“WELCOME TO WONDERFUL WYOMING,” said the road sign as we drove over the state line from Colorado. But at two in the morning as I stared out the window from the back seat of a stranger’s mini-van, I wondered what was so wonderful about it. In the seat next to me, a baby lay sleeping and behind me, two older boys were also asleep. Now was the time to ask the driver the question that plagued me ever since we left Colorado Springs.

“Why are you doing this?” I said. “Why are you bringing me to Wyoming against my will?”

“Shut up!” snapped the driver.

“Pat, you’ll wake the kids,” his wife admonished him.

“I’m sorry I asked,” I muttered and not wanting to agitate Pat any further, I decided to let it go for now. I reflected on how I got into this mess.

Late at night, I was driving home to Fowler, Colorado from Boulder where I’d just graduated from Colorado University. My parents and younger siblings drove ahead of me and I followed in my car which was piled high with all my earthly possessions. I stopped in Colorado Springs for gas and a cup of coffee to sustain me for the rest of the drive home. After filling the tank at a convenience store, I pulled into a parking space next to a brown mini-van. Two boys in shorts and t-shirts were playing nearby. As I emerged from my car, a woman in jeans and t-shirt with a baby called to them, “Andy, Bill, be careful of trafficl.”

As I passed the van on my way to the store’s entrance, I couldn’t help noticing that the baby was lying on the hood and the woman was removing the diaper. “I hate to do this out in the open,” she apologized. “But I hate to leave my boys out here alone so late at night while I take her into the rest room. My husband’s in there now. Sometimes, he’s just no help at all.”

“I understand,” I sympathized. “If you like, I could keep an eye on the boys while you take her inside. I’ve had plenty of baby-sitting experience.”

“I don’t know,” said the woman, giving me a suspicious glance.

“I certainly understand your concern,” I said. “If I had any kids, I probably wouldn’t leave them with a stranger under these circumstances either. But the offer still stands.”

After looking me over one more time, the woman said, “You know. I’ll take a chance.” She picked up the baby and a nearby purse and called to the boys, “Andy, Bill, come here a minute.” When the two boys appeared, she said, “This lady is gonna keep an eye on you while I take Laura into the rest room and change her. You mind her till I get back.” She hurried into the store.

“Hi guys,” I said to the two boys who eyed me with curiosity. “My name’s Kate. What are yours?”

After an interminable silence, one of the boys said, “I’m Andy and this is my brother Bill.”

After shaking hands with each of them, I asked, “And how old are you guys?”

“I’m six!” exclaimed Bill with a note of pride in his voice.

“And I’m eight,” answered Andy. “And we’re from Sheridan, Wyoming. We just came back from Los Alamos, New Mexico where we got to stay with my cousins.”

“Wow, Los Alamos, New Mexico!” I exclaimed with enthusiasm. “Isn’t that where they built the atom bomb or something like that?”

“Yeah,” answered Andy. “We got to go to this really cool museum where they had computer games and we learned about how they built the bomb.”

“Wow, that sounds neat,” I commented.

“And my cousin has a Game Boy and a Spider Man game and a Bat Man game. That’s what I want for my birthday but my dad won’t give it to me,” Bill whined.

“That’s too bad,” I sympathized. “But I like Game Boys too. They’re really cool.”

The woman with the baby returned, followed by a man who was also wearing jeans and a t-shirt. He wore a jacket and I saw something bulging from one of the pockets. “Dad!” the two boys cried, rushing to his side. Bill turned and hurried back to me. Grabbing my hand, he dragged me to where his parents stood. “Dad, this is Kate!” he exclaimed. “And she likes Game Boys too. If we take her home with us and if we get a Game Boy, then she can play it too.”

“She can’t come home with us, stupid!” cried Andy. “She’s probably got her own kids.”

“Now Andy, that wasn’t very nice,” I said. “You wouldn’t want someone calling you stupid, would you?”

I could have bitten my tongue. I had no right to chastise this kid in front of his parents when that was their responsibility. But to my surprise, they said nothing and Andy sighed, “I’m sorry, Bill.”

I turned to Bill and said, “Look, if I didn’t have my own home to go to, I’d love to come home with you. But if I ever get to Sheridan, I’ll come and visit.”

“Okay, boys, get in and buckle up,” their father barked. As the boys clambered into the van, he turned to me. To my horror, I discovered what was bulging out of his pocket when he withdrew a pistol and aimed it straight at me. “You go around to the other side and get in there.”

“What?” I said in astonishment.

“Pat, what are you doing?” the woman protested.

“You heard me,” said Pat. “This thing’s loaded so don’t try anything funny or you’ll be sorry.”

I looked around the deserted parking lot and at my car which was unlocked and wondered if I could make a fast getaway. “I’m waiting!” boomed Pat. “Move!”

With a sigh, I walked to the other side of the van. As I climbed in, Bill whined, “I can’t get this stupid seat belt.”

“I’ll help you,” I said, crawling towards the rear seat.

“Kate, are you coming home with us after all?” asked Bill, his eyes wide with astonishment.

“That’s what it looks like,” I answered as I strapped him into his seat.

“All right!” exclaimed Bill as I took the empty seat in front of him. Pat no longer held the pistol. He probably wouldn’t expose it in front of the kids, or would he?

“Now you boys need to be quiet,” admonished their mother who was strapping the baby into the seat next to me. “Your sister’s almost asleep.”

Pat slid shut the rear passenger door on my side. He climbed into the driver’s seat, slammed the door, and started the engine. After the woman finished securing the baby, she climbed in beside him and we were off. And now here we were, a couple of hours later, crossing the border into Wyoming.

I felt a tug at my knee and looked down to see Bill attempting to crawl into my lap. “William, get back into your seat right now!” Pat bellowed.

“But Daddy, I had a bad dream and I want to sit with Kate,” Bill whined.

“Let’s get you back in your seat,” I suggested. “Then I’ll sit with you for a while.”

As I strapped the kid back into his seat, the baby began whimpering. “Oh dear,” the woman moaned.

“I’ll get her,” I said and I made my way to where the infant lay. I took her in my arms and carried her to the rear seat where the two boys sat. Andy was fast asleep but Bill gazed at me with a curious expression as I held the baby who began crying in earnest. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” I soothed her as I rocked back and forth in the seat. I sang the only lullaby I knew. “Hush little baby. Don’t say a word. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.” I didn’t know all the words so I made them up as I went along until she and Bill finally fell asleep.

I carried her back to her seat and was almost asleep myself when Pat said, “You want to know why we’re bringing you to Wyoming. Well, it’s pretty obvious. You’re good with the kids and my wife and I could use a nanny.”

“A nanny,” I said. It was all I could do to keep from laughing as I pictured myself with an umbrella and a carpet bag singing, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

“Oh Pat, be reasonable,” his wife pleaded. “You saw her car in Colorado Springs. She looked like she was moving somewhere. She’s probably already got a job lined up.”

“Well actually not yet,” I said. “I just graduated from college and I was heading home to be with my family for a while before looking for a job.”

I regretted those words as soon as I said them for Pat said, “Well, you have a job now. Of course, I can’t pay you but you’ll have a roof over your head and three meals a day.”

“But she doesn’t have any clothes,” the woman protested. “You didn’t even give her a chance to grab a suitcase from her car.”

“I suppose I can get her some clothes from the store,” sighed Pat.

“What kind of a store is it?” I asked.

“Western wear,” he answered in a matter-of-fact tone of voice.

I should have known, I thought. I struggled to keep from laughing as I pictured myself in jeans, denim shirt, cowboy hat and boots walking down the street with the baby in a stroller singing, “Git along little doggies for you know that Wyoming will be your new home.”

“What was your degree in?” asked the woman.

“Business administration,” I answered.

“Honey, she’s more qualified to look after the store than the kids,” she said.

“She has a point,” I said. “I love kids and I like to baby-sit when I have a chance but I’m not qualified to be a nanny. I think you need someone with a degree in child psychology or something like that.”

“You don’t need a degree to raise kids,” said Pat. “Charlotte and I raised kids for eight years without any degrees in psychology and so far, we’ve been pretty successful, haven’t we, honey?”

“Of course we have,” replied Charlotte. “But we can’t expect her to work for us for nothing.”

“Charlotte, I don’t know what else to do,” said Pat with a note of desperation in his voice. “You know that with the Main Street reconstruction project, we’re losing seventy percent of our business. That’s why I need you to come back to work and why I got us a nanny. I can’t afford to keep Bonnie on as bookkeeper anymore.”

“You want me to do the store’s books and the web site,” said Charlotte.

“You can work on the web site at home in the evening,” said Pat. “That’s why we have the nanny.”

“Pat, be serious,” Charlotte pleaded. “We can’t just bring her all the way to Sheridan against her will and make her work for us.”

Holding the steering wheel with one hand, Pat reached into his pocket and withdrew his pistol, this time pointing it at Charlotte. “Look, Kate is coming back to help us at least until they finish Main Street and our business gets back to normal and that’s all there is to it.” He replaced the pistol and fell silen

My heart went out to Pat. It sounded like his family business was in dire straits. But that didn’t give him the right to bring me to this God-forsaken state at gunpoint to be his nanny, I thought as I gazed out the window at the flat prairie surrounding us. But what could I do? Even if we made it to Sheridan and Pat and Charlotte went to work the next day, leaving me with the kids, I couldn’t abandon them and make my way home. If I went to the police, Pat and Charlotte would land in jail and the kids would be orphans, so to speak. And what sort of violence was Pat capable of committing? If he didn’t get his way, would he shoot Charlotte or one of the kids? I couldn’t take that chance. I resigned myself to being a nanny for the summer.

The baby began whimpering and as I took her into my arms, Charlotte said, “Honey, I think she needs to be fed and changed again. Let’s stop in Cheyenne.’”

When we reached the town, Pat pulled into a truck stop. The boys were still asleep so Charlotte took the baby from me and the three of us walked inside together. Outside the ladies” room, as Charlotte went in ahead of me, Pat put a restraining hand on my shoulder and said under his breath, “I’ll be waiting right here. Don’t try anything funny.” He tapped the pocket that held the pistol

“Pat, you don’t have to do that,” I said, turning to him with a smile. “I’ll help you guys out for as long as you need me. After I use the rest room, I’ll call home so they won’t worry.”

“Thanks a lot,” said Pat, reaching into his other pocket. He withdrew a pad and pencil. “I’ll give you our address in Sheridan. You can have your folks ship whatever you need there.”

“Thanks,” I said.

When I walked into the rest room, I stopped short. In a toilet stall, Charlotte was saying, “Hello, my name is Charlotte Hunter and I’m in the rest room at the truck stop just off I25. My husband is standing outside the door with a loaded pistol.”

I was stunned. I couldn’t believe this woman would turn in her own husband. But she knew him better than I did. Perhaps he was capable of violence. But now, what would she do with three kids and a failing business?

The baby lay on a nearby counter and began whimpering. As I soothed and changed her, I listened to Charlotte relating the details of my kidnapping and almost laughed at the ridiculousness of the story.

When she finished the conversation, she emerged from the stall and said, “We keep a cell phone in the van in case of emergency. I grabbed it when Pat wasn’t looking.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said. “I told Pat I’d help you guys out for as long as you need me and I still will, especially now with Pat in jail. But then again, if I tell them I don’t want to press charges, maybe he won’t go to jail.”

“Kate, Pat has some mental problems,” said Charlotte. “He’s fine as long as he stays on his medication. But a month ago, he decided he no longer needed it and I couldn’t persuade him otherwise. Maybe this will make him realize he needs to stay on his medications.”

“But what about your business?” I asked.

“It’s not as bad as all that,” Charlotte assured me. “The Main Street reconstruction project is causing some problems but we’re still getting plenty of business and our web site is getting orders from all across the country.”

“Wow, I thought only people on ranches wore western wear,” I said.

“We don’t just sell cowboy boots and hats,” Charlotte explained. “We sell all kinds of clothes, ties, jewelry, even cosmetics.”

“I didn’t realize that,” I said, hoping I hadn’t offended her.

“Look,” she said. “After you’ve spent some time with your family, I probably could use your help in the store checking inventory and stuff like that. I wouldn’t be able to pay you very much but at least it would be a start for you. Would you be interested?”

“You bet!” I exclaimed. “Just give me a few days with my folks and I’ll come.”

“Take as much time as you need,” Charlotte told me.

“Hey, are you guys about ready?” called Pat from the other side of the door.

Before we could respond, another male voice said, “Are you Pat Hunter?”

“Yeah, what’s it to you?” Pat scoffed.

“Put your hands up, buddy. You’re under arrest for kidnapping,” replied the voice.

“But she said she would be my nanny,” Pat whined. I almost felt sorry for him as I heard a scuffle and the sound of handcuffs being applied.

“I’d better go out there and talk to the authorities I guess,” sighed Charlotte. “Here, use my cell phone to call home. It’s got plenty of free minutes so take your time.”

When my mother answered the phone, I said, “Mom, you’re not gonna believe this.”

“Kate, where have you been?” she cried. “We’ve been worried sick. We called the police and they found your car in a convenience store parking lot in Colorado Springs. Your dad and Steve went to get it.”

“I’m okay, Mom,” I assured her. “And I got a job in Sheridan, Wyoming in a store that sells western wear.” Remembering the road sign I saw earlier, I realized there was something wonderful about Wyoming after all.