Untamed Journey
– That
they escaped and this rider may catch up with them and circle back
to us. I don’t think it likely, but it’s best to move on. Are you
up to another ride tonight?”
    Jackson’s comment worked like a timely
interruption by a maiden aunt. Ruth stepped back and hastily
averted her eyes. Whether from modesty or further temptation, she
might never understand or admit to herself.
    “I can ride,” she responded with more
conviction than she felt. Riding seemed like the safest course to
her jumbled thoughts, and the cold rain just starting to fall would
surely put a damper on her heated body.
     
     

Chapter 25
    T he rain didn’t stop
for the next five hours, and neither did they. Jackson took them
straight up a steep mountain pass, then veered off the main trail
to ride cross country through a heavily wooded forest. He breathed
easier with the arrival of the rain, but still didn’t lessen his
efforts to hide their trail. He’d gone head-to-head with Indian
trackers that could find a man in rain, snow, or heat. And in this
country, where mountain passes were scarce, he and Ruth were easy
prey. The best he could do was to wipe their tracks and mislead
anyone looking for them.
    “You’ll need to walk again, Ruth. We’ve got
one last river to cross before we rest for the night.”
    Jackson had already dismounted himself and
checked the integrity of the ropes tying the horses together when
he realized that Ruth was still sitting on Caboose. She looked
exhausted, although she hadn’t complained once - even through two
river crossings and unrelenting rain.
    He held his gloved hand up to Ruth, “This is
the last one tonight, I promise. I know a place we can rest, and
even have a small fire. Don’t quit on me now.”
    She managed a soggy half smile before
replying, “I’m not quitting. I was just resting my eyes.” With that
bit of bravado her only strength, Ruth half slid into his bracing
arms. She almost remembered what being warm and dry felt like,
wedged as she was between Jackson’s hard body and Caboose’s
steaming coat.
    Almost, until a cold drop of sleet found its
way down her aching back. “Let’s get this over with, then. The
thought of hot coffee is enough motivation to ford the Mississippi,
much less this pathetic excuse for a creek.”
    Jackson and Ruth both knew any water crossing
was dangerous in these conditions. The swelling creek before them
was just shy of river status under these pouring skies.
    But they both kept these useless thoughts to
themselves and set about tying Ruth and her horse to the back of
Jackson’s mount. They let the other horses loose and hoped they
would follow. Having extra mounts wasn’t worth being swept down
river.
    Jackson had already explained to Ruth that
there were only three directions they could go, and anyone who knew
these mountains would assume the third choice was too risky this
close to winter.
    And they’d be right.
    It was too dangerous to follow this path,
when this rain could turn to sleet and then to snow in less than an
hour. A fierce blizzard when they were ill-prepared could prove
more dangerous than armed men on their trail, but Jackson had
weighed their options, and decided to risk it. He figured they had
a couple of weeks yet before the snow set in.
    And if not, he could get them to a makeshift
shelter along the trail. He knew every hollowed-out tree and rocky
overhang out here, and a few half-standing shelters left over from
the days when his uncle worked this trail. They’d be all right as
long as they kept moving and no one was injured.
    Jackson took one last look at Ruth over his
shoulder. “Are you ready?”
    At her nod, they set off down the steep,
muddy bank. He tried to keep their pace slow and steady, but the
pack horses had other ideas, and they crowded in behind Caboose.
“Whoa, boy. Keep those mares in line, now.” Jackson whispered into
his favored mount’s ear, encouraging the stallion to lead the new
mares and Ruth’s

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