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Jenny - A Short Story
“Now what the hell?”
Johnny Dawson was just three days out of Juarez when he spotted the small, meandering tracks, trailing off to the north. He pulled out one of his canteens and took a long swallow. He eyed the tracks again sourly, and repeated himself.
“What the hell?”
He looked longingly to the south, where Mexico and Maria waited for him, along with balmy evenings at the cantina and the sweet, nighttime music of the mariachis. He missed Maria’s soft lips, her dark eyes and her flashing smile, but the tracks were those of a child; probably a small girl by the shoes. Noting the aimless direction and lack of other prints, he was sure she was somehow alone in the vast wasteland. Sighing, he reined his horse around.
Death wears many faces in the Chihuahuan Desert, and even a grown man has little chance of survival if he's on foot. Heat, thirst, and predators would combine to make short work of a helpless child, and the tracks looked to be hours old. He stood in his stirrups, but saw nothing. His horse sensed the urgency, and stepped out in a ground eating lope. He would probably find a body.
Her tracks wandered, but she kept mainly on a northerly route, which puzzled him for a time. Then he realized that she must be wearing a bonnet, and in the noonday sun, facing north shaded her face from the blazing sun. He knew she was wearing a long dress, because he could see where it dragged now and then in the desert sands. He also knew her dress was white from the threads snagged by a prickly pear. His respect for her stamina grew.
It was late afternoon before the tracks disappeared into a cluster of boulders and did not come out. Johnny dismounted and squatted down to child height.
“I’ve come to take you home. Don’t be scared.”
Several minutes passed before a small, white face appeared from behind a bush. Her eyes were wide and frightened, and she was wearing a bonnet.
Johnny smiled at her.
“How old are you, little girl?”
She hesitated, and then held up three fingers.
“Can you say it?”
She nodded. “I’m ‘free years old.”
“What’s your name?”
“Where’s your mama?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I got lost.”
He held out his hand. “You go with me and we’ll find your mama.”
She hesitated. “I’m 'firtsy.”
Johnny pulled a canteen from his saddle, poured out a capful of water, and held it out to her. “Drink this slow like, and then I’ll give you some more.”
She was in remarkably good shape, although her nose was sunburned, and she was very dirty and dusty. Johnny wrinkled up his nose.
“You ain't completely housebroke yet. You need a bath and them clothes washed.”
He gave her more water and then placed her in the saddle. He rode back to a stock tank he had passed, and dug out a bar of soap. While she took a bath, he washed her clothes and hung them from a nearby mesquite. He dried her, covered her with his blanket, and put her in his bedroll in the mesquite‘s shade, giving her more water. He put some salve on her nose, and had her drink a little more.
“You take a nap while we wait for your clothes to dry.”
She nodded, her eyes half closed and sleepy. A minute later, she was asleep.
He had pieced together enough of her story to understand that she had been on a stagecoach, but it was not clear how she came to be out on the Chihuahuan Desert all alone. The stage route went through Fort Stockton about ten miles to the west, so when she woke, they headed up that way.
The stage stop in Fort Stockton was the Emporium, run by Charlie Seeks. The interior was cool and dim, and smelled of new merchandise. Charlie looked first at Jenny and then at Johnny Dawson, with a question in his eyes.
“Found her some miles back, Charlie, lost and wandering about. She said she was on the stage, so I thought maybe you would know who she belongs to.”
Charlie Seeks picked up a jar of hard candy and came out from behind the counter. He squatted down to offer it to Jenny, but she clung to Johnny’s leg with both arms. Charlie gave the jar to Johnny, and she took a piece of candy from him. Charlie spoke to her.
“Is your name Jenny Dokes?”
Charlie rose and went back behind the counter. He fished around on his roll top desk, and came up with a piece of paper.
“Jenny there and her mother, Mabel Dokes, were on the stage to El Paso. The driver stopped to let the team have a blow, and Jenny must have got out. Her mother was asleep, having stayed up all night with a sick passenger, so no one knew Jenny was missing until her mother woke up, just a mile or so from here. By that time it was almost dark, so her mother took the first stage back to Langtry. I reckon she’s about there by now.”
He eyed Johnny Dawson knowingly. “Do you want me to find someone to take her there Johnny?”
“Do you mind Charlie? I’d like to head for Mexico.”
Johnny got down on one knee, and faced Jenny. “Charlie here will find someone to take to your mama.”
Jenny’s eyes filled with tears, and her lower lip quivered. “No! I want you to take me.” She began to cry in great sobs.
Johnny sighed and stood. “I reckon I’d best take her, Charlie. Thanks all the same.”
Mabel Dokes had hired two trackers, and was ready to ride to where Jenny was last seen. She was walking out of the hotel lobby when Johnny Dawson walked in with Jenny. When she saw her daughter safe and sound, Mabel Doke’s knees gave out and she sank to the floor, crying in relief.
Mother and daughter hugged each other and cried. Then they laughed and hugged each other again. Mabel got to her feet and thanked Johnny again and again as he explained how he came to find her. Jenny stood beside Johnny's leg, looking up first at him and then at her mother.
Johnny stepped back and touched the brim of his hat. “Reckon I’ll be on my way ma’am. Juarez is a five day ride.”
He turned to go, and the lobby door swung open, revealing a tall man with a badge. He glanced at Charlie, and nodded to Mabel. Another man with a badge came through the door and stood by the first. Both were armed.
The tall man nodded. “Hello Johnny. Surprised to see you here. Will you be going with me?”
Johnny grinned. “I reckon I have no choice, Bob. My guns are on my saddle.”
The tall man and Johnny left. Mabel Dokes took Jenny by the hand and approached the other man, standing by the door. “Would you mind telling me what that was all about? That man brought my child safely back to me. Why was he taken?”
He glanced at her, still looking out on the street. Finally he turned and looked at her. “Johnny Dawson broke jail a week ago. He was in for killing a feller in a bar fight. Now he’s going back to jail.”
“Oh dear! And he knew that when he brought my Jenny back, but brought her anyway. I do hope he won’t be in for long. Was it an unfair fight?”
“No, ma’am, it was a fair fight, and he won’t be in jail but just for the night.”
“Thank goodness for that!”
“Yes ma’am. We aim to hang him come sunrise.”
Johnny Dawson sat at the Hotel’s dinner table in Fort Stockton. He cut Jenny’s meat for her, and glanced at her mother. “I have to know what happened back there in Langtry, ma‘am. One minute I was to be hanged in the morning and the next minute, I was free to go.”
Mabel Dokes looked at him. “I simply informed the Judge that my father is a United States senator from Virginia, and if he hanged you unfairly, I would gather some federal marshals and attend the judge’s own hanging. He saw my logic and reduced the sentence to a ten dollar fine, which I took from my purse and paid on the spot.”
Johnny grinned. “Is your father a senator?”
“No. He’s a whiskey drummer, but the judge didn’t know that.” She sniffed. “I wasn’t about to let that old fool hang you. Just who in the world does he think he is?”
“He thinks he’s the law west of the Pecos. He’s Judge Roy Bean.”
The nighttime strains of the mariachis, wailing about a lost love, drifted out the open door of the cantina and onto the coolness of the patio, where Johnny Dawson sat with Maria. The lovely shadows of her face were illuminated by the flicker of a candle on their table, and her slim brown fingers caressed his hand lightly. Somewhere, a coyote yipped, and a door slammed down the street.
“I’m going to ask your father for your hand in marriage tomorrow.”
She smiled. “When will you ask me? I have to say yes, you know.”
He grinned, and then looked thoughtful. “What would you think of naming our first daughter, Jenny?”
Her eyes glittered warmly in the glow of the candlelight. “As you wish, my love.”
A grateful 'Thank You!' to my good friend Rosie for pointing out a glaring error.