Posts tagged with “Laramie”



I am in no way affiliated to any of the shows portrayed in my stories. No copyright infringement is intended and I have made no profit from  any of my stories.I do not own any of the rights to any of the characters or programs represented in the fanfic stories.The sole aim of these stories is to entertain. Click here to filter so you only view the Laramie stories.

Please note stories should be read in numerical order as many of the stories are linked to previous ones, starting at number #1 Loved Lost Survived. To view the stories in order click on Archives All and they will be displayed, then simply choose your story by clicking on the title.


The Laramie Chronicles

My stories are based on the Laramie TV Show which aired between 1959 and 1963, staring Robert Fuller as Jess Harper and John Smith as Slim Sherman,two friends running a Ranch and Relay Station in 1870’s Wyoming.

Some stories also feature their housekeeper Mrs Daisy Cooper played by Spring Byington and Mike Williams their Ward played by Dennis Holmes.
Other characters featured were Sheriff Mort Corey, Stage driver Mose Shell,Slim’s younger brother Andy Sherman and an old family friend named Jonsey.

The stories are sometimes theme led as in Loved lost Survived where the subject of bereavement is explored, within the parameters of early 1870 western America.Many of the stories deal with issues of the time from lawlessness to the problems involved in eking out a living in the untamed west. The main framework of all the stories is the enduring friendship between the two, very different main characters.

Slim Sherman is the honest, straightforward ranch owner, who is a worrier and likes to do everything by the book and within the letter of the law. However once he befriends Jess Harper drifter, and ex gunslinger with a wild streak, his life changes forever. The unlikely duo team up and eventually become partners in the business but many trials and tribulations abound and life is never plain sailing.

I hope you will enjoy my take on this popular series. I have been writing these stories for over four years and have completed over fifty, many available on various Fanfic sites. It is my aim to compile them on this site,in time,as I have had many requests to collect them all together, so welcome to the new home of my Laramie Chronicles.


#101 Uprising!


Patty Wilkinson

(Some strong language, violence and adult themes)

Chapter 1
Jess Harper tightened Traveller’s girth and then looked up at the Sherman ranch house that he thought of as home, but now the windows and doors were all boarded up. Then he glanced over to the deserted barn and corral and the surrounding meadows empty of stock…and sighed deeply.
A loud clap of thunder made him glance up to the advancing dark storm clouds and he shivered as a sudden icy wind blew up, sending a tumbleweed bowling across the yard; increasing the atmosphere of desolation.
He mounted and then whistled up his dog Blue, before remembering he’d been whining at the kitchen window where one of the planks had come adrift. He’d been pawing at it trying to get inside where he had a juicy bone hidden under the table.
“Dang dog,” Jess muttered irritably before whistling for him again. Then mindful of the loose board he dismounted and headed back towards the side of the house.
Almost simultaneously there was another thunder-clap and a bolt of lightning struck the house which seemed to explode with flames leaping up to the now pitch-black sky.
Jess gave a cry of alarm and tore towards the blazing house, convinced he could hear Blue’s plaintive yaps coming from within.
The fire was burning his face as he tried to open the door…but then some strange force grabbed hold of him, pushing him back.
He fought desperately to get away and find his dog…but the power pushing him was just too strong…and he fell back gasping with pain and frustration.
“Let me go damn it!” he cried to his invisible assailant.

“Jess…Jess, it’s OK it’s just a nightmare,” Slim said urgently.
He finally opened his eyes to find Slim’ s concerned gaze upon him, his hands on his shoulders, pushing him back onto the pillow.
Jess looked around the room, his expression dazed, before he finally muttered… “Blue?”
“He’s here Jess see,” and the wolf-cross sheepdog lay his large head on the edge of the bed, his soft, worried brown eyes looking up at his master.
Jess laid a gentle hand on his head and whispered, “Hey it’s OK boy, don’t fret,” and was answered by the big dog’s tail waving hesitantly.
Then Jess started shivering and Slim pulled the covers more securely around him and removed the cold compress from his forehead.
“You’re not too well pard” he said softly, “one minute you’re burning up and the next icy cold. Been up with you half the night,” he added, his warm smile taking the sting out of the words.
“Sorry,” Jess whispered, “but I guess that accounts for the nightmare,” and he recounted it.
Slim gave a low whistle, “Nasty…and when you think about it, I guess those are two of the things you really fret about…Fire… after what happened to your kin. And a close second losing this old place,” he added casting a glance around their shared room.
“You ain’t wrong there,” Jess said, “losing this old fellah too,” and he once more caressed Blue’s head.
“Well, if you will get soaking wet mending fence in a storm and then come back and sit up with Snowbird in your wet duds all night, what do you expect?” he said in exasperation. “Just a good job Daisy was away playing midwife, or you’d be in real trouble.”
“How is he…Snowbird’s foal?” Jess asked quickly.
“Still thriving and one real proud Mama,” Slim said grinning down at his pard… “I checked on her just a few hours ago.”
“And how’s Ma Pattison?”
“Mose said it’s another girl and Daisy’ ll be home tomorrow.” Then chuckling, “Good to see you got your priorities right Jess.”
“Well shouldn’t a new baby come higher up the list for your concern?”
Jess grinned back, “Nope, heck Pattison babies are two a penny…now one of Snowbird’s foals that’s really something.”
They both laughed, until Jess’s laughter turned to a coughing fit.
“If you’re no better tomorrow I’m sending for doc Sam,” Slim said.
“Aw don’t fuss… I’m OK,” Jess finally managed.
“Sure, you are,” Slim said making for his own bed.


Why Jess Harper, I leave you boys to your own devices for five minutes and look at the state of you.
Jess opened his mouth to reply to Daisy, but ended up coughing and spluttering.
She immediately looked sympathetic and running to the bedside helped sit him up and then offered the glass of lemonade and honey she had just brought in.
Jess drank and then wiped away the tears that had been streaming down his face after the coughing fit.
“Couldn’t be helped Daisy I needed to tend Snowbird…you know how dang jittery she gets when she’s foaling.”
“Um,” Daisy said looking unconvinced, “and you didn’t think to change out of your wet clothes. Oh yes, Slim told me everything,” she said raising a hand to silence Jess’s denial.
“Anyway, Doc Sam should be here shortly, let’s see what he has to say,” she added before sweeping majestically out of the room.
“Looks like that nasty chill has got on your lungs. It’s not full-blown lung fever but could go that way.”
Jess just lay looking impassive.
“You need to do exactly as I say Jess…rest and take the medicine as prescribed… dang it, am I getting through to you?”
“Sure, rest and medicine,” Jess said, “so when can I get up, got a new foal to spoil some.”
Sam sighed and then looked down at his old friend a twinkle in his eyes, “A week should do it, deal?”
Of course, Jess didn’t share the doc’s advice and was up and about again a few days later, much to Daisy’s irritation.
The weather was still very inclement as spring moved to early summer and Jess’s temper mirrored the wet miserable weather.
“I don’t know what’s got into him,” Slim said early one morning as he slammed into the kitchen where Daisy was baking.
“Oh dear, Jess again?”
“Uh-huh got himself all worked up just because I asked him when he was thinking of finishing patching up that hole in the home pasture fencing. Darn it you can’t say anything to him these days before he takes it the wrong way.”
“Um he has been a little out of sorts lately,” Daisy agreed, pouring him a coffee from the pot on the stove, “He’s still got that nasty cough too,” she added.
“Um,” Slim muttered slumping down at the kitchen table.
Daisy looked across at him and then took the seat opposite, “I think you’re both a little jaded,” she said kindly.
“Huh?” He queried sipping his coffee and frowning at her over the rim of his cup.
“Well, you were so terribly upset when Mike and Jess were abducted last year. You didn’t get a proper Christmas really and then you missed out on the New Year celebrations too when you both went off seeking that terrible Pete Stone, to bring him to justice.” (*See #100 Christmas Story 2023)
“I guess you’re right,” Slim said thoughtfully, “and we’ve been working non-stop since repairing all the storm damage and getting the stock up to the high ground for the summer.”
Then he smiled sympathetically, “But heck Daisy it was just as bad for you when we really thought we’d never see Jess or Mike again.”
“I know women are supposedly the weaker sex dear,” she said softly, “but we have more resilience than folk give us credit for. Once Mike and Jess were safely home, I put the whole sorry business behind me, but I think possibly you and Jess haven’t yet?”
He looked thoughtful, “You could be right. I know Jess felt awful that he didn’t escape sooner, but he was just so afraid Mike would be harmed if he attempted it.”
“Of course, and he did exactly the right thing,” Daisy said looking upset, “I hope he’s not still fretting about that.”
Slim shrugged, “Maybe, and I know he’s missing Millie something fierce too.”
“Oh yes of course” Daisy said. “He missed out on New Year with her and now she’s gone off back east to help her sister-in-law with the new twins.”
Slim gave a wide grin at that, “You should have seen Hotshot’s face when he heard there were twins in the family,” he chuckled.
“Oh Slim, I do believe twin’s run in Tad’s wife’s family, not in his and his sister’s,” Daisy said, “as well you know.”
“I told him that,” Slim said, “he still came out in a cold sweat though.”
“Silly boy,” she said indulgently, “the sooner you two settle down with your girls and start raising your own offspring, the happier I’ll be.”
Now it was Slim’ s turn to look a little worried, “Uh, can’t rush these things you know Daisy.”
“So it would seem,” she said drily.
Then changing the subject said, “It’s quite quiet at present regarding work isn’t it. Why don’t you and Jess take off for a hunting trip for a week or two? You could ask the Jackson boys to cover, they’re usually happy to oblige.”
“No can-do Daisy, I approached their Pa last week, seems they’re already looking after old Chas Watson’s place while he’s sick.”
“Oh dear, that’s a shame, because I really think you boys deserve a break.”
“You and me both,” he said shaking his head sadly.

Chapter 2
The following day Slim was sitting out on the porch mending some tack when a rider came swiftly down the rise. Then tethering his mount by the horse trough he wandered over to Slim.
“Howdy Mort,” Slim said looking up at his old friend, “Take the weight off,” he said nodding to the other seat, “So what brings you over here?”
Mort sat down, relaxed in the chair and tipping his Stetson back said, “I’ve had some more trouble with those young braves coming off the reservation … chicken stealing this time over at the Patterson spread.”
“What? Was it Chief Red Bear’s younger son again, uh Red Wolf?”
“I guess so…Patterson didn’t get a clear look, took a pot shot, but it went wide.”
“Um, probably for the best, a dead Indian could cause all kinds of trouble, even if Chief Red Bear is on good terms with us at present.”
“My thoughts exactly Slim. The Major has been over and had a talk with the chief asking him to keep those hot heads under control. But it seems the old chief is not too well right now and the youngsters are taking advantage of it.”
“I guess he hasn’t been the same since his other son, Running Bear died,” Slim said quietly. “He was a real good guy…tragic what happened.”
“Yes, I was away when all that trouble started,” Mort said, “so what did happen exactly?”
“Seems that some of the tribe took against Running Bear when he upped and married a white woman…then they had a son and that really riled a few of the elders,” Slim said. “Things came to a head just a few months back when Running Bear was insisting that his son be recognized by the tribe as the Chief’s grandson, even if he was half paleface. It seems his brother Red Wolf, the trouble maker, got real mad…they fought and Running Bear died as a result.”
Mort shook his head, “That must have really upset the old chief. It seems he’s taken to his bed, leaving a lot of the running of the tribe to the elders and I guess they just can’t control the likes of Red Wolf. Even though he’s the Chief’s son, he’s the main culprit egging on some of the other young braves to leave the Reservation and cause mayhem.
“Should we be worried,” Slim asked frowning slightly, “with Daisy and Mike here I mean?”
“Oh, heck no, the Major assures me that it’s all under control and there’s a platoon doing spot checks all over. Nope Indians are the least of your problems Slim.”
“Oh…so what do you mean by that Mort?” He replied looking worried.
“Is Jess about?” Mort asked ignoring the question.
“Uh, no he’s out on the other side of the home pasture mending fence, why, did you want him?”
“Um nope, I was after a quiet word with you actually,” the Sheriff said, suddenly looking quite serious.
“Uh-uh, what’s he been up to now?” Slim asked resignedly.
“Well, he was in town a few days ago?”
“Yes, that’s right, he went in for supplies.”
“Well apparently he’d given old Ezra at the general store his list and he went over to the saloon while Ezra fixed up the order, and the boy loaded the wagon.”
“Well apparently Millie had written to Tom asking for more time off. She said her sis-in-law had come down with a fever and was pretty sick and she was needed there a little longer.”
Slim nodded, “Yeah, there was a letter waiting for him. It came on the noon stage. He got it when he came home. Put him in a foul temper…he’s taking it out on the fence posts as we speak,” he added with a grin, gesturing towards the home pasture.
Mort nodded sympathetically, “Trouble was that young Denny Brown was in the saloon too, and pretty drunk as usual… well you know how he feels about you and Jess.”
“I sure do, but heck Mort we were within our rights to fire him. He was only here a week and we hardly saw him sober. He was a danger to himself and everyone else too. Young Mike was nearly hit when a couple of mustangs broke free after Denny left a gate open. We just couldn’t risk him working here.”
Then frowning said, “And what’s Tom thinking…serving the kid anyways?”
“It seems that Tom doesn’t serve him strong drink anymore. Denny buys drink from the store, or steals his Pa’s and then comes to the saloon pie-eyed and drinks lemonade.”
Slim rolled his eyes, “So what happened?”
“Well apparently Denny started goading Jess into a gun fight… and as usual Jess just ignored him. But according to Tom the kid just wouldn’t back down. Then he started saying how Millie had probably got another guy back east and that’s why she was staying away.”
Slim gasped in consternation, “Go on,” he said.
“That’s when I came in. I stood by the door, not wanting to spook the kid in case he drew. Well, I’ll tell you Slim you could have cut the atmosphere in there with a knife. Everyone in the line of fire shifted damn quick …all you could hear was the sound of chairs scraping as folk moved.”
“Jeez,” Slim muttered uncharacteristically.
“Then Jess turned to Denny and by God, I’ve never seen him so mad. His eyes were almost black and icy cold, and he just said, “What did you say kid?”
“Go on,” Slim urged again.
“Well Denny was looking kinda spooked by now, but he was all fueled up on whiskey so he just said ‘you heard’… and went for his gun. I’ll tell ya now Slim, I’ve seen Jess draw fast…but nothing like that. His gun was out in a split second...too dang fast to see. He yelled at the kid and took his gun before landing a haymaker on him that sent him halfway across the room and then he went after him…took four of us to pull him off.”
Slim frowned and shook his head, “He’s been kind of hard headed ever since that business when he was abducted by the Stone brothers… but this?”
“Uh, yeah I’d noticed,” Mort said smiling wryly, “and I guess I can understand that. He needs a break, you both do,” he added taking in Slim’ s weary expression.
“Chance would be a fine thing,” Slim muttered, “been trying to take off for a hunting trip, but got nobody to cover for us.”
“I guess this is your lucky day then,” Mort said grinning broadly.
Slim looked puzzled, “Huh?”
“My Kate and young Cal Stone are coming down from the mountain for a visit next week and I’m pretty sure they’d both be up for covering for you and Jess if you want to take a little time away.”
Slim beamed at him, “Are you sure about that?”
“I am, Kate enjoys Daisy’s company, not to mention the use of her wonderful kitchen. As to young Cal he still feels so badly that his older brothers abducted Jess and Mike that he’d be real happy for the opportunity to make amends.”
“Heck he’s no need, we know he wasn’t part of all that business,” Slim said. “But it sure would be good to get away for a while. Maybe calm down my partner some too, before he fetches up in some real trouble. What about you though, Mort…don’t you want to spend some time with Miss Kate?”
“I sure do, and as it happens, I’ve got a few days leave due, so I’ll be popping by most days. And anyway, I figure once Kate sees how comfortable ranch living is compared to that old mountain shack…she might just consider a permanent move to town,” he said grinning happily.
The plan was agreed to and Cal and Kate Munroe, accompanied by Mort, rode in the following Monday afternoon.
Slim rushed out of the barn to greet them, “Gee this is really good of you Kate…Cal,” he said beaming at the pair as they dismounted.
“Glad to help,” the petite blonde woman replied.
She was dressed in her usual buckskin outfit, her tanned complexion glowing with health, and her blue eyes twinkling merrily, belying her age.
“So, where’s that young rascal Jessie Harper?” she asked peering around the yard.
However, before Slim could reply the ranch house door flew open and Mike burst out swiftly followed by Jess and Daisy.
The arrivals were warmly welcomed and then Mike took Cal off to show him the latest wild critter he had ‘rescued.’ The two had hit it off well when the sixteen-year-old was staying at the ranch helping out before, and now he was happy to renew the friendship.
The men folk went off to put up the horses, while Daisy and Kate retired to the kitchen to start supper and have a good old catch up. But that was not before Kate had noticed the tired look around Jess’s eyes and his generally edgy demeanor. His fingers never still and his body looking wired as though ready to spring into action at the least provocation.
Once Daisy and Kate had settled round the kitchen table a coffee apiece, without preamble Kate said, “The boy’s not himself is he Daisy?”
The housekeeper knew exactly who Kate was referring to and shook her head sadly, “He’s been very tense ever since that terrible abduction…it’s taken its toll on Slim too.”
“But not on young Mike?” Kate asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“Thankfully not,” Daisy said smiling, “I think it was all really a game to him. He hero worships Jess so much he just totally believed everything would be alright in the end…and thank God it was,” she added.
“Not like Jess to let things get him down,” Kate said.
“Oh no I don’t believe he’s dwelling on it all for a minute,” Daisy said quickly, “but I’m sure it still rankles a little. No, I just think it’s an accumulation of things really. As you know Slim and Jess missed out on a normal Christmas pretty much, what with Jess and Mike only arriving home on Christmas Eve. Then they were away hunting down that dreadful Pete Stone over New Year. After that they barely saw their girls before the snow was down for weeks. I think Jess managed to see Millie for a couple of times in the spring and then she had to take off to care for her brother’s wife. Well, that didn’t go down well,” Daisy added raising her eyebrows.
Kate chuckled, “No I imagine not. So, when’s our lovely Millie due home?”
Daisy shrugged, “Who knows… apparently her sis-in-law is quite sick.”
At that moment Mike and Cal burst in, Mike declaring that he was starvin’ hungry and when was supper.
“Just as soon as you’ve washed up and set the table young man and I have finished preparing it…now scoot.”
Kate offered to help but was assured all was in hand.
“Come on then Cal, let’s go get our orders from Jess and Slim,” Kate said. “Think I’ll tell them to stay away as long as they please,” she added winking at Daisy, “because me and Miss Daisy have gotten a lot of catching up to do!”
It was some time after supper that Kate decided to have a talk with young Jessie as she thought of Jess. Good grief, she’d known him since he was a babe in arms she thought now as she watched him chatting quietly with Slim, as they planned their route for the following day; Mort looking on, with interest.
Yup Jess hadn’t had the easiest start to life with his Pa being way too fond of the bottle and his poor Ma scrimping and saving to make ends meet; the young family living in poverty. Then that goddamn fire that had annihilated all but his brother Wayne and sister Francie and a teenage Jess. He had left soon after, searching for and seeking revenge on the gang who had fired their shack.
Kate wondered how long had he been on the drift until he found the feeling of belonging someplace, with the family love he has unconsciously craved. Far too long she thought…remembering all the trouble the youngster had gotten into on the way and she shook her head sadly and wished he‘d sought sanctuary with her and her beloved husband way back then.
After a moment she was suddenly aware that Mort was saying something.
She looked up, “Huh?”
“I said I must be getting back to town…but I’ll call by in a day or two and bunk down in Slim and Jess’s room, Miss Daisy insisted,” he added grinning at her. I thought I’d give you and Cal a hand around the place.”
“Very cosy,” Kate muttered knowing dang well how he wanted to coerce her down from the mountain. Well, all in good time she thought secretly and in my good time, not the Sheriff’s either she thought, in her usual feisty manner.
Mort ignored the sarcasm and said, “What were you thinking on before? You were miles away.”
“Oh, just young Jessie, how glad I am he finally managed to turn things around…find a safe billet here with good folk around him. Really don’t know what would have happened to him otherwise,” she added softly, “he sure was a wild one.”
“Um…still has his moments,” Mort said dryly.
Everyone had turned in before Kate finally had her chance to have a quiet word with Jess.
She had been sitting before the fire reading a book Slim had loaned her, when Jess came in from doing a final check on the new foal.
“Is all OK?” She asked looking up from the book.
He came over and took a seat on his rocker on the other side of the fireplace and grinned at her. “Just swell,” he said happily. “You will check him real regular won’t you Kate…and make sure Snowbird gets those extra rations I showed ya huh.”
“Damn it boy I know how to care for a mare and foal,” she said shaking her head, but smiling at Jess for being so clucky.
“Goodness what will you be like when the first babies come along after you and Millie get wed?” She added, raising an eyebrow.
“Ha chance would be a fine thing,” Jess said belligerently, “if she ever lands home again that is.”
She sobered at that and said gently, “You’re missing her bad aren’t you, Jess?”
He flushed up a little but nodded and muttered, “Something fierce.”
“Well, she’ll be home soon enough,” Kate said sagely, “and in the meantime I guess you can put a bit of that excess energy into a good hunting trip. Daisy can’t wait to see what’s going in her larder,” she added cheerfully.
Jess ignored the banter and said quietly, “What if she don’t?”
“Millie, what if she don’t come back?”
“What makes you say that?”
He shrugged, “I dunno, but if anything happened to Tad’s wife, I figure maybe she’d feel she had to stay and care for the babies?”
“Nah, I can’t see that happening.” Kate said wisely. “Jenny’s just got a fever, often happens after giving birth…body’s real wore out … she’ll bounce back, you’ll see. Anyway, if she stays too much longer, I guess you’d just have to go fetch her back.”
He merely nodded to that.
“Uh, Jess she does know how you feel, how badly you miss her?”
“You’ve told her then?”
“Well not in so many words…but she knows.”
“Trust me on this boy, you write and tell her. Tell her you want her home too…women like to be told these things.”
“They do… even when they know it?”
“Yes...especially when they know it.

Chapter 3
The following morning Slim was up before sunrise and after he’d washed and dressed, he wandered over to Jess’s bed and attempted to wake him once more.
“Jess, will ya wake up,” he said firmly, “you forgotten we are supposed to be riding out at first light?”
Jess finally stirred and said, “Uh, no I ain’t forgotten, just give me a moment will ya Slim…let a body wake up huh.”
“You wouldn’t be so dang tired iffen you hadn’t sat up half the night,” Slim said irritably. “What were you doing anyway? It was gone midnight before you came to bed.”
Jess sat up and looking pained and said, “Who are you, my Ma?”
Slim chuckled at that and gave him a playful swipe around the head with his damp towel and then said “Well?”
“If you must know, I was writing to Millie.”
“ Writing to Millie, why?”
Jess just shrugged, “Kate seemed to think it were a good idea. Tell her how I was missin’ her an’ all,” he said flushing slightly.
Slim knew how hard the last few weeks had been for his buddy and also knew it would be crass to tease him now, so he merely nodded and said, “Good idea, she’ll be glad to hear from you.”
“You think so?”
“Well sure, why wouldn’t she.”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno, maybe she’s found a better prospect out east.”
“What…better than you, you mean?”
“Maybe…some real well-educated guy, can give her a stable future…so she’d want fer nothin’ you know?”
Slim shook his head, “You’re crazy if you think that, Millie would never look at another guy.”
Just then there was a gentle tap on the door and Daisy popped her head around, “I got up early to make you boys some breakfast,” she said smiling at them, “it’s all ready.”
They made good time and had reached the far side of Paradise by mid afternoon. This was a parcel of land beyond the east pasture that Slim’ s Pa had bought many years ago. Although it was fenced, he had never worked the land and had let nature take over. As a result, it was teaming with wild life and was dubbed, ‘the larder in the back yard’ by all at the ranch.
It really was an idyllic spot Slim mused as he relaxed back on his upturned saddle looking out to the lake and mountain range beyond. This lake was smaller than the one near the ranch and didn’t have the advantage of a cave for shelter. However, the shore line was dotted by huge pines that provided plenty of refuge from both sun and rain.
The men had made camp and spent a happy afternoon fishing in the tranquil setting and now they were reposing on their bedrolls enjoying a coffee before turning in.
“Nice of Kate to bring us some of Denver’s brew,” Slim said waggling the bottle of moonshine after topping up his own cup.
Jess nodded and passed his cup over for a drop too.
“So… she thinks Millie was in need of a letter then?” Slim said quietly, picking up their conversation from the morning.
“Uh-huh. Seems women folk like to be told they’ve been missed even when they know it anyways,” Jess said dryly.
“Sounds about right,” Slim said shaking his head and looking slightly puzzled, “I guess that’s women for you.”
They lapsed into silence and then Slim said, “You don’t really think she’s playing around do you Jess?”
He shrugged, “I guess I don’t know what to think. I ain’t heard from her since that quick note saying she had to stay longer because her sis-in-law was sick.”
“I expect she’s been real busy, what with the twins and all,” Slim said.
“I guess you’re right,” Jess said sipping his drink and looking out to the distant mountains…but his eyes told a different story.
They turned in shortly afterwards and all was peaceful, until just before dawn.
Blue, who had been sleeping sprawled beside his master, his massive head and one paw lying across Jess’s chest, stirred.
Then he gave a low growl and his hackles rose as he growled again, even more menacingly.
Seconds later he leapt to his feet in a volley of hysterical barking; instantly waking Jess and Slim. They were up on one knee, guns drawn within a split second.
In the early dawn light Jess saw a small figure hurl himself up onto Traveller’s back. However, before he could even start to move away Blue was there in a frenzy of barking, which made an already spooked Traveller rear up depositing the would-be horse thief in the dirt, completely winded.
Jess and Slim rushed over and viewed the youngster in astonishment.
“Hell, he’s only a little kid,” Jess said leaning down and giving the youngster a hand up.
The swarthy, blond-haired boy, clad in buckskin, stared belligerently at Jess. “I ain’t no kid,” he growled.
“Sure you’re not,” Slim said chuckling, “you’re what, all of ten I’d guess.”
“I’m eleven actually mister,” the boy spat.
“Never mind about all that,” Jess said angrily, “what were you doin’ stealing my horse kid?”
When the boy just looked down sulkily Jess said, “You do realize that’s a hangin’ offense in some places?”
The child looked up clearly startled, “I’m sorry mister…you won’t take me in, will ya?”
Jess rolled his eyes at Slim and said, “Nope been down that particular road, don’t intend to make the same mistake again.”
The youngster merely frowned and said, “What you gonna do then mister?”
“Take you home to yer Pa, I guess it’s up to him, but if you were my kid, it would be a trip to the woodshed, that’s for sure...unless maybe you got a good reason?”
“Don’t have a Pa no more,” the boy said, reverting to his sulky demeanor.
“You don’t?”
“No sir he’s dead, was killed in a fight.”
“That’s too bad,” Slim said quickly, “so yer Ma?”
“Sick,” he muttered, “real sick…”
Then turning to Jess said, “That’s why I took yer horse Mister. Our old horse upped and died last month and I needed to go back to the tribe…get the medicine man to her. If he’d come…we were run off see, on account of my Ma being a white woman.”
“Hang on a minute,” Jess said, “are you Chief Red Bear’s grandson, your Pa was Running Bear?”
“Yes sir, you knew him?”
Jess nodded, “Yup came across him a few times. He was a brave man…”
Then getting to the point Slim said, “What’s wrong with your Ma son, maybe we can help?”
“I dunno, she’s been throwing up and now she’s got a real bad fever…I’m scared Mister,” he added…now looking every inch the frightened child.
“Hey it’s OK,” Jess said immediately and giving the child a gentle pat on the arm said, “we’ll ride home with ya see how she is huh?”
When he looked uncertain Slim said, “If your Ma wakes up and finds you gone, I guess she’ll be real worried about you.”
That seemed to make him decide and he nodded, “Sure, we’re over the other side of the lake… there’s a cabin over there.”
“Sure there is,” Slim said as an aside to Jess, “My Pa built it for butchering and salting our hunting kills, it sure isn’t anywhere you’d want to call home.”
The child overheard this though and said belligerently, “It sure is if there’s no place else Mister…me and Ma were desperate.”
“OK boy, don’t worry about that now,” Jess said, moving to break camp and then as an afterthought, “so what do they call you?”
“My Grandfather called me White Wolf…but Ma calls me James after my other grand pa…but I answer to both.”
“Well, I’m Jess and this here is Slim,” Jess replied, “and seeing’ as we’re going to visit with yer Ma, I guess it better be James… huh?”
They set off for the old cabin, the youngster riding double with Jess.
They saw the woman standing clutching onto the door frame for support as soon as they rode in and James leapt down from behind Jess and tore across to help her.
“Ma…Ma are you OK?” He asked the frail looking woman.
“Where have you been?” she gasped. “I’ve been out of my mind I thought your Uncle Red Wolf had come for you…was out to kill you like he did your dear Pa. I told you not to wander off didn’t I son!” She said almost in tears.
“It’s OK Ma, Red Wolf wouldn’t really hurt me…and anyways I found these men in the woods,” and turning he said, “This is Jess and Slim, they’ll help you Ma.”
The woman looked up taking notice of the two men for the first time and she pulled her shabby old coat that she wore on top of a thin night dress, more tightly around her and looking embarrassed, said “I’m sorry my boy bothered you gentlemen.”
“No bother,” Slim said walking over and smiling kindly, “I’m, Slim Sherman and this here is my partner, Jess Harper.”
“Abby,” she said with a faint smile, “and I use my maiden name now, Saunders, Abby Saunders…”
“Young James here seemed real worried about you Ma’am so we thought we’d ride over see iffen we could help any,” Slim said.
Jess gave the reins to James and motioned for him to go water the horses, before he walked over and touching his hat smiled and said, “Ma’am.”
The woman nodded to him and then turned back to Slim, “No… I’m alright really. Just food poisoning, I gave James the fresh meat and thought the old stew would still be alright,” and she just shrugged.
“You can’t be too careful,” Slim said seriously, “if you get real sick all the way out here there isn’t any help, wouldn’t you be better off living nearer town?”
She shook her head and noticing that James had taken the mounts over to the water trough she said quietly, “I wasn’t joking before. Red Wolf did vow to kill my son if he ever saw him again. So, we’re in hiding. I’m just so afraid,” she added with a little gasp. Then she turned even paler and Jess just managed to step forwards and catch her as she fell in a dead faint.
He carried her into the shabby old cabin and on looking around the dim interior saw a cot against one wall and carried her carefully over whilst Slim went out to the pump to fetch some cold water.
He returned moments later with James and the boy ran over to his Ma crying out in distress.
“It’s OK,” Jess said quickly, “she just passed out, needs some food and water I guess,” he added peering around for any sign of sustenance.
The boy shrugged, “There’s some soup I think.”
“OK you go stir up that fire and heat some up huh, your Ma will be just fine in a few minutes.”
Slim had been gently bathing her face with the cool water and moments later she stirred full of apologies.
Once she had finished the soup and had a welcome coffee, Abby was looking much better. She had blond hair braided in the Indian way, large blue intelligent eyes and a shapely figure…that didn’t go unnoticed by Jess.
“I’m so sorry,” she apologized again, “what must you think of me?
“I think yer one sorely tried lady doin’ the best you can,” Jess said honestly.
“Look,” Slim broke in, “we’re camping nearby, why don’t we pull a few fish out of the lake and come back at suppertime and cook them up for you and the boy and maybe talk through your options too huh?”
She gave a huge sigh of relief, “I would be so grateful, thank you Mr Sherman.”
“Slim,” he grinned and the men left to return to their campsite.
“Nice woman,” Jess said as they rode back, “but I don’t like her chances of surviving out here for long. Not with that crazy Red Wolf kicking off the way he is… only a matter of time before he finds them.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Slim agreed. My Pa and Chief Red Bear were good friends and Pa invited him to hunt here anytime he liked. Of course, all that changed when they went on the reservation, but I’m sure Red Wolf knows about this place and could easily come looking.”
“We need to get ‘em out fer sure,” Jess agreed.
Then he snapped his fingers, “How about the mountain folk…Rebecca and Tobias Finnegan. I guess if anyone can understand their plight it’s those two, what with Rebecca being’ half Arapaho an’ all.”
“Brilliant!” Slim said, “We’ll suggest it at supper.”

Chapter 4
When they returned to the cabin later that afternoon with their catch Abby was looking much better.
She was dressed in the Indian style with a buckskin dress decorated with beads and moccasins on her dainty feet. But her blond hair and peaches and cream complexion she could have passed for an Arapahoe squaw.
She noted Jess taking in her dress and said quietly, “We had to leave the camp quickly so all we took were the clothes we were wearing.”
“There’s nothing wrong with buckskins,” young James said hotly, entering the cabin and throwing Jess an angry look. “My Grandfather wears them.”
“Hush dear; remember your manners,” Abby reprimanded him. “Go and wash up for supper.”
Once he’d left, she apologized for his behavior.
“It’s hard for the boy,” Jess said, “pulled between two different worlds the way he is. You can’t blame him for being fond of his grand pappy.”
“I know,” she said sitting down before the fire and gesturing for Jess and Slim to do likewise, “but sadly the Chief was so devastated by my husband’s death that he retired to his bed. He had no idea that Red Wolf was plotting to kill us. Luckily, I overheard him talking the night after my husband had died.”
She sighed deeply looking close to tears. But after a moment continued, “So James and I left that very night, taking just our clothes, a little food and an old horse that had been put out to grass.”
“Yes, James said your horse had died,” Jess said.
“Even more reason to get out now,” Slim said seriously. “If anything did happen you’ve no way of escape at all.”
She nodded, “I know but what can I do?”
That was when Slim suggested his idea…
“And you really think this Rebecca and Tobias would take us in?” She asked looking incredulous.
“Sure,” Jess said, “Rebecca will understand your plight being half Arapahoe herself. She had a tough time when she was younger too…until she met Tobias. You see the thing is with the Mountain folk they care for their own and if you join their community, you won’t be judged, the way some other white folk might do.”
She nodded, “I understand all about that. When we were wed and we went back to the tribe we just weren’t accepted. Even the chief was reluctant to let us make our home there. So, after a while we moved on and met a wonderful old rancher north of Cheyenne. He judged a man by the work he did and the way he treated folk…not by the colour of his skin.”
“Way it should be,” Jess said softly.
She nodded, “We were happy there, working hard and had a real home with old Mr Hanson. James was born and we were one happy family…until the old man died that is.”
“Uh-uh,” said Slim, “so what happened?”
“His younger brother inherited the ranch and threw us out the day after the funeral. So, we decided to try and have another go at living with the tribe. My dear husband Running Bear said his son had experienced life with the white man, but he wanted him to understand the Arapahoe way of life too.”
“Makes sense,” Jess agreed.
“Yes, and when Chief Red Bear knew he had a grandson he was so very happy and accepted us at last,” she said smiling at the memory of the Chief’s first encounter with young James…or, White Wolf as his grandfather had renamed him.
“But I guess, your brother-in-law, Red Wolf, weren’t quite so pleased to see you?” Jess said.
She nodded, “You see the hierarchy of the tribe goes from father to eldest son…and then his son. So, with Running Bear back in the tribe he would have been made Chief after Red Bear died instead of Red Wolf. Then if anything happened to Running Bear, then his son… James…er White Wolf would have been made Chief.”
“A pretty good reason fer gettin’ rid of you two then,” Jess said.
She nodded sadly.
“So, what does James make of all this?” Slim asked.
She shrugged, “As you say he is pulled two ways. He loves his grandfather, but he is old enough to understand he is in danger in the camp. So, he will stay with me until he is older…and maybe things will change,” she said hopefully.
“The way Red Wolf is acting right now he’s as likely as not to get himself killed,” Jess mused, “he’s really out of control and there are a good few trigger-happy ranchers out there, intent of protecting their property.”
She shuddered, “He was always a wild one, the Chief despairs of him.”
“Yeah, well he needs to git himself out of his bed and sort the guy out before someone else does it permanently,” Jess muttered.
Then James returned and the discussion came to an end.


Abby was finally convinced that staying with the mountain dwellers was a good idea, at least in the short term, whilst she considered their position. So, they rode out the following morning, with their meager possessions in two small valises.
She and James rode double with Slim and Jess as far as the old Trading Post. Here Jess negotiated a deal with Billy-Joe and managed to acquire a steady old mare for Abby and fit young pony for James.
“How did you manage that?” Abby asked when the transaction was done and the animals bought for a song.
Jess winked at her, “Well see I broke ‘em ma’am and know exactly how much they’re worth…and on top of that Billy-Joe and I are good friends, so he did a me a good deal.”
Abby produced the right money from her bag, but Jess cast Slim a quick glance before saying, “That’s OK ma’am, have them as a gift.”
“Oh, I really couldn’t,” she said decisively, “I have plenty of money…saved from when we were at the ranch. I worked independently while we were there as a teacher in town and managed to save quite a bit of money over the years I worked. There isn’t much call for cash on the Reservation,” she added.
Jess shrugged and accepted the money and said, “Sorry…I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“Oh, you haven’t,” she said looking up quickly, “it’s just that I promised myself I would never be beholden to any man again. I must learn to stand on my own two feet now,” she added, “you do understand Mr Harper?”
Jess grinned at her then and said, “Sure I do…and its Jess remember.”
She smiled back, “Thank you Jess.”
They made good time and stopped to camp the night halfway to the mountains that lay just beyond Rawlins.
They were enjoying a final coffee before turning in, James already abed, when Abby asked, “How did you meet these mountain folk?”
Slim said, “Long story, but the way was, our young ward Mike was out on the range alone and took a tumble from his pony. He was knocked out and lost his memory for a while.”
“Oh, my goodness,” she said looking shocked, “the poor boy.”
Jess shook his head, “He was really out of order, he’d been told not to ride out alone…but kids…” and he shrugged.
“He was tryin’ to prove he could round up cattle as well as we could and he broke the rule of riding alone,” Slim said grinning. Then he sobered, “But I guess he learnt the hard way that rules are there for a reason.”
“So, what happened?” Abby asked.
“Tobias and Rebecca came along on their way back up the mountain from a fur trading trip in Laramie, found the boy and took him off with them,” Jess said.
“But why, surely they should have handed him over to the law?”
Slim nodded, “Indeed they should, but the kid wasn’t making much sense because he had a bad concussion. So, they thought maybe he was a little simple and had been abandoned. Whatever way it was they kept him for nigh on two months before we tracked him down.”
“You must have been furious and so worried,” Abby said softly…imagining James in a similar circumstance.
Jess nodded, “At first, yes. But later we understood how it happened. You see they explained everything about thinking he’d been left by his family. Then the fact that Rebecca couldn’t have a baby herself and was real desperate for a kid…well, I reckon we felt kinda sorry for her and so we forgave them in the end. They are real good folk and looked after him well…and over the years we’ve kept in touch.” (* See #8 The Runaway, and #10 The Mountain Adventure.)
“And the great thing is that Rebecca and Tobias finally have their own boy now,” Slim added grinning happily.
“Gee young George must be six or seven now,” Jess said.
“Seven last Birthday,” Slim confirmed, “Miss Daisy our housekeeper keeps in touch,” he added, “writes regularly.”
“You said it was a closely knit community,” Abby said smiling, “do they have close neighbors with children maybe that James could play with?”
“Well sure,” Slim said quickly, “the Hudson family, Wes and Jane have a shack just down the track and they’ve got a whole bunch of kids.” But then his face fell. “Oh no darn it, they moved on to California didn’t they.”
Abby turned quickly to where she had heard Jess give a quick intake of breath and was surprised to see his face had drained of colour.
“Sorry buddy, I’d forgotten,” Slim said quickly.
Then turning back to Abby said, “But yes there are about a dozen families up there, many with young ‘uns.”
A few moments later Jess made his excuses saying he was going to check on the horses before turning in.
“Is he alright?” Abby asked quietly as she watched Jess amble off towards where the animals were tethered.
Slim shook his head sadly, but then rallied and merely said, “Sure, it’s just that the Hudsons were real good friends and he misses them… we all do,” he added.


They rode up the mountain early the following day and Jess decided to peel off and go find a couple of rabbits for supper.
“You see the mountain folk don’t have an awful lot,” he explained to Abby, “and I’d hate them to go short of rations just because they’ve got extra mouths to feed.”
“Of course,” Abby said looking troubled, “I should hate to be a burden on them.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” She asked turning to Slim.
“Heck yes,” he said grinning at her, “you’ll be made real welcome, once they get to know you,” he added honestly.
Jess gave a little salute and said he’d see them later after he’d got something for the pot and rode off.
As expected, when they neared the old cabin that Rebecca and Tobias called home, Tobias came out wielding his rifle and demanding roughly they stay put and state their business. But just seconds later he threw down the rifle and tore across to where Slim had already dismounted. Now Tobias’s rugged features were wreathed in smiles and he shook Slim’s hand firmly beaming at him and then at Abby and James.
“Slim,” he said joyfully, “it’s so dang good to see you!”
Then turning he yelled, “Rebecca, Georgie, looky who’s here!”
Rebecca dressed in her usual buckskins and moccasins flew out of the door closely followed by the cheerful redheaded young George.
Introductions were made and George quickly took James off to see his new pony whilst the adults made their way into the cabin.
From the outside it had looked quite small and shabby, so Abby was delighted to find the interior quite spacious and neat as a new pin. There was a huge fireplace on the far wall with a large couch and chairs around. To one side there was a long dining table and beyond that a door leading to the kitchen.
Once their guests were all seated Rebecca said, “Where’s Jess, Slim? Minding the ranch?”
Nope he said grinning at her, “He’s stopping on the way to pick off some game for supper, that’s if were invited,” he added with a grin.
“You, Jess and your friends are welcome to stay just as long as you like, you know that Slim,” Tobias said smiling over at Abby.
However, when Slim turned back to Rebecca, he was surprised to see how troubled she looked at the prospect of seeing Jess, especially as he knew how fond she was of his partner.
“Uh… coffee everyone?” She asked now and rising added, “Maybe you’d come help me Slim?”
Once they were alone in the kitchen Slim looked puzzled and said, “What’s up Rebecca, you want to see Jess, don’t you?”
“Oh of course,” she said her face relaxing into a warm smile. “It’s just…well there is something you need to know.”
He sat down at the kitchen table and once the coffee pot was on the stove, she joined him.
“It’s Jane and the children they’ve come home…”
Slim’ s jaw dropped and after a moment he said, “But why? I thought they were happy, settled to their new life in California.”
“They were,” Rebecca agreed, “well Wes was, Jane not so much. But then Wes died, just a few months ago.”
Slim looked upset, “Gee, I didn’t even know he was sick.”
“No, I didn’t mention it in my letters to Daisy…uh Jane didn’t want you…well Jess really, to know about the tragedy.”
“Go on,” Slim said softly.
“Well, he seemed fine and then just upped and died of a heart attack…so sudden. Nobody expected it. Then Jane wrote and said she was heading home. As you know, her eldest daughter Ellie May married her beau Homer Jackson and they live up here just across the ridge. Jane had never really settled and the kids missed their friends so she sold up and headed back.”
Slim took all this in and then said, “And you say she didn’t want Jess to know?”
Rebecca sighed, “You know the way they were together Slim. Jess truly loved her…and she him I do believe, but he wouldn’t come between a husband and wife. Then Jane realized she couldn’t betray Wes and when Jess rode out, she vowed she would never see him again, for both their sakes.”
Slim nodded, “Yeah, I know all about that. Jess took it real hard. He told me he could never betray Wes that way and so he agreed never to see them again. Took him months to get over it and even now…” He just shook his head, remembering his pard’ s reaction just the previous night when the family had come up in conversation.
“Yes, and now he’s promised his life to Millie,” Rebecca said.
When Slim glanced up looking surprised, she smiled, “Oh yes Daisy tells me everything in her lovely long letters and I pass some of the news on to Jane.”
“So, she knows Jess and Millie are together and that’s why she didn’t want Jess to know she was back… in case it made things difficult for him?”
She nodded, “From what Daisy says Millie is the love of his life and I doubt anyone could come between them. But it’s Jane who I’m worried about. If she sees Jess again, I just know she will be smitten once more and it could never be the way she would wish. All it would do would be to cause her misery…and she’s had enough of that lately.”
“Jess and Millie are meant to be together,” Slim agreed. “Sure, they’ve had a few ups and downs lately,” he acknowledged, remembering how frustrated Jess was currently at not seeing his gal for so long, “but he loves her Rebecca.”
“Well may I suggest that we don’t mention Jane and just hope you are on your way before they accidentally meet up?”
Slim nodded, “Sure I agree…we’ll stay the night and be off at first light,” then he went on to explain the purpose of their visit.

Chapter 5

Meanwhile Jess was nearing the old Hudson spread. He told himself that as the land had been abandoned for so long there would be wild life in abundance ready for him to pick off. But in his heart though he knew he just wanted to look at the old cabin one last time…even though he believed the family were no longer in residence.
The terrain was wild and rocky with many bushes and trees for the rabbits to vanish behind. However, before too long he got a couple of chubby little critters in his sights and fired off two shots in quick succession killing them both instantly. He grinned at his sharp shooting, pretty good bagging the pair in one go he thought…But before he could even ride towards his quarry a horse reared up from where it had been hidden from view beyond a small rocky outcrop and then it bolted for the hills.
Seeing that the critter was saddled Jess made his way quickly over to the rocks to help the fallen rider. He dismounted and hurried over to the figure lying so still in the dirt. It was a woman, her dark hair and slender figure vaguely familiar. He bent down beside the unconscious woman and gently turned her over before gasping in disbelief. “Jane, dear God…Jane?”
He peered down into her paper white face a trickle of blood at her temple… “Jeez,” he muttered softly. Hell had a bullet gone wide, had he shot her? But no, there were two dead rabbits just feet away…she must have banged her head on a rock when her mount threw her.
Traveller had ambled over and he quickly reached up for his canteen and removing his bandana moistened it and gentle wiped away the blood with the cool water.
After a few minutes her eyes flickered open and she looked straight up into his troubled eyes.
Then her eyes opened even wider in amazement and she whispered, “Jess, dear Lord…is that really you?”
He nodded and then said softly, “Where does it hurt?”
She stretched warily and then tried to sit up, but as soon as she put some weight on her hand she cried out in pain.
Jess took her wrist and moved it gingerly and after a moment said, “It looks to be badly sprained, don’t think it’s broke.”
He carefully hauled her up and helped her to a rock where she sat back down looking very shaky. Jeez, but she was so light he noted. Looking so frail and almost as though she might snap in two if she was held too tightly…what was wrong he wondered anxiously.
Then she looked up to where Jess was standing over her and said, “I just can’t believe it, what are you doing here?”
“Never mind that,” he countered, “what in hell are you doin’ here? I thought you were in California.”
She swallowed hard and looked down before saying, “Wes died, so we came home.”
“Died?” Jess whispered, looking deeply shocked, “How? When? Hell, why didn’t you tell me you were back?”
“A few months ago, from a heart attack,” she said, “and I think you know why I didn’t tell you, we made a promise, remember?”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Sure, he’d promised…they’d both promised never to see each other again…but that was for Wes’s sake, for her marriage’s sake…but all that had changed now.
“I’m so dang sorry.” He whispered.
But whether it was for her sad loss or he was sorry for their promise to part forever she couldn’t tell.
His heart was beating ten to the dozen as he looked down at her…and he waited for the old feelings to surface…the rising desire, the butterflies in his belly…but no. Sure he did feel overwhelming compassion for her and the deep affection for a dear friend. But he was not aroused. Then he had a sudden vision of Millie sitting in the Stage waving as she left town and he knew at once that he could never betray her. Right then he was thinking of Jane as a friend, and that was how it must remain he told himself. No way would he risk everything by getting too close again.
“I’ll… I’ll go fetch yer mount,” he said quickly and strode off purposely.
Jane watched him go, her heart beating wildly in her chest then as she shook her head a wave of dizziness threatened to overwhelm her. She couldn’t do this, not lose him all over again. But she knew in her heart that it was hopeless. Even if he were free, which he was not, she knew that her overwhelming grief would make any future for them impossible. How could she commit to another when she was still suffering the anguish of loss? She must be strong and resist opening up old wounds…remembering how desolate she had been when he’d ridden away all those years ago.
When he returned, he said, “Hang it all Jane what were you thinkin’ getting up on this fellah? He’s barely green broke, no wonder he spooked that way.”
She looked up at him defiantly, “Because I didn’t have any darned choice. Katie usually hunts for the pot, but she’s sick right now and the larder’s empty.”
“She’s, OK? It’s nothing serious?”
“It was yes, a chill that turned to lung fever. I had the devil of a job keeping her in bed,” Jane replied ruefully. “But she’s recovering well, just not up to hunting yet awhile.”
Jess remembered feisty young Kate and giving Jane a grin said, “And I bet she broke this guy too?” He asked patting the young mustang’s rump.
Jane nodded, “She warned me he wasn’t ready to be ridden yet, but I had no choice. I loaned my usual mount to a neighbor, to go to town for medicine for his sick wife.”
Jess shook his head, “You always were too dang kind hearted, come on let’s get ya home.”
He helped her up on Traveller. Then riding double and leading the green broke mustang they made their way the short distance to the cabin.
Jess had his arm around her waist and Jane laid her head back against his shoulder. Her mind was spinning and her heart practically leaping from her chest as she tried hard to relax and act normally.
When they arrived Kate came running out, dressed in her nightshirt, but with a shawl thrown casually around her shoulder.
Jess stared at her in wonder. She was still the redheaded spirited youngster he remembered, but now at sixteen she had bloomed into a real stunner.
“Well, howdy Jess,” the girl said nonchalantly, as though he had just been away a few days, “good ta see ya again.”
“You too,” Jess said sliding down from his mount before helping Jane down.
Then turning back to Kate said, “You sure grew up some sweetheart, yer a real young lady now.”
She shrugged, “I’m still as good a shot as you Jess Harper and a better cook too!”
Jess chuckled at that, remembering the first time they had met when the eleven-year-old Kate had shot a moose he and Slim had in their sights.
However, Jane looked annoyed.
“Goodness child mind your manners, especially after Jess has kindly given us his kill for our larder.”
Kate just shrugged and said cheerfully, “Sorry Jess.”
Then looking at the two plump rabbits said, “So that’s the best you can do huh?”
“I was just starting out when I came across yer Ma…she had a nasty fall off of that mustang you were breaking,” Jess replied, ignoring the jibe.
“Yes breaking…not broke yet,” Kate said looking annoyed, “I did tell ya Ma.”
Then she came over closer and suddenly noticed her mother’s now swollen and bruised wrist and cut to her head.
“Heck I’m really sorry Ma, I didn’t realize you were hurt bad, come on in and I’ll fix you up and make some coffee too.”
“You’ll stay huh Jess?” She said turning to where he was just wondering what he should do.
Just ride out, his head said… stay and help them out some, his heart replied.
He grinned at Kate and said, “That sounds real good.”
Then before they could go inside little Amy burst out of the door wanting to know who was visiting.
She stopped in her tracks as soon as she saw Jess, her eyes open wide and her mouth forming an ‘O’ before she cried out in delight, “Jess, oh Jess, I knew you’d come…I just knew it!” and she ran over and threw herself into his arms.
He picked her up hugging her before placing her safely back on the ground and looked down at the pretty child.
“Jeepers you sure grew up too,” he said laughing as he remembered the little five-year-old who had pledged undying love for him all those years ago.
“I’m almost grown up now she said proudly, I’m nearly eleven.” Then she looked past him and saw Traveller, the second love of her life.
“Oh, you’ve still got Traveller,” she said in delight, “may I go pet him, Jess?”
“Sure you can honey,” and he handed her some sugar lumps from his shirt pocket, “give him these and then a good drink OK?”
Then Blue who had been inspecting some interesting smells way across the yard romped over and Amy gasped, “Gee…is that your wolf Jess?”
Jane who had already been introduced said, “He’s half dog Amy and Jess assures me he’s very friendly.”
At that Blue went over to the child, his tail wagging happily and mouth open in a sloppy grin.
Amy patted his head gently and Blue immediately rolled on his back exposing his huge belly to be tickled.
“It’s no good…I guess I ain’t number one anymore,” Jess said chuckling as they left Amy romping ecstatically with Blue.
Once inside Kate went off to the kitchen to brew the coffee and find some bandages for her Ma, and Jane showed Jess into the main room.
He remembered it all so vividly, the couch he had slept on when he had stayed with them and Jane had nursed him through broken ribs after a bad fall. Then how they had gradually fallen for each other and how he had been sorely tempted to take their relationship further. However, he had not done so because he just couldn’t betray her husband. Wes was a good man and didn’t deserve that kind of betrayal. So, he had ridden out and made that promise, never to see her again.
Now he pulled himself together and smiling across at her said, “So where’s the little ‘un? He should be running around causing mischief by now I guess, how old is he now, about five?”
The colour drained form Jane’s face and she suddenly looked quite old and ill.
“What’s up?” He asked quickly, thinking her injured wrist was paining her.
“We believe Joshua died,” she whispered, “on the Wagon Train coming home from California.”
He remembered the night back at the ranch when it was so hot he couldn’t sleep and had wandered out to the porch. Jane and her family were staying there on their way to a trade fair in Laramie. Baby Joshua was fractious and Jane had been walking him around the yard to calm him and had then seen Jess on the porch and joined him.
Now he had a vision of him sitting out on the old porch rocker in the moonlight, holding baby Joshua. His downy head resting just below his chin as he talked softly to Jane and rocked the baby to sleep.
He swallowed hard, feeling tears stinging the back of his eyes.
“No,” he gasped.
She just nodded, tears now streaming down her face.
“You believe he’s dead?” he queried. “You don’t know for sure? What happened?”
“The Wagon Train was in the middle of nowhere when the attack came. It was about 100 miles north of here, on our way home, just two months ago.”
She shook her head, her lip trembling, “I’m sorry Jess this so hard for me.”
He waited patiently, his eyes never leaving her face.
After a moment she gained control and said, “Amy was sick with the chicken pox, I was in the wagon and Katie and Josh outside when the Indian attack came out of nowhere. By the time I got down from the wagon there was no sign of Katie or Josh. Somehow in all the mayhem they became separated. Katie thought he’d come back to the wagon looking for me.”
“But he hadn’t?”
“No…somehow he must have got lost and that’s when one of the Indians grabbed him.”
Jess gasped in consternation, “You’re sure?”
“Absolutely, the Wagon Master saw it all, but before he could act the Indian had him up on his horse and had disappeared into the crowd of braves.”
“But surely when you arrived back in civilization, you tried to find him?”
“Of course we did, the military spent days searching the area. Then once the troubles were over and the Indians back on the reservation, they visited again turning the place over, but no sign of him…not a trace.”
Jess just stared at her in shock. That sweet little kid at the mercy of the renegades, it didn’t bear thinking about.
We just don’t talk of him anymore Jess it’s just too painful, you see the army came to the conclusion that he must no longer be alive,” she whispered.
That did it for Jess. He went over and took her in his arms, holding her close as she gave in to heart-wrenching sobs…whilst he tried to blink his own tears back.

Chapter 6
It was mid afternoon by the time Jess finally rode into the yard of the Finnegan place. As per usual Tobias came out as soon as he heard someone riding into the yard, but lowered his gun when he saw who it was.
“Well, howdy Jess, good to see ya…You’re expected,” he added grinning, “Your pard and friends landed some time back.”
“Yeah… sorry about that,” Jess said looking away, “I had trouble finding some game,” and he nodded to where a young buck was lashed behind his saddle, “until I came upon this critter,” he added.
Tobias grinned and went to inspect the kill, “A gift?” He asked raising an eyebrow.
“Well sure, of course it is. Least we can do if we’re staying awhile,” he replied
“Oh, well according to your pard you’ve gotta head out at first light,” Tobias said. “But me and Becca are happy for you to stay as long as you want…you know that, Jess. It seems yer pard is keen on goin’ a huntin’ though.”
Then he suddenly raised his rifle again as Blue tore down the trail and into the yard, from where he had again been off exploring some interesting scents.
Jess quickly grabbed the rifle barrel and yelled, “Don’t shoot Tobias, he’s my dog, he ain’t a wolf … not pure anyways,” he added.
Sensing the drama Blue skidded to a standstill and looked at Tobias warily…his ears back and one paw raised as he stood stock still.
“It’s OK boy come here,” Jess called and Blue immediately obeyed jumping joyously around his master all fear forgotten.
“By jingo he is a darned dog too,” Tobias grinned in surprise, “he sure looks like a dang wolf though Jess boy!”
Then they were joined by Rebecca and George. Blue was made a huge fuss of by the boy and Rebecca was given a big hug and kiss on the cheek by Jess.
Then Abby and James arrived, along with Slim.
“What kept you, Jess?” He asked. “Rebecca was all for waiting for you at dinner time.”
“Sorry,” Jess said quickly giving Rebecca an apologetic grin. “I had a problem finding something for the pot.”
“He sure made up for it my dear,” Tobias said jovially as he indicated the deer.
“Well, we’ll dine well tonight,” Rebecca said cheerfully.
Then she smiled at the handsome cowboy, “Come on in Jess and tell me all your news” she said taking his arm.
A while later Jess excused himself to go tend to Traveller. He was just rubbing him down in the barn when he was joined by Slim.
He glanced up and then returned to his task as Slim leaned on the stall watching Jess closely.
After a while he said, “So why were you really so long…and don’t give me that rubbish about not finding anything for the pot, we both know these hills are teeming with game.”
When Jess merely shrugged and said nothing Slim continued.
“And what’s all this about staying a while huh? We agreed we’d drop Abby and the boy off and make tracks for Yellowstone, like we’d planned to before we met them.”
Jess turned to look at Slim and said, “I thought it would be nice to catch up with the Finnegans, it’s been a while.”
“And, uh Jane Hudson too maybe?” Slim asked looking irritated.
Jess’ head shot up.
He turned to Slim looking flushed and angry, “You knew didn’t ya… Hell how long have you known she was back? Have you and Daisy been keeping it from me?”
Slim shook his head, “Heck no, of course not…I only heard this morning. So, you have been with her then?”
Jess hung his head and took a deep breath before looking up and fixing Slim with an uncompromising stare, “You got a problem with that?” He asked coming out of the stall and elbowing Slim out of his way.
“No but I guess Jane will have…according to Rebecca. And anyway, I thought you both vowed never to meet again?”
Jess sighed deeply, “Things change.”
And then looking angry, “And what the Hell’s it got to do with you, or Rebecca either if it comes to that.”
“We care about you both,” Slim exploded. “Rebecca is worried about Jane anyway; she’s still not over Wes dying yet. She barely eats or sleeps, the last thing she needs is an entanglement with you. And I’m worried about you too. I know how hard it hit you last time… please tell me you aren’t going to rake up the past again.”
“Look Slim will you quit jumping to conclusions, she needs me right now that’s all.”
“So, what about Millie doesn’t she need you too, or have you conveniently forgotten about her?”
Jess turned and balled a fist and for one moment, Slim thought he might lash out and punch him.
But he took a deep breath and turned away, slumping down on a straw bale. “No, I ain’t forgotten Millie. Even if she’s forgotten me,” he added in a whisper.
Then looking up at Slim said, “This ain’t what you think, she needs help. Young Katie is sick and there’s a green broke mustang gonna kill someone iffen it ain’t broke proper. They need food for the pot and the old house needs attention too.”
“So, you’re thinking of stepping into Wes’ shoes, are you?” Slim countered. “I seem to remember something like this in the past and those young kids got real attached to you Jess. What are Katie and young Amy going to feel when you ride out and leave them again huh? Not to mention their cute little baby brother Joshua…”
There was suddenly a deathly silence as Jess stared at Slim for a full minute his eyes registering deep sorrow before he finally managed, “Nope I guess Joshua won’t be missing anyone…see he’s dead Slim.” And with that he walked out of the barn without looking back.


Once supper was over and the children all abed the adults discussed how best Abby and young James could be integrated into the community.
It had already become clear to Abby that there was precious little spare room at the Finnegan’s shack and she really didn’t want to be a burden on them. Certainly, they had been very welcoming and said they would all manage somehow. Abby had taken to Rebecca at once and although they were very different Abby felt they would become good friends. Abby was well educated and a trained teacher, but she was totally in awe of Rebecca’s vast knowledge of Indian medicine and also Indian wisdom.
Now as she sat before the roaring fire with all these new friends, she felt truly blessed…but where and how could she and James fit in?
It was Slim who was to provide an answer that was perfect.
He too was aware of the cramped conditions and after discussing the matter with Rebecca earlier he thought he had the answer.
Now he smiled at the amassed company and said diplomatically. “Uh I’ve been thinking maybe Jane Hudson and her family might like you to stay with them for a while Abby? Until you decide whether you and James want to settle here or not, I guess she has the room now, what with her eldest daughter Ellie-May married…and Wes uh… no longer with us.”
“Oh, the friends you mentioned on the trail,” she asked looking pleased. “You must be so glad they have returned home,” she added turning to include Jess in her happy smile.
“Uh yes we are,” Slim said casting an anxious glance in Jess’s direction, before turning to Rebecca.
“You think she’d be glad of the company?”
“Oh yes,” she agreed, “I believe that’s just what she needs, the companionship of a like minded woman…who has shared similar experiences.”
Then turning to Jane said, “She too is recently widowed and can understand your plight my dear.”
“It sounds perfect,” Abby agreed, “if you really think she would want us staying?”
“I’ll sound her out tomorrow,” Rebecca said smiling, “but I’m pretty sure it would be the perfect arrangement.”
And also provide a chaperone she thought privately as she glanced over to where Jess was now chatting to Tobias about the work that needed doing on the Hudson place and a proposed hunting trip.


The following morning as promised Rebecca made her way over to the Hudson cabin whilst Abby minded the young ‘uns.
Slim, Jess and Tobias had taken off at first light on a short hunting expedition to get some game for both families. Jess had registered his concern about the lack of food in Jane’s kitchen and so the men decided that both larders should be full to bursting by the end of the day.
Now it was nearly noon and they were lounging around a camp fire drinking coffee as they relaxed; gunny sacks full of game for the pots.
“If yer still planning’ on stayin’ around a tad longer I figure the three of us could fix up that extension old Wes started years back, but never finished. That would give young James and Abby all the space they need.” Tobias said glancing over at Slim, knowing he really wanted to be off.
But old Jess there was determined to stay and help, that he knew…and the reason as to why troubled him some. He sure wanted Slim along to ride shot gun on Jess should he start rocking the boat.
He knew all about the history between Jane and Jess and as far as he was concerned then why not? He’d sure like Jess as a neighbor. But Rebecca was worried that Jess wouldn’t commit, what with him already being promised to that cute Millie. Well that sure would upset poor Jane if they got real close again and then he just rode out on her, he could see that. He sipped his coffee and figured that sort of conundrum should be left to the women folk to sort out.
Raising the coffee pot he said, “More coffee…and who’s for a drop of red eye in it huh?” Yup that was the answer to most knotty problems he figured, and he grinned happily at his friends.
Jess was the first to reply in the affirmative, passing his mug over.
“Sure, we’ll stay and help you out with the extension, won’t we Slim?” He said glancing over to his partner.
“Sure, be glad to,” Slim said through clenched teeth, secretly throwing Jess a dark look.


When Rebecca returned from her visit to Jane Hudson’s place, she was surprised to find the children sitting around the table, books, paper and pencils in front of them and clearly some sort of lesson in progress.
Abby jumped up as Rebecca entered looking a tad flustered.
“I do hope you don’t mind, but I was having my usual teaching session with young James and Georgie asked to be included.”
“Well of course I don’t mind,” Rebecca said, pulling off her bonnet and taking a seat beside her son and admiring his lettering.
“In fact, I’m delighted,” she added. “Truth be known I have been a little remiss about George’s spelling and ciphering, since we’ve had to start teaching the children at home,”
“Oh, so there isn’t a local school?” Abby asked, looking surprised and knowing there were a fair number of children in the settlement.
“Oh yes, there is one in town down the mountain, but we all decided to stop sending the children there a while back.”
“A few months ago, there were problems with the Indians. Well, you know as well as I do my dear, about the objectionable ways of your brother-in-law, Red Wolf, lately. He took to gathering with some other braves, drinking and hanging around in the woods at the foot of the mountain. We were all scared for the women’s safety and the young ‘un’s too…”
“I can understand that,” Abby said looking fearful herself now. “So, they frequent these parts?”
“Not anymore, no. The local Sheriff and his men, along with the Military, saw to that and they haven’t been around for a good while. So, we sent the children back down the mountain to school, but everything had changed. The schoolmaster, a strict man, had been replaced by a very young lady teacher.”
“Oh, and she was having difficulties with the discipline?”
“Precisely my dear…our youngsters were being bullied terribly by some of the older boys and things came to a head a few weeks ago. Tobias and some of the other parents went down to try and sort the matter out. But they were met with hostility from some of the town’s folk and the matter just couldn’t be resolved. In the end we decided we’d all teach our own children.” She sighed then and rolled her eyes, “But I guess there is more to it than we thought.”
Abby smiled knowingly, “Yes you could say that,” she agreed.
Then she looked very thoughtful and after a moment beamed at her new friend.
“This is wonderful,” she said. “I’d been hoping for a way to really be accepted by this community and now I think I’ve found it. You see I am a qualified teacher, with many years of experience, Rebecca, and if you’ll all have me, I would be happy to be the first teacher of the Rawlins Mountain School!”
Rebecca’s eyes opened wide in wonderment, “Oh that would be just perfect!” she exclaimed.
Then she said, “And my good news is that Jane is very keen to meet you, and if you hit it off then I do believe she would be happy to welcome you to share her home.”

Chapter 7
Meanwhile as Rebecca and Abby were catching up, Slim, Jess and Tobias landed at the Hudson spread to deliver Jane’s share of the spoils from the early morning hunt.
As they dismounted Tobias called out and moments later the door opened and they were joined by Jane and her family.
She was delighted with the abundance of gifts and quickly invited them in whilst Kate and Amy helped Jess to hang the gunny sacks of game in the barn to be butchered later.
When they entered the house Slim and Tobias were already seated around the fire a coffee apiece as Jane shared her news of the possibility of Abby and James moving in with them.
“I would be grateful of the company to be honest,” she said turning her beautiful green eyes on Slim. “I have felt a little lost without another adult to discuss problems with, so she would be most welcome. If she feels she could put up with my lot,” she added with a little chuckle as Amy and Kate bounced in followed by Jess.
Slim watched intently as Jess removed his hat, said howdy to Jane and took a seat near her and the look that crossed between the pair wasn’t lost on Slim. Oh yes there was still some kinda spark there he noticed as Jess took the proffered cup from Jane and she looked away quickly flushing a little, as their hands touched, before sitting back down again.
Hiding the moment she hurriedly continued her conversation, “So I would love you to bring everyone over for supper tonight and Abby and I can visit a little. Get to know one another,” she said addressing Tobias.
Then turning to Slim said, “Of course you and Jess must come too, as a little thank you for the wonderful additions to my larder…such a relief,” she admitted.
“Don’t fret Ma,” Kate piped up, “I’m nearly all better now and I can start huntin’ again real soon. Once I’ve gotten that ornery ol’ bronc busted proper that is,” she added.
“No, you ain’t,” Jess said protectively, “I reckon I’ll get her green broke for ya.”
“Won’t take too long,” he added, casting Slim an apologetic glance.
“Aw Jess you’re no fun!” Kate exclaimed, her mother’s deep green eyes flashing angrily, “I can do it ya know!”
“Sure, I know you can, but yer Ma wants you fit and healthy to do the job you do best, huntin’ and fishing’ for the pot huh.”
The child looked slightly mollified at that and merely said, “OK, I guess yer right, but I wanna help.”
To which Jess agreed with a friendly wink.
Then the conversation turned to the completion of the extension.
Jane’s eye lit up at the notion, “You really think you could do that for us Tobias?” She asked.
“Well sure iffen Jess and Slim can spare a few days out of their huntin’ trip. I figure we could get it up and ready for Abby and James to move in by the end of the week, what say you two?”
“Well …er…” Slim started, but Jess jumped in.
“Sure, we can do that can’t we pard?” he said, his eyes pleading as he turned to Slim.
Slim looked at Jess and over to Jane’s eager face and then back to Tobias, “Sure, we can do that,” he agreed.
“You and Slim could sleep in the barn,” Amy piped up. “It will be just like old times you staying here Jess, please do …please,” she wheedled.
Jess flushed up some and looked down whilst Slim said, “Well I don’t know honey. We don’t want to get under your Ma’s feet.”
But then Tobias said, “I’m not wanting to chuck you two out but you’d be a mite more comfortable over here than camping out in my yard.”
“We’re a tad overcrowded what with Abby and James stayin’ too,” he said to Jane.
“Well, that’s all decided then,” Jane said happily.


Later that evening, back at Tobias’ shack, Jess and Slim had washed up and changed for the proposed dinner party and they went off to saddle up their mounts.
It was the first time they had spent alone together since leaving the Hudson spread and now Slim turned on his pard.
“Just what’s going on Jess?” He asked angrily.
“Oh, come on don’t play the innocent… between you and Jane.”
“Nothin’,” Jess replied hotly.
“Oh yeah sure… I saw the way she was looking at you. As for you… hell you’re as jittery as I’ve seen you in a long while. So, what’s going on?” he repeated.
“I told ya nothin’, I just need to help her out right now. Hell Slim, she’s lost her husband, not to mention the young ‘un… she needs me right now.”
“Looks to me like you need her too,” Slim said dryly, leading his horse away.
Jess stared after him and whispered, “Well maybe I do…some…” Then he remembered Millie, so far away and no word from her in so long and cussed under his breath. It was Millie he needed really. Hell no, Millie he wanted, and he sighed deeply before patting Traveller and leading him off to join the others.
It was clear from the offset that Jane and Abby would become good friends. They had the same sense of humor and their parenting skills were similar. Both mothers believed in their offspring having a certain amount of freedom and responsibilities from a young age.
Maybe that was why an instant bond was formed between James and Amy too…Or maybe it was just because they were of a similar age so understood each other. Once supper was over, they soon ran off together exploring the Hudson spread away from the boring adults.
Slim grinned across at Jess and chuckling said, “Those two remind me of the way you and Millie must have been at that age Jess.”
Then he looked quickly at Jane and noted a small frown, her eyes suddenly bleak.
When Jess said nothing, Tobias said, “So you and yer gal were childhood sweethearts huh Jess?”
“Not really, just good buddies,” Jess said quietly. “It was later…much later when we well…when we…got together.”
There was a pregnant silence and then Rebecca said quickly, “Well I just hope all the children will settle down well together and will be one happy family.”
“Here, here,” said Abby and Jane, and coffee cups were replenished as they enjoyed the good company.
Amy had made sure that Slim and Jess would sleep in the barn and on their arrival had proudly showed them how she had furnished one of the larger stalls with fresh clean hay and thick blankets from her Mama’s store.
Once the party was over and the Finnegans and their guests had departed Jess and Slim went to turn in for the night. But not before Jane had offered a final nightcap of a glass of moonshine.
However, before Jess could reply, Slim said, “No thank you Ma’am we need to be up early to get started on the building work.” With that he ushered Jess out quickly.
Once in the privacy of the barn Jess turned on Slim and said, “There was no need to be so dang rude, she was only being neighborly.”
“Is that what you call it?” Slim said angrily. “Well from where I was sitting that lady wanted more than to share a glass or two of moonshine with you.”
“She asked you too,” Jess replied stubbornly.
“Um…maybe, but I’m telling you Jess she’s still stuck on you and you really shouldn’t be encouraging her.”
“Hell, I ain’t,” Jess said hotly. “I’m just actin’ like a friend… you got a problem with that huh?”
“If that was all it was,” Slim said, more quietly, “but you didn’t see her face when Millie was mentioned Jess.”
Jess merely cussed softly saying his pard was plumb crazy, before going to turn in.
But even so he lay awake into the small hours tossing and turning as he remembered the shared closeness he had once had with Jane.
He was up before first light and when Slim awoke a little later, he was surprised to see Jess up on the recalcitrant mustang, putting her through her paces.
He slipped down from the saddle when Slim came and leaned on the corral fence and said, “She ain’t as wilful as I first thought, I figure a few days of hard work should knock her into shape.”
“So, when do you propose to do that?” Slim asked, “I figure we’ve gotten our work cut out doing this dang building work.”
“Take it easy Slim, I aim to work on this little gal in my down time…early and late and in my lunch break, if that’s OK with you?” he added sarcastically.
Slim just shook his head, but then they were joined by Amy and Kate and the moment passed.
It seemed to Slim that Jess had heeded his words though and although his pard was scrupulously polite to Jane there were no lingering glances or flirting of any sort. In fact, he treated her exactly as he did Daisy, with kindly banter, but no hint of intimacy.
Tobias, Jess and Slim, along with a few other mountain men who had been co-opted, worked long hours on the lean-to extension on the back of the property and the construction was going well, much to Jane’s delight.
The news that Jane’s new lodger was a qualified teacher happy to set up a school specifically for the mountain children had come as a wonderful surprise to the many parents on the mountain. If not to say a huge relief too.
At the news a local man donated the use of his barn to be converted into a school house. He was now very elderly and had no use of the large building as he had moved across the mountain to live with his son.
On exploration the mountain men discovered that the building was in good shape. It was just in need of some makeshift desks, a large black board, plus books, slates and a good loud bell to bring the young ones in from far and wide across the mountain.
Once word got around donations of furniture and fittings came in thick and fast and the presence of their own little school was becoming very real… much to the delight of many a harassed parent.
Even Slim, who had really just wanted to leave as soon as possible and return to their hunting trip, was drawn in by the excitement Abby and James’ arrival had generated. Abby was welcomed by one and all with open arms and as Jess had predicted James was accepted by everyone and was soon integrated into the rough and tumble world of the local children. Amy took him under her wing and introduced him around and it was agreed that the young half Indian boy, whose grandfather was a Chief, was real cool.
The only person to have mixed feelings was Jane. Oh, she really liked her new lodgers and was delighted that a local school would soon be up and running. But she was also in a state of constant disquiet at the strength of her feelings for Jess. Yes, she knew it was wrong, knew that things had moved on for him and he had now made a promise to another. She should be happy for him. But all she felt was despair. The way he looked at her, so kindly, but without that intimate spark she had once known, was torture for her. Part of her wanted the work just to be done and for him to be gone. But another part of her wished he would stay forever and be hers once more. Then at that thought she was pierced with a feeling of terrible guilt at betraying her dear husband’s memory and she once more fell into an agony of grief.
Things came to a head the very next night. The men had worked exceptionally hard all day and then Jess had got up on Renegade, the name Katie had chosen for the young green broke mustang. Now as he lay on his straw bed in the barn, he ached all over, from several nasty falls. Plus, the weather had turned extremely hot and humid and he felt he could hardly breathe in the confines of the stall.
He got up quietly and leaving Slim snoring gently went out into the moonlit yard where there was at least a light breeze moving the air round.
He helped himself to a draught of cool water from the well and then sprawled on the bench outside the barn. He looked over towards the tree covered mountain range before him and felt himself begin to cool down and relax.
He was just thinking of turning in again when a wraith like form drifted towards him from the cabin. As she advanced, he realized it was Jane, dressed in a pure white nightgown, a pale shawl around her shoulders.
“I… I couldn’t sleep either,” she said hesitantly as she took a seat beside him. “I heard the well bucket and thought I’d join you for a little.”
He just nodded, feeling his heart lurch within his chest and start beating faster.
“I was kinda warm, needed to cool off some,” he said softly, “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“Oh, you didn’t,” she said quickly, “like I said, I wasn’t asleep…I sleep badly since….” and her voice trailed off both knowing she was referring to her recent losses.
He nodded again, “Grief can do that to a body,” he said softly, remembering that terrible time when his beloved Maria was shot down in front of him (* See #1 Loved Lost Survived.) “I figure you ain’t eating too much either,” he added noting her frail thin form again. The hollows in her cheeks making her expressive green eyes look huge and very beautiful.
“I…I just can’t,” she whispered.
“You hafta,” he replied urgently, “you’ve still got Katie and Amy to care for and you don’t wanna get sick.”
“Maybe that would be the best all around,” she said, now focusing on the distant mountain range, “I know Rebecca would take them on if I wasn’t around. Maybe they’d be better off if I was dead,” she added harshly.
Jess grabbed hold of her arm and dragged her around so she faced him; “Don’t!” he cried in anguish, “Don’t even think that…”
She pulled herself free of his grasp and tore off towards the corral fence where she stopped, again looking off into the distance.
He followed her and grabbing her arm roughly, again turned her around to face him.
“Tell me” He said his voice deep and rasping, “tell me you won’t do anything stupid.”
“Like kill myself?”
“Yeah, like kill yourself,” he said, his eyes bleak.
She looked down and swallowed hard before looking up into his distraught eyes, “Why, you wouldn’t care…”
He gasped and pulled her into a close embrace before whispering, “Of course I care.”
She pulled back a little so she could look up into his eyes. “You haven’t acted like you do. You’ve been treating me like some maiden aunt,” she said angrily.
“You know why,” he said, “things are different now. I love Millie, I’m gonna marry her… Hell I’m sorry Jane, real sorry, but that’s how it is.”
She nodded, “Yes I know that, but surely we can be how we were when we first met, when we were just real good friends…that wouldn’t hurt would it?”
He sighed deeply and then said, “Of course not sweetheart, we can always be friends,” and pulling her close he kissed the top of her head and said softly, “Maybe now would be a good time for some straight talking.”
Jess took her arm and propelled her gently to the cabin porch where he gestured for her to take a seat as he took the other.
From the barn door Slim swore softly and turned to go back to bed… all ideas of fetching himself a cold drink forgotten.
“What is it?” she asked her eyes huge in the dim light, her expression anxious.
Jess looked out to the distant mountain peaks for inspiration before saying quietly, “I’m real worried about you sweetheart, we all are.”
“There’s no need,” she said quickly sitting bolt upright, her expression uncompromising.
“Well, I think there is,” he said softly, “you’re hardly eating anything, you’re working yourself into the ground. Hell Jane, you look so dang fragile I guess a puff of wind could blow you away. And now yer talking like you wanna end it all.”
“Well, I’m grieving,” she said sharply, “what do you expect?”
“But that’s the whole point,” he said quickly, “You ain’t...are you?”
She frowned crossly, “What do you mean?”
“Oh, come on Jane, you haven’t accepted it have ya, any of it. You talk about Wes like he is still alive and just off on a hunting trip or something…and as to young Josh, well he’s never allowed to be mentioned by anyone.”
“How dare you!” she shot back furiously.
Then more quietly she sighed deeply and said, “You just don’t understand, nobody does.”
“Well maybe I do … some,” he replied, “I lost my fiancée, shot dead in front of me.”
Her eyes opened wide in shock, “I…I didn’t know…how terrible.”
He nodded and said, “The thing was I felt real responsible you know? I felt like I could have prevented it…but I know now I couldn’t…it was impossible.”
“So, what did you do, how did you get over it?” She asked.
“I didn’t. I just couldn’t accept it…pretty much like you,” he added with a sympathetic smile. “I just carried on working myself to death…not eating and I cut Slim out of my life. I hardly spoke to him. Just went through the motions of living. Ignoring it all… the pain of seeing her lying there bleeding to death in my arms…”
He shook his head and closed his eyes for a moment at the memory.
“But you can’t do that,” he said, finally looking deeply into her eyes before taking her hand and holding it gently.
“See thing is with grief you can’t go round it or under it…you hafta plough on straight through it…until you eventually make it through to the other side.”
“How did you find that out?” She asked now completely engaged with his narrative.
“It was Slim made me see sense. He caught up with me one day, made me sit down and talk to him properly, first dang time in weeks. Anyway, what he said sure made me sit up and think.”
“He told me he wanted me to leave, to go back to Texas before the winter set in. Said I was so dang sickly and weak the doc said I wouldn’t survive another Wyoming winter.”
She sucked in a deep breath, “But that’s terrible… so cruel…sending you away from your friends…your life there…just when you needed them most.”
Jess shook his head, “No it really wasn’t. He told me later it was the hardest dang thing he’d ever done. He said he had to say it for my own good.”
“So why did he do it?”
“I guess he figured he’d make me real mad…and he sure weren’t wrong there…Jeez I really let rip. See he said to me, ‘tell me how you’re really feeling then Jess,’ And I did, boy did I tell him! It all came out like a wildfire out of control. All the stuff I’d been holding in just came tumbling out…I yelled I cussed and yup I admit it I cried…but goddamn it, I sure felt better afterwards! Like some kinda burden had gone. Sure, I was still sick with grief…was for a good while…still am sometimes,” he said softly. “But the thing is I started to heal that very night Jane…and I’ll always be grateful to Slim for what he did for me.”
“He’s a dear man,” she agreed quietly.
“So, are you gonna tell me how you really feel then?” He asked with his shy smile.
“Really and truly?” She asked raising troubled eyes to him.
He nodded…
She took a deep breath and said, “OK I’ll tell you Jess… I’m just so mad…so mad I could scream!”
“Mad at who?”
“Why at Wes of course! Why did he have to up and die that way? He should have looked after himself better…should have drunk less moonshine and eaten more good food. He should never have taken us away. The climate never suited him. It’s all his fault!” she added furiously.
She jumped up and went and stood leaning against the porch upright, angry tears now flowing. “If he was here, I’d be so mad at him,” she added.
“But he ain’t…is he…he ain’t coming back is he Jane?”
“No,” she whispered, “no he’s gone forever,” and then with her heart breaking she began crying in earnest.
Jess got up and took her in his arms holding her until she was spent.
Then, when she finally finished crying, he looked deeply into her eyes and said, “It’s the only way sweetheart, meet it all head on…and then you can start living again. Because you hafta you know…. hafta keep going for Amy and Kate, they need you right now.”
Eventually she wiped her eyes and looked up at him.
Pulling gently away she turned back towards the cabin… “I think I’ll be able to sleep now,” she said and then softly, “Thank you Jess I needed telling…”

Chapter 8
The following morning the atmosphere between Slim and Jess was somewhat frosty, although Slim hadn’t said anything to his buddy. As far as he was concerned, the sooner the building of the extension was completed and they were out of there the better. He had lain awake for nearly an hour before Jess had come back into the barn and settled back down to sleep. Surely his pard wasn’t thinking of having a relationship with Jane…he just wouldn’t …would he?
On a positive note, the new school was completed and all the children made their way down the hillside laughing and shouting happy at the prospect of meeting up with all their friends.
Abby too was looking forwards to the challenge of teaching once more.
The day went well and although tired Abby was delighted at the way the children had all settled in and taken to their books again. She had hidden a smile as James and Amy shared a desk and remembered Slim’ s comment about them being like Jess and his girlfriend when they were youngsters.
She had felt that there was something more to his comment at the time and wondered exactly what the history was between Jess and her new friend Jane. He had seemed very upset back on the trail when her name had cropped up…and she too had noticed Jane’s reaction to Slim’ s mention of Millie. She sighed deeply…well it was none of her business. She had quite enough to cope with getting the new school underway.
As the faint cries of the children laughing and yelling as they made their way home faded, she was aware that James was speaking to her.
“So may we Mama?”
“Sorry …what is it dear?”
“May Amy and I walk home now?”
She looked at his eager face and that of young Amy and smiled at them.
“Yes, I think so. You know the way don’t you Amy. But go straight home and tell your mother I will be home directly, just as soon as I’ve tidied up in here,” she said smiling at the youngsters.
They ran off laughing and pushing as joyful and mischievous as a pair of young puppies and she looked fondly after them.
It was a mere half mile walk through the woods to the Hudson cabin and the other children, including Katie, were still around so she had no cause to fear for their safely. Having checked with Jane that morning she too had said she was happy for the children to walk home alone as Abby finished her jobs off in the classroom.
The first they knew that something was amiss was when a terrified Katie ran into the Hudson yard screaming blue murder.
Katie at sixteen had been at the school house to finish off her education and also to help Abby out with the younger pupils. But now she felt as terrified and vulnerable as the youngest child at what she had just witnessed.
Jane ran out at once swiftly followed by Tobias, Jess and Slim who had been busy finishing off the building work on the house.
It was several minutes before they could get a coherent account of what had happened, the usually calm and tough Katie clearly traumatized.
“We…we were just crossing the little stream and I’d gone on with my friend Ginny, when I heard Amy screaming. Well, we thought maybe she’d fallen in…those stepping stones were kind of slippy,” she added.
“Go on!” Jane cried holding her daughter’s arm tightly and looking deeply into her troubled face.
Katie swallowed hard holding back tears, “There were Indians…lots of Indians and they took James and Amy…they took my sister!” she said finally breaking down in heart rending sobs.
“No!” Jane screamed and she collapsed in a dead faint as Tobias lunged forwards and caught her.
“Where was this?” Jess barked holding Katie by the shoulders and looking deeply into her troubled eyes, tears still coursing down her face.
After a moment she recovered enough to reply, “Just beyond the stream crossing by that big pine,” she said, “you know it?”
Jess nodded, and tore off to the barn for his horse.
Slim patted the child’s shoulder, “Don’t worry honey, it’ll be OK, we’ll find them, I promise,” he said before turning to Tobias.
“This is Red Wolf’s work I’ll be bound. Once we find them, I figure we’ll take him back to his Pa on the Reservation, to settle this once and for all. You’ll be OK here protecting the women…just in case there are any others around?”
“Sure,” Tobias said quickly. “Don’t you worry son, just do what you need to. I figure Rebecca will be over shortly. She’ll calm Jane down with a sleeping draught, until you get back.”
Slim glanced at Jane’s paper white face as Tobias carried her into the cabin and then he dashed after Jess, who already had Alamo saddled up for him.
The men galloped out of the yard swiftly followed by a barking Blue, caught up in the excitement of the moment and enjoying the chase which he thought was some sort of new game.
It had taken Katie around ten minutes to race home and the Indians had a good head start. Unaware that they were being followed, once they had reached a clearing on their way down the mountain Red Wolf called a halt. Dismounting he hauled James down and pushed him roughly up against a tree.
Then taking out his hunting knife he told two of the braves to hold the child firmly.
As soon as Amy realized what was happening, she wriggled free of the other brave who was restraining her and tore across to James standing protectively in front of him. “You leave him alone you big bully!” She screamed, her anger overtaking her fear of the big aggressive Indian.
He sniggered at that and said, “Quite a tough little squaw you have here White Wolf…a shame you won’t grow up to know her when she is older.”
James emboldened by Amy’s attitude stuck his chin out and said, “You don’t scare me Uncle…you won’t hurt me, because if you did Grandfather would have you hunted down and killed like a rabid dog!”
“Ha, fine words my little brave,” Red Wolf said with more of a grimace than a smile. “But sadly, he will never know, because you and this little one here will never be found.”
As realization dawned Amy started screaming hysterically.
Red Wolf pushed her aside and moved closer to James brandishing the knife and telling the other two Indians to hold the child more firmly.
Amy was grabbed by the remaining brave and they all looked on as Red Wolf raised his knife. His dark eyes brimming with hatred and vengeance. This would show his father who the true leader of the tribe should be…the invincible Red Wolf, not this half breed brat…of his dead brother.
He raised the knife ready to thrust it deeply into the child’s chest.
Then suddenly a barking, thunderbolt of grey fur struck him full in the chest, sending him flying backwards. Blue leapt on his prey his full weight pinning him down. Growling menacingly he began worrying the Indian’s arm causing Red Wolf to scream out in terror and pain.
As Jess and Slim rode in the remaining three braves moved as one and were astride their ponies and heading for the hills in the blink of an eye.
Concerned as they were for the children’s safety, Slim and Jess just let them ride out; figuring they’d keep for another day.
Once it was confirmed that neither child was hurt Jess finally called Blue to heel. The big wolf-cross did so reluctantly, but on the second firm command he trotted to Jess’s side.
He fondled the dog’s ears and put his arm around a now composed Amy, before turning to where Red Wolf was still sprawled in the dirt.
Slim who, had his rifle trained on the Indian, growled, “Get up!”
When he failed to respond, Jess snarled, “Git up, you ain’t hurt that dang bad.”
Red Wolf struggled to his feet staring aggressively at the men, holding his bleeding arm…but saying nothing.
Now James said in horror, “He was going to kill me, he really was. I never thought he meant it!”
Slim put a protective arm around the boy and said, “It’s OK James, he can’t hurt you now and I reckon by the time his Pa’s finished with him he’ll be in no condition to hurt anyone again!”
They rode out once Slim had bandaged Red Wolf’s still bleeding arm.
“After all we don’t want ya bleedin’ to death before your Pa gets to know the truth,” Jess said with a sarcastic grin.
They had no other option but to take the children with them. Thinking that if they split up and one of them returned to camp alone with the youngsters then they would be at the risk of attack from the three remaining braves who got away.
“No, better to stick together,” Slim said, much to the children’s delight.
“I guess James needs to tell his grand pappy exactly what happened too,” Jess said, “just in case he doubts us huh.”
They arrived at the edge of the Reservation early the following day and were pleased to see some tepees in the distance marking the fact that the encampment was their side of the large Reservation area.
“I figure they came over this way hunting, and Red Wolf went into town and got wind of the fact that James and his Ma had moved up the mountain,” Slim said.
Jess agreed, “Probably after buyin’ firewater. But I figure Red would have sent him back to the Reservation if he had done,” Jess said, referring to his buddy Red Smith, the Sheriff of the nearest town.
As the small party rode in, curious braves, squaws and small children gathered and then one of the elders ran to inform Chief Red Bear that they had visitors.
When the Chief emerged from his tepee Slim hardly recognized him as he had lost so much weight and had visibly aged.
He solemnly raised a hand in peace to Jess and Slim welcoming them and then seeing his son, his eyes hardened as he saw his wrists were tied and he was clearly a prisoner.
“What have you done now?” He cried angrily, before looking askance of Jess and Slim.
James slid down from where he’d been riding double behind Slim and ran over to the chief and said, “He tried to kill me grandfather!”
The look of delight on the old man’s face at the sight of his grandson quickly changed to one of shock and disbelief.
“No White Wolf, you must be mistaken.”
“No mistake Red Bear,” Jess drawled, “that dang son of yours tried to knife the boy.”
The Chief looked up at Jess and then across to Slim, “This is true?”
“It’s true alright,” Slim said nodding.
“Don’t listen to them father they lie!” Red Wolf yelped.
The Chief turned back to his son, “Jess Harper is an honorable man and I have known Slim Sherman and his father before him, for many years. I take their word over yours.”
Then gesturing to the elders he said, “Take him from my sight.”
“We will talk later,” he added to Red Wolf.
Then he gestured for Jess, Slim and the children to join him around the fire and the men smoked a pipe with him.
“What will you do?” Slim asked once they were seated and the pipe had been passed around.
“He will be severely punished and then be banished from the encampment and indeed the tribe to spend his days alone. He will dwell up in the caves to the north of the Reservation and will be kept under watch until his dying day.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Jess whispered to Slim who merely nodded and sighed with relief.
“So, what of you my little White Wolf, will you return to the tribe now?” Red Bear asked of James.
James shook his head, “I guess not…not just yet grandfather. My Ma wants me to be all educated up first. She says…uh… knowledge is power and she wants me to learn to read, write and cipher real good.”
Red Bear rolled his eyes and said, “The only education you need is of Indian Wisdom, passed down from generation to generation…if you are to be the Chief one day.”
Jess took a deep breath and said softly, “Maybe there is room in the kid’s life for both Red Bear? He’s settled down real good on the mountain, made friends and his Ma is settled too. I think maybe that’s what Running Bear would have wanted for them right now.”
The Chief nodded, “I know you were a good friend to my son and I accept your words, Jess Harper. But the young brave needs to know his own people too.”
“Maybe he could visit,” Slim suggested, “in the school holidays … now his uncle won’t be a threat anymore huh?”
The Chief turned to his grandson and James nodded enthusiastically, “Yes, that would be swell… uh I mean that would be good grandfather for now, and then I will return to live with the tribe when I am a man.”
It was as they had risen to leave that there was a commotion amongst a small knot of onlookers and a small boy broke ranks and tore towards where Amy was about to be helped up onto Traveller.
He was closely followed by a squaw yelling blue murder, but he was too fast for her.
He ran up to an amazed Amy and said, “This is my sister…tell them Amy, tell them who I am!”
Amy stared at the diminutive blond-haired child dressed in buckskins for a full minute before her face relaxed into an astonished grin, “It’s Joshy… my little brother Joshua!” she cried before pulling him into a bear hug.

Chapter 9
Once it became clear that the youngster was indeed telling the truth Red Bear looked askance of the elders.
“I know nothing of this boy,” Red Bear said, “what is going on?”
One of the elders came forwards and gesturing to an Indian behind him said, “Black Elk and his wife found the boy wandering where a wagon train had passed by and took him in, gave him a good home. As you know Little Deer is barren and so they were happy to help the child.”
“That’s a damn lie,” Jess cried hotly. “I know young Josh’s Ma and she told me the wagon train was attacked by a whole gang of renegades. The wagon master said he saw the kid taken by one of the braves…this Black Elk, I’m guessing,” he added staring hard at the now discomfited looking Indian.
“Is this true?” the Chief asked turning angry eyes on the now cowering Indian.
He fell to his knees at once and nodded.
Again, the Chief was forced to apologize to the white men and promise that punishment would be metered out.
“The whole bunch of renegade braves are getting way out of order Red Wolf,” Jess said angrily, “they need a real tight rein or they’ll bring disgrace to the whole tribe…and end up dead.”
“He’s right,” Slim said, “and it could end in more wars with the white men which none of us want do we?”
The old Chief shook his head.
“No, indeed we do not!”
Then he sighed deeply. “I blame myself for not watching over the young braves more carefully. I have been mourning my dear son. But now things will change,” he said looking up to Slim and Jess, “this I promise you.”
It was later that evening that Slim and Jess heard more of what had happened to young Joshua since he was abducted from the wagon train.
They had decided to camp over night before returning home, the journey from the reservation being long and arduous.
“You were treated well?” Jess asked, noting the boy seemed well fed and clothed, albeit in buckskins and moccasins.
“Oh yes, Little Deer was like a Ma to me, real kind. And Black Elk taught me to fish and how to use a knife real good to gut them…he was kind to me too.”
“So how come the Chief didn’t know about you?” Slim asked, once they had finished their supper.
“Well, I got sick the day after they took me,” the child replied.
Then turning to Amy said, “I caught your Chicken Pox sis. When the Medicine man saw me, he told Black Elk I should be kept away from the tribe as I carried White Man’s sickness which could kill the Indian children.”
“Jeepers you must have been real lonely!” James piped up.
Joshua nodded and then he looked deeply saddened, like he might cry, “I missed my Ma and my sisters real bad,” he said softly.
The kid had been so dang brave Jess thought, that they had all forgotten he was just a little kid…only five years old.
Jess put a kindly arm around him and said, “Well you’ll see yer Ma and Katie tomorrow and I promise you’ll be safe from now on…OK?”
The youngster looked up and gave him a beautiful smile and snuggling up said, “I know it,” and then fell asleep almost at once.
“Poor little kid, he’s wore out,” Jess said softly as he carried the child to a bedroll near the fire and settled him down for the night.
Shortly afterwards everyone else settled down to sleep and all that could be heard was the distant call of a lonely owl.


The reunion with both children and their Ma the following day was incredibly emotional.
When Jess and Slim rode in, James was riding a pony given to him by his grandfather and Slim and Jess riding double with Amy and Joshua. As they rode into the yard Tobias could hardly believe his eyes.
“Well, I believed you’d fetch the young ‘un’s back safely,” he said removing his hat and scratching his head as he looked at Jess and Joshua up on Traveller, “But Hell Jess, I never thought you’d be raisin’ this little one from the dead…it is Joshua, I take it?”
At that point Jane and Rebecca ran out of the cabin and Jane stopped and stared in shock as first Amy scrambled down, and then Joshua. Both children ran into her arms yelling, “Ma…Ma!”
Jess and Slim dismounted grinning with pleasure, and Tobias put an arm around a tearful Rebecca as they all beheld the emotional reunion.
Once Jane finally composed herself, she said, “I’ll never forget what you did for me Jess…never.”
And on that note Rebecca ushered the little family indoors to hear all the news, whilst the men and James went to put up their horses.
“I’ll never forget what you did,” Slim said in a wicked parody of Jane, smirking at Jess…as they made their way to the barn.
Jess flicked a quick glance towards James and then whispered, “Shut the Hell up Slim,” out of the corner of his mouth.
“Well, I was there, liberated the kid too,” Slim said chuckling, “figure I should never be forgotten either.”
Once James had tended his new mount, he ran off to the cabin in the hope of finding milk and cookies being dispensed, to welcome the youngsters home.
Meanwhile Jess was intent on brushing Traveller to within an inch of his life as he tried to ignore Slim’ s eyes boring into his back.
After a while he gave in and putting the brushes aside came out of the stall and went and joined Slim where he was reclining on a straw bale, his saddlebags nearby.
Jess slouched down beside him and nodding to the saddlebags said, “You packing then?”
Slim nodded, “I figure we’re just about done here. We can finish off that last bit of building work this afternoon. Then we can get up at first light and go hunting. Replenish Jane’s larder again like we promised and be on our way before noon.”
“Got it all figured out ain’t you,” Jess said looking slightly miffed.
“You got a problem with that?” Slim asked frowning slightly.
Jess sighed quietly and said, “Nope, no problem, we should be getting back.”
“You’re sure about that are you?” Slim said raising an eyebrow.
When Jess remained silent, he went on, “Only I thought maybe you were thinking of staying around…permanently. I figure that would sure suit Jane and the kids too, they worship you…all of them.”
“Now just hang on there,” Jess said looking angry.
“No, you hang on,” Slim said sitting upright and glaring at his partner. “If you want to be unfaithful to Millie, well I guess that’s your choice, but I want no part of it and I’m not going to stand back and watch. I’m just not staying around any longer to see the way Jane is with you.”
“Huh…what does that mean?”
“Oh, come on, anyone can see she’s still in love with you, and as far as I can see you feel the same way dontcha...huh? Just admit it, Jess.”
“That ain’t true,” Jess said now jumping up and glaring down at his pard.
“How can you even think that?”
“So, you deny you sat up half the night romancing her…just a few days ago?”
Jess looked puzzled and then his face cleared.
“No, you’ve got that all wrong,” he said, “we were just talkin’ is all.”
“Oh really, well from where I was standing it all looked pretty intense, not like you were discussing the weather or the price of hay Jess.”
Jess rolled his eyes…and then said quietly, “If you must know we were talkin’ about grieving. Hell, she really spooked me Slim. She said she felt like she wanted to end it all after losing Wes and then young Josh, felt she couldn’t go on. So, I…well I told her a few home truths.”
Slim’ s expression changed from one of righteous indignation to surprised interest.
“You did?”
“Yes, I explained to her about how I was after … you know, after losing Maria. How I nearly dang well died of a broken heart…way I was goin’ I wouldn’t have lasted a Wyoming winter, just like you said.”
“So, you really told her all about that?”
Jess nodded and then looking deeply into Slim’ s eyes, said, “Yup, how you saved my life by making me face up to everything.”
Slim was transported back to that dreadful time…and how Jess had bared his soul as he told him just how he was feeling. His pard’ s raw emotion so very hard to watch…
“And that’s what you did for her?”
Jess nodded, “It’s what I had to do. She was upset, real upset…but she needed to face facts and move on. Hell Slim, she’s so dang skinny and sickly, she wouldn’t have lasted if someone hadn’t made her see reason…made her accept that Wes was dead and never coming home.”
Slim had gotten up again that night and peered out of the barn door and seen Jane in Jess’s arms and thought the worst. Now he felt ashamed…not only for spying on the couple, but also at jumping to the wrong conclusions.
“I’m sorry Jess I reckon I’ve got it all wrong.”
Jess gave him a sad smile, “No you ain’t I think you’re right. She is getting a tad too fond of me I reckon and the young un’ s too…it’s time we left.”
“You’re not tempted…to stay at all?” Slim asked looking anxious.
Jess shook his head, but then said, “Well I guess I’d be lyin’ if I said it would be easy leaving those kids…I’m real fond of them for sure. But as for me and Jane…nope it’s all over as far as I’m concerned. Sure, she’ll always be real special to me, but no Slim, we don’t have a future together. Maybe back then, but things are different now and it’s definitely over. Me and Millie are together and that’s the way I want it.”
“Maybe for you pard, but I guess it isn’t as far as she’s concerned.”
“Yeah, and that’s why we’re ridin’ out tomorrow,” Jess said firmly, before wandering off to pack his saddle bags too.


The following morning Jess and Slim were up at first light and were joined by Tobias for their last hunting trip together. They walked their mounts out of the yard, leaving a sleeping Jane with her family and also Abby and James who had finally moved into the new lean-to extension.
Once they were mounted and, on their way, Tobias said, “It’s real good of you boys to come out hunting before your long trip home.”
“That’s OK,” Slim said smiling at his old friend, “we want to leave you all well provided for, especially as my buddy here eats like a half-starved mutt.”
“Well thanks,” Jess said scowling at his friend.
Then looking over at Tobias and smiling said, “Anyway how could we turn down a trip once we knew there were moose about.”
“Yup they were seen by old Bill a day ago heading for that small lake just a mile or so west of here. Iffen we’re lucky we should be able to bag a couple and you can take some prime cuts home to Miss Daisy,” Tobias replied grinning broadly.
“I sure hope so,” Slim muttered as an aside to Jess, “because we’ve had precious little time to fetch anything else home.”
Jess looked a tad uncomfortable, knowing it was his fault they had spent the week they were supposed to be having a break actually working as hard as if they had stayed home. Having helped Jane and her family out with the building work and horse breaking had left them with little time to relax and enjoy themselves.
“We’ve still got a few days left,” he replied, “and anyway Mort told us not to rush back, remember?” With a cheeky grin he urged Traveller on to catch up with Tobias.
Once they found some moose tracks both Tobias and Slim pulled back a little letting Jess take the lead as he was by far the best tracker. Once Tobias would have been eager to lead the party, but now with failing eyesight he had to admit that Jess was a much better guide.
The sun was just dawning on a perfect summer morning and the men were relaxed and carefree as they stealthily followed the recent moose tracks.
One minute Jess was sitting tall in the saddle having checked the tracks and waved the others forwards as he set off purposefully. The next moment there was a low whistling sound and then a dull thud and Jess was thrown back out of the saddle. He fell, sprawled in the dirt, just in front of Tobias and Slim who starred in horror at the arrow protruding from his chest.
He cried out, his back arching and jerking in agony before he passed out.
Looking up Slim was just in time to see Red Wolf’s pony disappearing amongst the trees of the densely forested area.
He cussed, but let the Indian go, his priority right then saving Jess’s life.
Both men leapt from their mounts and hurried over to where Jess lay sprawled in the dirt, his face a deathly grey colour.
For one frantic moment, Slim thought he was gone. But a tentative hand on Jess’s neck provided a weak pulse still beating.
Slim gave a deep sigh of relief, before turning his pard on his side to see the injury more clearly.
“Gone straight through,” Tobias drawled, “ain’t looking too good Slim, we need to get the dang thing out now before he bleeds to death.”
Jess’s pale blue shirt was already saturated with dark red blood, and Slim knew he didn’t have long.
“You need ta push it through,” Tobias added, “else the dang tip will get stuck and do more harm.”
Slim had dealt with arrow wounds before and knew the truth of it and he quickly snapped off the flight feathers and told Tobias to try and ease the redwood shaft out from Jess’s back as Slim gently pushed it through.
The procedure was completed just as Jess came around cussing and struggling to sit up.
“Hush and lay still,” Slim said pushing him gently back. “You caught an arrow but it’s out now.”
Meanwhile Tobias had been inspecting the arrowhead closely and he even ran a finger over the sharply carved bone head and licked his finger before grimacing.
“Dang well poisoned,” he muttered.
Slim stared at him in consternation, “Are you sure?”
“Oh yes…It ain’t snake…but some kinda plant poison. It’s what the Arapaho favor for killin’ prey…paralyzes them see.”
Slim glanced down at Jess who looked like he might chuck up, and muttered “Goddamn it.”
“You still got that redeye in yer saddlebag?” Tobias inquired.
Slim nodded and Tobias ran off to Alamo and moments later returned with the whiskey, Slim’ s canteen and a bundle of clean rags he’d also found.
“Need to wash it out real good,” he said and no time to waste. “Then bind it real tight too. Way he’s bleedin’…well…” he added under his breath, throwing Slim an anxious glance and shrugging.
The procedure was dreadfully painful but Jess was stoic and just cussed softly as the neat spirit was poured into the gaping wound. As Tobias had predicted it started to bleed even more profusely and Slim quickly pulled Jess into a sitting position and bandaged his torso tightly.
The arrow had struck him to the far right of his upper chest and seemed to have missed any vital organs as far as Slim could tell…but he knew his buddy was in dire need of medical assistance. He also knew that the old Doc in Rawlins, the nearest town, had recently passed on and there wasn’t another medic for miles. With the exception of Rebecca that was, with her vast knowledge of Indian medicine. She was their only hope Slim figured.
“We need to get him back,” he said to Tobias, “I figure Jane Hudson’s spread is the nearest… can you ride for Rebecca?”
“No need,” the older man said smiling for the first time since the incident, “she’s already there helping Jane sew some new drapes; so, she said this morning.”
It took the two of them to get Jess up on Alamo, the pain rendering him incapable of the effort involved in getting in the saddle. But finally, they made it and Slim climbed up behind him, an arm around Jess’s waist supporting him as they made off at a slow pace. Tobias followed on leading Traveller as they headed the mile or so back to the cabin.
After a little while Slim felt Jess’s full weight lying against him and his head lolled backwards and he figured his buddy had passed out again.
When they arrived at the cabin, they were relieved to see both Jane and Rebecca sitting on the bench outside, taking their ease and sipping some cooling lemonade.
As soon as the men rode in, they leapt to their feet, crying out in consternation.
“Whatever has happened?” Jane managed as she stared at Jess’s unconscious form…still supported by Slim.
“An arrow wound, Red Wolf’s revenge,” Slim said bitterly as he dismounted.
“And the arrow, poisoned, I expect?” Rebecca asked. Slim merely nodded.
Then he glanced down at the front of Jess’ shirt, which was now stained with blood, the wound having bled through the dressing, and he cussed, feeling suddenly fearful.
Rebecca noted that and then she turned to her husband and said urgently, “Tobias, ride for my medical herbs.”
“Sure. It was plant poison I think,” Tobias replied, “we washed it out real good with spirit…but he’s lost one hell of a lot of blood.” He shook his head again before he and Slim lifted Jess gently from the saddle and carried him inside the cabin.
Whereas Rebecca was her usual calm self helping the men ease Jess down onto the large comfortable old sofa before the fire, Jane was in bits. Tears streamed down her face and she was shaking uncontrollably.
Previously Slim had his doubts about Jane’s genuine feelings for Jess, thinking maybe she just wanted a replacement for Wes…to help her bring up the young ‘un’s…But now he saw she genuinely loved him deeply and was clearly distraught at this terrible turn of events.
He felt a wave of compassion towards her and as Rebecca removed what was left of Jess’s shirt and started tending the wound he went over and put a comforting arm around Jane.
“He’ll be OK,” he said, with more conviction than he felt, “he’s one tough cookie Jane…he’ll be just fine.”
But then they both looked across in horror as Jess started gasping for breath.
“Quick, help me sit him up,” Rebecca cried and Slim was beside her in two long strides…hauling his pard upright and rubbing his back gently.
“It’s OK buddy, it’s OK,” he said, “just breathe real slow and deep.”
“Oh where is Tobias,” Rebecca muttered looking apprehensive,” he should be back by now.”
Jess was still gasping for breath and Slim was getting more and more worried, “Dang it, Jess,” he cried, “don’t you dare up and die on me now…just breathe damn it!”
Then the door crashed open and Tobias was there with Rebecca’s basket of medical herbs.
She quickly selected some and ran from the room where she made an infusion with boiling water, returning just minutes later. The awful smelling concoction was held to Jess’s lips and he was urged to drink it down. At first, he gagged, but eventually the liquid was forced down him and just minutes later he relaxed back. The colour returned to his cheeks and his breathing became less labored and within ten minutes had returned to near normal.
“Thank God,” Jane whispered sinking to her knees beside the sofa.
“It’s not over yet,” Rebecca said quickly, “we still need to try and remove the poison from the wound. I must make up a strong poultice,” she said before once more moving off to the kitchen with her herbs.
By the time the children and Abby returned from school Jess was sleeping and they all tiptoed around the cabin, looking and feeling deeply upset. Jess was popular with all the children, but especially Amy and she just couldn’t stop crying.
Eventually Slim took her on his knee and said gently, “Hey honey, do ya think Jess would want you upsetting yourself this way?”
She gave a deep sniff, rubbing her eyes, but eventually said, “No I guess not.”
“Well then, the best thing you can do for him is to help your sister out with the supper and then get young Josh to bed for her huh?”
Amy looked over to where her Ma was sitting by Jess, looking very pale and anxious.
Then the child nodded her head, “OK Slim,” and she slipped off his knee and headed for the kitchen, before turning back.
“He will be, OK?”
“Sure he will,” Slim said smiling encouragingly at her.
Once she had gone off with James and Katie to start on supper, Slim went over to the sofa and stood looking down at Jane for a moment before saying softly, “There’s nothing you can do for him right now…but I think Amy needs you really badly Jane.”
She looked up at him like he was speaking a foreign language and then shaking her head a little as if to clear it said vaguely, “Yes, yes of course,” and rising she left the room heading for the kitchen.
Much later that evening Tobias and Rebecca along with young George had returned home…Rebecca leaving strict instructions as to Jess’s treatment and insisting she be called back if he took a turn for the worse.
Now it was nearly midnight and still Jane sat beside Jess who was now looking very warm and uncomfortable and seemed to be dozing fitfully.
Figuring Jess could do with stripping off some so that he could cool down and knowing he would feel embarrassed if Jane was still there, Slim gently suggested she go to bed.
“No, I’m fine really,” she said turning to glance at Slim before returning her full attention back on Jess.
They had previously dragged in an old cot beside the fire for Slim to sleep on and now he nodded to it, “Well uh, I was thinking of turning in.”
Not seeming to grasp the significance of him stripping down before getting into bed, she merely nodded.
Slim sighed and then said, “Uh, see thing is, I need to help Jess with things…um…you know stuff maybe he’d prefer some privacy for huh?”
Jane flushed up and stood up quickly, “Yes of course I’ll give you some space for a little while.”
Slim sighed but remained polite.
“I think I can handle things for tonight, Jane, you go get a good night’s sleep and we’ll see you in the morning.”
“Oh…well alright… I suppose,” and she drifted off. Then pausing at the door to her room said, “you’ll call me if there’s any change?”
“Sure,” Slim said smiling at her.
Once she’d gone Jess opened one eye and said, “She gone?”
Slim grinned down at him and said, “Yup.”
Jess breathed a sigh of relief and then said, “Help me git my pants off will ya Slim I’m roasting here.”
Once Jess was stripped off to his undershorts and Slim had bathed him in some cool water, he seemed more like himself and soon fell into a peaceful sleep.
It was in the early hours of the morning when Slim was awoken by Jess thrashing about feverishly.
He got up and again commenced cooling him down with some cold water he had drawn from the well earlier. But this time it made little difference and he was crying out calling for Millie and then for Slim.
“Hey pard it’s OK I’m here,” Slim said reassuringly as Jess once more lashed out as though fighting an invisible enemy.
Then as he once more called out for Millie, Slim heard someone gasp and saw Jane standing in the shadows.
He looked back down at his pard and gently bathed his forehead again and said softly, “She’ll be here soon Jess you just rest huh.”
Eventually the icy water seemed to have worked its magic and he gradually fell back to sleep.
“Why did you tell him that?” Jane asked throwing Slim and accusing look.
“Because it’s what he needed to hear,” Slim replied, “and right now I’d be happy to tell him any darned thing if it helps to get him through the night.”
“Yes…yes of course,” she said softly, before retracing her steps back to her lonely room.

Chapter 10
The following morning Jess seemed a lot brighter and when Rebecca examined him, she said the wound had stopped bleeding and was beginning to heal well.
“So how do you feel?” She asked peering deeply into Jess’s eyes, “And the truth please,” she added, “none of your ‘I’m just fine!’”
Jess chuckled and said, “Well I ain’t fine, but I reckon I’m getting’ there.”
“Good and no further trouble with the breathing?”
“Well good,” and she turned to smile at Slim and Jane who were standing anxiously by.
“I think with some careful nursing we should have him back in the saddle in a week or two.”
“Hey that ain’t no good,” Jess cried out, “we’ve got to get back home, got us a ranch to run…darn it!”
“Easy Jess,” Slim said quickly, “just do as Rebecca says huh.”
Then he wandered off to the door, plucked his hat from the hook and put it on… then buckled on his gun belt.
“Hey where are you off to?” Jess asked, looking hard done by.
“Well seeing as you’re on the mend I thought I’d go check out Red Wolf, seems we’ve got a score to settle.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Jess said pulling the blanket back and half rising from the sofa and then laying back down again quickly, when he remembered he was in his undershorts.
“You’re not going to let him get away with this are you?” Slim asked, raising an eyebrow and turning back to sit on a chair by the sofa.
“Of course I ain’t, but this is my fight Slim, not yours…besides he could have half a dozen or so braves with him, you’d stand no chance.”
Slim looked thoughtful and then said, “OK, we’ll leave it for now. But I’m going into Town to talk to Red Smith about this, maybe he’ll have something to say about it all…after all he is the law around here.”
Knowing that was the best he could hope for, Jess lay back down and said, “OK pard, but don’t be long huh.”
He glanced towards where Rebecca and Jane were standing watch over him, the words, ‘save me from being dang well clucked over by these women,’ left unsaid, but the message clear to Slim.
“Don’t worry Hotshot, back before you know it,” he said with a grin before heading off.
As it was Slim was gone far longer than he intended to be.
He rode into Rawlins and was immediately thrown into supporting Sheriff Red Smith with the arrest of four very aggressive drunks, who had been shooting up the town and causing general mayhem since earlier that morning.
Once they were safely in his jail Red turned to Slim and grinning shook his hand, “Well thank you kindly Slim appreciate yer help,” he said and they wandered into his office, from the cells out back.
Shaking his head he said, “Straight off a trail drive and no more sense than that fool cat of mine,” and he caressed the tom cat asleep on his desk.
“I guess your old Geronimo has way more sense,” Slim said chuckling and accepting a coffee from the Sheriff.
“So, what brings you to town and where’s your pard?” Red asked with a quizzical smile. “I heard you’d been visiting up the mountain. Jess been catching up with Mrs Hudson, has he?” He added with a wink.
Slim ignored the innuendo, fully aware that Red knew all about the past liaison between Jane and Jess. So not wishing to discuss the subject he merely told him their tale.
How they’d met Chief Red Bear’s grandson and the boy’s Ma and had taken them to a place of safety up the mountain as young White Wolf (aka James) was in danger from his Uncle Red Wolf. Then later how James and Amy had been abducted by Red Wolf.
“Jess and I were going to come into town on our way home to fill you in on all this,” he added. “But we did go see the Chief, after the abduction, and he promised that he’d keep Red Wolf under guard and he’d do no more harm.”
“Sounds fair enough,” Red said, “that’s what I’d have done anyways…I guess you and Jess saved me a journey.”
“Yeah, except it was a dang waste of time,” and then he went on to enlighten Red as to Jess’s injuries at the hands of Red Wolf.
Red looked deeply shocked, “Jeez, that’s too bad… he’ll be, OK?”
“Sure, Rebecca sorted him out with her herbal medicines…But even so Red Wolf can’t get away with it, Sheriff.”
The Sheriff looked thoughtful, “Indeed not. But sadly, it’s out of my jurisdiction now Slim. See the tribe moved off to new hunting grounds just a day or so ago. The military came in to escort them seeing as Red Wolf was such a dang trouble maker. The Major himself rode over and he said Red Wolf and his cohorts were moving with the tribe and were being kept under close scrutiny. But of course, he didn’t know about this latest incident with Jess,” he added shaking his head.
“So, what do we do now?”
“Best I can do is wire the local Sheriff, nearest to the hunting grounds. It will be your buddy Mort Cory I reckon. I’ll let him know the facts and he’ll take it from there. So, when are you heading home?”
“We’ll head out as soon as Jess is OK to ride.”
“Right, you leave it with me I’ll get onto it right away.”
But then the door crashed open and the barkeep stood there looking anxious, “Sorry Sheriff, but more trouble…can you come at once!”
Much later as Slim sat down to supper at the Sheriff’s house he smiled across the table and said, “This is real good of you.”
“Least I could do,” Red said helping himself to mashed potatoes, “you sure saved my bacon today Slim, with my Deputy being away. I really would’ve had my work cut out with all those dang drunks.”
Then his wife smiled at Slim, “Tuck in,” she said kindly, “lots more where that came from Slim.”
They kindly offered him a bed for the night after supper, but as it was still quite early Slim declined saying he’d better get back and see how Jess was doing.
Meanwhile back up the mountain Jess had dozed on and off all day, just waking to see Rebecca standing in attendance waiting to give him more of her healing herbs, whilst Jane looked on anxiously.
However, during the afternoon one of the older children accompanied Georgie to the Hudson cabin looking for his Ma. “Teacher said to bring him home Ma’am,” the youngster said, “She thinks he’s getting’ a bad cold, he sure don’t look well,” he added weighing up the flushed tearful youngster.
“Thank you so much dear, I’ll take him home to bed at once,” Rebecca replied casting her offspring a worried glance.
Then turning to Jess said, “You’ll be alright?”
“Sure you tend to the young ‘un,” Jess said throwing the child a sympathetic smile.
Then turning to Jane she said, “You know what to do don’t you? The dressing will need changing and the medicines are all ready in the kitchen.”
“Of course,” Jane said smiling at her good friend, “you go and tend to poor little Georgie, Jess and I will be just fine, don’t fret.”
Rebecca turned anxiously back to Jess, “Slim will be back soon,” she said, already feeling an atmosphere in the room.
Then George gave a huge sneeze and she hurried him out.
The house felt very empty when they had gone and Jess flicked a glance over to where Jane was now looking slightly flushed and nervous.
“I…uh think I’ll change that dressing now if you don’t mind,” she said, “Before the children get home from school. You know what chaos it is once they come in all clamoring for their supper.”
“OK,” he said quietly, knowing there was no choice but to let her do the job and then hopefully Slim, Abby and the kids would be home and this strange tension between him and Jane would be broken.
As she leaned over him to remove the bandage from his chest, he inhaled her oh so familiar perfume, and those days when she had nursed him before came flooding back.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes trying to blank out the vivid memories.
He remembered how just like today he had been confined to the couch and Jane had sat with him late one evening. The household were abed and they had shared a couple of glasses of moonshine. Later he’d blamed his behavior on that, when he had asked playfully for a good night kiss.
Now he was suddenly aware of Jane speaking to him.
“I said are you alright, am I hurting you?”
“ it’s fine,” he said quickly, but she could see in his eyes that he was remembering the last time she had nursed him so intimately.
He had kissed her so gently and with such sweet tenderness she had felt shock waves shooting through her body and just wanted to go on kissing him forever.
Eventually she’d pulled back and looked deeply into his blue eyes and saw they were misty and unfocused for a moment before he collected himself and said very softly, “goodnight sweetheart,” and she’d reluctantly risen and left him alone.
The following morning he’d said, “About last night, I guess I was out of order.”
She’d placed a finger on his mouth, “Hush,” she’d said softly; “you have nothing to be sorry for.”
He’d just nodded and said, “Thanks. I guess we have always been honest with each other haven’t we, and you know I’d never do anything to hurt you or your family”
She nodded, “Yes I do.”
Now, all this time later, as she looked at him, she just knew he was reliving those moments…and everything that had happened later.
His deep blue eyes looked up at her with such understanding and compassion that she could bear it no longer.
Very slowly she leaned in and just grazed his lips with her own before kissing him deeply.
He responded kissing her back, his hands caressing her hair … But after a few seconds he gently pushed her back and whispered, “No this ain’t right Jane.”
Her eyes were brimming with desire.
“Why not,” she gasped, “I need you so much and Millie need never know.”
He closed his eyes and sighed deeply.
“But I’d know and I couldn’t do that to her…or to you. Hell Jane, you’re worth more than that. I can’t stay here you know that. So, it would be all wrong, you must see that…I…”
But she never heard what he was going to say next, because the door burst open and Kate, Amy and young Josh tumbled in saying school was out early as several kids were ill…and could they have milk and cookies as they were starving.’
It was much later after the children had turned in that they were able to resume their conversation.
Jess was already feeling apprehensive when Slim had failed to return for supper. Goddamn it he thought…had his buddy taken things into his own hands and gone after Red Wolf after all?
Jane once more came and sat on the edge of the sofa. Seductively leaning in and gently brushing his hair back from his forehead she said, “You’re worried about him aren’t you…”
“Some…he should be back by now.”
“Maybe he’s stopped for supper with the Sheriff, you know what a wonderful cook his wife is,” she said vaguely.
“Jess… about before…”
He just looked up at her, but said nothing.
“I’m sorry, to put you in that position.”
“No, I’m sorry too. I guess I’ll ride out in a day or so…it’s real difficult this… I know.”
When tears welled up in her eyes he stroked her cheek tenderly, “Another time…another life,” he whispered.
Neither of them heard the door open quietly as Slim entered trying not to wake the sleeping household. He stood there watching but after a second or so he gave an embarrassed cough and the couple sprang apart.
Jess glared at his pard and to defuse the intimate scene turned on him, saying irately, “Where the hell have you been to this hour, we’ve been real worried.”
“Looks like it,” Slim muttered.
“I’d better turn in,” Jane said rising quickly.
“You’ve eaten Slim?” She asked.
He nodded, “Yes thanks Jane. I stayed on at the Sheriff’s for a while.”
Once Jane had left the room Slim sank down onto the chair beside the sofa and throwing Jess a searching look said, “Well, so what’s been going on?”

Chapter 11
The following morning Jess told Jane that he felt well enough to get up and he and Slim would be riding out by the end of the week. Jane took the news badly, but as Rebecca was busy tending Georgie, she was unable to ask her to tell Jess he really wasn’t well enough. She was surprised too that Slim seemed to be in full agreement with his partner, and encouraged him to get up and start taking a little exercise.
However, it was a visit from Sherriff Red Smith on the Friday that really cemented their decision to ride home the following day.
He rode in as Jess and Slim were taking their ease sitting on the bench outside the Hudson cabin, Jane and the children out visiting friends.
Once the Sheriff had been welcomed and furnished with a coffee, he took a seat on the porch and handed a telegraph to Slim.
“It’s from Mort,” Red said, “I figure it was kind of important so he sent it directly to me.”
Slim tore it open and read the brief message.
“Come home urgent,” signed Mort Cory.
Slim frowned and passed it to Jess, “What do you think is the matter?” He asked Red.
He shrugged, “I dunno, but it’s not like Mort to be so short and snappy…I think there’s trouble of some sort Slim.”
“Could it be Indians do ya think?” Jess asked peering over at Red.
“Might be, the tribe were heading that way. If the old man hasn’t got Red Wolf under close watch, well who knows what could be happening.”
“Just great,” Jess muttered under his breath.
“We don’t know it’s that,” Slim said, “it could be something to do with the ranch, after all we did leave Mort and Kate looking out for the place.”
“Even worse,” Jess said, having visions of rustlers, or his beloved Snowbird taken sick, “we’re heading home tomorrow Slim, no matter what!”
Jess and Slim rode out the following morning, with Rebecca’s warning of not to overdo it; and Jane’s sorrowful farewell, ringing in their ears.
The night before all the children had been upset, but as of the past it was Amy who was the most distressed. She was tearful when Jess broke the news to her gently that his family back in Laramie needed him.
Now as he and Slim made their way down the mountain, he felt wretched, knowing that he could never go back. Never see little Amy and the others grow up. It would be just too cruel to put Jane though his leaving her once more, he knew that.
Slim watched Jess closely all that day as they headed for home at a brisk trot and was aware that it was really hard going for him. The arrow wound had been life threatening and was only just beginning to heal. Now as darkness fell and they finally dismounted to make camp he could see how exhausted his buddy was.
They tended their mounts and had a scratch meal. Then Jess fell asleep almost before he’d finished eating. Slim looked at him, illuminated in the bright moonlight, his long lashes casting a shadow on his pale cheeks and thought he had never seen him look more vulnerable or worn out.
The following morning, they set off at first light hoping to make it home later that day. They’d taken a cross country short cut which was challenging for both horse and rider. When they finally crested a hill in early evening, they were able to look down on the plain spread out before them and the perimeter of Sherman land way off in the far distance.
Turning to Jess, Slim said, “I reckon we won’t make it back to the ranch tonight, figure it would be better to camp out at Samson’s cave and do the last step tomorrow.”
Jess looked annoyed, “Have you forgotten Mort said get home urgent?”
Slim sighed, “No I haven’t forgotten, but we still won’t make it back to the ranch before late evening and would be crazy to carry on to town, especially in this weather,” he added casting a wary eye to the looming black clouds behind them.
Samson’s Cave was on the border of Sherman land and that of their neighbor Bill West and his two sons. Although the cave was officially on Sherman land Slim was happy for the boys to use it regularly to camp in and fish from the small lake adjacent to it. Slim and Jess used it as a resting place when bringing new stock to the ranch. They kept the critters in quarantine there for a week or two and also branded them there as well. So, the cave was quite a comfortable billet with adequate bedding and fuel for a fire. Also, a small coral and good stabling built next to it for up to six horses.
Now Slim grinned at Jess and said, “It isn’t home, but it’ll be warm and dry and that’s the main thing.”
Jess still didn’t look convinced and Slim noticed how tense he was, rubbing his wounded shoulder and frowning.
“Bothering you?”
“Some,” then he sighed as there was more rumbling from the advancing storm.
“Maybe you’re right Slim, but I still reckon we can outrun that ol’ storm and make it home huh? Come on,” he said before he urged Traveller off, the horse carefully picking his way down the steep slope.
It was when they had been riding for a good hour and were close to the cave that Slim noticed there was something wrong. He had taken the lead once they were out on the open plain, with Traveller following on, but now as Slim looked back he notice the plucky bay had slowed to walking pace.
“So much for outrunning the storm,” he muttered to himself.
Slim turned and backtracked, about to tease his buddy about his slow pace. But then as he came alongside, he saw that Jess had tied his reins and was holding onto the saddle horn as he swayed gently in the saddle. As Slim peered more closely in the fading light he saw Jess’s eyes were closed.
“Jess…Jess, hey pard you, OK?” He asked.
When there was no reply, he looked closer and was amazed to see Jess either deeply asleep or maybe even unconscious. He’d heard tales of Traveller bringing his buddy safely home on the odd occasion he’d fallen asleep in the saddle after overindulging in the saloon, but he’d never really believed it.
Now as Traveller walked on at the gentle pace seemingly aware of what he should do, Slim was deeply moved, “Crazy old horse,” he muttered and then curbed his pace to match and they made their way slowly onward.
When they arrived at the cave Traveller stopped by the coral fence and Slim reined in Alamo and quickly dismounted.
He went over to Jess and putting a gentle hand on his knee said, “Jess…you awake?”
There was no reaction. However, when Slim gently shook Jess’s arm, he slowly slid forwards and would have fallen from the saddle if Slim hadn’t caught him.
He was surprised at how heavy his slender partner was and figured what he lacked in any spare flesh he sure made up for it in muscle.
Grimacing Slim took a deep breath and carried his pard over to the cave and stooping entered the large area within and deposited him gently on the dry sandy floor. Jess’s head lolled to one side and Slim realized he was out cold. Damn it, the journey had taken more of a toll on him than Slim had realized.
Leaving Jess lying there he went and unsaddled the horses and returned with their saddles and bedrolls. Then making his pard more comfortable he went off to tend the horses, just as there was an almighty crash of thunder followed by a deluge.
Once the horses were safely undercover, watered and fed he returned to see Jess hadn’t moved an inch.
“Jeez, you must be bad iffen this hasn’t made you stir,” Slim said as yet another clap of thunder reverberated around them.
He quickly lit a fire from the kindling and logs stored at the back of the cave and lit one of the many lanterns spread about and gave thanks for young Tommy and Jake, their neighbor' s boys, who kept the place ship shape.
He had eaten some beans and was enjoying a coffee sometime later when Jess finally stirred.
He groaned and then sat up peering around him.
“It’s OK,” Slim said quickly as he saw Jess looking around for his gun.
“It’s OK,” he repeated more gently, “we’re in the cave Jess…you’ve been out of it for a couple of hours.”
Jess rubbed his eyes and peered around him again, “Hey I thought we were gonna outrun that dang storm and make it home,” he said irritably.
Slim shook his head, “Not with you riding at a snail’s pace we weren’t.”
Jess looked puzzled and then said, “Oh yeah, I was feelin’ kinda dizzy so I tied the reins.”
Slim nodded, “And that good old horse of yours brought you here safely.”
“He’s, OK?”
“Sure, fed and watered.”
Then Jess looked annoyed again, “I still think we should have made for home.”
“Jess you were the riding dead…no way would you have made it home, now just settle down, will you?” Slim said beginning to lose his own temper.
“Sorry…sorry Slim.”
“That’s OK now you want some beans?”
Jess shook his head, “Any coffee goin’?”
When they set off the following morning the storm was still rumbling away in the distance with more black clouds bubbling up on the horizon.
Slim figured after the downpour of the previous day; the going would be easier on the Laramie Road. He had watched Jess mount slowly and painfully and was mindful that his buddy was really way too sick to be sitting a horse. But what choice did they have?
So, they headed off for the busy Laramie Road and were soon well on their way home. However, there was soon something bothering both men. The road was completely deserted. They passed no other travelers and the nearby land was empty of any livestock. The place felt unnaturally quiet and rather spooky.
Jess shivered a little and turned in his saddle to address Slim.
“Ain’t this the spot where old man Brown usually tethers his goats to graze?” he asked tipping his hat to a couple of posts by the roadside.
Slim nodded, “Maybe he’s sick and didn’t bring them out today.”
“And so why haven’t we seen anyone and how come there weren’t any hogs layin’ about when we passed Billy Hanson’s spread earlier?”
Slim just shrugged, “Maybe Kate and Daisy will know what’s going on, we’ll be home soon.”
Shortly afterwards they rode down the rise, but reined in sharply at what they saw as they entered the yard.
The ranch house windows and door were all boarded up and there were no livestock in the coral or surrounding fields.
They sat staring at the scene in numb disbelief…there were no chickens scratching about in the yard and no welcoming plume of smoke coming from the chimney.
A loud clap of thunder made Jess glance up to the advancing dark storm clouds and he shivered as a sudden icy wind blew up and sent a tumbleweed bowling across the yard increasing the atmosphere of desolation.
Then he had a terrible feeling of déjà vu, this was that exact terrible nightmare he’d had all those weeks ago.
He glanced down to where Blue was standing beside him his hackles up and emitting a low growl.
“What the hell,” he muttered and dismounting he tore across the yard to the barn and yanking the door open stood looking into the completely empty space… No relay horses and worse still, no sign of Snowbird and her new foal.
Slim joined him, “What the heck’s going on around here?” he muttered.
But they didn’t have long to wait before they found out…
As in Jess’ dream he was suddenly aware of the smell of smoke and rushing out of the barn they could see a plume of black smoke arising from behind the ranch house.
Tearing around the side of the house they saw that the fuel store where they kept things like paraffin for the lamps, paint and varnish and other inflammable items, not safe to keep near the house or barn, were stored.
It was fully ablaze and there were several flaming arrows dotted around the area.
“Injuns,” Jess yelled seeing the telltale arrows.
Then they heard a whooping yell way off in the distance and were just in time to see a large group of braves riding off at speed.
They opened fire on them, but they were out of range within seconds.
They galloped up a hill and joined more Indians and they all lined up looking down at the ranch for several minutes.
Jess and Slim exchanged an anxious glance knowing they’d stand no chance against such a large group.
Then they recognized the leader of the group as Red Wolf. He raised his lance and gestured with it in a threatening manner before turning and riding away, the others following on.
“What the hell was that all about?” Slim asked in surprise, “They could have finished us easily.”
Jess looked grim, “It ain’t that straight forward Slim, I figure it’s me he’s after.”
“Why you, it was both of us that delivered him to his Pa if you remember rightly, I reckon he blames us for being disowned by his father.”
“Maybe, but I crossed swords with Red Wolf way before that…and I reckon he’s got a long memory. I saw it in his eyes last time we met up. I guess he won’t be happy until he gets his revenge in a one-to-one fight. This was just a warning…or maybe an invitation,” he added dryly.
Just then there was another roll of thunder and again the heavens opened and there was a dramatic downpour… and both men and Blue rushed to the sanctuary of the barn.
As they ran in, soaking wet and panting Jess said, “Well I guess there’s one good thing…”
“That rain will have put the dang fire out.”
They rode into Laramie sometime later and tethering their mounts outside Mort’s office hurried inside.
The Sheriff looked up from where he’d been studying a report and frowning said, “Well about time.”
“What’s all this about Mort?” Jess asked ignoring the less than friendly welcome, “Are Daisy and Mike OK…the ranch is all boarded up.”
“I know,” Mort said with irony, “I dang well boarded it.”
“So, are they OK?” Slim persisted.
“What…oh yeah, they’re just fine, staying at the doc’s place just now.”
“Mort are you gonna tell us what’s going on?” Jess asked looking angry now.
Mort stared at him for a few seconds and then gave him a weak grin, “Sure, sure, take a seat and I’ll get you a coffee.”
When he passed over the steaming cups he sighed and said, “I’m sorry for the less than friendly welcome…and I’m real glad to see you, but things have been kinda difficult here these last few days.”
“Indians?” Jess said raising an eyebrow.
Mort frowned, “You’ve heard then?”
Slim shook his head, “Nope, but we’ve seen them first hand at the ranch. They burnt down our lamp oil store.” Then he shook his head, “It was Red Wolf and Jess seems to think it was kinda personal,” and rolled his eyes.
However, Mort said, “Well I figure you’re spot on Jess, that’s what we’ve heard too.”
“Go on,” Jess said his eyes never leaving Mort’s tense face.
“Well, there’s been trouble for over a week, raids on some of the outlying ranches, stock taken or slaughtered.”
Jess flinched at that, “All the stock from our place is gone.”
“No, don’t worry,” Mort said quickly, “the relay horses and that pretty little mare of yours and her foal are all safe at the livery here in town.”
Jess gave a sigh of relief and closed his eyes momentarily, muttering “Thank God.”
“What about the rest?” Slim asked. “We’d got some prime beef calves in the home pasture…even the chickens are gone.”
“All safe and sound,” Mort said, “I delivered them over to the Jackson spread. I figured they’d be safer there. Plus, the military have men camping near some of the outlying ranches for extra security, including the Jacksons.”
“Thanks Mort,” Slim said, “we really appreciate you looking out for our place that way.”
“Yeah, thanks Mort,” Jess added. Then, “So what the hell is the old man, doin’ about all this then?”
“You mean Chief Red Bear? Well, it seems he’s real sick right now, got the influenza, touch and go the word is…and if he dies, well…”
Both men looked daunted and then Mort continued, “That’s why that hot head Red Wolf has been able to co-opt more men into his renegade gang. Rumours have it that the Cheyenne may become involved too and it could turn into a full-scale Indian uprising if things ain’t nipped in the bud.”
“So, what is the Major doing?” Jess asked looking irritated.
“Well as much as he can with the troops he has. It seems several patrols have had to go out to try and stop the Cheyenne becoming involved; he’s really only got enough men to protect the ranches right now.”
“And you reckon all this is to do with some vendetta Red Wolf has against Jess?”
Mort looked troubled, turning to Slim, “No I’m not saying that, I think he’s just trying to prove a point, but something seems to have ruffled his feathers.”
That’s when Jess and Slim explained all about Red Wolf trying to kidnap and kill his nephew White Wolf, and also abducted young Amy.
“The Chief promised to keep him in check and now this!” Jess exploded.
“Well, he is sick,” Slim interceded, “I guess he can’t do much and most of those elders are too dang old and feeble to pull Red Wolf and the tribe back into line.”
Mort looked thoughtful, “It’s strange he’s not got it in for the pair of you, seeing as you were involved too Slim but it’s definitely ‘Jess, he wants a fight with.”
“Sounds about right,” Jess said and went on to explain to Mort how he had come upon Red Wolf several years before. How the brave had jumped him and tried to steal Traveller … and how Jess had beaten him easily and humiliated him in front of some other braves. Before turning on them too and all had fled the scene rather than take him on.
“I guess it’s rankled all these years,” he said, “then seeing me again must have reminded him and he wants another crack at me.”
“Yeah, well he wouldn’t have too much of a problem right now,” Slim said throwing Jess a warning glance.
“I was thinking you looked a tad peaky,” Mort said peering at Jess more closely.
Then Slim explained how Red Wolf had almost killed him with a poisoned arrow.
Mort gave a soft whistle, “He sure means business.”
“So how do you know he wants to settle things once and for all between us?” Jess asked ignoring Slim’ s anxious glance.
“He called at the ranch, bold as brass. I was out checking on the fence on the west pasture, but Kate saw him. He simply said to tell Jess Harper to get home as Red Wolf had unfinished business with him. When Kate asked what he dang well meant he just gestured with his knife as though slitting a throat and said, he knows.”
Jess grinned at the thought of Kate Munroe fearlessly quizzing a knife carrying, aggressive Indian, and muttered, “Good old Kate.”
“Never mind about good old Kate,” Slim growled, “you’re not thinking of taking him on are you, Jess?”
Jess deigned to reply, but turning to Mort said, “It’s Red Wolf who is the ringleader of all these raids and trouble you reckon?”
“Oh undoubtedly, remove Red Wolf from the scene and I figure the others would all fall back in line.”
“And the Major agrees with you?”
“Why sure, but he knows dang well if the army kills him, then there really will be trouble, and big trouble.”
“But if it was a duel of sorts what the Arapahoe would see as a battle of honour, between me and Red Wolf that would be OK?”
Mort flicked a glance over to Slim and then back to Jess and looking away again finally muttered very quietly, “Yes.”
Jess took a deep breath and turning back to Slim said. “Well, I guess you have your answer.”
However, before Slim could remonstrate with him, the door flew open and Kate Munroe marched in.
She beamed at both men and said, “Yer back …and not a moment too soon!”
Then peering more closely at Jess said, “What the hell’s the matter with you? You look real sick boy!”
Jess protested, but Kate would brook no arguments and five minutes later he was in Doc Sam’s office.
He and Slim had an emotional reunion with Daisy and Mike, and now while Jess stripped off for Sam to examine him, Slim and Kate were in the Doc’s kitchen brewing some coffee.
“I wanted a quiet word away from Daisy and Mike,” Kate said as she busied around making the brew, and some milk and cookies for Mike, “no point in upsetting them…But tell me exactly what happened.”
Slim explained about the poisoned arrow and how Tobias had helped him remove it and then how Rebecca had treated the wound daily with her Indian herbal recipe.
“Good, that’s good,” Kate said reflectively, “probably saved his life.”
Slim nodded, “The trouble is we had to leave before he was fully healed.”
He told her the events of the previous day, how Jess had been completely out of it and was now totally exhausted.
“There is no way he can take on Red Wolf at the moment it would be crazy to even try,” Slim lamented, “and I guess you’re the one to convince him Kate.”
Kate beamed at him, “Well normally I’d agree with you Slim, but right now I figure there is someone else who has an even greater influence on him.”
“Oh,” said Slim looking surprised, “who would that be then?”
“Why, Millie Johnson of course and I saw her stepping off the Stagecoach a couple of hours ago. Maybe you could suggest a little visit? Once he mentions all this business then she’ll veto him taking on Red Wolf for sure,” Kate said beaming. “But wait until I’ve had a chance to have a word with her first.”

Chapter 12
Before Kate was able to speak to Millie however Mrs Hudson, the Doc’s housekeeper came through the front door carrying some bags of shopping. Jess, who was just coming out of Sam’s examination room, grabbed the bags from the heavily laden elderly lady and carried them down the hall to the kitchen for her.
“Oh, thank you my dear,” she said beaming as he laid them on the table for her. “I’m so glad you and Slim are safely home,” she added, “and dear Millie back from her visit too.”
Jess was just going back to the parlour, but stopped dead in his tracks and turning back retraced his steps and said, “Huh Millie…back you say?”
“Why yes dear I saw her getting off the stage a couple of hours ago.”
Jess tore down the corridor and putting his head around the parlour door said, “Gotta go out for a while Daisy, see you later.”
Then as Mike ran over, he gave him a warm hug said, “See you later Tiger, be good and look after Blue for me huh,” and he turned away.
However, Slim was too fast for him and caught up with him outside on the sidewalk. He was lugging a large suitcase with him and called after his friend.
“Hang on Jess,” he yelled, “where are you off to in such a darned hurry?”
“She’s home!” Jess said beaming from ear to ear. “I’m goin’ a courtin’.”
“What like that?” Slim asked looking Jess up and down.
“Sure, like this why not?”
“Because you’ve been wearing those filthy duds for days, haven’t shaved since Thursday either. Hell Jess, you look and smell like an old buffalo.”
Jess took his hat off and ran a hand through his hair, before using the hat to brush himself down some…I ain’t that bad.”
“Worse!” Slim said then nodded towards the Barbers and Bath House.
“Why don’t we have us a bath and shave and change of clothes,” he said holding the suitcase aloft. “Daisy packed a case for us. A shave and wash first huh, I figure our ladies would kinda appreciate that?”
And it will give Kate a chance to sound out Millie too, he thought secretly.
Meanwhile across in the Sheriff’s office Mort and Kate were having a heated debate.
“Look honey I don’t want Jess to get hurt anymore than you do,” Mort said, “but involving Millie will only make matters worse.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Because Jess will always do what’s right and it won’t help any if he has to deal with Millie getting real upset too, that’s why.”
“Don’t you think she has a right to have her say, she is his gal after all.”
“Yes, but it ain’t down to her to decide what he does, or doesn’t do. I reckon sooner she accepts that the better, if she intends to make a go of things with him.”
“Why Mort Cory, I never realized you were such a bigoted man!” she cried angrily.
He sighed deeply and getting up from his desk strode across the office and took her in his arms, “I’m not…not really, but I just know Jess so dang well. If he feels he can stop this Indian uprising by silencing Red Wolf once and for all, then nothing or no one will stop him.”
Kate sighed and relaxed in his warm embrace, “You’re right of course,” she whispered, “Just this once,” she added more firmly.


An hour later a very clean, smartly dressed pair of cowboys entered the Laramie saloon.
It was practically deserted as they made their way to the bar to find Tom the barkeep disconsolately polishing glasses.
“You’re busy,” Slim said grinning at the older man.
Tom shook his head, “It’s been this way ever since the Indian troubles, folk are staying close to home.” Then he smiled at them, “Anyway good to see you boys, welcome home. Mose said you’d been off on a hunting trip…all went well?” He asked as he went to pour them a beer.
“Never mind that where are our girls?” Jess asked urgently.
Tom winked at Slim and passed the beer across and said, “Why uh, I think Lily’s out back if you’d like me to call her Slim?”
Slim nodded and Tom wandered off to find her, whilst Jess downed his beer looking even more agitated.
Tom returned with Lily and Slim grinned at her and leaning over the bar gave her a quick kiss.
Jess rolled his eyes and turning to Tom leaned in and said, “Quit messin’ me about Tom. Where’s my Millie.”
Tom pointed to the ceiling, “Well she’s up in her room Jess, but…”
However, before he could say anything more Jess had dashed off and was halfway up the stairs.
“…but she said she was getting in a hot tub and then having a nap,” he added to Jess’s retreating back.
“Well, I’ve a feeling she isn’t now,” Slim said with a sly wink.
“And I suppose you want me to give this young lady the day off too dontcha,” Tom asked, turning to where Lily had now slid around to the other side of the bar and was basking in Slim’ s warm embrace.
They both looked hopefully at the old barkeep who said with a soppy grin, “Go on then we ain’t busy that’s for sure.”
Upstairs Jess had tapped on Millie’s door and then rapped more loudly, but it was several minutes before the door opened a crack and she peered out. Then, on seeing who it was she gave a little cry of delight and pulled it open wide… Jess stared at her in open admiration as he took in her beautiful face completely free of makeup and hourglass figure wrapped in a tightly belted white silky bath robe, her hair up in a white toweling turban.
“You’re back,” she whispered, “Oh Jess…”
And then they said in unison, “I’ve missed you!”
They laughed and then Jess said, “Well, can I come in…?”
Smiling she stood to one side as he entered. Then throwing his hat onto a nearby chair he took her in his arms, simultaneously kicking the door shut behind him…then their lips met and they were transported into their own private world of ecstasy.
Much, much later Millie looked down at Jess’s rumpled hair and naked torso as he lay back against the pillows beside her.
“So, are you going to tell me how you got that wound then?” she asked for the second time, regarding the snowy white bandage across his chest anxiously.
He rolled his eyes and pulled her closer, “Aw it were nuthin’, just had a run in with Red Wolf ‘tis all.”
“What that renegade that is threatening the town? Folks are saying there’s going to be an uprising and we don’t have enough military to protect us,” she added looking even more worried.
“Hey don’t worry about it,” he said leaning over and kissing her neck, before glancing up at her still troubled countenance…
“Well, I am,” she said pulling away again, “and worried about you too. So are you going to tell me exactly where you’ve been and what’s been happening, because I don’t buy that story about a simple hunting trip.”
He sighed deeply and then pulling her into a warm embrace, her head resting on his shoulder he told her the whole sorry tale.
At the end she sat up and said, “So how is Jane now that poor Wes is dead?”
“Coping OK,” Jess said averting his gaze.
Sure, Millie knew all about his relationship with Jane and it had been way before they were the couple, they had become now…committed for the long haul. But even so he felt a tad uncomfortable discussing Jane with her.
However, he hadn’t allowed for Millie’s inherent perception when she said, softly, “She wanted you to stay, for her and the children didn’t she.”
Jess’s head shot up, and for a second, he was totally thrown and then knowing that honesty was the only way with Millie he said quietly, “Yes, yes she did.”
“And were you tempted?”
He recalled how their lips had brushed for a split second, whilst he was laying injured on the couch, and how he had pulled away from the temptation. Then how he had immediately thought of Millie and how much he would hurt her if he gave in to his basic instincts and finally said, “Nope I guess not, it’s you Millie, always been you…I just didn’t know it years ago.”
She nodded and then quickly changing the subject said, “You mentioned you had to meet the Major tomorrow, please tell me you’re not going to get involved with the Military and the darned Indian problem?”
He just shrugged dismissing the idea as unlikely, “Nah, he probably just wants some advice I reckon, seein’ as how I know Red Wolf and the Chief pretty well.” Thinking to himself that he’d level with Millie once the Indian issue had been dealt with. After all there was no call to go upsetting her…particularly not right now he mused with an inward smile. Nope he thought, on some occasions honesty wasn’t the best policy.
“Well, I hope that’s all it is,” she persisted.
“Sure, now come here,” he said gently stroking her cheek, “I guess I need to show you again, just how dang much I’ve missed ya.”
Early the following morning Jess, Slim, Mort and the Major were poring over a map on Mort’s desk.
“This is the point where they were camping as of yesterday,” the Major said, pointing to an area of woodland and a small lake about ten miles north of town. They have a twenty-four-hour watch on the camp and my scouts observed about thirty braves there. But he has more staked out on the mountain foothills just beyond the camp too.
“More men than you have at your disposal?” Mort asked anxiously.
The Major paused and stroked his grey beard for a moment and then said, “In confidence gentlemen, yes. He has a good third more fighting men than I have here right now.”
“But you could get reinforcements; I mean if they really attacked the town?” Slim asked hesitantly.
The Major shrugged, “I really couldn’t say, all my spare troops have their work cut out currently dealing with the potential Cheyenne involvement. The negotiations with their Chief are kinda important right now.”
Then turning to Jess said, “So like I said earlier Harper, this is really down to you.”
“And like I said,” Slim growled, “Jess is just getting over damn near dying from a poisoned arrow wound and he’s in no fit state to take on Red Wolf, or anyone else right now.”
There was an uncomfortable silence whilst Jess threw Slim a dark look, before nodding to the Major and saying, “Let’s go,” as he made for the door.
But then he paused and looking back gave Slim a gentle smile and said, “You comin’ pard?” Before adding ruefully, “Iffen I’m gonna get all beat up I guess I need someone to carry my body back home huh.”
Slim shook his head and then rolling his eyes said, “OK I’m coming,” and he and Mort followed the Major and Jess out.
As soon as they got within a mile or so of the Indian encampment, they were aware of curious eyes watching them from the undergrowth. But they rode slowly on, in single file. The Major leading the way with a white flag waving from his rifle which he carried before him like a banner.
They knew that once they arrived at Red Wolf’s camp, they would be relatively safe seeing as how the brave had virtually invited Jess to the duel. They also knew that the Indian’s code of honour would allow Jess to enter and take part in a fair fight. What they weren’t sure of was what would happen if Jess won the contest. If the Chief had been there, they knew that they would have been allowed to leave freely. But would Red Wolf’s braves have the same sense of fair play, if their leader were to die at Jess’s hands?
As soon as the small party entered the camp, Red Wolf came out of his tepee followed by several scowling henchmen and nodded to the Major and raised his hand in peace acknowledging the white flag.
Pointing to the Major he said, “You come see Red Wolf kill the white man Harper in fair fight and take back news of the Indian win over the white man?”
The Major and the others dismounted and he came forwards to face the Indian, “I come to see a fair fight yes, Red Wolf. Also to say if Harper here wins you return to the Reservation.”
Red Wolf looked infuriated.
“Or Harper will not accept your challenge,” the Major added.
Now Red Wolf’s reputation was at stake. He’d already been humiliated by Jess not once but twice before his friends and he wasn’t going to risk retribution slipping away from him.
He looked down and then said quietly, “You have my word, because I will win. And when I do, it will be the White man bowing down to Red Wolf, Chief of the Arapaho.”
Jess came forwards at that, “What your Pa is dead…Chief Red Bear is dead?”
Red Wolf gave Jess a snake like smile, “No my father lives…but he will not survive much longer, and then the white man will be shaking in fear and terror of the great Chief Red Wolf.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Jess dismissively, “so are we gonna fight or what?”
“Oh yes Jess Harper, we fight,” Red Wolf replied with another smile that looked more like a grimace.
“Your gun belt and shirt, take off!” The Indian said, suddenly becoming officious.
Well, Jess had known all along he wouldn’t be called upon to prove his fast draw. He figured he’d been asked to remove his shirt to prove he had no hidden weapons…assuming it would be a fist fight…But one that culminated in death and a shiver ran down his spine. Killing someone with his bare hands wasn’t something he relished, but if that’s what it would take to diffuse the dang uprising, then so be it. If indeed that would happen if Red Bear was dead…well that made a huge difference he acknowledged, but it was too late to back out now.
He unbuckled his gun belt and passed it to Slim and then did the same with his shirt…
Their eyes met; Slim silently pleading for Jess to back down, although they both knew it was way past that point.
Jess turned back to his adversary to see the Indian take a long knife from the brave beside him and holding it on high threw it hard. For one terrible moment Jess thought the knife was aimed to kill him where he stood. But then it landed neatly at his feet.
“Your weapon,” Red Wolf snarled, “we fight with the long knife.”
Jess stooped and picked up the lethal looking Bowie knife with its razor sharp ten-inch blade and flicked a glance across to Slim and then back to Red Wolf.
Before he had a chance to really assimilate the terrible danger he was in, Red Wolf let out a bloodcurdling scream. Then tore across the few yards between them, his knife raised high as he came in for the attack.
Jess used all his strength to parry Red Wolf’s knife wielding arm and knocked the Indian off balance enabling Jess to attack. His powerful blade caught red Wolf’s upper arm and a crimson ribbon of blood trickled down to his hand.
This seemed to enrage him and again he yelled vengeance in his own tongue before grappling with Jess once more.
Slim reckoned that Jess too must be pretty dang mad and his temper was firing him up to equal the strength of the young brave. But for how long Slim thought, as he watched with anguish as the two men fought for their lives. Evenly matched in height and weight the Indian still had the advantage as Jess was far from recovered from the arrow wound.
Now they were once more circling each other, looking like tom cats, waiting to spring to attack and this time it was Red Wolf who scored blood by slashing at Jess’s thigh. Caught off balance he fell heavily…his light-colored denims stained almost black with blood in seconds. Then Red Wolf was on top of him, the two men rolling over and over in the dirt.
Surprisingly it was Jess who sprang to his feet first and although he was clearly unsteady the fury in his eyes left none of the watchers in any doubt that he was far from through yet.
Again, Red Wolf lunged at him and the two men were once more grappling for the upper hand, both knives poised to strike the final blow. Then somehow Red Wolf managed to knee Jess in the groin and he fell to his knees in agony, dropping his knife.
It seemed like it was all over. Red Wolf even took a moment to scream another war cry and turn to see his braves all whooping encouragement.
Jess got shakily to his knees and was just reaching out for his knife when Red Wolf triumphantly kicked it away out of reach.
Then he grabbed hold of Jess and pulled him up to his feet before brandishing his knife above him and bringing it down towards his chest.
Jess desperately caught hold of the Indian’s wrist and tried with all his might to push him away.
Then suddenly it was all over. There was a cry from one of the men and the crowd were silenced as they looked on in horror…unable to discern which man was the winner and which was mortally wounded.
Both men had their eyes open wide in shock…their faces contorted in pain.
Then very slowly Red Wolf fell to the ground, his own knife buried up to its hilt in his chest.
There was a gasp from the onlookers then the small crowd of braves parted to allow a figure to emerge, that of Chief Red Bear.
The Chief had heard of the proposed skirmish and journeyed, with the tribe and elders, to the meeting place just in time to see the fight.
He stood silently observing his dead son and then barked out a command in his native language and several braves ran forwards and carried Red Wolf away.
Then the chief came forwards and raised his hand in a sign of peace.
Jess who was now supported by Slim, the gash to his thigh draining him, said quietly, “I’m real sorry it had to end this way Red Bear…losin’ your son.”
Red Bear shook his head, “He was no son of mine, I disowned him after he brought shame on the tribe.”
Then seeing Jess was now terribly pale with Slim literally holding him up, Red Bear called out again in his own language and the Medicine Man came over.
He was an elderly man and wore a necklace made of wolves’ teeth and also various leather pouches were slung around his neck. Others fastened to his belt containing all manner of herbs along with potion bottles attached by thongs.
By now Jess was in a bad way and Slim gently lowered him to the ground whilst the Medicine man stood over him before dancing and chanting in a harsh voice as he wielded his rattle.
“For God’s sake he needs a doctor,” Slim said now kneeling by Jess and looking up to Mort, “can you ride for Doc Sam?” he asked urgently.
However Red Bear came forwards and placed a comforting hand on Slim’ s shoulder, “Have patience Slim Sherman,” he said kindly, “your friend is in good hands.”
Then after more prancing about and chanting the Medicine Man seemed happy to check out the wound…and he gestured for Slim to remove Jess’s denims. Thankfully Jess was now past caring what indignities were thrown his way as he just wanted out of the terrible pain he was in.
The Medicine Man checked the wound and then glanced up at the Chief shaking his head almost imperceptibility before removing his knife from his belt.
For one terrible moment, Slim thought he was about to witness some dreadful kind of mercy killing. However, the Indian merely passed his knife to a nearby brave and told him to put it in the campfire.
Then turning to the Chief, he said a few words in his own language and then looked sadly at Jess and then Slim.
“He says the bleeding is so bad it cannot be stopped,” Red Bear supplied, the wound must be burnt to stop the life flow from leaving him.”
“Huh, the life flow?” Mort queried and then, “Ah to stop the bleeding, he’s gonna cauterize it Slim,” he added quietly.
A short time later the now white-hot knife was brought over and again the Medicine Man addressed the Chief.
“He says to hold him very tightly, he must not move until the task is completed, “Red Bear stated.
Slim and Mort immediately moved in to support Jess and Mort said, “You ready for this Jess?”
Jess rolled his eyes and muttered, “As ready as I’ll ever be… just tell him to do it; get it over with goddamn it.”
Slim nodded and as the medic applied the white-hot blade to the wound the terrible smell of burning flesh filled the air.
Jess bucked and yelled out cussing loudly before seconds later passing out.
The medicine man smiled and nodded happily at his handy work and then began scattering some powdered herbs into the wound, before binding it tightly with a surprisingly clean piece of cloth.
“He’ll be OK…all those crushed leaves and stuff he put in there?” Slim asked the Chief.
“Oh yes,” said Red Bear, “they will keep the wound clean and help it to heal. Indian medicine very strong…very good.”
Then the old Indian medic passed Slim a little bag of herbs.
“For the pain and to help him sleep,” the Chief told them, “Make it like you make your coffee, water very hot.”
“Thank you,” said Slim accepting the small pouch.
“Wise Eagle is a good healer,” the Chief said encouragingly. “Everyone said I would die of the influenza sickness, but he saved me and he will save Jess Harper, this I believe to be true.”
“Thank you,” Slim said again, nodding to the Medicine Man, Wise Eagle with new hope.
All the time Jess was being worked on the rest of the tribe had disappeared into the background slowly packing up and getting ready to head off until all the tepees had been dismantled and packed ready to go. All save for one.
Now Red Bear nodded to the one remaining tepee and said, “Your friend must rest until he is well. I leave you my son’s tepee as a gift. Please take it when you leave and keep the contents. May they be a reminder of the peace that is…and will remain between the Arapaho and white man as long as I am Chief.

Chapter 13
Once the tribe had left, heading for the Reservation, Slim and Mort wasted no time in carrying Jess over to the tepee. They settled him comfortably upon a warm buffalo hide and covered him with a colorful Indian blanket. After groaning and cussing softly he fell into a deep sleep and Slim figured it was a reaction to the brutal, albeit essential procedure.
The Major had followed Slim and Mort in and they looked around the wonderfully decorated place. Slim remembered that Red Wolf’s mother had been very talented in Indian arts and craft work. There were dream catchers and various beautifully decorated pots. Also bows, arrows, knives, spears and various woven rugs, blankets, buffalo-hides and bearskins.
“It’s really beautiful,” Mort said squatting down beside the central fire pit and warming his hands. Although it was summer a chill wind had gotten up and it sounded like a storm was on the way.
The Major heard the sound of distant thunder too and said, “I reckon I should be on my way, report back the outcome. Seems we’ve averted what could have been one hell of an uprising today,” and he glanced down at the now sleeping Jess.
Then frowning slightly said, “He will be OK you think?”
Slim nodded, “Sure, tough as old boots is Jess,” with a confidence he wasn’t really feeling, his Pard looking so sickly and pale.
“I sure hope so,” the Major said and then quietly, “The bravest damn thing I’ve ever seen, him taking on the redskin that way, still recovering from that other injury an’ all.”
“Thing about Jess is he won’t ever give in,” Mort said with a wry smile, “dang fool,” he added affectionately.
The Major had ridden out shortly afterwards, agreeing to call in at Laramie and assure Mort’s Deputy that he would be back the following day and also that everything had gone to plan.
“Uh, I’ll call in at the Doc’s place and saloon too,” he added smiling at Slim, “put your friends in the picture.”
“Thanks,” Slim had replied, “I figure he should be OK to ride in a week or so. Tell them, we’re fine just uh, kinda tired,” he added. Knowing how Daisy and their girls would fret.
“No need to go into details huh?” he added casting a quick glance down at Jess and back to the Major.
“Message received and understood,” the Major said grinning at him, “We don’t want to go upsetting the women folk.”
Now with the promised storm raging without, Mort and Slim again looked around them.
“Sure is a swell gift,” Mort said, “it’s dry and real warm in here, the perfect way to travel.”
“Uh, yeah it’s great, but how the heck are we going to transport it back to the ranch?”
Mort grinned. “The Chief left another gift too, a couple of ponies to carry everything, he showed me how to dismantle it and all…real easy once you know how. I’ll show ya before I head out.”
“Well, I guess it’ll sure make a good den for young Mike and his friends,” Slim chuckled.
Then he reached over for Jess’s denims that he’d put to dry near the fire after washing all the blood out of them. He rooted about in his saddlebags before bringing out a small sewing bundle.
Mort watched with a quizzical expression as Slim expertly threaded a needle and started sewing up the long slash in the pants…made by Red Wolf’s lethal knife.
“Well, ain’t you a good little housewife,” Mort said smirking.
“Hey don’t knock it,” Slim said raising an eyebrow, but grinning. “My Lily gave me this, real useful on the trail...when Miss Daisy isn’t around.”
“So, it would seem,” Mort said, “I guess he can’t wear them the way they are.”
Sometime later after Slim’ s handy work had been admired, he brewed up some good strong coffee.
He was just about to pour it out when Jess stirred and groaned softly before pulling himself up on one elbow and sniffing the air said, “That coffee I can smell?”
Slim and Mort exchanged an amused glance before Slim said. “For me and Mort yeah, but you’re on some special Indian herbal tea.”
Jess just rolled his eyes and said, “Yer kiddin’… just give me some coffee Slim and can ya throw some more wood on too I’m freezin’ my butt off here.”
Then he lifted the blanket and yelled, “Hey where are my pants!”
Slim and Mort were chuckling now and Slim threw the pants across and said, “Here you are…and it’s OK don’t thank me for all the washing and mending.”
“Um… sorry Slim, thanks,” Jess muttered pulling them on and wincing slightly as he moved his damaged leg.
Then turning a beautiful smile on his Pard said, “So coffee huh…?”


As planned Mort rode out at first light with strict instructions to play down Jess’s injury and say the men would be home within the week. He had explained to Slim on how to dismantle and move the tepee and grinned as he mounted up.
“I reckon you two will have a real nice break,” he said looking around him, “game in the hills and fish in that lake. Paradise…enjoy,” he added before tipping his hat and moving off.
“Ha!” Jess said once the Sheriff was out of earshot, “Fat chance I’ve got of goin’ huntin’, hell I don’t think I could even make it over to the lake right now.”
“That’s because you point blank refuse to take that herbal medicine Wise Eagle gave you,” Slim said frowning at his pard. “He said it was real important for you to rest and it’ll help you get a good night’s sleep, should ease the pain some too.”
Jess sighed, “OK, I guess I’ll give it a go.”
It worked like a miracle and Jess slept most of the day away, waking in time for supper feeling much better and virtually pain free from the deep gash to his thigh.
That was the pattern of the following few days and it was working so well that Slim upped the dose, thinking that the more Jess rested the more likely he’d be well enough to ride home as planned.
However, the night that Slim had mixed up the extra dose, Jess had a terrible nightmare and woke up yelling out in alarm and visibly shaking.
Slim quickly went over and slinging an arm around Jess’s shoulders said, “Hey, it is OK buddy, just one of your bad dreams.
He finally managed to calm him down, but it was the following day before he heard all about Jess’s awful night time terrors.
His leg was healing well enough for the pair to be sitting at the edge of the lake fishing poles in hand. After a while Slim turned to his pard and said, “So, you want to tell me what that nightmare was all about?”
Jess swallowed hard and looked out to the distant hills beyond the lake and said, “It was that one about bein’ at the ranch…and it catchin’ fire. Just the way it really happened when we landed home during the Indian troubles. The place all boarded up and Mike and Daisy gone.”
“It was really strange that you had that dream just weeks before things really happened that way. It was almost like it was an omen of what was to come.”
“Yeah, that’s what’s bothering me,” Jess said.
“Go on…”
“Well, it was just the same, there was a storm blowing up, the place deserted. But this time Millie was there and I knew, just knew, she was in real danger. She was standing right on the porch and I called to her but she couldn’t hear with the wind blowing up an all. So, I tried to walk towards her and I couldn’t move, was like I was in a quicksand or something.”
Slim gasped, “Nasty…”
“Yeah, and then the lightning struck the porch roof and the whole damn place went up like the 4th of July. Millie was screaming and I still couldn’t move to save her…and I remember thinkin’ thank God I decided to leave Jane and the kids and come home to Mil…But even then, I still couldn’t save her…and then you woke me up.”
Even talking about it, Jess had broken into a sweat and his face was ashen.
Slim leaned across and squeezed his shoulder and said, “Hey pard don’t take on so. It was just a dream; Millie is safe in town. Anyway, there haven’t been any storms around since that one a while back and even if there were she’s smart enough to take cover someplace safe. That old homestead has survived thousands of storms and it’s not going to burn down now…I promise you.”
Jess was finally convinced and he relaxed back, taking up his fishing pole again and the two sat in companionable silence for a while.
Then Slim said, “Of course it could be your brain telling you it’s time you upped and made an honest woman of Millie…after all you did choose her over Jane.”
“Uh, yes I reckon I did,” Jess said thoughtfully, “maybe you’re right.”
“Sure, I am, I should set the date when we get home.”
Jess still wasn’t looking convinced but agreed and then said, “Of course you’ll be best man?”
“Well sure,” Slim said beaming.
“And Lily will be a Bridesmaid?”
“I should imagine so, yup,” Slim said, still with a soppy grin on his face.
Jess considered this and then said, “You know what that means dontcha?”
“Well, you’ll be next of course, I mean it stands to reason, everyone would expect it…especially Lily.”
The smile faded and Slim suddenly looked anxious, “You think so?”
“Oh yeah,” Jess said easily, “I know so pard.”
Slim pondered on this and then said, “Of course you can’t rush this kind of thing. I mean, we’d need to build over on the east pasture for you and Millie, like we always said, and that will take a powerful lot of money.”
Jess agreed, “And time…we won’t have too much of that to spare over the next few months…busy time late summer… and fall…”
Slim nodded, “Yup real busy.”
“And we’d have to extend the ranch for you and Lily too, newlyweds’ need some space,” Jess continued.
“Yup, more dang expense,” Slim agreed shaking his head sadly.
“Then there’s the price of beef to consider,” Jess offered.
“Well, I mean we’ll need some good sales to afford all these changes.”
“You’re not wrong there,” Slim agreed.
Then with a hopeful smile, “I guess we’d better wait awhile, before mentioning it to the girls huh?”
“I think so,” Jess agreed, “next year…or maybe the year after would be plenty of time.”
“Yup plenty of time,” Slim agreed and the men went back to their fishing feeling suddenly light hearted, now that everything had been sorted out so sensibly.
Yup Jess thought as he relaxed back enjoying the peaceful scene before him, all was right with the world and he was one lucky cowboy.


They rode into town a few days later and tethering their mounts and the Indian pack horses outside Mort’s office they strode inside.
Mort and Kate Munroe were sitting sipping coffee and both looked pleased to see their friends back at last.
“Well, I’ll tell ya Jessie boy you sure are the hero of the hour,” Kate said enthusiastically. “Everyone’s heard how you beat that ol’ Red Wolf at his own game and saved the day. Mort here told us all how you managed to prevent a major and the Major too of course.” she added smiling at Slim.
Jess frowned and threw Mort a less than friendly glance, “Thanks for that,” he muttered.
Mort grinned enjoying the reluctant hero’s attitude, “Well credit where credit’s due Jess,” he said chuckling.
Anyway, Kate said, “Never mind about that now, how is your leg?”
“Uh, fine, just fine,” Jess said quickly.
“Um, I think I’d better check it over,” Kate said, “I’d be real interested to see some of Wise Eagle’s handiwork.”
“No need, I’m just fine,” Jess insisted, not wanting the indignity of stripping off there and then.
Reading his thoughts Mort said quickly, “It’s OK you can use the back cell, nobody in there right now.”
Again, Jess objected and Kate chuckled, “There is no need to be so darned bashful Jess, ain’t no part of you I ain’t seen before. Used to change his diaper when he was a young ‘un,” she added grinning at Slim and Mort.
“Yeah, well I kinda grew up some,” Jess said indignantly.
However just then Doc Sam entered and smiling said, “Welcome back boys, saw your horses outside. So, how’s the knife wound Jess…thought I might just check you over?”
Jess returned from his examination sometime later and grinning at Slim said, “Doc says it’s a miracle, never seen a wound heal so quick.”
Slim showed the doc and Kate the herbal powders he’d shaken into the wound every time he’d changed the dressing and also the powerful sleeping draught and painkiller.
Sam and Kate took a great interest and sniffed and tasted the herbs used for the infusion.
“Very strong,” Kate said, “excellent, and you need so little too.”
Slim’ s head shot up at that, “So little?”
“Why yes,” Sam said, “just a small pinch is all you need, maybe two, in boiling water.”
Slim looked pale, “That’s all?”
“Certainly, these herbs have very strong properties,” the doc said, “why do you ask?”
Slim swallowed hard, “I’ve been giving him two large spoonfuls twice a day.”
“What!” Jess cried, “You could have killed me!”
“Well, you’re better, aren’t you?” Slim said suddenly on the defensive.
“No harm done,” the doc said quickly, “just maybe the odd side effect?”
“Like nightmares?” Jess asked.
“Precisely,” the doc said smiling, “but a small price to pay for all the benefits of these herbal remedies.”
“And look on the bright side,” Slim said happily, “your dream about Millie being in danger wasn’t an omen, just drug induced.”
“Um…and that’s good?” Jess asked.
“I guess so. But maybe you’d better go and check up on her though, just to be on the safe side,” Slim added with a grin.
“Yeah, I reckon I will,” Jess said and he was off through the door in a flash.
“I guess that old leg has healed real well,” Mort said grinning after his friend.

They returned to the ranch the following day and life resumed its normal relaxing pace, the cowboys having nothing more pressing to concern them other than the everyday challenges of ranch life.
Summer came and went and it wasn’t until Christmas that Daisy received her usual seasonal missive from Rebecca.
Sitting around the breakfast table she read out interesting snippets…
“Oh, it seems Abby has met and married a widower and she and young James have moved into his place. It’s quite near to Jane’s cabin though, so they still meet up.”
“Wow that was quick,” Jess said looking surprised.
“The school is thriving too with more children on their books. It looks like Abby is a real asset to the mountain,” Daisy continued reading.
“Who’d she marry?” Slim asked.
“Uh… a man called Brad Jones, do you know him?”
“Sure,” Jess said grinning, “he’s a great guy. I believe his wife died of the fever. She left him with a baby girl, looks like Abby’s gotten herself a daughter, as well as a new husband. He was a business man before he gave it all up for mountain life, now he acts as the local preacher…a real good role model for James.”
“It seems James, or should I say White Wolf,” Daisy said twinkling, “spent a few weeks in the summer holidays with his grandfather too. He really enjoyed his time learning all about the Indian ways from Red Bear.”
“So, uh, is there any other news?” Jess asked casually.
Slim and Daisy exchanged a knowing look before Daisy returned to the letter.
“Let me see, it says she and Tobias are well and that young Georgie is growing up fast.”
Then quietly, “Oh yes and Jane and family are fine. Jane is working at the school with Abby and enjoying it,” she finished before folding the letter and returning it quickly to the envelope. Declining to mention that Rebecca had also shared that Jane was clearly still grieving her loss very deeply…and not just that of her husband, she had added, for Daisy’s eyes only.
Over the years they received all the gossip from the mountain, via Rebecca’s letters, rejoicing when the news was good. Young James, aka White Wolf, went off to college back east, but returned with his degree to spend time with Red Bear in his declining years. Then after his demise he took on the role of Chief and led his people with wisdom and fairness. He also married the love of his life, Jane’s young Amy and they lived contentedly together, producing a large happy family.
Jane never remarried and went to her grave still loving Jess. But she did get great pleasure from her children and grandchildren who were a real blessing in her life.
If Jess ever thought about the Mountain folk, which he did upon occasion, it was with great fondness and mostly happy memories. His only one regret being that he and Jane had fallen in love all those years ago. But as he oft told himself it was wrong back then when she was married to Wes and nothing could ever have come of it. Likewise, although Jane would have reprised their relationship after Wes’ s death, by then he was in love with Millie and so it was never to be.
So, he kept his promise and sadly never visited the mountain folk again. Although he would have dearly loved to see how the children had grown and prospered. Also, he’d have liked to have been able to make a good friend of dear Jane, but he knew in his heart that would never be possible for her, so he stayed away. But he always enjoyed hearing news of the Mountain Folk via Rebecca’s letters as did Slim and all at the ranch and wished them well.

The End
Thank You for reading my 101 story!


#100 Christmas Mayhem!

Christmas Mayhem!
Patty Wilkinson

My 100th story dedicated to: My dear friend and Beta Reader Bertie Whiskin

(Please note some adult themes, strong language and violence.)

‘Many thanks to Pam Knych Klawinski for her beautiful screen cap.’

Chapter 1

It was early December and at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station plans for Christmas were already in full swing. Mrs Daisy Cooper, housekeeper and surrogate Ma to all at the ranch had been busy baking, canning and jam making for weeks. She had also been cleaning and tidying everywhere, to the extent that none of the males in the household could find anything. They were also feeling slightly alarmed at the prospect of keeping the house so neat and tidy on the run up to Christmas.
“Dadgum it Slim she’s even cleaned under my bed and moved my spare fishing tackle someplace,” Jess asserted, “not to mention hiding that half bottle of old Denver James’s best hooch! Dang, it I’d been saving that!”
“Well, you know she doesn’t like Moonshine in the house Jess and maybe under your bed isn’t the best place to keep your fishing tackle either.”
“Heck Slim a man’s gotta have some private space,” Jess interjected crossly.
“Oh, come on, she doesn’t mean any harm…and anyway she’s concentrating on making all the sweet treats for Christmas now so I reckon she won’t notice if you put everything back.”
“Yeah, if I can dang well find it all,” he replied, looking slightly appeased at the thought of Christmas baking.
Seconds later the little blond whirlwind that was Mike Williams bounced into their room saying, “Aunt Daisy says breakfasts on the table and you’re to hurry up as she’s got a long list of things that need to be done!”

As much as both men dearly loved Daisy they sighed deeply in unison and went off to hear what chores she had in mind for them next.
“Well sure Daisy, I agree maybe the bunkhouse could use tidying up some before our guests arrive, but ain’t it a bit soon? Uh, I mean those ol’ spiders will just move right back in again if we do it too early,” Jess said hopefully as he dug into his bacon and eggs.
“And we painted inside last year…or the year before anyway,” Slim said, “I really don’t think it needs painting again so soon Daisy.”
“Heck it’ll only be me, Slim and Mort in there anyway,” Jess added hotly, “and Mort don’t care any about paint and tidying any, all he wants is a warm billet.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Daisy said reluctantly. “If Mike moves in with me for a couple of nights, then Mort’s Kate can have his room and the girls yours… that would be perfect.”
Jess personally thought it would be even more perfect if Millie and Lily were to share his and Slim’ s room with them still in it, but knew better than to suggest that, especially in front of Mike.
They continued their meal in peace and then Mike was sent off to get his books ready for school and Daisy launched into her next attack.
“Oh well if you don’t want to do the bunk house, that just leaves the shower and outhouse. You can’t deny they are looking pretty shabby.”
“Aw Daisy, nobody in their right mind will be using the outside shower this time of year,” Jess responded.
Then as a quiet aside to Slim, “If the gals want to bathe, they can use the tin bath in front of the fire like the rest of us,” and they exchanged a knowing grin and wink.
Daisy pretending not to have heard said, “Well alright, but the outhouse definitely. After all it would be a shame to waste that fresh paint I bought, wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose,” Jess muttered, “maybe tomorrow huh Daisy?”
“But why, what’s wrong with today dear? Strike while the iron is hot, that’s my motto,” she added beaming at both men.
“Well, ya see…thing is, me and Slim are off lookin’ fer strays today, Daisy.”
“Oh? But I thought you brought the entire herd down from the mountain weeks ago?” she asked in surprise.
“Uh, well yes we did,” Slim conceded.
Then Jess added quickly, “But we were missing a few and figured they may be on their way home now see Daisy. They do that suddenly realise the herd have moved on and try and get home. Well, it sure would be a shame if they were lost out on that mountain all winter now, wouldn’t it?”
Out in the barn as they saddled up, Slim said, “Well that’s held it off for another day, but we’re going to have to face it sooner or later you know Jess.”
“Not me buddy,” Jess said grinning, “I promised old man Turner I’d go over and check on those mustangs he wants me to break for him over the winter. Figure I’ll ride out tomorrow, stay the night and be back day after.”
Slim shook his head and said, “I reckon I may need to go over to Cheyenne on business later in the week too.”
Slim just grinned.
“Hell Slim, no need for us both to suffer, let’s just toss a coin on it huh?”
“OK…but we’ll use my coin…not your double headed one!”
They tossed a coin and Jess looked delighted when his call of ‘heads' won the day.
“Aw shame buddy,” he said trying to hide a grin. “But you’d better get to it Slim. Don’t forget, the stage line will be putting on extra runs next week with the additional Christmas mail and passengers.”
“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that,” Slim replied, “and we’ve got to mend that fence over on the west pasture before the snow’s down too, or we really will be in trouble looking for strays.”
The couple chuckled at that and then they heard the stage coming down the rise and wandered out of the barn to see Mike off to school.
Jess threw Mike up into the stagecoach and said, “You behave young man; don’t you go giving your teacher a hard time just because it’s nearly the Christmas holiday.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
Then Mose the stage driver grinned down from the box.
“So, Miss Daisy got you boys busy?” he asked with a snigger.
“Busy enough,” Slim grinned back.
Mose went to set the stage in motion and then recalled something.
“I nearly forgot, got yer Sentinel here, something may interest you boys. So long.”
Slim took it from him and after waving the old timer off, shook the paper out and surveyed the headlines.
“Hey listen to this Jess…says here that the Stone gang have been released from prison. I sure hope they don’t show their faces around here again!”
“They’ll damn well regret it if they do,” Jess responded darkly.
“Well, they’ve done their time. What was it, two years? So, I figure they’re free men to go where they please.”
“Yeah, as long as it ain’t around here,” Jess reiterated. “They’re a real bad lot,” he added. “Hell, that Randy is damned evil through and through and his brothers ain’t much better. Young Cal that ain’t so bad, just caught up with the others poor kid.” Then frowning added, “Dang it, we gave them work and fair pay on our cattle drive and what did they do, tried to rustle the whole damn herd.”
“Nearly got away with it too, but they didn’t take you into account Hotshot,” Slim said grinning, “You winged two out of the four didn’t you, Randy and Cole?”
Jess grinned back. “Yup, Pete and the young Cal threw down their weapons begging for us not to shoot.”
“Nasty business altogether though,” Slim said shaking his head. “You trust folk and then they turn on you that way… it leaves a bad taste in your mouth doesn’t it…”
Jess nodded, “Oh well I reckon we’ve seen the last of them. They wouldn’t be so dang stupid as to head this way I reckon. Come on Slim, let’s go and see if we really can find some strays huh?”

Chapter 2

At breakfast the following morning Mike was not his usual cheerful self and merely pushed his meal around the plate.
“Hey what’s up Tiger?” Jess asked noticing at once that the boy wasn’t any too happy.
“Aw Jess, do ya hafta go on that trip today?”
“Well sure I do Mike, Mr Turner pays me real good money for breaking his horses and I promised I’d call by this week and strike a deal…be back tomorrow night, what’s the problem? “
“I don’t like you riding out,” he replied, jumping up from his seat and sounding close to tears. “Last time you said you’d be back in a couple of days it was days and days! Then when you did make it home you were shot up real bad. I heard the doc say you only just made it,” he finished, his voice trembling.
“Hey Mike it’s OK,” Jess said, getting up and pulling the child into a warm hug. “That was different. I was ridin’ posse with Sheriff Cory, and there were some real bad men we had to bring in. Heck, Mr Turner is a good friend; I’ll be just fine.”
Then he ran an experienced hand across the youngster’s forehead checking for a fever. He knew of old that he often became tearful and irrational when he was coming down with something.
Daisy raised an inquiring eyebrow and he smiled at her, “He’s as cool as a cucumber Daisy.”
“Just feelin’ kinda anxious huh partner?” he said turning back to the boy and hugging him again.
“I guess so,” he sighed. “But if you promise you’ll be back tomorrow for supper then I’ll feel better.”
“Cross my heart…and if my lucks in, I may bring back some of Ma Turner’s homemade candy, how about that huh?”
Mike brightened at once, “Gee that would be swell.”
Then he sat back down and started eating his breakfast with relish and asking for more milk…please.
Once Mike had been safely dispatched to school on the stage, Jess saddled up and Daisy and Slim came onto the porch to wave him off.
“Give Ada Turner my love,” Daisy called to him.
“And make sure you come back when you said,” Slim added, “I might just save some painting for you!”
Jess just flapped a hand at his partner.
Then called, “Will do,” to Daisy and rode off giving a little salute as he urged Traveller on to a fast trot, shortly disappearing around the bend at the top of the rise.
He made good progress and after riding up the Laramie Road for a few miles, turned off to his left on a well-worn trail. This led to the small community where Bert Turner and a couple of other ranchers had land. It was about fifteen miles to Bert’s spread and Jess figured if he came straight back after their business was concluded, he could just about make it home before dark. But then he’d miss out on Ma Turners excellent supper, not to mention Bert’s lethal home-brewed whiskey. Nope, he’d make an evening of it and maybe even bring a couple of the mustangs back with him. He figured once the extra work generated by Christmas was over, the ranch would be pretty quiet and he could crack on with getting the horses green broke as soon as possible.
It was a sunny day and quite mild for early December and he whistled softly as he slowed his pace some, knowing he had plenty of time to get the deal done and then indulge in a little early Christmas spirit he chuckled to himself.
They’d recently made a real good deal on cattle sales, and for once they had quite a substantial amount in the business account. Heck, only the other day they’d discussed buying in some more of the famous Aberdeen Angus beef stock that they had done so well with. There was even the possibility of putting up another barn if business continued to thrive. Yup all was right with the world.
After a while he reined Traveller in and feeling kinda dry reached for his canteen. He had just put it to his lips when a shot rang out… the bullet catching him in the back of his right arm and catapulting him out of the saddle. Being caught completely off guard he fell badly; cracking his head on the rocky ground where he lay deathly still.
When he came around several minutes later, four pairs of angry eyes peered down at him. Then the man with a rifle aimed at Jess’ chest said, “Guess what Harper…it’s payback time!”
Meanwhile back in Laramie Mike sighed heavily and squirmed in his seat.
Mr Brown the teacher looked across the empty classroom at the small blond boy and finally took pity on him.
“OK Mike you can put up your books up now and go out to play. But remember young man you do not chatter in class, especially not during math…is that quite clear?”
“Oh yes sir, real clear,” Mike said leaping up from his desk, “Sorry sir!”
Mr Brown’s heart melted; Mike sure was a nice young man if a little over exuberant at times.
“You got your lunch there boy?”
“Yes sir,” he said holding his lunch box aloft.
“Good, good, well you come out the front with me then son. I’m off to the schoolhouse Mrs Brown will be wondering what’s kept me.”
At the front door of the school, they parted company. Mr Brown entering the school house next door and calling, “I’m home honey.”
Mike turned to the left and made to enter the school yard to see his friends.
However, he was suddenly called over by one Marcus Dodd, who Mike knew only slightly. He had left the school a year ago and since then had been in and out of trouble with the law for petty crime.
Now he grabbed hold of Mike’s arm and said, “You’ve gotta come with me kid, Mr Sherman’s sent for you to come home pronto.”
“Huh, what are you saying? Why?” Mike asked looking skeptical…knowing the boy was doubtless up to no good.
“It seems that Mr Harper’s been shot up some, and is calling for you.”
Mike’s expression changed from disbelief to alarm.
Looking near to tears he said, “Sure I’ll come, but I’d better tell the teacher.”
“I doubt he’ll be too happy you disturbing his dinner,” Marcus said, knowing Mr Brown of old and how fond he was of his food.
“Here,” he added passing over a scrap of paper and pencil, “write a note and push it under his door, he’ll see it before afternoon school.”
Marcus helpfully turned so that Mike could lean the paper on his back and wrote quickly, ‘I had to go home sir, family stuff,’ and signed it.
“Better add a ‘PS Mr Sherman came for me.’ Ya know how grown-ups fret about this kinda thing,” Marcus said.
Mike complied before pushing it under the door.
“Come on kid I’ve got a pony fer ya here and I’ll ride along, keep you safe.”
If Mike was slightly surprised by the new kindly version of Marcus Dodd, he hid it well and merely mounted up and headed for home.
They had only ridden a matter of two miles when they were joined by another rider, who came upon them suddenly from the bushes beside the road.
He rode straight in front of Marcus and Mike forcing them to rein in quickly.
“OK son, I’ll take it from here,” the stranger said tossing Marcus some coins, “well done.”
As Marcus turned his pony back towards town Mike looked terrified, “Hey Marcus where are you going?” he yelled, but the boy ignored him and merely spurred his mount on to greater speed.
“It’s OK kid the tall burly man said, I’m a friend of Jess Harper…he ain’t at the ranch right now, I’ll take you to him.”
Mike looked closely at the scruffy individual and then said, “I know you… you’re one of those bad men that tried to steal our beeves. You ain’t no friend of Jess. I ain’t going with you!”
He kicked the pony onwards towards home, but just seconds later the rough hombre caught up with him, and grabbing the reins brought the pony to a halt.
“You’re a feisty little runt ain’t you,” he said laughing. Then he tied Mike’s hands securely to the saddle horn, and leading the pony set off down a track leading towards open countryside and the Laramie Mountains, to their camp, a mile or so outside Laramie…but well hidden.


“I ain’t writin’ nuthin’,” Jess yelled angrily.
He cussed long and loud, while clutching his badly bleeding arm.
Randy Stone looked down at Jess lying in the dirt, “I don’t really think you’re in any position to argue, Harper,” he drawled.
“What is it you’re after Stone?” Jess spat.
“Just for you to confirm that you are our uh…guest and that for you to get medical attention and your freedom then there will have to be a deal done…with your partner Sherman.”
“So how much am I worth?” Jess growled.
“Oh I’d say about $100… this time.”
“Are you crazy? And what do ya mean ‘this time’?”
“Well, see Harper we figure we’d get payment in installments…just a little and often, so as not to arouse suspicion when yer partner makes the withdrawals from the ranch account.”
“You’re plumb loco,” Jess snarled, “why in hell would I write askin’ him to do that?”
Then all turned as Cole Stone rode in, accompanied by a terrified looking Mike.
Having just caught the end of the conversation Cole dismounted. Then untying Mike he dragged him down from the saddle and holding him in a vice like grip said, “I guess this is why,” he drawled pushing the youngster forwards.
“Because iffen you don’t, the kid’s going to get hurt…hurt real bad. If you get my drift,” and he cuffed Mike hard on the side of his head sending him flying before tumbling to the floor.
Despite the fact that Jess was held at rifle point, he leapt up and tore across the short distance between them coming to Mike’s aid. Holding him close and talking softly he hugged him close with his good arm.
Once Mike was relaxed against him and had calmed down some, Jess finally said, “Fetch me the paper…”

Chapter 3
Back at the ranch, Slim had made a good start on the outhouse and having finished the interior went and washed up.
There was an extra Stage due mid afternoon and sure enough he had just finished at the pump when he heard it clattering down the rise.
It was purely a mail drop, so the horses didn’t need changing. Once a few pleasantries had been exchanged with the young driver, Slim took the post indoors to Daisy; who had just brewed a fresh pot of coffee.
“Oh, what have you got there?” she asked as she poured them both a cup.
“The parcel you were expecting…that will be the adventure story book for Mike I guess,” he said handing it over.
“Oh good, I’m glad it arrived while he’s in school. I can squirrel it away now,” she said beaming at him.
“So where is the latest Christmas present hiding place?” Slim asked grinning back at her.
She tapped her nose, “That’s for me to know Slim Sherman. You and Jess are almost as bad as Mike for peeking before the big day!”
Slim agreed and then perused the rest of the mail. There was a feed bill and then another letter without a post mark.
“Um, a local one here been sent direct to the Stage Office, maybe it’s an invite to a neighbor' s Christmas Party,” he said cheerfully ripping it open.
Daisy glanced up expectantly and then looked concerned as the colour drained from Slim’ s face and he suddenly sat down at the table.
“Why whatever is it dear,” she asked, “bad news?”
Slim just didn’t know how to break it to her. It must be a hoax surely. But no, that was Jess’ hand alright; …and looking even more illegible than usual, as though written with his left hand. Which would indeed concur with the letter’s content.
“Slim…please you’re frightening me.”
He couldn’t read out the letter the way it was written it was too stark…too damn horrific.
“It’s from Jess,” he began quietly.
“Oh, so is he going to be away longer than expected?” Daisy asked looking puzzled.
“You could say so,” he agreed, and then explained the gist of the letter. How Jess was wounded and held captive and Mike too had been abducted. Then Slim explained how he had to pay a ransom, to affect their release and medical help for Jess.
Daisy looked horror stricken, but in her usual stoic way recovered quickly, “Well, you must get the money,” she said at once, “and tell Sheriff Cory too.”
Slim looked even more worried, “No can do, Daisy. They say we’re being watched and if I go to the law…well, they’ll kill Mike in front of Jess.”
A hand shot up to her mouth and Daisy looked horrified, “No!”
“I’m sorry Daisy, but I had to level with you. They’ve even suggested a cover story. We’re to tell everyone that a long lost relative of the boy has been found…an uncle claiming custody and Jess has taken Mike to visit him.”
“As though we’d do that…we’d ask the man to come here.”
“It’s all we’ve got Daisy and we’re going to have to make it sound plausible, because Mike and Jess are in real danger. All we can do is send the money and hope they’ll be freed.”
The letter had gone on, in a different hand, to add instructions saying that Slim needed to be at the telegraph office at ten the next day, where he would receive a wire telling him which office to wire the money to. He must complete the procedure at once and then leave the office and go directly home to await further instructions. It also reiterated that the law must not be informed and they should stick to the story that Jess and Mike were away visiting Mike’s new-found kin. You are being watched the letter finished.
“I don’t understand,” said Daisy, “why not just tell you where to send the money now?”
“Because they probably think I might tip off the local Sheriff and have an officer there to meet them. No Daisy, this way they will be waiting at the designated telegraph office ready to receive the money once it’s sent over. Then they’ll be off and free as soon as the transaction is completed. Darned clever,” he muttered. “And what’s more they could continue doing it just moving from one Telegraph office to another across the country, until they’ve bled us dry and there isn’t a damn thing, we can do about it.”
Daisy let the bad language go, knowing how terribly upset Slim was.
“Oh dear, what can we do, it seems impossible,” she whispered looking distraught.
“Well, you know Jess … he’d usually escape if he possibly could, but to be honest Daisy, I figure he won’t even try; not if Mike’s life is in the balance. I reckon he’ll just do exactly as he’s told. I sure hope so anyway,” he muttered.
Slim was at the bank as soon as it opened the following morning and then went to the Telegraph Office to await the wire. It came in just after ten and if the operator was surprised at Slim waiting for it and then the subsequent money transfer, he said nothing. After all, it was his job to be discreet and what Slim Sherman did with his money was his business.
Slim gave a sigh of relief and strode out onto the boardwalk; looking all around him. It was still early, but being Saturday the street was quite busy already. The last thing he wanted was to be quizzed about the whereabouts of Jess and Mike. He made to unhitch Alamo from the rail when someone called his name.
“Oh, I’m glad to see you Mr Sherman. Uh is everything alright back at the ranch?”
Slim turned to look into the concerned eyes of Mike’s teacher, Mr Brown.
“Uh…sure,” Slim said vaguely. “Why do you ask?”
“Well just that rather cryptic note Mike left saying you had fetched him from school regarding some family business back at the ranch?”
“Oh, uh, yeah, that,” Slim said flushing slightly.
“I would um…appreciate it if you were to just come into school and tell me next time,” Mr Brown added, looking very much the school teacher.
“Yes sure, sorry,” Slim said. “You see the thing is Mr Brown I was rather upset. We’d just had word that Mike does indeed have a living relative who was most concerned to meet him. In fact, my partner Jess Harper has taken the boy down to um Denver, to meet up with this long-lost Uncle. As you can imagine it’s been rather unsettling for us all.”
“Yes, quite so, I’m sorry Mr Sherman. Do keep in touch and let me know how things proceed. It would be a sad loss to the school if young Mike were to leave. He’s got great potential you know…a lovely boy.”
“Yes, we think so,” Slim agreed feeling the unfamiliar prick of tears behind his eyes. “Uh, excuse me, good morning,” he said before mounting up and trotting Alamo down Main Street at speed.
Jeez he hated to lie, but what could he do in this untenable situation?
Then he remembered it was Saturday and he and Jess had hot dates with their girls that night. Hell, he couldn’t face seeing Lily, she’d see through his lies at once, Millie too probably. As he was passing the saloon, where the girls worked, he saw Tom the barkeep brushing down the boardwalk outside and he reined in.
“Uh Tom, give Millie and Lily a message, would you?” he called from the saddle.
Tom wandered over, “They’re up and about if you want to go in Slim?”
“Bit pressed for time Tom, just give our apologies. Jess and I have got some real important work on right now and won’t be in town for a week or two. Tell them we’re real sorry and will make it up to them at Christmas.”
“Will do,” Tom said with a wry grin. “I sure hope they don’t shoot the messenger though.”
Slim rode on a little further and then reined in again, looking over to Sheriff Cory’s office. Could he risk informing his old friend of the situation, or was he really being watched? He glanced around him, noting one or two strangers making their way down Main Street. Were they merely visiting relatives prior to Christmas, or were they really spying on him? Then he remembered Mort was on an extended pre-Christmas visit with his old daddy in Denver. Nope he couldn’t risk telling his young Deputy, Lon about the situation and sadly he spurred Alamo off towards home. He paused after a while and pulled his collar up, against the biting northerly that had just started blowing up; the smell of snow on the air. Jeez I sure hope they’re warm and dry he muttered to himself as he moved off again.

Chapter 4
Back at the outlaw camp in the foothills just a few miles north of Laramie, Jess Harper shivered violently.
The night before Jess had insisted that Mike be given some food and a warm blanket. Also, that he be freed from where he was lashed to a pine tree…next to Jess.
“Oh sure,” Randy smirked, “like I’m gonna do that. As soon as I loose him, the kid will run off.”
“Not if I tell him not too, he won’t,” Jess growled.
Then turning to Mike said, “You’re to stay by me Tiger you understand, it’s real important.”
Mike looked into Jess sincere deep blue eyes and knew when he had to obey an order and said, “Yes sir, I understand.”
Then looking up at Randy said, “I’ll stay put Mr. I promise.”
“Huh? Mister? What about ‘sir’ kid!”
“My Pa taught me that calling folk sir was real respectful and I reckon I don’t respect you,” he said honestly, with childish logic.
“Why you little varmint!” Randy yelled and raised his hand to the boy, but Jess bellowed at him before he could hit the youngster.
“You touch that kid one more time and I swear to God, I’ll hunt you down and kill you the slowest and most painful way I know how,” he swore.
A fleeting look of fear crossed Randy’s face before he turned tail and marched off.
Sometime later the youngest of the Stone brothers, Cal, came over with some soup for them both and a blanket for Mike.
He released the boy from the rope restraints replacing them with light chain that he fastened around Mike’s ankle and then around the tree so that he could now at least lie down in comfort, and covered him with the warm blanket.
“Sorry, it’s the best I can do,” he whispered.
“Thanks Cal,” Jess said smiling at him.
“I’m real sorry about all this Mr Jess; it weren’t my idea. I didn’t want any part, but Randy insisted I come along.”
“It’s OK Cal…I know this ain’t your fault,” Jess said. “Hell, you were just a kid when you were roped into that rustling stunt. I know that. That’s why I spoke up for you at the trial.”
“I know and I thank you kindly, I only had to do a few months and I was released; went back to live with my Ma. Thanks to you speaking up and the fact that I was just fifteen I believe.”
“So how come you got caught up in all this huh?”
The young man looked close to tears and said, “Ma passed away a few months ago. I lost the house, had no place to go until Randy and the others came looking. I had to go with them…they’re my only kin.”
Jess just shook his head. Gee it was a real shame, Cal gave the impression of being simple or slow, but actually he was bright enough, merely dominated by his aggressive older brothers.
Now he looked at the chain that was lashing Jess tightly to the tree and the handcuffs on his wrists and said, “I’m real sorry I can’t release you too Mr Jess, but Randy has the keys and he won’t let me near them.”
“It’s OK I understand.”
“Cal git yer butt over here,” Cole yelled from over by the camp fire, “get our supper kid.”
Cal gave them an apologetic smile and then dashed off.
It had turned bitterly cold in the night and by morning Jess had lost most of the feeling in his hands and feet. But looking over at Mike he was relieved to see his cheeks had a healthy pink glow and he was warm enough wrapped in the thick blanket Cal had brought.
Jess’ mouth was so dry he could hardly speak and he licked his lips as Randy strolled over.
“We need some water,” Jess croaked his usually deep voice even more gravelly than usual.
Randy gave him a bitter smile, “You want water huh?”
He turned and wandered off returning with a full canteen, which he proceeded to empty over Jess’ head, soaking his jacket and seeping through to his shirt and freezing skin beneath.
“You wanted water you got it,” and with a hearty laugh he turned away.
Now an hour later Jess was still shivering.
“Are you OK Jess you look awful white?” Mike said anxiously.
“Sure, I’ll be OK Tiger, don’t fret,” Jess said trying to keep his voice light, “everything will be OK you’ll see. We’ve just gotta be patient, bide our time. They’ll make a mistake sooner or later and then we strike…OK?”
“Sure Jess,” the boy said looking relieved, “whatever you say.”
But they didn’t and as the hours turned into days and the days to a week, nothing changed…save for the fact that Jess began to get sick…real sick.
Back in Laramie, folk began to talk about the residents of the Sherman Ranch and Relay. Their friends concerned that nobody from the ranch had been seen in town for a couple of weeks. Others were just gossiping idly about what the trouble might be.
When they had been absent from Church for two Sundays running, the Padre, Rev Joshua Wesley, became suspicious that there was something seriously wrong. OK, Jess wasn’t the most frequent attendee of his church services, or Slim either if they were busy with ranch business. However, Miss Daisy and Mike were regulars and now that Daisy had also missed the planning meeting for the children’s Christmas Party, he decided there must be something seriously wrong.
He called in at the school house on his way to visit the ranch and Mr Brown told him in confidence what Slim had told him…the reason for Mike’s prolonged absence.
“Oh, dear me, how very upsetting,” the kind hearted cleric said, “I really must visit and offer my support.”
The weather had turned very cold and inclement and he was glad when he finally arrived at the ranch. Tethering his old mare to the hitching rail he knocked loudly and waited.
Eventually Daisy came to the door and opened it a crack, peering out fearfully.
Joshua hardly recognized the usually smart sprightly woman. She looked a mere shadow of her former self. She had clearly lost weight, there were dark shadows beneath her eyes and her usually neat hair was in some disarray.
“My dear Daisy,” he said at once, “whatever is wrong?”
She looked like she might well break down, but she opened the door wider to allow him in and remembering her manners offered him coffee.
Once they were seated Joshua mentioned what Mr Brown had told him.
“But Daisy dear they have been gone a long time. Is there no news of this long-lost Uncle…when are you expecting them back?”
Slim had been toiling all morning; at repairing the fence out on the west pasture. The sudden change in the weather and threat of snow had necessitated his swift action, but oh how he was missing Jess’ help. Well, he was missing Jess period; his humor and quirky ways…friendship and laughter. He even missed the way he would now be cussing about the freezing cold weather. ‘Oh, where are you buddy’ he lamented to himself, as he rode into the yard.
For a split second seeing the horse by the hitching rail he thought it was Traveller, but his hopes were dashed as he came closer. Never had he felt so helpless and so utterly desolate.
Recognizing Joshua’s old mare, he entered the ranch to see the Padre and Daisy before the fire, Daisy weeping quietly…and Joshua holding her hand and talking gently to her.
For one terrible moment, Slim thought that Mike and Jess had been found dead and the Padre had come to break the news.
He licked his lips and said to Daisy, “Is there news?”
She looked up and drying her eyes tried to pull herself together, “No dear nothing yet.”
Slim looked relieved and then distressed, “You’ve told him haven’t you Daisy?”
“I’m…I’m sorry dear, but I just couldn’t lie, not to Joshua.”
“No, of course not,” Slim said sighing and sinking down on the couch, looking exhausted.
“Please Slim don’t distress yourself my dear boy. Surely you know I have taken a vow of confidentiality. Nobody, not even my dear wife, will hear one word that has been exchanged between these four walls. I promise you that.”
“Thank you, Joshua, I knew that, really,” Slim said wearily.
“Now what I must do is think of the best way I can support you? Prayer for their safe return of course, first and foremost,” he said giving them his warm smile. “The Good Lord will provide, I have no doubt, but we must be prepared for some difficult days to come. Now what else could I do?” he said, thoughtfully studying the ceiling for inspiration.
“Maybe try and allay the gossip?” Daisy reflected. “The letter said we are being watched. It would be terrible if folk guessed what has happened, and these men think we’ve spoken out of turn.”
“Yes of course,” Joshua said beaming at her. “I will be, uh, rather imaginative with the truth and confirm the story that is doing the rounds. That Jess and Mike are off visiting his one remaining relative. I’m sure the Lord will forgive me fibbing this once; after all it’s in a good cause.”
“Thanks Joshua, that’s real good of you,” Slim said, “folk will believe you. Maybe you could visit Millie and Lily too. Explain that all will be well, but we won’t be around for a little while.”
“Of course,” Joshua replied. “I certainly need to assuage Millie’s worries. When you didn’t attend Church, she was quite worried and planning to visit on her day off. I will explain as much as I can…just enough to reassure her anyway.”
When Slim thanked him, but looked bleak, the Padre felt for his old friend.
He said gently, “You are missing them so much aren’t you Slim.”
The blond rancher just bowed his head, unable to reply.
The room was silent for a minute and then the Padre said, “You know, I think I can help you, practically at least. You look weary my friend…missing Jess’ assistance, as well as his company I imagine?”
Slim gave him a weak smile, feeling on safer ground now, “I sure am. I’ve been trying to patch up the west perimeter fence, and its real heavy going. I’m pretty beat, but best to keep busy,” he added.
Joshua regarded Slim properly; noting that he’d lost weight, and his face was pale and drawn. “Um, keeping busy is good up to a point, Slim, but you’re in danger of getting sick if you carry on this way.”
“That’s just what I told him,” Daisy interjected.
“It so happens that I have a young priest staying with me at the moment,” Joshua reflected. “Just fresh out of the seminary and a bit inexperienced, but never the less he could be a great help to you.”
“Oh, I think your prayers will suffice,” Slim said quickly, not wanting the added burden of some rooky Padre hanging around the place.
Joshua grinned at him, “No, you misunderstand me my dear boy, Fr Damian would be prepared to roll up his sleeves and help you with the work…just until Jess is freed,” he added.
“I don’t know,” Slim said, “see thing is, money’s kind of tight right now.”
“He wouldn’t charge you. Oh, dear me, no. You see this is all part of his Ministry Slim. He intends to travel about the country finding people to help and passing on the Word of the Lord by example. He has ample means to last him a good while, from a recent inheritance so he says. This is just the situation that he needs to help set him on his path of Ministry.”
“Oh well, glad to help then,” Slim said with a touch of irony.
Joshua merely smiled sadly, patted Slim’ s arm and then said quietly, “I shall pray with you before I return home.”

Chapter 5
Fr Damian O’ Brian rode into the ranch yard early the following morning.
Slim ran out of the barn at the sound of a horse approaching, but once more his hopes were shattered as he saw a pleasant young man quickly dismount and stride towards him hand outstretched.
“Mr Slim Sherman, will it be,” he said in a melodious tone with an Irish lilt.
Slim looked the visitor up and down and sucked in a shocked breath. The newcomer had a striking resemblance to Jess. He was of similar height and build. His eyes crinkled around the edges and twinkled mischievously when he smiled, just as Jess’ did. But these eyes with their open friendly expression were a warm brown colour. Now as he shook hands and then removed his Stetson Slim noted that he too had Jess’ dark hair, although his was straight and cut in a short neat style. The only thing distinguishing him from a regular ranch hand was the clerical collar he wore at his neck.
“Please come in and meet, Mrs Cooper, our housekeeper,” he said quickly, “and uh, it’s really good of you to help us out here Father.”
“Damian will do just fine, so it will,” he said, eyes twinkling at Slim again.
Once inside the house he looked around appreciatively, before smiling as Daisy appeared, “Mrs Cooper, a pleasure,” he said grinning engagingly at her.
Daisy too was taken aback at his similarity to Jess, but recovered quickly, offering coffee and a seat by the fire.
Once they were settled, he said, “Reverend Wesley didn’t actually tell me the nature of your situation, but I imagine I may be of some service to you?”
Daisy opened her mouth to say something then glancing at Slim saw him shake his head imperceptibility, and merely offered the visitor a cookie to go with his coffee.
“I’m just really shorthanded,” Slim said quickly, “as my partner has been delayed on a business trip. Joshua thought you might be able to help me out some? I really need to get a fence mended before the first snow fall. I guess doing that and all the yard chores, not to mention extra mail coaches through...uh, well I’m finding it kind of hard going,” he conceded.
“But of course, and I can see how it would be,” he replied cheerfully. “Another pair of hands needed, so there is. And your partner, he’ll be home for Christmas, I’m thinking?”
Daisy and Slim exchanged an anxious glance before Slim said quickly, “Yes, we hope so. Uh, so if you’re ready I’ll show you the ropes out in the yard.”
He waited a second until Damian was through the door and then said as an aside to Daisy, “Later Daisy, we’ll tell him when I’m convinced that I can trust him.”
At supper that night they heard a little of Damian’s history.
“So, I imagine you’ve guessed I’m, originally from the old country,” he said his eyes crinkling with laughter. “But I was a young boy when we moved from Dublin Ireland to New York.”
Then he sobered, “We’d only been over here a matter of months when both mama and pappy died of the fever.”
“Oh, my dear how terrible,” Daisy said clasping her hands together and looking shocked.
“Indeed, so it was, especially for an only child like myself. No relatives over here so at just seven years of age I was sent to an orphanage and from there, once my schooling was complete, I went straight into the Seminary.”
“What made you choose that life?” Slim asked with interest.
“Oh, I suppose it was expected, quite a few of us orphan boys went straight there. You see the Seminary ran the orphanage. Well many of us felt we owed them for taking care of us so well.”
Slim thought that was kind of a strange reason, and always thought men of God had a specific ‘calling’ but kept quiet.
“So, I did my training, took a vow of celibacy and here I am,” he said again smiling engagingly at them both.
Daisy looked saddened, “So you will never marry or have children?”
He shook his head, “No ma’am, I’m married to my vocation you see. I’m dedicating my life to serving God and helping my fellow man.”
Well, that was where the likeness to his buddy stopped, Slim thought. He sure couldn’t see Jess as celibate and he hid a smile.
Once supper was over and Damian had politely tried to hide a yawn, Slim suggested he might like to turn in, suspecting he wasn’t used to hard physical work.
He got up and made for the door, “I think I will Slim. Thank you for the lovely supper, Mrs Cooper,” he added.
“You’re welcome, dear, and it is, Daisy, remember. But where are you off too?” she asked.
“Well, the bunk house is that a way isn’t it, ma’am?” he said, jabbing a thumb towards the yard.
“Heck you can’t sleep out there,” Slim said quickly. “You’d freeze to death. We hafta light the stove a good few hours before it even starts to warm up.”
“What about Mike’s room?” Daisy suggested.
Damian looked surprised. “Mike? I thought your partner was called Jess?”
“Mike is my ward,” Slim said quickly and then sucked in his breath at the error. “He’s away visiting kin right now,” he added quickly.
“No good anyway,” Daisy remembered, “that awful racoon is in there Slim, the room is really rather…um ripe,” she said searching for a polite word.
“Oh yeah, I need to clean out his cage,” said Slim, referring to Mike’s pet racoon, Bandit.
“So, Damian, you’d better bunk in with me, you can have Jess’ bed.”
He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth, but there was no going back.
He’d felt rather embarrassed when Damian had knelt to pray before jumping into bed, but once he was settled, he seemed to fall asleep almost at once, another similarity to his pard, Slim thought.
He stared at Damian, sleeping on his back, clearly illuminated by the moonlight filtering in through the window and had never felt so miserable in all his life. The man lying in Jess’ bed looked so much like him, but it wasn’t him and that made Slim feel about as wretched as he had ever done.
What had become of his pard and young Mike… were they cold, hungry? Hell, were they even still alive? There had been no letter for almost a week. Had the outlaws abandoned the bodies someplace up in the hills and even now were heading for the border? He closed his eyes tightly to prevent a tear escaping and lay there in the dark listening to the gentle breathing of the man in the next bed…who wasn’t Jess.
Back in the outlaw’s camp Randy Stone stared down at Jess restlessly sleeping under a thin blanket and cussed softly.
Since the episode when he had doused him with freezing cold water, he had caught a bad chill and had been feverish and way too sick to write the weekly note that accompanied the demand for more money. The untended wound to his arm had flared up too and now Randy was fearful that the cowboy might die if something wasn’t done soon.
Turning back to the campfire, he addressed his youngest brother who had been away from the camp with Cole, sending the messages to Slim. Randy had thought the kid was getting way too friendly with the captives; hence his trip away. But now he saw he needed his help with Jess.
“Got a job for you kid, you’re to look out for Harper…starting now. He’s got a bad fever, go cool him down some with water from the stream. Then once he’s feelin’ better, feed him some of that chicken broth. I need him good to write within a few days.”
Then turning to Pete and Cole he said, “I figure we’ll make this the last one and a real big one. We’ll ask for more…but at one of those telegraph offices a good distance from here. That way we’ll put them off the scent. I imagine someone’s gonna say something, sooner or later iffen we keep using the same places. Nope we’ll go further afield and you can come with me Pete, just in case we run into any trouble.”
“Hey I’ve got an even better idea,” Cole said. “We keep ‘em both alive until just before Christmas and then send the kid home saying they need to pay out one more time…to get Harper back.”
“I like it,” said Randy grinning, “but we’ll still kill Harper…once the kid’s gone home and we’ve got the money. Then Mexico here we come! But we’ll do this last big drop first.”
He turned back to Cal…
“Well don’t just sit there kid, get to it…go doctor that bastard Harper. Get him so he can sit up and write a couple more letters. Then he can rot in Hell for all I care.”
Jess groaned as Cal wiped his face down with the icy cold water from the stream, and after a moment his eyes flickered open and he looked around him in shock.
“Mike,” he whispered, “is Mike OK?”
“Sure,” Cal replied, “he’s right here, see.”
“I’m OK,” Mike piped up. “But you’ve been real sick Jess cussin’ and rollin ’ around with a real bad fever.”
Jess just groaned again and accepted some water from the canteen held for him by Cal
Seeing the fever seemed to have abated of its own accord Cal said, “I’ll bring you some soup in a minute Jess, that’ll help you feel better.”
“I reckon you’ve had a dose of that uh…lung fever,” Mike said brightly. “Last time you had that the Doc was real worried and said iffen you got bad again he couldn’t uh…pre…perdic…?”
“Predict?” Cal asked looking across at the boy, “He couldn’t predict what would happen? Like he wasn’t sure if Jess would make it, or not, I think he meant.”
“That’s it exactly,” Mike said looking impressed. “Gee folk say you’re kinda dumb you know Cal, but you ain’t really.”
“Mike!” Jess exploded, “That ain’t no way to talk.”
“It’s OK,” Cal said quickly “I reckon I do seem a bit slow. But see, thing is, I’m thinking. It seems I do a powerful lot of thinking, what with Randy and the others always ‘a yellin’ at me. It’s easier just to sit and think. Just ‘cos I’m quiet don’t mean I’m stupid,” he added.
“Sure, we know that,” Jess said earnestly.
“In fact, I’ve got a lot to think about right now,” he continued.
Jess lay back down and wished to God his head would stop thumping. Sure the fever had abated some, but he still felt real sick.
“Oh, so what are you thinking on now Cal?” Mike asked with interest.
“Well first off I need to make some more chicken soup for Mr Jess here.”
“Then what?”
“I’ve gotta figure out how to spring ya both.”
Jess who had been on the verge of nodding off opened his eyes and said, “Huh, what’ d you say Cal?”
“I’ve gotta, Mr Jess…see they want you to write another letter and then they’re going off to another telegraph place, somewhere distant. But when they come back, they’re going to take Mike home and kill you!”
Jess let out a sigh of relief that at least Mike would be freed. Maybe once the kid had been let loose, he’d be able to fight his way out.
“See Randy and Pete are taking off to get the money from this new telegraph office, leaving just me and Cole to guard you. You’ve seen how fond he is of the bottle? Well, I figure once he’s been tipping the jug some and he’s out of it, I could get the keys off of him to your chains and handcuffs. Set you both free,” he said grinning in anticipation.
“You’d really do that?” Mike gasped with excitement.
“Sure, I would. See way I look at it I owe Mr Jess here more for speaking up for me at the trial than I ever owed my brothers. They treat me like dirt…always have done…Just one thing…could I come back with you Mr Jess…hide out until the law gets them?”
Jess grinned at him…beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“You bet ya,” he said happily. “Why don’t you go fetch that soup you were talkin’ about and we’ll make plans…huh?”

Chapter 6
It was a few days later that Slim received the letter in the mail on the early morning Stage.
“So, there’s no sign of Jess and the young ‘un returning home yet then?” Mose asked peering at Slim from the box and looking mighty puzzled.
“No, not yet,” Slim said curtly.
“Odd that,” Mose replied, “real odd…them being away so long and all…and right before Christmas too?”
“Have you got mail or not?” Slim asked deadpan.
Mose sighed seeing that it looked like he was to remain ignorant of whatever was going on. And there was something strange happening, he was damn sure of that.
“I’ve got me a catalogue for Miss Daisy and a letter…by the looks of it from her sister in Cheyenne. Oh yeah, another one posted locally, don’t recognize the hand,” he added peering at the letter short-sightedly. “But same as you got a week or two back...from a friend maybe?”
Slim literally tore it from Mose’s grasp, growling, “Give me that!” Then added quickly, “Don’t let me keep you Mose, you’ll be running late if you don’t watch out.”
The old timer bit back an angry retort when he saw the look of worry in Slim’ s eyes as he looked down at the letter. So, he merely hustled the horses out of the yard and up the rise, back to the road. Yup there sure was something amiss at the Sherman spread he said to himself once more.
Slim took the mail over to the porch and slumped down on a seat and ripped open the letter. This time they wanted substantially more money and Slim wondered if he would have to remortgage the ranch if things went on this way. The letter again started off in Jess’ spidery hand declaring that if Slim could make the payment in time, Mike would be released for Christmas. Then the letter continued in the big bold writing of the kidnapper with further details of what Slim was to do, but no mention of Jess’ release. Although Slim was overjoyed by the prospect that Mike might indeed be freed, he doubted they’d let Jess go. No, the only way out would be for them to kill him. Otherwise, he would be able to identify them. Plus, Jess being Jess he had probably already indicated that he would hunt them down and make sure they paid for what they had done.
He was so engrossed in the letter that he didn’t hear Damian come over and take the other seat.
After a moment he said softly, “Bad news is it Slim?”
Slim jumped and put the letter away quickly, before saying quietly, “Uh, yeah, kind of.”
“Don’t you think maybe it’s time you levelled with me?” Damian asked looking at him quizzically.
When Slim remained silent, he added, “I didn’t figure Joshua Wesley asked me to come over here just to patch up a fence or two. There’s more to it than that isn’t there Slim…and if you’ll just trust me, maybe I can help?”
Slim ’s head sank to his chest and he sighed deeply, before looking up at the man he’d begun to think of as a friend. “Oh I do trust you Damian, and I will tell you all about it, later. But I don’t figure there is much anyone can do.”
As he went about the chores later, Slim thought about his new friendship with Fr. Damian O ’Brian. Maybe it was because he favored Jess…or it was just his easy open manner, but he’d warmed to the man from day one and then gradually began to trust him too.
They’d talked some about this and that and everything he said made sense to Slim. They actually laughed together at one stage and afterwards Slim felt terribly guilty. Hell, it was first time he’d laughed since Jess and Mike were taken.
Damian had an air about him that exuded confidence and understanding, and Slim began to feel he could trust him implicitly.
Maybe that’s why he chose to open up to him that evening.
He’d decided not to discuss the matter in front of Daisy, knowing how terribly upset she was about the whole sorry business. Hell, Slim hardly recognized the confidant chirpy woman she once had been, although she made an effort in front of him and Damian. He knew in private she wept and was tormented by the image of Mike and Jess suffering, cold, hurt and missing their home and loved ones.
It was after supper, once Daisy had retired to bed, that Slim dived off to the bedroom. After digging about in Jess’ chest of drawers retrieved the half bottle of moonshine Daisy had removed from beneath his bed. ‘Don’t worry buddy.’ he said softly. ‘Old Denver James has been by with the Christmas order so I’ll pay you back’.
“So, uh, do you drink?” he asked Fr Damian tentatively.
“What, you mean like communion wine?” he replied innocently.
“Um, I was thinking more in the way of this,” and he waggled the bottle of moonshine at him.
“Ah, some of the good stuff, is it?” he asked; his eyes brightening. “Of course, it isn’t a patch on the real stuff from the Old Country so I’m told.” H
e added, “That is, Poitin … Irish dew.”
“Well, I can’t offer you that, but you’ll take a glass then?” Slim asked.
“Uh, just for medicinal purposes only,” the cleric said with a twinkle in his eye, “after all it was powerful cold out there today, was it not Slim?”
That reminded Slim of dear old Jonesy and the way he and Jess used to run rings around him to get a drop or two of medicinal whiskey.
He poured out a couple of good measures and put the bottle in the hearth.
Damian took his drink and after a sip looked over to Slim on the other side of the hearth and said, “So, I’m thinking you’d like to tell me what’s going on?”
“I figure it’s time,” Slim said nodding and finally began to explain everything to Damian.
Once he’d finished the young priest was silent for a while and said, “I am very sorry, this must be so hard for you and dear Daisy.”
Slim nodded, “Yes, she’s taken it pretty badly.”
“If the boy comes home, which it sounds like he may, from what you’ve told me, that will help ease her burden a little, I’m thinking?”
Slim nodded, “Sure it would be wonderful to get Mike home,” and then sighed and looked down.
“But you’re thinking that Jess won’t be coming home?”
“Don’t!” Slim almost shouted. “Don’t say that,” although he knew in his heart it was probably true, and yes it was what he was thinking.
When Damian remained silent, Slim took a deep breath and said, “Sorry I shouldn’t have yelled at you that way…it’s just…”and then he swallowed and couldn’t go on.
“Just?” Damian prompted.
Slim took another sip of whiskey and said, “It’s just the thought of losing him. Hell Damian you don’t understand. Jess isn’t just a ranch hand…he’s my partner in the business…but much more than that…well I think of him as a brother.”
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise.”
“And as for poor Daisy, I figure he’s gone a little way to compensating for the son she lost in the war. So, we aren’t just talking about a ward and a business partner, Mike and Jess are kin to us.”
“I think I’m beginning to understand it all now,” Damian said thoughtfully, “I reckon these men that have abducted them couldn’t have hurt you both any more could they. It sounds to me to be someone that you know and who know all you folk… how close you are?”
Slim nodded, “I thought the same. Damn it, if only I could tell Mort about it all, maybe we could get a posse up and start searching. Except for the fact that every move I make is being watched by someone. Someone out there,” he said looking bleakly at the dark night beyond the window.
“Are you sure?” Damian asked.
“Oh, I’m sure alright. There is always a little PS at the end of the letters and a comment regarding something I or Daisy have done. See here, this last one says… ‘Sorry to hear one of the relay horses went lame yesterday. “How in hell do they know that if they aren’t watching? But I’ve looked all around and there’s no sign of any strangers…no tracks, nothing.”
He sighed looking helpless before finishing up his drink, topping up Damian’s and pouring himself another glass.
After they’d sat there drinking in companionable silence for a few minutes, Damian said, “Tell me about him…Jess… how did you meet him?”
Slim gave a tired smile, “Oh he came wandering in here off the trail, with a greased holster and trouble in both pockets,” and he chuckled in spite of his sadness.
Then he went on to tell all about how they had first met, when Slim had turned his rifle on the cheeky stranger for trespassing. Then how he’d turned the tables on Slim and taken his rifle and hand gun, before heading off with a mischievous, “Stay out of those woods I saw a jack rabbit in there and he looked real mean.”
Then how on his return home he’d found Jess teaching his kid brother, Andy some card sharp tricks that had angered him even more.
But then things had changed when Jess sided with him and the law to help capture some notorious outlaws…and he had eventually been persuaded to stay and work on the ranch a while.
“He sure was a rough diamond back then,” Slim said. “But old Jess, he kind of grows on you,” and he looked bleakly into the dying embers of the fire, before reaching down and throwing on another log.
“So, he stayed on and eventually settled down…and you made him a partner?”
Slim looked up from where he’d been staring deeply into the fire.
“Yeah, it was a long hard haul. You see Jess didn’t have the greatest start in life, and he touched on the fire that killed his kin, the tough war he’d suffered, and then his running with gangs and getting into trouble.
“Sure, he’s seen the inside of a jail more than once, and even felt a rope around his neck, but he was wrongly accused,” he added quickly. “So, it was really hard for him to leave his past behind, especially when old friends, or enemies, kept showing up trying to lead him down the wrong path again.”
“But he always chose the right road in the end,” said Damian and it was a statement rather than a question. “With a little help from his friends,” he added.
“Works both ways,” Slim said, “I watch his back and he watches mine…saved my bacon more than once and I’ll tell you if ever you’re in a gunfight, you sure want Jess on your side.”
“He sounds like a good man,” Damian said quietly.
Slim nodded, “The best damn friend I’ve ever had Damian…or ever will have.”
“And you’ll see him again. I’m sure of that,” Damian said fervently.
Slim looked over and gave him a sad smile, “I sure hope so.”

Chapter 7
As Slim was opening up to Damian, Jess, Mike and Cal were making plans for the great escape.
“They aim to head off at first light,” Cal whispered, “and they’ll be leaving Cole in charge with the keys. But like I say I figure he’ll start making inroads into that big bottle of grog Randy’s been saving for Christmas. If he don’t I’ll just remind him about it,” he said with a cheeky grin.
The next morning everything seemed to be going to plan. Randy came over and said, “I figure Sherman will have gotten that latest note you wrote the other day and he’ll be standing by waiting for instructions by late afternoon. Then I’ll relieve him of some more of your hard-earned cash, huh Harper!”
“You’ll pay for this,” Jess growled angrily.
“Now come, come Harper, the kid will be freed like I promised; just as soon as we get back tomorrow night. That’s what you want ain’t it?”
Jess nodded, “You know I do.”
“Well then,” … and he strode off.
Cal and Cole were sitting by the fire and Randy hunkered down by his youngest brother and said, “You mind your brother… do what Cole says understand kid?”
Then Randy looked thoughtful and said, “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you getting way too friendly with the prisoners boy. If you’ve got any notion of helping them out just forget it now. Because I’m telling ya … you cross me, and kin or not, I’ll hunt you down and kill you like vermin…you got that?”
Cal flinched but just nodded and said quietly, “Yup I got it.”
“And you stay off of the strong drink Cole iffen you know what’s good for ya,” he added turning to his other brother, and with that he and Pete mounted up and rode off at speed. That’s it, Jess thought, all his hopes dashed. No way will the kid help us out now, and who could blame him.
It also looked like Cole would toe the line and no reference was made about whiskey.
When Cal mooched over later in the morning with some coffee, looking real anxious, Jess took pity on him.
“Look it’s OK, I understand if you can’t go through with it. At least Mike’s gonna get out of here…sooner or later.”
“Oh, it’s not that…I ain’t scared of Randy.” Cal said quickly. “It’s just that my dang brother has hidden the bottle someplace and I can’t find it.”
Jess looked thoughtful for a minute and then tipping his head towards the fast-flowing stream that flanked the camp said, “Try along there. He may have put it in the water and attached a line to it…keep it real cool, though beats me as to why when it’s this cold,” he added shaking his head. “But it would be a good place to hide it away from Cole. I saw him messing with something over there last night. He looked to be attaching a rope to a rock over there.”
It took Cal just a few minutes to locate the large bottle of hill whiskey that was indeed tied to a line wrapped around a rock at the side of the stream. Once located, he went and put it over by the fire where Cole was dosing.
“Looky what I’ve found,” Cal said beaming at his brother.
“Oh, I ain’t to touch that. I promised Randy,” Cole said looking all innocent.
“OK,” Cal replied not believing his brother for a moment, “just thought you might like a drop to warm you up?”
“Well, you thought wrong,” Cole asserted.
Jess’ heart plummeted, so near to freedom and yet so far.
Cole lasted a good couple of hours before he gave into temptation.
Cal was over giving Jess and Mike their meager dinner when Jess’ eyes opened wide and he nudged Cal.
“Look,” he whispered, “he’s just taken a real good swig.”
Cal sighed with relief, “Once he starts, he just can’t stop,” he said joyfully. “It’s just a matter of waiting.”
It was mid afternoon before Cole was sleeping, snoring noisily and Cal was able to liberate the keys to the chains binding Jess and Mike.
However, Jess really wasn’t prepared for how sick and weak he felt. As he tried to stand, he swayed some and would have fallen if Cal hadn’t grabbed his arm.
“Whoa, are you OK?” he whispered.
Jess nodded, “Sure…I am, yeah.”
Hell, he felt as weak as a day-old kitten. What with all the blood loss from the wound to his arm, plus the fact that he’d given most of the small amounts of food they’d been given to Mike, he was really running on empty now he thought with a wry grin.
They made their way silently to where the horses were tethered. Then they held their breath when Traveller gave a little whinny of welcome as Jess walked over.
They turned as one, but Cole was on his back by the campfire still snoring loudly.
Once they were sure he was out for the count Cal grabbed the tack and started saddling up.
But Jess was examining his horse and talking softly to him. It had been early on after their capture that Randy had lost his temper with Jess and taken it out on his horse. He’d whipped Traveller brutally, the sturdy bay crying out in pain and anger. Jess had caved in at once and done what Randy wanted. But at that moment he made a promise to himself; Randy would pay, and pay dearly for what he’d done to Trav. That was when he first realized where Cal’s allegiance lay though as the youngster secretly tended the nasty, bleeding welts to Traveller’s shoulder and rump. Now Jess gently ran a hand over the scarred tissue and again swore his vengeance.
He was just about to lift his saddle but then Cal was there, “Let me,” he said quietly, and without any fuss he saddled Traveller while Jess looked on feeling real bad. But it was clear the cowboy was still far from well and when Cal offered him a leg up, he accepted it thankfully.
“The young ‘un can ride double with me,” he suggested, noting how Jess was sitting his horse looking far from comfortable and was obviously in some pain.
“Thanks,” Jess drawled as Cal swung Mike up onto the broad back of his sturdy grey mare.
“So where are we?” Jess asked as they set off slowly through the dense woodland, crossing the stream and heading due north.
They had moved camp several times during the last few weeks as Randy used different telegraph offices. Each time they’d moved, Jess had been blindfolded and now he was totally disorientated.
“Not as far from home as you might think,” Cal said cheerfully, “about a day’s ride I figure. We should make it by the afternoon tomorrow iffen we lay over someplace for the night.”
Jess was all for traveling on through the night, but when he saw how tired Mike was, he agreed to stop. And to be honest he too was exhausted. The gunshot wound to his arm had become badly infected and it was still bothering him. Then when they made camp and Cal rustled up some beans, he was almost too tired to eat.
Hell Harper, git a grip he thought angrily, hating any form of weakness in himself.
Cal looked on and saw Jess was struggling and said quietly, “A man can only take so much before his body kinda says no more. But that don’t make him any less a man. Not in my books anyways,” he said softly.
Jess gave him a tired smile, “Thanks Cal…and just fer the record I think you’re a real smart kid, and you could really make something of yourself…given half a chance.”
The young man beamed back at him, “That means a lot to me Mr Jess.”
“It’s just, Jess. OK Cal?”
The boy grinned happily, “You bet ya,” he said mimicking the man who was fast becoming his hero.
It was mid afternoon when Jess, Cal and Mike finally wended their weary way into the ranch yard.
Slim, Daisy and Damian were just finishing their coffee after a late lunch and regarding the Christmas tree by the fireplace. Damian had suggested bringing a tree in, saying young Mike would expect to see one. But once it was in place neither Daisy nor Slim had the heart to fetch the decorations down from the attic and it stood there looking forlorn.
Now Damian suggested they decorate it, but Slim merely shrugged and said, “What’s the point?”
“Like I say the young ‘un will want a Christmas tree. He’ll be home soon, I’m sure.”
“Are you?” Slim asked bitterly, whilst Daisy looked near to tears.
“It’s called faith,” Fr Damian said softly.
There was complete silence in the room and that’s when they heard the sound of riders in the yard.
Slim and Daisy made a dash for the door, Damian following more slowly.
Nothing prepared them for the vision they saw before them. Jess astride Traveller sported a thick dark beard. His face was gaunt and chalky white. He looked to be holding on like grim death as the horse came to a halt by the hitching rail.
He was followed by a young man riding a grey, with Mike riding double.
Within seconds Mike had jumped down and thrown himself into Daisy’s warm embrace, holding tightly to her and crying, “Aunt Daisy, Slim, gee it’s good to be home. I’ve missed ya something fierce!”
Slim looked down at the boy, feeling tears behind his eyes and gently ruffled his hair and muttered, “Thank God,” before turning his gaze once more to his dearest friend.
Jess just stared back at Daisy and Slim for a long moment before finally summoning the energy to slide down from the saddle. He nearly fell, but Slim quickly strode over and caught him. He threw his strong arms around him and hugged him close for a moment before pushing him back so he could look at him properly.
“Jeez you’re a mess pard,” he whispered.
“Yeah, well we’ve had a kinda tryin’ time these last few weeks,” Jess replied, ever the master of understatement.
Then Slim noticed Cal standing behind, holding the reins of his horse and looking anxious.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Slim exploded.
Then he turned to Jess, “It was the Stone brothers did all this to you and Mike?”
Jess merely nodded, feeling too exhausted to say more.
“Damn it!” Slim said once more glaring at Cal.
“No, you’ve got it all wrong,” Jess sad quickly, “it was Cal that sprung us. Hell, he had nuthin to do with any of this business Slim!”
When Jess saw Slim was still glaring balefully at the boy he said, “Cal, go put up the horses for me would ya? Then come on in… I’ll explain everything to my partner.”
When the youngster still looked worried, Jess gave him a gentle push, “Go on,” he said kindly, “it’ll be OK I promise.”
Then Daisy appeared at his side and he took her in his arms and held her close as he felt her shaking and knew she was weeping silently.
“Hey Daisy it’s OK,” he said gently, “it’s OK now,” and he walked her slowly into the house.
Just as they entered the house Fr Damian slipped into the kitchen, out of sight, his valise in his hand.
As soon as Daisy had a good look at them, she ordered that Mike must take a bath immediately and Jess shave off the dreadful beard so she could see his handsome face again.
Whereas Jess knew that being clucky was just Daisy’s way of dealing with all the recent stress, Mike did not.
“Aw no, Aunt Daisy, I ain’t dirty…not really.”
“Well, I don’t know about that Tiger,” Jess said grinning down at the youngster. “But iffen you wanna share a room with Bandit, I figure you’d better wash up like Aunt Daisy says. I don’t reckon he’d wanna share with someone that smells as bad as you do.”
Mike looked affronted and then grinned at the joke, “Aw you!”
“Come on I’ll get you started,” Daisy said marching him off to his room, as Slim went to fetch the tin bath and put some water to boil.
Jess had sat down by the fire and was nearly asleep when Slim returned and said, “I figure you can use Mike’s water when he’s done and then tell me all about it huh?”
Then more quietly, “Jeez I’m just so damn sorry I couldn’t bail you out buddy.”
“Nothing you could have done Slim, that Randy Stone is crazy as a box of frogs. I really think he would have killed Mike and me iffen you’d made any move to rescue us.”
“I guess so, that’s what Damian said too.”
“Fr Damian, he’s a priest, Joshua Wesley sent him over to help us out. Gee he really was a God send Jess and such a nice guy I can’t wait for you to meet him.”
Then he looked around him in puzzlement, “Now where the heck has he got to?”
Daisy having left Mike to his own devices in his bath entered and said, “Goodness me, do you think he’s gone over to Laramie already?”
Damian had already broached the subject of Christmas and said he felt he really should go and help out the Padre as it was a busy time for him. This was just after Daisy had informed him there would be a full house for Christmas, with Doc Sam Baker, his daughter Carrie, Lily and Millie from the saloon and also Sheriff Mort Cory and his lady friend Kate Munroe.
“Well, you won’t miss me at all,” he said smiling kindly at her, “and I’m sure you will have that boy of yours home, and Jess too,” he added.
“Surely he wouldn’t have left like that without saying good bye?” she said now, and went and checked his room.
“Yes, you’re right,” she said to Slim. “His bag has gone, what a shame, but he’ll be back after the festivities, I’m sure. Now I’ll make us all some nice coffee.”
It was then that Jess remembered Cal still waiting out in the barn.
He quickly explained the situation to Slim.
“Hang it all Slim he put his life on the line to save us,” he said. “That Randy threatened to kill him if he helped us. And you know what…I really believe he would. The guy’s one of those uh… what does the Doc call ‘em… folk without a conscience?”
“Oh, yeah uh… a psychopath, that’s it?”
“Yup that’s right.”
Slim looked thoughtful and said, “ I figure you’re right, way he was last time we ran into him. I remember him saying anyone that crossed him he’d kill, kin or not! So yup we’ll look out for young Cal.”
“I figure Randy will come looking,” Jess said darkly, “and I’ll be dang well ready for him too.”
“Well let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,” Slim said, “right now I want to thank Cal for springing you and Mike.”
They made their way to the barn and at first Jess thought the lad had done a runner. Then he saw him lying flat on his back in the stall with his horse.
“What the hell?” Jess cussed kneeling down beside him and seeing blood smeared across his face.
“What’s happened?” Slim asked coming up behind him.
“Looks like someone has laid a hay maker on him, his nose is bleeding and he’s out cold.”
Slim fetched a water bottle and Jess bathed Cal’s face. Moments later the boy opened his eyes and stared blankly around him before focusing on Slim and shrinking back.
“Hey it’s alright Cal,” Jess said quickly, “I’ve explained everything to Slim and he’s in as much debt to you as I am.”
“Ain’t you pard,” he said turning to glance up at Slim.
“Sure,” Slim said smiling encouragingly at the young man and then said, “Who did this to you Cal?”
Cal gasped and said, “It was that Irish guy, goes by the name of Declan…Declan O’ Hare. When I explained I’d double crossed my brothers and I was going to tell the law about what they’d done, and tell about him too, he got real mad. He decked me and I guess he’s gone now.”
Slim looked puzzled, “What… but the only Irishman around here is Father Damian and he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Yes,” Cal said quietly, “that’s the alias he was using, Mr Sherman. He was the one that’s been watching you all along and reporting back to Randy.”
Slim shook his head looking furious.
“No, I just don’t believe it. I don’t know what kind of stunt you’re trying to pull Cal… but you’re wrong about Damian, he’s a real nice guy. He just wouldn’t do that!”
“Look let’s get Cal inside and cleaned up and then he can explain properly,” Jess said.
Once Cal had washed up and was seated by the fire Slim said, “Right go on and this better be good Cal, because I can’t believe the guy would do such a thing.”
Daisy who was also sitting with the men said indignantly, “You really must be mistaken Cal, why dear Damian is a lovely young man.”
Cal looked up to where Jess was standing leaning on the mantelpiece and he nodded at the youngster, “Go on Cal, just explain to us,” he said with an encouraging smile.
“Well, it’s this way… we met Dec…uh Damian as you call him, when we were in prison. He was in for bank robbery, but he insisted he was innocent.”
“Yeah, they all say that,” Jess said with a grin.
“No really, I believed him. You see he was set up. Sure, he was near the robbery and it might have looked like he was keeping watch, but he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Jess again looked skeptical, whilst Slim didn’t believe a word Cal was saying at all.
“Anyway, he was arrested and at the trial he was found guilty alright, but it was all a set up. You see the Judge was a friend of Dec’s Pa.”
“Why in hell would a Pa want his son in prison?” Jess interjected.
“Dec had left Ireland to come over here to try and make a go of being an actor... it’s all he ever wanted. But his Pa was dead against the idea, wanted him to go into the family business, which was a law firm. That’s how his Pa knew the judge, he was from the old country too. So, this way he figured after a short spell in jail he’d decide America wasn’t for him, and he’d return home with his tail between his legs and do as his Pa wanted.”
“But he didn’t,” Jess said.
“Nope it made him even more determined. He’d done real well on the stage over here and he wanted to go back to the old country. But to London... said he wanted to do plays by some guy called Shakespeare?”
Slim nodded, “Yeah, so go on.”
“Well, he just didn’t have the fare money and that’s where Randy came in. He’d worked out how he was going to abduct Mike…then decided iffen he could get Jess too that would be even better. But he needed someone on the ground here too. So, he could be sure that Mr Sherman believed he was being watched…and that’s where Dec came in.
Then he turned to Slim.
“He was to play the role of a caring Priest, gain your trust and then report your movements back to Randy. His job was to try and persuade you not to tell the law and to comply with all the demands too.”
He paused for breath after his long speech. Then looking over at Slim again, saw the colour had drained from his face.
“I’m real sorry Mr Sherman. I know he can be real convincing…that’s his job, do you see?”
“I see alright,” Slim said bitterly, “see I’ve been made an utter fool of.”
Daisy just sat quietly and said, “I’m sure the boy isn’t all bad.”
Slim shook his head, “The evidence is all there, Daisy. Yes, he did encourage us to pay the ransom and said it would be dangerous to talk to Mort. Heck he even went off to town regularly, supposedly to visit with Joshua and pray with him, when really, he was wiring Randy with snippets of information. Those Postscripts on all the letters, the stage horse going lame, the day you put the washing out and the line came down. Even that time I hurt my thumb when I was hammering the chicken house door. Well, when you look back on it now there really was only Damian that could have known all those things. We just couldn’t see it at the time.”
He looked totally defeated…as did Daisy.
“There is one thing,” Cal said, “he really did think that Mike and Jess wouldn’t be in any danger. My brother lied to him about that. He said he’d treat them real well and they’d be returned just before Christmas completely unharmed. I don’t think he’d have taken the job otherwise. He was just desperate for the money.”
“Oh, so that makes it alright, does it?” Jess said angrily, before moving off towards the door.
Slim turned and said, “Where the Hell do you think you’re going?”
“Why, to find the bastard and bring him back!” Jess said hotly. Feeling angry for the way he’d duped dear Daisy and Slim as much as anything.
“You’re in no fit state,” Slim said equally angrily, “besides it will be dark in an hour or so,” Then peering out of the window, “and it’s snowing too, damn it!”
But it was Daisy that persuaded him not to go after Damian, or Declan as they now must call him.
She pulled herself up to her full height and glaring at Jess said, “Don’t you think I’ve been put me through enough? If you go out there now, I would find it very hard to forgive you!”
Jess stared at her in shock, not ever having seen their lovable housekeeper so angry before.
He dropped his gaze and with a soft, “Sorry Daisy… he’ll keep,” he went and sat back down.

Chapter 8
Later that evening when Mike had finally been persuaded to go to bed, followed shortly after by Cal who was sharing his room, Daisy made them all some coffee.
Once they were all settled by the fire, Jess looked over at Daisy and said softly, “Is he OK Daisy…he ain’t come to no harm through all this has he?”
“Why no dear, don’t fret he seems surprisingly fit and well…in good spirits too.”
Jess sighed with relief and then Daisy added, “Which isn’t surprising seeing as he just told me that you gave him most of the food and water on offer.”
“Yeah, well I wasn’t feelin’ too good Daisy, seemed right the boy should have it. I sure didn’t want him getting sick.”
“Like you, you mean?”
Jess’ head shot up.
“Oh yes, he told me all about that nasty wound to your arm… not to mention that you had another bout of lung fever.”
“Aw Daisy it weren’t really that bad, the wound’s just fine now and the other just like a bad cough ya know?”
“Um... and I know a sick young man when I’m looking at him and as soon as Doc Sam comes over, I’m going to ask him to check you out.”
Jess sighed with relief and winked at Slim and said, “Heck Daisy that won’t be for ages, I’ll be just fine by then.”
“Uh, I don’t think so dear, it’s Christmas Eve tomorrow you know, and they’ll all be here first thing on Christmas Day. In fact, Kate and Mort arrive tomorrow.”
Jess’ eyes opened in bewilderment, “What, really?”
“Yes, really young man…so you’d better just do as I say regarding taking it really easy um?”
“Sure Daisy, sure,” he said wearily.
Once Daisy had turned in Slim looked over at his buddy and said softly, “You fancy a livener in that coffee?”
Jess nodded, “You bet ya!”
Once they were sitting enjoying the added benefit of Denver James’ brew, Slim said, “Daisy’s right you know pard, you look pretty done in.”
“Yeah, sure, but more important than that, is when those Stone brothers are gonna land?”
“Huh…what’ d you say? You think they’ll come here?”
“I’m sure of it. No way will Randy let Cal get away with this. He dang well said as much. Said he’d hunt him down and kill him if he double-crossed them.”
“The poor kid. You really think he’d do that?”
“Don’t you?”
Slim looked shocked and then taking a deep breath, “You may be right, that Randy guy sure isn’t right in the head.”
Then he looked worried.
“Hell, you don’t think he’d strike over Christmas when the girls are here?”
Jess shook his head, “I don’t think so…they were bringing back food and grog with them. I reckon they’ll celebrate as they’d planned and then come looking.”
Slim looked serious, “I figure that Lily and Millie should go home Christmas night with the Doc and Carrie though. We sure don’t want them around if there’s trouble.”
“Good plan,” Jess said, “and I think Daisy and Mike should leave too and stay at the hotel until all this is over.”
Slim nodded, “I guess we’ll have one hell of a job convincing Daisy though.”
Jess rolled his eyes, “And Mike too.”
The following morning was Christmas Eve and with Mort and Kate due to arrive at midday Daisy was all in a tizzy trying to get her jobs done before they arrived.
“I really have been quite lax,” she confided at breakfast, “but I just didn’t have the inclination to do much, with you and Mike away,” she said leaning over and squeezing Jess’ hand affectionately.
“We should have listened to Damian…uh I mean Declan when he kept telling us to have faith and that they would be returned safely before Christmas,” Slim said with deep irony.
Jess rolled his eyes, “I guess it’s easy to have faith if you know the outcome…or he thought he did anyway. He did believe we’d be safely returned.”
Daisy agreed, “Yes, you’re right dear. I’m sure he wouldn’t have taken the job if he thought for a minute that you really would be killed.”
“Well let’s forget about him for today. Why don’t you go off and do all that prettifying ladies are so fond of, and me and Slim will see to the dishes,” Jess said smiling at her. “Then we’ll all help with the preparation for the guests.”
“Why Jess Harper are you saying I’m not beautiful enough already,” she said with mock offense.
But when she saw the nonplussed look in his eyes she relented and smiling broadly said, “I’m just teasing you dear and that’s exactly what I need to do. Primp my hair a little and change my dress so I’ll look my best for our guests.”
Once she’d gone and Mike and Cal had left to do the yard chores, Jess said softly, “It’s really hit her bad all this business ain’t it Slim.”
The tall rancher nodded and sighed, “Sure has. To be honest with you, we’d hatched a plan for if you and Mike hadn’t returned by Christmas Eve. I was going to ride into town and say she was sick… a bad cold or something and cancel the Christmas visits completely.”
“Jeez,” whispered Jess, “that would have been a real shame.”
“Sure, but what could we do? I don’t think either of us could have pulled the wool over Mort’s eyes, or our girls come to that. They were already beginning to think it was really odd you were away so long. I hated lying to them but my hands were tied…thinking Randy knew every move I made.”
Jess nodded, “Well at least we’ll be able to level with our girls, and Mort now.”
Then the conversation was terminated as an anxious looking Daisy swept in and said, “Slim dear you haven’t seen my pearls, have you?”
He shook his head, “Nope they’re usually kept in that black leather box on your dressing-table, aren’t they?”
She nodded holding open the empty box.
“My dear grandmother’s pearls,” she whispered looking close to tears. “They’re gone.”
Mike and Cal were called in from the yard and where equally baffled.
“I just don’t understand it,” Slim said, “there’s been nobody in the house and you haven’t left the ranch since all this business started Daisy. It’s been just you and me here.”
“Not the only ones,” Jess said quietly, “Declan was here too.”
“Oh, but Fr Damian wouldn’t take my pearls.” Daisy said quickly. “Why would he?”
“Because they’re worth something,” Jess said angrily, “and he ain’t no Priest remember Daisy, he’s a no-good thief called Declan O’ Hare.”
Then he looked over at his pard and saw his face was drained of colour.
“Oh no,” Slim cried, “I was showing him my Ma’s engagement ring just the other night, saying as how it was destined for Lily’s finger one day.”
Then he made a beeline for his desk and after rifling through all the drawers finally returned with the empty ring box.
“Gone,” he said despairingly.
Jess got up at once and dashed into the bedroom, closely followed by Slim who stood and watched in consternation as Jess pulled out the bottom drawer of the chest of drawers. The one that that housed his most treasured possessions. The drawer held his Ma’s old Bible, the tiny friendship bracelet that Millie had fashioned for him when they were just children, and various other items with sentimental value. But what he was looking for was an old tin box buried at the bottom of the drawer.
He eventually pulled it out and opened it.
“Empty!” he yelled. “Garldarn it Slim he’s taken all my nest egg money. I was saving up to build out on the east pasture when me and Millie get Wed.”
“Jeez,” Slim said looking aghast, “how much was there?”
Jess named a substantial sum.
“Hell, you should have put it in the bank,” Slim replied.
“Oh sure! Do you know the darned bank has been robbed at least three times since I came here,” he said hotly.
Then he started digging about again, before turning to Slim and saying, “Damn it, he’s taken my half bottle of moonshine too!”
Slim looked kind of guilty at that.
“Uh, no Hotshot, that was me,” he confessed. “Well, me and Damian…that is Declan, finished it one night.”
Before Jess could object long and loud Slim silenced him with an upheld hand, “Take it easy, I ordered an extra bottle for you it’s in the barn with the rest of the stuff.”
When they returned to the parlour Daisy was sitting before the fire looking totally defeated.
She turned saddened eyes to the two men, “How could he do that, steal from us that way?” she asked tearfully.
Jess said, “He just wasn’t who you thought he was Daisy. But I promise you this, as soon as the festivities are over, I’m gonna hunt him down and get our stuff back.”
Then he turned on his heel making for the yard.
“Jess?” Slim called out anxiously.
“It’s OK, I’m just gonna talk to Cal, he reckons he knows where Declan was headed. We need to find him Slim, but I agree…later…not right now.”
“Sure, I’ll tell you everything I know and I’m real sorry that Dec stole from you. I didn’t think he’d do that.”
“Well, he dang well did,” Jess said hotly, “and he ain’t gonna get away with it!”
“You’ll find him working in the theater in Denver. He’s booked to act in a play that’s starting its run just after Christmas. Then through January for six weeks, I think he said. He’s going to try and make it to London England to work in the theater there, at least that’s what he told Randy when they were in the jail.”
“Hell Cal, Denver’s a big town now and there are lots of those theaters ain’t there?”
“Sure, but it’s the Grand on Main Street, can’t miss it. I believe Declan lives in a boarding house some place nearby, but don’t know which one.
“We’ll just hafta go see the play then,” Jess said dryly. “Surprise him at the stage door.”
But then his attention was drawn to two riders coming down the rise and he grinned as he recognized Sheriff Mort Cory along with his long-time lady friend Kate Munroe.
As soon as Cal saw the Sheriff’s badge he turned to Jess, panic in his eyes.
“Jeez, has he come to arrest me, Jess?”
Jess shook his head, “No he’s a guest here for Christmas and don’t worry Cal…after what you did to help me and Mike, I figure there won’t be no charges to face. Especially if you help us arrest the others. You’re still sure about that…turning your brothers in?”
“I’ve never been surer about anything Jess. Randy is crazy, he needs locking up. Pete too…and as for poor old Cole well he’s just a no hoper.”
Before they could discuss the matter further, Mort and Kate had hitched up their mounts and were heading over.
“Don’t worry I’ll stand by you,” Jess said quickly, before marching over to meet the guests.
The petite Kate with her snowy white blond hair and dressed in her habitual buckskins came forwards quickly and Jess pulled her into a bear hug. They went way back to Jess’ childhood out on the Texas panhandle. She had always looked out for the snotty little kid with no shoes and the hand me down clothes, as she recalled him back then. And now all these years later she still felt motherly towards him and viewed him with great affection.
Now she pulled back from his embrace, a frown on her beautiful face and peered at him with all seeing eyes.
“My goodness Jesse,” she said reverting to his childhood name as she often did, “whatever have you been up to? You look skinnier than a half-drowned pup, kind of sickly too,” she added regarding him with her head on one side.
“He’s been up to something,” Mort said coming over and shaking Jess’ hand. “And I don’t for one minute believe all this malarkey about you taking off with Mike to visit some long lost relative. So, what’s really been going on huh?”
Jess grinned at him, “Not much gets past you does in Mort. You’d best come in and we’ll tell you everything.”
Then turning he said, “Can you just finish up in the barn Cal and then come in, Daisy will be making coffee shortly.”
As they walked over to the porch Mort glanced back and said, “Isn’t that the youngest Stone brother? So, what’s he of all people doing working for you again Jess? Thought you’d learnt your lesson from the last time you employed the Stone boys?”
“Yeah, well Cal’s different,” Jess said quickly. “Come on in and I’ll tell you everything.”
Sometime later Slim was apologizing profusely to Mort.
“Gee I’m so sorry I had to lie to you…to everyone really, but I was between a rock and a hard place you know Mort?”
“Sure, sure I understand,” Mort said quickly, “I just wish I’d paid more attention to what was going on before I left town. But what with being away to visit my old pappy in Denver, I guess I kinda let you down some.”
“There weren’t anything anyone could have done,” Jess said quickly. “Not with that Declan, posing as Fr Damian and reporting back Slim ’s every move. He believed that iffen he’d said anything, well, things might have turned out different,” he finished aware that both Daisy and Mike’s eyes were upon him.
Then he added, “If it weren’t for young Cal, I figure we’d still be up to our eyes in sh**… in big trouble,” he said again flicking a glance at Daisy and Kate and moderating his language.
“Well as far as I’m concerned, it’s whether or not you want to prefer charges. If not, then young Cal can walk free. But how does he feel about his brothers being taken in?”
“He’s promised to help us anyway he can,” Jess replied.
“So, what do you propose? We go looking, after the festivities are over?”
“No need,” Jess said, “I reckon they’ll turn up here looking for Cal. They told him as much if he helped us escape.”
Then finding a good time to broach the subject of Daisy and Mike going to town for safe keeping, Slim said, “That’s why we’d really like you and Mike to go back to town with the Doc and the girls on Christmas night Daisy…we figure they may strike the next day.”
“Oh no dear I can’t do that,” she said quickly, “my place is here, looking after you boys.”
“You know what you said to me when I was all fired up and wantin’ to go after that Irish…bas…uh… guy? How you said, ‘ain’t I put you through enough?’” Jess asked looking deeply into Daisy’s eyes.
Daisy just nodded.
“Well, I hafta tell ya I’ve been through enough too Daisy and I really don’t need the added burden of worrying about you and Mike maybe getting shot in the cross fire or something.”
She looked down, near to tears and said, “I’m sorry dear, of course we’ll go.”
Jess strode over and gave her a warm hug, whispering, “Thanks Daisy.”
But then Mike piped up, “Well I ain’t going! I’m gonna stay here and fight with you two and the Sheriff!”
Slim went over and said quietly, for Mike’s ears only, “Well Mike iffen you do that, who’s going to look out for Aunt Daisy…huh?”
The boy looked nonplussed.
“Gee, I never thought of that.” Then, “But we can come straight home as soon as you’ve whopped those Stone brothers real good, huh Slim?”
Slim ruffled his hair, “Sure you can, I promise.”

Chapter 9
The following morning Mike was as excited as all young ones are on Christmas Day. He took his stocking into Slim and Jess’ room at some ungodly hour; the boys trying to shush his cries of delight as he opened his presents.
Both Jess and Slim were deeply moved as they watched the age-old ritual, thinking what might have been if not for Cal’s help.
Once Mike had been persuaded to go back to bed for another couple of hours Jess stretched and got up wandering restlessly around the room.
“What’s up?” Slim asked sleepily from where he was preparing to nap again.
“Dunno, can’t settle I reckon.”
“You don’t think they’ll hit today do you?” Slim asked looking anxious.
He shrugged, “I don’t think so…but maybe we’d better go easy on the moonshine just in case,” he said throwing Slim a tired smile.
“Yeah, and set up a rota, you me and Mort to keep a lookout, just to be on the safe side. Unobtrusively though, we don’t want to upset the women folk.”
Jess went over to the washstand and after a cursory wash he started getting dressed.
“Where the heck are you going at this hour?” Slim asked.
“Thought I’d go check on Traveller, and start the yard chores. I wanna keep busy,” he said, and went quietly out of the room.
Slim looked after him apprehensively. Gee, Jess really wasn’t the same since he got back. He still had that nasty cough…and he was as spooked as a turkey on Thanksgiving Eve. This sure was one strange Christmas he thought as he stretched out and tried to go back to sleep for an hour or so.
He awoke sometime later to hear Daisy banging pots about in the kitchen and after washing and dressing he wandered in to see Kate helping her prepare breakfast. Mort and Cal were in deep conversation by the fire, whilst Mike was setting the table.
“Oh, there you are dear,” Daisy said cheerfully, as he entered the kitchen, “Merry Christmas!”
“Same to you,” Slim said kissing her lightly on the cheek and then doing the same to Kate.
“Where is Jess?” Daisy asked, “This is nearly ready.”
“He went out to check his horse, I’ll go find him,” Slim said quickly.
But hell, that was a good couple of hours ago he thought frowning slightly.
When he entered the barn and there was no sign of Jess a shiver of fear ran down his spine…where the hell was he?
Maybe the outhouse, he thought and made his way over there…but nope it was empty.
“God damn it,” he muttered, “he’s gone after the Stone brothers’ single handed.”
He knew his pard had been concerned for Mike and Daisy’s safety, plus their girls who Carrie and the Doc were due to drive over shortly. Maybe he’d gone to scout around and check there was no sign of the outlaws…but without his horse?
He wandered around the back of the outhouse to see if he was down by the home pasture and then he saw him. He had his back to Slim and was drawing his gun, then holstering it…time after time…as fast as Slim had ever seen him.
He watched in fascination for a few more minutes and then coughed discretely to warn him he was there.
Jess turned, gun still in hand but holstered it immediately when he saw Slim standing watching him.
Are you spyin’ on me?” he asked with a crooked grin.
“Nope, just wondered what you were playing at,” Slim said looking puzzled.
“I was shot in my right arm when they bushwhacked me. It’s been kinda stiff. I was just checking I could draw OK,” he said looking a tad sheepish.
“Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Slim said grinning, “as fast as ever I’ve seen you, Jess.”
Jess gave a small sigh of relief and then needing to change the subject looked at the outhouse.
“Nice paint job Slim,” then as they walked past, he added, “oops you missed a bit.”
“Git inside the house!” Slim growled taking a swipe at the back of his head as Jess took off at speed closely followed by Slim.
Their other guests arrived shortly after breakfast, to make the most of the day together and when Jess saw Millie, he thought she had never looked lovelier. Her dark hair was pinned up in a chic style with little tendrils surrounding her heart shaped face and she wore a scarlet dress trimmed with lace and looked every inch the lady about town. He felt a surge of love for her as he helped her down from Doc Sam’s large wagon. He held her close for a minute breathing in her light perfume and whispering intimate words of love, before he had to turn away and welcome their other guests.
True to Daisy’s word she insisted the Doc check Jess over, but that was after the tale of the abduction had been revealed. Whereas Jess tried to tone the ordeal down some, Mike milked it for all it was worth. He gave lurid details of being chained and the meager sustenance they had been given. Not to mention the bitter cold nights and taunts from that ‘Real bad man’ as he referred to the eldest Stone brother.
“Yeah, well it’s all over now Tiger, why dontcha go show Carrie that new painting book you got? She might give ya a few tips,” he said winking at the Doc’s daughter, who he knew was something of an artist in her spare time.
Then the Doc came over and said quietly, “It wouldn’t do any harm for me to check you over Jess, just to be on the safe side…and keep Miss Daisy happy huh?”
‘They went into Jess’ room and sat on his bed for the examination. Then the Doc looked very serious as he removed his stethoscope from his ears.’)
“Miss Daisy was right to be concerned. You’ve still got a nasty bit of infection going on in your chest, Jess. You’ve lost a significant amount weight by the looks of you. I’ll send a tonic over, and you should take things really easy for uh…a week, maybe ten days.”
“OK” Jess said cheerfully as he buttoned up his shirt.
Then turning to the Doc said, “Just one thing Sam, this confidentially thing yer always banging on about…well you won’t be saying anything to the others about me not being quite 100% will ya, huh?”
When Sam threw him a quizzical look Jess continued, “See I don’t want Miss Daisy worried, she’s been through enough with all this business, you know?”
“Oh, uh yes, I see,” the Doc said quickly, “no of course not Jess. You just take things easy, no riding or exertion for a week or two and I won’t breathe a word.”
“Sure, sure,” Jess said happily slapping him on the back, “let’s go join the party huh.”
On their return they found the others all looking quizzically at the tall pine tree in a barrel by the fireplace.
“Looks like you kinda forgot something,” Mort said speaking for them all.
“Oh gosh Aunt Daisy…Slim you ain’t dressed the tree!” Mike cried out in consternation.
“Well, we can soon make amends,” Jess said quickly, “go get the ladder Slim and we’ll have those decorations down from the attic before you can say Santa Claus.”
It sure was a strange Christmas Jess reflected. Everything seemed different from usual. He now watched Lily and Millie open the box of tree ornaments and carefully un-wrap them, instead of the usual tradition of him and the others doing it on Christmas Eve. But although different it sure was good to see them enjoying themselves.
The girls gave little cries of delight as the Christmas decorations were unwrapped, each one admired before Mike and Carrie placed them carefully on the tree. Some had belonged to Slim’ s Ma, and the delicate glass baubles had survived the long journey from the Old Country and every Christmas since. Others were bright, handmade decorations made by Slim and his little brother, Andy when he was young, and also some Mike had made the previous year.
As of the last couple of years Andy was again spending Christmas back east, where he was studying and at times like this, both Slim and Jess missed him and old Jonesy.
Jess watched as Carrie carefully placed a glittery star at the top of the tree fashioned by Andy many years ago. Looking over at Slim he caught his eye and gave him a tiny sad smile and nod in acknowledgement.
Slim smiled back and was suddenly hit by the realization of all he would have lost if Jess hadn’t come home, so very many shared memories. Not to mention their bond of love and affection for Andy and old Jonesy too. Jonesy had ‘jumped ship,’ as Jess had put it and was now happily settled back east. Riding shot gun on Andy, and living with a special lady friend too.
Things change, Slim reflected, but change could be good too and very positive.
Now he watched as the last of the ornaments were carefully unwrapped and Mike gave a whoop of delight as his own very special decorations were displayed. The Holy Family carefully carved by Jess, along with a diminutive donkey.
“These are my very own,” Mike said proudly as he displayed them beneath the tall tree, the perfect finishing touch.
His eyes were shining as he turned to the amassed company and said, “Jess made me Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and the donkey too; as my very own Christmas family. He said it was to remind me that this was my very special forever home, with my new family,” he added happily.
Many a tear was secretly brushed away by the adults after that little impromptu speech. But Mike was totally unaware at how moving his words had been as he and Cal started stacking the wrapped presents beneath the tree.
Jess looked on wondering what Cal’s future might hold now he was all alone in the world. There was no going back to the life of crime with his brothers that he had hated so much that was for sure… not after he had sworn to see justice done…
Jess had put in a good word for him with Mort and was pleased to see that both the Sheriff and Kate seemed to have taken him under their wing.
Once it had been made clear that Cal had shunned his family and had also assisted in Jess and Mike’s escape, he had been hailed a hero and everyone made a fuss of the youngster, much to his embarrassment. Daisy had spoiled him and managed to find several small Christmas gifts for the boy and he seemed overwhelmed by all the kindness he had received.
The meal was a great success, even though Daisy admitted that her heart really hadn’t been in it when she was preparing for the feast, not knowing if Mike and Jess would be home to eat it. So, it was that Slim ’s usual little speech of thanksgiving before the meal was especially poignant.
He toasted, “Thank you for all our dear friends around the table, and especially Lord for the deliverance of Mike and Jess,” looking from one to the other, tears in his eyes.
All day long the men had made sure that one of them kept a careful surveillance of the yard and outbuildings and also were circumspect in their drinking. This did not go unnoticed by Daisy who cornered Slim in the kitchen and whispered, “What’s going on dear, you aren’t really expecting those dreadful Stone brothers to turn up today are you?”
He shook his head, “Jess thinks not, but we have to be prepared for anything. That Randy Stone is a law onto himself…totally unpredictable.”
“Yes, I remember how dreadfully aggressive and violent he was when he was arrested for the attempted cattle rustling. I really don’t think he’s quite right in the head, the way he acts,” she concluded sadly.
“Well don’t say anything to the other ladies,” Slim said softly, “no point in upsetting the party and I really don’t think he’ll hit today, we’re just being cautious. After all there’s a lot at stake,” he added as he looked fondly over at where his dear Lily and Carrie were laughing at something Mike had said.
“I’ll be ready to leave before dark,” Daisy said quietly, “but do take care won’t you Slim, dear. And watch out for Jess I really don’t think he’s quite well yet.”
Jess was actually feeling very well and very much in need of some quality time with his best girl.
He bided his time and then when he noted that the others were all intent on inspecting Mike’s new fishing rod he leaned over and whispered something in Millie’s ear. She smiled and nodded, before getting up and collecting her shawl from by the door.
Slim was the only one to notice and Jess said softly, “Just takin’ Millie over to the barn to show her Snowbird’s new foal.”
Slim threw him an old-fashioned look and said softly, “Sure you are,” but winked and nodded, Jess knowing he’d cover for him if they were missed.
Once in the barn he took his girl in his arms and kissed her passionately before releasing her and whispering, “Jeez, I’ve missed you so dang much Mill.”
“Me too,” she gasped breathlessly. “Oh Jess, it was terrible you being away for so long. I just knew there was something wrong. Slim implied as much, but told me I mustn’t say or do anything to attract suspicion and now I know why.”
“Well, it’s all over sweetheart,” he said again holding her so close that he could feel her heart beating in unison with his own.
“But it isn’t is it though?” she said looking tearful, “Those dreadful Stone brothers are bound to come for Cal. Then I heard the Sheriff saying to Kate that you intended to go after that bogus priest.”
“I have to,” Jess said firmly.
“Why? Can’t you just let it go? He didn’t do any real harm, except dupe poor Slim and Daisy.”
“Oh, but he did,” Jess said looking angry, “he only dang well took our nest egg Millie!”
“What the money you’d been saving to build and furnish our place?” she asked looking ashen.
“Yup…and I aim to get it back,” he said, steely determination in his eyes, “you can count on that.”
Then he was holding her close again, all thought of money or danger erased from their minds as and they were kissing with growing fervour.
Suddenly they heard a shot fired off.
“What the hell!” Jess uttered, before pushing Millie into one of the empty stalls and telling her to stay down.
He tore out of the barn in time to see both Mort and Slim moving carefully around the side of the house.
He joined them and then as they ventured out towards the home pasture, they saw Cal standing looking out to the distance, his rifle still smoking in his hands.
“What happened?” Mort gasped as he ran over to the boy.
“I dunno Sheriff I thought I saw someone move over behind those bushes. But maybe I over reacted,” he added looking sheepish as old Betsy the house cow wandered over looking decidedly annoyed.
“I reckon we’re all a bit wound up son, no harm done,” Mort said easily.
“No harm done!” Jess said heatedly as an aside to Slim, “Just when things were gettin’ real interestin’ back there.”
Slim smirked at his pard and said, “You’d best go tell Millie all’s well. Oh, and Daisy was just going to send Mike out to say a light supper’s ready.
“Great,” Jess muttered looking mutinous as he headed back to the barn.
The party broke up soon after they had finished the afternoon meal; Daisy and Mike with overnight bags at the ready.
Doc Sam wouldn’t hear of them staying in the hotel and insisted there was plenty of room for them to stay with him and Carrie.
She thanked him profusely and then eyeing Slim and Jess, sadly said, “Hopefully it won’t be for too long.”
Kate had insisted on staying on and as she was as handy with a gun as the men nobody questioned that, and of course Mort was delighted to have her company.
Once Cal had wandered off to bed after the long day, the others sat on before a roaring fire with a welcome glass of redeye.
“You seem to have hit it off real well with Cal,” Jess said raising an inquiring eyebrow.
Kate smiled and nodded, “I have Jess, he puts me in mind of young Billy, dontcha think?”
Jess remembered Kate’s kid brother, with his blond curly hair and innocent blue eyes, the colour of a summer sky. Then his face clouded as he remembered how the boy had drowned in the creek when he was just sixteen years old.
He nodded, “Yup, has a look of him… he could make something of himself too, given half a chance.”
“Um, and that’s what I aim to give him,” Kate said. “Me and Mort have been discussing it and we figure the best thing all around would be for me to take the kid back up the mountain when I go in a few weeks. Teach him a trade and also get him mixing with Denver’s boys, Mick and Cody. I reckon they’ll be able to show him the right path…by example, see. Be better than us old ones trying to tell him.”
Sure, Denver was a Moonshiner, but he was basically a good man and had taught Mick and Cody to be true, loyal and respectful. They knew right from wrong and were no strangers to hard work.
“I hope yer thinkin’ of showing him the ropes on huntin’ and curing hides rather than moon shining?” Jess said with a cheeky grin.
“Indeed, I am,” Kate said frowning, “you know Den runs a legit business as a fur trader.”
“Sure, sure, just joshing you,” Jess said quickly, “and I think that’s a swell idea.”
“He’s real good around the horses too, I’ve noticed,” Kate continued. “He might make a wrangler or bronc buster…or even blacksmith, with a little help from friends. Young Cody is running quite a few horses now. He can show him the ropes easy…and he’ll be well away from those brothers of his if he’s up the mountain.”
“With any luck Randy will be languishing in the Laramie Prison before too long,” Slim said quickly, “Pete and Cole too.” Then added darkly, “And they can throw away the key as far as I’m concerned for what they did to Jess and Mike.”
“And my horse,” Jess said looking angry, “Yup and once I’ve caught up with that no hoper Declan O ’Hare, I figure we can relax and enjoy the New Year,” he added.
“Um,” said Kate thoughtfully, “that’s the other thing…I think Slim should go with you.”
“Huh?” Jess asked.
“Come on boy, you may be able to pull the wool over Daisy’s eyes or even Doc Sam maybe, but I can see you ain’t right yet.”
Before he could protest Slim said quickly, “She’s right Jess.”
Then turning back to Kate said, “I just don’t like to think of leaving Mike and Daisy alone for any length of time, so soon after what they’ve been through.”
“Well, that’s where I come in,” Kate said with a wink at Mort. “See I thought I’d stay on for a week or so while you’re away and show young Cal the ropes as to running a Ranch and Relay. So, what do ya think huh?”
Jess looked over to his pard and saw a small nod and then reaching for the whiskey bottle he held it aloft and said happily, “I say we’ll drink to that…and thank you Kate!”
Chapter 10
The following day all was quiet at the ranch. Slim was beginning to think maybe his pard’ s theory was wrong and Randy, Pete and Cole had cut their losses and decided to ride for the border rather than seek retribution on their youngest sibling.
It was the day after Christmas and the men and Kate had been on tenterhooks all day long, constantly checking the area for signs of the Stone Gang, but nothing.
Now Cal was already abed and the men and Kate sitting around the fire having a last coffee before turning in Slim chuckled and said, “Well maybe they’re all still hung over from Christmas.”
“Hey this ain’t no laughing matter,” Jess said angrily, “or have you forgotten they’ve got just about every last cent we own right now?”
“No, I haven’t forgotten Jess,” Slim said hotly, “but I sure hope I’m right and they’re just nursing bad heads, because iffen I’m not and they’ve headed for Canada we’ll have one hell of a job finding them.”
“I still think I’m right,” Jess insisted, “that Randy is crazy and iffen he says he’s gonna find his kid brother and kill him for siding with us, then I figure that’s just what he’ll do.”
Kate shuddered, “What kind of man would murder a member of his own family?”
“A very sick one Doc Sam would say,” Mort drawled, “but I figure just a plain evil one.”
Jess nodded in agreement, “And if or when they hit, I want Cal to stay safe in here. Can you watch his back Kate?”
The older woman nodded, “Sure I can, none of those no hoper bastards will get past me, I can promise you,” she said with a broad grin.
“Well, I know that don’t I,” Jess said winking at her.
Whilst Mort merely shook his head, but hiding a proud smile.
The following morning Jess and Slim were rustling up some breakfast, Cal having been dispatched to go fetch some more eggs from the hen house.
However, he came tearing back into the ranch moments later yelling, “Fire! Fire! The barn’s on fire!”
Jess and Slim stormed out, closely followed by Mort, Cal and Kate.
Slim took charge at once as he saw a plume of smoke on the barn roof and more issuing from the partly open door…the squeals of alarmed horses coming from within.
“Mort, you Kate and Cal start a bucket chain. Buckets by the well yonder!” he yelled.
“Jess, help me get the horses out.”
The two men placed their bandanas over their noses and mouths and headed into the dark smoke-filled building and moments later the terrified stage horses were liberated and started milling around in the safety of the corral.
Slim had freed Alamo from his stall towards the back of the barn and Jess gestured that he was going to release Traveller from the nearby stall.
“I’ll be out in a minute you go help the others with the water chain!” he yelled before turning away and heading into the smoky depths of the barn.
Slim waved a hand in acknowledgment and went out to help fight the flames.
When Jess got to the back of the barn, he found Traveller eyes wide with terror and pawing at the ground by the closed stall door. But when Jess went to open it and free his mount it was stuck fast.
He peered at the catch, his eyes streaming from the acrid smoke and then in the dim light filtering through the open doors he saw a piece of wood had been wedged down the stall door latch, locking it solid.
He looked around desperately for something to knock it out with, and then his eyes came to rest on his saddle hanging near the stall, and his rifle in its scabbard.
Pulling it out he hit the door jamb hard with the rifle butt and the blockage fell away; the stall door swinging open.
Coughing profusely, he used his last ounce of energy to hurl himself up onto Traveller’s back and headed him towards the open barn door with the early morning sunlight filtering in.
However, just as they were nearly there, Jess heard a shot and then the unmistakably gruff voice of Randy Stone call out, “Git yer ornery hide out here Harper come and join the party.”
At the sound of Randy Stone’s voice Traveller trembled and tensed with anger. Then before Jess realized what was happening his good horse took off at speed and galloping out through the barn door he swerved making for where Randy stood, his rifle covering Slim and Mort. Whilst Pete was still sitting his horse, his weapon aimed at Kate and the hapless Cal. All of them unarmed and were at the outlaw’s mercy, exhausted and filthy from fighting the fire.
But Jess had only a split second to take all this in as Traveller tore across the yard and rearing up he bellowed with rage as his iron like hooves slammed down hard on Randy Stone, glancing blow knocking him to the ground, fracturing his arm in several places…and sending his rifle skimming away out of reach. But for Jess’ excellent horsemanship Traveller might well have trampled Stone to death. But Jess urged him to turn away. Traveller being a superb cow horse who could turn on a dime, obeyed at the last second, leaving Randy sprawled in the dirt groaning in agony.
Then Jess found himself facing Pete and raising the rifle he still had in his hand growled, “Drop yer iron Pete or by God I’ll blow yer damn head off.”
Pete needed no second telling and dropped his rifle like it was a red-hot poker. Mort tore over and had him cuffed in seconds.
Meanwhile Slim and Kate ran over to where Randy was rolling in the dirt still cussing in pain.
Jess dismounted and wandered over with Traveller following along.
When Randy saw him, he quailed and said, “Keep that dang critter away from me!”
“Hey what’s yer problem?” Jess asked with a wicked grin. “It’s just a case of settling old scores. I thought you were all for that Randy.”
Once Randy had been helped inside and Kate had made a makeshift sling Jess suddenly realized Cole was missing.
“Where’s that lowlife brother of yours?” he snarled at Randy, “Deserted you, has he?”
Randy just dropped his head and looking uncomfortable said nothing.
“Well?” Mort asked.
Then turning to Pete said, “So where is he?”
Pete looked at his older brother and then muttered, “Dead.”
“What!” Mort exclaimed, “How…when?”
“It was me!” Randy snapped, “Alright I killed him. Did him a favor too, saved him from drinking himself to death.”
Jess looked shocked, “Is that right Pete, Randy killed him?”
Pete nodded, “When we got back to camp and you’d hightailed it with young Cal he just went loco. Cole was sitting there nursing a daddy of a hangover and I reckon Randy just saw red, started hitting him and just couldn’t stop.”
“Didn’t you even try to help him?” Slim yelled in disbelief.
“No sir, you don’t cross Randy when he’s that way,” Pete said in a whisper.
Kate who had been sitting silently to this point got up and looked down at Randy who was reclining on the couch, nursing his arm.
“Is this true,” she asked, “you really killed your own brother?”
“Yes Ma’am,” he said, just staring belligerently at her.
“And you’d have killed young Cal here too?”
“Yes Ma’am,” he repeated laconically, “I reckon I would.”
Kate just shook her head feeling totally overwhelmed and returned to her seat.
“Well, I figure we all heard that confession folks,” Mort said dryly.
Then turning to Randy said, “I guess you’re heading straight for the hangman’s noose my friend.”
Randy just shrugged as though it was of no consequence.
“We’ll ride for town in an hour,” Mort said decisively.
Slim accompanied Mort taking the prisoners in the buckboard, so that he could return with Daisy and Mike, now the danger was over.
However, the only danger Jess was in was being killed by Kate’s kindness…at least that’s what she called it.
“Goodness Jess you’ve hardly stopped coughing since the barn fire…and so you really need to take this remedy!”
Jess sniffed suspiciously at the proffered bottle, “What is it?” he asked, recoiling at the smell
“Why mostly honey, with a few added herbs,” she replied with a serene smile.
She shook the bottle expertly and handed it over with a spoon and watched him like a hawk.
“Aw, do I hafta?”
“Well, unless you want me to tell Miss Daisy chapter and verse of the fire and how bad your chest is right now, then yes you do.”
Jess just scowled at her and swallowed down the medicine before coughing again and making for the door, calling, “Come on Cal, work to do.”
“Now where are you off to?” Kate asked in exasperation.
“Get the barn cleaned up before Daisy arrives home. Luckily those hombres only lit a few clumps of straw, soon get it cleaned up and Daisy need never know,” he added with a cheeky grin, and grabbing his hat and jacket disappeared out of the door before she could reply.
A few hours later Kate made a pot of coffee and called the men in for a break.
“All done,” Jess said cheerfully as he sat down, “and I figure Slim and I can be off at first light if you and Cal are happy to run the place for a little while.”
Cal’s eyes lit up at that, “You bet ya Jess,” he said enthusiastically, “we’ll look after it real good, won’t we Miss Kate.”
“Sure we will boy,” she said grinning across at him.
Then reaching for the medicine bottle she shook it and handed it across with a large spoon, “Medicine Jess.”
He pulled a face, but took a dose and then frowning said, “Exactly what is that stuff Kate. I figure the honey’s working, but what’s the other stuff in it?”
“Oh, just something to calm you down, sort of relax you and make you more er… amenable to takin’ it. Well, you remember that ornery old mule, Clancy that we couldn’t git to move? Then he was an angel and was trotting along as happy as Larry?” (See # 99 Scapegoat)
“Yeah, sure I do, but what’s that got to do with this medicine?”
“Same stuff,” she said succinctly.
Jess almost choked, “What, you’ve been feeding me horse medicine?”
“Well, its workin’ ain’t it; you’ve not coughed once since you came back in.”
Jess just shook his head and drank his coffee knowing it was useless to argue.

Chapter 11
Slim and Jess’ plans for an early start were sadly thwarted. First of all, one of the stage line horses came up lame just as Jess was about to harness him up to the early stage. So, they let Mose go without them whilst Jess insisted on treating the badly strained muscle. Then he spent some time showing Cal how to tend it while he was away.
“Kate could have dealt with it,” Slim said testily as he moved his valise back onto the porch and ran a finger round the too tight collar of his best shirt.
“She could yeah, but we’re supposed to be sortin ’ the kid out ain’t we,” Jess muttered as an aside. “He learns how to care for the critters and old Sammy there gets well again, it will make him feel real good about himself.”
“Sure, I know,” Slim said quietly, slouching down on the porch chair and putting his feet up on the hitching rail.
“But now we’ve got to wait for the noon stage and all dressed up too, so we can’t do anything.”
“Well, that ain’t true,” Jess said grinning and pulling a deck of cards out from his frock-coat pocket.
When they arrived in Laramie it was to the news that there had been an accident down the line aways, when a train had hit some cattle that had strayed onto the track. So, they finally left on the night train.
“Great,” Jess muttered morosely, “we’ll share the journey with a load of snoring drunks and get no dang sleep.”
“Well, we sure haven’t got the money for a sleeper compartment, so you’ll just have to make the best of it. Anyway, you got to spend some time with Millie didn’t you.”
Jess grinned, “Sure did,” and he sighed. Then his expression changed to one of anger. “That no hoper hadn’t better have spent all my nest egg money or he’ll dang well live to regret it.”
The two men sat down opposite each other at a window seat, a table between them and Jess put his valise on the seat next to him to deter any drunk taking his ease there and stared sullenly out to the ill lit station platform where folk were still embarking.
“Look Jess don’t be too hard on the guy,” Slim said.
“Too hard! Are you crazy, he took all my savings…not to mention the ring meant for Lily, and Daisy’s pearls! And maybe you’ve forgotten he made a complete fool of you with his lies?” he added for good measure.
“No, I haven’t forgotten,” Slim said looking down. Then he looked Jess in the eye and said, “I can’t help but feel he’s a nice guy underneath it all. He just got kind of carried away with ambition. You know how these artistic folk can be.”
“Nope can’t say as I do,” Jess replied, “and even if he is ‘on the stage and an actor’ it don’t make it right that he should steal from innocent folk. Not to mention being party to a kidnapping!”
“I know and you’re right, of course you are. But I’m just asking that you don’t knock him to kingdom come, before we’ve heard his side of the story. OK?”
Jess sighed deeply, “OK, but then I ain’t holding back,” and with that he settled down and closed his eyes.
But the seats were hard and the railroad train swayed and rattled along making sleeping difficult.
After a while, a tall, well-dressed man with a white mustache and beard came along and tipping his Stetson back to reveal thick white hair he directed a friendly grin at Jess and said, “I see you are no stranger to a deck of cards?”
Jess who had been idling away the small hours playing Patience returned the grin and said, “You’d be right there Mr…?”
The dapper man sat down next to Slim and throwing both men a winning smile said, “Rogers, Denny Rogers.”
“A gambling man, I’m thinking?” Jess hazarded a guess.
“Yes, you’d be right young man I have been called that in my time. I’ve had a lifetime of reading people’s faces, can tell what their cards are by the way they hold their eyes,” he chuckled.
Then noticing the small bottle of Moonshine on the table said, “For taste of your whiskey I’ll give you some advice.”
Jess and Slim exchanged an amused glance and Jess pushed the bottle towards the gambler.
He took a good pull before re-corking it and wiping his mouth. Then said, “See, it’s this way son, if you’re gonna play the game you’ve gotta play it right. You’ve gotta know when to hold ‘em,” he said picking up a card from the deck, and looking at it thoughtfully, “and know when to fold ‘em.”
But then Jess butted in, “Don’t tell me…know when to walk away…”
The gambler’s head shot up and he threw Jess a quizzical look… then Slim added, “Know when to run.”
“OK…OK, maybe I was thinkin’ you two were a pair of tenderfoots…so you wanna play a hand or two?”
Jess grinned back and as the gambler brought out a deck, Jess said quickly, “But we’ll use my cards old man.”
The gambler laughed out loud this time, “Nope you ain’t no tenderfoot that’s fer sure… so you got a cigarette I could bum off of ya?”
They whiled away a couple of happy hours until the gambler knew when to cut and run. Jess had won a good few bucks from him, and Slim had just about broken even.
The gambler stood up and thanked them for their company before wandering back to his own seat and fading off to sleep.
Slim turned to his pard and said, “You did pretty well there against a professional.”
Jess shrugged, “I guess, but you win some you lose some. Gambling’s a mug’s game; best you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Slim agreed and the men turned their attention back to the black night beyond the carriage window, alone with their own thoughts.
The first light of dawn was just filtering through the clouds when the train finally lurched into Denver station, rattling and swaying before releasing a last belch of smoke and hiss of steam and settling down in the siding.
Jess had finally fallen asleep and wasn’t happy to be jabbed in the ribs by Slim yelling a hearty, “We’re here, Jess, wake up!”
The men jumped down onto the platform, yawning and stretching and looking around them, before turning towards the exit.
They made their way through the almost deserted streets, heading down towards the area where most of the theaters were situated. By the time they’d wandered around the place for a while the streets were coming alive. With folk making their way to work and the shopkeepers busy brushing down the boardwalk prior to opening up for business.
They finally located the theater and stood looking up at the huge billboard proudly announcing that the Life and Times of Davy Crockett would be running for the next six weeks. The star of the show…the up-and-coming actor, Dev West.
“Never heard of him,” Jess muttered before casting an eye down the other players. “I don’t see a Declan O ’Hare anywhere,” he said turning to Slim.
“Well maybe he’s in the chorus of something, doesn’t get a mention on the cast list?”
Jess yawned widely, “Well I suppose we’ll find out tonight…at least it’s the right theater and show, so he must be around here someplace.”
“Like you say we’ll find him tonight,” Slim said, looking up and down the now busy street. “Let’s try down one of these back streets, see iffen we can find cheap lodgings huh.”
They finally found a place with a vacancy sign in the window and after knocking they waited several minutes before a hatchet-faced middle-aged woman eventually pulled the door open and said abruptly, “Yes?”
“We’re looking for a room for a few nights,” Slim said politely.
The woman looked him up and down and then transferred her gaze to Jess…but quickly turned back to the more affable looking blond young man.
“You ain’t snake oil salesmen, are you?” she asked sourly.
Slim shook his head as though he was horrified at the idea, “No Ma’am we’re ranchers from Wyoming, come down to see a friend.”
He was about to add in the theater, but figured an actor would be even worse news than a snake oil hustler.
“Well alright,” she said reluctantly, “breakfast’s over and if yer wanting a bath water won’t be on ‘til after six and that’s another 25 cents…soap and towel extra.”
The bath situation Jess could deal with…but no breakfast?
“Not even coffee Ma’am?” he whispered in despair.
The older woman looked at the dark haired one that looked like trouble, but then her heart melted at his woebegone countenance.
She sighed deeply and said, “In the front parlour then, I’ll see if there’s any left in the pot.”
The coffee was surprisingly good and was even accompanied by some homemade cookies, which Ma Bates, the land lady, said would be added to the bill.
“Plus, extra for a key if you gentlemen intend on staying out after 8 O’clock,” she added, as though after that hour only the devil’s work would be done.
The room at the top of the house although chilly was clean and the bedding fresh.
Jess hurled himself on the bed happily.
“Boots!” Slim yelled.
He quickly kicked them off and rolling on his side said, “Wake me fer supper will ya …” and was asleep in seconds.
Slim rolled his eyes and then chuckled as he looked down at his pard. Jeez it was good to have him back…infuriating ways and all.
After supper the men hurried out to the theater and were surprised to see how popular the show was. They only just managed to secure the last seats high up at the very back of the auditorium.
Jess looked around him with interest at the plush seats and stage lighting, it being his first visit to this sort of theater.
“Sure, I’ve seen a few of those…ya know exotic dancers and stuff in saloons, but ain’t ever been in a place like this,” he said to Slim.
Slim chuckled, “Well I’m sure glad it isn’t Hamlet playing for your first Play Jess. I figure old Davy Crockett and his wild ways should be right up your street.”
“Ham who?”
“Never mind…look, the lights are turning up it’s going to start.”
The play was in itself enthralling and Jess enjoyed it tremendously, until he suddenly remembered why they were there.
“Well can ya see him?”
Slim shook his head, “Nope, the only guy that looks like him is playing the lead. But he’s got red hair and a New York accent, so that can’t be our man. Jeez Damian… uh… I mean Declan is as Irish as they come, you sure wouldn’t miss that accent.”
Then someone shushed them from behind and they settled to the play once again.
When it was over and the audience started moving off Jess said, “Well maybe he was in that chorus, you know had a non-speaking part or somethin’ huh?”
“Maybe. Come on let’s get round to the stage door and see if we can spot him.”
They stood in the cold draughty back alley for a good twenty minutes to no avail. Some of the stars had stopped and signed autographs and other players made their way off to the saloon in small groups laughing and joking.
“We’ve been had,” Jess said bitterly, “that Declan must have just told young Cal what he did to put anyone off the scent. He’s probably halfway to the old country now, with my money,” he added bitterly, turning and starting to retrace their steps back up the alley.
Slim turned to follow him and then stopped in his tracks as he heard a well-known laugh followed by, “Sure it was a grand success and we’ll be taking a little drink, will we not?”
There was no mistaking Declan ’s Irish brogue, and Slim turned around to see the star of the show, Davy Crockett himself…alias Declan O’ Hare…alias, he now knew, Dev West… of course a stage name.
Aware that Slim had paused, Jess turned back and was just in time to hear him say, “Well howdy Father Damian. Or is it simply Declan now? I really wouldn’t have known you with that red hair, not to mention that credible American accent on stage! But there again you are a very good actor,” he added bitterly.
Declan turned pale and then said to his friend, “I’ll see you later Gil.”
“Are you OK?” Gil asked casting Slim and then a fierce looking Jess an anxious glance.
“Sure, you be getting off now, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Declan said quickly.
Once the friend had disappeared around the corner Jess grabbed Declan by his shirt front and said dangerously quietly, “Are you sure about that…because I ain’t! There might just be nuthin’ left of ya by tomorrow!”
“Jess!” Slim said pulling him roughly away, “Please, you promised we’d hear what he had to say first OK?”
Jess sighed, but relinquished his hold and frowning muttered, “This better be damn good.”
“We can’t talk here, how about a bar?” Declan said hopefully.
Jess was feeling pretty dry and in need of a shot of whiskey, or two to revive him.
“OK, but don’t think yer going to get a gang of your actor friends to try and see us off,” Jess said, “we’ll go to a bar we choose.”
Once they were seated in a corner of the bar in a quiet respectable hotel and furnished with a drink apiece Slim said, “Well go on then Declan explain yourself. Just what kind of guy befriends those in trouble and then betrays them the way you did huh?”
Jess looked at his pard and felt quite shocked at the harsh words and figured this Declan had hurt him real bad.
“I’m sorry, really sorry Slim, and it wasn’t all acting I swear it. The more I got to know you and Miss Daisy, the more I realized what I was doing was wrong. I hated myself in the end,” he added looking down and flushing with embarrassment.
“Sure, you did,” Jess said angrily, “it didn’t stop you stealing from them though did it…and me too!”
“Yes, I really regret that, but you see I felt so bad I decided not to accept the money from those God-awful men. When you landed back looking so weary and sick and the young ‘un being so brave about it all… well I just felt so ashamed…so I did.”
“You knew about that?” Slim asked.
“I’m sorry but I was in the kitchen watching from the shadows, heard how badly they’d been treated and all,” he said shaking his head sadly.
“And taking Ma’s ring, Daisy’s pearls and all Jess’ savings that was better than the blood money promised you, was it?” Slim asked bitterly.
“You don’t understand. I pawned the ring and beads to pay my way while I was here. I was going to redeem them when the run finished and I was paid, then send them back to you.”
“Sure, you were,” Jess muttered, “and what about me huh?”
“I was going to use that for my fare to London and then pay it all back as soon as I got my first role. I swear it, Jess.”
“So, you’ll be makin’ yer fortune will ya then?” Jess said sarcastically.
“I aim to yes, Declan said, raising his head and sticking his chin out in a challenging way. I’m a star already over here and once I make it big in the old country, I will indeed earn a fortune.”
Slim just shook his head and rolled his eyes at Jess.
“Well in the meantime we’ve got a score to settle,” Jess said, “you can fetch yer gear from where you’re staying and bunk down with us tonight, we’ll catch the first train out tomorrow. You can explain everything to the Laramie Sheriff, you’re under arrest.”
“No, I can’t!” Declan cried. “What about the show?”
Jess who had been controlling his temper admirably up to now lurched out of his seat, grabbed Declan by the shirt and he balled a fist.
“It’s either our room or the Sheriff’s office and iffen you decide to resist arrest on the way, I’d be more than in my rights to uh…restrain you some,” Jess said now moving his jacket back to reveal the tin star pinned on his vest.
The actor sighed deeply and threw Jess a look that would have done credit to a Shakespeare tragedy, and whispered, “I’ll come quietly.”
They called in at a boarding house on the way so Declan could leave a message with his understudy.
“What, you won’t be coming back at all?” Charlie, the startled young actor asked.
“No, like I told you, family business…uh tell the Stage manager there’s been a death in the family.”
“Oh, my condolences,” the young man said before grinning from ear to ear, “But my big break huh!”
“Nice to see you’ve got such caring friends,” Jess said as they made their way off.
“That’s show business,” Declan said equitably, “an actor will do just about anything to make it in the business.”
“So I’ve seen,” Slim said dryly.
The following morning Declan handed over Jess’s nest egg money, almost intact. Then they visited the pawnbroker and retrieved the pearls and ring, before heading off to the rail head.
As the train pulled out, they saw a billboard displayed advertising the Life and Times of Davey Crockett and Declan could hardly bear to look at it, “My life’s over,” he whispered dramatically.
“You’ll darn well wish it was iffen you don’t behave,” Jess muttered, whilst Slim looked at the young actor with just a trace of pity in his eyes.

Chapter 12
They arrived in Laramie by mid afternoon and marched Dec straight to Mort Cory’s office.
Jess barged in, closely followed by Slim and Dec, to find old Alf Thompson reclining in Mort’s chair taking his ease and reading the latest addition of the Laramie Sentinel.
He put the paper down and straightened up. Polishing his deputy badge with his bandana he rather self-consciously threw Jess an anxious glance. Sure, he admired the young cowboy that the Sheriff held in such high esteem, but dang it, he sure could be ornery.
“Slim, uh Jess, howdy,” he said, smiling hopefully at Slim.
Jess ignored the greeting, “Where’s Mort?” he barked.
“Out on business,” Alf replied, just knowing Harper would explode once he heard the latest news.
“Is Lon out too?” Jess asked, referring to Mort’s usual Deputy.
“Yup half the town are away. The Sheriff called up a posse, “he admitted.
“What’s going on Alf?” Slim asked, more kindly.
“Of course, you won’t know,” Alf said bracing himself for the onslaught, “it um… seems that Pete Stone has escaped from the Laramie prison.”
“What!” Jess cried, “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me!”
“All in here,” Alf said passing over the newspaper.
Jess shook out the offered paper and he and Slim read the lurid headlines that stated Peter Stone, of the Stone gang had escaped from the Laramie prison. Then it went on to explain that he had bribed a guard to aid his escape, by hiding in a laundry trunk.
“Dang well bribed him with our hard-earned cash, that they’ve still got hidden away,” Jess interjected.
“It says this happened a couple of days ago…and it doesn’t look like the posse have found him or they’d be back by now,” Slim asserted.
“Goddamn it!” Jess hollered, “We dang well caught them, all the prison had to do was keep ‘em locked up for goodness sake!”
Then Slim looked anxiously at Alf, “It was just Pete that escaped, not Randy too? “
“Oh no Slim, don’t worry on that score. See it says right there, Randy Stone is still recovering from a badly damaged arm. The authorities are hoping he will be well enough for his trial and subsequent hanging in the next few weeks.”
Slim and Jess shared an amused glance at the irony of the statement, clearly lost on Alf.
“What’ ll we do?” Slim asked Jess, “Do you want to go find the posse and look for him?”
Jess shrugged, “What’s the point, he’ll be long gone now, and with all our money too. He’s probably over the border already.”
“Well, I imagine they’ll be bounty hunters a lookin’ too, “Alf said pushing a Wanted poster over with an eye wateringly large payment of dollars for the capture of one Pete Stone, dead or alive.
“I know where he’ll be,” Dec suddenly announced.
In the excitement of the moment Jess and Slim had completely forgotten his presence.
“You do, do ya?” Jess growled, with a look of disbelief.
“Yes, I do, they’ve got a secret hideaway up in the Snowy Range. We hung out up there after we were released from jail. That’s where they made all the plans to kidnap Mike, and later they added you, Jess. It’s where they planned to keep the money too. The idea was to hide out there for a few weeks after the last payment until everything died down and then head for the border.”
“Really,” Jess said his eyes narrowing, “and you didn’t think to tell us that bit about the money being stashed there?”
“I didn’t know what had been happening, you told me Cole was dead and Randy and Pete in jail I just assumed that they’d told you where the money was.”
“Well, you assumed wrong,” Slim said.
“I could show you…take you there,” Dec suggested hesitantly.
“Oh yeah and what’s in it for you?” Jess asked deadpan.
“Maybe a pardon? After all you did get your nest egg back Jess and Daisy and Slim’ s stuff back too…so no real harm done…huh?”
Jess looked incensed and grabbing hold of Dec’s arm dragged him over to the far side of the office away from the others and spoke in a low, but intimidating voice.
“No harm done huh? You used two of my dearest friends for your own means. Deceived them and what’s worse is you really tried to make a friend of Slim. Hell, he believed in you…trusted you, and you dang well stabbed him in the back.”
“I know it,” he said hanging his head, “and you’ll never know how truly sorry I am…but maybe this way I can make it up to him, some huh.”
Jess just shook his head sadly, “This ain’t just about the money Dec, it’s about trust and friendship, but I guess you just don’t get it huh?”
“Really Jess, if I could turn the clock back I would…but please let me do what I can now …will you not?”
Just then the door swung open and Mort and Lon trooped in looking weary.
Mort stopped when he saw Slim and Jess and removing his hat he ran his hand through his hair before ramming it back on, “You’ve heard,” he said quietly.
“Just,” Jess said, “but hell this ain’t your fault Mort it’s that damn prison’s blunder.”
“No sign then?” Slim asked.
Mort shook his head and collapsed into his chair, recently vacated by Alf.
“Not a sign…disappeared into thin air.”
Then Slim turned to Dec raising an eyebrow before saying, “Declan here reckons he knows exactly where he’s gone.”
“Oh, he does, does he?” Mort said looking at the young actor with a somewhat jaundiced eye.
“So, it’s not Father Damian anymore, I take it?”
Declan hung his head in shame, “I am really sorry about all that business Sheriff. I was just carried away by ambition and when I saw a way of earning my fare to England…well, I just took it without thinking the matter through.”
“It’s just a good job Jess and young Mike managed to escape,” Mort said dourly, “or you’d be looking at a prison sentence for aiding and abetting murder. But it will just be aiding and abetting kidnap now…unless Jess decides to drop the charges that is?”
When Declan looked deeply shocked Mort said, “Oh yes young man I can assure you that Randy would not have hesitated to kill Jess and possibly the child too, had they not managed to get away.”
“I…I had no idea. He said they’d be well cared for. I never thought he’d harm them,” Declan said turning very pale and again hanging his head.
“Well maybe not, but the outcome would have been the same,” Slim said. “Your informing Randy was a key part of the plan and I figure he wouldn’t have risked carrying on extracting money iffen he hadn’t had you watching us and reporting back.”
“I’m just so darned sorry,” Declan said yet again looking close to tears, “please let me help now, make amends. I can find Pete and get your money back too; I just know I can.”
“It’s up to you Jess, do you want me to sling him in my jail on the kidnap charge or not?” Mort asked.
Jess looked at Declan and then over to Slim before wandering over to the window and looking out with unseeing eyes.
After a few seconds he turned back and said, “I’ll think on it while we’re on the trail lookin’ for Pete.”
Then turning to Slim and Declan said, “You ready then?”
They set off at first light the following morning, heading west towards the Medicine Bow Peak. However, after they’d been riding for an hour or so in the bitterly cold wind, Slim reined in and peered up at the huge Snow-capped mountains in the far distance.
“What’s up?” Jess asked coming to a standstill beside his pard, closely followed by Dec.
Slim narrowed his eyes and sniffed the air, “Snow on the way,” he said looking worried.
“So?” Jess returned.
“Oh, come on Jess, you’ve lived here long enough to know what that means. We might not even make it up that old Mountain, never mind get down again in one piece.”
“Aw stop frettin,’” Jess said rolling his eyes.
“I’m serious Jess…or have you forgotten we all nearly perished in the extreme weather we had last winter?” (See # 96 One Wyoming Winter Long, Long Ago)
“No, I ain’t forgotten, but we didn’t, did we. And have you forgotten how that no good bastard is sitting on all our hard-earned cash? He’s cleaned us out Slim. Hell, we probably won’t even be able to pay the feed bill next month! Never mind new boots for Mike…or food for the table even!”
“I know it,” Slim said, “but hell, what about Mike and Daisy if the weather gets really bad?”
“Young Cal’s lookin’ after the spread, not to mention Miss Kate…heck they’ll be fine. And if there are any problems you can be sure Mort will be there lookin’ out for Kate and the others. Hell, come on Slim we’re wastin’ time here,” he added crossly.
“The cave isn’t right up on the Peak Slim. You go half way up and then turn due west, there are two lakes and the hideaway overlooks the second lake,” Dec said.
“Sounds real purty,” Jess said sarcastically, before urging Traveller on to a brisk trot.
Sure enough, when they made camp at the base of the mountain late that afternoon the snow started floating down forming a delicate pattern on the dark earth.
Later Jess lay on his bedroll under the branches of a huge pine watching the flakes spiral and gently float down caught in the light from the camp fire.
“Reminds me of that last night I spent with Flora, up the Sherman Mountain.” he said turning sad eyes on Slim. (See # 19 Daisy’s Dilemma.)
Slim nodded, both men falling silent and looking bleakly out at the distant hills of home.
“An old girlfriend, was she?” Dec asked jovially, not picking up on the sudden deep emotion hanging in the air.
Jess just shook his head, “A real good friend. She went up the mountain to die,” he said softly, “Consumption.”
Dec gasped, “Gee I’m sorry … I uh…didn’t know.”
“How could you,” Slim said kindly.
After a pause Jess took a small bottle of Denver James’ best hooch from his saddle bag and after taking a pull passed it across to Dec.
The young man’s face lit up, “You sure?”
Jess merely nodded and then winking at Slim said, “Purely medicinal of course…helps keep the cold out.”
Dec couldn’t understand why Slim chuckled, but he took a good pull and then passed it on to him. Thinking to himself what a wealth of shared memories the two guys had, no wonder Jess was so protective of his buddy he mused.
The following morning there was still only a light dusting of snow, but the higher up the mountain they traveled the deeper it became and the going was slow and treacherous.
They were following an old Indian trail, and the rocky pathway skirted a deep drop to one side that was extremely perilous, as it had crumbled away in several places. Eventually they had to dismount and lead their horses for several miles before the terrain flattened out a little. Then on turning a bend they were able to make out the twin lakes twinkling in the noon day sun, far off in the distance.
“How long will it take us to get to the hideout from here?” Jess asked turning to Dec.
“About another three maybe four hours ride in this kinda terrain,” he replied. The snow was lying over a foot deep and much higher in areas where it had drifted. Jess felt frustrated, but knew it was sensible to take their time and not risk injuring their mounts.

“I don’t figure Pete is going anyplace,” Slim said, slapping his buddy on the back. “Come on, if we push on, we should make it to the lake before dark…might even have time to pull a fish or two out for supper huh?”
Jess’ face lit up, as Slim knew it would, “Well what are we waitin’ for?” he said grinning and pushing on through the rough undergrowth.
They were indeed able to fish for their supper before settling down for the night by the first of the lakes. The other wasn’t too far, but they decided to camp a distance away from the hideout not wanting to alert Pete to their presence.

They had enjoyed a good fish supper, but Slim had noticed Jess beginning to limp as the day progressed and knew he was suffering some pain from an old injury to his left thigh. It was a legacy from a shootout with an outlaw a few years earlier and tended to play up in very cold weather.
After supper he wasn’t surprised when Jess fished out his spare bandana and tied it around his left knee.
Dec noticed Slim raise a troubled eyebrow at his buddy and Jess sigh and shake his head slightly before getting up and going off to check on his horse.
“Is he alright?” Dec asked quietly.
“Huh… oh yeah, an old wound just troubling him some…a guy we were after for Bank robbery shot him in the thigh, said he’d give Jess something to remember him by. He was right,” he said bitterly. “Just kicks off when he gets really cold and then his knee kinda gives way. But he’ll be fine now that he’s strapped it up. Sooner we’re on the way back, the happier we’ll both be,” he added with a tired smile.
Dec nodded, not for the first time was he amazed and slightly jealous of the partners close friendship, where a glance and responding look could mean so much, with no words exchanged.
Then he had an overwhelming feeling of guilt at how he had betrayed the friendship Slim had shown him and felt the need to unburden himself.
When Jess returned and they had replenished their coffee cups Dec cleared his throat and said, “I need to say something… so I do… about how shabbily I treated you Slim; Miss Daisy too.”
“Save it,” Jess said taciturnly, “You’ve already apologized and it don’t change anything, you still betrayed my pard… and Daisy.”
“It’s OK Jess, let’s hear him out,” Slim said, knowing that Jess’ animosity was not just anger at the way Dec had acted, but also that he was in some pain as well, making him short tempered.
Jess looked down and said nothing and eventually Dec said, “Yes, you’ve a right to be angry Jess, of course you have. Damn it, you and Slim here are as devoted and close as brothers I can see that. But there are a couple of things you need to know. Firstly, Randy promised me that you and the boy would be unhurt. And he would only take enough cash to allow him and his brothers to start over again, and me to fulfill my dreams of acting in London.”
“Well damn it you could have got off yer butt and worked for it,” Jess growled.
“Jess, let him finish,” Slim interjected.
“Yes, I should have done, I realise that now,” Dec replied… “I’m too impetuous so I am. I know that.”
When Jess just rolled his eyes but remained silent Dec continued, “He told me you were really well to do, could afford the loss. Jaysus and I believed him! Said it was just like a play I’d done, Robin Hood…robbing the rich to help out the poor!”
The men were well aware of the British story of Robin Hood having read it to Mike and they exchanged an amused glance.
“I was a complete idiot, so I was, and said I’d act as their lookout, reporting back. And then everything changed,” he added softly.
“Go on,” Slim said with an encouraging smile.
“I realized what a nice guy you were Slim and Daisy the sweetest little woman you’d ever meet. And I saw what this business was doing to you,” and he swallowed looking genuinely emotional now.
This time it was Jess who prompted him, “Didn’t stop you though, did it?”
“No… no it didn’t … I wired Randy, said I wanted out. Next thing I knew he turned up at the ranch…well on Sherman land anyway.”
Slim looked shocked, “The hell he did…when?”
“Remember when we were mending fence over on the east pasture? You’d gone back for some more nails…and I was talking to a guy when you returned?”
“That’s right,” Slim said snapping his fingers, “and he rode off before I got to you. You said he was asking for directions to Laramie.”
“So, what did he really want?” Jess asked.
“He came to tell me that my old Uncle would meet an untimely death if I didn’t behave and do just as he said. He’s a lovely old guy. He lives in Cheyenne, took me in and helped me when I first came over. He also said that he would kill Daisy if I didn’t toe the line.”
He turned desperate eyes on Slim and said, “I just couldn’t do anything you must see that. I couldn’t take the risk.”
“Sure, that makes sense,” Slim said.
“There’s something else too,” Dec said looking deeply into Slim’ s eyes, “all those times we talked…You told me stuff…personal things because you trusted me? All those times I wasn’t acting…I really did feel like we were becoming friends you know. But my hands were tied I just couldn’t risk upsetting Randy…and the consequences.”
Slim smiled at him, “I reckon I can understand that and I can forgive you.”
Then he glanced at Jess who was still looking unconvinced.
His pard looked over to Dec and said, “Yeah…maybe,” and with that he turned in for the night.
Slim looked over to where Dec was looking downcast.
“He’ll come around, let’s get some shut eye…busy day tomorrow.”

Chapter 13
The following morning the men were up at first light and with Dec guiding them, they took the Indian trail up the steep mountain towards the second lake.
The air was crystal clear. Then as the sun came out, sparkling on the lake surface and snow below, they agreed it was breathtaking scenery.
Dec led them on past the lake and then took a winding, steep back trail so that they came out on a wide plateau just behind the cave hideaway, set way up in the cliff face above the lake.
As they reined in, they saw a small fenced paddock where Pete’s horse was taking his ease eating from a bale of hay, a water trough nearby.
“All the comforts of home,” Jess said grinning, and led Traveller over to the water.
Once the horses were settled, they made their way quietly up the final steep path to the cave.
The track was narrow and made even more perilous by the icy, compacted snow and steep drop to the lake below. Hugging the mountainside, they moved silently down to the cave entrance.
Then on a sign from Jess, Dec and Slim tore in with guns at the ready and confronted the sleepy form of Pete Stone dozing comfortably by his camp fire…a bottle of moonshine at his side.
He just stared agog at Jess who growled, “Throw yer gun over here Pete and don’t even think of tryin’ to make a run for it!”
Pete Stone sighed lustily, and said, “Even I ain’t that dang stupid Harper,” and he threw his Colt over and then raised his hands.
“Put ’em out Jess barked and then handcuffed him before turning to where Slim and Dec had been ransacking the cave for the rancher’s money.”
It was Dec who finally yelled in delight and pulled out a large metal box from the inky depths at the back of the cave.
Slim went across and the men levered it open to reveal not only a stash of cash, but also some jewellery and gold.
“I reckon we’ve hit the jackpot,” Slim said grinning over to his pard, “quite a little haul here.”
Pete scowled at Slim and then noticing Dec for the first time he lurched towards him cussing and said, “You double-crossing no good Irish scum!”
Jess who was losing patience and whose leg was beginning to really bother him now yanked Pete away from Dec and backhanded him hard across the face saying, “Shut yer filthy mouth, Stone!”
Pete said nothing but merely glared at Jess, and back at Dec, before slumping back down by the fire.
Slim put all the stolen goods in a saddle bag and then the men left the cave, Jess leading the way followed by Pete, then Slim who had his rifle trained on the outlaw, with Dec bringing up the rear and carrying the saddlebags. They made their way along the icy narrow path, back towards where their horses were waiting.
Pete was still reeling from the smack across the face and was glaring at Jess’ back, immediately in front of him…Then he noticed the bandana tied around his knee and he smiled an evil smile. So, the tough guy wasn’t quite as tough as he seemed huh…
He waited until they reached an exceptionally dangerous part of the narrow pathway high above the lake before kicking Jess hard in the back of his weakened knee.
The blow was so unexpected that he lost his balance, teetered on the edge of the path for a moment desperately flapping his arms before he tipped over and hurtled down...down to the icy lake below…There was a tremendous splash as he hit the water and then he disappeared from view.
Jess had plummeted down and into the water at such a pace he hardly knew what was happening. Then the freezing water hit him and took his breath clean away before he sank deep into the icy depths; his thick sheepskin jacket dragging him down.
The men stared in horror, even Pete was somewhat overwhelmed by what he had just done. Sure, he had meant to bring Harper to his knees, give him a nasty shock…but not that.
Slim stared down at the ripples emanating from where Jess had entered the water and was about to dive in after him, when he felt a firm hand restrain him. Dec had grabbed his shoulder and said, “No Slim, that’s not the way, you’ll perish too, begorrah!” he lamented.
They peered down at the clear, icy blue water and then just moments later the surface was broken and Jess appeared gasping for air and then desperately swimming for the shoreline.
“Jeez, come on!” Slim yelled, “Let’s get down there…” and the men carefully inched along the icy pathway before tearing off to where their horses were in the paddock.
Before they set off Slim turned to Pete and said, “You try and escape I’ll have no second thoughts about back shooting you! You got that?”
“Loud and clear,” a very subdued Pete responded.
By the time they’d made their way down to the lake edge there was no sign of Jess at all.
Slim ’s stomach lurched in fear as he scanned the blue vastness of the lake for any sign of his pard…but all was serene.
Then finally Dec yelled, “Look, over there Slim!”
A good few yards along the lakeside there was what looked like a pile of old clothes. But Slim recognized Jess’ jacket and tore down the shore line towards him…followed by Pete and Dec.
He knelt beside his buddy and gently turned him over on his back and then gasped in dismay. Jess’ face was as white as the driven snow with a terrible blue tinge around his lips and he was clearly not breathing.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Declan cried, “tell me he’s not dead!”
Slim glanced up bleakly for a second but said nothing, merely started hurriedly unbuttoning Jess’ jacket.
Then after a moment he looked up again and said, “Quick, we’ve gotta get him stripped off...get his boots off Dec. Then go back to the horses and get our saddlebags and bedrolls.”
When Dec returned Jess was completely stripped of his clothes and Slim commenced rubbing his limbs with a rough woolen blanket. After a few minutes the colour began to return to his face, he took a deep rasping breath, his eyes flickered open and he started to thrash around coughing violently.
“That’s it, Jess, bring it up,” Slim said sighing with relief. He pulled Jess on his side and continued rubbing his back as the cowboy coughed and retched.
After a few more minutes he began shaking violently and stuttered, “Cc ... cold...”
Helped by Dec, Slim immediately covered Jess in warm blankets from their bedrolls and he slowly began to look around him, the heaving and coughing replaced by violent shaking.
All this time Pete had been standing watching the drama unfold ...dreading the outcome if Harper had indeed died at his hands. Sure, he wanted to bring the hothead to his knees to teach him a lesson...but murder wasn’t in his plan. Hell, he had just reacted to that slap without thinking, needing swift retribution.
Now as he saw all Slim and Dec’s attention were on Jess, he inched his way forwards to where Slim had propped up his rifle against a nearby boulder.
He stared at the little tableau before him... Slim pulling the blanket more securely around his buddy and talking to him quietly, nobody paying him any heed. Slowly...slowly he crept forwards and then once he’d reached the gun, he grabbed it and backed off. The cuffs had a long chain and he wasn’t impeded at all as he took aim.
Then everything seemed to happen at once. Something made Dec glance up and seeing the prisoner with the rifle aimed at Slim he yelled a warning.
Slim looked up and in a split second dived and rolled away from trouble as a bullet skimmed past his ear and slammed into a tree just behind him.
Then Dec was galvanized into action on seeing Jess’ hunting knife that had fallen out his boot when they were removed earlier. He grabbed it and hurled it at Pete.... The knife flew as straight and seemingly as fast as a bullet and smashed into in the centre of Pete’s chest with a sickening thud.
His eyes opened wide in shocked disbelief before he crashed forwards...dead before he hit the ground.
All three men stared in disbelief, before Slim turned to Dec and gasped, “Where the heck did you learn to do that?”
When he didn’t reply Slim looked more closely at the Irishman and was surprised to see him looking deathly pale and shaking almost as much as Jess.
Dec swallowed hard and said, “I never killed a man before and crossed himself saying softly, “God forgive me.”
Slim looked down and then leaning over patted Dec gently on the shoulder, “I guess this is kind of hard for you, but you saved our lives Dec, if you hadn’t done that, I reckon he’d have killed us all.”
Jess struggled up onto an elbow, “He’s right Dec. Thanks,” he said quietly, “You saved our bacon that’s for sure.”
Although Jess protested that he was just fine and they ride on, it was patently obvious that he was not. He was still quite pale and shaking with cold. And one look at Dec, who was clearly in shock, made Slim insist they make camp in a sheltered spot adjacent to the lake, for a few hours at least.
He and Declan built a huge warming fire from the wealth of dry branches scattered beneath the many large Scot’s pines and then settled down to rest for a while.
The day wore on with Jess mostly sleeping...the shivering finally decreasing as he warmed up.
By the time the sun was sinking in the west casting blood red streaks across the lake, he finally awoke, peering around him.
“Jeez Slim why didn’t ya wake me?” he said sitting up, before gasping and falling back down again, as a wave of dizziness overwhelmed him.
“Because you really weren’t up to traveling,” Slim said dryly, “and still aren’t by the looks of you.”
“Aw I’m fine,” Jess said, “just got a tad wet an’ cold ‘tis all. And kinda dizzy, all that water in my ears, I figure,” he said with a weak grin.
“Jess, you damn well nearly drowned and by the looks of you you’ve got a really bad chill coming on as well,” Slim said noting the slick of sweat on Jess’ brow and his now flushed countenance.
“So, where’s the hero of the hour?” Jess asked changing the subject.
“I suggested he go and see if he could pull some fish out of the lake for supper...thought it might help take his mind off of things some.”
“Yeah, he took killing Pete Stone kind of badly...never killed anyone before he said.”
“Well, he’s an actor…had no call to I guess,” Jess replied easily.
“Um well he’s pretty cut up about it. I think we need to talk to him later,” Slim said eyeing the corpse of Pete Stone, now discreetly wrapped in his bedroll and laid over near the horses.
Jess followed his gaze and said, “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”
Supper was over with both Jess and Dec merely pushing their food about and hardly eating anything.
Slim was concerned for Jess...loss of his usually hearty appetite always a sign he was feeling pretty sick.
But right now, he needed to deal with Dec’s distress.
The Irishman had frequently glanced across to the blanket and its macabre contents over by the horses. Now as they sipped their coffee he said, “Jaysus can we not be burying the poor sod?”
Slim shook his head, “I’m sorry Dec but the ground is frozen solid, and no way could we dig a grave.”
Jess decided to try and lighten the atmosphere.
“So how the heck did ya learn to throw a knife that way,” he asked.
Dec gave him a faint smile, “Well I’ll be telling you... see it was this way. When I landed here, I couldn’t find work as an I joined a circus so I did!”
“Never,” Slim said grinning at him, “so what did you do?”
“Anything and nothing, mostly animal care and odd jobs, do you see. But then the Great Marcello took pity on me and decided to teach me the knife throwing.”
“That was kind of him,” Jess said dryly.
“Well, yes and no. You see the Great Marcello had a liking for the whiskey, so he trained me up so that I could cover for him if he was uh...unwell...or blathered as we say back on the Emerald Isle.”
“So, what did you have to do?” Slim asked looking fascinated.
“Oh, just throw a dozen or so razor-sharp knives around his wife’s body,” Dec said casually
Jess and Slim were immediately transported back to that time when the Oriental Troupe had arrived at the ranch bringing a very young and frightened Mike with them, after finding him unconscious at the roadside. Then they remembered how they had put on a show for him at the ranch including a knife throwing act.
“Takes some guts to do that sorta thing,” Jess said the light of respect in his deep blue eyes.
Dec shrugged, “You get used to it after a while...I quite enjoyed it.”
“So, why’d you quit?” Jess asked.
“Mrs Marcello decided she preferred me to her drunken husband, so I decided I should move on,” he said with a cheeky grin.
“Wise move,” Jess said thinking maybe he and Dec had more in common than he’d first imagined.
“And kind of different to the tale you spun about being an orphan and entering the priesthood after your schooling,” Slim said with a twinkle in his eyes.
The men sat quietly watching the moon rise above the tranquil lake for a while and then Slim turned to Dec and said, “What you did really did save our lives you know Dec, and you shouldn’t be brooding about it.”
“Should I not?” he asked bitterly. “But to be sure I broke one of The Commandments; Thou shalt not kill...did I not!”
Well, there was no arguing with that Slim figured, what could he say?
“You and me both,” Jess said softly. “I never killed in cold blood. I’ve only ever killed a man before he killed me, but does that make it right? Maybe not...but at least I’m still here and I figure I’ll hafta deal with that on Judgement Day. Until then I ain’t frettin’ about it, life’s too dang short.”
Dec had to smile at that, and yes somehow it made least they were all still alive... and maybe he could go on to atone for his sin in some way in the future.
Then he remembered an old Irish Blessing his grandpa had taught him.
“Maybe you’re right Jess. Bless you for that,” and then he added, “May you be in Heaven an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.”
Jess raised his coffee cup, which had been livened with a good splash of moonshine and said, “Cheers!”
“Slainte!” Dec replied, smiling properly for the first time that evening.
Slim replenished their cups and shortly afterwards Dec retired for the night leaving Jess and Slim laying back against their saddles with another drink and enjoying the peace at the lakeside.
After a while Jess said, “Hey what’s the date Hardrock?”
Slim pondered a while and then gasped, “By jimmy it’s the first of the’s New Year’s Day Jess!”
“The hell it is, Jeez Slim we’ve missed the New Year’s Eve party at the saloon, and the dance, not to mention Miss Daisy’s special meal today!”
“I sure hope Kate and Mort enjoyed our share,” Slim said sadly.
“Think they’ll be any leftovers?” Jess asked hopefully.
Slim shook his head, “I shouldn’t think so, not with Mike and Cal around.”
“No,” Jess agreed, looking miserably out to the lake.
“Our girls will have missed us,” he added after a while.
“Well, I sure hope so,” Slim said, “but I imagine there would be plenty of guys ready to take our place at the dance after the party.”
“You think so?” Jess asked now looking deeply anxious.
Slim looked over at his pard and then his face lit up with a huge grin, “Nah, ‘course not...just winding you up Hotshot.”
Jess still looked a tad worried, “Sooner we get home, happier I’ll be,” he muttered before throwing back the rest of his drink and refilling his and Slim’ s cup with a tad less coffee and a tad more moonshine.
When Slim raised an eyebrow Jess said, “Well we’re celebratin’ the New Year ain’t we?”

Chapter 14
Maybe their over indulgence accounted for the fact that they didn’t hear the nighttime intruders.
The following morning Dec was the first to awake. He glanced over to where the gruesome corpse of Pete Stone had been the night before. Then he rubbed his eyes and looked again. It was gone!
He pushed his blanket aside and jumping up went to investigate. Not only had Pete disappeared, but his mount had gone too.
He stood for a moment literally shaking with fear before bellowing for Slim and Jess to wake up and come over.
Slim was the first to raise his head and then quickly lower it again as a killer headache struck. He cussed softly and then tried again...this time staggering up from his bedroll and giving Jess a gentle nudge with his foot.
“Wake up pard,” he urged the still recumbent Jess.
He finally sat up nursing his head in his hands and muttered, “What’s all the goddamn racket about?”
By now Dec had run back into the camp and merely stood there pointing to where the remaining horses were still tethered.
“Gone,” he finally managed. “By Jaysus he’s come back to life and ridden off!”
Jess squinted up at him, “Huh...who...what are you sayin’?”
“It’s Pete Stone...he’s come back to life I tell you and made off!” Dec screamed hysterically.
Jess and Slim looked over to where Pete’s corpse had lain the night before and indeed it was gone.
Both men jumped up as one, hangovers forgotten and they hurried across the camp.
Jess thought at first maybe a bear had taken the body...but no. There was no sign of blood or tracks so that ruled a wolf or bear taking him.
“Anyway, that would have made the horses kick off something fierce,” Jess said.
“We’d probably have slept through it,” Slim said dismally, “amount of red eye we put away last night.”
Jess looked woeful, knowing that under normal circumstances he would have awoken at the first sound of any intruders...Slim too.
“You didn’t hear anything?” Jess asked turning back to a now pale Dec.
“Nope I sleep really deeply...and anyway I believe ghosts don’t make too much noise, or whatever he is now,” he added shuddering. “You know a Thevshi maybe, living between this life and the next.”
“Oh yeah sure,” Jess said rolling his eyes, and dismissing what he called Dec’s Irish mumbo jumbo.
“A headless coach driver sometimes comes to claim the dead,” Dec continued, “driving a team of headless horses.”
Jess spluttered with mirth at that and Slim grabbed Dec’s arm and said, “Come on get a grip buddy...there has to be a rational explanation.”
Meanwhile Jess was looking around him. Any footprints in the snow had been brushed away with a branch. The area all around clear of any tracks and it did indeed look like the corpse had disappeared into thin air.
Slim walked over to him and looking up and down the narrow Indian trail said, “Are you thinking what I am Jess?”
The dark-haired cowboy nodded, “Yup I reckon this was the work of Lenny and Bill Davies.”
Dec had wandered over to join them and now said, “Who the heck are they?”
“They’re the lowest of the low,” Jess spat, angrily. “A pair of crazy kids who think they’re Bounty hunters. Some days anyway...” he added shaking his head.
“They’re two brothers live near Laramie...always in trouble, mostly petty crime… but they’ve excelled themselves this time though,” Slim continued. “We figure they got a head start on the other vultures hunting Pete down for the money on his head. They must have heard we’d gone after him and decided to trail us. Probably planned to move in and kill him themselves, for the bounty, if the opportunity arose.”
“Yeah, and us tipping the jug was just the opportunity they needed,” Jess said bitterly, “I guess a dang marching band wouldn’t have woken us last night.”
Then he added, “Well what are we dang well waitin’ for lets git after them!”
Dec recovered quickly from his shock and the men broke camp, mounted up and followed the trail back towards Laramie.
After riding for a few hours, they came across the place where the brothers must have stopped for the night, the fire ashes still warm.
Dec scratched his head, “They must know we’ll be following them why’d they stop here?”
Jess chuckled, “Well ya see the thing is Dec, Lenny and Bill ain’t any too bright and not too good at bounty huntin’ either I reckon.”
“Or stage robbing... or sod-busting... or pretty much anything,” Slim added cheerfully.
“Yup I figure they were last in line when the Good Lord were handin’ out the brains,” Jess chuckled.
Slim joined in, “I figure the smart move would have been to take the body to some small town where they aren’t known. I reckon Mort will see through them really easy.”
“Yeah, I reckon,” Jess said, “but come on...let’s git goin’ just to be on the safe side.”
Luckily for them, Mort had been out of town on business and had only just sat down to interview the would-be bounty the other men rode in.
They trotted briskly into town, having made good time and tethered their mounts outside Mort’s office alongside those of Lenny and Bill. Pete Stone’s mount still carrying his blanketed corpse was there too they noted.
“Here’s yer Thevshi,” Jess said nodding to Pete’s body as they passed, “I guess that headless coach driver must have missed him.”
Declan looked somewhat abashed, but merely said, “‘Tis Irish folk lore. Many believe in it you know.”
“Sure,” Slim said kindly, “but not in this case maybe,” he said, slapping Dec on the back...who responded with a weak grin.
As Jess barged into the office the scrawny figures of Lenny and Bill leapt to their feet… flushing with embarrassment.
“Afternoon Mort, howdy boys,” Slim said cheerfully, “good of you to deliver our prisoner for us, but I figure we can manage OK now.”
The elder, Lenny, swallowed hard and said, “He ain’t your prisoner Mr Slim, he be ours. We shot ‘im fair and square, didn’t we Bill?”
Bill looked shifty and finally whispered, “Yup brother that was the way it were. Shot with yer rifle, point blank range. Prisoner was escaping see,” he added, “Lenny had no choice but to shoot.”
“So uh, when did this shooting take place and where?” Mort asked from where he was sitting back in his chair, hat at a jaunty angle and the light of amusement in his eyes.
“Why was just about an hour, or so ago,” Lenny said. “We caught up with him on the trail, heading towards town. We figured he was after supplies.”
“Well coming into town would be a real smart thing for a guy to do, who is wanted in three States,” Slim said dryly.
“Shot this morning,” Mort repeated, “you sure about that?”
“Why sure Sheriff,” Lenny said, his pale blue eyes widening, “I said so didn’t I?”
“So, what would account for the body being frozen solid?” Jess asked.
Lenny just shrugged and glanced over to his brother who flushed up and said nothing.
“OK, I’ve had enough of this charade,” Mort said, getting up and looking out the window to where Pete’s body remained. “Bring the body in and put it in the cells,” he said firmly turning to the Davies brothers.
Then turning to Lon his deputy, said, “Fetch the doc to check the body over will you.”
Sometime later Doc Sam stood up and stretched from where he’d been leaning down and examining Pete’s body. He came back into Mort’s office...all eyes upon him.
“I can confirm that the deceased met his end well over a day ago, possibly two days.”
“Thank you, and the cause of death?” Mort asked.
“A deep, penetrating knife wound to the centre of the chest, piercing the heart and causing instantaneous death, the weapon most likely a hunting knife.”
Lenny and Bill were already inching their way towards the door.
“Hold it right there!” Mort bellowed.
“Uh sorry Sheriff, Mr Slim, Mr Jess. It was just a bit of fun...we didn’t mean no harm,” Lenny said.
“Didn’t mean any harm!” Jess bellowed angrily, his hangover suddenly returning with a vengeance.
“OK Jess leave this to me,” Mort said quietly.
“Right, you two, I’m arresting you for conspiracy to obtain money under false pretenses and I have to tell you, you are liable for a jail sentence of up to five years. Take them to the cells Lon,” he added.
Lon hauled them off, with them protesting their innocence and saying it had all been a prank that went wrong.
After they’d gone Slim turned to a grinning Mort and said, “That’s a bit harsh isn’t it, Mort?”
“No, it ain’t,” Jess interrupted, “it’s what they dang well deserve. How are they gonna learn otherwise huh?”
“Good point,” Mort said sagely, “a few weeks in there should straighten ‘em out. They’re not real bad kids...but like Jess says, they need to wake up and start flying straight before they get into real deep trouble.”
Then smiling benignly said, “Right gentlemen shall we start again? Maybe you’d like to enlighten me as to what really happened?”
Sometime later Mort grinned at Dec and said, “Well it looks like you’ve kinda redeemed yourself young my eyes anyways. It seems your swift action saved the day.”
Jess nodded, “It sure did, saved Slim’ s life I reckon,” and he slapped Dec on the back.
“So, I take it you’ll be finding it in your heart to drop the charges of collusion with the Stone brothers in your abduction then, Jess?”
“Well, I figure Dec’s learnt his lesson and I don’t expect he’ll be thinkin’ of crossing the line again, will ya?” he asked smiling at the Irish man.
“By all the Saint’s, no I will not,” Dec said emphatically, “I’ll save all my acting for the stage, so I will!”
“That’s good to hear,” Mort said grinning at him. “So, I’ll just take a signed statement about all you know regarding Randy Stone’s involvement in the kidnapping for his trial. Then you’re free to go and no need to attend, you can get back to your acting,” he added with another smile.
“Be in about three weeks time,” he added to Slim and Jess.
They left the office, but Mort called Jess back, saying, “I think you forgot something?”
He emerged from the office a few minutes later and Slim raised an eyebrow. “OK?” he asked.
Jess just patted his vest pocket and said, “Yup, tell ya later,” and with that they headed for the saloon.
The following day Dec rode back to the ranch with Jess and Slim as he wanted to apologize personally to Daisy and Mike.
As they rode down the rise into the yard Slim said, “Uh, I think maybe you should make yourself scarce for a little while Dec. We need to break the news to Cal of Pete’s death first of all.”
“Sure, sure,” Dec said quickly, “I’ll feed and water the mounts over in the barn, so I will.”
The men were slightly surprised when nobody rushed out to meet them. However all was made clear when they entered the ranch house to find Daisy, Kate and Mike busily baking in the kitchen. But as the front door opened Mike tore into the parlour and dashed over to the cowboys. He was then unceremoniously hurled aloft by Jess who hugged him and then threw him carelessly over to Slim.
“Gee Jess, Slim, you’ve been gone a long time,” the child reprimanded them once he was back on terra firma. “Where have you been?”
But before they could reply they were enveloped in Daisy’s warm hugs and Kate was laughing and smiling at them.
“You remember young ‘un,” she said, turning to Mike, “Uncle Mort said as how that Pete Stone had escaped and Jess and Slim were gonna hunt him down.”
Then turning to Jess said, “So did ya?”
“Sure did,” Jess said happily, “and what’s more, got all our money back too, thanks to Dec helping us out.”
“ mean Fr Damian, so you found him?” Daisy said looking delighted, “Is he here?”
“Yes, he is,” Jess said beaming at her, “and remember Daisy it ain’t Father Damian...he’s an actor by the name of Declan O ’Hare now.”
“Yeah, or Dev West,” Slim chuckled, “well that’s his stage name anyways.”
“What, Dev West? I’ve heard of him,” Daisy said clasping her hands together in excitement. “Why he’s an up-and-coming star I believe. But it can’t be our man? Doesn’t Dev West have very red hair?” Daisy asked, turning to Kate, who nodded in agreement.
“Well, he has now. He just dyed it for the part of Fr Damian,” Slim chuckled. “I figure he’s so darned ambitious that he just couldn’t wait to make enough money on the stage to get back to the old country where his heart lies. That’s why he was tempted off the straight and narrow. He sure is a good actor though,” he added dryly, “certainly had us fooled. Robbed us too if you remember Daisy. But I believe he’s really sorry and we’ve got everything back, so I figure we can forgive him?”
“My pearls are safe and sound?” she asked hopefully.
“Yup, sure thing,” Jess said, “and he wants to apologize and explain.”
“Well, where is he, bring him in,” Daisy said peering out the window. “Of course, I can forgive the dear boy. I was sure he’d have a good reason for what he did.”
“Uh, something we’ve got to do first,” Jess said looking a tad anxious.
Then turning to Mike, he said, “He’s out in the barn, go out and give him a hand with the horses will ya Tiger, and come on in when you’re through.”
Once he’d gone Slim briefly explained how Pete had turned a gun on them and how Dec had saved their lives by knifing the outlaw.
“I figure we need to see Cal and explain that Pete’s dead before we do anything else,” Jess said.
“He’s out in the home pasture chopping some logs from that tree that fell down in the storm last year,” Daisy said.
“I’ll go break the news,” Jess said quietly, “then you go fetch Dec in Slim and hopefully this can be an end to this sorry business once and for all huh?”
Jess sat down on the large tree trunk and broke the news to Cal as gently as he could.
Although the youngster was deeply shocked, he didn’t blame Dec or the others for his older brother’s untimely death once he heard the circumstances surrounding the demise.
“Ma always said that they’d come to a sticky end and it seems she was right,” he said, turning saddened eyes on Jess. “After Pa was killed in that Indian raid, they just seemed to go wild and Ma couldn’t control them.”
“I know boy...and I had a lot of respect for your old Ma,” Jess said quietly. “That’s why we gave you and your brothers the job on the cattle drive. We thought earning good money for a hard day’s work would set ‘em straight...but it weren’t to be.”
When Cal just hung his head looking despairingly at the ground Jess said, “But it ain’t too late to turn your life around and make yer old Ma proud.”
“You think she knows... is kinda looking down from Heaven?” he asked.
“Sure, of it,” Jess said, reaching over and patting the boy’s shoulder, “Yer what, sixteen?”
“Just turned seventeen,” the boy nodded.
“Well then you’ve got the whole of yer life before you...that’s plenty of time to get it right, ain’t it.”
The boy nodded and then smiled for the first time.
“Miss Kate says I can go live up the mountain with her and her cousin and his boys. I think I’d like that. Cody’s got a bunch of mustangs he needs my help with,” he added proudly.
“That’s just swell,” Jess grinned, “I reckon we’ll make a horse wrangler of you yet!”
Later Dec was introduced to Cal and was able to explain how very sorry he was for the way things had ended. Again, young Cal was philosophical and forgiving and that deeply moved Dec. A few minutes later he made an excuse that he needed some fresh air and hurried out to the porch.
Slim and Jess exchanged a worried glance and then Jess said, “I’ll go...”
He found Dec sitting on one of the porch chairs, looking out to the distant mountains, tears in his eyes.
He sniffed and swallowed hard as Jess took the other seat and said, “That young lad is brave, so he is, puts me to shame and not a pinch of malice in him, even after what I did.”
“He’s a good kid,” Jess replied, “and I figure he’ll turn out OK. And just for the record Dec he was under no allusions as to what his brothers were. He knew you did what you had to do, to keep us all alive. It’s just the way it is out here. Sometimes killin’ is the only way to survive.”
“I know,” he said bleakly, “it’s just that... well it’s never been me doing the killing before, do you see that, Jess?”
“Sure I do...but you’ll just have to put it behind you buddy. Carry on with that acting career of yours like Mort said. Daisy tells me you’re gettin’ real famous,” he added with a grin.
Dec ignored the compliment but merely said, “Oh I intend to, in fact I’m catching the noon stage back to Denver, to take over from my understudy. Then I’ll look around for another job. I’ll get my fare money sooner or later. But I’m going Jess...whatever it takes, I need to get home.”
“Sure, sure,” Jess said, “but not today huh. Mike just told me Daisy is planning a surprise New Year’s supper tonight... seeing as how we missed out on it this year.”
Dec just gave him a weak smile, “That’s real kind of her...but no Jess. I just couldn’t sit at your table knowing what I did to hurt you all...and young Cal too,” he added again looking emotional.
“Hey, it’s OK,” Jess said quickly. “Daisy and Slim have forgiven you for pulling the wool over their eyes that way...and as for me and Mike...well I figure you redeemed yerself out on the trail when you saved me and just forget it huh.”
“Can’t,” Dec said bleakly, “I can’t forget it....and you may be forgiving, but I really can’t forgive myself.”
Jess looked nonplussed and shrugging said, “OK iffen that’s the way you feel...but I figure time will help...and yeah maybe you need to git yerself home too,” he added.
Then reaching into his vest pocket he pulled out the bulky envelope Mort had given him.
“Here,” he said, “I figure that will help you out some huh?”
Dec took the envelope and opened it staring in shock to see it was bursting full of twenty-dollar notes.
He stared at it in shock for a good minute before looking back at Jess.
“By Jaysus, what’s this...there is a small fortune here!”
“The Bounty on Pete Stone’s head,” Jess said succinctly. “It’s all yours earned fair and square.”
“But... but I can’t accept this,” Dec said shuddering, “why ‘tis blood money.” Jess nodded, “Yup, that’s one way of looking at it. But like I said you earned it and Mort won’t take it back.”
“Well... I don’t know...give it to Cal then...from me...a gift.”
Jess shook his head and then said with a gleam in his eye, “Now how would you think the boy would feel iffen you walked away with nothing after savin’ me and Slim’ s bacon huh?”
When Dec said nothing, Jess continued, “So how’s about we split it down the middle, half for you and half for young Cal? That’s enough to help set him up in business when he decides what he’s doin’ with his life. And the rest should be more than enough for yer fare home and to keep you going for a good few months until you hit it big time over there in the Old Country... deal?” he asked offering a hand.
“Deal,” Dec said grinning back at him, “And may All the Saints bless and keep you, and may you be blessed with many sons!”
“Hey take it easy,” Jess said looking slightly nervous, “just thanks will do.”
Then Slim came out to chat with Dec, and Jess went off to check on how Daisy was doing with the meal, leaving Dec and his Pard in deep conversation.

The ranchers were just turning back into the house after waving Declan off on the stage, when a lone rider came down the rise apace.
Mort swept into the yard and slipped down from his buckskin, “Was that the Irish guy on the stage I just passed?” he asked.
Slim nodded, “We gave him half the Bounty money and he’s headed back to Denver to complete his work there. Then he’s off to London to try his hand at Shakespeare.”
“Whoever he is,” Jess interjected.
Mort and Slim exchanged an amused glance before Mort said, “So are you boys keeping the other half?”
“No,” Slim said, “we’re going to let Cal have it, set him up when he’s a little older. He doesn’t know it yet though,” he added.
Mort grinned at that, “Well with that backing from you boys and my Kate keeping him on the straight and narrow I figure the kid can’t go wrong. Let’s go tell him the good news,” he said grinning happily.
As it happened Cal felt he really didn’t deserve the money, until Mort convinced him that it was what his Ma and Pa would want for him.
“You just fly straight, work hard for Miss Kate and Denver and make yer folks in Heaven proud boy,” he said quietly.
“I will sir,” the youngster said, now persuaded, tears in his eyes. Then he shook his hand and that of Slim and Jess and said, “I don’t think I can ever thank you enough.”
“Well, I think you’ve done a grand job dear,” Daisy said from the kitchen door. “Now you boys go and wash up, your New Year’s Day dinner is ready!”
Young Cal Stone would indeed have made his parents proud as he did Mort and Kate. He settled into mountain life well, hitting it off straight away with Denver’s boys, Cody and Mick. He had a wonderful way with horses, and astonishing results using the horse whispering technique Jess taught him.
After a couple of years Kate could see he needed to fly the nest and she introduced him to the Laramie Blacksmith, a big cheery man, with a big heart too. He took to young Cal at once and agreed to take him on as his apprentice. Just five years later Cal was able to use the Bounty Money to buy a partnership in the thriving business. He was popular with all the clients and the horses were always well behaved for him, knowing instinctively that they were in safe hands. Then ten years later when the old Blacksmith finally retired, he left his half of the business to Cal. He was now a happily married man with two strong sons destined to enter the family business. But all his life he never forgot the forgiveness he received from Slim and Jess, the fresh start with Kate and Denver and the added bonus of the nest egg from the Irish actor.
It was several months before Slim and Jess heard any news of Declan O ’Hare...or Father Damian as Daisy always thought of him.
A letter had arrived earlier that day and Jess and Slim read it while they were sitting out on the porch. It was the first warm day of spring and they had a whiskey apiece relaxing after a long day moving the herd up to the higher ground.
“Seems he’s a real hit over in London England playing the lead in Romeo and Juliet,” Slim said as he read through the letter again.
“It’s a love story Jess, about the struggles of a passionate love affair that wasn’t allowed...ends kind of badly,” he added vaguely.
“So, Dec is this Romeo guy and gets to kiss the gal on stage every night?” Jess mused.
“I guess so.”
“Jeez talk about an easy life,” he lamented.
“Well, I reckon there’s a bit more to it that all that Jess, after all he has to remember all his lines and stuff...and they die in the end too.”
Jess was silent for a little, sipping his whiskey and looking out to the distant snow-covered mountains.
“It was real bad that time when me and Mike were abducted,” he said finally, turning to look at Slim.
“The worst I can ever remember,” Slim said honestly. “If anything had happened to you or Mike...well...” and he was silent, looking out to the mountains too.
Then very quietly he said, “A friendship like ours doesn’t come along every day.” Then he grinned and said, “You may be a pig-headed son of a gun more often than not, but I sure wouldn’t want to be without you.”
Jess grinned back, “Well thanks...I think,” he said narrowing his eyes and scrutinizing his pard.
“Told you before,” Slim said, now grinning, “the old place wouldn’t be the same without you.”
That satisfied Jess and he topped up their glasses from the bottle on the porch floor beside him.
“What else does he say in the letter?”
“Huh...oh, just that he’s having a wonderful time... and thanks you again for persuading him to take that bounty money.”
Jess nodded, remembering their conversation on the porch the day Dec had left.
“We talked that day after you went inside,” Slim said, “he told me how you persuaded him to take the money...says he’ll never forget it.”
“He’s a good man,” Jess said, “just got kinda sidetracked off of the straight and narrow. It can happen to the best of us,” he added with a cheeky grin.
Then sobering and looking deeply into Slim ’s eyes said, “I figure we all need a helpin’ hand sometimes. I got one and figured I’d pass it on to Dec.”
Then smiling again, he said, “He sure was one for those Irish blessings eh... wished me many sons,” he said shaking his head, “but not for a while huh!”
Slim smiled and then said, “He said something real nice when we were sitting here before he left. He said I should pass it on to you and I clean forgot about it until now.”
“Oh, what was that?”
Slim looked up to the myriad of stars in the sky above them, trying to remember the exact words of the old Irish blessing.
“Yes, I remember now,” he said at last, “it goes something like this. May the road rise up to meet you May the wind be always at your back May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
There was complete silence for a minute as the men thought about the beauty of the words and then Jess grinned at his pard, “That’s real purty Slim, I’ll drink to that, cheers!”
“Slainte,” Slim replied as they chinked glasses.
They sat on listening to the night time sounds around them and looking up to the moonlit mountains, counting their blessing of a true and enduring friendship.

The End

Thank you for reading this my 100th story.

Merry Christmas and May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.


#99 Scapegoat


Patty Wilkinson

(Some strong language, adult themes and violence)

Chapter 1

Jess Harper groaned softly and then tried to open his eyes. He could smell damp and he could feel he was covered by a course blanket...then his eyes finally flicked open and he surveyed the scene before him with deep shock and foreboding.
Instead of his bed at the Sherman Ranch and Relay he seemed to be in a cold damp cell...but why and how had he got there?
He raised his head from the pillow in order to see around him a little better and then sank back immediately yelping in pain. His head felt like it might split open at any moment. His mouth was dry with the metallic taste of blood and he ached all over. Even worse his mind was a complete fog; he hardly knew who he was, much less where he was.
Then a rough voice on the other side of the bars yelled loudly, “Prisoner’s awake Sheriff.”
Jess raised his head more cautiously this time and looked over to where a redheaded Deputy stood watching him and chewing baccy. His pale ugly face strangely familiar.
Jess tried to swallow and ran his tongue over his dry lips before saying, “What in hell am I doin’ in here?”
The Deputy glanced down at him slyly and said, “Well dontcha remember? We brought ya in for bank robbery and murder.”
Then a tall rangy man in his forties loomed into view from behind the deputy and stared coldly at Jess.
“What’s up, can’t remember huh?” and he sniggered and gave his Deputy a sideways glance.
“I know I dang well I ain’t robbed a bank or murdered anyone,” Jess said aggressively. “What I don’t know is why I’m being framed.”
“Oh, you can keep that story up as long as you want,” the Sheriff growled, “won’t do you any good boy. The Judge will be by any day now to try you’d better start makin’ things right with your Maker, because you’ll be seeing him soon enough.”<!--more-->
Jess absorbed this information and then said, “I want a lawyer, wire Benson over in Laramie will ya.”
The Sheriff turned to his Deputy. “Uh did you hear the prisoner say something Clem?”
“No sir not a thing,” the redheaded Deputy said sniggering.
Then Jess had a flashback...he was lying on the floor of a bank, his hands cuffed and the Sheriff was there with Jess’s gun in his hand...Jess had opened his mouth to yell out a warning but he was too late. The Sheriff opened fire killing the teller outright, before sliding the Colt.45 back into Jess’s holster and turning a rifle on him. Then the redheaded deputy, Clem, had thrown some notes at the Sheriff before heading for the door with the rest of the haul.
He vaguely remembered being released from the cuffs and the Sheriff yelling, “I’ve got one of them, the other escaped with the money,” before everything went blank again.
“It were you,” Jess said, his steely blue eyes narrowing, “you and that damn Deputy robbed the bank and you killed the teller. I saw ya!”
The Sheriff looked down, “Damn it,” he muttered.
Then turning to Clem said, “I think the prisoner needs to rethink things, don’t you?”
Seconds later Jess was cuffed and beaten ferociously by the two men and in his dazed condition was unable to fight back; although he gave it his best shot.
When he came around much later, he could hear a heated argument going on in the outer office between the Sheriff and an elderly woman.
“I’m telling you the man needs to see a doctor son and if you won’t fetch him I will!”
“Aw Ma, stop interfering. You’re worse than that dang wife of mine,” came the laconic reply.
“I don’t care if you’ve got this whole wretched town running scared, I’m still your mother and you’ll do as I say, Marty!” came the angry reply. “And what’s more why aren’t you off hunting down the other lowlife that got away with all the money...tell me that!”
The Sheriff sighed deeply, “I’m doing the wanted posters right now iffen you’d just let me get on with it Ma.”
“Well, I should think so. And as to that poor cow of a wife of yours...well I don’t know how Myra puts up with you really, I don’t!”
There was the sound of a door slamming and then silence.
When Jess awoke again, he once more heard voices this time an elderly man was speaking. “Your mother seemed to think your prisoner was quite sick,” the man reiterated, “I really think I should check him over Sheriff after all, it is his matter what he’s accused of doing.”
“He lost all his damn rights when he shot down that bank teller, Earl Abbot, in cold blood.”
“Even so...”
“Uh, maybe the Doc’s right Clem broke in, “after all we don’t want the prisoner to croak before the trial, do we, Sheriff?”
There was a gusty sigh and then the Sheriff said, “OK you win doc,” and moments later the balding elderly doctor was let into the cell.
“The prisoner had a nasty fall,” the Sheriff explained as the shocked doc viewed Jess’s bloody battered form. “And uh, resisted arrest,” he added for good measure.
“That’s what yer calling it now is it?” Jess muttered groaning and clutching his belly where he had received a kicking from the Deputy.
“Don’t believe anything he tells you.” the Sheriff said sternly. “I’ll be just outside, holler when you want out doc.”
Once he’d gone the pleasant looking doctor gave Jess a weak smile, “I’m Doctor Lovell and you are?”
“Harper, Jess Harper. I’m a rancher from Laramie...just passin’ through town. I ain’t no bank robber doc I promise you that.”
“I’m not here to judge you, young man, merely to treat these injuries,” then he sucked in a breath as he began to check out the multiple wounds and abrasions.
Afterwards he looked closely at Jess’s bloodshot eyes...shining a light into them and checking the pupil reaction.
“Tell me do you feel slightly groggy, like you might have been drugged?” he asked.
“Hell yes,” Jess agreed, “I can remember some things, but others are just a blur.”
The doc nodded thoughtfully and then, “How on earth did you come by these wounds?” he asked when he finally sat back after cleaning Jess up and bandaging him as well as he could.
“I kinda disagreed with the Sheriff’s account of the bank heist and he didn’t like it any too much.”
The doctor was warming to the seemingly sincere young man who had almost unflinchingly tolerated the medical ministrations. “So, what is your version?”
“That the Sheriff and Deputy robbed the bank,” Jess said quietly.
Doctor Lovell sucked in a deep breath and frowned, “Surely not. Goodness, I know he rules the town with a rod of iron and well...maybe doesn’t always stay within the letter of the law; but murder and bank robbery, I just can’t believe it.”
“Well, you’d better because I was there,” Jess snapped. “I figure they drugged me and took me there to be their dang scapegoat. The teller was shot by the Sheriff with my gun. And you can bet odds on it that they’ll find some of the stolen notes in my wallet too...hell it’s a set-up Doc. You’ve gotta believe me!”
The doc just frowned and looked down. “I don’t know...this seems a step too far even for Sheriff Cain.”
When the doctor remained silent, Jess said, “So what does he do that ain’t uh, strictly the letter of the law?”
The doctor sighed, “He runs a protection business. Folks pay him so much a year to keep themselves safe.”
“Garldarn it, safe from what?”
The doctor shrugged, “Robbery, arson, seems that the folk who refuse to pay up, are the unlucky ones,” he added, raising a significant eyebrow.
“But dang it that’s terrible and everyone just accepts it?”
The doc nodded, “This is a small town, in the middle of nowhere, folk just daren’ t stand up to him they live in fear...or if they’ve got any sense they get out.”
“Right, so if he’d been suspected of robbing the bank, nobody would dare say anything would they?”
But before he could reply they heard steps advancing and Jess grabbed the doc’s arm and said, “Please doc wire Mort Cory for me, the Sheriff over in Laramie, tell him Jess Harper’s in trouble and I need him here pronto...please!”
Doctor Lovell nodded, “Yes I will, I promise, don’t worry son.”
Then the Sheriff burst in, “That’s long enough Doc ain’t no point in bothering too much, he’ll be swinging at the end of a rope by next week. I just had word the Judge is on his way.”

Chapter 2
Jess lay on the bunk in his cell pondering the events of the last day or so, his memory gradually returning. How he had ridden into the one-horse town hot, tired and thirsty; on his way home from a successful mustang sale. He’d carefully placed a good half of the money from the sale in his boots, but half was still in his wallet when he entered the down at heel old saloon on Main Street. He’d been careful not to flash the money about and was just relaxing at the bar when he’d been joined by the redheaded Deputy. The guy had been very friendly and welcoming and had stood Jess a second beer. Now he realized that must have been when he drugged him, slipping something into his drink. He vaguely remembered feeling drunk as a skunk and the Deputy saying to the bar keep, “I’ll take him over to the cells to sober him up.”
Next thing he remembered it was early the following morning and he was lying on the bank floor helplessly watching the Deputy and Sheriff rob the place. The Deputy heading off with the stash before the Sheriff gave the alarm and arrested Jess, saying his Deputy had gone after his accomplice. The Deputy had returned later, saying the other robber had gotten clean away with the money.
As Jess was marched out of the bank at gunpoint by the Sheriff the barkeep amongst the avid crowd that had gathered, called out, “Hey ain’t that the hombre Clem took in drunk and disorderly last night?”
Sheriff Cain had nodded, “Yup, but he sobered up real quick so we let him go...and now this!” and he shoved Jess onwards, tutting in annoyance.
Then later that day they had laid into him and the doc had eventually been called.
Now lying on his bed, he wondered if the old doc would do as he asked and send for Mort. Because if not he figured he was done for, with the Judge due any day now and the evidence stacked against him.
Then he became aware of voices without and realized the door between the cells and office had been left ajar. He scrambled up from his bed and went over to listen.
He heard Clem the ugly redhead saying in his raspy voice, “Well I dunno Marty, I reckon it ain’t a good plan to stash the money in the safe here.”
“So, what’s the alternative? Me take it home for my old Ma to find or Myra, that interfering wife of mine huh? Or maybe you’d like to put it someplace in that room you rent. Oh yeah that would be a real smart move,” he said sarcastically.
“Is that fall guy’s mustang money with the stash?” Clem asked changing the subject.
“Yup and I put some of the new bank notes in his wallet for the judge to find,” Marty replied. “We’ve set him up pretty good. He’ll swing for the murder of that teller alright and then there’s all the evidence against us, gone for goo once he’s dead.”
Jess could barely contain himself on hearing this, and might well have yelled out in anger, but for the office door opening, and another person joined the two lawmen.
Unbeknown to Jess, this was young Davy from the telegraph office, but all soon became clear to him.
“Davy what do you want, we’re busy,” the Sheriff asked gruffly, throwing Clem a quelling glance.
“The doc asked me to send a wire over to the Sheriff in Laramie on behalf of your prisoner sir. I thought you should know I have a reply.”
The Sheriff looked furious, “What? You sent it without consulting me first!”
“I’m sorry Sheriff, I thought you were OK about it, from the way the doc spoke...anyway I got a reply,” he repeated and handed it over to Marty.
“Any answer to the wire?” Davy asked innocently after a minute.
The Sheriff looked down at the brief note, ‘Tell Harper on our way STOP signed Sheriff Mort Cory and Acting Deputy Slim Sherman.’
“No, it’s too dang late they’re on their way,” the Sheriff spat angrily.
“Just get out of here!” he added and the youngster dived out of the door at speed.
“Damn it, now what?” Clem asked anxiously.
“We vamoose today! I know this Mort Cory of old, and he won’t leave any stone upturned, trust me. The guy’s like a dog with a bone. Nope we’ll just hafta change our plans and head for the border right away; instead of after the trial.”
“What if the prisoner talks? They’ll really know what we’ve done and we’ll be scuppered,” Clem squawked.
Before he could answer, the door opened again and a stout, grey haired, miserable looking woman entered.
Marty cussed under his breath and said, “Goddamn it... now what...”
“Yes Myra, what is it now?” he asked turning to his wife.
“You didn’t leave money for the housekeeping,” she said frowning at him.
He dug out his wallet and peeling off some notes handed them to her.
She just stood there staring at him.
“There,” he said giving her a little push towards the door.
Then, “What is it now?” he asked in exasperation.
“You’ll be home tonight, honey?” she said with a faltering smile.
“Sure... sure,” he muttered and pushed her out of the door, closing it firmly behind her.
“Well?” Clem repeated, “What if the prisoner talks huh, Marty?”
Marty Cain fixed him with an evil grin, “I figure the poor prisoner will be so dang worried about his trial that he’ll decide to end it all! We’ll leave a note saying we’ve had fresh evidence and we’re heading out looking for his accomplice. By the time they realise we’ve gone for good we’ll be miles away. And I’ll have seen the last of that useless wife of mine too,” he added gleefully.
“Come on Clem,” he said, “let’s get to it. We’ll leave another note by the prisoner saying he just couldn’t go on,” he added warming to his theme.
Back in his cell Jess looked desperately around him for something to defend himself with ...but there was nothing.
He was ready for them; and stood his ground when the two men burst into his cell.
“I figure this is the end of the road for you Harper,” Marty spat, “put your hands up and come over here so I can cuff you,” he added.
“Why so you can slit my wrists and leave me to bleed to death on my bed? I don’t think so,” Jess snarled. “You want me dead yer gonna hafta shoot me...and then explain that away if you can. Soon as a shot goes off folk will be through that door to investigate. You wouldn’t even have time to rig an alleged escape. So why dontcha call my bluff and try it?” he added; looking one hell of a lot more confident than he felt.
“He’s got a point Marty,” Clem muttered.
Marty let go an expletive, staring at Jess in consternation. Then he brightened and quick as a flash he pulled a knife and before Jess had barely registered it, he threw it with deadly accuracy catching Jess in the shoulder...and just seconds later he was cuffed and prone on his bunk.
Then Marty leaned in and gave him an evil grin, “Sorry about this Harper, I kinda liked your style...but you’ve got to go my friend,” and again using the knife he made to slash Jess’s wrists.
He just made one cut when the men heard a commotion in the outer office and both stared at each other in horror, fearing being caught in the act. “Leave him, he’s in a bad way anyway...he won’t last,” Clem said quickly putting the suicide note on the floor by the bunk before heading for the cell door.
The Sheriff looked down once more and decided his partner was right, Jess was out cold and his shoulder and wrist bleeding profusely.
Back in the office the barkeep, Les Peters, was holding tightly onto a tired old drunk, who was hiccup-ping and looking blearily around him.
“Old Sammy is drunk and disorderly again Sheriff, shall I take him through to the cells?”
“No!” the Sheriff hollered. Then more calmly, “No thanks Les, that won’t be necessary, Clem will take him,” he said passing the cell keys to his Deputy, figuring old Sammy would be too drunk to notice Jess’s predicament. “Put him right at the end cell...and give him a bucket in case he throws up,” he added.
Once Clem had taken the drunk away Marty suddenly realized this could work to his advantage.
“Uh, I’m glad you stopped by Les. Harper, the bank job prisoner, has just given us some more info on his partner. So me and Clem are heading out to see if we can locate him. We’ll be gone a couple of days I should think...maybe a week.”
“OK Sheriff. So, what about the prisoners?”
“Oh, I’ll leave the door on the latch and call by Bert Higgs to Deputize for me on my way out,” he replied, the lies falling so easily from his lips.
“Righto Sheriff good luck, ”and Les wandered back over to the saloon.
The Sheriff watched him go and headed off to the wall safe to retrieve the bank money and stuffing it in his saddle bags yelled out to Clem who was in the cells checking on Jess.
“All OK out back?” he asked.
“Yup Sammy sleeping like a baby and by the looks of all the blood, Harper’s probably gone already. You got the money out of the safe yet Sheriff?”
“Yes, all sorted out. Canada here we come!” the Sheriff exclaimed gleefully, and the two men made their way hurriedly to the livery, A few minutes later galloped out of town at speed.
Les Peters watched them go from the saloon door and then disappeared inside. Moments later he came out once more and retraced his steps back to the Sheriff’s office; bearing old Sammy’s wallet. It still contained a good few dollars and Les was worried about keeping it safe in the saloon. He entered the office door and wandering over to the Sheriff’s desk placed the wallet on top. Then he peered around him...if he could just walk in off the street so could anyone else. He knew that sometime Deputy Higgs lived a few miles out of town and it would be a while before he was in place. So, he decided to go out back to the cells and hand Sammy his wallet, or at least shove it through the bars of the cell if he was out for the count.
He saw Jess the moment he entered the cell block and stared in consternation before turning on his heel and tearing across the road crying out for the Doc to come pronto.

Chapter 3
Slim and Mort made good time riding to the little town of Buzzard and arrived just a couple of days after Mort had received the wire saying Jess was in jail and to come pronto.
“I guess it was kinda lucky that I’m on my leave right now,” Mort said as they rode into the dusty little town.” Although I don’t know what Kate will have to say about me heading off to bail Jess out of trouble we had plans,” he added ruefully.
Slim shook his head sadly and said, “I’m having to pay the Jackson boys to mind the spread, but I guess he wouldn’t have sent for us if it wasn’t really important Mort.”
“Yup I know that,” the ruggedly good-looking Sheriff said, smiling at Slim, “and I guess me and Kate can put that ol’ hunting trip on hold for a few days.”
They dismounted in front of the Sheriff’s office, hitched up and surveyed the rundown town. The place seemed almost deserted with just a couple of women entering the ramshackle mercantile and a few horses tethered outside the only saloon. Apart from that there was an undertaker, livery; bank and doctor’s office and that seemed about all. Several shops were empty and boarded up and the whole atmosphere of the place was one of neglect.
“Well, I can’t see how he could have gotten into too much trouble here,” Mort said dryly, “it ain’t nothing but a one-horse town.”
Slim chuckled, “Well that wouldn’t stop Jess...but I can’t for the life of me think what he could have done that would have landed him in jail. Unless he spent all the mustanging money on whiskey,” he added rolling his eyes.
They entered the Sheriff’s office and immediately Deputy Bert Higgs swung his feet from the desk, and put his newspaper down.
Mort eyed the man and his deputy’s badge dubiously and said, “I’m here to see Sheriff Cain.”
“Ain’t here Sheriff,” Bert said, “he took off after a bank gone a week or so he said.”
Mort sighed at having to deal with the monkey rather than the organ grinder and surveyed the overweight shabby looking deputy.
“I’m Sheriff Mort Cory from Laramie and this is Deputy Slim Sherman. We’re here to see the prisoner Jess Harper...maybe you could show us to the cells?”
“Sorry, no can do,” Bert said happy to be able to deny the wishes of this rather officious looking Sheriff and his Deputy.
Slim, who had been impatiently waiting to see his pard snapped, “Well why the hell not?”
Bert turned on the tall blond Deputy and said, “Because he’s dead, that’s why mister. He done killed his self...just yesterday. Same day as the Sheriff rode out. He was here alone but for an hour or two and decided to take the quick way out.”
Slim had turned pale and was obviously deeply shocked so Mort intervened and said, “What are you talking about man, are you saying he committed suicide?”
“Yup that’s exactly what I’m saying,” Bert replied now enjoying his role as the bearer of bad news.
Slim felt dizzy and gripping onto the desk for support, said, “No I don’t believe it he wouldn’t do that.”
“Well in my experience,” the Deputy pontificated, “a man will do almost anything to escape the noose.”
“The noose...he was to be hung?” Slim whispered.
“Yup, he done robbed the bank and killed the teller. Judge due any day now.”
“I still don’t believe it,” Slim muttered.
Then the deputy dug about in the desk drawer, and came up with a scrap of paper with a pencil-written note on it and passed it over to Slim.
It said, ‘I’m real sorry for what I done. May God forgive me, signed Jess Harper.’
Slim stared at it for a full minute and then passed it over to Mort, “It’s not his handwriting,” he said, “it is way too neat...and not his signature either.”
Then staring angrily at the deputy said, “So are you going to tell us where the hell he is?”
“Like I say he did away with himself, go check out the cell if you don’t believe me. I uh, ain’t had time to clean it up yet,” he added looking slightly shame faced and tipping his head towards the closed door to the cells.
Mort and Slim moved as one and entering the cell stood in consternation at the blood-stained bedding and further stains splattering the floor and nearby wall.
Slim gagged and thought for a moment he might lose his breakfast and Mort stared in alarm at the scene and cussed softly.
Slim turned as Bert Higgs entered, “Like I say it only happened yesterday and I’ve been kinda busy,” he said again feeling pretty bad at the state of the cell.
Slim ignored his excuses and said, “Where is he?”
“His body man,” Mort said angrily, “where is it?”
“Oh, I see…could be still at the doc’s place, over the road. Or the undertakers on the edge of town. Try the doc first,” he added helpfully... feeling kind of bad now as these men were clearly deeply upset at the demise of their friend.
Doctor Lovell ’s housekeeper answered their loud knocking and stared in dismay at the Sheriff and his Deputy, standing before her and both looking distressed.
“Yes, what can I do for you?” she asked anxiously.
“Sheriff Cory Ma’am and Deputy Sherman,  we have urgent business with the Doctor.”
“I’m sorry gentlemen but Doctor Lovell is out on a call. Can I help at all or would you care to wait? He should be back shortly.”
“Thanks, we’ll wait,” Mort said entering, followed by Slim.
The housekeeper, Mrs Goodbody showed them to the parlour and offered coffee.
Both men declined, feeling sick to their stomachs with the tragic news of their friend. But as she turned to go Slim called her back, unable to wait any longer he asked, “Excuse me ma’am but do you have Jess Harper’s...uh remains here?”
Mrs Goodbody who was slightly hard of hearing just heard the name Jess Harper...and said, “Why certainly, do you wish to see him?”
Slim swallowed hard and said “Yes please, if that’s OK?”
“Certainly, this way gentlemen.”
She pointed to a door standing ajar at the end of the corridor, “In there, gentlemen,” she said and turned back to her kitchen.
The men exchanged a charged look and walked down the long corridor to the door and then steeling themselves Slim gently pushed it open and entered.
The dimly lit room was empty save for a narrow bed in the centre...on which Jess reposed.
They walked over and looked down at his deathly white countenance, looking strangely relaxed and peaceful.
Slim was moved to tears as he put out a gentle hand and laid it on Jess’s chest.
Then the unthinkable happened…
His eyes flickered open and he grinned up at his pard, “Well you sure took yer time,” he croaked.
Then looking beyond Slim, to where Mort was looking deeply shocked added, “Better late than never huh.”
“Jess... Oh God we thought...” and then Slim couldn’t go on.
“Huh, what’s up?” he asked looking from Slim to Mort and back.
“They told us over at the jail that you were dead,” Mort supplied.
Jess raised a quirky eyebrow and said, “Well that don’t surprise me none. I guess you can’t believe what most folk tell ya in this Goddamn town.”
Meanwhile Slim had moved over to the window and was staring out with unseeing eyes, filled with unshed tears.
Jess whispered, “Is he OK?” and tipped his head towards Slim’ s ramrod straight back.
“He will be, give him a minute,” Mort whispered back, “the dang deputy showed us your cell...he hadn’t cleaned it up and it wasn’t a pretty sight. It sure looked like you’d bled to death.”
Jess cast his mind back to his last few lucid moments. How the Sheriff had thrown the knife and it had slammed into his shoulder, downing him. Then the botched attempt to slash his wrists. That had been interrupted by someone calling out in the office and the deputy Clem saying, ‘leave him, he’s in a bad way, he won’t last.’ Then he woke up in the doc’s office. Someone must have found him he realized and thanked the Lord.
Then Slim came back and sat down on the edge of the bed, “Who in hell did this to you Jess and why?”
“It was the Sheriff...Sheriff Marty Cain and his Deputy Clem somethin’...”
“But why?” Mort asked, “Why would a Sheriff do this to you and where is the bastard?”
“Because he dang well robbed the bank, killed the teller and then laid all the blame at my door...that’s why! I found out what he was up to and he didn’t want me talkin’. As to where he is, probably half way to the dang Canadian border by now I should think!”
Mort took off his hat and scratched his head before returning it and saying, “I think you’d better tell us everything from the beginning Jess.”

Chapter 4
Once the doc returned, he was able to confirm that although Jess’s injuries had been life threatening, he was now on the mend. As long as he rested and took care of himself, he could be released into his friends care in a few days. The doc finished with, “He should be able to sit a horse in two or three weeks.”
“This is crazy,” Jess exploded from his hotel bed, “I can’t be lyin’ around here all the damn day while those no-good hoodlums are hightailing it out of the country!”
“Just take it easy Jess, you’re in no state to ride yet and Canada is a hell of a step away, we’ll catch up with them...eventually,” Slim said.
“Anyway,” Mort added, “we can’t leave town until we’ve cleared your name. As far as the Town Council are concerned their elected Sheriff jailed you for good reason...and you only have the word of that drunk in the jail, er Sammy? That it was actually the Sheriff that did this to you, robbed the bank and took off with the proceeds.”
“So why don’t you damn well go and find another witness. Hell, there must have been someone in town that saw something. The thing is they’re all running scared,” Jess added angrily. “The doc will tell ya that.”
“I’ve put up posters all around asking any witnesses to come forward. I don’t see there’s much else we can do until the Judge lands. He may be able to help,” Mort said.
“Or not,” Jess replied morosely.
Once Jess was up and around again, he, along with Mort and Slim went to the Sheriff’s office to have a few words with Deputy Higgs.
“Well sure he was a kinda difficult man,” he admitted hesitantly, “and yeah, he did offer added security to some folk, but that ain’t a crime. And as to him robbing the bank, why that’s madness. Hell, he’s out tracking your accomplice now,” he added glaring at Jess. “Come to that why aren’t you back in jail seeing as how you’re well again?”
“Still recuperating.” Mort said quickly, “and in my custody until he’s 100% ...or until the Judge arrives anyway.”
“Well, you won’t have to wait any longer,” a tall distinguished looking man said as he entered the office. They all turned to see the kindly face of one Judge Myers. He was well known to all at the ranch to be an honest and a fair Judge and they were instantly relieved, knowing that Jess would get an impartial hearing.
Jess had just got to the end of his sorry tale when the door opened admitting a shy looking young lady, who glanced hesitantly around her.
“We’re kind of busy in here right now Ma’am,” Deputy Bert Higgs said officiously showing off some in front of the Judge, “so if you wouldn’t mind calling later.”
She turned to go and then turned back and looked over to the friendly looking Judge and said diffidently, “It was about the Bank robbery... you see I witnessed the whole thing and I wanted to give a statement.”
Jenny Jones explained how she had been a little late for work that morning and was in a small anteroom at the back of the bank removing her coat. From there she had seen the Deputy and Sheriff manhandling her fellow teller, Earl Abbot, and forcing him to open the safe. From her hiding place she was able to see through a crack in the door and witnessed the Sheriff shooting Earl with Jess’s gun and then replacing it in his holster. Deputy Clem White then took the money and headed out the door; supposedly following Jess’s alleged accomplice.
The Judge commended her on coming forward. Then he asked to interview the drunk, Sammy.
He was able to give a useful statement too and said he had indeed seen the gruesome body of Jess, covered in blood as he passed the cell. He said he had also heard the Sheriff and Deputy making arrangements for their flight from the country...along with the haul from the bank heist.
Then the Doctor was called on to make a statement explaining exactly what he had told Jess about the Sheriff’s protection racket and the lawman’s fate was sealed.
“It looks like you have no case to answer to Mr Harper,” the Judge intoned. “So, it just leaves me to wish you all the best of luck with catching these men. I can promise you they will be judged most harshly for their heinous crimes. And not just of murder and bank robbery but all their previous wrong doings as well. Plus, I shall make it my personal business to help find a good strong lawman to bring law and order back into this sorry place.”
So it was Jess, Slim and Mort rode out the following morning trailing Marty Cain and Clem White.
The small town, off the beaten track lay approximately sixty miles south of Laramie, so they decided to head for home first. To advise those who needed to know of their whereabouts for the next few weeks and to collect some provisions for the protracted trip.

“It’s just a good job it’s high summer and not too busy at the ranch,” Slim said thoughtfully, “So the Jackson boys will just have to come over to change the stage and feed, water and tend the horses.”
“Did Mike and Daisy get off to Cheyenne?” Jess asked, knowing they were due for their usual summer holiday with Daisy’s sister.
“Yes, they went last week sent their best to you and hoped the sale had gone well,” Slim replied.
Jess’s face clouded, “It had, until those no-good bastards stole half the sale money,” he exploded.
“Only half of it at least,” Slim said with a faint smile. “Rest in your boots?”
Jess nodded, “Yup I rammed in all I could, but there were a powerful lot of notes Slim, couldn’t squeeze it all in. I knew I should have gotten a check.”
“Uh-uh, nope last time we took a check from that guy Wiseman it darned well bounced, it was cash or nothing Jess. Heck the old man is loaded, just doesn’t like parting with his money. Rather keep it under his mattress than in the bank too.” he added with a grin.
“No, neither do I,” Jess said angrily, “all the dang blood and sweat it took to break those mustangs on time and all fer nuthin’.”
Mort, ever the peacemaker said, “Look we’ll get your money back stop your fretting Jess.”
Then reining in he said, “I guess this looks as good a spot as any to camp for the night, huh?”
Jess immediately started arguing that they should carry on until dusk. However, it hadn’t escaped Mort’s notice, or Slim’ s, how pale and tired their buddy looked. Heck the doc had seriously suggested that he rest for another few days...but of course Jess refused to listen. Now he sat his mount awkwardly and by his drawn expression was clearly in some pain.
“Well, it’s alright for you young bucks, but I’m kinda tired riding in this heat,” Mort said, although both Slim and Jess knew that Mort could probably out ride them any day of the week.
“OK Mort you can quit bein’ so dang tactful...I admit it I am kinda beat,” Jess said with a rueful smile.
They made camp and Slim rustled up some beans while Jess and Mort took care of the horses. But once they sat down to eat Jess merely pushed his food around the plate and then abandoned it and just drank the strong coffee.
“Not hungry?” Slim asked casting him a wary glance, expecting a bitingly sarcastic reply, but he just looked down and said, “Sorry...”
Mort raised an eyebrow and said, “You sure?”
But again, he just nodded and passed his plate over for Mort to scrape onto his own after checking Slim didn’t want anymore.
“Guess I’ll turn in,” Jess said and a few minutes later he was wrapped in his bedroll and sleeping beside the fire.
Mort went over and sat beside Slim, after pouring them both another coffee said, “He’s pretty bad, isn’t he? Do ya think we’ll be able to persuade him to rest up for a few days when we hit Laramie?”
“Are you kidding, when he’s on the trail of the no hopers who robbed him blind, no way.”
“Uh I thought not. Oh well maybe I’ll be able to talk Kate into riding along with us. It’s not the hunting trip I’d promised her, but at least we’ll have some time together,” he said wistfully.
“That would be swell,” Slim enthused, “for you and for Jess too. I reckon she’s the only person that can get him to behave,” he chuckled.
Mort grinned, “Well they go way back to his panhandle days don’t they and I guess nobody knows him as well as my Kate. Yup she’ll soon knock him into shape,” he added.
Kate Munroe lived up the Laramie Mountain with her distant cousin Denver James and his sons Cody and Mick Moonshiners and Trappers. The relationship was purely platonic and born of mutual need.
Kate had run a saloon on the panhandle, but when her beloved husband Charlie died, she had needed a change of scene and headed for the mountains; which she declared were her spiritual home. In exchange for a comfortable safe billet with the James family she supplied wisdom, good healthy meals, and her expertise with herbal and Indian medicine; should anyone become sick.
She had run a tight ship back in Texas and ruled the Saloon with a rod of iron and was well respected. Jess often said she could out shoot, out ride and out drink most men and it was true.
She had known Jess as a child and they had a very strong bond due to a situation that occurred way back then. It was a secret that neither of them ever discussed these days, but would bind them together forever. (See # 56 Kate Munroe’s Secret).
Mort had agreed to meet up with Kate at the cave by the Sherman Lake and she was waiting there when the three men rode in the following day.
“You got my message then,” Mort said as he jumped down from his mount and strode over to his woman looking delighted to see her. Taking her in his arms he kissed her long and hard before releasing her and smiling down into her sparkling dark eyes.
“Let me go you great lummox,” she said, but grinning none the less.
Then turning to Jess and Slim said, “Howdy boys, good ta see ya.”
Jess looked over to the diminutive, buckskin-clad figure with the white blond hair and deeply tanned beautiful face, and thought she just didn’t age. She looked pretty much as he remembered her from years ago.
He slipped down from the saddle and gave her a hug, and kissed her cheek then Slim did likewise.
Once the welcoming was over, she scrutinized Jess and said quietly, “I hear you’ve had a rough time of it boy.”
Jess just nodded, “Kinda...some bastard robbed me, and all the good folk of Buzzard, and we’re on their trail.”
“Yes, Mort said in his wire...”
“So, are you up for it my dear, care to tag along?” Mort asked hopefully.
She sighed deeply and rolled her eyes, “Well I guess the sooner I help ya track down these hoodlums, the sooner we can have our hunting trip huh?”
Mort looked overjoyed.
Then she turned to Jess and said, “Anyways somebody’s gotta knock this boy into shape. I can see yer ailing Jess and I’m gonna fix you up ...yup real good,” she added grinning at him.
Jess turned even paler, “I thought you might say that,” he said weakly.

Chapter 5
As it was, he was spared Kate’s ministrations for a little while as she advised him to see Doc Sam Baker over in Laramie before they started their trip up north.
“You need to see a professional boy, after the time you’ve had, check with him that you’re up to riding that darned far.”
Jess reluctantly agreed until he remembered he’d be able to fit in a visit with his best gal Millie if he stayed in town and he smiled inwardly.
“Uh, OK I guess yer right Kate,” he said innocently.
Slim and Mort exchanged a perplexed look but said nothing...maybe Kate had even more of a hold over Jess than they thought.
So, it was agreed Slim would ride out to the ranch to check all was ship shape and tell the Jacksons of his protracted absence. Meanwhile, Jess, Mort and Kate would stay the night in town before catching up with Slim the following day.
They left their mounts at the livery and Mort said, “You’re welcome to stay the night at my place after you’ve seen the doc, Jess.”
“Uh...that’s real good of you Mort,” Jess said glancing over to where Kate was passing the time of day with Bert, the livery owner “but I don’t wanna cramp yer style...three is a crowd huh?”
Mort flushed up, but then grinned and punching Jess lightly on the arm said, “I kinda hoped you’d say that. I’ll walk ya over to the doc’s though.”
“No need,” Jess said quickly, seeing his plan to skip the visit altogether fading fast.
“Ha, not so quick Jess. Kate warned me you’d try and wriggle out of it. I’m coming with you and telling the good Doc exactly what you’ve been through too,” he said fixing him with an uncompromising look.
Sometime later Sam put his stethoscope down and smiling at his old friend said, “OK you can get dressed now Jess.”
‘Sam looked thoughtful as he moved behind his desk. Jess settled on the seat opposite and asked, “Well?”
“I expect you know what I’m going to say, you should rest up for a few weeks before you attempt such an exhausting trip.”
Jess opened his mouth to argue, but the doc raised a hand, “But, knowing you, that would be a complete waste of my breath. So, I’ll give you a good blood tonic and just have to rely on Kate to make sure you don’t overdo things.”
Before he could reply there was a discrete knock on the office door and Carrie, the doc’s pretty young daughter popped her head around the door, “Sorry to interrupt Pa but Dave Watkins is here and saying his Anna’s in labour.”
The doc jumped to his feet, “We’re all done here my dear,” and grabbing his bag rushed towards the door.
“I’ll see you later Jess,” he threw over his shoulder, “you must stay the night, catch you at supper,” and he was gone.
Jess turned to smile at Carrie and then noticed how pale and unhappy she looked her eyes puffy as though she’d been crying.
“Hey are you OK sweetheart?” he asked once her Pa had left.
“Sure,” she said, not meeting his eyes, “I’ll uh go make up the spare bed.”
He came forwards and said gently, “No need. Thanks anyway, but I’ll probably stay over at the saloon.”
She looked at him properly for the first time then and said, “Oh dear you don’t know do you?”
“Huh, know what?”
“It’s Millie she’s left to go help her Ma out at the Cheyenne Boarding House for a few weeks, it was all arranged if you remember?”
Jess nodded, “Hell yes, but that’s not until next week, ain’t it?”
She shook her head, “No, should have been last week, but she hung on another few extra days when you were late back from your mustang sale. Then she just had to go; her Ma really needed the help. She said she’d write.”
Jess cussed lightly under his breath, feeling totally gutted.
“I’m sorry,” said Carrie looking even more woebegone.
He took a deep breath and pinned a smile on his face, “Heck it ain’t your fault...and anyway it’ll give us time together to catch up and you can tell me why you’re looking so down in the mouth huh?” he said kindly.
She went off to make them some coffee and once they were settled on the couch together, in the cosy parlour, she said softly, “It’s me and Mitch, we’ve split up.”
Jess looked genuinely upset, “Heck I’m real sorry honey, I thought you two were on track to the altar?” he added with a questioning look.
She nodded, “Oh we were. He asked me to marry him a while back but well I couldn’t give him an answer and I guess he just got tired of waiting.”
Jess raised an eyebrow, “Couldn’t? Why not Carrie, I thought you loved the guy?”
“So did I,” she said miserably, “but not enough I guess.” She sighed deeply, “You see he just wasn’t...” and then she paused looking down.
“Wasn’t what sweetheart?” he asked softly.
She continued staring into her lap for a full minute before looking up, her dark brown eyes swimming with tears, “He wasn’t you,” she finally managed.
He sucked in a shocked breath and then said gently, “Hell Carrie there was never any future for us, you know that.”
“Not when I had that silly crush on you when we first moved here,” she agreed. (See#3 The Doctor’s Daughter) “But later when I was older, I thought we had a real chance of happiness together.”
Jess shook his head, “You know that ain’t true. Sure, we got kinda close for a while, but if you remember I sent you away didn’t I. Your Pa agreed with me; going back East to do your Midwife’s Training was what you needed. Then when you came back home things had changed, you know that. I hooked up with Millie again...and it got real serious.”
“I know,” she whispered, “and even though Millie is my best friend and I feel so terribly guilty talking this way, I just can’t get you out of my mind Jess. It was always you...always will be...”
“No,” he said firmly, and then more kindly, “It didn’t work out back then and it wouldn’t now, you understand that don’t you...”
“But why, I’m older now, the age difference doesn’t matter so much does it?” she said looking pleadingly up into his face.
“Apart from the age difference there is the fact that I’m in love with Millie. Even if I wasn’t it could never work because you get way too upset when I get myself into hot water... Way I live you’d be forever worryin’ about me. Hell Carrie, you get even more upset than Miss Daisy and God knows she can be dang clucky.”
“Only because she cares,” Carrie said stoutly.
“Yeah, I know it,” he said looking down slightly embarrassed. But then he rallied and said, “Heck we shouldn’t even be talking this way.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” she whispered.
She looked so wretched his heart melted, “Hey come on, cheer up honey and quit talkin’ about it all huh. You make me real nervous,” he said forcing a grin, “and I’d hate to lose one of my best buddies,” he added.
She finally gave him a watery smile and said, “Me too, because you really are a wonderful friend Jess and if we can’t be more, then I guess I’ll just have to settle for that.”
Then he had a thought, “You know Carrie I really don’t think any of this is about me or’s you. See, I don’t think yer ready to settle down yet.”
“You don’t?” she said looking angry, “so what makes you think that?”
“Well, you enjoy yer work dontcha?”
“You know I do... I live for it…the best thing I ever did was getting my Midwife’s qualification. It would be perfect if only Pa would give me more responsibility,” she added sulkily.
“So, you’d be prepared to give it all up to keep house fer yer husband, look after all the kids?”
She looked surprised, “Well I don’t know, I guess I hadn’t really thought any further than the wedding.”
“Well maybe you should,” he said dryly, “because I can’t see Mitch, or any man around here being too happy to have a wife swanning off to deliver babies at all hours of the day or night. A wife not there to fix supper...or look after a man’s needs after a hard day,” he added for good measure with a raised eyebrow.
She flushed a little at that and then said softly, “I never thought about all that.”
“Well maybe it’s time you did and real good huh sweetheart. See I think you’ve got one heck of a lot to see and do before you settle down...don’t you?”
Before she could reply the door opened and, Mrs Hudson, the housekeeper stood there wreathed in smiles.
“Why Jess dear how lovely to see you. I met the doc down the street and he said you were staying the night. Now how does chicken and dumplings sound for supper dear?”
It was much later when Carrie had retired to bed that Doc Sam and Jess sat by the fire enjoying a final glass of whiskey before retiring.
They sat in companionable silence sipping their drinks for a while, before Sam turned to Jess and said, “Did Carrie tell you she’d broken it off with Mitch?”
Jess nodded, “Yes she did.”
Sam sighed and then looking over at his old friend said, “And did she tell you why?”
Jess merely nodded.
“Uh, I’m sorry if she’s embarrassed you,” he said quickly. “But you know my little girl once she sets her heart on something...or someone, she’s kind of hard to rein back in.”
Jess smiled at that, “Don’t I know it.”
Sam looked back into the dying embers of the fire. “I know why you think it wouldn’t have worked...and I guess you’re right,” he said, “but it’s a doggone shame, I couldn’t have wished for a better son-in-law.”
“Thanks,” Jess said softly, “but you know as well as I do, she’d never have a moment’s peace wed to me. I guess I ain’t the stayin’ home, bathing the baby kinda guy. Not right now anyways.”
“You’re right of course...and you did the right thing helping me to convince her to go back East to college,” he added. “Even though that was really hard for you at the time...wasn’t it?” (See#17 Wanted in Texas)
Jess took a deep breath and nodded, “You know it was Sam, I guess I loved her too, but it wasn’t right, never could be.”
He sighed and then said, “Actually Sam I don’t think she’s ready to settle down with anyone,” and he repeated the conversation of earlier that day.
Sam looked thoughtful when he’d finished and said, “Yes, I knew she really wanted sole responsibility for the pregnant ladies in town...and she’s right, she has the experience now. I’ll talk to her first thing and tell her she may run her own clinics from now on and attend all births single handed, unless she asks for my help. So that should keep my little girl happy.”
He topped up their glasses and then said, “And now you have Millie and she’s just perfect for you. She sure takes all your... uh, little adventures in her stride,” he added.
Jess grinned back, “I guess it’s because we grew up together...she’s gotten kinda used to me over the years.”
“Maybe you should just leave Slim and the Sheriff to round up those outlaws,” the doc suggested hesitantly, “and you take yourself off to Cheyenne and recuperate with Millie for a week or two?”
Jess smiled and shook his head, “Well that’s mighty tempting Sam, but I figure Mort will need my help to find those lowlifes. See it takes someone that knows the old owl hoot trail to track their sort.
Sam shook his head, “I suppose you’re right...just don’t tell Carrie you’re heading off for the backwoods to Canada and still not one hundred percent fit at that.”
“Okay, I won’t, if you won’t,” Jess said with an engaging grin and they clinked glasses and swigged back the remains of their whiskey.

Chapter 6
Early the following morning Mort, Kate and Slim met up with Jess and they set off heading due north. There had been a sighting of the Sheriff and his Deputy heading Laramie-way a while ago both still using the excuse that they were on the trail of a bank robber.
“See they’d no idea that you’d survived that vicious attack Jess and had exposed them for what they really are,” Mort explained.
“Even so they didn’t pass through Laramie so I figure they’d maybe called in at the Trading Post if they were thinkin’ on going north on the old Indian trails,” Jess said thoughtfully. “Figure we’ll stop by Billy-Joe’s place huh?”
They arrived an hour or so later and Billy-Joe was delighted to have so many customers.
“Good to see ya Jess, Slim... and then he saw the Sheriff and Miss Kate bringing up the rear. “Why Sheriff, Kate, quite a party,” he said happily.
Mort quickly explained the situation and Billy-Joe was able to confirm that yes, a man wearing a Sheriff’s badge who was called Marty had been there. Also his deputy who was referred to as Clem by the Sheriff, although no surnames had been used.
“They said they’d traveled up from a town called Buzzard and were tracking a bank robber,” Billy-Joe continued, “But it didn’t ring true somehow.”
“No?” Jess asked.
“No, see thing is the red headed guy...uh Clem, bought a load of mining gear, a pick, shovel and then he wanted a pack mule too.”
Mort threw him a quizzical glance, “So did you have one to sell him?”
Billy-Joe chuckled, “Well actually, as it happens, I did. Remember old Jack Dunne, the miner?”
They nodded.
“Well, he died a while back and left me Clancy in his Will.”
Slim let out a guffaw, “What, that useless old ass of his? Gee I thought he liked you Billy-Joe!”
Billy-Joe grinned back, “Me too. So anyways this Clem seemed happy enough to take him off my hands.”
“Well, that’s good news,” Mort said, “if they’ve gotten Clancy in tow, they’ll still be down the trail aways.”
“Sure…he’ll slow ‘em up some,” Jess agreed.
Then he wandered over to where Kate had been trading with Billy-Joe’s pretty wife Matilda...
Jess eyed the pile of herbs and spices laid out on the counter suspiciously.
“Looky here,” Kate said excitedly. “Tilly has gotten all the herbs and seasonings I need for my special tonic for you.”
Jess looked even more suspicious, “She has huh.”
Tilly grinned at her favorite customer and said, “And seeing as it’s for you Jess dear, I’ve added some extra dried figs free of charge.”
They made good time and found themselves just south of Casper three days later and that’s where they were to have a big surprise.
The tracks although old had been quite easy for Jess to follow. There had been no bad weather of any sort and Clancy’s diminutive hooves, often digging deep into the soft ground, were easy to spot.
“I guess he was puttin’ up quite a fight,” Jess said tipping his hat down towards the pockmarked ground where the stubborn mule had clearly been balking yet again.
It was just a few minutes later when Jess reined in looking puzzled.
The others followed suit and Slim said, “What’s up Pard?”
Jess shrugged, “Dunno, but it looks like they’ve split up. See horse carries straight on, and the other leading Clancy seems to be heading due west towards Dakota.”
Mort looked thoughtful, “Well that kinda makes sense, maybe one of them...uh Clem was it... has decided to go east and head for the gold in the Black Hills. Kinda greedy though ain’t he?”
When the others looked skeptical, he added, “Don’t forget he still thinks you’re dead Jess and there are no incriminating witnesses. He could just say he decided to quit being a deputy and was going to try his luck at mining.”
“It would be a good cover too, just in case he was being pursued and didn’t Tilly say he’d bought some Henna?”
“Henna?” Slim asked
“Ladies use it to enhance and darken their hair. He could be using it to cover up all that bright red hair, what with that and a new career, I guess he thinks he’ll be well disguised; even if their cover is blown,” Kate said.
“Well, it’d take a dang sight more than a change of job and some dang hair dye to put me off the trail,” Jess said angrily.
“Um, if you’re going to be on his trail,” Mort said, “see it looks like we’ll have to split up if they have done.”
“I propose you and Kate follow him and Jess and I will carry on towards the border,” Slim said.
“How come” Mort asked, “I think maybe I should be around to make sure he doesn’t bluff his way out of things.”
“Yeah, but if he’s over the border you won’t have any jurisdiction will ya Mort? It’ll be out of your designated patch,” said Jess. “But me and Slim can just take off our deputy badges and go get him as private citizens, if needs be.”
“Uh, I guess you’re right,” Mort conceded. “But just be careful, both of you...this is one wily character.”
“So are we Mort, so are we,” Jess said with a chuckle.
So it was Kate and Mort took off heading for Dakota, Kate first ensuring that Jess take his tonic regularly and rested when he felt tired.
“Yes Ma,” Jess has said with a twinkle in his eye.
Now as she and Mort made camp that evening, she wondered how her dear friends were faring.
She set about making a fire and had the coffee brewed by the time Mort had fed and watered the horses.
“Gee this is nice,” he said as he settled down beside her. “I guess Slim and Jess are two of the best friends I’ll ever have, but it’s nice to have you all to myself at last.”
She smiled in agreement and then said reflectively, “I hope that cheeky whippersnapper behaves himself and heeds my words.”
“Oh, he’ll be fine, Slim will make sure he takes the medicine,” Mort said.
Then gently removing the coffee cup from her hands he leaned in and kissed her, at first tentatively and then more and more passionately.

It was just three days later when they finally apprehended the villain.
They actually heard him before they saw him loudly berating the stubborn mule as he once more refused to budge.
They were heading through a rocky pass between two steep mountains and as they rounded the bend, they saw a tall skinny dark-haired man raising his whip to the mule and cussing loudly.
Mort quickly dismounted and aiming his rifle at the outlaw said, “OK hold it right there White.”
“Huh,” the man put the whip to one side and said, “who the hell are you and what do ya want?”
“Well, I’ll tell ya,” Mort said with a cheery grin, “my name is Sheriff Cory and I’m here to arrest you for the robbery of the Buzzard bank; conspiracy to arrest an innocent citizen for the same, and also collusion with another for the attempted murder of a prisoner in your care.”
“That weren’t murder he committed suicide,” Clem retaliated before he had time to think things through. ‘What?’ he suddenly said to himself, ‘attempted’ murder...hell Harper had survived?
“So, you do admit that you are Clem White former Deputy of Buzzard Colorado then?”
“Maybe,” the other said gruffly, his beady eyes darting around him for an escape route.
“Only I wasn’t sure seeing as you’ve dyed yer hair,” Mort said with another grin.
“Ain’t a criminal offense, is it?” he said belligerently.
“Nope that isn’t,” Mort agreed, “but you’ve got one hell of a lot of other crimes to answer to. Now throw down yer iron; you’re coming back to Buzzard with me, White.”
Once White reluctantly tossed his gun down Mort went across and handcuffed him while Kate tended to the terrified mule.
“It weren’t me. I’ve done nothing wrong,” Clem rallied, suddenly furious at his plight.
“So, I guess we won’t find the best part of five-thousand bucks in your saddle bags then,” Mort said already investigating and coming up with the booty almost at once.
“Plus, we have the little matter of several sworn statements and folk happy to give evidence against you waiting back in Buzzard. Mount up... and quit cussin’ there’ a lady present,” he added winking at Kate; who he knew could probably out cuss both him and the prisoner.
Then once they were back on the trail, he was delighted to note that Kate had worked her magic on the recalcitrant Clancy and he was trotting happily alongside Kate and her mount.
“How the heck did you do that?” he asked her later that day as they made camp the prisoner already tied to a nearby tree.
“Just a little of my special horse sweetener,” she said chuckling and showing Mort a mixture of herbs and nuts, mixed with honey. “Calms them down see...then a touch of my horse whispering to relax him did the trick. He was just scared ‘twas all,” she said grinning. “He’ll be fine now.”
Mort shook his head in disbelief...was their nothing his Kate couldn’t turn her hand to?
“Let’s git this prisoner back to town and then take that hunting trip,” he said taking her hand and looking deeply into her eyes.
“Why Sheriff I thought you’d never ask,” she chuckled batting her eyes at him before grinning and saying, “And about time too old man...I guess we need some down time together huh.”

Chapter 7
If Mort and Kate’s tracking had been going well it was not so for Jess and Slim.
Now that he wasn’t encumbered by his partner, and Clancy, the obstinate mule, it seemed that Ex Sheriff Marty Cain was speeding along at a great pace. He was however becoming lax and didn’t tidy up or try to disguise his camp sites or even keep to the old Indian trails. Now he was on the main road heading towards Montana and Coulson and didn’t seem any too bothered as to who saw him. Maybe he was still sticking to his story about chasing bank robbers the men thought...knowing that he didn’t know Jess had survived and could easily land him in jail with all the evidence against the renegade Sheriff.
The pace was grueling and several times Slim begged Jess to take it easy and rest up, but he steadfastly refused.
“What, and let that lowlife escape, are you crazy Slim?” Jess replied angrily.
“Come on Jess, you know what Kate said.”
“Dang it, never mind Kate. Come on Slim there’s another couple of hours before dark, quit talking, let’s go.”
It was the following day when they finally saw the fresh tracks before them and knew their quarry couldn’t be far away. This was endorsed when they came across the embers of a camp fire.
“An hour, maybe two ahead,” Jess said looking overjoyed.
They had been riding for less than an hour when they heard a distant, single shot fired. They looked at each other in surprise and carried on with renewed speed. Then sometime later they heard a horse heading in their direction and quickly dismounting they took cover beside the rocky road, ready to stop the outlaw in his tracks when he rounded the bend a few yards in front of them.
Moments later they saw Cain’s old buckskin limping along and looking very sorry for himself.
Jess jumped out from his hiding place and was easily able to catch the critter. Then on closer inspection said, “He’s lame Slim, got a badly pulled muscle on his nearside front leg...can’t be ridden for a good while that’s fer sure.”

“So, Cain’s afoot,” Slim said the light of battle in his eyes, “come on Jess, we’ve got him!”
They had only ridden a few hundred yards when they saw a body lying in the middle of the road.
They both dismounted and drawing their weapons they advance slowly on Cain.
But moments later they stared down in consternation at the body of...a complete stranger!
Jess was the first to come to his senses and holstering his iron he knelt down beside the elderly man who was groaning quietly and clutching at his bloodstained chest.
“What happened?” Jess asked softly.
The old timer opened his eyes and stared at Jess in terror, but then realizing he meant no harm he sighed deeply and said, “‘Twas a stranger...stopped me to ask directions to the nearest town I told him and then he called me back, I turned and he damn well shot me,” he gasped.
“Garldarn it why would he do that,” Slim interjected angrily.
“Wanted my horse mister, his had come up he took my, Beauty. Prettiest dang horse you ever did see,” he added, his old eyes fading now. “A white blaze and four white socks, real pretty.”
His head lolled back and Jess thought he was a gonner but then he rallied.
“He’s headed for Charity about ten miles east of Coulson...he needed supplies he said.” Then more firmly, “Tell my granddaughter, young Ellie...tell her what happened mister,” he implored grabbing Jess by the shirt front, “You look out for her please...she’s a good girl. Got a Great Aunt, lives down in Laramie...she’s to go there. Tell the Sheriff at Charity, tell him...what he did to me...” and then he breathed his last.
Jess’s eyes flashed darkly with anger, “Oh we’ll tell him alright, dontcha worry on that score.”
As they had no means of transporting the body of the old timer to town, they dug a grave by the roadside and on checking his pockets found his name was Sam Brown.
Then Jess tended to the buckskin as well as he could, removed his tack and set him free, knowing that he would be unable to keep up with them with the injured leg.
“With any luck he’ll take it easy and find a wild herd to run with once he’s fit again,” Jess said patting the old horse’s rump gently.
“Well let’s go nail that bastard,” Slim said mounting up.
It was late afternoon when they rode into the small mountain town of Charity. They were hot, tired and dusty. The place looked deserted and about as lively as Buzzard had been; so Jess thought.
They went over to the livery and saw a young boy who said he’d take real good care of their mounts. Then as they were leaving, Jess saw a pretty bay mare in the end stall, bearing a white blaze and four white socks. He nudged Slim and said, “Looky here Slim.”
Then turning to Joey, the stable lad said, “Uh, that’s a real beauty, who does she belong to son?”
The boy looked saddened, “She was old Doc Sam’s, he was the local doctor. Well, sorta…he was retired I guess; but still tended folk if they needed it. A real nice guy. He was murdered today. Who’d do that kinda thing?” and he shook his head sadly.
“So, who brought the horse in?” Jess asked urgently.
The boy looked surprised at his interest but merely replied, “Why the Sheriff from Buzzard...uh Cain I think he’s called, yup Sheriff Cain. He witnessed the whole thing see. There were two men, and he saw them kill Doc Brown. He went to challenge them and one of them shot his horse from under him. Jeez, I can’t believe that, can you?” he asked in outrage.
Slim and Jess exchanged a glance and Jess said dryly, “Nope I really can’t.”
The boy missed the irony and continued, “Anyway these men turned tail and rode off when they saw the Sheriff. You see he’s been hunting them down since they robbed the bank down in Buzzard.”
“You don’t say,” Slim said.
“Yes mister. Anyways, the Sheriff had to take poor Sam’s mount seeing as he was left afoot. Seems he told the Sheriff he believes that these men will show up here sometime as they must be all out of supplies by now said it was just a waiting game.”
“He did huh,” said Jess his anger mounting, “So where can we find your Sheriff boy?”
“Down Main Street on the right by the Golden Nugget Saloon.”
“I don’t believe it!” Jess yelled once they were out of earshot. “The damn audacity of the guy!”
“Um, let’s just hope he hasn’t convinced the Sheriff,” Slim said looking anxious.
They found the office alright with the words ‘Sheriff Dean Hanson’ in big letters over the door but there were no lights on and the place was locked up for the night.
“Just great,” said Slim, “now what?”
“We go find that bastard Cain and arrest him of course,” Jess said, “and I guess the best place to start is the saloon.”
They had asked the barkeep about the whereabouts of the town Sheriff, and a visiting Sheriff called Marty Cain although the words ‘Sheriff’ stuck in Jess’s craw when referring to Cain.
The barkeep just looked blankly at them and shrugged.
That’s when Jess nearly lost his temper and said, “Fer God’s sake man this is only a two-bit town, you must know where Sheriff Hanson and his visitor might be?”
The man sighed deeply and then sent a boy who had been skulking in the backroom to try and find the Sheriff.
Jess and Slim were just finishing their second pint of beer when a deep voice behind them said, “OK drop your weapons and turn around real slow.”
Both men ignored the order but turned to see a burly, elderly, red faced Sheriff, with a steely expression in his eyes; and his rifle turned on them.
“Lose ‘em I said or I’ll drop you where you stand,” he growled menacingly.
Jess and Slim exchanged a glance and then did as they were told.
Then the Sheriff turned to a man standing in the shadows behind him and said, “So are these your prisoners Sheriff Cain?”
“Goddamn it, Sheriff will ya listen to us!” Jess cried angrily.
Slim and Jess were now in the Sheriff’s dusty old jail, Cain and Hanson on the other side of the bars and the elderly Sheriff getting more impatient as time went on.
“I’ve listened all I’m gonna for one night.” he replied, “Fact is, this here Sheriff Cain is a genuine Sheriff; whereas you two are merely a pair of ranchers acting deputy...allegedly,” he added darkly.
“Exactly,” said Jess, “and so do you really think a rancher would shoot a guy’s horse from under him? Anyway you’ve checked our saddle bags and we ain’t got that Bank money.”
“You could have stashed it some place,” Cain said.
“So could you,” snapped Slim.
“What’s more iffen we had shot your horse how come we didn’t shoot you too huh? I guess iffen we had actually killed Brown in cold blood like you say, then we wouldn’t want any witnesses.”
Cain looked uncomfortable and merely blustered, “I was too quick for you...opened fire and you high-tailed it away after you shot that poor old timer.
Slim shook his head, “How many times! We didn’t kill him; we came across the body and gave him a decent burial. That’s how come we landed in town after you did. Your horse went lame...we know, because we found him and according to Brown you killed him for his horse...which is now in the livery!”
“Look, gentlemen this is getting us nowhere. Yes, Mr Harper I will wire the Sheriff’s office in Laramie to get them to verify your story,” said the now exasperated Sheriff Hanson, but other than that, I have to believe a law man over you two, that’s just the way it is.”
“Even though all the evidence is stacked against him!” Jess yelled.
Hanson ignored him and turning to Cain said, “I’m sorry Sheriff but I must be seen to cover every avenue. If you’d care to stay at the Boarding House down the street for a couple of days, I’m sure we can clear all this up. After all, murder is a powerful serious crime and I have to be sure as to who I can trust on this one.”
“But Sheriff the accusations these men are making are ridiculous surely you can see that, as if I’d rob the Bank in my own, a respected lawman!”
“Yes, yes,” said Hanson, “quite so, but you are in my town now Sheriff and I would ask you to comply. As soon as I hear back from Laramie, we will be able to go ahead with the trial. I just ask you to be patient for a few days.”
Once Cain had stormed off, Jess called Sheriff Hanson back.
“Look Sheriff whether you believe us or not it is dang well true and when we came upon Brown, he was still alive. He asked us to look out for his granddaughter... er... Ellie. He said she has an aunt, who lives in Laramie ...she’s to go there, Brown said. Can you tell her that; look out for her...we kinda promised we’d do that.”
Hanson looked very thoughtful, “Um... thank you Mister Harper...and uh, I’ll send that wire first thing tomorrow.”
Once he’d left Jess stared after him for a good minute before erupting in fury, “Damn knuckle headed son of a bitch, can’t he see that bastard Cain for what he is!”
“Apparently not,” Slim said sinking down onto one of the hard cots.
Jess continued muttering oaths and pacing around the cell until he really started to get on Slim’ s nerves.
Close as he was to Jess (hell they could have been brothers), he still found it kinda uncomfortable being enclosed in a confined space with him when he was this angry.
“Jeez I’ve got a good mind to call that useless lump back in here and tell him what I think of him,” he said now clasping the bars and peering out into the dim light beyond the connecting door.
“Well, that wouldn’t be very smart,” Slim said quietly, “it would completely scupper our case and maybe he wouldn’t send that wire.”
“What do you mean our case?” Jess bellowed, “We don’t have a case to answer! It’s that lowlife waste of space, Cain, who has a case against him!”
“Jess will you just simmer down,” Slim shouted back losing his temper now. “This attitude really isn’t helping you know!”
Jess was silent and then taking a deep breath collapsed down on his own bunk. After a minute he looked up and whispered, “Sorry Slim...I just don’t like being confined. Ya know?”
“Yeah, I understand,” Slim said softly. “Come on let’s turn in get all rested up for round two huh?”
Jess gave him the ghost of a smile, “You got it,” he replied.
Cain returned the following day trying to blacken Jess and Slim’ s characters and urging the Sheriff to make arrangements for an immediate trial and subsequent hanging. However, when it became apparent that Hanson wouldn’t be moved, Cain once more stormed out and they didn’t see anything of him after that, much to Hanson’s relief.
It was on the third day that Sheriff Hanson entered the jail and opened the door saying Slim and Jess were free to go.
They followed him into the outer office and Jess said belligerently, “So you believe us now do ya?”
“Uh, yes and I am sincerely sorry gentlemen...but that Sheriff Cain was so dang convincing. I actually received a wire from a Judge Myers and he has filled me in on everything pertaining to this case.”
“Good, so maybe you’d like to accompany us to arrest him?” Slim said pleasantly as he buckled on his gun belt.
“Iffen he’s still here,” Jess muttered darkly. “Damn it he could be over the border by now,” he continued more loudly, “after your bumbling attitude! So, where the hell is he? Still in town? He’d better be,” he added ominously, when the Sheriff didn’t reply.
“He checked out yesterday morning Sheriff, and left no forwarding address,” said the Boarding House clerk.
They marched over to the livery and found young Joey.
“Yes, Sheriff, I saw that Sheriff Cain early yesterday morning, he said he wanted Doc Brown’s horse saddled up, said he was going on some business for you.”
“He did, did he?” Hanson growled.
“Yes sir, said you’d told him it was OK to borrow the horse. “Did I do wrong?”
The elderly Sheriff sighed deeply and said, “No boy, not’s me that’s been a complete fool.”
“Well, you won’t get any argument there from me,” Jess growled angrily as he went off to saddle up Traveller.

Chapter 8
Cain had over a day’s head start on them, plus he was now being exceedingly wary and had covered his tracks well.
“This is no damn good,” Jess said, reining in once more when he realized…they had been following a false trail yet again.
They had immediately headed out of town and taken the old Indian trail and Jess’s hawk eyes had picked up his tracks after a mile or so. But then he had lost and found them several more times...and his frustration was growing by the minute.
“At least we know the general direction he’s heading in,” Slim said hopefully. “Maybe if we just keep heading for the border, we’ll find the trail again.”
“Yeah, or until we run into another Sheriff that takes his side,” Jess said morosely.
“Well, that isn’t going to happen,” Slim said with a cheerful grin. “Sheriff Hanson gave me the wire he received from Judge Myers. That should convince anyone else that’s thinking of believing Cain’s lies.”
“It better had,” Jess said sullenly before riding off again, his eyes glued to the ground.
Later that afternoon he swung down from his mount and squatted down examining the ground closely.
They had picked up Cain’s tracks with Beauty’s distinctive large hoof prints a few hours ago.
“What’s up?” asked Slim looking down from the saddle.
Jess tipped his hat back and frowned, “He looks to be turning back on himself I can’t figure it. He took a left through that gully and now he’s heading south again...going back the way we’ve come.”
“Why the heck would he do that?”
“Beats me,” said Jess looking around him as though the answer would suddenly jump out from behind one of the rocks.
Then he snapped his fingers, “Of course, he must have stashed the cash someplace. Remember Hanson went through his saddle bags as well as ours.”
“He’s heading back to town then, to pick it up?” Slim asked looking surprised.
“It sure looks that way...or nearby anyway.”
“So why didn’t he just pick it up on his way out of town?”
Jess shrugged, “Dunno, maybe he wanted to make sure he’d given anyone following the slip first. After all he wouldn’t want us to find him retrieving his stash and who would be expecting him to turn back towards town again?”
“Then what ’ll he do? He must know we’re on his he can’t come back up this way or we’d nail him,” Slim said thoughtfully. “So, what would you do in these circumstances, Jess, huh?”
“I wouldn’t have gotten myself into this dang mess in the first place,” Jess growled. Then more calmly, “I figure maybe I’d lie low for a good while, until the posse had gotten bored and gone home.”
“I guess we just have to keep following him until we find his hide-out.” Slim said.
“Yup, should be real easy, that,” Jess said surveying the miles of rocky terrain surrounding them peppered with mines, caves and hidden gullies, “yup real easy,” he said dryly as he remounted.
They were still following the tracks heading towards Charity, when the storm hit. It really looked like he was going all the way back to town...but why? Jess pondered as he pulled his hat down hard and his jacket collar up against the roaring wind.
“I reckon it doesn’t matter where he’s heading right now,” Slim said as he rode up beside Jess, “because he’s going to have to take cover and we are too Jess, this looks to be one hell of a storm rolling in.”
Jess was all for arguing, but once the torrential rain started beating down, he knew his pard was right, they had to find someplace to ride it out.
It was a good half hour later and they were both soaked to the skin when they finally found a cave and deep rocky overhang that would provide shelter for both themselves and their mounts.
Once the horses were tended Jess poked about at the back of the cave and found a stash of reasonably dry logs and kindling.
“Hey looky here Slim,” he called out, “we’re in luck...”
Slim wandered over and grinned, “Gee that’s good,” then more thoughtfully, you don’t suppose Cain was here?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope this ain’t been touched in years. Look there’s cobwebs all over it, probably Indians left them.”
Then he kicked at the pile and as he had thought…a rat ran out, closely followed by another and the critters tore out of the cave and into the deluge beyond.
“Great company,” Slim said looking disgusted, “reckon there’s anymore?”
Jess grinned and said, “Best not disturb them Slim, we might need some for supper if this storm keeps up.”
Slim shuddered and rolled his eyes, “Just make the fire up will ya, I reckon we’ve got enough beans and bacon left for supper,” he said, casting a glance out towards the cave mouth where the storm was still raging.
An hour later they were sitting in their undershorts, each with their bedroll around their shoulders and the rest of their clothing steaming gently before the fire. They had finished supper and now were sipping their coffee and looking into the depths of the fire as it crackled away comfortingly.
Slim glanced across and noted the intent look in his Pard’ s eyes and said, “What are you thinking about Jess?”
“Huh? Oh, that pretty little Ellie Doc Brown’s granddaughter. I sure hope she’ll be OK.”
Jess and Slim had visited the girl, once they were released from jail. They had found her at her grandfather’s house way out on the edge of town. They had spoken of her grandfather’s last minutes and his desire that she should move to Laramie to live with her Great Aunt. She had confirmed that it had always been planned that way should anything happen to her beloved grand pappy, and she seemed quite resigned to the fact.
“Are you gonna be OK out here on your own, in the meantime,” Jess had asked as they made their leave...feeling kinda bad at abandoning a young sixteen-year-old out there alone.
“Quite alright,” she had said demurely. “Mr and Mrs Baxter just down the track, look in regularly and I often eat with them. Besides I won’t be here too long. You see Mr Fadden from the mercantile has relatives in Laramie and he’s always said I may accompany him in his wagon, with his wife, whenever he visits... So I’ll be alright, really, I will.”
Now looking at Slim he said, “I sure hope she’s OK and can make that journey to her aunt’s real soon...’tis awful lonely for a youngster out there.”
“A real coincidence her aunt living in Laramie, Slim said thoughtfully. “I wonder if we know her?”
Jess shrugged, “Dunno, but sooner she gets there, the happier I’ll be.”
Slim nodded, “She was a tough little thing or wanted to look that way anyway,” he said with a chuckle.
“Oh, come on Jess you must have noticed the way she was looking at you, she just wanted to appear real grown up.”
“To impress you.”
“You’re loco.”
“I am huh, well she sure perked up when you said we’d look in on her when she arrived in Laramie; would show her around the town.”
“Hell, I was just bein’ neighborly, I felt sorry for the kid.”
“Well, I know that, and so do you...but I reckon young Ellie doesn’t,” Slim said with another chuckle.
Jess merely scowled at him and pulling his bedroll around him more securely said, “I don’t know about you but I’m beat. I’m turnin’ in,” and moments later he was out like a light; snoring gently.
The following morning the storm was spent and they made their way towards Charity at first light.
As they rode in a few hours later they were surprised to find the place even more deserted than usual and the Sheriff’s office all locked up.
“What’s goin’ on?” Jess asked raising an eyebrow, “Has all the action around here made folk sit up and look for a quieter town.”
Slim grinned at the quip and then said, “One place we should be able to find out,” and he headed for the saloon.
They entered the bar to find that equally deserted and the barkeep polishing glasses in a somewhat desultory way.
“Where is everybody?” Slim asked once they’d ordered some beer.
“Haven’t you heard? Doc Brown’s young granddaughter’s been abducted and everyone’s out looking.”
“I knew it,” Jess snapped, “I knew she wasn’t safe left there all alone.”
The barkeep looked surprised at that outburst and said, “She was used to it Mister. She was alone often enough when the Doc was busy working all hours of the day and night, before he retired. Besides nobody here would harm a hair of her head and we get precious few strangers in these parts,” he added throwing them a baleful glance.
Jess ignored the look and said, “Has that Sheriff Cain been back to town, do you know?”
The barkeep looked surprised, “Why no, he was proved to be a fake according to Sheriff Hanson and wanted by the why would he come back?”
“Why indeed,” said Jess quietly and returned to drinking his beer.
Once the barman had wandered off, Slim turned to his pard and said, “You don’t think Cain has got anything to do with this do you Jess?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno, but I aim to find out, come on Slim drink up, let’s go.”
They arrived at the Baxter spread a half mile from Doc Brown’s little house and after tethering their mounts Slim rapped a tattoo on the front door. When there was no reply, they looked around the place. There were chickens wandering around the yard and smoke issuing from the chimney and so it seemed pretty clear that someone was home.
They were just turning back towards the door to try again when an elderly lady, with white hair, wearing a bright floral apron and wielding a rifle came into view around the side of the house.
The vision so reminded Jess of Daisy that he couldn’t help but grin at her.
His enchanting smile somewhat flummoxed the old lady and she lowered her rifle a tad looking slightly perplexed and said, “Yes, what do you want?” in a surprisingly strong firm voice.
“Well, iffen you’d put down that rifle we’d feel a whole lot more comfortable for starters,” Jess said flashing her another smile.
Then Slim came forwards, and showing her the deputy badge said, “We’re Deputy Sheriffs’ ma’am…over from Laramie and we wondered if you could answer a few questions about the abduction of Miss Brown?”
The lady waved the gun towards the door and said, “You’d better come in gentlemen.”
Once the introductions had been made, she settled back in her old rocker and said, “My husband Frank and I feel just terrible about all this business. Frank is out now with the posse, searching...been two days since they rode out,” she added looking anxious.
“Go on ma’am,” Slim said kindly.
“You see we blame ourselves. This Sheriff rode in... well, he said he was a Sheriff. He wore a badge said his name was Sheriff Cain.”
Jess jumped up from his seat looking furious, “I knew it. I just knew it!” he cried loudly.
Mrs Baxter looked startled, staring up at this handsome, yet volatile young man.
“Simmer down Jess you’re not helping any,” Slim snapped.
Then turning back to Mrs Baxter said, “Please go on ma’am.”
Once she was sure Jess was settled down again, she continued, “As I say, we blame ourselves. You see, this Cain called here wanting to know the whereabouts of Miss Ellie. He said he was the one who had found Doc Brown and apprehended the murderers and he just wanted to be sure Miss Ellie was safe; and to tell her of her grandfather’s last words. It all seemed so reasonable. Now Frank blames himself for not accompanying this Sheriff but he was busy butchering the pigs; so, he just told him where the doc’s house was and to tell Ellie she is expected for a meal later that day. Then when she was late Frank wandered over to fetch her and found Ellie and Patch missing.”
“Patch?” Jess asked.
“Her pony dear a little buckskin…she loves that critter,” she added sadly.
“Anything else,” Slim asked.
“Oh yes, Frank said it looked like there had been a fight of some sort, china broken, chairs upturned and a valise with some of Ellie’s clothes gone too. Well of course Frank rode into town at once and that’s when we heard the news and found out that this Sheriff Cain was bogus and he’d had two real deputies jailed for the murder.”
Then she looked surprised, “That was you two boys?”
Jess nodded, “Yes ma’am and that Sheriff Cain is a real bad lot, wanted for murder and bank robbery back in Buzzard as well as killing Doc Brown for his horse.”
The poor woman looked like she might well burst into tears at this and both men felt suddenly very sorry for her.
“We just didn’t know,” she whispered, “we don’t get into town too much and the last we heard this Sheriff Cain was a hero. I am so, so sorry.”
“Didn’t Ellie tell you about it all,” Slim asked, “after all we visited her a little while back and she knew all about Cain being trouble and how we’d been framed by him.”
She shook her head, “No… you see dear we hadn’t seen Ellie for a few days, she hates it when Frank is slaughtering the pigs for market, so she stays away. She was due over for lunch the day Cain arrived as Frank had nearly finished the job.”
She sighed, then went on, “But we always check there is smoke coming from her chimney, we can see it easily from here and once we see that we know all is well...or we thought we did,” she added sadly, “I really am sorry,” she said again.
“Don’t be,” Jess said sincerely, “you’ve been a real help ma’am and we’ll find young Ellie and bring her home safe and sound, you’ll see.”
“What did you tell her that for?” Slim asked angrily once they were riding away and out of earshot. “You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep Jess.”
“Oh, I aim to keep it alright,” Jess said, “or die trying,” and with that he urged Traveler on to even greater speed.
Slim looked after him, shaking his head before he kneed Alamo on to join his pard.

Chapter 9
They had been riding a few hours in the blazing heat when they saw a posse of riders heading their way.
Jess turned and frowned at Slim and said, “What in hell are they doing coming back to town...unless they’ve found her,” he added suddenly grinning. “Come on Slim, let’s go see.”
As they got closer, they were able to see the dispirited company of men riding slowly heads bowed and no sign of young Ellie.
Sheriff Hanson reined in when Slim and Jess approached, removing his hat and wiping his hot sweating face with a kerchief, before nodding to them.
“Harper, Sherman, good to see you...any luck in locating Cain?”
Slim shook his head, “We tracked him going back towards town and then were told Ellie had been abducted and I guess the smart money is on him having taken her; for some reason.”
Hanson replaced his hat and considered the information before saying, “I can’t see as to why he would do that?”
“Well neither can we,” Jess barked, “but it sure looks that way. And anyway, what are you doin’ back if you ain’t found her?”
“Trail went cold. It was that storm washed away all the tracks.”
“So, you’re just giving up?” Jess asked looking incredulous.
“Well what else do you expect me to do boy,” the elderly Sheriff said tetchily, “I can’t go gallivanting around the countryside on a lost cause. I’ve got me a town to run...and these men hafta get back to work too.”
“So that’s it then?” Jess asked bitterly.
“I’m sorry, real sorry, but yes that’s all I can do. Uh, but should you manage to locate Cain, or indeed young Ellie, then I’d sure appreciate you bringing them back to town. A lot of folks are real worried about young Ellie and that bastard Cain will hang for the murder of her grand pappy too.”
Jess opened his mouth to reply with some choice words indicating his thoughts on the Sheriff’s attitude.
But Slim quickly hushed him and said, “Sure Sheriff we’ll be in touch once we find them,” and he quickly ushered Jess off, before he could vent his feelings on the elderly Sheriff and posse.
Once they were out of earshot Jess said, “Why did you shut me up... huh?”
“Because you yelling the odds at them wouldn’t have made any difference and wouldn’t have helped any,” Slim said reasonably.
“Well, it sure would have helped me some,” Jess said dourly, before urging Traveler on to a quick trot.
They rode onwards through the blistering heat, hoping upon hope that they would see some sign that they were on the right track. But the unforgiving open countryside spread out for mile after mile before them...nothing visible save the constant heat haze and scrubby landscape stretching out as far as the eye could see.
By the end of the third day of riding in the scorching heat both men were feeling weary and exasperated, as there was no sign that anyone had passed that way.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Slim said as he reined in and sipped the last of the water from his canteen.
“So, what are you saying...we give up too?” Jess said angrily.
Slim just sighed and shrugged, “It’s impossible buddy they could be anywhere.”
Jess looked furious, “Have you forgotten how he knifed me and left me to bleed to death...not to mention getting us both banged up in jail back in Charity.”
“Yes, I know, I know,” Slim said quietly.
“There’s something else too... something that you don’t know about.”
“When the town’s folk back in Buzzard came forward after Cain had been exposed for the low-life he was, they told me something else about him. It seems he also had a reputation with the ladies. A woman told me that he demanded sexual favours from lone females in return for protection. Those who didn’t comply mysteriously left town or had their property fired or would lose their job. They’d be forced into poverty as Cain told folk not to have anything to do with the victim.”
Slim looked deeply shocked, but said nothing.
“Jeez Slim what the hell do ya think he’s getting up to with an innocent little sixteen-year-old girl huh!”
“I... I didn’t know,” Slim said looking stunned. “Sure, we have to find them, but where do we look Jess? You must see it’s sign that anyone has passed this way in weeks. What with the wind constantly blowing the sand and dry earth about, we can’t see anything.”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno where we look. But if they did pass this way they’d be in need of water, just like we are now. Let’s head due north huh. We passed a big lake when we rode out before, if they’ve stopped for water, we may pick up some tracks in the mud at the lake edge...worth a try anyway.”
A few hours later Jess sighed contentedly as he took another draft of water from his canteen and wiped his chin grinning at Slim.
“Told ya didn’t I? Plain as day...those big old feet belonging to Beauty, and those smaller ones must be Ellie’s pony.”
“I don’t get it,” Slim said looking perplexed, “they seem to be riding away from the cover over on the mountain foothills. Surely that would be the best place to lie low?”
“You’re right,” Jess concurred... “unless...”
“Unless they’ve decided there’s safety in numbers. Maybe he’s decided to try and hide in a big town like Coulson? They sure look to be heading that way.”
“But why would he do that?” Slim asked. “That’s crazy.”
“Could be he’s going to change his appearance, pretend to be someone he ain’t. That could be why he took Ellie... to use her as part of his cover pass her off as his daughter maybe? Then he just lies low and waits for us to go plumb crazy looking for him and eventually give up. Once we’ve headed home, he rides for the border.”
“Well at least we’ve got some tracks to follow now,” Slim said happily, “so let’s just see iffen your theory hangs together huh.”

Chapter 10

They passed a graveyard on the hillside as they rode towards Coulson early one afternoon and Jess paused and reined in closely followed by Slim.
“Know what they call that place?” Jess asked.
“They call it that because most of the folks there died with their dang boots on.”
“What, you mean in a gunfight or some such, rather than sick in bed?” Slim asked.
“’s a rough old town Slim, and if Cain wants to hide out with no questions asked, I reckon this is the place to do it.”
However, when a couple of hours had passed and the two men had visited every boarding house and lowlife saloon in the town, they were beginning to feel slightly less convinced.
“I just don’t get it,” Jess said as he sidestepped yet another fistfight as it spilled out of a saloon onto the board walk.
“We saw their mounts in the livery so they have to be around here someplace.”
But Slim’ s attention was elsewhere.
“What about that place?” he said nodding to a large edifice just down Main Street. “Maybe he’s gone up market, he can sure afford it.”
They entered the smart Hotel, Slim thinking how out of place it was in the ramshackle old town.
They made for the reception and a clerk popped up from behind the desk and beamed at them.
“You would like a room gentleman?” he asked hopefully.
“We just want some information,” Jess said quickly. “We’re looking for an old friend traveling with uh, his daughter,” and he described Cain and Ellie.
“No, I’m sorry sir…no one of that description. We just have the Doctor and his daughter staying here... a doctor Brown?”
Slim and Jess exchanged a grin and Jess said, “Uh, didn’t I say he was a doc? So, what room?”
“We don’t usually disclose that information sir.”
Jess leaned over and placed a couple of notes in the clerk’s top pocket, “But today you’ll make an exception huh?” Jess asked pleasantly.
“Oh yes sir, top of the stairs and along the corridor adjoining rooms, three and four. But Miss Ellie’s room is always locked, so you’re better trying number three. Strange that,” he said almost to himself, “very protective of his daughter...such a pretty young thing,” he mused, “but very quiet.”
Jess and Slim exchanged an anxious glance and thanking the clerk made for the stairs, taking them two at a time.
They stormed down the corridor and Jess hurled himself at Cain’s door, practically knocking it off its hinges.
The two men burst in just as Cain leapt from his bed, where he’d been reclining, and made a dash towards his handgun on a side table. But Jess was way too fast for him and threw a haymaker that sent him flying across the room in the blink of an eye.
Seeing that his pard had things in hand, Slim made his way across the room and unlocking the adjoining door released a tearful Ellie. She ran into Slim’s arms saying “Oh thank God!”
Then both their attention was taken as Cain howled in agony and pleaded with Jess for mercy.
Slim was across the room in two strides and looked in consternation as Jess now had Cain pushed hard up against the wall, his forearm across his throat. Cain was turning blue and spluttering as Slim grabbed hold of Jess and tried to pull him away.
Then Ellie was beside him, “Please stop she cried, I don’t want you in trouble because of all this, please let him go before you kill him!”
Jess looked down at her.
“Are you alright?” he asked, still keeping his grip on Cain.
“Yes. Really, he didn’t hurt me... not too much anyway.”
“He...he didn’ know, touch ya?”
She looked puzzled and then flushing prettily said, “Oh no, nothing like that...he just slapped me a couple of times when I tried to escape.”
“He did huh?” Jess said menacingly.
“Damn it, Jess, will you ease up!” Slim yelled.
Jess finally relinquished his hold on Cain and he fell to the floor in a dead faint.
“Oh my,” squeaked Ellie, “is he dead?”
“Nah, just passed out Jess said cheerfully, “don’t fret...he’ll be just fine. After all we want him nice and healthy for when he faces the rope, don’t we.”
They arrived back in Charity a few days later and handed Cain over to Sheriff Hanson. The elderly Sheriff was embarrassingly grateful and again apologized profusely for the way he had taken Cain’s word over that of Jess and Slim.
“Just dang well see justice is done now we’ve brought him in,” Jess said irritably. “You’ve got plenty of evidence that he murdered young Ellie’s grand pappy from me and Slim, plus young Ellie’s statement.”
The girl had told the Sheriff how Cain got drunk one night and was bragging about how he had murdered her grandfather, saying she would be next if she didn’t behave herself.
But it was finally Cain himself who admitted to the murder when on the stand, plus all the other evil deeds including robbing the bank back in Buzzard. The Judge had cross examined him and suddenly Cain had lost his temper and the truth came tumbling out. “Sure, I did all those things he shouted angrily...and I don’t give a damn.”
Then there was a cry from the public gallery and a stout middle-aged woman stood and cried out desperately, “Marty no! You don’t know what you’re saying!”
“Silence in court,” intoned the Judge.
The proceedings continued and it was only a matter of time before Cain was found guilty on all charges and he was sentenced to death by hanging the following day.
Again, the woman shouted out and ran to the prisoner crying hysterically.
“What are you doing here woman?” Cain yelled angrily.
“When you wired your Ma back in Buzzard, she told me where you were and I had to come and find you Marty...please tell them you lied...say you’re innocent!”
“Get out of here you, stupid woman,” Cain cried hotly. “You can’t change anything now.”
She grabbed his hand and said urgently, “Marty...please...we were good together once, weren’t we?”
He sighed and nodded and then pulled her into a passionate embrace and kissed her ardently, before the Sheriff tapped him on the shoulder and led him away.
The events had been watched by Slim and Jess and they listened with interest when a kindly woman came over and put an arm around the now weeping woman.
“Don’t take on so,” she said sympathetically. “You know the accused, do you dear?”
The woman nodded, “Yes my name is Myra Cain...Marty is my husband.” Then she looked over to where Slim and Jess stood nearby and throwing them a murderous glance said firmly, “And he is innocent, he’s been framed.”
Regardless of Myra Cain’s desperate pleas for her husband to be released, the hanging went ahead as planned at six the following morning.
The whole town turned out to witness the event as old Doc Brown had been a very well-respected citizen of the small township.
Even Jess and Slim attended the hanging, which they rarely did.
“But I guess I’ll make an exception in Cain’s case,” Jess said wryly to Slim, “I wanna be sure he’s quiet dead,” he had added with a grim smile.
From her hotel window on Main Street Myra Cain watched the proceedings and swore her revenge as the rope was placed around her husband’s neck. She closed her eyes and listened to the whooshing sound as her husband was strung high, the crowd gasping as Marty’s life finally ended. Then with tears streaming down her face she muttered, “You’ll pay for’ll pay dearly.”
Once it was all over the Sheriff requested a meeting in his office with Slim and Jess.
“You gentlemen will be riding out today I imagine?” he started, looking somewhat sheepish.
“We do have a ranch to run,” Slim replied rather acerbically, “we’ve wasted far too much time here already,” the words thanks to you, hanging on the air, but left unsaid.
“Of course, of course,” the Sheriff said looking even more uncomfortable. “But you see gentleman I have...well a favor to ask of you.”
“You have?” Jess asked in astonishment, completely taken aback by the gall of the guy.
“You see the thing is...well, you are heading for Laramie and young Ellie needs to get there to stay with her aunt...and I sort of suggested to her that you might be willing to escort her?”
“Now hang on just a minute,” Slim said hotly, “you might have asked us first!” Then added, “I really don’t think it’s proper for two single men to have a young girl like that put in their care...and besides like I say, we need to get home pronto...she’d just slow us down.”
“Yeah, Slim’ s right,” Jess butted in. “No way Hanson...sorry but she’s just gonna hafta wait for that elderly neighbor, Mister Fadden and his wife to drive her in next time they’re visiting that way.”
“No can do I’m afraid Harper. He died just two days ago, bad heart it seems. So poor Ellie is stranded here unless you can help her out?”
Jess shook his head again, knowing just how taxing young girls could be, “Sorry Sheriff.”
Just then the door flew open and a bright-eyed Ellie, her dark hair gleaming and heart shaped face wreathed in smiles entered. She was dressed in her best clothes, carrying a valise and burst in declaring happily, “I’m all ready gentlemen...shall we go?”
They set off for Laramie a few hours later.
Jess had tried to reason with her explaining that they were in a real hurry to get home and the pace would simply be too much for her and her pony; the elderly buckskin Patch.
But Ellie just laughed that off, declaring that she had been riding before she could walk and her pony might look small and old but he was tough and could easily keep up.
Then Slim had tried...
“Look er... Ellie this is kind of difficult, but well maybe your aunt wouldn’t approve of you having two single gentlemen escorting you. It’s quite a way you know and we’ll be sleeping under the stars...she might feel that not quite proper?” he suggested with a raised eyebrow.
“Oh nonsense,” she said cheerfully, “I’m sure my aunt will be glad I’m in such safe hands. After all you are both Deputy Sheriff’s aren’t you so what could be more fitting? I’m sure we will get along just fine. After all I already feel you are like two kindly uncles,” she added smiling sweetly at them.
Slim wasn’t fooled for a minute, hell, he’d seen the way she had been looking at his pard ever since they had first met... ‘ha uncle indeed’ he thought.
“I’m sorry honey, but it just ain’t practical,” Jess was saying.
That was when she had turned away and played her trump card when she started crying softly.
As she already guessed neither could bear the sight of a pretty female weeping and they caved in almost at once.
However, Jess felt he had to make his point and insisted on them riding hard all day and only stopping to eat and rest in the late afternoon.
Once the scratch meal had been consumed, they lounged around the camp fire as the sun slowly slipped behind the distant mountains. Sipping a last coffee before turning in they stretched out on their bedrolls, saddle for a pillow and chatted quietly.
Thinking back to their conversation of earlier in the day Jess said thoughtfully, “So who is your aunt then Ellie, maybe Slim and I would know her?”
“I shouldn’t think so she is an older lady, my great aunt really, Grandpa’s sister Edna... Edna Matlock.... you know her?”
Jess nearly choked on his coffee, “What Widow Matlock?” he asked.
“Uh yes well she is a widow, Uncle Jack died years ago when I was a you do know her?”
“Oh yeah, I know her alright,” Jess said with feeling.
“So, um...when did you last see your aunt?” Slim asked quickly hoping to change the subject slightly.
“Oh, not for years, I can hardly remember her. She was a tad strict I think and read me lots of Bible stories. But of course, that was when I was a little girl. I expect she will treat me more as an adult now,” she said brightly, “I’m sure we’ll have lots of fun together.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Jess muttered to himself, but a hasty kick on the leg from Slim shut him up, and he lay back and closed his eyes.
However Slim and Ellie chatted on for a while longer, the excitement of camping out under the stars making her uncharacteristically forthcoming.
After a while she glanced over at the now sleeping Jess and before she thought about it, she said almost to herself, “He looks so young and innocent.” And then blushed with embarrassment...hoping Slim hadn’t heard her little faux pas.
However Slim had heard alright and decided now would be a good time to put Ellie straight on one or two things pertaining to his buddy.
“Well, I can assure you he isn’t either,” he said firmly. He’s old enough to be your Pa you know Ellie, never mind a, what did you say...a ‘kindly Uncle’?
She flushed again and looked away.
But Slim wasn’t done yet.
“As to innocent well he sure hasn’t been that for many a year,” he said now with the hint of a smile. “Nope, old Jess is far from inexperienced believe me...”
Ellie just smiled politely and then yawning said, “I think I’ll turn in. Goodnight, Mr Sherman.”
Then he took pity on the youngster and giving her a proper smile said, “Goodnight Ellie and don’t forget what we said it’s Slim and Jess ...right?”
She nodded and returned the smile, “Goodnight Slim,” and she cuddled down under her blanket...secretly smiling to herself.
Heck did Slim think she was going to be warned off that easily? Jess was absolutely perfect in every way and she was determined to bewitch him on their journey to Laramie no matter what Slim thought.
Slim slumped down next to his buddy, casting him a glance as he settled himself down for the night. Jess was sprawled on his back one arm thrown out above his head and the other protectively across his chest. Yes, he agreed he did look kinda young and innocent in sleep but Slim knew better.
Then he frowned...what the hell would Widow Matlock make of all this he wondered sleepily.
Jess and Slim had been introduced to Edna Matlock by Daisy a few years earlier. She had recently moved to town and was quick to join the Church choir and Daisy’s Women’s Group.
When she was introduced to Jess, on a rare occasion that he was accompanying Daisy to Church, her first words were, “You are a good God-fearing boy I hope Jess,” and she looked intently into his eyes.
“Do my best Ma’am,” he had replied touching his hat and smiling at her...charming the elderly matron.
However, it wasn’t long before Edna had Jess’s true measure...when she learned how he frequented the saloon and was dating a saloon girl. Then as to how the couple had a scandalous relationship. Keeping the kind of company that should, in Edna’s book, only be reserved for married couples. That along with his less than salubrious past had made him the ideal candidate for her to convert him to the ways of the Lord. To lead a sinless and good life, instead of the one he currently led of debauchery, in her view.
Jess of course took all the nagging, Bible bashing and constant hectoring in his stride by ignoring her onslaught and avoiding her whenever possible. However, everyone at the ranch knew it would only be a matter of time before he lost his temper with the annoying, dominant woman and that was something Daisy dreaded.
Jess was very popular in town, especially with the females in the Women’s Group and Daisy hated to hear their newest member constantly putting him down. More to the point so did the other ladies, and Daisy knew it wouldn’t be long before Edna was ostracized for her comments regarding Jess and his lifestyle.
So it was that Daisy had taken Edna to one side and told her in no uncertain terms the feelings of herself and the group regarding Edna’s bigotry.
“After all my dear,” she had finished, “remember the words of St Paul, ‘And now these three remain, Faith, Hope, and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.’”
Edna had looked shame face, “You are so right Daisy...and I have shown Jess precious little of Christian love. Maybe I should just accept the boy the way he is...not try and convert him?”
“I think that would probably be for the best,” Daisy had agreed with a kind smile. “He is a good man and in his own way loves and honors our Lord. Maybe we should leave him to do things as he sees right.”
Now as Slim drifted off to sleep he wondered what old Widow Matlock would make of that ‘Casanova’ as she had once referred to Jess escorting her beloved niece across miles of wild countryside. With only another single man to act as chaperone...and he shuddered he settled down for the night.

Chapter 11
The following morning dawned bright and sunny with the promise of another scorching day ahead. Jess suggested they get underway as early as possible to avoid the heat of the day, with a break at noontide and then carry on once the heat was past its peak.
Surprisingly Ellie seemed to have lost her sparkle and instead of hanging on Jess’s every word and watching him closely she seemed quite withdrawn and disinterested in the day’s plans.
Slim smiled inwardly, it looked like she had taken onboard his veiled warning regarding Jess and he sighed with relief.
Jess however seemed to be just as unaware of her disinterested attitude as he had been of her attention and flirting and merely went off to check on the horses.
They finally reined in beside a fast-flowing river, with plenty of tree cover around and decided that would be the ideal spot to escape the noontide heat.
It was then that Slim realized there was more bothering Ellie than just their conversation of the previous evening. As she dismounted, she staggered a little clutching onto her saddle for support.
Jess was the closest and was at her side in seconds, supporting her.
“Hey take it easy sweetheart,” he said gently. “Are you OK?”
She had a slick of sweat on her brow and her face was deathly pale.
“No,” she whispered, “I feel a little faint...”
Jess quickly picked her up and carried her to the shade of a large aspen and Slim rushed over with a bedroll and she was swiftly made comfortable.
Then Slim offered her a drink from his canteen which she accepted before laying back and closing her eyes.
“Ellie, are you alright?” Slim said softly...but there was no reply.
“Dang it she’s out for the count, it must be the heat,” Jess whispered...looking down at her anxiously.
Then turning to Slim said, “I told ya it was crazy lettin’ her ride along...females are always trouble out in the big open...can’t take the pace.”
“We don’t know that for sure Jess, she could just be sick.”
Jess cussed, “Damn it that’s even worse,” he said softly.
They left her to rest and set up camp in the shady dell beside the river.
“Oh well one good thing,” Jess said grinning at his pard, “at least we get to do some fishing.”
“I don’t know how you can be so darned heartless,” Slim said, “the kid could be really sick...fainting that way.”
“You think?” Jess asked suddenly looking concerned.
He turned back and went and squatted down beside Ellie who was now awake and looking around her anxiously.
“Hey Ellie, how are you feeling a tad too hot?” he asked kindly.
She stared at him for a moment and then clutched her stomach and groaned softly.
“Are you sick?” Jess asked as he and Slim looked on helplessly.
“Yes...uh no,” she whispered, “not really...just you know...” and she flushed with embarrassment... shrugging, “just women’s stuff.”
“Just women’s stuff?” Jess asked looking blank and turning to Slim for support.
“You know,” Slim whispered.
“Oh yeah,” Jess replied after a moment the truth finally dawning.
Then turning back to Ellie said, “ well you take it easy huh...I guess we’ll camp the you can up some yeah?”
“Thank you,” she whispered closing her eyes again and just praying they would go away and leave her in peace.
Jess stood up and moved away followed by Slim.
“She’ll be OK,” he said he went in search of a suitable pole to use with his line.
Slim merely rolled his eyes and went to brew some coffee for the girl, thinking maybe a small shot of redeye would ease the pain some.
Ellie seemed much more her old self by suppertime and apologized profusely for holding them up.
“I’m just relieved you’re feeling better,” Slim said kindly, whilst Jess just concentrated on frying up the fish supper.
Once Ellie was tucked up for the night Slim and Jess sat sipping coffee laced with whiskey and looked off towards the river sparkling in the moonlight.
“Told ya,” Jess said, “nuthin’ but trouble females on the trail.”
“Well, she can hardly help it can she?” Slim said, feeling rather sorry for the youngster.
“I guess not,” Jess agreed, “but sooner we offload her onto Ma Matlock the happier I’ll be.”
“Um...but will Ma Matlock be happy?” Slim said with the hint of a smile. “You know the way she feels about you Jess. So, what’s she gonna say when she realizes her precious great niece has been sleeping under the stars with Laramie’s very own Casanova huh,” and he chuckled.
“Aw shuddup Slim,” Jess said flapping a hand at him, but grinning none the less.
Under the cover of darkness Ellie listened in. So, Jess had a reputation as a ladies’ man, did he? Well that just made him even more attractive she thought and she settled down to sleep and hopefully dream of her hero. The fact that he couldn’t wait to ‘offload her’ onto her aunt was merely another challenge to be met she decided as she drifted off to sleep. She’d just have to show him she was indispensable.
The following morning, she was awake and up before the men and already had the coffee on and breakfast underway before they roused.
“Hey you didn’t hafta do this,” Jess said later sipping his coffee appreciatively.
“The least I could do after holding you up yesterday,” she said smiling into his eyes.
“Well heck that wasn’t your fault,” Slim said quickly, “you couldn’t help feeling...uh...under the weather.”
She blushed prettily at Slim’ s euphemism and looked away before glancing back at Jess and saying, “I’ll try not to be too much trouble in future.”
Now it was Jess’s turn to flush up and he realized she must have heard their conversation of the previous night, “I’m sure you won’t be,” he said quickly, avoiding her gaze.
Round one to me she thought happily as the men commenced eating the delicious breakfast...Now I just need to prove I’m really mature and sensible for my age she decided... But she had no idea her plan would come together quite so quickly.
They were riding through a narrow steep-sided gorge with high rocky cliffs on either side when Traveller started playing up.
Jess had taken the lead as he had ridden that route before, and now he put a gentle hand on Traveller’s neck and said, “Easy boy, what’s botherin’ you huh?”
But then before he even had a chance to look around him three things happened almost at once. Slim yelled a cry of warning as a huge cougar, on the cliff top, pounced on Jess’s back catapulting him out of the saddle and Traveller reared up in terror and bolted.
As Jess hit the ground the cougar grabbed his left arm in its jaws and started worrying it, all the time growling ferociously.
Slim threw himself from the saddle and took aim at the big cat ...but wasted valuable seconds as Jess rolled over and over trying desperately to pull free from the critter.
Then at last he got a clear shot and the huge creature screamed in pain before finally relinquishing its prey. Then after writhing in agony for a few seconds more, lay still...dead.
Slim and Ellie tore to Jess’s side and looked down in horror at the badly mauled arm.
Slim was the first to jump into action and squatting down beside his pard he gently helped him up and half carried him to the shade at the side of the track.
“Take it easy buddy,” he said softly, “he’s dead’s OK.”
“Trav?” Jess whispered, his good arm gripping the bloody remains of his shirt and wound ... “He’s, OK?”
“Sure, he skedaddled off out of trouble, he’ll be down the track aways, don’t fret Jess. Let’s get you cleaned up and then I’ll go fetch him.”
Meanwhile Ellie had run back to her mount and now appeared carrying a small black leather case. “It’s alright Slim you go and get the horse. I can look after Jess.”
Both men stared up at her in shock.
“Er, that’s good of you Ellie, but he’s hurt pretty bad I think I should deal with it,” Slim said quickly.
“Well by all means you can help,” Ellie said quickly. “But I have been trained in how to clean and dress wounds of this type. My dear Grandpa was teaching me to be his nurse,” she added, opening the bag and withdrawing a phial of cleansing spirit and some clean dressings and bandages.
She spoke in such a self-assured manner that Slim sat back on his haunches saying, “OK Ellie, just tell me what to do.”
Jess opened his mouth to argue, but one determined look from Ellie quelled him.
Then she expertly cleaned and dressed the wound, bandaged it firmly and even produced a square of dark cloth that she neatly fashioned into a sling.
Slim had held the patient’s arm firmly during the painful procedure and Jess had manfully kept quiet. His usual colorful oaths silenced in deference to the young girl.
Once it was all over Slim looked at his pale shaking buddy and made a decision.
“I’ll go fetch your old horse and then I guess we’ll camp for the night, you really don’t look any too good.”
Jess again looked like he would protest long and loud but merely said gruffly, “I’m OK now.”
“Slim’ s right,” Ellie said quickly, “Grandpa always said you couldn’t be too careful with animal bites. If you’re too active it can cause all sorts of problems, like life-threatening infections. No, I think you should rest today Jess really, I do.”
The concerned look in her beautiful brown eyes and authoritative way she spoke made Jess hesitate for a moment.
Then she beamed at him, “That’s all settled then,” she said happily. Once more the youngster, now her nursing duties had been completed.
When Slim returned with Traveller a few minutes later it was clear Jess was in no fit state to ride any distance.
He had staggered over to his mount and then stood beside him for a moment steeling himself to get up in the saddle...the pain in his arm now throbbing and sweat running down his back.
“Need a leg up?” Slim asked kindly wandering over.
Jess shook his head and taking a deep breath did his usual hop up to the stirrup and settled in the saddle uneasily, collecting the reins in his good hand.
Then turning to Slim said quietly, “There’s a good place to camp about a mile down this track with water and plenty of tree cover,” and with that he moved off at a slow walk.
Slim stared after him feeling apprehensive and figured his buddy was feeling pretty bad. Then he noticed Ellie watching him and threw her an encouraging smile, but she wasn’t fooled for a minute.
“He’ll be alright you know. I did a good job. But he must rest. Grandpa was always adamant about that; the odd times we treated a bite from some wild critter.”
“You really know your stuff don’t you,” Slim said admiringly.
“Grandpa was a great teacher,” she said with a winning smile before mounting up and following Jess on down the track.
It was later that evening that Ellie’s skills were once more discussed.
She had insisted on changing the dressing after supper and declared the wound to be showing no signs of infection.
“Thanks honey,” Jess said once he was laid back comfortably against his saddle coffee mug in hand. “So is this what you wanna do when yer grown up...uh that is...older,” he amended when he saw her hurt look.
She recovered from the slight quickly and said, “Oh yes. Grandpa had put savings aside to send me back east to do my training when I’m eighteen.” Then she suddenly looked alarmed, “Goodness I hope I can still go?”
“Can’t see why not Slim said cheerfully, “didn’t you say that you inherited everything in your grandfather’s Will, so you’ll be quite a wealthy young lady. I’m sure you’ll be able to afford the training alright.”
“I just hope great Aunt Edna approves.”
Jess and Slim exchanged a worried glance, but Slim said quickly, “I don’t see why not, it’s a very worthy profession and you’re really good already, clearly got a talent for it.”
“Yup,” Jess agreed, “you’re a natural,” throwing her his cheeky grin.
Her heart swelled with pride and love. He liked her he really did she thought joyfully. So what if Slim had implied Jess was too old and experienced for her. Well, we’ll see about that she thought and put her mind to working out how she could lure Jess into her life and make him fall for her.
She used all her feminine wiles on the last leg of the journey back to Laramie. From hanging on Jess’s every word and treating him with almost reverence to subtly flirting with him. A moment of overly long eye contact, and batting her lashes at him to girlish laughter at any joke, he might make. That, together with requests for help with anything that would bring Jess physically close to her.
Slim watched Jess tighten Patch’s girth for Ellie, as she stood way too close. He smiled inwardly as he observed this rather gauche attempt at seducing his pard being played out.
“There ya go,” Jess said before turning away.
“Oh, thank you so much.” Ellie gasped a little breathlessly, “You’re so strong was just too stiff for me.”
He just muttered, “OK,” and went off to mount up...completely unaware of the lovelorn glances that were following him.
Jess sure hadn’t done anything to encourage her Slim knew as he too mounted up. In fact, his pard still seemed to be quite oblivious to the situation and merely said Slim was imagining things.
Slim sighed softly… nope it would have to be down to him to let the child down lightly, before she got in too deep and was really hurt.
That evening was the last night they would be camping out and there was a party-like mood in the camp. They had finished supper and were sitting chatting around the camp fire when Slim decided to nip Ellie’s notions of a romance in the bud, as he had planned.
“Gee it sure will be good to get home won’t it, Jess.”
Jess replied as Slim had known he would, by saying, “Sure will, I can’t wait to see Millie,” his eyes sparkling in anticipation.
Slim flicked a quick glance over to Ellie and saw her mouth drop open in shock.
But she recovered quickly and said casually, “Millie?”
“My gal,” Jess said happily.
Then turning back to Slim said, “Jeez, Daisy and young Mike will be home soon too, we’re gonna hafta work our butts off gettin’ everythin’ shipshape at the ranch,” he added.
Then in deference to Ellie said, “Excuse real hard I meant.”
“Daisy...?” Ellie asked really beginning to think Jess’s reputation as a Casanova was well deserved... “Another uh...friend... and Mike,” she added weakly... “your son, is he?”
Slim chuckled, “Nope, old Hotshot here only has time for one gal at a time. No matter what folk think,” he added softly for Jess’s ears only.
“Daisy is our housekeeper,” Jess said belligerently casting Slim a black look.
Ignoring the look Slim continued, “Mike is our young ward. Jess and I adopted him a few years back when he fetched up at the ranch in a bad way. He’d been orphaned after an Indian raid on the wagon train. So, well... we reckoned we’d give him a home.”
“Best thing we ever did,” Jess added now having regained his good humor, “you’ll love him Ellie, he’s a great kid.”
Ellie’s emotions were all over the place. First she was dipped down in despair at the idea of Jess having girls galore...Then up again on a high as she realized who Daisy and Mike really were... Down again at the thought of this Millie...But once more her heart soared... as she realized, she would be introduced to Mike and Daisy...maybe even welcomed as a guest at the ranch on the odd occasion. Surely Jess would wake up to her feelings for him. Yes, she was sure he would dump this Millie once she was able to make him fall for her...wouldn’t he?
They rode into Laramie around noon and left their mounts at the livery.
“Sure Miss, I can look after yer pony for a while, got some good grazing out back,” Bert said treating her to a toothless grin... “You come by and visit whenever you please,” he added as he saw how fond the child was of her mount.
Jess and Slim walked Ellie down Main Street carrying her bags and chatting to her…but it was clear the youngster was visibly upset.
After a moment Jess came to a halt and peering down at the pretty young girl said gently “Hey what’s up honey?”
She blinked away the tears and said in a small voice, “I don’t know anyone here...not even my aunt really.”
“Well, you know us dontcha?” Jess said grinning down at her.
“I’ll...I’ll still see you sometimes then?” she asked hopefully.
“Why sure,” Jess said expansively, “You can come visit sometime, meet Mike and Daisy,” he said vaguely. “And we get into town most weeks, so bound to see you around.”
“We’ll go put in a good word with Doc Baker too,” Slim said quickly, thinking the sooner the young woman had something else to concentrate on other than her love life, the better things would be.
They had already discussed the possibility of her continuing her training with the doc and Slim figured it would be the ideal solution.
Get her away from the somewhat overbearing presence of her great aunt for a few hours a day Jess also thought secretly.
Her aunt’s house was a large three-story affair on Main Street with a good view of the comings and goings of all the town’s folk; and she took full advantage of it. She was aware of who went into the saloon and how frequently Jess and Slim’ s visits noted particularly. She also noticed who attended the doctor’s surgery and spent many happy hours speculating on the reason for their visits. And of course, folk visiting...or being escorted to the Sheriff’s office always intrigued her. If she should inadvertently mention any of this to her friends from Church or the Women’s Group she would quickly add, “Of course I am just concerned for their welfare.”
Now as Slim rapped on the large shiny brass knocker, she hurried to the door with an expectant smile on her face as she saw her beloved brother’s grandchild, Ellie standing there. However, the look changed to one of inquiry and ill concealed hostility as she took in Jess and Slim standing a little behind Ellie.
“Ellie how lovely my dear,” she said reaching a protective hand out and pulling the youngster to her in a quick embrace.
Then she looked up at the cowboys and said, “Mr Sherman...uh Mr Harper what are you doing here?”
“I wrote you to say I hoped I could come and live here didn’t I aunt, Ellie said quickly,” as per Grandpa’s last wishes. You replied saying you knew of the arrangement and would be pleased to see me?”
“Oh yes, I am my dear, of course. I agreed to take you in if my dear brother passed before me. But I thought you were traveling with an elderly neighbor and his wife; A Mr Fadden?”
“I was originally,” she agreed, “but sadly he passed away just recently. So as Slim and Jess were riding this way anyway, they agreed to see me safely home,” she said throwing Jess a loving glance.
“Indeed,” her aunt replied coldly, noting the over familiar use of their Christian names. “I uh think we will keep this to ourselves my dear. It’s not ideal for a child to be traveling alone with um...young men,” she eventually said. Although Jess figured that was not her first choice of words, when describing him at any rate.
Ellie flushed up angrily at being referred to as a child, but said nothing.
Slim frowned at this and said, “I can assure you Mrs Matlock, your niece was in perfectly safe hands with us.”
She sniffed taking in Jess’s bandaged arm and then said with a mean little smile, “Well at least she is all in one piece.”
Slim put down the valise on the step and passed Ellie her saddle bags and ignoring her aunt said, “We’ll be in touch about the doctor Ellie.”
Then tipping his hat to Ma Matlock, said, “Good day Ma’am.”
Jess too touched his hat and said, “Ma’am...” before grinning at Ellie and saying, “See ya soon honey,” and the two marched off.
“I think not,” Ma Matlock said quietly as she ushered her great niece inside and shut the door firmly.
“See I told you she wouldn’t like it,” Slim said ruefully.
“Awe what the hell, who cares...come on Slim, let’s go get a cool beer...I’m dyin’ of thirst here.”

By the time they had enjoyed a beer or three at the saloon, and later the undivided attention of their girls.It was noon the following day before they set off to visit Mort and Doc Sam.
They finally managed to drag themselves away from their loves as they were needed to work.
“We really need to get home anyway,” Slim said to Jess.
“As soon as we’ve caught up with Mort and you’ve see Doc Sam too, that is,” he added.
They discovered Mort, feet up on his desk, sipping a coffee and reading the local paper... but he glanced up and grinned as the men entered.
“Well, howdy,” he said cheerfully, “so the wanderers return huh.”
Then said, “Sure help yourself,” as Jess gestured to the coffee pot on the stove.
Once they were seated, Slim said, “So how did it go? Did you and Kate find that no hoper Clem White?”
“Sure did,” Mort said, “picked him up real quick and once he was in jail we took ourselves off on that hunting trip I’d promised her.” His eyes twinkling at the memory.
Slim and Jess exchanged a knowing glance and then Jess said, “I dunno why you don’t just up and marry her know you want to.”
Mort shook his head sorrowfully, “Not for lack of asking, but she’s just plain stubborn, likes her independence too dang much.”
“Don’t we all,” Jess said chuckling.
“Um well you do,” Slim retorted, “it’s just a good job Millie is the patient type.”
Jess looked uncomfortable for a minute before changing the subject.
“So, Clem White is languishing in the Laramie Prison, I guess?”
“Yup and will be for some considerable time,” Mort said cheerfully.
“And your man…Sheriff Cain was hung for murder I believe?”
Slim nodded, “And the rest... attempted murder of Jess, not to mention that bank heist...killing that teller. But yeah, he was hung for murdering the local Doc and stealing his horse that was the last nail in the coffin.”
“Then dang it, if his wife didn’t turn up and plead for mercy.” Jess interjected. “Crazy woman...after the way he’d treated her and all.”
“No accounting for women’s logic,” Mort said and they all fell silent reflecting on the truth of it.
Then after a moment Mort noticed Jess cradling his wounded arm, having dispensed with the sling because it got in the way; as he’d said irritably to Slim just that morning.
“What have you gone and done now?” Mort asked raising a questioning eye brow.
“He decided to play tag with a cougar,” Slim said grinning.
Mort rolled his eyes, “I do declare you could keep Doc Sam in business single, handed,” he said chuckling.
“Hey this ain’t no joke,” Jess said frowning, “it hurt like hell.”
“It was lucky we had a rookie nurse with us,” Slim said, “she patched him up real good.”
Then he went on to explain all about Ellie and having delivered her safely to Ma Matlock.
Mort grimaced, “I bet she had something to say about her beloved great niece being escorted by Jess here,” he said gleefully.
“Uh- huh,” Slim agreed and threw Jess a playful glance, “But ol’ Hotshot here behaved himself.”
Jess stood up abruptly getting tired of the constant ribbing from his buddies.
“Speakin’ of which we told her we’d go put in a good word with Sam. She wants to carry on with her training with him,” Jess told Mort.
“Hmm, so what will old Ma Matlock have to say about that I wonder?” Mort said to himself once the pair had left.
“Positively not my dear that is no job for a well-bred girl like you! Maybe helping the teacher out, with the little ones, in the schoolhouse if you really feel you must work? But don’t forget you are quite wealthy now with your dear Grandfather’s inheritance. I had planned that you could spend your time helping me to throw little soirees and invite the important town’s folk, introduce you around.”
“Soirees?” Ellie asked looking flummoxed.
“It’s from the French, meaning an evening party. Really my dear we are going to have to brush up on your education regarding the finer things in life.
When Ellie remained silent, her aunt said encouragingly, “You are a pretty child and maybe once you are older, we can invite some suitors to our little gatherings. A nice boy from one of the better families,” she added almost to herself.
“You don’t understand Aunt,” Ellie burst out, “nursing is my chosen career. Grandfather had it all mapped out for me; how I should assist him and then attend nursing school back east when I turn 18. And as for choosing my boyfriends, I can do that perfectly well fact...” But then she fell silent, instinctively knowing any relationship with Jess would be frowned upon by her aunt.
“In fact, what my dear?” her aunt said, fearing the worst.
“Oh nothing,” Ellie said quickly.
Her aunt shot her a penetrating look, but said no more on the subject. If the child had become infatuated with that scoundrel, Jess Harper, then it would be short lived as she intended to keep a close eye on her great niece...very close indeed.
Meanwhile over in Sam’s office the doc was inspecting Jess’s cougar bite.
He glanced up at where Slim was watching the proceedings and said, “My word Slim have you been taking secret lessons from my Carrie? This is as perfect a dressing as I’ve seen in a long while.”
That was when the men explained all about Ellie and their request that she might find some work with the doc.
He looked thoughtful for a moment and said, “Actually this just could be the answer to my prayers. Since I’ve given Carrie the extra responsibility of being in charge of the maternity side of the practice, I’ve found myself rather short staffed. Nobody to assist with minor operations or care for patients in the hospital bed, if she’s out on a case. Well, my housekeeper, Mrs Hudson, helps where she can, but I really need a skilled nurse. She had been trained by her grandfather you say?”
“Yes, he was the local Doctor until that bastard Cain shot him for his horse,” Jess said angrily.
“The poor girl,” Sam said sympathetically...then he turned his attention to the wounded arm.
After a few moments he grinned at Jess, “Excellent, no sign of infection and healing well, the young lady did a very professional job of cleaning it out.”
“Spent enough time doin’ it,” Jess said irritably, “she changed the dressing every dang day.”
“Very good, not only efficient but thorough too. I like the sound of her already, so when can she start?”
“Uh, there may be a problem there,” Slim said, “see she’s Widow Matlock’ s great niece.”
“Oh, I see,” said the doc frowning slightly.
“She’s already up in arms because we escorted her home,” Jess said looking annoyed, “like we’d hit on a sixteen-year-old kid.”
“Um well Edna Matlock has her own set of principles,” Sam said grinning. “But don’t fret I’ve got her measure. I’ll instate the young lady just as soon as she’d like to start. And what’s more she’s welcome to live-in during the week. That should give her a break from that old tyrant,” he said with a chuckle, “Uh, not that you heard me say that,” he added looking from Slim to Jess, a twinkle in his eyes.
“Now then,” he said, “keep this dressing on for another couple of days and rest the arm, Jess. Then keep it covered with your shirt and keep it clean until it’s completely healed, you hear!”
“I hear ya Sam,” Jess said, “but what are we gonna do about Ma Matlock huh?”
“Don’t you worry about that I’ll go and visit her myself. It’s probably best if you and Slim keep out of the picture though. We don’t want Widow Matlock thinking her precious niece is being led astray by you wild pair.”
Slim sniggered at that and Jess rolled his eyes.
“Come on then pard, let’s get home and start working through that list of chores Daisy left pinned up in the kitchen,” Slim said.
Back in her bedroom at her aunt’s house Ellie peered down the street and saw Jess and Slim leaving the house they had pointed out as belonging to Doc Baker. So, they had kept their promise after all she thought with a little gasp of pleasure. Then the joy turned to despair as she saw them turn away from her aunt’s house and set off briskly for the livery. Then some minutes later they rode out of town at a brisk trot. They weren’t going to call on her after all...and she thought that her heart might break.
“Well, I quite see your predicament Doctor,” Edna Matlock said as she poured Sam another cup of coffee. “And you say you feel young Ellie has exceptional talent as regards nursing and would be a useful addition to your staff?”
“Well, if the nursing she did after Jess Harper was attacked by a mountain lion is anything to go by, yes I do,” the doc said sincerely.
“Big cat bites are notoriously hard to treat and often end up infected,” he added, “But thanks to Ellie here he is making an excellent recovery.”
He nodded over to where Ellie was sitting demurely beside her aunt on the sofa, “Well done.” he said smiling at her.
She grinned at him, whilst her aunt merely sniffed, not at all happy with the close and personal relationship her niece must have had tending that ex gunslinger and she shuddered slightly.
Realizing his error Sam said quickly, “Of course much of our work is around ladies and children presenting with differing ailments,” mentally crossing his fingers as he remembered just how often Jess visited with a variety of injuries from gunshot wounds to broken limbs or worse, along with many other Laramie men.
“There would be ample opportunity for her to assist me in minor surgery too,” he said beaming at Ma Matlock, “and that would be most advantageous to her when she starts her nurse’s training proper back east.”
“Well, I really don’t know if it’s a suitable job for a vulnerable young girl. Widow Matlock was nobody’s fool and she continued, “All those fights in the saloon and folk shooting each other, rough characters the lot.”
“But all in need of Christian charity and help in their misfortune surely?” He said playing his trump card. “Why I have heard nurses referred to as angels of mercy so often, it really is a most fulfilling career you know dear lady.”
As he thought, he had finally found Widow Matlock’ s Achilles’ heel.
“Well if you put it like that, I suppose it is a calling, almost like being a Nun,” she said thoughtfully.
“Exactly,” Sam said smiling at her once more, “and I can assure you Ellie here will come to no harm under my roof, chaperoned as she will be by my dear daughter and housekeeper Mrs Hudson. Who I believe you know?”
“Oh, she would live in?” she asked looking unsure once more.
“Just in the week, to better assist me, if that would suit you, Ellie?” he asked turning to the youngster.
“Oh, golly yes, absolutely...uh I mean yes thank you Doctor Baker that would suit me very well.”
“That meets with your approval too Mrs Matlock I do hope?” Sam asked giving her his most sincere smile.
She sighed, “Well I suppose so.
But before she could say more Ellie was hugging her and whooping for joy.
She started work at the Doctor’s place shortly afterwards and from day one she hit it off well with Carrie. Although there were four years between the girls, they had so much in common. Both had lost their mothers at an early age. In fact, both parents in Ellie’s case. Then both had shown an interest in nursing from a young age and had been encouraged to train...By her Pa, in Carrie’s case and Ellie by her beloved Grandfather, who she still missed terribly.
However, it wasn’t too long before Carrie realized that their early losses in life and love of nursing weren’t the only things, they had in it soon became clear that Ellie was infatuated with Jess.
When working with Sam she was quiet, attentive and very professional. But after work the two girls relaxed together and during the week shared a bedroom. So, it wasn’t long before Carrie noticed that Slim and Jess came up in conversation on an extremely regular basis. Not a day went by when Ellie didn’t speculate as to whether the two would be riding into town...or how they were spending their day at the ranch.
Once she discovered Carrie knew Slim, and Jess even better, she had long drawn-out conversations asking all about Jess. His background, things he liked to do, how wonderful he was, but she never touched on the area of girlfriends as she really didn’t want to admit to herself that he was seeing someone.
After a while Carrie finally lost patience with Ellie’s constant moping around the place, continually peeping out of the window; just longing for a glimpse of Jess.
It was especially upsetting for Carrie as she was frequently reminded of her stupidly talking out of turn when she had told Jess why she had broken up with her last boyfriend ... “because he wasn’t you,” she had said.
Now she cringed at the memory how could she have been so idiotic? Heck, she knew Jess loved Millie and nothing would ever change that. Plus, Millie was her best friend. Oh yes Jess had been kind and explained the situation patiently to her...yet again...and he was right of course. Even if they had gotten together, she would never have a moment’s peace of mind for worrying about him.
She shook her head and gave a rueful little smile. And now poor young Ellie was going through the same torment of unrequited love. Although she seemed oblivious to the fact that it was unrequited and really believed she could get Jess to love her.
“Well, what do you think?” Ellie said breaking into Carrie’s thoughts.
“I said do you think Slim and Jess will be coming to the fall dance next week?”
The girls were sitting in the front parlour together putting the finishing touches to a dress Ellie had made for the dance. It was of a shimmering scarlet material with a low-cut neckline and tightly fitting bodice; that Carrie secretly thought was way too old and daring for the youngster. However, when she had challenged her about it, Ellie had merely grinned and said, “Well that’s why I’ve been making it here of course...Aunt Edna would have a fit if she saw it.”
Then she had produced a dark sensible shawl and said, “See, I’ll wear this over it so if Aunt spies on us as when we’re heading out, I’ll look all prim and proper. Then once we arrive, I can take it off.”
Ma Matlock had only agreed to Ellie staying over at the Doc’s for the weekend to attend the dance on the understanding that she would be chaperoned at all times. Also, that the Doctor himself would see her safely home.
Now Ellie said impatiently, “Well do you think they’ll go?”
“Uh, yes, they’re sure to but Ellie, Jess will be with Millie. They do have an understanding you know...he really isn’t a free agent anymore,” she said hoping to let the youngster down gently.
“Oh tsk, you worry too much,” Ellie said cheerfully. “All is fair in love and war you know.”
Carrie just rolled her eyes...well she’d done her best to explain the situation, but it clearly wasn’t working... So, Ellie would just have to see Jess and Millie together and then she really would get the message she thought with a sigh.
The last dance of the summer was held in a clearing just on the edge of town. There was a pretty little covered dance floor with seating and a bar behind, all set amidst tall pines...a beautiful spot for alfresco entertainment.
Jess, Slim and their dates Millie and Lily where already there sitting at a table just beyond the dance floor and they all moved over pulling up extra chairs when the Doc, Carrie and young Ellie arrived.
Introductions were made and Jess beamed at the two pretty girls and said, “You both look swell, don’t they Millie?”
She nodded in agreement and smiled indulgently at her friend Carrie and the young girl.
“Lovely to meet you Ellie,” she said kindly, “Jess has told me all about you.”
Ellie nodded. Barely able to meet Millie’s eye, but gave Jess a secret little smile, before whispering, “It’s good to see you too,” although her glance was aimed at Jess rather than Millie.
Before they had left for the evening Carrie had been shocked at just how very alluring Ellie looked in the rather immoderate, tightly fitting red dress. Thinking it to be a totally imprudent choice for a young girl, she knew she must do something. She had finally persuaded Ellie to borrow a wrap in a matching red that she pinned around Ellie’s shoulders with a broach.
“Now don’t you dare take that off,” she warned, “or Pa will get mad at me letting you out in a dress that’s way too sophisticated for you.”
Carrie had already toned-down Ellie’s bright make-up...and now she had to deal with this.
The youngster sighed, “Honestly Carrie you’re worse than Aunt Edna...I’m only trying to look pretty for goodness sake.”
“You are already, without the revealing dress and painted face. Really Ellie you don’t want folk to get the wrong impression, do you?”
“What do you mean?” she asked pouting slightly.
“Oh, you know…you don’t want to look know? Didn’t your Ma explain all about dating men...the birds and bees?”
Ellie looked uncomfortable, “Sure, of course I know all about the birds and bees...But surely men like women to look nice?”
Carrie frowned and shook her head, “There is a difference...between nice and oh...up for anything!”
But then her Pa called up the stairs that if the girls had finished preening then it was high time they were on their way.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Carrie said irritably, “look we’ll talk later Ellie, there’s a lot of stuff about dating guys that you really need to understand... But in the meantime, just keep that wrap on huh.”
“Oh alright, I promise,” Ellie said as she followed her new friend out of the room...adding “spoil sport,” under her breath.
Now as she watched Jess talking to Millie, she noted how his eyes sparkled. Also, how they lingered slightly on the soft curve of her breast exposed by the low-cut red and black figure-hugging gown and regretted her promise to Carrie already.
But then the fun of the dance was underway and she found herself enjoying the experience of her first Laramie dance immensely. She was even asked to dance by one or two youngsters of her own age and once they were approved as being decent young men by the Doc, she waltzed off around the dance floor with them.
The men were all drinking beer and Lily and Millie shandy...or beer diluted with lemonade as Ellie was to understand. But the Doc insisted she only drink Sarsaparilla. However, she longed to be grown up like the others and once Millie and Lily were off dancing and the Doc preoccupied chatting to a friend, she managed to take several good swigs of the forbidden drink from Millie’s glass...and found she loved the warm glow of confidence it gave her.
Maybe that was why she was spurred into action when the ‘ladies excuse me’ dance came around.
She soon learned that this was the dance where a young woman could ask a man to dance, simply by tapping his current partner on the shoulder and she would be forced to relinquish her dance partner to the other.
She noted Millie was laughing and shaking her head as she returned to the table after being usurped by a variety of maiden ladies all wanting a dance with the ever-popular Jess.
“Don’t you mind?” Ellie asked looking shocked.
“Why should I, it’s just a bit of fun,” Millie replied gaily before going off to refresh her now empty glass. She frowned slightly...gosh she must be thirsty tonight she thought as she wandered off to the bar.
Ellie was up and across the dance floor in seconds. Then she was in his arms, breathing in the clean smell of soap, with just the hint of leather...and he was holding her gently as they glided around the dance floor. But then her joy was short lived as yet another woman claimed him.
Once the dance was over, he noted Ellie standing nearby looking despondent and taking pity on her whisked her back onto the dance floor.
But then the music suddenly changed to a slow romantic number and he wondered if he should take her back to her seat. Then glancing down at her and seeing the look of rapture on her face he decided to see the dance out. Gee she was only a kid and this was her first proper dance in Laramie the least he could do was to make her feel special he decided.
He held her close, but very gently and made polite conversation, but was slightly startled when she laid her head on his chest and cuddled up closer.
He looked over to where Millie was sitting and threw her an anxious glance as though to say ‘help’...but she merely giggled and turned back to her conversation with Lily.
Then he was suddenly aware that Ellie was speaking to him.
“I said you’ve no idea how much I’ve missed you.”
“Oh...uh right,” he said feeling even more uncomfortable.
“But you’re happy at the Doc’s place, enjoying the work,” he said hopefully.
She agreed she was, “But there’s more to life than just work isn’t there, Jess?” she said in what she thought was a seductive voice.
“Well sure,” he said, looking over to the band and praying the slow number would end soon.
“It would be nice to see more of you,” she added.
Then when there was no response she said, “And Slim too of course... we had fun on the journey over didn’t we?”
He sighed with relief, “Sure you must come over to the ranch sometime and meet Daisy and Mike,” he said vaguely.
“Oh, I’d just love that,” she gasped again looking up into his face with undisguised adoration.
But then the dance finished and he led her back to the table feeling mightily relieved.
Shortly afterwards he turned to Millie, “It’s kinda hot here ain’t it, shall we take a stroll?” he suggested tipping his hat towards the cool depths of the surrounding pine forest.
They left a few minutes later and watching them head off to the privacy of the nearby tree line Ellie turned to Carrie and said hesitantly, “Where are they off to?”
“I guess they just want a bit of a break from the music, a change of scene, you know...” she said lightly.
“What do you mean?” Ellie asked looking mystified.
“Oh, for goodness sake! They’ve just gone off for a kiss and a cuddle in peace,” Carrie said irritably.
Then an old school friend Pete came over and took her off to the dance floor so Ellie was left alone for the first time that evening. Lily and Slim were dancing, the Doc having excused himself for a few minutes to chat with a patient at another table.
How could he, Ellie thought near to tears. How could he go off canoodling with that Millie when he’d been so romantic on the dance floor? How he’d held her close and said he wanted to see more of her...for her to visit the ranch and meet the others. Well, that was proof enough he was interested in her, wasn’t it? So why had he gone off that way. It was the allure of that sexy dress Millie was wearing, she was sure of it. Without a second thought she unpinned the broach and allowed the shawl to fall away, exposing the low-cut, scarlet gown and her nubile young figure to perfection.
At a nearby table Chas Ward was two parts drunk and looking at another sad and lonely night by himself. The thirty-year-old might have been handsome but had a bad reputation as being a womanizer of the worst kind. Now that word had gotten around town, none of the nice girls would go within a mile of him. So, he had to take his pleasure with the working girls out at the Last Chance Saloon... a low dive on the edge of town.
Now as he saw what he’d thought to be a rather prissy stuck up little bitch at the Doc’s table divest herself of the shawl his eyes lit up. Jeez the kid had one hell of a figure...and with Harper and Sherman out of the way he decided to take his chance.
Ellie was just adding more lipstick and rouge to her face when the man appeared at her side.
“Well, hello little lady so where have they been hiding you?” he asked beaming at her.
She looked up into his handsome face and blushed not knowing what to say, “I’m new in town,” she whispered, “I’m working over at the Doc’s place, my name’s Ellie.”
“Pleased to meet you I’m Chas,” he said his eyes twinkling appreciatively.
“Well, my dear, would you do me the honour of stepping onto the dance floor for the next dance?” he asked smiling quizzically at her.
She glanced about her...but Slim and Lily were now at the bar with the Doc all with their backs to her. Surely one dance would be OK. Then she remembered Jess and Millie out in the woods, doing who knew what, and decided she’d make Jess jealous. Ha when he came back from his little walk, he’d find her in the arms of another man. So how will you like that Jess Harper she said to herself? She smiled at this would be suitor and said, “I’d be delighted too,” taking his offered arm.
He was an excellent dancer funny and kind and she relaxed in his company. After the dance he sat her down at his own table and poured her a glass of whiskey from his bottle.
She opened her mouth to say I’m not allowed and then closed it again. Hell, if she was going to look the sophisticated woman in time for Jess’s return she might as well go whole hog she figured and she sipped the bitter drink, shuddering as it went down...
It was only a few minutes later that she began to feel warm and happy without a care in the world. She was having the time of her life with this kindly older man and she relaxed and happily drank down the next glass he poured.
“Uh, you’re looking kind of warm my dear,” Chas said solicitously, “shall we take a little turn just over’s much cooler near the trees.”
She considered the idea and then decided it was perfect... if she was strolling with this handsome older man near the entrance to the woods when Jess came back with Millie, he was sure to notice and realise what he was missing, she decided.
As she stood up a wave of dizziness and nausea overtook her and she staggered a little.
“Hey take it easy honey,” Chas said warmly. “Come on the cool air will soon have you feeling better,” and he led her off towards the woods.
Ellie began to regret the decision to go for a walk almost at once as she began to sober up a little. But Chas was holding her arm firmly and refused to take no for an answer when she suggested they turn back.
They were now at the edge of the dark woodland and as Chas urged her forward, she began to have a feeling of deep foreboding which increased as he grabbed hold of both arms and pulled her into a determined embrace.
“Ow, you’re hurting me,” Ellie squawked.
“Oh, come on darling, don’t go all cold on me now,” Chas slurred. “You don’t come dressed up like a tart, and made up that way unless you wanna fool around some do you, huh? Now just come here,” he added angrily and he kissed her hard and pushed her down to the grassy bed below a large pine tree.
Jess and Millie heard her screams as they made their way slowly back from their little lover’s tryst.
“What the Hell?” Jess yelled as he crashed through the undergrowth towards the they got louder and more terrified.
He broke through the bushes and paused for a split second taking in the scene. Ellie was on her back, Chas on top of her...forcing his attentions on her and cussing loudly as he told her to ‘shut the hell up’ hand now covering her mouth.
Jess leaned down and grabbing Chas by the shoulder dragged him off Ellie and spinning him around sent a fist crashing into his face with all the speed and accuracy of a bullet; and doing almost as much damage. Blood spurted from his nose as he crashed unceremoniously to the ground and then tried to crawl away.
“Not so fast,” Jess snarled dragging him up and throwing another haymaker to his jaw this time splitting his lip.
Meanwhile Millie had pulled a shaking tearful Ellie up and was supporting her as they both watched in horror as the grim act of retribution unfolded.
When Jess went to drag Chas up once more, Millie cried out, “No Jess that’s enough, you’ll kill him!”
Then everyone seemed to arrive at once. Slim was suddenly at his side and said, “She’s right buddy...I guess you’ve taught him a lesson, now leave it huh.”
Then the Doc was there taking charge of a distraught Ellie, “My dear are you alright...he didn’t uh... force you?”
She shook her head, “He tried to but Jess arrived just in time.”
“Thank God,” muttered the Doc. “I only left her alone for a little while,” he said looking around at the others, clearly distraught.
“I’m so sorry,” Ellie cried, “I shouldn’t have gone with him...” and then she doubled up and was violently sick.
“Goddamn it, you’ve gotten her drunk,” Jess yelled furiously and would have taken another swing if Mort Cory hadn’t arrived at that very moment.
“Attempted rape...again,” Slim said turning to Mort who immediately took charge.
He handcuffed the prisoner who objected profusely. Now he had the strength of the law to protect him from Jess Harper he suddenly became brave.
“She was asking for it...look at her...and she drank my whiskey happily enough. I didn’t dang well force her into anything!”
“Goddamn it she’s just a kid; didn’t know what she was getting into, you can see that!” Jess roared and made to attack him again...but Slim was too quick for him and again restrained him.
“You just come quietly,” Mort said angrily. “It’s clear that you got the child drunk in an attempt to have your way with her and just took advantage of her youth and innocence.”
When Chas again cussed at that Mort really lost his rag.
“Anymore of your lies and insolence and I might just leave you here for Jess to meter out your punishment. I can easily turn a blind eye you know. It’s my night off and I might just go back to the dance,” he added making to a walk away.
“No! Please, Sheriff, I’ll come quietly.”
Then he sighed deeply, “And nope it weren’t this young lady’s fault. It was all my doing.”
“Sorry Miss,” he added for good measure... before Mort bore him off to the jail.
The group made their way slowly back to their table and the Doc suggested as it was getting late, they call it a night. But before they left Slim and Lily went off for one last dance. The Doc said he must just finish his conversation with one of his favorite patients and Millie and Carrie disappeared off to powder their noses.
“Just watch out for her will you Jess,” the doc said quietly, “I’ll only be a moment.”
Ellie was sitting huddled at the table, her wrap once more in place and a look of despair in her eyes.
Jess stood close by looking moody. His hands thrust deep into his pockets as he watched the dancers.
“You’re mad at me, aren’t you?” Ellie finally managed looking up at his ramrod straight back.
Jess turned slowly and she saw the icy look in his dark blue eyes.
“Oh, I ain’t mad at you, I’m dang furious,” he growled.
She flinched almost as though he had hit her...and then whispered, “Why?” Then more angrily, “It’s not as if you care about me!”
“Hell of course I care,” he shouted. “Why do you think I’m so mad? Anything could have happened to you out there! Damn it Ellie you’re real pretty, you don’t need to wear dresses that are way too old for you...or paint yer face up that’re perfect just as you are.”
“You really think so?” she gasped. Her world suddenly spinning on its axis.
“Sure,” he said now giving her a kindly smile, “you’re a great kid.”
“I’m not!” she shouted plummeting to the depths again, really angry herself now. “Can’t you see that I’m not a kid, I’m a woman and I love you...that’s why I did all that stuff to make you jealous!”
Jess’s jaw dropped and he looked incredulous, “Now hold on a minute here,” he said very quietly after a moment. “When did I ever give you the impression, I was lookin’ for a relationship with you. Hell, you know I’m seeing Millie.”
“But I thought...I thought...”
“What?” Jess challenged.
But before she could reply the Doc strolled over.
“Right my dear I think it’s time we made tracks,” he said completely unaware of the charged atmosphere. Then saying farewell to Jess, the Doc bore Ellie off on his arm.
She turned back just once as she was hurried away and threw an anguished look...back to where Jess still stood staring after them.
That’s when Millie and Lily returned.
“What’s going on...why were you yelling at poor little Ellie just now...she looked awfully upset?”
“Tell ya later,” he muttered...and collecting his smart Sunday-best frock coat from the back of his chair said, “So we goin’ then?”
As per usual after a night out they congregated in Millie’s rooms above the bar in the saloon, for coffee and to chat about the evening.
The men had divested themselves of their guns and boots, as per Millie’s house rules, and had also shucked their heavy frock coats. They now lounged in front of the fire dressed in their sparkling white shirts and brocade vests and dark trousers, looking every inch the smart men about town. Jess had loosened his string tie and opened his shirt and was looking far from happy as he sat back on one of the squashy armchairs with Millie perched on the arm.
“So go on then,” she said, once they all had a coffee apiece. “Tell all...”
“Yes, so what’s this about?” Slim asked from the sofa where he had an arm slung casually around Lily; her head on his shoulder.
Jess looked down, “I dunno, I just lost it with her. I guess it was because I was worried about her...dang it, if we hadn’t arrived when we did Mill...” and he just shook his head.
“I don’t understand why she acted that way,” Millie said. “According to Carrie she’d promised to wear that shawl as a cover up and not to paint her face anymore...what made her change her mind I wonder?”
They sat in silence until Jess let out a deep sigh, “I guess that was down to me, it was all my fault,” he said quietly.
“What do you mean, Jess?” Slim asked frowning slightly.
“Uh, well thing is, she said she did it to make me jealous. Seems she thinks she’s in love with me dang it,” and he looked down shaking his head.
“Well sure she is,” Slim said irritably, “I tried to tell you that back on the trail but you wouldn’t listen.”
“Goodness I could have told you that,” Millie said rolling her eyes, “Why, Carrie told me the other day that you are all Ellie ever wants to talk about.”
“Well, I didn’t know did I?” he exploded.
“That’s only because you wouldn’t listen to me,” Slim said again in frustration.
“Anyway, Carrie said she’d deal with it,” Millie said, “I didn’t want to embarrass the girl by saying anything to you.”
“So now what?” Jess asked in exasperation.
“Don’t worry cowboy, Carrie’s going to have it out with her tonight,” Millie replied. “She’ll get over you don’t fret,” she added. Then she caught Lily’s eye and the pair collapsed into giggles.
Taking pity on his pard Slim took a bottle of whiskey from the mantelpiece and poured some into Jess’s coffee and said, “Look at it this way Jess, you’re sure to get five-star treatment at the Doc’s next time you’re shot up or hurt with young Ellie on the case.”

Chapter 12
A few days later Mose drove the Stage into the relay station yard. Pulling the team to a standstill and jumping down from the box he strode over to where Slim and Jess were just emerging from the house to change the horses.
He waved a copy of the Sentinel in their faces and said, “Hey you seen the news? Looks like you’ve been playing the hero again Jess...according to this!”
“Give that here,” he said scowling and grabbing the paper from the old timer.
He looked at the lurid inch high headlines...Mercy Dash by Local Man Saves Damsel in Distress. Then there was a sensational account of the events of the previous Saturday evening. Describing Ellie as a nubile and desirable young woman who was also an heiress, having recently inherited a small fortune from her grandfather. It went on to say how she had been lured into the woods by an older man.
Jess stopped reading the shocking account and turning to Slim said, “Oh great all the no hopers in town will be stalkin’ the kid now; half of them hitting on her and the others after her money.”
“Who wrote that rubbish?” Slim asked peering over Jess’s shoulder.
“That Carl Mason again,” Jess said looking furious and referring to the Sentinel’s chief reporter. “Goddamn it I told him what I’d do iffen he wrote anymore lies about me...or my friends.”
“Well to be fair those are the facts,” Slim said reading the rest of the article, “but I guess it could have been put in a more restrained manner.”
“Hell, he don’t know the meaning of the word,” Jess cussed.
“Um...but I guess he sells papers though,” Slim said shrugging.
“Well, that’s your copy anyway,” Mose said, “so do you want it or not?”
“Oh sure, Jess said with an evil grin, we’re gettin’ kinda low on paper for the outhouse.”
They thought no more about it until a week later when Mort rode into the yard late one morning.
It was a chilly, early fall, day. The men had been off mending fence on the other side of the home pasture, in readiness for bringing the herd down later that month. They had just arrived back ready for a coffee.
Mort hitched his buckskin to the rail and went to meet the men coming back from the barn.
“Morning Mort what brings you here,” Slim said cheerfully, “the lure of Daisy’s coffee and apple pie? We were just heading in for some.”
When Mort didn’t return his grin Jess said, “Hey what’s up Mort?”
“Here on business,” he said succinctly, “I’m real sorry to have to tell you this, but it’s Miss Ellie, she’s gone missing.”
Jess’s head snapped up and he looked shocked, “What do ya mean missing?”
Mort spread his hands out and shrugged.
“Just that she was last seen at the Doc’s house by Ma Hudson. She said Ellie was called out to tend a youngster. Some kid came with the message, saying it was from Bert saying, his stable lad young Billy had fallen from the loft was bleeding real bad.”
“Well why didn’t the Doc go?” Jess broke in.
“The Doc and Carrie were attending a difficult birth out of town. They left word they might be gone all night. Well, this was about seven last night, so Ellie felt she must go. Ma Hudson figured Bert would be there to watch out for her, so off she went.”
“Then what happened?” Slim asked.
“Well when she hadn’t returned by nine and there was no sign of the Doc either, Ma Hudson walked down to the livery and found it all locked up. She went round the back to Bert’s place and he knew nothing about it. They checked the livery and her horse Patch was missing too.”
“Damn it, Jess cussed, so what the hell are ya doin’ standin’ around here jawing for Mort! Why ain’t you out looking?”
Mort sighed and then said patiently, “I can promise you we are Jess. Lon is heading a posse as we speak looking around the area. But after that storm late last night there are precious few tracks to follow.”
“So, what are you doin’ here?” Jess persisted. “You want us to help look huh?” And he half turned to go fetch his horse from the barn.
“Yes, that would be great. But that’s not why I’m see the thing is ...well I thought she might be here?”
“Oh?” Slim asked looking puzzled.
Mort looked slightly embarrassed, “Yes it was something Carrie said...that the child was kinda infatuated with we thought maybe she’d ridden over to see you?”
“Well, she didn’t.” Jess said looking annoyed, “and iffen she had you can be sure we’d have fetched her back home pronto.”
“Yes, sure I knew that,” Mort said quickly. “Uh the other thing the doc thought was that well...maybe she’d paid the kid to bring the message so she could ride out without any questions asked?”
“But that’s a bit devious, why would she do that?” Slim asked.
“We thought maybe she was hiding that Jess would get real worried and go looking for her. You know…attention seeking. Kinda like the other night,” he added.
“So, yer saying this is all down to me?” Jess said looking pained.
“Hey it’s not your fault Hot Shot,” Slim said with a faint grin, “you can’t help being irresistible.”
Jess just scowled at him and said, “I’ll go git my horse.”
It was nearly dark when they returned to town and called in at the Doc’s place to see if she had returned.
When there was no sign Mort looked resigned and said, “I guess I should go see Ma Matlock and tell her the bad news.”
“I just can’t figure why she’d take off that way,” Jess said. “I don’t buy it that she wanted to worry me...get my attention that way. Carrie’s set her straight about all that nonsense.”
“Yes, Carrie did tell her a few home truths,” Mort said, “didn’t go down too well, but I think she understands the situation between you and Millie now,” he said delicately. “She was rather upset by that news report too. But I told her it would all be over and forgotten within the week...and she seemed OK with that. Well, I think so anyway,” he added, “can never tell what these young girls are thinking.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Jess said with feeling.
Then he snapped his fingers. “That’s it! I know you thought that Ellie had arranged for that kid to call saying she was needed so, she could make her escape and hide out to worry me. But what if the lad was paid by someone else to deliver the message and she’s been abducted for ransom...huh? By someone that read that dang news report callin’ her an heiress.”
“Surely Widow Matlock would have said something to you by now Mort if that was the case, “Slim said.
“Not if she’d been warned that Ellie will be harmed if she squawks to the law,” Jess replied. “Why dontcha go check her out again Mort?”
“I think I will,” the Sheriff said looking thoughtful. “But first I’ll pay a call on my friend and neighbor, the Laramie Bank Manager and ask if Widow Matlock has made any large withdrawals in the last twenty-four hours.”
The Sheriff was back later that evening.
“You were right Jess... the manager confirmed several thousand dollars had been withdrawn from Widow Matlock’ s account. Money she was holding in trust for Ellie. Then when I visited and confronted her, she broke down and showed me the ransom note.”
“Goddamn it, I knew it!” Jess said looking furious.
Slim was equally upset, “Poor kid she’ll be terrified,” he said.
“Edna Matlock is to drive out and leave the money under that huge pine just by the turn off to Jackson’s Ridge at dawn tomorrow. Well, I figure we’ll be there a while before that huh,” Mort said with an evil grin.
They were all in place way before sun-up the following morning. They were hiding in the undergrowth a few yards from the drop off point...their horses tethered some way back.
“She was none too happy about the arrangements,” Mort whispered as they concealed themselves in the bushes, “but she came around when I promised we’d get Ellie and the money back.”
“Let’s just hope we do then,” Slim said somewhat pessimistically.
“I wonder who it is,” Jess said, listing a few possible suspects...
“Nah, half of them don’t have the brains for this kinda thing,” Mort said...then hazarded a few guesses of his own.
“Well, he’d better not dang well have hurt the kid,” Jess said bitterly.
Then Mort shushed him, “There’s someone coming,” he whispered.
Then Ma Matlock, driving her small buggy came into sight. She got slowly down and placed a large package under the tree; before looking around her cautiously.
“Go on get off home,” Mort said under his breath.
Finally, the elderly lady retraced her steps and drove off back to town as she had promised Mort she would do.
Then just moments later a diminutive figure broke cover and ran over to the tree to recover the package.
“What the hell?” Jess muttered. “It’s just a kid.”
All three men broke cover and had no problem retaining the cheeky looking lad with a shock of red hair, even though he struggled and cussed loudly.
“Well then Johnny are you going to tell me what all this is about?” Mort said stony faced.
“You know this kid?” Jess asked.
“Yup, him and his Ma have just moved into the old Perkins place on the edge of town.”
“That’s still standing, is it?” Jess asked raising an eyebrow.
“Barely,” Mort replied, “and I guess that’s why the kid’s been in trouble since day one; petty pilfering from the General Store mainly. Say’s his Ma’s got no money.”
Jess looked angry, “Hell my ma didn’t have no money either, but I didn’t go around stealing,” he said to the child. “Anyway, where’s Ellie huh?”
“You don’t really think a kid like this would have abducted her and written that ransom note, do you?” Slim asked looking flabbergasted. “Heck he’s only ten or eleven.”
“I’m twelve actually,” Johnny said looking proud.
“That old eh,” Jess said conversationally. “So old enough to take yer punishment like a man are you then?” he asked balling his fist and looking menacing. “And I don’t buy it that this is all down to you anyways. I guess you were the kid that called at the Doc’s place to get Ellie to the livery. But you’re working for a grown up ain’t who is it huh?” he growled looking mighty scary.
The kid instinctively went and hid behind the Sheriff but said nothing.
“Look we’re wasting valuable time here,” Mort said.
Then turning to the child said, “OK Johnny tell us where Miss Ellie is will you...and who else is involved in all this huh?”
“Who?” he said playing for time.
“Dang it, you know who!” Jess yelled angrily. “Now where is she kid, and the guy that’s taken her. You’ve got two minutes to tell us before I beat it out of you.”
“OK...OK I’ll tell ya,” the child squeaked. “It were that Miss Ellie herself that set it all up. She’s hiding over at that old logging cabin... near a stream yonder,” he said tipping his hat towards Sherman land.
“But why would she do that?” Slim asked looking mystified.
“Dunno sir, she didn’t make a lot of sense was awful know the way girls get?” he said looking for understanding.
“I know, so go on,” Jess said in a slightly kinder tone.
“Well, she made me take a note to her aunt and said she mustn’t see me. The note was asking for her to leave some of her stuff here and said I was to collect it after her aunt had gone. Said she hated Laramie, and folk would think real bad things about her after all that stuff in the paper. Heck, she said a lot of stuff Mr... I guess I don’t recall it all . I do know she was heading back home though...said she planned to live with some neighbors.”
Jess shook his head at the idea of Ellie heading all that way alone.
Then hiding the ghost of a smile, he said, “So what was in this for you kid?”
“She said she’d give me two dollars,” he said his eyes shining, then he sobered, “but I guess I won’t be getting it now.”
Then he turned to Mort, “Heck I didn’t know I was doing wrong Sheriff. After you were real mad at me for taking that stuff from the mercantile I decided to fly you said.”
Mort ruffled the youngster’s hair, “OK I believe come on show us where Miss Ellie is hiding son”
As soon as they arrived at the cabin it was clear it was deserted.
“She was here Sheriff, I swear it,” he cried. “She wouldn’t go, she said that bag her aunt was bringing was real important to her.”
“But maybe not as important as not being caught out,” Slim said quietly. “Maybe she decided to head over to the big pine real early and saw us arrive, got spooked and rode out someplace?”
The boy nodded, “She did head out early, said she was going to wash up in the stream and she’d see me back here to collect the bag later.”
Jess was already looking around for tracks and picked up Patch’s diminutive hooves almost at once heading north towards the lake on Sherman land.
“Come on,” he said to the others, “looks like she was heading for the lake, but maybe she’s just kept on going if she did see us.”
Mort looked thoughtful and then said, “You know what Jess, I think you should go fetch her back on your own.”
“Huh,” asked Jess his eyes narrowing, “why me?”
“Because it’s clear that she adores you and will doubtless do anything you say,” Mort said with a grin. Then said, “But seriously, Jess, I figure if anyone can get through to the kid it’s you. The Doc and Carrie have both failed and so I guess you’re our last hope.”
Jess looked down shaking his head, “I dunno…”
“He’s right Jess,” Slim said quietly. “If we just drag her back, what’s to stop her heading out again? We might not be able to find her next time. Heck, think what could happen to her trying to go all that way alone!”
Jess rolled his eyes and muttered, “Goddamn it,” under his breath before saying, “OK, OK I’ll do it...dang it.”
“Good,” said Mort mounting up and gesturing for young Johnny to do likewise, “and I’ll take this youngster back home and tell Ma Matlock her niece will be home as soon as possible.”
“Hang on,” said Slim looking thoughtful. “I think once Jess has found her and hopefully talked some sense into her maybe she should come and stay at the ranch for a few days. It would give Daisy a chance to talk to her too. Also let all the hype in town about that Sentinel article die a death too.”
“That’s all supposing I find her,” Jess said irritably.
“Sure, you will,” Slim said.
“The tracks are clear enough,” Mort agreed, “you’ll have no problem, Jess. I’ll tell Ma Matlock that her niece is staying at the ranch for a few days with Daisy looking out for her. They’re good friends and I figure she’ll be glad Daisy will be helping to sort the kid out. I reckon Edna Matlock is getting a tad long in the tooth for all these shenanigans,” he added... “kids today eh,” he muttered rolling his eyes.
Jess went to mount up and then turned and came back to where a very woebegone looking Johnny was sitting his horse.
Jess opened his wallet and brought out a couple of crisp dollar notes and handed them over, “There you are kid...just a reminder that it’s always a good plan to do the right thing huh...”
“Yes sir!” the child said looking ecstatic.
“Its fer yer Ma for food for the table,” he said firmly, but then added, “tell her I said you could keep a few cents for candy huh.”
“Oh, thanks Mr Harper...thanks so much,” the child said his eyes alight with pleasure.
Then he and Mort rode out.
“You’ll be, OK?” Slim said now feeling a tad guilty at leaving his friend to sort the young girl out alone.
“You think this is all my fault dontcha?” Jess replied. “Hell, I didn’t encourage her any you know Slim!”
“I know that Jess...but Mort’s right, she’ll listen to you. I figure she’s heading out mostly because she’s heartbroken that she can’t, uh, be with know?” he finished looking slightly embarrassed.
“Well, this is gonna be fun,” he answered as he mounted up.
“Just try and let her down lightly,” Slim called after him, but Jess merely flapped a hand in reply.
It was mid morning by the time he finally caught up with her. The weather had become sultry with black clouds forming to the east heralding a storm.
Jess turned back from scanning the horizon to Patch’s tracks in front of him and it was clear he was being ridden hard.
“Crazy kid,” he muttered to himself, “driving a horse that dang fast in this heat.”
He urged Traveller on up a small rise so that he could look down towards the distant lake and that’s when he saw it.
A pony down by the lakeside, head down cropping the grass. Yes, it was Patch alright and he sighed with relief.
But where the hell was Ellie? He scanned the lakeside and then up towards the distant cave above the lake...but no sign.
He urged Traveller on to a gentle trot and was soon dismounting and checking on Patch. The pony recognized Jess and Traveller from their trip over from Charity and gave a little whinny of welcome.
Jess quickly checked him over and patted him absently, his eyes surveying the surrounding countryside of tall grasses and scrub land for some sign that Ellie had passed that way.
He left the horses grazing and wandered off towards the lake and that’s when he saw her at the lake edge, lying face down, unmoving.
He rushed over and gently turning her over gasped in shock at the deep gash to her temple and paper white complexion.
“Oh sweetheart, what have you done?” he groaned.
She was deeply unconscious, blood splattered on her white blouse and still oozing gently from the head wound.
He dashed back to Traveller and returned with his canteen and some clean rags and washed the wound carefully before applying a makeshift bandage to stem the bleeding. Then he tenderly wiped the drying blood from her face with some cool lake water.
That’s when she cried out and came around staring at him in confusion. Then she shook her head and cried out in pain, before rubbing at her eyes and peering back up at him short-sightedly.
“It’s me, Jess,” he said softly, “it’s OK Ellie, yer quite safe.”
“I... I can’t see too well, you’re all blurry,” she whispered...then with a tiny smile, “But I’d know your voice anywhere Jess.”
“You’ll be OK,” he said quickly, “You’ve just had a real bad fall and cut yer head up some. A nasty bang on the head can make you not see too well. I figure you’ve got some concussion, but it’ll be OK soon,” he added again, sounding more positive than he felt.
“Yes,” she whispered, my head hurts something powerful, “and I feel kind of sick and dizzy.”
Just then the thunder that had been rumbling in the background for sometime suddenly crashed and lightening forked above them.
Jess thought quickly... the kid was in no fit state to sit a horse and it was a fair ride back to the ranch. He looked around him and saw that the path to the cave was only a few hundred yards away.
“We need to take shelter,” he said and picking her up set off for the steep track up to the cave...the horses following on.
When they arrived, he fetched her bedroll and helped her to lie down, before covering her gently with the blanket.
“Is that OK?” he asked frowning down at her.
“Very comfy,” she said with a tiny smile.
“If you’ll be alright, I’ll just go fetch the horses inside,” he added, “looks like there’s gonna be a humdinger of a storm soon.”
He returned a little later with the horses, to find her asleep. So, he settled them at the back of the huge cave and after tending them he returned and lit a camp fire from logs prudently stored in the back of the cave. Then settled with a coffee to wait for her to awaken again.
When she woke it was almost dark in the cave, the storm raging without...but after he’d spoken gently to her and reassured her, she sat up professing to be feeling a little better.
“You’d better take it real easy,” he said, “can’t be too careful with a head wound you know.”
She gave him a brief smile and said, “Yes, actually I do...”
He grinned at her then and said, “Well I’m real you wanna tell me all about it then?”
“It all happened so quickly, one minute I was sitting my pony and the next he reared, bucked and threw me. It was a rattler Jess, really spooked him. I was knocked out for a minute and when I came around, I saw it slithering away, and Patch had bolted. I tried to get to the lake to clean the wound and then next thing, you were there.”
“I figured something had spooked him,” Jess said nodding.
Then he took a deep breath and said, “Actually what I was askin’ was why did you do this Ellie? Upset yer old aunt that way...all of us. Surely you didn’t think you could make it back to Charity all alone?”
She looked stubborn then.
“You don’t know what it’s like Jess. OK I know I made a fool of myself at the dance and I’ll never behave that way again. But my aunt went crazy and I figure I’ll never be allowed out on a Saturday night again until I’m an old spinster and my life is practically over!” she said, her voice rising hysterically. He hid a smile figuring that if the nursing didn’t pan out as hoped then she’d have a good career on the stage.
Then he sighed...
“Look Ellie I’m real sorry about all this, but you’ve got to go back to town eventually, make it up to your aunt. Heck when she got that ransom note she didn’t know what to think.”
“I know, but I needed to get my inheritance back somehow if I was going to be living in Charity. I’ll explain and apologize too, really, I will.”
“And you need to apologize to the doc as well. He’s come to rely on you ya know. He’ll be missing your help.”
“Really?” she asked, brightening some.
“Sure, and I guess yer aunt ain’t that bad huh?”
“You don’t know her,” she said vehemently.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure I do,” he replied. “Now let me see, Jess continued...
… “You stay away from that Jess Harper...he’s a philanderer and ex gunslinger...a bad lot my girl. You keep away you hear?” he said, in a good approximation of her aunt.
She giggled, “She doesn’t really like anyone very much. Lily and your Millie are no better than they should be, working in that ‘den of antiquity.’ Carrie is way too flighty to be a nurse. The only folk she’s got a good word for are the Doc, a wonderful man and Slim, very hardworking.”
They exchanged a knowing smile and then Jess said again, “I’m real sorry honey.”
“What for?” she asked raising an eyebrow.
“Well,” he said looking a tad embarrassed, “I guess part of the reason you took off that way was because of me huh?”
She looked puzzled for a moment and then grinned at him.
“What, you mean that silly crush I had on you? Goodness I’m over that. Carrie explained everything to me...all about you and Millie. And anyway, you’re way too old for me,” she added, “I see that now...”
“I am huh,” he replied, feeling strangely insulted at being tossed aside so easily.
But then he caught her eye and soon they were both laughing uproariously.
The storm was still raging as dusk fell and Jess decided they should stay put and return to the ranch at first light. Ellie was clearly quite badly concussed and the ordeal of trying to ride through a storm just didn’t make any sense.
Then they sat and talked as friends for the first time and she was able to tell him a little of her past. How her parents had been killed in a terrible accident in their wagon when she was quite young. Having survived she went to live with her grandfather at just seven years of age. Her grandmother had passed away several years before and she had no older female relatives close by growing up.
“I didn’t have many friends either,” she said, “A lot of the town’s kids thought I was stuck up just because I was the Doc’s granddaughter but I was just shy really.”
He frowned, “That’s real sad, a kid needs friends growing up...and a Ma to talk things out with too I guess.”
She nodded, “Yes, I see that now... that’s why Carrie is so special to me. Almost like the big sister I never had,” and her face crumpled like she might cry.
“Hey Ellie don’t take on,” he said quickly. “So, why’d you up and run out on her iffen that’s the way you feel?”
She shrugged, “After the fool I made of myself the other night I figured she wouldn’t want to know me anymore.”
“No,” he said shaking his head, “Carrie’s bigger than that. She, of all people, knows it’s real easy to make a mistake. Heck when she was your age she was always messin’ up. What youngster doesn’t? It’s all part of growing up, learning from your mistakes. God knows I’ve made more than a few in my time,” he added grinning at her. “I think yer bein’ way too hard on yourself, you know that?”
“You think?”
“Sure do. Heck it ain’t your fault if you didn’t have a Ma to teach you all about how to behave around boys, do make up...and all that kinda stuff,” he said vaguely.
When she just looked unhappily at him, he grinned at her, “Hey don’t look so sad. I know just the lady to set ya straight...and you’ll meet her tomorrow.”
He brewed some more coffee...and as darkness fell, they turned in for the night.
At first light the following morning he was rudely awoken by the sound of Slim cussing at him.
Frowning he sat up, rubbing his eyes and trying to make sense of what was happening.
“Wha...?” he muttered squinting up at his lanky friend.
“I said what the hell are you playing at!” Slim repeated. “Good grief Jess you were supposed to talk some sense into the kid and bring her straight back to the ranch. What the heck is her aunt going to say if she gets wind of all cozied up in here together all night huh...huh?”
Jess just gaped at him...trying to collect his thoughts.
However, Slim’ s rant had now woken Ellie, and as she emerged from her blanket, he saw her pale face and the bandage to her head and gasped in shock.
“Hey Ellie what happened?” he asked sinking down to crouch beside her.
“I had a really bad fall from Patch and Jess found me and looked after me real good,” she whispered. “Don’t be mad at him Slim, we didn’t come back because of the storm. Please don’t worry about me, I’m over all that silliness now anyway,” she added.
Slim flushed up some, and cast Jess a glance and saw him nod, and give him a subtle wink.
“Oh...uh right,” Slim stuttered, “So do you feel up to riding now Ellie? The storm’s all blown out.”
Ellie stayed at the ranch for several days and was a great hit with both Daisy and Mike.
Daisy spent several hours with the youngster discussing many issues that her dear Ma would have addressed had she lived. So it was that the young woman left feeling much more able to deal with some of the problems of life. From handling elderly disagreeable relatives; through to how to deal with the many emotions she would encounter as she grew up and fell in and out of love.
“I think these crushes are a practice for the real thing,” Daisy said sagely as she and Ellie sat on the porch shelling peas.
Ellie nodded, “I just hope when my knight in shining armor arrives, that he is as kind and thoughtful as Jess,” she replied wistfully.
“Oh, I’m sure he will be,” Daisy said cheerfully.
Then putting her bowl of peas to one side, she picked up her darning and said, “And hopefully will be a little easier on his socks too.” They exchanged a smile and then were laughing so much that Jess came over to see what all the fuss was about.
“What’s so funny?” he asked looking down quizzically at them but they merely flapped a hand in his direction and Daisy finally managed, “Nothing dear, nothing at all really.”

Chapter 13
It was now several months since the men had returned from their hunt for Marty Cain and they had been kept pretty busy on the ranch. Firstly, mending fence and making the house and outbuildings secure before the winter storms. However, they were still able to visit town on a Saturday night to see their gals though, and also made sure to check with Doc Sam that Ellie was happy and settled.
Then they were forced to stay away from town for a few weeks as they were kept busy bringing all the stock down to the lower ground for the winter. Once that was completed, they heard a neighbor was sick and so they volunteered to bring his stock down too.
So, it was when they set off for town one sunny Saturday afternoon, they were in high spirits at the thought of seeing their girls again, after so long away.
Meanwhile in the Laramie Saloon, Millie frowned and nudged Lily... “Oh no,” she whispered, “that Chris Dobbs is back again.”
“Don’t worry I’ll deal with him,” Lily said and marched off purposefully to serve the young man.
“It’s OK,” he said flushing up, “it was Millie I wanted.”
“She’s busy,” Lily said without missing a beat, “beer, was it?”
The rather callow youngster nodded and watched sadly as Millie bustled off into the back room to make some sandwiches for the bar.
Lily watched as Chris sipped his beer and looked miserably into space... and she took pity on the teen.
“Look Chris can I give you some advice?” she said.
“Sure...about Millie?” he asked hopefully.
“Sort of yes. You see you’re wasting your time, Chris. Millie has told you a hundred times that she’s really not interested in dating you. Apart from the fact that you’re way too young, she just happens to be in love with Jess Harper.”
“Well, I know that,” he said irritably, “but if she’d just give me a chance, I could show her I’m a much better bet than Harper. Hell, everyone knows he’s an ex-gunslinger always in trouble; probably get shot dead sooner or later with the life he leads. I don’t know what she sees in him anyway,” he added sulkily.
Lily sighed with exasperation.
“Listen up good kid,” she said firmly. “Millie is way too kind to tell you that Hell will freeze over before she’d date you but I’m telling you now. What’s more if Jess gets wind of you pestering her, you’ll live to regret it. Now he’s due in town today, so if I were you, I’d scram and leave Millie alone... got it!”
“I’ll kill him, I swear it,” the youngster swore “I’ll damn well kill him!” He swore again, before throwing back the rest of his beer and marching off in high dudgeon.
As he left, he cannoned into Mort Cory, just entering the saloon. But just glared at him and strode off down the street.
“What’s upset the kid?” Mort asked as he wandered over to the bar.
“Says he’s gonna kill Jess Harper and take Millie as his own,” Mose chuckled from where he was enjoying a long cool beer.
“Did he indeed?” Mort replied, raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“He didn’t mean it, he’s just upset,” Lily said quickly, before fetching the Sheriff a beer.
Jess and Slim arrived shortly afterwards and Mose was full of the recent incident and all ready to tell Jess that he was on young Chris Dobbs hit list... enjoying the joke enormously. However, Mort jumped in before he could raise the issue and said, “Least said soonest mended huh Mose?” and silenced him with a steely glance.
Mort knew dang well how protective Jess was of Millie and he sure didn’t want anything to disturb his peaceful Saturday afternoon.
Once the men had enthusiastically greeted their girls, they settled down to enjoy a beer with Mort.
“Heard the latest?” he said conversationally, “Poor Tom took a nasty tumble in the bar last week and broke his arm.”
“Wants to take more water with it,” Jess said chuckling knowing that the barkeep rarely drank spirits.
“Hey this is no laughing matter,” Mort rebuked, “it’s a real bad break, Doc Sam sent him off to recuperate with his sister.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Jess said immediately sobering.
“What about the bar, the girls will be real hard pushed without him,” Slim said as he watched Lily and Millie dealing with the now busy saloon.
“Got some help in,” Mort said, “should be on duty fact it was her dang fault that poor old Tom ended up that way.”
“Oh... how come?” Jess asked raising an eyebrow.
“Well, this what’s her name...uh... Mia...Mia Brown that’s in town. Anyway, seems she came here seeking a job. Tom said he was looking for a cleaner and some bar work and he took her on for a trial. First job she does is wash and polish the floor behind the bar. Next thing you know Tom comes in all unawares and slips and falls real bad on his right arm!”
“Jeez, I’d have fired her on the spot,” Jess said shaking his head.
“Yes, me too,” Mort agreed, “but then he figured he’d be real short staffed with him away so took her on just temporary, I believe.”
“Hey wasn’t it a Mia Brown that Daisy was talking about the other day?” Slim said. “Joined the women’s group...big friends with Widow Dobbs, young Chris’s Ma?”
Jess just shrugged, “Could be. But heck Slim I don’t like the thought of our girls working here without a man to keep order if things get a tad lively.”
“All taken care of,” Mort said grinning at his friend, “Lon and myself are calling in on a pretty regular basis, especially at busy times and also at closing. Plus, we’ve got a rota of a few men who are on hand to jump in and call me if there’s any don’t fret.”
Then there was a slight lull in serving and Millie came across to chat.
But she was suddenly aware that Jess’s attention was elsewhere.
“Dang it, who the hell is that?” he asked turning to her and looking aghast.
Millie turned to where a stout woman with bleached blond hair piled up in a fancy style and thick make up was just coming into the bar from the back room, smiling as she looked around her.
“That,” said Millie in a whisper, “is Mia Brown.”
“Jeez,” he whispered back and took another swallow of his beer.
Slim too was mesmerized by the brassy woman and noted her thick blue eye shadow and slash of bright red lipstick as she approached.
She sashayed over to Jess and leaning over the bar showing a vast expanse of white flesh and deep cleavage from her low-cut dress whispered, “Well hello handsome...”
Jess was rendered speechless and it was Millie who made the introductions; leaving the way too familiar Mia, in no doubt as to her long-term relationship with Jess.
Then Mia turned her attentions to Slim, before wandering off to serve some drinks.
“Well, I sure wouldn’t wanna get on the wrong side of her,” Jess said eyeing up the beefy forearms and chunky fist as she pulled a beer.
“She’s not staying,” Lily said coming over. “Once Tom gets back she’s history.”
“You don’t like her then?” Slim asked looking surprised as his Lily got on with everyone.
She shrugged, “I just don’t trust her... I’m sure she lied to Tom about having done bar work before. Mill and I have had to teach her everything since Tom left...and I figure she’s too old to learn new stuff anyway.”
Slim watched the woman now in deep conversation with Mose and said, “She doesn’t look that old...mid to late thirties?”
“Ha you’re kidding. Without all that make up she looks nearer fifty,” Lily said, “and there’s something else...she asks way too many questions, she’s really nosy.”
Slim grinned at that and tipped his hat over to where she was still chatting to Mose, “Well I guess she’s found the right companion then,” he chuckled.
Mort returned at closing time as promised, but there was no trouble, so after a quick beer with Jess and Slim he left to continue his nightly rounds.
The streets were pretty well deserted now, with just the odd drunk weaving his unsteady way home. Then he spotted somebody lurking in the shadows opposite the saloon and he wandered over, on the alert for trouble. However, he relaxed when he saw it was merely young Chris Dobbs. He was peering up to a lit window above the saloon bar...and as Mort followed his gaze, he was just in time to see Jess come to the window and pull the drapes together.
“So, what are you doing abroad so late Chris?” Mort asked peering down at the younger man.
The teen nearly jumped out of his skin and said, “Uh, nuthin’ Sheriff...I’m just out for a walk.”
Mort looked back up at the dimly lit window and then at Chris and gave him a quizzical smile. “She’s out of your league son and you really don’t wanna mess with Jess Harper’s woman, believe me. Now you get off home huh? Yer Ma will be fretting,” he added, for good measure.
The youngster flushed up and was about to protest, but when he saw the steely glint in Mort’s eye he said, “Yup, sorry Sheriff,” and turned and walked off in the direction of the home he shared with his elderly mother.
Meanwhile back in Millie’s cosy room Jess was snuggled up with his gal on her comfy sofa in front of the fire. One arm was around her and her head was resting on his shoulder.
“That Mia is an odd one,” Jess said conversationally.
Millie frowned, “She was all over you like a rash; I think she’s kinda smitten.”
Jess just chuckled and shook his head in disbelief.
Then thoughtfully Millie added, “It’s not like Lily to take a dislike to someone, is it? I mean the woman is kind of annoying, but she’s harmless enough.”
“Uh I guess so. Anyways I’ve got more interestin’ things on my mind than that Mia Brown,” he said, leaning in for a passionate kiss.
The following morning, Millie was up early and slipped quietly out of bed; and washed and dressed hurriedly before making for the door. But Jess awoke just as she was heading out.
“Where are you off to?” he called, then more sadly, “Hey you got dressed...”
She stopped in her tracks and turning back, went and sat on the edge of the bed...smiling lovingly down at him.
“I told you last night I’d have to get up real early and clean and tidy the bar before opening.”
“Aw... do you hafta?” he asked pulling her down into a warm embrace.
She returned his kiss and then pulled away, “Yes, I have to...and as I remember it, it was you that persuaded us to leave it last night.”
“Aw come on sweetheart,” Jess returned, “just five more minutes huh?”
“Ha!” she said getting up and marching to the door, “I know you and your ‘five minutes’ we’d still be in bed at noon. Anyway, it’s not fair to leave all the work to Lily.”
But Jess merely snapped his fingers looking hopeful, “Tom left you in why dontcha get that Mia Brown to do it huh; earn her money?”
“Nice try,” she grinned, “but she’s only part time. She doesn’t start until noon...and keep your voice down, her room’s only next door...she’ll hear you!”
Jess looked slightly alarmed at that and if the walls were so dang thin, he wondered what else the woman had heard last night.
But then his attention was drawn back to Millie.
“You just have a lie in. I know Slim intended too, and Lily and I will cook you both breakfast once we’re all done.”
When he still looked hard done by, she added, “Unless you’d like to help of course?”
At that he buried himself under the blankets and said, “See ya later.”
She grinned to herself and made her way out of the room and went off down to the bar where she could hear Lily making a start on washing the glasses.
It was just five minutes later when Jess heard the door open again and opening his eyes and grinning, he said, “Change yer mind did ya sweetheart?”
Then his smile froze as he saw who had entered the room.
“What the heck are you doin’ in here?” he said beginning to sit up.
Two shots were fired in quick succession; one slammed into his chest, the second catching his temple and he collapsed back on the bed.
Seconds later all hell broke out.
Slim was alerted by the shots; and tearing out of his room, he saw Mia Brown in her nightdress; standing in the doorway of her room and yelling blue murder.
She pointed to the open fire escape door at the end of the passage and screamed, “He went that way!”
Slim tore down the corridor; but there was no sign of the intruder, so he sprinted back to Millie’s room and looked on in shocked disbelief at the scene before him.
Lily and Mia were looking on helplessly as Millie lay across Jess’s seemingly lifeless form; weeping hysterically.
Slim pushed his way between the two women and then gently pulled Millie away before leaning over his pard. He noted the blood splattered bedding and the chest wound oozing slowly; the dark blood running in rivulets across his tanned torso. Grabbing the nearest thing at hand he put Millie’s nightdress over the wound and pushed down hard as he watched more blood trickle down Jess’s face from the head lesion.
Then turning to a still weeping Millie said, “It’s OK, don’t take on so, he isn’t dead Mill. The dead don’t bleed this way.”
Then looking beyond her to, Lily, he said, “Go fetch the doc honey.”
But poor Lily was frozen to the spot, so shocked she couldn’t move; until Slim said urgently, “Pronto Lily! He needs the Doc now!”
In the Doc’s front parlour both Lily and Slim were trying to comfort Millie.
“You don’t understand,” she sniffed, “if I’d just done as he wanted; gone back to bed for a little while…none of this would have happened.”
“Heck, you can’t blame yourself Millie, you weren’t to know there was a madman on the loose; gunning for Jess. And anyway, if it hadn’t happened this morning, he’d have done it some other time if he really wanted Jess dead.”
Then he added, “I just can’t think who would have wanted to kill him. He hasn’t upset anyone far as I know.”
Then Lily and Millie exchanged a glance.
“No,” Lily whispered, “he wouldn’t...would he?”
“Who...what?” Slim asked, looking puzzled.
“Yesterday in the bar young Chris Dobbs threatened to kill Jess,” Lily said.
“What!” Slim exploded, “Why for God’s sake, Jess hardly knows the kid.”
“He’s got a thing for Millie. You know what it’s like with teens, he thinks he loves her and wanted Jess out of the way. Then in a fit of temper he said he’d kill Jess. Mose heard him say it too...and we told Mort...but we all figured it was just bravado.”
Then the door opened and they all looked up hopefully, but sank back in resignation as Mort appeared instead of the hoped for Doc Sam.
“How is he?” Mort asked as he sat down in an armchair opposite Slim.
“Still in surgery,” Slim replied, “and it’s been way too long,” he sighed closing his eyes for a minute.
Then he looked over to Mort, “So any news?”
“No sign of any strangers in town. All was quiet when we went looking...what, just a few minutes after the shooting? There was nobody on the streets at all at that hour...I’ve left a posse still searching...but nothing so far.”
Then Lily reminded him of the threat Chris Dobbs had made the previous afternoon and Mort suddenly looked very thoughtful.
“I came upon him last night; looking up at your bedroom window Millie. I sent him off home with a flea in his ear; told him not to mess with Jess’s gal. He looked real troubled... I guess maybe he could have done it.”
“But he’s just a kid, what eighteen...nineteen?” Slim exploded.
“And one that is obsessed with Millie...who’s to say what a youngster would do in those circumstances,” Mort replied.
Just then the door opened and an exhausted looking Sam came in and flopped down on a chair looking pale and anxious.
“How is he?” Millie and Slim asked in unison.
Sam ran a hand through his hair and said, “Well he’s holding his own so sure was touch and go for a while...but he’s stabilized for now.”
“He’ll be OK then?” Slim asked, holding his breath.
“Now I didn’t say that Slim, but he’s hanging on in there. The weapon used was a derringer and as you know they can be pretty unpredictable and the aim can be poor at distance. From the injuries I figure the attacker shot him from the door and so the bullets went off course some. One missed the heart by a good few inches ...the other just skimmed his temple. No major internal damage and I’ve sorted out the chest wound pretty good... As to the head wound well who knows...He could be fine in a week or two...or...”
“Or what Doc?” Millie whispered.
“Or he might not ever recover consciousness...I’m sorry my dear it’s just too soon to say...we can only watch and pray now.”
There was a stunned silence...but it was finally broken my Mort.
“A derringer bullet eh,” he said quietly.
Then Lily looked up and said, “Ma Dobbs has a derringer. She was showing it around at the Women’s Group just the other day; said she hadn’t ever felt safe since her husband passed, so she bought the gun.”
Mort sat opposite Martha Dobbs and said again, “I’m just trying to rule your son out of our inquiries Ma’am. But he was heard threatening to kill Jess Harper and now you say you don’t know what time he came home last night?”
The grey-haired woman shook her head anxiously, “Well no Sheriff, he likes to go off for long walks you see. He’s always been a bit of a loner and even worse since his Pa passed over,” she said looking bleak. “The Doc gave me some powders to help me sleep I didn’t hear him get home.”
Mort sighed, “So where is he now?”
“Uh, upstairs...still in bed I suppose.”
She went off to call him and a good few minutes later the youth slouched into the room saying, “What now Ma I’m tired, can’t it wait?”
“No, it can’t young man,” Mort said rising as the boy entered.
He blanched at the sight of the Sheriff and said, “What do you want?”
“Chris, where are your manners?” his Ma rebuked him, before apologizing to Mort.
“The Sheriff is here making inquiries about a shooting last night. Apparently, Mr Harper from the Sherman ranch has been shot...really badly,” she added.
A fleeting look of triumph washed over the boy’s face before frowning he said, “So what’s it to do with me?”
“You were in the vicinity last night,” Mort said, “so can you account for your movements?”
“You know darned well,” the boy said sulkily, “you sent me home didn’t ya...about half past eleven I reckon...weren’t it, Ma?”
She merely shrugged, “If you say so dear.”
“I was asleep, Chris; took those powders the Doc gave me at nine and went to bed.”
“So, you don’t have an alibi then until about six this morning then?”
“No, why should I?”
“Because that’s when Jess Harper was shot and left for dead, that’s why!” Mort said angrily.
“Well, it weren’t me,” Chris said turning back towards the stairs.
“Not so fast,” Mort said grabbing him and turning him around. “It seems we have a witness. A lady saw the attacker fleeing and is prepared to give evidence. So, you need to come along to my office to see if Widow Brown can identify you.”
“What, Mia Brown?” Ma Dobbs asked, “She’s a friend of mine...was she hurt too?”
“No ma’am just kinda shook up, but she’s fine.”
Ma Dobbs turned to her boy, “Well go along with the Sheriff son, the sooner Mia sees you and says you weren’t there the better,” she said with an encouraging smile.
Mort turned to go, along with a reluctant Chris, but then he turned back and said, “By the way Ma’am I believe you own a derringer pistol?”
“Why yes,” she said looking surprised, “there’s no law against that is there Sheriff? It’s just for protection, now my Wilfred has gone.”
“No that’s fine, but I’d like to see it please.”
She looked puzzled and said, “Why yes, of course it’s here in my bag.”
She searched in her bag for a few minutes and finally tipped it up spilling the contents out...but no derringer.
“I don’t understand it,” she gasped.
“I think I do,” Mort said, “come on son,” and the two left, leaving Widow Dobbs looking fearfully after them.
Later that evening, back in the Doc’s hospital room, Slim reflected on the happenings of the last few hours.
He and Millie had been allowed to visit Jess and both had been overwhelmed by how sick he looked. His complexion tinged with grey as he lay unmoving, his breathing almost imperceptible. Even now several hours later Slim put a hesitant hand on Jess‘s chest, just to reassure himself that he was still breathing.
Doc Sam had finally persuaded Millie to return to work promising she would be the first to know if there was any change. She was most reluctant until he reminded her that she was in charge over at the saloon and Tom was relying on her.
“The best way for her to cope with it all,” he said confidentially to Slim later. “I know the Millie of old she’ll just get herself in a state sitting hour after hour at the bedside. It’s better she keeps busy.”
When Slim had merely nodded absently Sam had continued, “The same goes for you buddy. I think you should collect Mike from school and break it to him gently. Then take him home and inform Mrs Cooper too. After all, you don’t want Mose telling them, do you?”
“Heck no,” Slim had replied.
“Good, and tell Daisy that we are fine with the nursing right now, but maybe she’d like to come on by once he’s up and taking notice? She’s always so good at getting him to behave,” he added with a small smile.
“I’ll send word if there is any change,” the doc added, as he showed Slim out.
But of course, he might have known Slim would be back. As soon as he’d reassured Mike and Daisy that Jess was in good hands and on the mend; he had saddled up and returned to town.
Now as he looked down at his pard, so ill and helpless, he felt the sting of tears and he sighed closing his eyes tightly and swallowing hard.
Moments later he felt a light tap on his shoulder and looked up into the deeply compassionate gaze of young Ellie.
“The Doc says supper’s ready and you’re to go eat,” she said softly. But when he merely sighed, she gave him a tiny smile and added, “He also said I was not to take no for an answer; says you need to keep your strength up.”
Then she went and took a seat on the opposite side of the bed and gently taking Jess’s wrist commenced taking his pulse.
“He’ll be just fine with me,” she said once completed, “I know just what to do and if there is any change at all I’ll call, OK?”
Slim was momentarily surprised by her professional attitude and then reassured, smiling he said wearily. “Thanks Ellie, I know he’s in good hands.”
They were just finishing supper when there was a knock at the front door and Mrs Hudson went to answer it and returned with the Sheriff.
“Sorry to disturb you all, but I thought you’d like to know I think I’ve found Jess’s assailant.”
All eyes turned towards Mort as he said, “It looks like Lily was right about young Chris. The evidence is all stacked against him. He has no alibi for that time, his Ma’s derringer is missing and finally that Ma Brown is pretty certain it was him she saw running down the corridor in the saloon. So, looks like he had the opportunity, motive and means.”
“I can’t believe it,” Carrie said, “why I remember him from school, he was always such a gentle, kind boy.”
Sam exchanged a sad smile with his daughter, “Yes Carrie’s right, he was a sweet child.”
“I guess people change,” Slim said angrily. “If the kid really was besotted with Millie, who knows what lengths he’d go to try and claim her?”
“Well, I’ve known Martha Dobbs for years and she brought that boy up right,” Ma Hudson, the housekeeper, chipped in with feeling. Then speaking honestly, “But the lad has changed since his Pa passed over, got real moody. She was saying just the other day that she was real worried about him, always taking off at night and coming home at all hours.”
“Well, he’s going to be keeping me company for a while,” Mort said rising to go. “The date for the trial will be set once we ...uh...have an outcome,” he said vaguely, refusing to meet Slim’ s steady gaze.
“You mean whether or not my partner lives...or not?” Slim said angrily. “I guess that outcome will mean whether or not the kid hangs huh?” And with that he marched from the room.
Once he’d gone a rather troubled looking Mort asked, “Any change?”
Sam shook his head, “It’s not looking too good Mort,” he said softly away from his daughter’s hearing, “not too good at all.”

Chapter 14
It was now three days since Jess had been shot and he was still deeply unconscious.
Millie had come over to sit with him, but now had succumbed to a nasty cold and Sam had to ban her from visiting for a while until she was better, much to her distress. However Slim had been a constant at the bedside having called the Jackson boys in to mind the spread until Jess recovered.
Daisy had been a regular visitor too and tried to hide her anxiety from Slim. However, both she and the doc knew that the longer this comatose state lasted the more hope was fading.
Now as Slim sat by his pard very early one morning talking softly, Doc Sam entered and said cheerfully, “So how’s the patient this morning Slim?”
The blond rancher looked up his eyes alight with hope, “I swear he tried to open his eyes last night, I was going to wake you...but then nothing,” he added sadly.
“Well, it’s a good sign,” Sam said checking Jess’s pulse, “he might just be starting to come out of it. And not a moment too soon,” he added sighing briefly.
Slim picked up on the doc’s manner immediately.
“He needs to come around as soon as possible, doesn’t he doc?” he said quietly.
“I’m afraid so Slim, he’s on borrowed time now; we really need to get some fluids and nourishment into him in the next day or so...or...well...” and he sighed again shaking his head.
Then slapping Slim on the back said, “Keep talking to him Slim, if he is beginning to wake up then that might just help.”
Kate Munroe had gone back up the mountain to her kin after her prolonged stay with Mort and their hunting trip earlier in the summer. Now as soon as her second cousin Denver James brought word that Jess was real sick, she returned to Laramie at once.
Mort spied her riding in as he sat on the porch bench outside his office, cleaning his rifle.
He jumped up at once as she rode over, slipped from the saddle and hitched up.
“Hey gal what brings you to town?” he asked, putting the gun aside and pulling her into a warm embrace.
Once she had disentangled herself and taken the offered seat on the bench beside him, she said, “Well I’ll tell ya Mort, I got wind of the fact that young Jesse Harper was real sick; thought I’d go give the doc a hand ya know.”
Mort smiled at Kate using Jess’s childhood name. But of course, she’d known him since he was a young ‘un back on the Texas panhandle. And she was real fond of him as well; although she wasn’t one to show her feelings too much as Mort knew.
“Hell, it sure is good to see you,” he said now, “even though it’s kind of a bad time for poor ol’ Jess.”
“Oh,” she asked, “so he’s real bad then?”
“Last I heard the Doc said he needed to come around from this here coma real quickly. He’s been way too long without any food or water. Slim reckons he’s coming out of it... but I dunno, I sure didn’t see any change in him last time I visited.”
Kate stood up quickly.
“Now where are you off to in such a dang hurry?” he said looking saddened, “I was just gonna offer you a coffee.”
“Later,” she called over her shoulder as she marched off determinedly, heading for Doc Sam’s office.
“Well, I guess it sure can’t do any harm Sam said smiling at the slim woman with her white blond hair; dressed from head to toe in buckskin and a determined gleam in her eyes.
He had a lot of time for Kate Munroe and her Indian medicine; not to mention her good old fashioned common sense, and strength of character.
Slim too was delighted to see her and a wave of relief passed over him. Sure, the doc was the top man when it came to medicine. But Kate knew Jess inside out and maybe she would figure how to get through to him Slim thought, as he stood up offering his bedside seat to her.
Well, he knew of old that Kate took no prisoners but nothing prepared him for the onslaught that was to follow.
“It’s time to git up Jesse boy!” she hollered. “Sun’s up and so should you be! Come on you lazy good for nothing...yer Pa’s off in the saloon again. That useless brother of yours Wayne has sloped off with his friends and yer Ma needs ya!”
Jess’s face remained impassive, his eyes closed.
“Hey! I said wake up, you good for nuthin’ kid!” Kate yelled.
Slim made to take a step forward and stop her haranguing his pard in this mean way; but Sam shot out a hand to stop him and nodded to where Jess’s head seemed to have moved slightly on the pillow.
“Francie wants you to change the baby’s diaper while she tends yer little brother. The young ‘un’ s bawling, he’s tumbled over again. Your Ma’s real upset too...nuthin’ in the pot fer supper. They need you to wake up boy...go help ‘em huh!”
Carrie had come in at the sound of all this yelling and now looked on in amazement as Jess seemed to be trying to open his eyes.
But after a moment or two he seemed to think better of it and lay still again.
Kate scowled at him and then looking up saw Carrie and said, “Can you run a message for me Carrie?”
The youngster nodded, “Sure thing.”
“Go down the street...and fetch me that dinner triangle hanging up outside the mercantile gal. Just tell old Ezra you need to borrow it huh.”
Carrie looked surprised, but a brief nod from her Pa sent her on her way.
Minutes later Kate stood up and holding the metal triangle by a length of rope started ringing it noisily...then she yelled out, “Supper’s ready!”
This time all eyes were on Jess as very slowly his eyes flickered and eventually opened to the astonishment of all standing around the bed.
It wasn’t a miraculous cure of course and he merely looked around him as though he didn’t know where he was before sighing and closing his eyes again. But it was the beginning of the end of his comatose state. That night he slept normally for the first time since the shooting, having been able to drink some water at long last.
Doc Sam secretly thought that Jess was beginning to wake up from the coma anyway, and maybe Kate’s antics had just brought the inevitable forwards a little. But he said nothing and merely joined in with the merriment that at last Jess was on the mend.
The following morning Slim was watching his pard like a hawk, hoping and praying that this morning he would actually speak and start acting like he knew where he was. Up until then he had merely gazed around him in bewilderment. Then just stared at Slim like he’d never seen him before. But he had at least drank some water with added sugar and his colour and breathing had improved slightly.
Now as his deep blue eyes flicked open, he stared straight at Slim and then after a moment he groaned and said, “Jeez Slim, what I’m I doin’ in here…”
Slim sighed with relief and then gave a bark of laughter... so overjoyed was he to have his pard back. Hell, the doc hadn’t said anything, but Slim knew he was worried about brain damage.
“What’s so damn funny,” Jess growled, “I’m hurtin’ somethin’ fierce here Slim,” he said rubbing the dressing that bound the chest wound.
“I know, I’m sorry,” Slim said quickly, “I’m just kinda glad to have you back.”
“Well yesterday you didn’t seem to know anyone. You were acting really strangely.”
Jess shook his head and then gasped in pain and closed his eyes for a moment. Then said, “I was asleep, weren’t I? Had this real bad dream about Kate yellin’ at me.”
“That was no dream; that really was Kate, she’s staying at Mort’s right now but she’ll be visiting later.”
Jess smiled and said, “Good ol’ Kate...but hell, she didn’t need to bawl at me that way.”
“Well, we thought she did. You see you’ve been out of it for days Jess and the doc was getting really worried, said you desperately needed some water...or, well things could get really serious.”
“I guess I am kinda dry and hungry,” Jess said thoughtfully, “any chance of a coffee and some bacon and beans?”
Slim laughed again and then said, “I figure you can have some water right now...and we’ll ask the doc about the other as soon as he wakes up huh?”
Once he’d had his drink Jess asked after Millie.
“Oh, she’s been sitting with you, but she’s got a real bad cold right now, so the doc banned her.”
“Aw, she’s OK though?” Jess said looking suddenly anxious.
“Sure, she was really upset about you. But as to her health, it’s just a bad cold Jess so quit worrying.”
“Go tell her I’m OK will ya Slim?”
“Huh, but it’s really early... not seven yet.”
“I don’t care I know the way she frets...go put her mind at rest will ya, please Slim?”
“Alright, I’m going... don’t go getting your pants in a ruck,” Slim said standing and smiling down at his buddy.
“I’ll go now and when I come back you can tell me exactly what happened. Although there’s no call for you to worry,” he added as he made for the door, “the culprit’s already in Mort’s jail.”
“Well thank God for that,” Jess said with feeling as he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep again.
Over at the saloon Slim had been knocking for several minutes before an apprehensive looking Lily opened the door a crack, Mia Brown just behind her looking on.
When Lily saw who it was, she opened the door wide and allowed him in.
Then she gasped and said, “Oh no...” and looked like she might faint.
“He’s not...?” but she could say no more.
Slim looked puzzled and then said quickly, “Heck no Lily, he’s fine. He just insisted I come straight over and tell Millie that he’s OK now. He came around properly this morning...insisted I come straight over.”
“Oh, thank God,” she whispered. And then she was in Slim’ s warm embrace.
“He’s just fine,” he said again  kissing her head tenderly on the top of her head.
“Hey honey, I sure hope you’d be this concerned if I was over in that hospital bed!” he added, with a hopeful grin.
She slapped him gently on the chest, and said, “I can’t even bear the thought of that Slim, don’t...”
He hugged her again and said, “Come on let’s go tell Millie the good news.”
Lily turned and said, “It’s wonderful, isn’t it Mia,” but the older woman had disappeared.
“Where’ d she go?” Slim asked looking mystified, “she was here a moment ago.”
“Oh, she hates men seeing her without her full make up on,” Lily said dismissively. “Anyway, never mind about her, let’s go see Millie. She’s still in bed and has an awful cough now too Slim but this will cheer her up!”

Over at the Doc’s house Mia Brown smiled winningly at Mrs Hudson as she stood on the doorstep.
“Uh would it be possible to see Mr Harper please?” she asked.
Mrs Hudson looked troubled, “Oh I don’t think so my dear, he’s still very sick and the Doctor’s orders were that nobody but Mr Sherman could visit with him.”
“Oh, but it was Mr Sherman that sent me, with a message from Miss Millie, I’m sure he’ll want to see me.”
Mrs Hudson waivered, “Well I don’t know. You see the Doctor is out on a call with Miss Ellie. Miss Carrie is out too...although she is due back shortly.”
“Maybe I could wait and you could ask Carrie when she returns? Millie was most insistent that I give him her message,” Mia said urgently. “She is rather poorly or she would come herself you know,” she added for good measure.
“Um, well I suppose that would be alright for you to wait,” Mrs Hudson said eventually, “It’s not as though I don’t know you,” she added with a kindly smile, having met Mia at the Women’s Group several times.
“Come along into the parlour, Miss Carrie will be home shortly. Now you must excuse me Mia dear. I’m just heating some hot milk for Mr Harper and making him some of my special porridge. My grandmother’s recipe,” she added smiling, before she bustled off to the kitchen at the side of the house.
Mia waited until she heard a distant door close and then arose and made her way out of the parlour and down the corridor towards the back of the house.
She recalled that Mrs Hudson had said only the previous week at the Women’s Group, what a trek it was from the kitchen to the extension at the very back of the house where the hospital room was located.
She was so busy on her quest that she didn’t hear the front door open and close as Carrie returned.
She saw the door clearly marked at the end of the long corridor and stealthily entered closing the door quietly behind her.
Jess appeared to be sleeping, his face still pale and a bandage swathed across his naked chest, another dressing to his temple.
She watched him for a few more seconds an unfathomable look in her eyes before removing the razor-sharp knife from the folds of her skirt and advancing upon him.
He opened his eyes just seconds before she was about to strike and managed to roll quickly to one side as he grabbed her wrist and fought to wrestle the knife from her grasp.
Carrie wandered down the corridor to check on her patient. But when she heard a muffled cry from within the room she advanced swiftly before wrenching the door open and staring in shocked disbelief at the scene before her.
Jess was still desperately trying to wrestle the knife from Mia Brown, who was cussing and fighting to gain control. Determined to finish what she had started... the fatal stabbing of Jess Harper through the heart!
Carrie gave an ear-splitting scream and tore across the room to Jess’s assistance. Grabbing Mia by an arm she pulled her around and attempted to force the knife from her grip.
But Mia fought back slashing the blade across Carrie’s arm...blood dripping from the gash almost instantly.
Jess desperately tried to pull himself up and out of the bed cursing at the terrible weakness that seemed to have possessed him since the shooting. However, he was now so antagonized at seeing Carrie hurt that he managed to drag himself up.
On seeing this Mia realized that it was only a matter of seconds before he overpowered her. Realizing she had no choice but to flee she turned and tore out of the room colliding with an alarmed looking Mrs Hudson on the way, before disappearing out of a back entrance.
Seeing Jess out of bed and on the edge of collapse and Miss Carrie bleeding and now crying pitifully, she allowed Mia to hurtle past her before going to assist them.
Jess was already by Carrie’s side however, and was attempting to staunch the bleeding; whilst trying to calm her down.
He held her close whispering softly that it was alright Carrie sank into his embrace closing her she felt his arms protectively encircle her...
Then amongst all the chaos, Doc Sam arrived and stared at Jess and Carrie in consternation. “What on earth is going on here?” he asked thinking the couple were in a lover’s embrace; until he saw his daughter’s blood-stained blouse.
Then he came forward and took over the proceedings. Once Mrs Hudson had composed herself, she was dispatched to inform Mort whilst the Doc and Ellie attended to Jess and Carrie.
The first Slim, still over in the saloon, knew of the attack was when Mort called asking to search the premises for Mia Brown.
Mort then of course had to explain that she had attempted to murder Jess and of Carrie’s quick intervention, and subsequent injury but out of Millie’s hearing.
One look at Millie, who was flushed and feverish with a terrible cough, was enough for him to decide not to tell her of Carrie’s injuries or Jess’s probable set back due to the attack. But he merely said Mia had caused a disturbance at the doc’s office and he needed to speak to her.
Slim left with Mort a little later, promising Millie he would look in on Jess and give him her love.
Now as Slim was striding down Main Street, with Mort accompanied by a posse of men, the Sheriff came clean and explained exactly what had occurred. “I just don’t get it…why the Hell would Mia Brown want to kill Jess?” Slim asked.
Mort shook his head, “Your guess is as good as mine Slim, but I’ve got a terrible feeling we might just have the wrong person in my jail for that shooting.”
It was still early morning when the town had been thoroughly searched without finding hide nor hair of Mia Brown.
Slim and Mort had visited Jess earlier and were relieved to see that he hadn’t suffered any further trauma after the attack. Also, that Carrie’s wound had looked a lot worse than it was and she was recovering well, under her father’s loving care.
“So, you have never met her before she landed in town?” Mort asked Jess again. “She isn’t an ex-girlfriend with an axe to grind then buddy?”
Jess merely rolled his eyes at that notion and said, “So why ain’t you out looking huh Mort?”
“Oh, we are looking Jess. We’ve turned the town upside down and I’ve got posse members on every corner keeping a look out. We’ll find her don’t fret.”
Then Slim turned to Jess and said, “When I went over to see Millie you said you’d tell me all about the shooting when I came back?”
“Yeah, well what’s to tell it was that Ma Brown of course Slim.”
Then turning to the Sheriff said, “But I thought she was in your jail Mort? Slim told me that the culprit was banged up in jail?”
Mort shook his head, “No Jess the person in my jail is Chris Dobbs...that’s who Slim was referring to.”
“What?” “Why arrest Chris Dobbs for goodness sake?”
Mort looked shamefaced at not having said something sooner on that Saturday night when Lilly had initially mentioned the problem.
“Well, it seems the kid had a crush on Millie... and then in a fit of pique threatened to kill you. Well we thought it was just a teen sounding off, but then you were shot. The kid had been hanging around town and his Ma’s derringer was missing... what were we supposed to think?”
“We couldn’t ask you,” Slim added, “after all you’ve only really been composmentis these last few hours.”
Jess looked pained, “Dang it Slim my heads hurtin’ bad enough without you spoutin’ the dictionary at me. What you sayin’? In plain English.”
“Sorry Jess its Latin for er... thinking straight. You’ve only been thinking straight and talking to me properly this morning. Then you insisted on me going to see Millie almost as soon as you came around.”
Jess looked chastened, “I guess Carrie bein’ hurt that way is my fault. I should have asked for Mort and made a statement right away.”
“Hey don’t beat yerself up,” Mort said kindly, rising from the bedside chair. “Hind sight is a great thing, Jess. Now you just rest up...we’ll find her sooner or later and bring her to justice don’t you fret.”
Later, Mort and Slim sat in the office sipping coffee and Mort said, “I just don’t get it. Where the hell can she be hiding? We’ve turned over every damn stone in the town. She can’t have disappeared into thin air.”
“Well, we’ve men at the livery and railroad and we’re going to check out the passengers on the noon stage. I guess there’s not much more we can do right now,” Slim said. Then thoughtfully, “I just can’t figure why she had it in for Jess ... it just doesn’t make any sense.”
Mort shook his head, “Nope it really doesn’t,” he agreed. Then brightening a tad said, “Well if Mia Brown isn’t suffering from unrequited love maybe it’s her daughter. After all Lily said she looked a lot older without all that war paint on and that fancy wig she wears. It could be her daughter that Jess has been upsetting?” And he threw Slim a playful grin.
“Who knows with Jess,” Slim replied returning the grin.
Just before noon the two men strode down Main Street to check out the Stage passengers. An elderly gentleman and young mother and son clambered on board and then another older woman hastened from the waiting room and went to board.
There was something vaguely familiar about her and Slim said, “Excuse me Ma’am,” and moved forwards to block her way.
Mia Brown sans her blond wig and thick makeup was barely recognizable. But the grey haired, ashen faced middle-aged woman now staring at Slim in consternation was very Myra Cain the wife of the disgraced Sheriff Marty Cain.
Seconds later she drew Ma Dobbs derringer from her skirts and would have shot Slim, had Mort’s reactions not been so quick. His hand shot out and he easily wrestled the gun from the startled woman.
He then grabbed her arm and said, “I don’t know what your game is Ma’am but I’m arresting you for the attempted murder of Jess Harper.”
The woman threw him a furious look, “Well I’ll tell you what my ‘game’ as you call it is. I’m merely getting justice! It was that Jess Harper who framed my husband for murder...and he was hung thanks to that no-good gunslinger. An innocent man died because of him and I am determined to have justice for my dear husband’s memory!”
“Yeah, well you come along to my jail Ma’am and you can explain all that to the judge in due course,” Mort said dryly, marching her off.
Sometime later Mort, Slim and the doc sat around Jess’s bed.
“I just can’t believe we didn’t recognize her,” Jess said to Slim.
“Well, I reckon she was pretty well disguised what with the blond wig and that war paint she wore all the time,” and he recalled Lily saying she didn’t like being seen without her make-up... well now he knew why.
“Plus, we were hardly expecting her to turn up here looking for vengeance,” Mort said. “From what I’ve heard, that bastard Cain led her a life of misery, going off with other women and ignoring her most of the time. Heck he’d even ridden off leaving her without a backward glance.”
“The woman is clearly suffering from delusions,” Doc Sam said thoughtfully. “She is just unable to see the real Marty Cain...and wants to cast the blame for all he did on somebody else.”
“It is poor young Chris Dobbs I feel sorry for,” Slim mused, “being falsely accused that way.”
“Um, that’ll teach him not to mess with my Millie,” Jess said darkly, much to the amusement of the others.
“It seems Myra stole the derringer from Ma Dobbs bag at the Women’s Group,” Mort said. “It was that piece of evidence that had really scuppered poor Chris Dobbs. It looked to be an open and shut we all thought he’d stolen his Ma’s gun.”
“So, what will happen to her Mort?” the Doc asked.
“Uh well I guess she’ll have to go to the Laramie prison and await trial there. I really don’t have the facilities for holding female prisoners. Then it rather depends on whether Jess is going to have her charged or not.”
“Well, the woman is clearly not in her right mind,” the doc interceded.
“So that makes it OK to go around shootin’ folk and trying to stab ‘em, does it?” Jess asked angrily. “Hell, if you and Ma Hudson hadn’t arrived when you did Doc, well Carrie could have been hurt even worse. Not to mention her pullin’ a gun on Slim!”
“Yes, you are quite right,” Sam conceded, “she certainly needs some form of restraint I suppose.”
“Whether Jess wants her tried for attempted murder, or we just go for a lesser sentence due to her state of mind is irrelevant,” Mort said, “She’ll still have to await trial and go before the Judge whatever is decided.”
“Maybe a few weeks in the jail waitin on the Judge’s arrival will bring her to her senses and she’ll realise what she’s done,” Jess said quietly.
That night Slim figured he didn’t need to spend time watching Jess in the hospital room as he had improved greatly.
“I’ll be fine,” Jess had said when Slim broached the idea of him spending some time with Lily that evening and staying the night with her.
“Sure, you go ...and say howdy to Millie for me, tell her I aim to get sprung from here real soon.”
“Oh, you do, do you…and so what does Sam have to day about that?” Slim said with mock severity.
Jess winked at him, “He don’t know yet. But I figure Daisy can nurse me just as well as they can here...huh what do ya say?”
Slim threw him a quizzical glance, “Well from something Sam said, I rather thought you’d want to stay here a while and be nursed by Carrie?”
“What do ya mean?” Jess asked suddenly looking wary.
“Oh, just that she looked real comfortable in your arms after she’d been attacked and how very concerned you were for her?”
“Well sure I was. She’s a good friend ain’t she…I sure didn’t like to see her hurt that way.”
“OK, I believe you,” Slim said chuckling. “We’ll talk to Sam together and maybe he’ll uh...release you into my custody huh?”
Jess regained his good humor at that, “That’s more like it Pard!”
The following morning Slim made his leisurely way down Main Street feeling happy and relaxed after spending time with his best gal. As promised, he hoped to catch Sam before he left on his rounds and ask if Jess could be released into Daisy’s tender care.
He noted a line of restless passengers outside the Stage office and figured Mose was running late bringing the incoming stage from Cheyenne.
Then he noticed the large Tumbleweed Wagon parked outside Mort’s office and figured the prison had come to collect Myra Cain...AKA Mia Brown to transport her to the Laramie jail, just across the tracks to await trial.
Inside Mort’s office Ada Briggs, one of the prison officers along with a young rookie officer, Ginny Adams, were collecting the prisoner.
Ada was incredibly thin, nearer fifty than forty with a pale complexion and dark brooding eyes. She adored Mort and made no secret of it, constantly finding any excuse to visit the office, much to the Sheriff’s embarrassment.
Now as the prisoner was fetched from the cell by Mort, Ada quickly dispatched her into young Ginny’s care so that she could spend a few private moments alone with Mort.
The girl went to handcuff the prisoner, but Myra cried, “Oh please no... I will be mortified, please let me leave with some dignity.”
Ginny looked to Ada for guidance, but the woman merely wanted Mort all to herself and said “Never mind the cuffs just take her out gal, lock her in the wagon, I’ll be out shortly. Uh just got the paperwork to do.”
Once they had left, Mort quickly signed the documents releasing his prisoner and handed them over the desk.
But Ada merely relaxed back in her seat not making any effort to pick up the papers and said, “You still seeing that mountain woman then?”
“If you mean Kate Munroe, yes...yes I am,” he said stiffly.
She sniffed, “I’d have thought a man of the law would be kinda wary of her sort with her having that no-good Moonshiner, Denver James for a relation and all.”
Mort said nothing but merely pushed the papers further across the desk towards her, “I think you’ll find that all in order,” he said, rising and hoping she’d take the hint.
“Well, I guess you can’t see too much of her,” she said smiling slyly at him now, “she seems to spend most of her time up that mountain.”
Mort had now moved towards the door so she was forced to stand up too.
She sashayed towards him and said, “I call that a dang shame. I sure wouldn’t neglect you that way if you were mine,” she added, reaching out and running a seductive finger down his cheek.
But just seconds later her hand dropped away and she stared in consternation at Mort as they heard screaming and mayhem coming from the street.
Slim had paused by the Doc’s door when he saw the young prison officer escort Myra Cain out of Mort’s office. But instead of putting her directly into the Tumbleweed wagon they remained on the boardwalk.
“Please just give me a moment,” Myra said pitifully, “I feel rather faint...”
She did indeed look very pale.
“Oh, you poor thing...I think I’ve got some smelling salts,” young Ginny replied rummaging in her uniform pocket.
As soon as she was free of Ginny’s hold Myra looked around her and saw her way out...
Mose Shell, who was running a good half hour late, was galloping the four-in-hand down Main Street at breakneck speed.
Myra ran out onto the street just as he came level with her and threw herself under the horses.
She was killed instantly.
Mose tried to stop, pulling on the lines with all his might, but it was a good few yards on before the horses came to a shaking, snorting standstill. Nodding their heads in fear and frustration at such cavalier treatment.
Slim stood dumbstruck for a moment looking at the bloodied body of Myra sprawled in middle of the Street. There was total silence for a few seconds before bedlam erupted as folk cried out and started running toward her mangled form.
Mose had jumped down from the box and ran back, staring in horror at the remains.
“I couldn’t stop Goddamn it... I just couldn’t!” he said to Slim.
“It’s OK Mose, I saw everything,” Slim said quickly. “I guess she just wanted to kill herself. There was nothing you could have done; it wasn’t your fault.”

It was later agreed at a meeting with the Judge that Mrs Myra Cain had taken her own life while the balance of her mind was disturbed. Mose Shell was exonerated from any blame; however, Miss Ginny Adams was reprimanded by the Judge for not taking sufficient care of her prisoner. By not handcuffing her Myra had been able to run into the road and meet her death. He did however add that Miss Adams should not bear the full burden of responsibility.
No, he had intoned, that should rest firmly on the shoulders of Ada Briggs. She had received the papers from Sheriff Cory and from then on, she was fully accountable for the prisoner’s welfare. She should have been supervising the newly recruited Miss Adams taking the prisoner to the wagon. The judge castigated her but left the prison authorities to meter out her punishment.
The prison took the lax attitude very seriously and dismissed Ada Briggs from service without a reference. She subsequently left town, much to Mort’s relief.
As to Ginny Adams she was severely reprimanded, but allowed to keep her job. However, the young woman realized that she really wasn’t cut out for the work. Indeed, all who knew her declared that she had far too gentle a nature for the job. So, she handed in her notice and secured work as an assistant at the Laramie Ladies Dress Shop where she excelled.
However, some good did come out of the miscarriage of justice concerning young Chris Dobbs. He had been incarcerated in the Laramie jail for a few days when he succumbed to the dreadful cold that was doing the rounds and had laid poor Millie low. He was in fact so poorly, with a hacking cough, that Mort was forced to seek medical advice. Young trainee nurse Ellie was dispatched within the hour to see the patient, bringing cough medicine and some of Ma Hudson’s good chicken broth. From then on Ellie made it her duty to bring healthy sustenance for the prisoner and Mort looked on with amusement at the blossoming romance.
Sure, at first, she had been greatly biased against Chris, feeling as she did about Jess and assuming, like everyone else that he was guilty of the shooting. However, it was only a matter of time before she listened to his story and really began to believe him and indeed fall for the tall handsome young man.
The couple found they had a lot in common; as had both lost their fathers. They had also suffered the pangs of unrequited love and knew how painful that could be. Ellie was good for Chris and he gradually started to enjoy life again. Even though he had the totally unfair possibility of a jail sentence before him, his life was wonderful now Ellie was in it. He changed back into the boy he had been before his father’s sad demise and started making plans to improve the spread when he had his freedom once more. Heck, he was even making plans to add on extra rooms should he and Ellie settle down together in the future.
“I do believe you’re innocent,” Ellie had said one day and that was enough for him to fall in love with the beautiful young girl. Then it was Ellie’s turn to fall for the very special young man as he showed such courage in the face of adversity…
“You will step out with me when I’m freed?” he had asked shyly one day...and was delighted when she agreed with alacrity.
Myra Cain had been convicted of the crimes against Jess Harper and Chris was immediately exonerated and once free he and Ellie were inseparable. Even Aunt Edna was delighted about the romance and secretly hoped that it would make young Ellie forget about all that nonsense of going back east to train as a nurse.
Surprisingly it was Chris himself who insisted she follow her dreams as Daisy recounted at the supper table a few months after all the business with Myra Cain.
“I saw Martha Dobbs at the Women’s Group today,” Daisy declared, “and she said Chis has talked Ellie into doing her Nurse’s training before they get engaged.”
“Well good for him,” Slim said, “they’re both are way too young to settle down yet. I guess she can nurse for a few years as they save up for a place.”
Jess concurred remembering how he had encouraged Carrie to do her midwife’s training and how pleased she was in the end, even if she had initially hoped to settle down with him.
“He’s done real well,” he said now, “the kid’s got more sense than I credited him for.”
“Well, he must have some good sense, after all he fell for your Millie, didn’t he?” Slim said chuckling.
“Oh, now don’t go bringing that up,” Daisy said quickly, “least said soonest mended.”
Mike had been looking on and enjoying the conversation and now said, “Did you whop that Chris then Jess?”
“Would have done iffen I’d known about it,” Jess murmured darkly.
“Now, now,” Daisy said firmly, “we all know that fists aren’t the right way to make a point. Don’t we boys?” she asked raising an eyebrow in Jess’s direction.
Jess just sighed and said, “Yes Ma’am,” before turning to grin at Mike.
“Eat up yer supper Tiger and then I’ll thrash you at checkers,” he said changing the subject quickly.
It was several weeks later that the subject of Chris and Ellie was brought up again.
Slim, Jess and Daisy were enjoying a coffee in front of a roaring fire, Mike already abed.
“Oh, I bumped into Sam in town today,” Slim said, “It seems that he’s pulled a few strings and got Ellie a place at Nursing School in the New Year.”
“She’s very young to be going all that way alone,” Daisy said anxiously.
“That’s what her aunt said but apparently Sam’s fixed that too. She’s to lodge with some old friends of his, so she’ll be looked out for real well.”
“She’ll make a good nurse,” Jess said, “and I hope she’ll be workin’ for a while before she gets hitched. I still say she’s way too young to get married yet awhile.”
Slim sniggered at that and said, “So you’re an expert on matrimony now are you Hot shot?”
“Well, I’ve gotten enough dang sense not to rush into anything,” he replied belligerently.
“Oh yes I think we can safely say that,” Daisy replied with a touch of irony.
Jess was affronted by that remark and said, “Look here Daisy, marriage is a real serious business. A man can’t go rushing into it. There are things to consider...plans to make...pros and cons to be weighed up.”
“I just hope Millie doesn’t get tired of waiting,” she said sagely, “after all, with handsome young men like Chris Dobbs setting his cap at her...who knows... I mean her head might be turned by the attentions of a younger man.”
Jess looked shocked, “Huh... what are you sayin’ Daisy? Has she said somethin’ ... huh ... huh?”
Daisy turned away and winked at Slim before saying, “Well not as such dear no, not really...not as yet anyway.”
Jess looked very thoughtful and then draining his cup got up and made for the bedroom door.
“Hey Jess what’s up buddy?” Slim asked trying to hide a smile.
“Uh, havin’ an early me some thinkin’ to do,” he replied before disappearing into the bedroom.
“Oh dear, I’ve upset him,” said Daisy looking contrite, “should I go and tell him I was only teasing?”
Slim grinned at her and pouring them both another coffee replied, “Nah, it’ll do him good to sweat a bit. Don’t fret, I’ll tell him in the morning.”
The End
Thank you for reading.