Penny’s about to switch the children over from reciting their times tables to reading aloud, because they get rowdy if they spend too long under Miss Fowler’s tutelage, when Deputy Hofstadter knocks at the schoolhouse door.
“Sorry to disturb you, Missus Cooper,” he says, “but the Wheaton gang are in town.”
Miss Fowler lets out a dramatic gasp. Penny just steps behind her desk, reaching for the drawer the children are absolutely never allowed to touch.
“Thank you, sir,” she says, keeping her voice steady. “Children, we’re going to finish up early today, and everyone is to go straight home. Miss Fowler will see to it that you do.”
None of the small faces looking up at her shows a hint of intent to argue. Mrs Cooper has made it very clear that arguing with her is a Bad Idea.
They come from miles around to attend the school, so they won’t all be able to go straight home. They can at least be directed away from the Old Wheel, the saloon in the middle of town, because Penny knows full well that’s where the Wheaton gang will be going first. Wil, the leader, is the really dangerous one, but skinny Larry is a wildcard and ever since Stuart tried to squeeze her bottom the last time they were here, she’s been set against him – would, in fact, like to see him cooling his heels in the lockup by sundown. She’s never thought the husky one they just call “Captain Chaps” was worth much, but guesses every gang needs the muscle as well as the mind and the mouth.
As soon as the children have left the one-room schoolhouse, ushered out by Miss Fowler and Deputy Hofstadter, Penny opens the drawer and takes out her pistol. Her daddy taught her to use it, and her husband kept her in practice, and if Deputy Hofstadter came to tell her about the Wheaton Gang, then Sheldon isn’t back in town yet. She is the Sheriff’s right-hand woman in more than just a marital sense.
The gun goes into a specially stitched band at her waist; a flap of fabric conceals it. She dusts chalk from her hands and goes out of the schoolhouse, back straight, hair pulled back into a hasty ponytail. It’s not proper, but she can’t afford to have her bonnet restricting her peripheral vision.
Usually the hitching rails outside the Old Wheel only have horses she recognizes tied to them. There are four strange horses there today, though, and the town horses are nickering to each other in fretful conversation. Penny takes a minute to stroke each of them, giving herself time to assess the situation. Wolowitz and his farmhand, the foreign man (she has a hard time thinking of him as Indian; to her, the Indians are the people of the Pawnee or Omaha tribes who only sometimes come into town to trade), are here; Bernadette lives in town and Penny would warrant that she’s inside as well, probably running drinks out to the gang and having to endure what passes for their witticisms.
She walks up the steps, between the two old wheels that give the saloon its name, her hand never far from her pistol, and pushes the batwing doors open. Predictably, the saloon goes silent.
“Well, looky here,” Wheaton says, standing up from the booth where he and, yes, all three of his cronies are sitting, swilling down ale, and playing poker. He pushes his long coat open to rest his hands on his hips, overtly showing off his gun. “If it ain’t Miss Penny Oh So Pretty.”
“It’s Mrs Cooper to you,” Penny snaps. Oh, great start. “What’re you doing in Table Rock, Wil Wheaton?”
“Just having a drink. Is that illegal?”
“The drinking isn’t. Whatever plans you’ve got to steal our cattle, on the other hand...” Penny lets the sentence trail off and speak for itself. Everyone in the saloon knows what the Wheaton gang do for a living.
“Don’t worry about that, little lady.” Wheaton gestures expansively with his beer mug. “Why don’t you sit down and have a drink with us?”
Penny glances over to the bar, where Bernadette’s practically hiding behind the solid wooden bench. “I don’t drink with trash. Why don’t you get the heck out of my town?”
Wheaton’s eyes narrow and instead of either sitting down or taking another drink he puts the mug down and his hand twitches toward his gun. “You’ve got a real mouth on you, missy. I suggest you shut it, come over here, and have a drink.”
“How’s she supposed to drink with her mouth shut?” Wolowitz cannot keep his own darned mouth shut. Koothrappali makes a quiet eeping sound as Wheaton turns his attention to the pair of them.
“You want to shut up,” he says a little too softly. “Else we’ll see how smart you talk with your brains all over the bar.”
“Now, hold it right there, Wheaton.” Deputy Hofstadter’s pushing the doors open one-handed, his gun already out. Larry and Stuart are on their feet instantly, weapons produced from holsters, cards flying every which way; Captain Chaps is slower to rise. “We don’t like that kind of talk in Table Rock.”
“Seems to me you tolerate some strange things in Table Rock,” Wheaton says, his eyes going to Koothrappali. Penny feels a surge of anger in her chest. Rajesh Koothrappali might not be white, and he might not be all that good at speaking English (or indeed at all around womenfolk without a drink in him), but he’s a conscientious worker – Howard Wolowitz would still be farming rocks out on his spread without him.
“You better take that back, Wil Wheaton, or I’m gonna make you wish you had never been born,” she says, hand hovering that bit closer to her gun.
He sneers at her. Actually sneers, lip curling back from his teeth. One of them is capped with gold and she is willing to bet he didn’t come by it lawfully. “I’d like to see you try.”
Penny goes for her gun and Wheaton’s hand blurs and while she’s got the barrel practically touching his nose, the barrel of his is terribly close to her left eye.
“Go on,” he invites her. “I’ve got maybe three and a half pounds of pull on a four-pound trigger here. Go ahead and try it.”
“Bernadette, go out the back. Scream your head off,” Penny says, proud of how little her voice trembles. Bernadette scrambles out from behind the bar but a gunshot goes over her head, hitting one of the ale casks and sending amber liquid foaming everywhere.
“Bernadette, stay right where you are,” Larry says. Penny’s loath to move her eyes to check but she’s not surprised he’s the one who made the shot; he’s the one with the height to make a shot like that over the bar, which is set two steps up from the rest of the room to dissuade people from sneaking in behind it.
“No, get her over there with those two,” Wheaton says, his eyes locked on Penny’s, his free hand nevertheless pointing no doubt unerringly at Wolowitz and Koothrappali. “Stuart, shoot that idiot Hofstadter.”
The Deputy makes a surprised noise and Penny hears the hammers of two guns being cocked and then Wolowitz yells, “Bernadette, no!” right before what sounds like a crack of thunder resounds immensely in the enclosed space, followed by a pistol-shot that’s a tiny brother to such a big sound. Penny can’t help it – she has to look away, she has to see what’s going on.
Bernadette’s leaning against the wall, the big shotgun from behind the bar in her delicate hands. At first Penny can’t figure out how she could’ve made a shot with her back against the wall without going through it, but then a scarlet blossom spreads out on the shoulder of her pretty yellow dress and Penny realizes that she’s just standing where she got thrown by the shot.
Shots. The shot she made, and the shot she took.
Wolowitz runs to her despite the sheer number of guns being held by unfriendly people in the room, and reaches her just as Bernadette’s eyes roll back in her head and she slides bonelessly down the wall. Penny spots the whiff of smoke curling from Captain Chaps’ gun and coldly resolves to see him dead whether Bernadette makes it or not.
It might be hard, though; there are currently four men pointing guns more or less directly at her.
Her eyes dart around, trying to figure out what exactly Bernadette hit with her shot. At last she sees it; all Bernadette has managed is to shoot out the glass window over the booth the men were sitting at. Poor Bernadette.
“All right, fellas, this has to stop right here and now if you don’t wanna be lynched for murder,” Deputy Hofstadter says. All this announcement accomplishes is that Larry and Captain Chaps swivel their guns to point at him. Stuart and Wheaton still have theirs squarely aimed at Penny.
“What do we do now, Wil?” Stuart asks tensely, eyes flickering from Penny to Wheaton to the door. “I think she’s gonna bleed out.”
“Who died and made you doctor?” Wheaton snaps. “Hofstadter, get away from the door. We’re going.”
The Deputy shakes his head. “Not after that shot, Wheaton. You’re not going anywhere except our nice cozy cells.”
Penny prides herself on her speed, but Wheaton strikes like a darned rattlesnake, bringing the barrel of his gun down on her wrist. Her whole hand shrieks with pain and she drops her gun; Wheaton follows his movement through with a step toward her and grabs her by the hair. Penny wishes she’d worn the bonnet after all, because it hurts. His gun barrel nudges up under her chin and Penny decides now would be a good time to stay very still.
“I will shoot her,” Wheaton says, and something in his tone lets Penny know he’s serious. Like as not if they’re jailed they’ll be lynched for cattle-rustling and wounding Bernadette anyway, and if he’s decided they’re doomed then he won’t care who he takes with him. “Drop your gun and kick it to me, and get away from the door.”
The Deputy hesitates, stalling for time, and Bernadette makes a hopeless little wailing sound as Wolowitz pads her wound with a sleeve torn off his luridly colored shirt. Then the Deputy says, “Aw, hell,” and puts his gun down on the floor, giving it a good kick. It skitters across the polished boards, bounces off a chair leg, and disappears under the table Koothrappali’s still sitting at, his hands flat on the surface.
Wheaton smiles. It looks like he’s getting ready to bite someone. “Good work, Deputy.” He starts for the door, ignoring Penny’s attempts to kick him in the shins.
Then the window Bernadette already put a good hole in with her gun shatters inward and everyone freezes.
“Wheaton.” The newcomer’s voice is a whipcrack across the room. “Let go of my wife.”
Wheaton turns around slowly, but Penny knows that voice as well as she knows her own, and she knows who’s just come to their salvation.
Sheldon has his pistol in one hand, aimed dead at Captain Chaps’ head, and is casually brushing bits of glass off his shirt with the other. How he made the dive through the window without losing his hat, Penny doesn’t know, but it’s still firmly on his head, Sheriff's star on the front.
“Let her go, Wheaton,” he repeats. “I don’t want anyone stuck with cleaning this waste of oxygen’s brains off the floor.”
Wheaton hesitates, clearly considering a run for the door, and Penny kicks him in the shin again. It’s not enough to get him to let go, but it is enough to give Koothrappali a second to scramble under the table and retrieve the Deputy’s gun. He says nothing, but he’s in a good position to ventilate Wheaton’s skull, and the steady glare in his dark eyes says he will do it. A second after that Wolowitz is on his feet with the shotgun trained on Larry.
“Gentlemen.” Sheldon’s voice is as dry as ever despite the gun barrel wedged under his wife’s chin. “Drop your weapons and reach for the roof.”
Captain Chaps is the first to give in, spitting in disgust and tossing his gun toward the far end of the room. Stuart follows his lead, despite Wheaton glaring at them both. Larry takes a step toward Wheaton and Penny, his intentions unclear, but whatever he means to do is meaningless as Sheldon picks up a chair with his free hand and almost idly smacks him across the back of the head with it. Larry drops like a sack of rocks. Bernadette lets out a weak cheer from behind the bar.
It’s not over yet, though. Before Sheldon can discard the chair and return his full focus to Wheaton, Captain Chaps hurls himself at him, catching the Sheriff around the knees. Koothrappali fires a shot into the ceiling to warn everyone else not to move, but Wheaton makes a dash for the door, dragging Penny with him. She goes as limp as she can but Wheaton’s used to handling recalcitrant cattle so one reluctant schoolteacher is hardly a challenge for him. She can hear yelling and gunfire – the shotgun goes off again with another monstrous roar – but can’t see what’s going on.
She’s hoisted and flung unbecomingly across a horse’s back, just in front of the saddle horn, and Wheaton swings himself up easily behind her, grabbing the reins in one hand and the back of her dress with the other, just in case she decides to try something cute like jumping off while the horse is galloping. Wheaton squeezes his leg in and kicks backward and the horse takes off like someone’s lit gunpowder under its tail.
“Penny!” Sheldon yells from behind them, and he sounds not anguished but urgent. “I’m coming!”
“This horse is faster than any for miles around,” Wheaton says, his voice bouncing with the horse. “He won’t catch us.”
“He doesn’t need to,” Penny informs him, although whether or not he can hear her considering she’s basically talking into the side of the horse is debatable. She can’t speak to its speed, but it’s a very nice shade of chestnut, and he keeps it well groomed; she can see the marks of the curry-comb through its coat.
She can hear the hoofbeats of Sheldon’s horse coming up close behind them and makes herself as small as she can. Sheldon prides himself on his extreme accuracy in many, many things, but she doesn’t want to risk compromising his target.
The rope whistles through the air, Wheaton lets out a surprised yelp, and suddenly Penny is alone on the horse. She scrambles to sit upright and swing herself into the saddle, gigging the horse around as Wheaton screams in pain. They hadn’t picked up all that much speed, but she imagines that doesn’t matter much to anyone who just fell off a horse and then got dragged a couple dozen yards behind another horse. Part of her hopes that long coat of his kept him from getting torn up too badly; the rest of her hopes he’s got dust ground into his skin.
By the time she gets back to Sheldon he’s dismounted and is trussing Wheaton up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Wheaton looks resigned. Sheldon’s face is carefully neutral, but as soon as he has Wheaton safely slung over the back of his horse he kisses her like they’ve been parted for months.
“Sheldon, not in front of the prisoner!” Penny giggles.
“Forget him,” Sheldon suggests, pulling her closer, and for a few seconds Penny does, lost in the feeling of her man’s arms around her and his mouth on hers. Then she pulls back abruptly and flings herself up onto Wheaton’s horse.
“Bernadette! We’ve got to help her!” She kicks the horse into a surprised canter, not waiting to see whether Sheldon is following her.
As she flies up the steps into the Old Wheel Deputy Hofstadter’s just coming out with his three prisoners in front of him – Stuart and Captain Chaps walking, the still unconscious Larry being carried by Koothrappali. Penny doesn’t care about them beyond the fact that they’re not going to cause any more trouble. She pushes through the still-swinging doors and sees Bernadette lying on the bar – how skinny little Howard Wolowitz managed to lift her she doesn’t know, but she’s heard that folks can do some pretty amazing things when they’re afraid for the people they care for, and though most of the town spent a good deal of time thinking that Wolowitz was queer for his farmhand, Penny’s seen the way he gazes at Bernadette and knows better.
Bernadette’s breathing evenly but shallow, and Penny finds the first-aid box and then picks out one of the cheaper bottles of vodka. She sets out a couple of clean cotton bandages and uncaps the bottle.
“This is gonna burn,” she warns her friend, and Bernadette nods weakly, her eyes closed. Penny gingerly pulls aside Wolowitz’s makeshift bandage. The wound underneath is ugly but, as these things go, clean; the bullet has not pierced but instead grazed Bernadette’s shoulder.
She dumps the alcohol over it anyway and Bernadette shrieks, gripping Wolowitz’s hand so hard he lets out a little yelp of his own. The liquid runs pink onto the bar and Penny gets the clean pad over it then sits Bernadette up so that she can wrap the bandage over the top as quick as possible. Bernadette grabs the bottle with her uninjured arm and takes a deep swig, gulping it down like a man fresh in off the farm and in need of something to warm his heart. Wolowitz puts his arm around her and Penny can’t keep from smiling. They’re an odd match, but maybe, just maybe... after all, people said the same of her and Sheldon when they first started walking out together.
The memory of the day he finally plucked up the courage to come and ask her to dinner makes her smile widen. He’d showed up at the schoolhouse door just as Miss Fowler rang the end of day bell, a posy of primroses and asters and one wild red rose in his hand and his silly oversized hat on his head.
She hadn’t thought it was silly for long. Especially not after the first time he’d kissed her, half-forward and half-shy all at once. Especially not when the shyness went away altogether. It turned out when he thought there was something worth saying, it was near impossible to shut him up, and it turned out there were a lot of things he had to say to Penny, and a few short months later they were married.
Koothrappali comes back into the saloon and sees Penny and Wolowitz standing by their makeshift operating table, and hurries to join them, concern written plainly on his face.
“She’ll be fine,” Penny hastens to assure him. “Nothing that a good rest won’t mend.”
“I can’t rest,” Bernadette says. “I’ve got work to do.”
“It’s nothing that we can’t do for you,” Penny says firmly, and that’s how she goes from schoolteacher to surgeon to saloon-keeper in the space of a day.
The saloon’s good and full by the time the Sheriff and his Deputy come back in from locking up their prisoners, stabling the outlaws’ horses, and sending off a message to the state penitentiary. Bernadette’s settled in one of the booths, Penny’s tending bar, and Koothrappali’s managed to win everyone over by donning one of Penny’s dresses and waiting tables.
Everyone goes quiet when the two men walk in and then the applause starts with Bernadette, who winces with every clap but does it nonetheless. Miss Fowler throws her arms around Deputy Hofstadter and gives him a ringing kiss on the cheek, making him blush.
Sheldon makes his way through the crowd, slowed by slaps on the back and handshakes, and stops by the bar. Penny’s got a glass in her hand but puts it down fast when she sees the look in his eyes.
“Since we aren’t in front of the prisoner any more, and I can see that Bernadette’s alive and well, I’m sure you’ll have no objection to me doing this,” he says, pulling her close, dipping her, and kissing her so hard she feels like her brain might just melt right out of her head. Some wiseacre starts another round of applause – Penny suspects it’s Bernadette again. She clings dizzily to Sheldon through it all, and even if she could talk right now she wouldn’t voice a single objection.