one at the assay office -" she pointed down the street. "We used it for the gold that Josiah took to town for supplies."


"I'll get it," Grace said, running down the street.


"Ma, you gotta see the gold in that there mine!" Micah said. "There's at least this much again - or more!"


"Where is Josiah?" Thomas asked, looking around. "Me an' him got business t'settle. Keepin' all this hid from his family ain't right, Ma!"


"No, but Josiah will pay for his lies and greed," she told them. "Now, you boys set down a minute so's I can explain what's happened - and what's goin' t'happen."


Once Ma explained what Josiah had done to Eban - and tried to do to Nick and Jess, she told them that she and Grace and Eban would be leaving Sutton's Creek. "It's up to you boys if you want to come with us, but remember that we won't be here t'cook or clean for ya."


"Where ya gonna go, Ma?" Thomas asked. "Braddock?"


"No, I've been thinkin' 'bout headin' south," she told them, glancing back at Nick and Jess. "If that's alright with you two."


Jess smiled. "You'd be more than welcome, Ma. The town's growing, and I think you'll like it. And I know they'll like you."


"Well, we have time t'think on everything. Right now, I have a big pot of stew on the stove. Let's all set and have some vittles, then we'll start weighin' up the gold." She looked at Jess and Nick again. "You are stayin' the night, aren't ya?"


"Only if you have rooms other than yours," Nick said.


"I do. Got a couple more ready after you two pulled out yesterday." Seeing Nick's look, she cackled. "Didn't think I was gonna let you and her share a room now, did you?"


"You knew?"


Jess laughed, slipping her arm around Nick's waist. "She knew."


"Micah, Thomas, you boys unhitch the horses and get 'em some feed and water, then come get some stew."


"Yes, Ma," Micah and Thomas said as they moved toward the horses.


Nick stepped off the walk and dug around in the back of the wagon. "I have something for you, Ma," he told her, bringing out a cloth-wrapped package.


She took it, eyes narrowed as she untied the ribbon that fastened the fabric, gasping as it fell away to reveal the contents. "What is it, Ma?" Grace asked.


Ma's voice shook as she answered. "A Bible." She ran her fingers over the binding. "A brand new Bible." Lifting her gaze toward Nick, she told him, "Ya didn't have t' -"


"I know. But I worried that the one you were reading was going to fall apart. You can store that one away for safety and use this one. If you want to."


She reached up to wipe a tear from her cheek. "Thank you."


"I'll never be able to thank you for what you did," he told her. "Dr. Porter said that if it hadn't been for you being here, Jess would have -" he couldn't finish, unable to say the words.


"It was all God's doin', boy. I was just lettin' Him use me."


"I'm very glad that He did."


"As am I," Jess added with a smile. "Now, I don't know about anyone else, but I could use some of that stew that you were talking about."




At Ma's request, Jess and Nick delayed their departure by a day so that Nick could help weigh up the gold from the mine. Micah and Thomas left at daybreak to go back into the mine to start digging more gold, leaving the others with the bags of gold on the sled. Once breakfast was finished, Nick and Eban started emptying bags and weighing them before refilling the bags.


As they watched, Jess told Ma, "You're not going to be able to take all of this to the bank in Providence. Unless you have a way to get it all the way to Denver or San Francisco, most banks won't be able to handle such a large transaction."


"People accept gold in place of cash money, don't they?" Ma asked.


"They do," Nick confirmed. "You're going to be able to buy whatever you want with this, Ma."


"All I want is a place where I have people to talk to," she said. "And for Eban and Grace to be happy."


"I been happy here, Ma," Grace said.


"Girl needs more'n animals and brothers in her life, child. With all this money, you'll be able to take your pick of men."


"She'll have to beat them off with a club," Nick said, winking at Grace, who blushed at his action. "Not me, of course, since I'm spoken for." He gave Jess a knowing smile. "Right, darlin'?" he asked.


"Let me think about that for a minute," was her reply, which caused Ma to laugh.


"Nick, is there a way for me t'transfer the mine over t'Micah and Thomas? So whatever they take out startin' today is theirs? I got no reason to need anymore than what's here."


"I can draw up a paper for that," Nick agreed. "A simple transfer of mine ownership."


"Ma," Jess said, "I don't understand something - my Pa told me that your husband took a million dollars out of the mine."


"He did."


"What happened to it - if you don't mind my asking."


"Don't mind. He built this town with most of it. Thought that people would come and live here. But there wasn't anything nearby to use the town but the town. Wasn't like down in Providence, with your Pa's ranch and farms thereabouts. Only thing here is trees and gulleys and hills. Not even a decent road in and out. By the time he realized it wasn't gonna work, he lost the vein. Spent the next few years tryin' t'find it again."


Jess sighed sadly. "I'm sorry."


"Tweren't your fault. Wasn't nobody's fault, except mebbe Ethan's. He was a dreamer, he was."


"Even if he ain't here, Ma, his dream did come true," Eban pointed out, waving his hands over the bags of gold. "He was right: the vein was still there."


Once the count was finished, they had twenty bags, each weighing ten pounds. "Ya mean there's two hundred pounds of gold?" Ma questioned. "That's more'n Ethan pulled outa there!"


Grace's eyes were wide. "How much is it worth?"


"Depends on the current prices for gold," Nick told her. "And that's usually figured per ounce. Right now, we'd better figure out how you're going to get this much gold from here safely. Honestly, I'm surprised that you haven't already had people down here from Braddock. It's not easy to keep news of a gold strike quiet. Some of those people might not be very nice about trying to get some of that gold."


"Greed," Ma spat in disgust. "Ya think th'two boys will be in danger up here, then?"


"It's a possibility," Jess told her. "Maybe if Nick talked to them, explained -"


Eban shook his head. "Won't do no good, ma'am," he said. "They's both got the gold fever almost as bad as -" He hesitated before finishing. "Josiah. Sorry, Ma."


She nodded, turning to Jess. "He's right. Those boys are so twisted up with all that gold they won't listen t'nobody."


"I'll still talk to them before we leave," Nick told her. Looking at Eban, he said, "Do you have something here to build some crates so that you can transport this gold?"


He nodded. "Yessir, Mr. Everett. I'll get started on that this afternoon. Make'em look like nothin' important's in 'em."


"Good boy," Nick said, clapping a hand on Eban's shoulder.




After lunch, Nick took a walk down to the mine with some sandwiches for the boys. Standing in the doorway, he called out, "Micah, Thomas! Ma sent some food!"


They appeared a few minutes later, faces covered with dirt. "Thankya, Mr. Everett," Thomas said, perching on a rock nearby. "I plumb furgot about how hungry I am."


"You aughta see all the gold in there," Micah nodded, grabbing a sandwich.


"You boys realize that once word gets out about the gold, you're going to have company up here, don't you?"


Thomas pulled a pistol out of his belt. "And they'll get this iffin they try anything," he declared.


"I bet Ma's worried about us, ain't she?"


Nick realized that maybe he wasn't giving Micah enough credit after all. "That she is. She's going to transfer the mine to the both of you. So starting yesterday, anything you find is yours, free and clear."


"Wa-hoo!" Thomas shouted. "Didja hear that, brother Micah?"


"I heared it, brother Thomas," Micah said, grinning from ear to ear.




Nick woke a few minutes before six the next morning to find Ma standing on the walk in front of the hotel as the sun rose, her eyes closed, the new Bible in her hands. He remained in the doorway, listening as she spoke softly.


"Dear Lord, I ask ya t'be with my son Josiah in his final moments. Ya forgave the thief on the cross when he repented, I pray that Josiah will repent and that he'll be with You so that someday we'll all be reunited in Your presence. In Your Name, Amen."


"Ma?" he spoke softly, trying not to startle her.


She turned to face him, wiping a tear from her cheek. "I knew you was there. Thank ya for not interruptin'."


Nick took her hand. "I'm so sorry -"


"Now you stop beatin' yourself up over it. Twasn't anybody's fault but Josiah's."


Sensing that she was more upset than she was letting on, Nick pulled her into his arms and held her, feeling her shoulders shake as she released her pain and sorrow. Even a strong woman needed to be held sometimes. He knew that much because of Jess. Maybe that's why he liked Ma - she was an older version of Jess in some ways. Or maybe Jess was a younger version of Ma. It didn't really matter, he decided.


They were both very special women.




"How long do you think it will be before they'll be in Providence?" Jess asked Nick as they pulled away from Sutton's Creek.


"Not long, I should think. I told Ma that she didn't need to wait too long. They need to get that gold out of town as soon as possible."


"I almost wish they had agreed to come with us now," Jess agreed. "I'm worried about them waiting too long."


"Jess, darlin', do you really think that anyone is going to hurt Ma or any of those children if Ma can do anything about it? That woman is - I've only known one other woman like her," he said, putting his arm around her and pulling her close to him on the wagon seat.


"You think that I'm like her?"


"Does that bother you?"


"No, it doesn't. The only thing that bothers me is that she's on your side -"


"My side?"


"You'll find out when she gets to Providence," Jess assured him.


"Ah - the comment about waiting for her to get there before we get married," he said. "Really? Good for her. I can use another ally in my camp."


"Another? You have most of the town already - even my brother and Lily and my sisters - even Benjamin asked me last week when we were going to get married!"


Nick started laughing. "And what did you tell him?"


"That we'd get married when I was ready," she replied, putting her arms around his chest. "And not before."


"I love you." The simple response as he glanced down at her made her look up at him, and he dropped a brief kiss onto her upturned lips.


Jess smiled. "And I love you."


The End

Jess, Nick and the rest will return in the next installment of "The Donager Saga".