#14 The Last Chance

The Last Chance


Patty Wilkinson

(Some strong language, violence and adult themes)

Chapter 1

It was yet another cold wet morning at the Sherman Ranch and Relay station and as Slim Sherman rancher and his business partner and best friend Jess Harper rode out of the yard neither were in the best of spirits.

Daisy Cooper their housekeeper and surrogate Ma had insisted they set off wearing their rain slickers, but both men knew they would doubtless be soaked to the skin yet again before the day was out. However they indulged the elderly woman and put up with her fussing with good humour, because as Jess had once said, ‘well that’s what you do with your Ma ain’t it.’

Young Mike Williams, their ward was now watching them from the ranch window, a look of disappointment in his big innocent eyes and turning his blond head to the housekeeper said wistfully, “Aw Aunt Daisy it’s so unfair I don’t see why I can’t ride out with Slim and Jess, it is Saturday after all.”

The white haired lady gave him her kindly smile and coming over to join him at the window peered out at the teeming rain.

“Well I know they really want you to stay and help me here dear, there are the chickens to feed and eggs to collect and ifthey aren’t back by afternoon, Mose will need your help changing the Stage team……so you really are needed here.”

“I suppose….”

“And thinking of that old Stage driver Mose, he will be expecting pie with his coffee, so I’d better get busy and maybe there will be enough for an apple turnover for you too…want to help me?”

“Now you’re talkin’,”said the youngster tearing across the room into the kitchen, his eyes shining in anticipation.

Daisy shook her head and smiled to herself, at the phrase that slipped so easily from the youngster’s tongue, one often heard voiced by Jess, in response to Slim asking him if fancied a trip out to the saloon in town.

Meanwhile the saloon was the furthest thing from their minds as they made their way out of the yard to check on the livestock.

Slim looked over at his buddy, an expression of irritation on his handsome face,” and if you say, you don’t get weather like this down in Texas, once more I’m going to deck you!”

Jess chuckled and tipped his head towards the hens, sheltering under any cover they could find and all looking miserable as sin.

”It’s true what they say then, mad as a wet hen,” he said grinning over at his partner.

Slim just nodded,” this isn’t funny Jess, it hasn’t stopped raining in nearly a week now, the grazing will all be washed away at this rate, we sure don’t need any more bad luck after last year’s drought…and everything else that happened.”

He was referring to a spate of ill luck that had dogged the ranch over much of the previous year, with first the drought resulting in them losing a number of their stock and they made a poor deal on the rest as they were very underweight. Then Jess had been badly injured while out riding posse for their good friend, Sheriff Mort Corey, with the result that they went out late on their Mustanging trip and made less profit than usual on the few animals they were able to round up, break and sell on.

Now it was late spring and the weather showed no sign of improving and the men were aware that with the meagre grazing the animals had to adapt to, they would not be gaining weight, another worry thought Slim as he urged Alamo, his mount, on through the driving rain.

The men spent the day checking fences and it wasn’t until early afternoon when they were down on the north pasture, which was bordered by the river, that they saw the fence was down.

The river was currently in spate, noisy and dangerous and the area surrounding the banks turned into a muddy quagmire. Jess and Slim urged their mounts on to the other side of the broken wire and surveyed the distant river bank, and then Jess suddenly saw something that made his heart skip a beat.

Way over to the left he saw a small group of steers near the river’s edge several of them struggling to gain a foothold on the muddy bank and others walking in the same direction.

He pointed them out to Slim who shook his head in consternation.

“Garl darn it, dang stupid beasts,” he spat, “they’ve got a watering hole right here and so they bust through the fence and go off on a damn suicide mission…..”

Jess gave his friend a grim smile, figuring that he must be real mad, as it was unusual for him to cuss that way, and it was usually Jess himself who had the fiery temper and colourful language.

“So what are we waiting for,” he said after a moment,” they’ll be in the dang river in a minute,” and spurring Traveler on to a gallop he made for the distant river, with Slim in hot pursuit.

When they arrived they managed to herd several of the young steers away from the dangerous river bank, but there were some others already stranded in the deep mud unable to move. The cowboys roped them one by one and started the difficult task of hauling them to safety.

Then disaster struck when one that Slim had a rope on panicked and fell into the fast moving river.

Quick as a flash Jess was off his horse and in the rushing waters and throwing another rope on the terrified animal he started trying to haul him to the bank. The river was too strong though and Jess felt the animal lose its footing and begin to be pulled away from his grasp by the strong current, as he held on for dear life.

From the river bank Slim was yelling at him, trying to be heard above the noise of the churning water.

”For God’s sake leave him, Jess…let him go….!”

But Jess refused to relinquish his hold on the rope and with one more huge effort the animal moved slowly towards him and he started to wade out of the icy river. Slim increased his hold on the rope and then suddenly the drama was over and the animal was out of danger and running off up the hill towards the rest of the critters.

Slim leapt down from Alamo and grabbing hold of Jess by the arm unceremoniously hauled him up the bank to safety.

“You crazy fool!” he yelled as Jess collapsed in the mud, soaked and frozen to the bone, coughing up the foul river water he had just swallowed.

He peered up at his friend from watery eyes.

”Well we couldn’t afford to just write off another animal,” he yelled back.” Hell Slim, it ain’t like we’re some big outfit, were sailin’ mighty close to the wind right now and we both know it….”

Slim squatted down by the dark haired young cowboy and squeezed his shoulder affectionately.

“Thanks Jess,” he said softly, his anger suddenly abated. ” I didn’t mean to yell, just scared for you I guess…..”

He hauled his friend up and they mounted their horses and rode back up to the fence and started making some makeshift repairs with the promise that they would return at first light the following day to complete the job.

Jess looked over to the small herd of steers.

”They don’t look to be harmed any,” he said grinning over at his friend.

“Well that’s more than I can say for you pard,” replied Slim casting a worried eye over his friend.

Jess had discarded his rain slicker and boots before entering the river as he knew they would have restricted his movements and may be even pulled him under, and now he was covered from head to toe in the bright red mud that was only found in that particular river bed area, and soaked to the skin. Then as Slim watched him he was aware that he had suddenly turned very pale and had started shivering uncontrollably.

He quickly got the blanket from his bedroll and went and draped it round Jess’s shoulders and shortly afterwards they mounted up and headed towards home.

Slim shook his head.

“God knows what Daisy will say at the state of you, she won’t be able to miss you that’s for sure covered in that red mud,” he said with a rueful smile.

“Well iffen I look as bad as you say, I figure she’ll be bringin’ out the medicinal whiskey,” replied Jess with a huge grin…” guess it will have been almost worth freezin’ my butt off for that,” and with a laugh he spurred Traveler on into a gallop heading for home.

Much later that evening after Daisy and Mike had retired for the night Slim and Jess sat on in front of a blazing fire, enjoying a coffee, fortified with the promised ‘medicinal’ whiskey.

Earlier Daisy had scolded Jess and insisted on him having a hot bath in the tub in front of the fire while she went about cooking the supper next door, but he took some persuading.

“For goodness sake,” said the elderly woman in exasperation,” it’s worse than trying to get Mike to have a bath, your virtue is quite safe young man I shan’t be peeping,” she continued with a little chuckle.

Jess had flushed even more deeply, being very shy where this sort of thing was concerned. He’d said to Slim once that no female should see a man buck naked unless it was by his Ma and he was under five years old, or his best girl…and then only under certain circumstances. However he was shivering violently and finally his common sense overcame his modesty and he had enjoyed a long hot soak.

Now sitting in front of the fire he was warm and relaxed, but looking over to his partner he detected there was something bothering him.

“You OK Slim?” he asked.

The tall ,handsome rancher was sitting with his long legs stretched out, gazing into the flames and he hesitated for a moment before answering, and when he did finally reply he had a grave look on his face.

“What you said today, about us sailing pretty close to the wind, well you weren’t far wrong pard…things are bad at the moment….real bad.”


“To be honest I can’t see our way out of it right now Jess, the Mortgage repayment is due at the end of this next quarter and I really can’t see us making it.”

Jess sighed deeply.

”Well I guess it won’t be the first time.”

“No, Jess you don’t get it, it isn’t just us, all the ranchers in the area are having a bad time what with the drought last summer and now this,” he said tipping his head towards the window, where the rain was still pouring down.

“No… I guess you’re right.”

“So, the bank can’t afford to subsidize us anymore, they’ll get the ranch Jess if we can’t find that money from somewhere.”

Jess’s head shot up and he looked shocked,” does Daisy know how bad things are?”

“Well, I haven’t told her as such, but…well she isn’t stupid, I guess she knows things are pretty bad, yeah.”

“We need to talk,” said Jess firmly,” sit down around the table with Daisy and work out what we can do…or what would happen if….”

“I don’t even want to think about that,” said Slim harshly.

“Guess we’ve got to Slim…and I think Mike should be involved as well, after all this is his home too and if… .well if there is a possibility we could lose it, I guess we all have to be prepared.

Slim looked down with a troubled expression.

”I guess you don’t know what this place means to me Jess, it’s all I’ve ever known, not been away except for the war, my Pa died defending this place…it’s my home….you just don’t understand how I feel…how could you….?”

“Well that’s where you’re wrong,” said Jess gruffly.” I might not have been born here but it means a lot to me too.”

He turned his deep blue eyes on his buddy and said softly,” I had nothing as a kid, you know that Slim ,no proper home just a succession of rough old shacks on different share farms back on the panhandle. My Pa and Ma virtually had nothin’ and no dang chance of gettin’ anything either with us brood of kids to support….”

He paused, looking sadly into the fire for a moment, remembering those hard days before turning back to Slim and continuing.

“I figure you’re thinkin’ if I never had nothin’ then I can take losin’ this place in my stride. But it ain’t so pard. When I first came here it was a real special place for me and then over the years I’ve worked my butt off for it, same as you have .Hell I’m a partner in the business Slim. So don’t you ever tell me I don’t understand…or it ain’t the same for me….because it is, I’m real worried too. But you can’t put your head in the sand, you’ve gotta face it and that’s what we need to do…..as…. well as a family I guess.”

He paused for breath looking over at his friend and was surprised to see how emotional he looked.

“I’m sorry Jess, real sorry I should never have said that, of course this is your home too and Daisy and Mikes’ and I figure we’ll sit down after breakfast and talk it all through…huh?”

“Sure buddy, now pour us a drop more whiskey and then I think we’d better turn in, looks like tomorrow’s gonna be pretty busy,” he said with a huge yawn.


The following morning as soon as breakfast was cleared they sat round the table, Daisy and Mike looking somewhat mystified at having been told they were invited to a special meeting.

After a minute Mike turned anxious eyes up to Jess, who was sitting opposite him.

“I ain’t in trouble am I Jess?” he asked quietly.

Jess gave him a faint grin,” I dunno, are yer Tiger?”

“No…at least I don’t think so,” came the honest answer.

“Come on, don’t tease him Jess,” said Slim.

Then turning to the youngster and back to Daisy he said gently,” Jess and I are a bit worried about the ranch, it looks like we may not be able to pay the loan this quarter and well……” then his voice petered out and he looked across at Jess for support.

“What he’s trying to say,” said Jess gently,” is that if the worst happened……. and were goin’ to try and make sure it don’t, but well iffen we lost the ranch, we have to make plans as to what we could do.”

There was a long shocked silence and then Daisy spoke up.

“I can’t pretend I haven’t thought about it,” she said quietly,” and I think I could get work at the mercantile in town and there is a room over…room for Mike there too.We could maybe move out there, just until you get back on your feet and find somewhere else for us to live.”

Slim was almost moved to tears by her bravery and good common sense, and he covered her hand, lying on the table, with his own.

“Thanks Daisy and I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“What about my animals,” said Mike in a small voice,” my ‘coon, and Buttons and my pony.”

At the mention of his name Buttons ran over tail wagging and jumped up putting his paws on the boy’s knee.

Jess was now upset too and said quickly,” don’t worry Tiger we’ll find good homes for them all, until we’re back on our feet again, that is.”

The youngster gave him a grateful smile,” but what would you and Slim do,” he asked suddenly looking tearful,” you wouldn’t go away; I’d still see you every day wouldn’t I?”

Slim and Jess exchanged a quick glance.

“Sure,” said Jess quickly,” we’ll be around and anyway it ain’t happened yet…something will turn up you’ll see.”

Then he glanced out of the window and a huge grin spread across his face and looking over at his partner said,” hey Slim its stopped rainin’ that’s gotta be a good omen, ain’t it.”

Shortly afterwards the ranchers set out to complete the job of mending the fence out in the north pasture.

After they had ridden a little way Slim turned to his buddy and said,” so what would we do if we lost the ranch?”

Jess shrugged,” dunno, try and earn enough cash to put down a deposit on somewhere smaller I guess and build it up from scratch.”

“So you’d stay around here?”

“Sure why not, it’s my home now ain’t it…”

Then shaking his head,” but I must be crazy, all this darn weather….did I tell you we don’t have weather like this down in Texas Slim?”

And the tall rancher leaned over and tipped Jess’s hat over his eyes, and chuckled…maybe everything would turn out alright after all he thought as he spurred his horse on to a brisk trot.


They spent the day mending the fence and when they stopped for lunch they resumed their conversation about the future as they sat round a welcome fire and ate beans and bacon.

“So how do you reckon we could make enough money to set up all over again?” asked Slim giving his friend a speculative look.

“Dunno not really thought yet, scouting is good money I guess, or wrangling …or….”

“What Jess?”

His buddy said nothing just looked down at his empty plate and setting it aside poured himself a coffee, topping up Slim’s cup.

Slim gave him a hard look as the truth finally dawned.

”Oh no…oh no Jess you’re not going back to earning a living with your gun, that’s all behind you now.”

Jess’s eyes were alight with eagerness.

”Don’t ya see Slim, I could make some good money real fast, maybe get us out of this corner…just until we’re sorted.”

“No,” yelled Slim loudly,” I’m not having you do that Jess, you live that way you’re sure to die hard and I don’t want folks saying you did it for me.”

“Well what about if I just do it for Mike and Daisy then,” said Jess sarcastically,” keep your conscience nice and clear.”

“Jess will you stop it, I hate to hear you talk this way, I don’t want you going back to your gunfighter past and that’s an end to it.”

“We just need something like a good range war and then see who’s payin’ top dollar,” he said, now teasing Slim.

“Jess, I’m warning you, will you quit it.”

Jess shook his head in mock sadness.

Then he relented and stopped tormenting his friend and offered up a possible solution.

“OK, so how’s about I take off on a Mustanging trip, I hear they’re payin’ real good money over at the Fort right now. I get, say a dozen prime animals, work my butt off, figure I could get ‘em broke before the next payments due and we could pay something, enough to hold ‘em off for a while at least.”

Now Slim’s eyes opened wide with excitement, “you reckon you could do that Jess?”

“Well, just depends iffen I can locate the beasts. If I get ‘em, then yeah I reckon I could do the job of breakin’ them in time alright.”

Slim’s face fell,” but I couldn’t spare the time away, there’s nobody to mind the ranch, all our neighbours have got their backs to the wall right now, there’s only old Barney and he’s none too well……”

“Hey, it’s OK I can manage alone…unless…..”


“What about I take Mike along, he’s always askin’ and I reckon he’s plenty old enough now.”

Slim shook his head,” I don’t know, what would Daisy say?”

“Oh, she’ll be fine; I’ll just tell her he’s along for the ride.”

“Talking of which what would he ride? That little pony of his wouldn’t stay the course and he’s way too slow.”

“We could put him up on Banjo, that little quarter horse cross I bought in a while back. He’s small but darn fast and a safe ride too, he’d look after the boy.”

And so it was decided that Mike would accompany Jess on his first Mustanging trip the following week.

Daisy was a little perturbed that he would miss a week of school, but when Slim said that it was all part of the boy’s training for when he was a ranch owner himself, she could see the logic. Then when Jess explained that the trip was vital to their survival she was completely sold and went about preparing a gunny sack of provisions for the pair right away.

They set off at dawn the following day and Daisy and Slim stood on the porch to see them off, Mike looking incredibly proud sitting on the sparky young horse, Banjo, his eyes shining in delight.

“Look after each other,” said Daisy with a brave smile.

Slim reached up and shook Jess’s hand and gave Mike a playful little punch on the arm.

” Keep out of trouble,” he said lightly, but giving Jess a meaningful look.

“Sure,” he replied with a wink,” come on partner, lets ride,” and turning to the youngster with a wild ‘yahoo,’they kicked their mounts into a gallop and out of the yard.

They soon settled down into a more sedate trot and made their way across the home pasture heading for the distant foothills, where Jess knew a large herd of mustangs had been sighted recently.

They made good time and had reached their destination by dusk.

Jess reined Traveler in and looked down at his diminutive companion.

”I guess we’ll make camp here Tiger and set off at first light.”

The youngster nodded,” yep, looks like a good place for a camp,” he said wisely looking around him and Jess hid a smile at the child’s confident manner.

They soon made a good fire and were enjoying beans and bacon and coffee. Jess had watered Mike’s down a little worried the extremely strong brew would upset his stomach, or at best keep him awake, but he needn’t have worried as he saw the youngster’s eyelids begin to droop almost before he’d finished eating and he suddenly realised how hard he had pushed the boy in his haste to locate the mustangs and felt a pang of guilt.

“Hey, you OK Tiger?” he asked softly.

“Sure, kinda tired though Jess reckon I’ll turn in…..but guess that’s not what Slim would do if he was here. I bet you two sit up talkin’ for hours, don’t you?”

Jess gave him a fond smile, “that we don’t, not with an early start and I’m turnin’ in myself,” he said firmly.

They set out their bedrolls near the fire and settled down to sleep; the comforting night sounds their lullaby.

After a while Mike turned to Jess and said,” do you ever get frightened out her all alone?”

Jess considered the question.

“Nah, not often, used to it see Mike. I’ve been sleepin’ out in the big open on my own since I was just a kid. But sometimes I get a feared, iffen there is somethin’ to be a feared of, bear, Indians that sorta thing …… .a man would be a fool not to be scared then.”

Mike thought about this for a while,” but there aren’t any around here……bears and Indians and the like?”

“Oh no not in these parts, not for a good long time.”

Jess thought he heard a little sigh of relief.

The boy was lying on his back looking up at the stars and after a minute he said,” it’s real special out here ain’t it Jess, all the stars and the land just a stretchin’ out and then the mountains so big……. makes you feel kinda small.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Makes you feel like you just wanna go on and on and see it all too, though doesn’t it?”

Jess smiled and looked across at the youngster,” sure does, that’s the call of the big open and its mighty powerful.”

“Do you have that,” asked the boy looking across at his friend, “that feeling that the big open is calling you?”

“Oh, yeah… I sure do,” said Jess softly.

“But you never go, I mean you never just take off and travel, you know go on the drift like you used to, do you? Why’s that Jess if you love it out here so much…huh?”

Jess thought about it for a long time and then said quietly,” well I’ve gotten a home now and a family, you, Daisy and Slim and I guess that is more important to me.”

The little boy gave a huge yawn…

”I’m glad,” he said softly before almost instantly falling into a deep sleep.

“Me too buddy,” said Jess quietly, as he glanced across at the sleeping child and then up into the myriad of stars… .before finally settling down and falling asleep too.

Chapter 2

The following morning they were up at first light and on their way shortly after, but it wasn’t until nearly noon that they finally spied fresh tracks that looked to be of quite a large herd travelling east.

’ Makin’ for the river,’ Jess said to himself, before turning to grin at the boy.

“Ready for some action Tiger?” he asked cheerfully.

“Sure, what do I have to do Jess?” asked the youngster full of enthusiasm.

Jess, who had dismounted to look at the tracks, now walked over to the youngster sitting up on the pretty bay horse and looked up at him, his expression serious.

” There’s just one thing to remember Mike, listen to what I tell you and don’t argue, do exactly as I tell yer right away, that’s real important…understand?”

“Yes sir,” said the boy importantly.

“Good, this ain’t no game now Mike this is for real and any mistakes and you could get hurt real bad.”

The youngster looked equally serious and nodded.

“Right, we’re gonna trail ‘em down wind, real slow and quiet, ‘tis important they don’t hear or smell us, until the last moment when we ride in, OK?”

“Yeah, OK Jess.”

“Good boy,” and Jess remounted and they continued on their way.

It was some time later that they finally crested a hill and saw their quarry already at the river’s edge, some drinking and others grazing on the surrounding grassland. Jess was well aware of the state of the ground and knew the muddy area around the river bank would slow the horses down some, to his advantage, and he figured he could easily cut at least a dozen head off. Then he’d need to separate them from the rest of the herd and head them to a box cannon, about two miles back the way they had come. It would be easy to corral them there for the night before carrying on back to the ranch the following day.

Now he glanced across at Mike and smiled at the grown up way he was sitting his horse and checking out the horses below them.

“What do you reckon buddy, figured we’d try and cut out those colts to the left of that huge boulder and then try and get a couple of those pretty mares just at the back of the herd, that OK with you? “

“Sure Jess, they sounds real fine.”

The action went exactly as planned, for once, and Jess ordered Mike to stay back in the tree line while he cut out the chosen horses from the main herd and then the boy joined him riding to the right flank while Jess covered the left. They made a good team and thanks to the prowess of the new little quarter horse Banjo, Mike was able to be of a great help to Jess, keeping the mustangs galloping in the right direction at a steady pace.

Again it was a long hard day and not over when they reached their destination for that night. Once the horses were driven into the box canyon, they still had to produce a make shift barrier from branches and ropes and by the time they had finished it was well past sundown.

Jess insisted on Mike just sitting by the fire while he tended to both horses and then came and made them a scratch meal. Once the meal was cooked though their spirits revived and they enjoyed a couple of coffees and another good chat before turning in.

“You know you’ve been a big help today Tiger,” said Jess sleepily as they sat by the fire,” I figure we’ll make a real good horse man of you yet.”

The boys eyes sparkled at the praise,” can I help break ‘em too Jess?” he asked excitedly.

“Well sure, you can help me gentle them, get ‘em used to bein’ round folk, used to tack and stuff,” he agreed.

“But not riding?” asked the boy forlornly.

Jess shook his head.

”Not yet Mike, ‘tis a real difficult task and truth is you just ain’t strong enough yet, but all those other jobs, well they’re just as important you know….”


“Yes really. Now come on,get some sleep, another busy day tomorrow, and with any luck we’ll make it home for supper and Miss Daisy’s cooking, so let’s get some shut eye.” and they finally turned in.

It must have been in the early hours of the morning when Jess heard it, somebody walking stealthily around the camp.

He was up on his knee, his gun in his hand within a second and then he heard something that made his blood run cold, a terrified scream from Mike and looking over he could just make out the boy sitting up with a man’s hand around his neck and a gun to his head.

“Drop it,” said the intruder and Jess threw his gun out in front of him immediately.

“Let the boy go Mister,” he yelled. “I dunno what your game is, but it don’t involve the child, now let him go.”

The scruffy looking man threw Mike to one side.

”I guess you’re right….. this is between the two of us.”

“So what’s your business?” asked Jess angrily.

“Horses,” spat the man who had now stood up and towered above Mike and Jess, a giant of a man.

”Your horses that is. See I ranch over Cheyenne way and I’m havin’ it tough right now, real tough and I figure these here horses might just be my salvation.”

“Well why don’t ya go and catch yer own,” said Jess furiously,” God knows there are enough of the beasts out there , still down near the river most likely.”

“Ah, see I’ve got a problem there cowboy, I ain’t no mustang er, tried and they just run me into the ground andso when I spied you and the boy earlier, well I figured I’d save myself a whole lot of trouble.”

“And just help yourself to ours,” said Jess sarcastically.

“That’s about the size of it,”said the big bear of a man.

Jess looked up at him thoughtfully.

” I can see yer havin’ problems Mister, but you ain’t alone, these here mustangs are goin’ to be the only things keepin’ a roof over our heads, so you could say I’ve got kinda a vested interest in ‘em.”

The man fingered his gun and looked pensive. “Well it’s bad everywhere I guess, but …..”

Jess peered up at him.

”Look you don’t seem to be the sort of man that goes about killin’ innocent folk, even for these horses, how about you put the gun down and we have a fair fight, winner takes all… .huh?”

The man threw him a surprized look, hardly beginning to believe his luck. He must be double this young cowboy’s weight and a good head and shoulders taller.

He paused for effect and then,”OK,” he said gruffly.

“Winner takes all,” Jess repeated, “I win, you ride out of here and either way, you don’t harm the boy.”

“Agreed,” said the big man and they touched hands in a quick hand shake before squaring up to each other.

The intruder launched himself at Jess and he flew through the air as he was head butted in the belly.

Jess picked himself up from where he had fallen in the dust and he had the light of battle in his eyes.

”Oh you’ve asked for it mister,” he whispered before throwing a lightening right and left to the big man’s head sending him reeling.

Then he followed through with a punch to the belly which felled the big man.

After a moment he pulled himself up and shook his head before launching into Jess again .

Jess returned the blows punch for punch.

The giant merely shook his head and retaliated with some of the same, splitting Jess’s lip and blacking his eye.

The conflict continued and whereas the big rancher had the advantage in height and weight, Jess had it in speed and accuracy,soon taking the advantage, the big man floundering.

However there was something else in the equation, both men were at the end of their tether and completely desperate, the animals meaning everything to them right then.

Jess picked himself up from where he had been eating dust yet again and suddenly had a vision of the For Sale sign on the ranch, them packing all their stuff up, the look in Slim’s eyes…Daisy and Mike homeless…..

And then he was attacking the big man with the fury of a wild cougar. He punched with the strength of ten men and after another few minutes his adversary finally sank to the ground completely done for, felled like a giant oak.

Jess looked down at him and fell to his knees exhausted , sweating and bleeding.

Then a small arm snaked its way round his shoulders.

“Jess……are you OK?” asked Mike in a tremulous voice.

Jess looked up and peered at him through watering eyes.

”Yeah, I’m Ok Tiger, don’t fret, it’s alright.”

They stood up moving away from the huge mountain of a man who now lay groaning softly in the dust.

Mike looked up at his friend,” he sure was a bad man Jess,” he said.

Jess looked down at the child, and shook his head.

”No just desperate I guess Mike, pretty much same as we are.”

The following morning there was no sign of Jess’s adversary and Mike did the best he could to dress his friend’s wounds.

“Gee Jess that must sure hurt,” he said as he bathed all the cuts and bruises that seemed to cover the cowboys face and torso.

“It’s OK,”said Jess softly, for the third time,” come on, leave it now buddy, we’d better be headin’ home. I’ve got these here ornery beasts to get broke before the end of the month, “and with that they made ready to break camp and shortly set off for the long journey home.

They arrived just before dusk and Jess had got Mike to ride on ahead to warn Slim of their imminent arrival and have the big corral gate open, and as Jess drove the handsome beasts in, Slim and Mike threw the gate closed behind them.

Then Slim spun around to welcome home his friend and drew back in shock.

“What in Hell happened to you?” he said softly.

But Mike jumped in and said quickly, ”it was this huge big giant of a man that tried to steal our mustangs that did it! I said he was real bad…doin’ this to Jess, but Jess just said he was desperate like us…. You should have seen him Slim, he was about 7 feet tall… but Jess whopped him real good…in the end that is,” he finished honestly.

Jess slipped from his horse and gave Slim a sheepish grin through his bruises and black eye.

”I’m sorry Slim, I didn’t mean to get into any trouble,” he said quickly.

Slim just stared at him.

”You went through all this just for the horses?” he said in amazement.

Jess shook his head.

”No not just that, for what they mean right now Slim, for the ranch.”

Slim was incredibly moved and just stared at his friend for a minute.

“ Jess, pard,” he finally managed, shaking his head sadly.

Then Daisy was there insisting he come in and have his wounds tended and the moment was gone.

Later as they were sitting round the supper table Mike regaled them with tales of his first Mustanging trip.

“And this man was so huge ,”he said excitedly,” and he knocked Jess down and then kicked him real hard in the belly and Jess said some very naughty words andthen he got up and punched the man so hard that he smashed his nose and there was blood absolutely everywhere and then…..”

“Err; I think that’s enough of that dear,” said Daisy looking somewhat queasy.

“OK Aunt Daisy,” said the boy affably,” I’ve finished may I get down now, Jess said I could help break the mustangs and I thought I’d start right now,” he said beaming at her.

“What!” said Daisy and Slim in unison, turning to glare at Jess.

“I said he could help gentle them,” said Jess giving them an innocent look,” you know give ‘em sugar lumps, sit an’ talk to ‘em, get them used to being around people that’s all.”

“Oh, yes of course,” said Daisy with a sigh of relief,” a very important part of the job that. Yes you may dear, but just half an hour and then its bed time…..and err….be sure to stay this side of the corral fence won’t you Mike?”

“Yes Ma’am, thanks,” said the youngster happily,” I thought I’d go out and sit on the corral fence an’ tell ‘em all a bedtime story, get ‘em used to my voice.”

“Good plan,” said Slim indulgently.

The boy made to leave but Jess called to him as he was opening the door.

“Hey Tiger, don’t make those stories too scary, I don’t want to be up all dang night with them iffen they have bad dreams.”

“Aw Jess”, laughed the boy before going off about his task.

Much later when the two were in their shared room stripping off for bed Slim saw the full extent of his buddy’s injuries.

“Hell Jess that guy sure whopped you good.”

“Yeah, well you didn’t see the state of him, and anyways guess it was worth it, we’ve sure got some good horses out there,” he said excitedly,” should draw a real high price Slim.”

Slim collapsed down on his bed and looked across to where his buddy was washing up.

“Jess I want to thank you for everything you’ve done …….”

“Hush, it’s OK,” Jess said, turning quickly.

“I just wanted you to know it really will make a difference, I had a talk with the bank, and they’re willing to accept the money from the mustangs as collateral, as long as we get it to them in time.”

Jess grinned across at his buddy,” I’d better hit the sack then,” he said , “guess I’ve got a busy few weeks ahead of me.”


Jess started the task of breaking the first mustang the very next day and worked around the clock with the beasts, no sooner slipping down from one before jumping up onthe next one and by the end of the day he was completely exhausted.

Slim regarded his buddy across the supper table, and thought he looked so tired that he might just put his head down in his dinner.

After a few minutes he said softly, “heck Jess you can’t carry on at this pace you won’t make it through the week.”

Jess shook his head as if to clear it, and leaving his dinner, got up from the table.

“ I’m fine,” he said quietly,” just kinda beat,” then reaching over he patted Slim on the arm,” it’ll get easier, just a case of getting stuck in…think I’ll hit the sack though,” and he went off to bed.

Mike’s eyes were wide with shock.

”Gee Jess must be real tired if he’s going to bed before me,” he said, but Slim and Daisy just exchanged a worried glance.

He continued the punishing schedule throughout the week and Slim noticed that he had started to make the odd error of judgement. Starting too soon on a particularly wild recalcitrant animal; he would usually have spent more time trying to win over before mounting.

“We just ain’t got time to do it the way I like,” he said when challenged,” were workin’ against the clock here Slim.”

The following week he was working the horses and Slim was nearby mending harness, but keeping a weather eye on his buddy, when Geoff Morrison and his young wife Gina drove into the yard in the wealthy rancher’s smart rig.

He jumped down and after helping his beautiful dark haired wife down, the couple advanced on the corral.

“Oh no,” muttered Jess, “that’s all I need an audience.”

“Steady Jess,” whispered Slim,” I know you don’t particularly like them, but they are our neighbours so make an effort huh,” and then he strode off to greet the couple.

Geoff shook hands with Slim and then taking him by the arm moved him off towards the porch, the two men deep in conversation, while Gina walked over towards Jess and leaned on the corral fence.

Jess was just between horses and was busy saddling up one of the easier animals that was just about green broke, but he stopped what he was doing and went over and forcing a welcoming smile on his face, said,” hi there Mrs Morrison, so what brings you over here?”

The woman was a good 20 years her husband’s junior and had the incredible dark good looks of a high society Mexican lady, which in fact she was in a way, her mother having allegedly been a wealthy Mexican lady of good family.

Truth be told she terrified Jess as she always flirted outrageously with him whether her husband was around or not, and she made him feel very uncomfortable.

Now she leaned in close and in her pretentious breathy voice said,” how many times must I ask you to call me Gina?”

Jess sighed imperceptibly.

”So what do we owe the pleasure then Gina?” he asked gallantly.

She cast an irritable look towards where her husband and Slim where now sitting on the porch lost in conversation.

”Oh, just some boring old business,” she said before turning back to Jess.

She put out a finger and gently traced it down his bruised face.

”Have you been fighting?”she asked with a little pout of sympathy.

Jess took a pace back and her hand fell away.

“Yeah,” he said gruffly.

“Was it over a girl?” she said batting her long lashes at him.

Jess flushed slightly, but just shook his head.

“So who are you seeing at the moment then Jess,” she asked seductively,” that pretty little dark haired girl from the saloon isn’t it…Molly?”

“Millie,” said Jess succinctly.

“Ah, yes, I believe you were at the dance with her a while back, she’s very pretty…so you like brunettes then Jess?”

“I guess.”

“So do you think I’m attractive?”

His head shot up and he flushed again, and looking embarrassed, just nodded.

“Well aren’t you going to tell me then,” she asked archly.

Jess had suddenly had enough; he was hot, tired and quite honestly pretty bored with her messing with him.

” I guess that’s the sort of thing you should be askin’ of your husband,”he said, abruptly before turning his back on her and mounting the mustang.

She cast him an uncertain look before wandering off to find her spouse and shortly afterwards the couple left.

Slim came back over and casting his buddy a quizzical look said,” so what did you say to upset the lovely Mrs Morrison then buddy?”

“Nothin’, I just wouldn’t play her stupid games,” he said irritably.

“Flirting with you again was she?” he said grinning over at his friend.

“She’ll go too far one of these days and I’ll end up decked by that husband of hers,” he said angrily, “so what did he want anyway?”

“Just the same as usual, making an offer on that parcel of land adjacent to his.”

He was referring to several acres of dense woodland and hillside teaming with wildlife a favourite place for the men to go hunting and fishing on the Sherman land.

“You’re not considering it are you Slim?” said Jess looking worried.

“I don’t know Jess; it might come to that if we don’t get a decent price for the steers later in the year. Hopefully this lot, “he said tipping his hat to the corralled mustangs “will see us right for now, but the problems aren’t going to go away and we need some real big stake money to pay off the loan and restock the place.”

“There’s got to be another way.”

Slim just shook his head sadly and then changed the subject.

”So do you think it’s true what they say about Mrs Morrison?”

“Probably,” replied Jess wearily, then…”so what do they say about her?”

“Just that she was Antonio Gomez’s woman.”

“What that Mexican bandit?”

“Legendary bandit Jess he killed over fifty men including two State Marshalls, fastest gun in Mexico people used to say.”

“Yeah, guess I’ve heard of him, didn’t he go crazy, got a thump on the head and he started shootin’ anything that moved?”

“So the rumour goes and I guess that’s why Morrison had all those guards when they first moved out here, figured he might ride in and try and get her back.”

“But he’s dead now ain’t he?”

“Supposedly, but some say he made it out of that fire the lynching mob set and he’s still at large, but you know the way folk like a good story, he’s dead alright.”

“So why did she leave him for old man Morrison then?”

“The money I guess.”

“Sure wasn’t for love, the way she carries on,” said Jess bitterly, “anyway I’d have thought Gomez was more her style, all the excitement and all.”

“Yeah, until he went plumb loco, I mean would you stay with a crazy bandido Jess?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have shacked up with him in the first place,” said Jess and the subject was closed as laughing the men went back about their business.

Jess continued using every waking hour to break the mustangs, but the workload was beginning to tell on him and his usual stamina was gradually eroded until he started making mistakes, his judgement and timing way off.

Slim watched him as he took yet another nasty fall and promptly got back up in the saddle and he could bear it no longer and marching over yelled at Jess to stop and come over to him where he stood leaning on the corral fence.

Jess slipped down from the saddle and walked over looking impatient.


“Jess will you take a break, you’ve been in the saddle, or should I say mostly out of it, since dawn, take some time out will you.”

“Oh , very funny,” said Jess at the reference to him being out of the saddle more than in, the joke hurting him because he recognised the truth of it.

“I ain’t got time,” he spat angrily, turning and walking away and saddling up one of the most wayward of the bunch a big, leggy, bad tempered colt, with a cold eye and even colder heart thought Slim looking over at the big grey as he started prancing around the corral.

Jess must have been in the saddle for only a few minutes when the big brute tore across the enclose, before stopping suddenly and bucking Jess off at speed. He was hurled into the corner fence post taking the full impact on his ribs and fell to the ground like a stone, lying motionless.

“Goddamn it,” Slim swore as he vaulted the fence and raced across to his buddy’s aid.

He pulled him under the fence and then gently turned him over, quaking at the deathly pale still figure.

Moments later Daisy ran out from the ranch, having glanced out of the window and seen the fall, and she helped Slim carry him in and deposit him on the old couch.

They exchanged anxious looks.

”I think I’d better ride for Doc Sam,” said Slim urgently, referring to Doctor Sam Baker, their good friend and physician.

By the time he arrived back from Laramie with the good doctor , Jess had come round and although he was insisting he was fine and didn’t know what all the fuss was about it was obvious to all that he was in considerable pain.

“Just lie back and stop fretting Jess,” said Sam kindly, “I guess I’ll be the judge of whether you’re fine or not.”

Jess lay back and allowed the Doctor to unbutton his shirt and gently run a hand across his chest and belly and he was unable to stop himself from jerking in agony as Sam lightly probed around the ribs.

Then after listening to his chest he sat back up and looking down at his recalcitrant patient and said,” as I thought, two may be three busted ribs and some nasty bruising in the belly area too, guess it’s light duties for you young man for the next two, maybe three weeks.”

“What!” exploded Jess sitting up quickly and then regretting it and slumping back down again,” what do yer mean light duties Sam?”

“Well no riding rodeo for a start,” he said with a little laugh at his own joke. “That is no horse breaking Jess, no riding at all in fact. You need to rest up, may be a little harness mending, but that must be about as strenuous as it gets.”

“Harness mendin’,”spat Jess,” Hell Sam don’t you realize we’re on a tight dead line here, I finish breaking those mustangs by Friday week, or we’re in deep trouble.”

The kindly doctor gave an imperceptible sigh, before looking down at his good friend.

“Well if you don’t heed my words you could be in even deeper trouble young man. Have another fall like this one and you seriously run the risk of a punctured lung or worse,bottom line , worst case…. it could kill you Jess, now just be sensible and we’ll see how you are in a couple of weeks, OK?”

Jess said nothing, just rested his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes.

Then after a minute he said,” gonna bind them up then doc?”

Sam smiled,” yes, that will help with the pain a little and I’ll leave you some strong painkiller too,” and with that he went about bandaging him up.

After the doctor had left, Daisy gave him a dose of the bitter medicine and he retired for an early night.

After he had gone to bed, Slim turned to Daisy and said quietly,” I don’t like it Daisy , he’s being far too reasonable, taking his medicine, going to bed without any fuss, he’s up to something that’s for sure.”

Slim knew his partner far too well, and when he awoke early the next morning he wasn’t surprised to see Jess’s bed empty already.

Dragging himself up and dressing quickly he went out into the yard and was appalled to see Jess mounted back on the grey, being hurled about in the saddle.

He strode over to the corral fence and bawled at Jess,” what in hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m doin’ my job,” he shouted back,” and you ain’t helping any yelling like that and spookin’ this goddamn excuse for a horse.”

Slim just shook his head in anger and returned to the ranch house where he found Daisy in the kitchen cooking breakfast.

“The dang idiot’s up on that grey bast….…mustang,” he said furiously,” what’s wrong with the man, has he got a death wish,” he said slumping down at the kitchen table.

Daisy sat down opposite him.

“Oh Slim, I tried to stop him, but he just wouldn’t listen, you know how stubborn he can be,” she said, casting him a worried look.

“Oh don’t I just,” he replied bitterly.

When he came in a little later for his breakfast both Daisy and Slim frowned at him as he sat down to eat.

After a moment he looked across at Slim and said “OK get it off yer chest.”

“Well, what do you think you’re doing Jess, you heard what Sam said, what could happen if you have another fall.”

But Jess infuriated him by merely saying,” well I’d better be darn sure I don’t then hadn’t I,” and tucked into his bacon and eggs, leaving Slim and Daisy sighing in exasperation, knowing there was nothing they could say to reason with him.

As it happened things were in Jess’s favor and although he came off a couple of times that day, neither fall was bad and he seemed to be coping alright, but Slim noticed there were no arguments about taking the strong pain killer before he retired that night and he turned in as soon as supper was over again.

As one day led into the next Jess continued to work to his deadline, but Slim noticed that he was now seeking the pain medicine by mid-morning and he reckoned it was the only thing keeping his buddy going. One day Slim caught up with Jess in the barn as he was putting Traveler up for the night. He leaned over the stall watching him groom the animal, and he noticed that he kept stopping every now and then to rest and he could tell he was absolutely done in.

After a few minutes he said quietly,” Jess we need to talk.”

He gave a deep sigh and looking over at his friend said,”what’s up Slim, you ain’t gonna start banging on about the work again are you, it has to be done and we both know it.”

“Hear me out Jess, what if I take on some of the bronc bustin’, take the weight off you some, huh?”

Jess grinned over at him,” no disrespect pard, but a horse breaker you ain’t. Slim you’re a fine horse man one of the best, but you just ain’t the right size and shape for the job, you’re way to heavy and tall. You don’t know how to fall properly and if you do fall and hurt yourself we’re in big trouble. We need you at the helm buddy, doin’ all the business side of things, keeping everything tickin’ over just right, I couldn’t do all that.”

Slim just nodded,” I guess you’re right, but I hate to see you hurting this way Jess, you’re taking more and more of that pain killer, you’re practically out of it half the time, it can’t be good for you.”

“I’m OK, and anyway it ain’t for much longer, another week or so should see an end to it and I can get the beasts shipped off to the army and take the money over to the bank, then we can have a breather.”

Daisy was worried about Jess’s increased reliance on the Laudanum too and she was well aware of the dangers of over use and possible addiction. The increased amounts he was taking started to make him feel nauseous and he couldn’t eat and felt dizzy and disorientated, but he knew that without it the agony of the broken ribs jarring as he was thrown about by the mustangs would be just too much to take.

As time went on he needed more to get through the day and when yet another bottle was nearly empty, he casually asked Daisy if she would pick up some more when she went to town the following day to do the marketing.

They were sitting at the kitchen table together enjoying a last coffee before retiring and she turned troubled eyes on Jess.

“I don’t think I can do that dear, I really don’t think Sam will prescribe it yet again, he queried the amount you were taking last time.”

Jess’s headshot up and he looked anxious.

” Daisy I have to have it…. I don’t think I can carry on if I don’t have something to help.”

“Jess if you are in that much pain and I can see that you are, then you shouldn’t be doing the work and when Sam finds out he will be furious, you know what he told you….”

“Well I can’t help that, you know the way we’re fixed Daisy. I have to finish the job in time…hell, the ranch……everything here …...is dependin’ on this deal, you know that,” he finished turning anguished eyes on her.

She looked down and then very gently shook her head.

“I can’t let you do this Jess, I really think you are half way to being addicted already the doses you have been taking. I believe that even if you stop now, you are going to feel quite sick, and if I get you more…… then it will be even harder for you to stop. If it means we lose the ranch, then so beit, rather that than you end up an addict…or dead,” she finished in a whisper.

He gave her a shocked look and then took her hand.

”It won’t come to that,” he said softly,” I’ll manage without, only a few more days to go and I’m done…it’ll be OK.”

She gave him a weak smile.

“Of course it will be,” she agreed, but looking deeply into his blue eyes she feared that the damage was already done.

The next morning when he awoke he felt very nauseous and couldn’t face anything to eat so went straight to work. Slim followed him out shortly afterwards and watched as he rode one of the green broke mustangs around the corral, his tense face deathly pale.

At lunchtime when he came in he just collapsed down on the couch and Daisy could see how ill he looked.He was shaking and as he lay back and stretched out on the old seat, he complained his head was aching ‘something fierce’ and Slim looked on in concern as Daisy fetched a cool cloth and placed it on his forehead.

“Here this should help a little dear,” she said softly.

Jess’s eyes shot open and he grabbed her arm, “Daisy please……” he whispered, his eyes begging her.

She looked down and shook her head firmly.

“No, this will pass off Jess, just take it easy and things will get better shortly.”

He lay still for an hour or so and then finally dragged himself up and made for the door.

“Jess, where in hell do you think you’re going?” said Slim furiously.

Jess shook his head, and then winced, obviously regretting it.

“Gotta finish workin’ that little Bay mare and then I’ll call it a day.”

Slim was up and across the room like lightning and barred Jess’s exit.

“No you’re not Jess, that is enough, you’re sick and the only place you’re going is bed.”

Jess squared up to him,” you gonna make me.”

Slim stared him in the eye.

”Yes if I have too, will you just see sense and…“ but he didn’t need to say more as Jess suddenly sagged forwards looking like he might faint.

Slim quickly grabbed hold of him and helped him to their room where he gently lowered him onto his bed.

“Now you just lay still, and don’t think of moving from that bed, you hear me?” said Slim firmly. But Jess was past hearing him and was either unconscious or asleep; either way though Slim figured he wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Daisy had followed him into the room and he turned and they exchanged anxious looks.

“What’s wrong with him Daisy?”

She looked down at the dark haired cowboy and shook her head sadly.

“He was imbibing far too much of the Laudanum and when it ran out and I refused to get him anymore , he suddenly stopped taking it and he has mild withdrawal, but he will be alright in a couple of days, may be sooner.”

Slim looked shocked, ” heck if this is mild withdrawal, I sure wouldn’t want to see a bad case.”

Daisy looked suddenly very old and shook her head,” no you wouldn’t. I saw it, in the war and addiction is a terrible thing Slim, I just couldn’t risk it, not with Jess…..”

“Dang fool,” whispered Slim,” he’s done all this, forcing himself to work when he’s not well, for the ranch…for us, you know Daisy, but none of it is worth this,” he said looking down at his partner who was ashen and now shaking uncontrollably.

He turned away.

” I’ve work to do, are you all right caring for him?”

She just nodded,” yes …and Slim…be careful.”

He grinned across at her,” I will, don’t worry.”

He marched straight out side and got up on the Bay mare Jess had been working on.

He was thrown over and over during the next couple of hours, but he just climbed back up again and eventually she started to slow her pace and calm down and finally he knew the battle was over and he was able to control her in a gentle walk and then make her trot and feeling completely delighted with the outcome, he finally slipped down from the saddle and loosed her off into the large paddock with the rest of the green broke mustangs.

He leaned on the fence and watched them for a while with a feeling of immense satisfaction at the small part he had played. He was aching from head to toe after the strenuous work and had suffered several cuts and bruises, but the feeling of pride, as he surveyed the herd far outweighed the discomfort and he saw at once why his buddy enjoyed the work so much.

Jess had been right though he thought ruefully; he was too tall and heavy to ever make a good horse whisperer like his partner, but when it was essential like today, he figured he could just about make as good a job of it as the next man. He rubbed his knee which had received a particularly nasty knock on one of his many falls, and tried to imagine how Jess had felt trying to do the job with busted ribs. No wonder he got himself a liking for the painkiller he thought to himself and after a minute went back in the house to check up on him.

Chapter 3

Daisy was just about to serve supper and Mike came running out of his room, where he had been doing his homework since the Stage dropped him off an hour or so earlier, and he grinned at Slim as he came in.

Then he noticed he was limping.

“You Ok Slim?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure just came off one of the mustangs, be OK by tomorrow I guess.”

“But you don’t ride the mustangs Slim, that’s Jess’s job, and where is he anyways?” asked the youngster suddenly aware that Jess hadn’t come in from the yard for supper.

“He’s in bed Tiger, so keep the noise down eh.”

“In bed, is he sick then?”

“Yeah, well….. “

“He’s just hurting from his damaged ribs,” said Daisy quickly, giving Slim a meaningful look. “He’ll probably sleep until tomorrow, so you mustn’t disturb him Mike, understand?”

“Yes Ma’am,” said the boy seriously.

“Come along then you two, suppers ready,”she said cheerfully, and they sat down to eat.

Once Mike had retired to bed Slim cast her a quizzical look,” what was all that about?”

“I didn’t want him going in to see Jess right now, he’s quite a bit worse than I first thought Slim, he’s having a bad time of it.”

“I guess I’ll go and check him out and turn in myself, sure takes it out of a man horse breaking,” he said with a weary smile,” see you in the morning Daisy.”

He entered their shared room quietly, but he needn’t have worried as Jess was awake. Slim turned up the wick on the night light illuminating the room a little better and sank down on his bed looking over at his friend and was shocked by what he saw.

Jess was lying on his side with his knees drawn up and both hands clutching his belly in obvious pain. Sweat was pouring down his face; he was shaking and deathly pale.

Slim leaned across and put a gentle hand on his arm.

“Hey buddy, you feeling bad?”

Jess groaned and then opened his eyes and surveyed his partner.

” I’m OK.”

“Yeah, sure you are,” said Slim softly. “Look I’m real sorry it’s come to this Jess, I should have stopped you taking the stuff, stepped in and taken over the Mustanging sooner……something….”

Jess gave a deep sigh.

”No Slim; this is nobody’s fault but mine. I shouldn’t have been so dang stubborn…. and then well, this stuff I’ve been taking, the fact that it got out of hand, that’s down to me too.”


“I wasn’t just takin’ it for the pain Slim, that’s how it started off sure, but it was makin’ me feel good too, kinda warm and relaxed, yer know? Sure it got rid of the pain but it……………. aw…”he groaned again and doubled up, his breath coming in harsh gasps.


“Damn it, that’s bad,” he whispered softly.

“Can I get you something?”

Jess shook his head, “just stay with me will ya pard?”


They sat up half the night, Slim talking to him to help take his mind of the gnawing pain inhis guts, but by the time morning came round both men had fallen into an uneasy slumber. Daisy let them sleep in and it was Mike who went out and helped Mose change the teams on the early morning Stage. Luckily it was a Saturday and so the boy had time to spare, but the rancher’s absence wasn’t lost on old Mose.

“So got you doin’ all their chores for them have they boy?” he said with a twinkle in his old eyes.

Mike turned his bright young face up to him.

“Heck, I don’t mind Mose, you see Jess is real sick with busted ribs and then Slim did some bronc bustin’ and kinda hurt his knee, and so I guess it’s only me and Aunt Daisy as can do much right now.”

“Well is that so son, and do you think Miss Daisy has had time to brew any coffee this morning?”

“Oh, sure there is always coffee,” he said with a grin, and with that the couple advanced on the ranch house in search of Miss Daisy’s fine brew.

Mose was just enjoying a second cup when Slim came out of the bedroom, running a hand through his untidy hair and yawning widely, but he stopped in his tracks when he saw Mose sitting up at the table and started to apologise.

“That’s OK son,” said Mose beaming up at the tall rancher,” Mike here put me in the picture, so how’s Jess today then?”

Slim looked momentary confused, but Daisy coming out of the kitchen with a bowl of pie for Mose said quickly,

“Oh he’s fine, just resting those ribs, Sam was most insistent he rest,” and then the conversation moved on.

Once Mose was on his way and Mike attending to the outdoor chores she turned back to Slim and said,” how is he?”

Slim shook his head, “real bad Daisy, sweatin’ and cussin’ all night and doubled up with the cramp in his guts.”

She shook her head sadly,” there is nothing we can do but wait, he will be better in another day or so.”

“I sure hope so, he’s lashing about now and real anxious, sorta fearful keeps askin’ if you and Mike are OK, figure it’s had an effect on his mind Daisy.”

“Yes that is very common, anxiety, agitation, aches and pains; it really is dreadful, poor boy, I just wish we could do something, but he just has to wait it out I’m afraid.”

Jess suffered badly for another 48 hours and then finally he seemed to rally and on the third day got up early to check on his beloved horses.

Slim awoke to find his friend’s bed empty and traced him out to the yard where he was leaning over the corral fence watching the Mustangs, but he turned and grinned at Slim when he heard him approaching.

“Looks like you’ve done a good job finishing off the breakin’,” he said cheerfully,” Mike was saying yesterday that they are all ready to go, due at the Fort tomorrow ain’t they?”

“Well yeah, but I wasn’t counting on you coming along Jess I…..”

“Sure I’m coming along, I’m fine now Slim, and I ain’t missin’ the look on that Captain’s face when he sees these fine beasts, reckon he’ll pay top dollar.”

“Well I sure hope so because we’re going to have to ride straight to the bank with the money Jess and just hope to God there is enough to keep us afloat a while longer.”

“Sure, it’ll be fine, quit yer frettin’.”

“Oh that’s rich coming from you; you’ve done nothing but fret about every darn thing these last few days.”

Jess looked embarrassed , “yeah well I was kinda sick wasn’t I buddy, but I won’t be getting that way again, that’s for sure…that’s one hell of a high price to pay for a little pain relief….”

“Let’s, just forget it Jess, you’re better that’s the main thing,” and the men went in to breakfast, full of their intended trip the following day.

They set off at dawn with the mustangs roped up and they made good progress arriving at the Fort a few hours later. As Jess had predicted the Captain and troops were delighted with the mustangs and as the Fort had dealt with Jess many times before they knew the animals would be carefully and well green broken and ready to school on.

They met the agreed price and the two cowboys were soon on their way to pay off the quarterly loan.

As they walked from the bank Slim gave a sigh of relief,” how about a quick beer before we head home?” he asked looking enquiringly at his buddy.

He nodded, ”sure, I could do with something to wash the dust away.”

They entered the saloon and were greeted by the barkeep old Tom.

“Howdy boys ain’t seen you two in a while,” he said drawing a couple of cold beers.

“Been real busy,” said Slim succinctly, not wishing to go into details, knowing what an old gossip Tom was and not wanting Jess’s recent problems spread around the bar either.

Jess looked down the bar and spotted their good friend Sheriff Mort Corey at the other end, also enjoying a beer and they wandered on down to join him.

Slim grinned at him,” you’re looking kind of beat Mort, been kept busy today have you?”

The Sheriff tipped his hat back and regarded the ranchers with weary eyes,” I sure have Slim, haven’t you heard the news then?”

“What’s that Mort,” asked Jess, “we’ve been out to the Fort all day.”

“Well, it’s your neighbours Gina and Geoff Morrison, they had a little visit from Antonio Gomez yesterday and the outcome was he shot Geoff and abducted Gina,” he said flatly.

“What!” said Slim in amazement,” I thought he was dead, killed by that lynch mob that fired his home.”

Mort shook his head,” seems not, he was burnt real bad, been lickin’ his wounds these last couple of years and as soon as he was able, came lookin’ for his woman.”

Jess gave a low whistle,” so is Morrison dead then?”

“Nope, Gomez assumed he was, but turns out he was saved by a baccy tin in his top pocket, deflected the bullet and he’s resting up at home now, be fine in a day or two.”

“So what’s happening has someone gone after them?” asked Slim anxiously.

“Well sure, I’ve had a posse after them, such as it was, he’s gotten such a bad reputation everyone it purely scared to death of him, could only find a couple to ride with me, and one of ‘em was drunk. Lost the tracks at the river and spent the rest of the day going round in circles…just no darn sign of them, I guess they don’t call him Gomez the ghost for nothing,” he said with a sardonic smile,”he sure disappears into thin air like a damn ghost.”

“Well you can’t just let him get away with it,” said Jess angrily,” can’t say I like the woman, but hell that Gomez is supposed to be crazy, no sayin’ what he’ll do to her.”

“There isn’t any more I can do Jess, I’ve got a town to run here and with my deputy still laid up sick I haven’t got any choice, he’ll be heading for Mexico and every lawman on the route has been informed, but he is notorious for just fading into the big open and I don’t have the staff or time to go off on a wild goose chase,” he finished bitterly.

Jess looked down and then said softly,” yeah, I can see that Mort, sorry.”

“Well it’s a bad business and I’m, darn sure Morrison isn’t gonna take it lying down, guess he’ll be employing a top gun, to go after Gomez, at least he’s not short of cash, can pay to have someone do his dirty work for him. Old Geoff Morrison certainly ain’t in his league that’s for sure.”

“You know Gomez then?” asked Slim looking surprized.

Mort nodded his head,” saw him in a shootout, few years back, down in Mexico, fastest damn draw I’ve ever seen and as mean a cuss as you’d ever meet.”

“So how come you didn’t nail him then,” asked Jess with a cheeky grin,” he’s wanted in three States ain’t he?”

Mort gave him a playful cuff,” I might have done iffen he hadn’t just put a slug in my shootin’ arm,” he replied, “but I was lucky, he killed two deputies and got clean away. I sure would have liked to have nailed him today,” he said shaking his head sadly.

Sometime later the two ranchers headed for home and after they’d been riding down the Laramie road for a while Slim turned to Jess and giving him a quizzical look said, “you’re real quiet, feeling OK buddy?”

“Sure, just thinkin’………….”

There was a pause while Slim mulled this over and then his head swiveled.

” Please tell me you aren’t thinking of doing anything stupid ……like going after Gomez.”

“Well why not, we need the money don’t we?” Jess spat angrily.

“Oh no…oh no Jess, we don’t need it enough for you to go and get yourself killed.”

“Who says I’m gonna get killed……why should I?”

“Err, may be because Gomez has the reputation for being one of the fastest guns in Mexico, he’s the leader of a gang of desperadoes who’d shoot their granny for a few dollars and on top of that he’s plumb crazy, yeah, I reckon there is a fair chance you’d get killed,” finished Slim sarcastically.

Jess said no more on the subject, just kicked Traveler on to a brisk trot, but Slim could tell from the determined look in his eye that the matter wasn’t closed.

When they got back to the ranch Daisy came running out to meet them looking distressed. The men reined in their mounts and Jess slipped down from the saddle and ran over to where she was standing on the porch, holding onto the porch upright as if for support.

“Daisy?” said Jess.

“Oh thank goodness you are back; there has been some trouble while you were gone.”

“Is Mike OK?” asked Jess urgently.

“Yes it’s not that, it’s the stock…. “

Slim had joined them on the porch now and reaching out patted her arm gently.

“ Come on Daisy it can’t be that bad we’ve only been away a day and Barney was doing the stage and feeding the horses what can have gone wrong?”

“It’s the Long Horns, the ones you put out in the north pasture?”

“Yeah, what about them,” asked Slim, now looking distinctly worried , several of the beasts being his prime breeding stock and worth a hell of a lot of money.

“They got out Slim, old man Benson rode in and told Barney and they rode off together to try and round them up, but ……”

“What?” barked Slim.

“Several of them got in the river; they went down to drink and then panicked when they got stuck in the mud.

Barney and Mr Benson managed to haul two of them to safety…but oh Slim the river took the others.”

Slim stared blankly at her before making his way to a chair on the porch and slumping down on it looking shocked to the core.

“Goddamn it,” Jess yelled, banging a fist against the porch rail, “couldn’t they have gotten them out?”

Daisy turned tearful eyes up to the angry young cowboy,” they tried dear, but neither of them are young men and Barney has been sick lately, he was just doing us a neighbourlyhand looking after the ranch, they did their best.”

Jess looked down his anger spent,” yeah, sure they did,” he said softly…”it ain’t their fault.”

“That’s our best breeding stock Slim, worth one hell of a lot….”

“Do ya think I don’t know that,” spat Slim angrily.

“Well, maybe we could use that extra cash I could earn after all ,”he said bitterly , turning and hopping back up on Traveler.

“Where are you going now Jess, not to see Morrison?”

“No I’m not going to see Morrison, I’m gonna check the stock and see how they got out, you and me mended that fence real good Slim, something ain’t right here,” and with that he kicked Traveler off out of the yard at a gallop.

When he had gone Daisy said,” come in Slim, the coffee is fresh, you look exhausted.”

He followed her in and throwing his hat and gun belt on the hook by the door went and sat at the table, running a weary hand through his hair.

“Darn it Daisy when is this string of bad luck going to end, no sooner than we pay off the loan for this quarter than we have more expense. We needed those animals to help us make ends meet, they were gonna be next year’s profit margin.”

“Slim I’m so sorry, what will happen?”

“I dunno Daisy, I can’t afford to start buying in more breeding stock now…. “

She poured him his coffee and then sat down opposite.

“What did Jess mean about earning extra cash?”



“Have you heard about Mrs Morrison being abducted?”

“Oh yes, Mose was full of it, that poor, poor woman and Mr Morrison , he’s at his wits end according to Mose, although I don’t know how he knows …..but what has that to do with earning extra money?”

“Jess has got this hair brained idea of taking off after Gomez, bringing him in, and fetching Gina Morrison home, for the reward money.”

Daisy’s eyes opened wide in shock,” no…..oh Slim you can’t let him, that man Gomez is insane, he nearly killed Mr Morrison and Mose says he has killed so many innocent people, and he’s a notorious gun fighter,” and she gave Slim a fearful look. “Jess thinks he can out shoot him doesn’t he?” she whispered.

Slim gave her a grim look , but just nodded.

It was dark and supper was long over when Jess finally rode into the yard, and he bedded his horse down for the night, before making his weary way into the ranch house. Daisy had retired for the night , but she had left his supper in the oven and as he collapsed down at the table Slim went and fetched it for him.

“Thanks buddy,” he said turning his tired blue eyes on his partner.

“So, did you find anything wrong?” asked Slim, sinking down onto the chair opposite and pouring them both a coffee.

Jess swallowed his mouthful of rabbit stew before fixing his friend with a grave look.

“Yeah, I sure did, some bastard had cut the wire Slim, must have been rustlers, tried to get the steers across the river and then panicked when they saw Benson riding up and just rode off and left them.”

Slim shook his head in anger, “what a goddamn waste, those were prime animals, to die that way……”

Jess looked up and gave him a sympathetic look,” I know pard,” he said softly.

“So was there any sign of the rustlers?”asked Slim.

“Nah, they were long gone, I followed the tracks away on the other side but then they split up, I followed one set and they doubled back and then I lost the trail. Hell Slim , way things are right now it could have been anyone, a friend, neighbour, like you said they’ve all got their backs to the wall.”

“Yeah, figure you’re right, we’ll just have to keep the rest of the stock in close for a while. Did you fix the fence?”

“As best I could, brought the rest of the animals down to the home pasture and I’ll go back up first thing to finish off and see if I can see any more tracks. Maybe Morrison saw something; it’s close enough to his land up there.”

“Um, no harm in asking I suppose,” replied Slim thoughtfully.

The two finished their coffee and shortly afterwards retired to bed weary and despondent.

First thing the following morning Jess took off to mend the fence yet again and after he had finished he had another look to see if he could trace the tracks that the rustlers had left. This time the light was better and he managed to pick up the distinctive tracks of one of the horses which had very large hooves and was favoring its front nearside leg and Jess figured he was about to the throw a shoe.

Again he lost the tracks after a while and seeing as he was so close to the Morrison place he reckoned he’d go in on the off chance of asking if Geoff or any of his hands had seen anything. He also thought he’d see how the land was lying regarding the reward for liberating Gina from Gomez’s clutches.

He rode onto the Morrison land and after a few hundred yards dismounted to fill his canteen from a small stream and that’s when he saw it, the distinct hoof print again. He followed the tracks which lead directly to the Morrison place.

As he entered the yard, he was greeted by Bill Dyke, Morrison’s foreman, cradling a rifle and looking none too friendly.

“Harper,” he nodded as Jess slid down from Traveler’s back and tethered him, ”what do yer want?”

Jess gave him a hard look; he had little time for Dyke a rough, trigger happy man who had arrived with Morrison as one of his heavies, hired to protect Gina and Geoff from Gomez. Once the perceived threat was gone and it was believed that the bandit was dead Morrison had kept him on as foreman, but he was ignorant of ranch work and drank too much, and Jess thought little of him.

Now he moved to bar Jess’s way.

“The boss has been sick, he don’t want no visitors.”

Jess gave him another hard look, and pushing the rifle out of his way said gruffly, “figure we’ll let him decide that for himself,” and striding onto the porch knocked loudly at the door.

It was answered by Geoff Morrison himself and he looked pleased to see his neighbour.

“Come along in Jess, you’re just the person I wanted to talk to,” and the dark cowboy entered, followed by a scowling Bill Dyke.

After Jess had been seated and offered a drink which he declined, he offered his sympathy for Geoff’s troubles before he got straight to the point of his visit. Knowing Geoff was one to talk straight and liked others to do likewise he didn’t pull any punches.

“We had some bad luck yesterday Geoff, while Slim and I were out on business someone attempted to rustle some of our prime breeding stock. “

“Oh I’m sure sorry to hear that Jess, you say attempted?”

“Yeah, Mr Benson was riding past must have spooked them, they rode off, but not before they had tried to drive the cattle across the river, they took off and the beasts panicked, most of ‘em drowned before Benson and old Barney West could do anything.”

“Gee, I sure am sorry, what a darn waste of good stock, they were real handsome animals those.”

“Yes they were,” said Jess quietly looking down.

Then looking across at Dyke who had flushed up, he said,” I just wondered if any of you had seen anything? “

Geoff turned to Dyke.

”Well?” he asked tersely.

“No sir not me, not been over that way in a while.”

“Um,” said Jess,” have any of your horses thrown a shoe lately?”

“That’s a funny question,” said Geoff giving him a puzzled look.

“Didn’t I see you shoeing up your big old cob yesterday Bill?”he asked turning to the foreman.

Dyke flushed up even more,” yeah, is that a crime now then Harper?” he asked gruffly.

Jess glanced him up and down for a moment and then with a small smile said,” oh no, just found a shoe a way up the track, thought you might not have noticed it had been thrown.”

“Well, I’m sorry we can’t help you with your problem of the rustling,” said Geoff Morrison changing the subject, “but I wonder if you would be interested in doing a little business with me?”

Jess gave him a speculative look,” maybe, if the price is right.”

“So you know all about the business with Gina?”

“Sure, I was real sorry to hear about that, Jess said again.”

“Yes well, I was going to ride over and see you later today; I’ve a proposition for you…. I want you to track Gomez and bring Gina back for me Jess…of all the people I know out here, I reckon you are the only man for the job…what do you say?”

Jess took a deep breath, he knew what this would do to Slim and Daisy, but times were desperate and now after this latest blow of losing their prime breeding stock he just couldn’t see any other way out.

He gave Morrison a calculating look,” like I said, if the price is right.”

“How does $10,000 sound to you?”

Jess heard a sharp intake of breath from Dyke, but he kept his own face poker straight and said nothing for a moment.

“What would you want for that?”

“Safe return of my wife and either that bastard Gomez killed or jailed and the key thrown away.”

“I ain’t a Bounty Hunter Geoff; I’ll take him alive if I can, but he’ll hang for sure, he’s killed two deputies that I know of, and probably one hell of a lot more innocent folk too, he’s wanted in three States yer know.”

“Does that mean you’ll do it then Jess?” asked the older man hopefully.

“It means I’ll think about it,” said Jess firmly, “just got some other business to attend to first.”


“Yeah, this matter of the rustling.”

He turned to the foreman,” so why did ya lie to me Dyke? “

“What……. I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, sure you do, you were over at the river just the other day. I saw your horses tracks, traced them back here.”

“Bill?”asked Morrison looking annoyed.

“I… I may have been that way, but nowhere near the river crossing, seen nothing anyway,” he finished sulkily.

“So how did ya get that red mud all over your boots then Dyke,” spat Jess angrily,” as far as I know the river crossin’ is the only place you find that red mud.”

Dykes eyes narrowed and backing off from Jess he suddenly went for his gun, but Jess had his colt out and aimed at the man’s head before Dyke had even cleared his holster.

“Drop it,” Jess spat, and the gun clattered to the floor.

“What in Hell are you playing at man?” yelled Morrison staring furiously at his foreman.

He said nothing just looked insolent.

Jess had, had enough of this and advancing on the balding fat man grabbed hold of his shirt front and rammed a fist just under his chin,” your boss asked you a question you low life,” he said menacingly.

Dyke looked petrified.

“OK , OK it was me, thought I’drun off your cattle and I figured you’d be too busy chasing over the countryside lookin’ for them to be bothered to take up Mr Morrison’s offer of work.”

“What, so you wanted the job,” yelled Morrison,” do you really think I’d pay you $10,000 to go and sort out Gomez, are you mad? When he turned up here you were blind drunk and fast asleep and Jess outdrew you just then without even working up a sweat.”

Dyke looked a broken man and Jess pushed him roughly away, turning from him.

“Get out, you’re fired, and you can tell that two bit kid brother of yours he can go too, like as not he made the other set of tracks Jess saw,” yelled Morrison, and Dyke slunk out without a backwards glance.

Morrison looked over at Jess,” I’m so sorry,” he muttered.

Jess just nodded.

“Look Jess, if we’ve got a deal, I’ll replace all the animals for you, every one, top class breeding stock. On top of the reward money.”

Again Jess kept on his poker face.

After a few minutes he said quietly, “You know Gomez, his reputation; there is quite a significant chance that I won’t come back.”

Morrison just stared at him and said,” yes I know.”

Jess drew a deep breath,” so here’s the deal, I’ll go and do my best to get Gina back…but if, well if I don’t come home, will you still replace themsteers ….top quality stock?”

Morrison gave him a grim smile shaking his head,” you sure strike a hard bargain son, then he leaned over and shook his hand, yeah you’ve got a deal.”


He rode straight back to the ranch and found Slim grooming the Stage team.

“So how did you get on,” he asked beaming up at his buddy,” fence all fixed?”

Jess slipped down from Traveler and tethered him to the corral fence and leaned on it for a moment before answering,

“Yeah, did the fence and sorted out the rustlers too.”


“Turns out it was Bill Dyke and his brother, aimed to run the stock off to keep me busy so I wouldn’t be interested in a little proposition Morrison had for me.”

Slim’s eyes narrowed, “so what sort of proposition would that be then Jess?”

Jess looked down,” you know dang well,” he said softly.

Slim’s head shot up,” I told you I didn’t want you doing that!” he exploded.

“And I told you we couldn’t afford for me not too”, yelled Jess equally angrily.

“How much?”


Slim gave a low whistle, “I still don’t want you doing it Jess,” he said softly.

“$10,000, iffen I make it back with Gina and get Gomez banged up or buried and………….”

“And what?”

“He’ll replace all the stock we lost, whether I get back or not.”

Slim just stared at him in horror.

“So you’re making deals from beyond the grave now are you?” he said turning away, and staring at the distant horizon, refusing to look his buddy in the eyes.

“Slim will you listen to me we ain’t got any choice now, I have to do it, it’s our last chance.”

“Sure we’ve got choices; I could still sell that parcel of land….”

“Oh come on Slim, he wouldn’t pay anything like ten thousand.”

“Even so, this isn’t worth your life Jess, just see reason, please just think it over…yeah?”

“OK,” said Jess quietly and walked Traveler off to the barn.

Both men hardly spoke for the rest of the day. Slim glanced across at his buddy once or twice as they went about their work, but Jess seemed to be in a world of his own.

At supper time Daisy picked up on the tension between the two men and once Mike had gone off to bed and they were sitting around the table with their last coffee’s she said gently, “is everything alright, you two are very quiet, have you had a fall out?”

Slim’s head shot up and he looked across at Jess who was studiously studying his empty coffee cup.

“Better ask Jess,” he said quietly.


Jess gave a deep sigh, ” ain’t nothin’ Daisy.”


“Mr Morrison has asked me to do a little job for him is all…and Slim don’t want me doin’ it,” he said refusing to look the elderly housekeeper in the eye.

“Well, if it’s what I think it is, I can’t say I blame him,” she said stoutly.

“I have to Daisy,” he said suddenly giving her a pleading look,” it’s our last chance to save this place and with the money he’s offering our troubles would be over, we could pay off the Mortgage, restock, it would set us up for years to come, be a real good future for Mike to inherit one day. The alternative is we’ll lose it, come next quarter day and that’s a fact.”

“Don’t you understand,” she said tearfully,” you are more important to us than this place, Slim and you can start over again, but if you go and something happens….”and she stopped tears welling up.

Jess reached out and covered her hand, resting on the table, with his own,” I’m sorry,” he said very softly.

“Please just consider it very carefully,” she said, leaning across and kissing him gently on the forehead, before getting up and going to her room.

Once she had gone the two men sat on in silence for a while.

Then Jess got up from his seat and walking over to the chimney breast, pulled out the lose brick and removed a package wrapped in an old piece of material and returned to the table with it.

Slim watched,hopelessly, as Jess unwrapped the gun and methodically started to strip it down and clean his old gunslinger weapon. The gun he had put away for good when he joined the Sherman Ranch as a symbol of the start of his new life.

After a while Slim said,” I never thought I’d see you take that out again Jess.”

Jess looked up and his expression was deeply saddened,” me neither pard, but you’ve gotta have the right tools for the job and if Gomez is as fast as folk say, guess I’ve got to have the best iron I can, one designed to kill, real fast and real accurate…and this is it.”

“You’re going through with it then?”

Jess looked at his buddy raw emotion on his face, “yeah,” he whispered.

Slim could bear it no longer and standing up he said ,”I guess that’s it then,” and marched from the room, entering the bedroom and closing the door firmly behind him, obviously needing to be alone.

Jess stared at the closed door for a long time, before whispering “sorry Slim.”

When he turned in later Slim seemed to be asleep, so he undressed very quietly and lay on his bed, but he hardly slept. Then when he finally fell into a troubled slumber he woke in the early hours of the morning sweating and his heart pounding after a terrible nightmare, the one about the prisoner of war camp, which left him weak and trembling. He knew he would have been screaming out and he cast an anxious glance over at the other bed to see if he’d woken Slim.

After a moment Slim looked over,” you OK?” he asked softly.

“Yeah, sorry Slim, I didn’t mean ta wake ya.”

“It’s OK, night Jess.


Chapter 4

Jess awoke at dawn, dressed and quietly made his way to the kitchen leaving Slim sleeping in their room.

He drank a quick coffee and then picking up his saddle bags and a gunny sack filled with supplies he made for the front door and opened it quietly, but stopped in his tracks and turned as he heard the bedroom door open.

“Going without saying goodbye were you?” asked Slim, looking across at him.

Jess flushed and looked down, “figured it was easier this way,” he said softly.

“For who…….you or the rest of us left here to worry about you?”

Jess hung his head,” sorry.”

“Are there any messages for Daisy and Mike then?”

Jess paused for a long time before saying gruffly, “just tell ‘em…..tell ‘em I love ‘em and I’ll be back as soon as I can…yeah?”

Slim just nodded, looking bleak.

“I will be back you know Slim.”

“Sure, watch your back, huh Jess.”

Jess suddenly had a lump in his throat the size of Texas.

He looked across at Slim, unable to speak, and their eyes locked for a moment before he nodded and pulling his hat down hard he gave him a little salute before wrenching the front door open wider andleaving, closing it quietly behind him.

Slim stood staring at the door for a long time before slowly turning back into the bedroom, that now seemed strangely silent and lonely, and throwing himself back down onhis bed stared up at the ceiling, “sure you’ll be back,” he said softly, to himself.

Jess kneed Traveler into a brisk trot as he left the yard and took the track up towards the Laramie road. But as he reached the rise he reined his mount in and looked back at the ranch that had been his home for these past years and as he looked down pictures flitted through his mind.

The day he had decided to stay and try and settle down and make a go of ranching and how Andy, Slim’s kid brother had pelted across the yard and into his arms, over joyed to see his new friend back for good.

Of him with Andy, Slim and old Jonsey around the piano singing their hearts out, an old song written by Jonsey, somthin’ about Marry me in Laramie. Jess shook his head and smiled at the memory.

Then he had a vision of lugging all Daisy’s luggage across the yard when she first landed and how she had been such a wonderful help to them all when the judge had come to check out their suitability as guardians’ to Mike.

He remembered all her wisdom and loving care as she had nursed him, and sometimes scolded him, to get him through many an injury or illness.

And then he had a vision of chasing Mike across the yard after one of his cheeky remarks, vaulting the corral fence and catching up with him, play fighting, Mike crying with laughter.

Then, finally, looking off to the porch he remembered all the chats he had enjoyed with Slim of an evening as they relaxed after a hard day’s work, sometimes just banter and other times bearing his soul in a way he had never felt able to with another living person.

He pulled his hat down hard again and gave his home one last look. It sure was worth fighting for he thought, and with that feeling of grim determination he turned Traveler’s head towards Laramie and kicked him on into the fresh new summer morning.

Mort Corey was just pouring out some coffee as Jess entered his office and gesturing to the pot, he poured another.

Once the men were seated comfortably he turned to the blue eyed cowboy and said,”so what brings you to town so early then Jess, you look like a man on a mission to me.”

Jess put his cup down and said,” yeah, you could be right there Mort, I’m off, on the trail of Gomez.”

Mort took a reflective sip of his drink before looking Jess in the eye.

“That’s a mighty big ask boy, are you sure you want to do that?”

“Why……. don’t you think I’m up to it?” asked Jess, defensively

“Oh no, I’m not saying that, just that I’ve seen him in action and he’s fast Jess, I reckon it would be a pretty close run thing….why take that kind of risk?”

“For $10,000.”

Mort gave a low whistle, “that what Morrison is prepared to pay?”

“He can afford it and then some.”

“Yeah, I guess you are right, but even so Jess…its one hell of a gamble just for the money.”

Jess looked down into his cup,” it ain’t about the money Mort, it’s about the ranch, the bottom line is we’re on the verge of bankruptcy, and this is the only way I can see out of it.”

Mort shook his head and looked shocked,” I knew things were bad, but not this bad.”

“The last nail in the coffin was losin’ nearly all of our prime breeding heifers, ain’t no way we can meet the loan repayments now so……….” and he just shrugged.

“Well I’m truly sorry to hear that son, is there anything I can do?”

“Yeah, that’s why I came by, wondered if you’d heard anything of his whereabouts, whether he’s heading back to Mexico or not.”

“Well funnily enough I got a wire just yesterday, from the Sheriff of Denver, seems Gina was spotted visiting a doctor, he gave her some strong painkiller, she said her friend had been hurt, but she lit out before he could find out more. Then a local rancher came into town a couple of days later said Gomez had been there and robbed him, cleaned out the larder, slaughtered a steer, took ammunition too and headed off in the direction of Colorado Springs, so figure he’s heading for Mexico, but you’ve got one hell of a lot of ground to cover to catch up with him.”

Jess got to his feet,” I’d better get going then Mort.”

Mort looked thoughtful,” if it’s any help to you I’ve heard tell he’s got a hide out somewhere around Pueblo and I figure after all that hard riding he may well rest up there for a spell, so you may be able to catch him quicker than you think. Once he makes it back to Mexico and meets up with his cohorts, guess it will be a bit harder to nail him.”

Jess just nodded,” thanks for that Mort,” and shaking the older man’s hand firmly he said,” be seein’ ya.”

Mort just nodded giving him a grim smile,” I hope so Jess, take care boy.”

Jess rode out of town feeling reasonably hopeful now he knew at least that his quarry had been sited and he had a rough area to aim for. Part of him wished he could just arrive there at once without the arduous journey ahead of him, but another part of him was dreading his final confrontation with Gomez and its possible outcome.

He rode south through Cheyenne, Fort Collins and eventually arrived in Denver dirty and exhausted after the days of travelling in the unpredictable weather, which had alternated from violent storms to searing heat.

The first thing he did was to locate a good Livery Stable and make sure Traveler’s needs were attended to. He had little money, but his horse came first and Jess figured if the worst came to the worst as his journey progressed he could always bed down with his horse when his money finally ran out.

The livery owner seemed pleasant enough so Jess asked for directions to the Sheriff’s office and then if the man could recommend a cheap boarding house.

“Depends how you feel about fleas in the bed and cockroaches wandering across the walls,” he said laughing.

Jess shuddered inwardly; “OK well let’s make it a clean, cheap place,” he said with a grin.

“Old Ma Bennett, just two doors down should suit then,” he said, and Jess thanked him and made his way down the street to the tall whitewashed building and running lightly up the steps tapped the large brass door knocker.

A few minutes later an elderly woman with neat grey hair tied in a bun answered the door.

“Yes dear can I help you?” she said with a welcoming smile.

Something about her demeanour reminded him of Daisy and he was suddenly hit by a wave of homesickness.

He removed his hat and returned the smile,” I sure hope so Ma’am, I’m looking for a bed for the night, bath and meal too if you can do it?”

She looked him carefully up and down and seemed satisfied with what she saw.

“Certainly young man, come along in, first floor front is free and I can stoke up the boiler and have a hot bath ready in say an hour and supper is at seven sharp, if that suits you?”

Jess beamed at her,” that would suit me just fine Ma’am, I’ve some business with the Sheriff first and then I’ll be right back,” he promised.

She showed him the room and he left his saddle bags there before taking off down the street for Sheriff Ben Bridges office.

He knocked and entered the office and was greeted by a youngish portly man, with a genial expression and wearing a Sheriff’s badge.

Jess walked over and introduced himself shaking hands with the big man.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said cheerfully, “take a seat Jess, I had a wire just last week about your visit from good old Mort Corey, he speaks very highly of you, very highly,” and turning he poured Jess a coffee, before picking up his own and taking a sip.

Jess just smiled,” well Mort and I have been in some pretty tight spots together,” he said,” tends to cement a friendship.”

“That it does, that it does,” said the Sheriff grinning over at him.

Jess was just beginning to wonder if the Sheriff said everything twice when the door was opened and a pretty Saloon girl sidled in.

Then seeing Jess said,” Oh sorry Ben, I didn’t know you were busy.”

Ben leapt up and beaming at the girl introduced her to Jess, as Emily from the Golden Ball Saloon.

“Jess here is a friend of Mort Corey,” he said, and the girl smiled at him.

“Small world,” she said,” my Pa and Mort were old school friends, I’ve always called him Uncle Mort.”

“Oh really,” said Jess fascinated, staring into the girl’s huge green eyes and taking in her auburn hair and scantily clad, hour glass figure. He was beginning to think what a shame it was he was only in town for one night as he liked what he saw, very much.

She was obviously of a similar opinion, as she gazed into his deep blue eyes.

However after a moment she dragged her gaze away and addressing the Sheriff said, “I just popped over to tell you I have to work tonight I’m afraid Ben, so we’ll have to take a rain check on our date.”

Then smiling over at Jess, she said,” lovely to meet you Mr Harper, give Uncle Mort my love when you see him next,” and with that was gone.

The men exchanged bemused looks as she waltzed out , but Ben quickly gathered his thoughts again and sitting down said,” so you are on the trail of Antonio Gomez then Jess?”

Jess just nodded, “anything you can tell me would be a help?”

“Don’t know too much, we had a wire to look out for him and Mrs Gina Morrison and it was old Doc Peters that recognised her from a poster I’d got displayed out front. Apparently the Doc was out of town when she rode in and she had to put up overnight. Then she saw the Doc first thing the following day, said she’d got a prescription for some pain killer, for a friend with chronic pain from burns. Well the doc filled the prescription, no reason not to. Then later he remembered the poster and let me know, but she’d hightailed it by then.”

“So you didn’t see anything of her, how she was?”

“No I was out of town too, riding posse. Next thing a local rancher comes in saying Gomez had attacked him and ransacked his place taking food and ammunition, heading down towards the Ute Trail and Colorado Springs and most likely Pueblo, you could hide a garrison out in those hills,” he said sadly shaking his head, “they call him the Ghost you know Jess and he sure disappears like one.”

After a while Jess felt the bath tub calling and made his farewells , but he turned at the door,” so where did Gina stay when she stopped over, did the Doc find out? “

“Yeah, Ma Bennett’s place you’ll find it…. “

Jess grinned at him,” yeah, I know thanks Ben,” and he marched off back down the street.

After a good soak in the tub and a wonderful supper Jess was feeling better than he had in a long while and he was stretched out in front of the fire in Ma Bennett’s parlour, sipping a good strong coffee when he brought up the subject of Gina.

“I believe you might have had a friend of mine staying here,” he said, “ Mrs Gina Morrison, a dark haired lady about so high,” he said gesturing with his hand.

She shook her head,” no I don’t think so, there was a Miss Jones,she fits that description…. “

“Jones,” said Jess looking amused at Gina’s lack of inspiration,” yes that’s right, she does call herself by her maiden name sometimes.”

Ma Bennett gave him a somewhat disbelieving look, but then smiled at him. She had rarely had such a personable and handsome young man at her table and she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“So you are looking for this err, Miss Jones are you then Mr Harper?”

He nodded, “truth is Ma’am she’s run away from her husband and I’m trying to get her back, just a silly lovers tiff you know the sort of thing?”

“Oh indeed ,”she said smiling,” but I am surprized you know of such things Mr Harper, I can’t imagine you having too many tiff’s with your girlfriend.”

Jess flushed, but said nothing, for a moment.

Then, “so how was she Ma’am, did she say where she was heading?”

“Not in so many words, but she did say she was half Mexican, when I was admiring her dark good looks, and she said she missed home, so she may be headed back there, to Mexico.”

“Um, but she didn’t say any specific place?”

“No, I’m sorry dear, she didn’t and I think there is more to this ‘lovers tiff’ than you have been led to believe, I’m sure she was travelling with a man, she mentioned someone several times, it was for him she got the Laudanum.”

“What?” said Jess loudly hating to even hear the word after his recent experiences.

“Why, it is a strong pain killer used for….”

“Oh yes,” said Jess bleakly,” I know exactly what it is.”

She looked surprized at his outburst , but continued,” anyway as soon as the doctor gave it to her she left town, but she bought supplies of whiskey and baccy too, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t for her,” she said giving him a meaningful look.

“Yeah, we’ll thank you Mrs Bennett, that’s most useful,” he said, putting his cup on the table and standing up and stretching,” think I’ll just go check on my horse before turning in.”

She smiled across, again reminding him of Daisy,” alright Mr Harper, I should take a key,” she said, passing him one,” just in case you get side tracked at the saloon on your way back, I will be retiring shortly.”

Jess grinned across at her, as perceptive as Daisy too he thought wryly.

“Thank you, I won’t make a noise comin’ in,” he said, “Goodnight Ma’am,” and putting on his hat and touching it to her he made for the door.

“Goodnight dear,” she said softly as he left.

Jess went straight to the Livery to check on Traveler. It was all quiet, but there was a young lad on duty and Jess figured it was his job to sleep with the horses to keep them safe during the night. The lad jumped up from his hay bed in one of the stalls as Jess came in.

“It’s OK boy, just checkin’ my horse, the Bay, at the end there.”

The youngster gave a sigh of relief and accompanying Jess to the stall said,” nice mount you’ve got there Mister, well cared for too.”

Jess stroked Traveler’s nose and found a sugar lump in his pocket for the old horse.

Turning to the boy he said, “well the way I figure it a man’s horse is his most valued possession, makes sense to look out for it.”

The boy nodded,” you work with horses then Mister?”

“Some, I work on a ranch Laramie way, do some Mustang breakin’ and schooling.”

“The boy’s eyes lit up, that’s what I’d like one day,” he said.

Jess nodded,” it’s a good life.”

Then after a moment he asked directions to the Golden Ball Saloon.

“You sure Mister, can get kinda rough down there on a Friday night, usually some sorta ruckus.”

Jess smiled down at him, “oh I think I can handle that.”

The boy flushed a little,” guess you can at that Mister,” and told him the quickest way.

Jess tossed him a couple of coins and the youngsters eyes lit up.

“Gee thanks Mister, what’s this for?”

“Put it towards the down payment on your ranch,” said Jess grinning,” and can yer have Traveler saddled and ready to go at first light?”

The boy beamed back at him,” sure can Mister, goodnight.”


Jess lost no time in locating the Golden Ball where Emily worked and as he entered he was accosted by a cacophony of noise, with men drinking, a piano player tinkling away and plenty of saloon girls drifting around amongst the lively punters.

He ploughed his way to the bar and ordered a glass of whiskey, downed it in one, grimacing as the fiery liquid hit his throat, and then ordered another. This time he just took a sip, and looked around the bar.After a moment he spied her, across the room serving drinks at the poker table and then as she walked back to towards the bar she saw Jess and their eyes locked.

She was wearing a low cut tightly fitting green dress and her auburn hair was swept up in a sophisticated style and she looked very much a lady rather than a saloon girl in the way she held herself and acted.

She walked straight towards him and said, “Mister Harper, how nice to see you again, are you staying in Denver long then?”

Jess said softly,” it’s Jess, and no just tonight I’m afraid.”

Her green eyes looked sad,” oh that’s a shame. “

Then she was called behind the bar to serve and it was a little while later that she got back to him.

“So what does a man have to do to get your undivided attention?” he asked with a grin.

She looked embarrassed,” well, for us to sit with a client the boss says they have to order a bottle.”

“OK,” said Jess,” and is there somewhere a bit quieter we could go, to talk?” he asked innocently.

She gave him a calculating look,”I’m not in that line of business,” she said quickly.

Jess flushed up at once,”Hell, I didn’t mean that,” he said honestly,”… I…. “

She grinned up at him,” I’m sorry, I misunderstood you, working here, we get asked all the time, but Al runs a good clean house, rough and ready but he doesn’t employ working girls…….”

“So is there,” he broke in…”somewhere quieter.”

She gestured to a table over in the far corner away from most of the action, “I’ll bring the bottle over,” she said.

Once they were seated and he had poured them both a drink, he apologised again for the misunderstanding,

“ I don’t…well that is….. I don’t pay for it,” he finished, looking embarrassed.

She smiled across at him and said,”well I’m glad we’ve got that cleared up.So where are you off to, tomorrow Jess, Ben was in earlier said something about you were on Antonio’s trail?”

“Antonio? Oh Gomez, yeah, that’s right why do you know him?” he asked looking surprized.

She nodded,” I used to, years ago, before he got this terrible reputation.”

“Oh really?”

“My folks had a place outside Albuquerque and Antonio Gomez was well known there. He was a land owner, married with a small son. Then one day there was some sort of a range war and his young boy and wife were killed and he was just never the same again.

He blamed the law for not stepping in and stopping things. He drank and lost everything, his ranch, status, self-esteem, and that was when he built up this gang of vigilantes. He started shooting, killing, mostly authority figures, Sheriffs, even a judge.”

Jess gave a low whistle,” because he lost everything? “

“Because he lost his family…….yes that was everything to him, he didn’t believe in the law anymore and so just took it in his own hands.”

“And so countless innocent people have died.”

She nodded,” and then another vigilante group tracked him down and burnt his hideout to the ground and we all thought he was dead, but he had just gone to ground.”

“So do you know Gina then?” he asked.

“Antonio’s woman, yes, I met her once, she loved him very much, but she left him for an older man a rancher out west I think.”

Jess just nodded,” I figure she’d had enough of being on the run with Gomez then?”

“Possibly , or there were rumors that he was very violent towards her, he suffered a blow to the head in a fight and it changed his personality, maybe she was just frightened of him.”

“Um, maybe.”

“So, this Gina, she is a friend of yours Jess, you care for her?”

Jess’s head shot up,” Hell no…err I mean she is the wife of a neighbour, we have a business deal, I’m to fetch her back.”

“And kill Antonio?”

“If that’s what it takes, yes. Why would that bother you?”

She gave him a confused look,” I don’t know, the man I remember was kind and gentle, a good man, but with all he has suffered, he has changed…and yes he must be stopped.”

Jess gave her a searching look,” lots of people have difficult lives, but they don’t go round robbing and murdering,” he said harshly.

She gave him a surprized look,” no I guess not… “

“I’m sorry Emily, I didn’t mean to be so hard, it’s just that, well he’s crossed that line and nothing can justify the way he’s acted these last ten years, he has to be stopped before he kills anymore.”

She suddenly looked anxious, “he’s fast Jess, very fast… I saw him draw once and……..”

“So am I,” he said quietly, “dunno if I’m fast enough, but guess I’ll find out.”

She turned deeply troubled eyes up to him and reaching out clasped his hand lying on the table,” do you have to?” she asked quietly.

He just nodded, looking down at her hand holding his and then back into her face with the feeling that he was drowning in those perfect green eyes, “yes I have to…. “

Just then the spell was broken by a ruckus at the bar with two men swearing and squaring up to each other.

“Oh no,” she said softly,” it’s all going to kick off again, come on Jess let’s get out of here.”

He paused for a split second, never liking to walk away from a fist fight, reckoning it was good exercise for a man.

However Emily was beckoning to him and he followed her behind the bar and then out the back door and found himself in a small back courtyard.

Turning to him she smiled, “you can get back to your lodgings just down the alleyway at the back,” she said pointing to a small gate in the wall.

He turned back to her and rubbed his hand gently up and down her naked arm, “you’re cold,” he said softly, the night air being chill after the hot saloon.

She trembled at his touch and looked deeply into those amazing blue eyes.

“Yes,” she said,” I should go back in….”

“No,” he whispered,” not yet…they’ll still be wrecking the place.”

Then looking into her eyes, said casually,” so what is there between you and Ben?”

She looked surprized for a second and then smiling said ,” oh we’re just good friends, we go out sometimes, nothing serious though.”

Jess put a gentle hand on her other arm, and gave a little sigh,” oh good,” he breathed.

Then he looked down at her generous red lips and back into her eyes before leaning forwards and kissing her very gently. He felt her start to respond and taking her in his arms he kissed her again, more firmly this time and his pulses started racing as he felt her running a hand through his hair and then pulling him in towards her.

With one hand he caressed her back and pulled her into an even closer embrace as their kissing became more and more passionate. He could feel all his senses responding and he gave a little groan of desire as she whispered his name……..her voice sensuous and warm….

Suddenly there was a call from inside the saloon,” Emily…Emily, where in heck is that girl? “

The voice came closer and she reluctantly pulled away,” that’s Al, he won’t give up until he finds me, there will be all the cleaning up to do…I have to go Jess….”

“No,” he whispered,” stay with me … .Emily?”

She looked into his pleading eyes, but knew what she had to do.

“I’m sorry, I have to go,” she whispered,” I’ll see you on your way back maybe…or I’ll visit Uncle Mort in Laramie, but I must go now I need this job Jess….”

He shook his head as if to clear it.

“Yes, sure of course you must…….I just got a mite carried away there, sorry,” he said giving her a sheepish look.

“Oh, you can get carried away with me anytime honey,” she whispered, giving him a seductive look, before turning to leave,” I’ll see you in Laramie, maybe….. huh?”

He smiled and nodded before turning and making his way back to Ma Bennett’s place, feeling frustrated but also elated, Emily sure was real special and he wondered if she would indeed visit Laramie.

Chapter 5

The following morning he was up at dawn and when he went downstairs he was surprized to see Mrs Bennett had laid the table for breakfast and there was the good smell of fresh coffee, bacon and eggs.

Jess had deliberately paid for his room the night before so as not to inconvenience the elderly lady and now as he entered the kitchenhe said,” I didn’t mean for you to get up at this Godforsaken hour for me Ma’am.”

She just smiled,” a man needs feeding if he’s to do a day’s work and you look like you need feeding up young man,” she said gesturing to his chair and with that Jess sat and tucked into the excellent fare before taking his leave.

When she saw him off at the door she gave him a sad look, “take care son,” she whispered,” I figure you have folks back home a thinkin’ of you, spare them a thought too, before you take any risks will you?”

Jess looked into her kind old face and leaning forwards, he gently kissed her on the cheek,” that I will Ma’am, “he promised before touching his hat and marching off downthe street to collect Traveler.

But the old lady stood on the step watching the street, long after he had disappeared from sight, one hand to her papery old cheek, still feeling the warm gentle kiss,” God Bless,” she whispered , before sadly turning away back into the house and closing the door.


Jess struck out due south knowing his route would take him through some challenging countryside, flanking the Rocky Mountains as he took the trail down towards Colorado Springs and on to Pueblo, where Ben had thought Gomez might be holed up.

He rode on for days suffering in the searing heat of the desert areas and then climbing up through the mountains via narrow passes with deadly drops and magnificent views. The countryside was teaming with wildlife in the mountainous areas and Jess fed well and bathed in the sparkling mountain streams at the end of a long hard days ride.

He had been following the Fountain Creek for a few days now ,knowing that it met up with the River Arkansas at Pueblo and he figured that if Gomez and Gina were still in the area they would be hidden away in one of the caves in the rocky foothills near the rivers, the water source being essential to them.He was unsure how he would go on when he arrived and as Ben had said you could hide a whole garrison of soldiers in the mountains, never mind one man and woman, but he had to start somewhere.

However as he finally reached his destination he was too exhausted to worry about the problem that night. He found a good place to camp, within walking distance of the fast flowing river amongst the dense woodland that covered the bank, and set about making a fire and tending his horse.

Unusually for Jess he felt ill at ease as he settled down to eat his supper, Traveler ground tethered nearby. He looked out to the magnificent view of the surrounding mountain range, with the river in the foreground and further mountains and woodland behind him and he couldn’t fault the awe-inspiring beauty of the place…and yet.

Ever since he had made his way down the Ute Trail days ago he had , had this slight feeling of uneasiness. He heard tell many stories of the Ute, how they were a friendly peace loving tribe, who travelled in small family groups, their hunter gatherer way of life all they desired. But how much longer would they remain peace loving if the white man continued to plunder their land and hunting grounds thought Jess sadly.

But it wasn’t the Ute that had him looking behind him occasionally and tethering Traveler within spitting distance. It was the rumor he had heard in Colorado Springs of the random groups of renegade Cheyenne, the Ute’s sworn enemy, who were causing mayhem in some areas, horse stealing and killing that had him feeling a little uneasy.

He finished his coffee and prepared to bed down and then he heard the cry of a lone wolf, the unearthly sound sending shivers down his spine for a moment.

“Come on Harper, get a grip,” he said firmly to himself, before stretching out on his bedroll.

He lay there quietly, unable to sleep and listening to the eerie sounds of owls calling until exhaustion finally over took him and he fell into a deep sleep.

It must have been the early hours of the morning when he was awoken by an anxious whinny from Traveler, who was standing just a few feet away.

Jess was up on one knee, his gun in his hand and peering into the all-pervading darkness within a split second.

“What’s up buddy,” he whispered looking over at the dim shape of his horse and then suddenly out of nowhere, someone kicked his gun out of his hand and there were strong hands around his throat as he was wrestled to the ground.

Jess instinctively kicked the attacker in the belly with both feet sending him sprawling, but then two others took his place and Jess was being pummeled with hard fists in the chest and face, leaving him writhing in pain on the ground. After a moment he managed to wrench himself free though and his fists found their mark, sending both his assailants flying.

As all this was going on the fourth member of the band had cut Traveler’s reins and leapt up on his back and was urging the Bay on out of the camp. Traveler was however, incensed at this cavalier treatment,and wasted no time in rearing and then bucking the young brave off into the dust, where he lay groaning with a broken arm.

Jess was now getting into his stride and having temperately dealt with two of the young Indians he turned to the third who had been helping his brother, lying groaning in the dirt with the broken arm. Now with the light of battle in his eyes he launched himself at Jess and too late the young cowboy saw the flash of steel as the brave thrust the knife hard into Jess’s belly. Somehow Jess managed to pull himself free and with his last ounce of energy he made a dive for his six gun, that just minutes earlier had been kicked from his hand, and that marked the end of the conflict. As soon the young renegades saw that Jess was again armed they melted into the shadows and he heard them riding quickly away.

Jess lay in the dirt groaning and retching with the pain, but after a moment he managed to drag himself towards the camp fire and by its meagre light he was able to see the full extent of the damage. Blood was soaking his shirt and the front of his denims, but on closer inspection he saw that his belt buckle had taken the brunt of the assault, and he knew that if the buckle hadn’t deflected the knife he would be dead. As it was though he was badly hurt and leaning over he grabbed his water bottle started to clean out the wound as best he could with his bandana , then he looked up for Traveler who was calmly grazing a few yards away.

Jess whistled him and he walked slowly over, leaning down to blow through his nostrils in welcome.

He reached up and rubbed the horses nose,” hey you OK fellah?” he asked softly.

Traveler whinnied and then went off in search of fresh grazing as Jess watched him fondly.

Knowing his horse was alright he fell back, the pain suddenly all too much and after a couple of minutes he lapsed into unconsciousness the blood gently oozing out of the wound and between his fingers.

When he awoke several hours later the sun was beating down and there was someone leaning over him, washing his face with a cool cloth.

He tried desperately to open his eyes, but the effort just seemed too much, and he gave a gentle groan as the pain in his belly suddenly kicked in.

“Jess, take it easy, you’ll be OK.” said a vaguely familiar female voice.

Again he made a valiant effort to open his eyes and this time he managed to squint up at his savour and found himself looking into the concerned eyes of Gina Morrison.

“Gina that you,” he whispered, his voice sounding harsh as his throat was so dry.

“Yes, what are you doing here Jess? “

“Came lookin’ for you,” he said with a weak smile.

She lifted his head gently putting the water bottle to his lips and he drank gratefully before laying back.

“Gomez……is he here?” he asked suddenly struggling to sit up without success.

“No back at the camp, just up in the hills yonder, I came down to wash and saw the vultures circling, came to investigate and found you here.”

“Traveler?” he said urgently

She put a gentle hand on his chest, “he’s fine right here beside you, see.”

He rolled his head to look over at his mount and gave a sigh of relief to see the big horse; ground hitched once more, standing nearby.

“The vultures were after you Jess,” she said with concern;” I think I’d better take a look at that wound now.”

She gently undid his shirt and then his belt before unbuttoning the top couple of buttons of his denims.

He tensed,” Gina?”

“It’s alright.” she said with a little smile.” I am a married woman you know Jess….”

“Yeah, but not to me,” he said gruffly.

“Silly”,she said shaking her head and starting to clean the wound with fresh water.

Then she gave a sharp intake of breath, “this is really nasty Jess, it needs stitching and cleaning properly by a doctor.”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before looking up at her,” well seein’ as we ain’t got one guess it’s down to you. Got any whiskey?”

“Yes a bottle back at camp.”

“That should do it, clean it well, bind it up tight it’ll be OK……that’s iffen Gomez don’t mind sharing his whiskey.”

Then the full implications of his position hit him.

“Hell Gina he’s gonna dispatch me to my maker as soon as he claps eyes on me ain’t he?”

She shook her head,” no Jess I won’t let him, I’ll think of something…he’s very volatile and unpredictable, but he does listen to me…most times that is……”

“Oh swell,” muttered Jess to himself,” most times huh?”

“I have to get you back to camp and dress this wound, now listen to me Jess I’ve got it, we’ll tell Antonio that you’re my brother, he won’t harm you then.”

“What!” barked Jess in amazement,” you think he’d swallow that?”

“I don’t know we’re both dark haired…umm; maybe not…you could be my half-brother though, same Pa but a different Ma, that would work better.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said sarcastically.

“Come on Jess it’s all we’ve got.So what are you doing here really?” she asked as she finished cleaning him up.

“Like I said, I’ve come to fetch yer home, I did a deal with Geoff, and he’s payin’ me to bring yer back…”

“Geoff, Geoff is still alive?” she whispered in a shocked voice, “Oh thank God I thought he was dead.”

“No he’s fine now, so you didn’t wanna go off with Gomez then?”

“No of course not… I left him before his place was raided and he was burnt, he’d started scaring me with his crazy ways. I ran away, met up with Geoff and we married almost right away, I just needed the security and to free myself from Antonio… I’d…I’d grown to hate him I guess.”

He gave her a quizzical look,” and now, do you still hate him?”

She looked down, silent and then turned pleading eyes on Jess.

“I know how evil he must seem to you, after all he’s done. The killing, vicious murders, but well, yes there is still something between us and I’ll find it hard to leave him, I was his woman for a long time you know Jess…..”

“But you will, come back with me….Gina?”

She was looking off to the horizon, a faraway look in her eyes.

“I guess so yes, there is no future with Antonio; he’s on the road to ruin.”

“How do ya mean?”

“You’ll see for yourself. But I must get you back to camp now Jess; you’re still bleeding I have to clean and bind that knife wound, do you think you can ride?” she asked giving him an anxious look.

All the time they had been speaking he had been lying on his back, too weak to even sit up, but he knew his life depended on him getting the help he needed, even if that meant running the risk of being shot on sight by Gomez.

“Yeah, I can ride,” he said, “if you can help me up?”

She somehow managed to get him up on his horse and then she led Traveler up through the dense forestation at the river side and back towards the cliff and to the cave half way up, which was their base.

She led the horse up a steep back trail until they finally arrived at a plateau overlooking the river and distant mountains, with views for miles. A truly perfect place to hide out thought Jess sardonically, as he slipped from Traveler’s back and was helped to the cave entrance.

Then suddenly Gomez was there, a rifle in his hands, pointing at Jess,angry eyes staring at him.

Jess squinted back, feeling he couldn’t stay upright much longer, even with Gina supporting him the way she was.

“Who the Hell is this?” spat Gomez coming closer and glaring at Jess.

Jess found himself peering into a once ruggedly handsome face that was brutally scarred by a burn and glancing down saw that his left hand was similarly disfigured. The man had black hair and piercing dark brown eyes and must have been very handsome before the fire stole his good looks.

“I said what is he doing here?” said Gomez again in his thick Mexican accent, sounding even more aggressive.

Gina’s chin came up and she looked the tall man in the eyes.

”This is my brother, Jess,” she said firmly,” he came looking for me and he’s been attacked by that band of renegade Cheyenne braves thatwere sniffing around here last week.”

Gomez looked nonplussed, “Que?”

“For goodness sake Antonio,help him before he passes out again,”she said urgently and with that the Mexican was galvanized into action and moving forwards took Jess’s other arm and helped him to a rough cot within the cave.

Jess stretched out, his hand clutching his belly, the blood once more seeping through his fingers, after the exertion of the journey, and he gave an involuntary groan as the pain gnawed at his gut.

Gina busied herself finding clean dressings and the whiskey and when she was ready she returned and gently tended the wound, cleaning it with the spirit and then binding it firmly. All the while she was working on him Jess remained stoical and only cussed quietly when she poured the burning whiskey into the open wound.

Now he lay still, his eyes closed and she was unsure as to whether he was unconscious or merely asleep.

Gomez had watched the procedure with a look of grudging admiration, as the young cowboy endured the obvious pain so bravely.

When the job was finished he turned to Gina and said, “So who is he really?”

Gina gave him a hard look,” I told you Antonio, he is my brother, well my half-brother, Jess, he’s been living down in Texas that’s why you have never met him.”

Gomez gave her a disbelieving look, but decided to let the matter drop for now.

“If you say so my love, I will talk to him myself when he is feeling a little better…now then, you and I have some unfinished business I think,” and taking her in his arms he kissed her passionately before walking out into the lush green forest, holding her hand and leading her away beneath the trees, where they would have some privacy.

When Jess awoke a few hours later the first thing he saw Gomez squatted down beside the low cot, staring at him.

“So you are awake amigo”, he said in his rich accent, “and how are you feeling?”

Jess was somewhat startled by the genial attitude of the bandido.

“OK……….,” he said quietly, casting a glance around wondering where Gina was.

“Ah, you are looking for your sister no? “

Jess looked puzzled for a moment and then gathering his wits said , ”yeah, where is she?”

“Don’t worry mi amigo, she has just gone into the town to run a little errand for me she will be back shortly, inthe meantime you will join me in a glass si?”

“Si, Gracia,” said Jess softly leaning up on one elbow and accepting the offered tumbler of whisky.

“Ah, you have some Spanish Jess?”

He smiled deprecatingly,” just a little, I grew up on the Panhandle, and there were many Mexican families there.”

Gomez gave him a sudden stony look;“I thought my Gina was brought up in Mexico City?”

“Well yes she was,” said Jess quickly,” but I lived with my Ma, we just had the same Pa… I never saw much of him to be honest…they weren’t married see…my Ma and Pa”


“Yeah, I guess ,”said Jess through gritted teeth, beginning to regret this flight into fantasy and seriously considering telling Gomez the truth and getting it over with. He suddenly had the horrible feeling that he was being played with, as a cat with a mouse and Gomez knew perfectly well that he and Gina were lying and that Gomez was just biding his time before exposing that lie.

As the time passed and the men chatted about this and that Jess noticed that the Mexican’s attitude began to subtly change and he went from being reasonably affable to restless and jumpy. Several times he leapt up when he thought he heard Gina riding in and hurried to the mouth of the cave before returning looking anxious and ill at ease.

As dusk began to fall he started pacing around the confined space like a caged animal and remembering how Gina had said he could be volatile and unpredictable Jess began to feel apprehensive, knowing that he was at a marked disadvantage should Gomez decide to suddenly strike, his injury making him feel vulnerable.

After a while he tried to calm the older man and said quietly,” you worried about Gina?”

The bandido turned on him and shouted angrily,” no why should I be, she has merely gone to Pueblo….. ..…she will be back shortly; there is absolutely nothing to worry about…si?”

Jess personally though he was protesting a mite too much, but let the matter rest and after a while feigned sleep, figuring it better to keep a low profile.

A little while later she arrived back at the camp, and both Gomez and Gina believing Jess to be asleep spoke perfectly openly.

“Where in heaven have you been,” spat Gomez,” you’ve been gone half the day……..Maldita sea!”

“There is no need to cuss Antonio, here is your wretched stuff and it wasn’t my fault, the doctor was out on a visit, I had to wait.”

He grabbed the small brown bottle from her and with shaking hands tipped a little into the empty whiskey tumbler and knocked it back and went to do the same again, but Gina was too fast for him and took the bottle from him.

“No,” she said harshly,” you will kill yourself over dosing like that Antonio, give me the cork and I will put it away safely and dispense the dose when you need it…….. and not before,” she said firmly.

The Mexican sighed deeply but did as he was bid.Gradually his sense of well being seemed to return and after a little while he asked about supper and was soon a different person, relaxed and laughing at a private joke with Gina as they started preparing the meal together.

Jess had listened to this little interchange, and had a good idea what was in the little brown bottle, but it wasn’t until later that night that his suspicions were confirmed.

Jess’s make shift cot had been moved out near the cave mouth where the fire was kept burning day and night, as Gina said he needed to be kept warm. He was still feeling cold and sick after the huge blood loss he had suffered and so appreciated her thoughtfulness as he lay there propped up on his saddle looking into the flames and trying to figure a way out of their predicament.

Gina and Gomez finally produced the simple meal, but Jess was feeling exhausted and nauseous and could only manage a few mouthfuls before pushing his plate away. Gina cast him an anxious look, but knowing how jealous Gomez could be, if she showed another man any interest, she said nothing, just quietly offered him some cool water, which he acknowledged with a tired smile.

After a while Gomez and Gina retired to their bed at the rear of the cave leaving Jess to doze by the fire.

Jess slept sporadically but in the early hours of the morning the pain awoke him and as he turned to try and get comfortable he pulled the wound and let out a low groan.

Gina was also lying awake and hearing him in obvious pain,got up and after going to the back of the cave to fetch something she came over carrying a cup and squatted down beside his cot.

“Is the pain really bad?” she asked softly.

“I guess,”he replied.

“Here,” she said gently raising his head and putting the cup to his lips,” have some of this medicine, it will help with the pain and make you sleep.”

Jess took a sip and then sat up hurriedly, and turning from her coughed and spat the bitter liquid out.


He said nothing, just grasped his wound, which he had again pulled sitting up so quickly, and cussed softly.

“I know it’s kind of bitter tasting,”she said giving him a puzzled look, “but you must try some, it will help you really”.

Jess shook his head and turned to look at her, “that’s just where you’re wrong,” he said firmly,” I ain’t touchin’ that Laudanum Gina, not ever.”

“Jess whatever is it, have you tried it before?” she asked looking shocked.

“You could say that,” he said softly,” yeah, I’ve had it before Gina…far too much of the damn stuff.”

“What are you’re saying ……..you were addicted to it?”

“Going that way I guess, it was sure hard when I stopped takin’ it anyway,” he finished bitterly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she said gently.

He looked across at her and gave her a weak smile,” how could you?”

She just looked down;” I know how terrible this stuff can be if you get a liking for it, but it’s so good when you’re in pain, I just wanted to help you,” she said softly giving him a concerned look.

“I know,” he said, reaching out and squeezing her hand gently”, and I thank you for it, but I’m OK.”

Then casting a glance towards the back of the cave to where Gomez was still in a deep slumber, he said, “that’s what you went to town for wasn’t it…so is Gomez addicted?”

She just nodded,” very deeply…if he has regular doses he is fine, but if we run out well…..at first he is unpredictable and oh so aggressive …and then once the supplies were late , I just couldn’t find a doctor and he was in agony when I got back…….doubled up in pain, it was awful to see.”

Jess nodded darkly,” yeah,” he said with a deep sigh.

“You too?”

He just nodded.

“Jess I am so sorry, I would never have given it to you if I had known.”

“That’s OK, now listen Gina, we have to talk sometime, about getting you home safe… I don’t think that Gomez believes that cock and bull story we’ve told him for one minute, we need to be ready to get out of here just as soon as I can ride.”

Then they heard Gomez stirring and calling out for her and she jumped up at once.

“Yes,” she whispered,” I’ll be ready,” and with that she returned to her bed.

Over the next few days Jess’s wound gradually began to heal and to his great surprise he started to really get on well with Antonio Gomez.

Whether or not it was the effect of the Laudanum mixed with the whiskey that Gomez was imbibing, or he had just genuinely taken to Jess, the cowboy was unsure, but he suddenly opened up to him and started talking to him as a confidant and friend. And the more he spoke about his difficult early life of great poverty in Mexico, before meeting the love of his life and having his son, the more Jess warmed to him and in some respects could empathize. They had a lot in common from a difficult early life even to the experience of being burnt out of their home. Jess had been the victim of a gang raid on his home as a youngster, his parents and three of his siblings were killed that night and he still had nightmares about being in the burning house.

The loss of Gomez’s small son and wife seemed to be pivotal to his fall into crime and his personal road to self-destruction. Jess tried to imagine what he would have done in similar circumstances. He knew all about the death of a loved one having experienced it first hand when his fiancée was shot down and murdered in front of him. * See Loved Lost Survived

He was so grief stricken that he nearly died himself and maybe would have done if it hadn’t been for Slim and his friends rallying around and offering him the loving support that finally pulled him out of his deep depression.But without that support would he have ever sunk to the depths of random murder in revenge, as Gomez had done, he thought not.

The man had been responsible for so many deaths of innocent parties, even having injured Mort Corey, Jess had to remind himself and although he had some sympathy with the Mexican as he unburdened himself, he could not condone his sins and he knew that he would have to take him in eventually, either dead or alive. But the more he got to know Gomez the harder he knew that would be.

Chapter 6

One evening when Gina had retired early, the two men sat around the camp fire looking out of the cave mouth at the distant mountains, blue in the evening haze, each with a tumbler of whiskey and their own thoughts.

Gomez was in a reflective mood and after a while he gave Jess a quizzical look before saying,” so you are a rancher then Jess?”

Jess had felt it simpler to keep as near to the truth as he could and now he merely nodded,” yeah.”

Gomez gave him a look more in sorrow than anger and said softly,” that is a gunslinger’s weapon you wear though is it not amigo?”

Jess looked startled.

“Oh yes I have checked it out while you slept, the honed down firing pin, the hair trigger, the low slung holster, that is the weapon of a man who means business…a man who maybe kills for a living Jess?”

Jess tried to calm himself, his heart suddenly beating so hard he thought Gomez, sitting next to him, would hear it and a light sweat broke out on his forehead.

“I used to,” he said succinctly.

“But not now….you wouldn’t be here to kill me would you Jess?”

There was a long silence while the men looked out to the mountains and then Gomez turned to face the young cowboy.


“Not if I can help it… .I’d rather bring you in alive,” said Jess looking deeply into Gomez’s eyes.

“It doesn’t matter, either way I’m dead,” he said, in an almost matter of fact way,” you shoot me, I hang…. either way the result is the same no?”

Jess just looked down, unable to answer, suddenly feeling tremendously moved by the man’s calm acceptance of the situation.

“So who are you really Jess… .a Bounty Hunter?”

Jess’s head shot up and he looked shocked , bounty hunters being the lowest form of life in his book, but suddenly it struck him that he was no different, no better than a common bounty hunter and the thought shook him to the core.

“No,” he muttered,” it ain’t like that Antonio…. I wouldn’t be doin’ this unless I was up between a rock and a hard place.”

“So…how much am I worth to you mi amigo,” he asked quietly.

Jess stared out at the mountains for a long, long time before replying, “ten thousand bucks.”

Gomez gave a low whistle,” so much… I can see why a man would be tempted.”

Jess’s head swiveled to look Gomez in the eyes, “it ain’t the way you think,” he said angrily.

Then stopping and taking a deep breath he started to talk to Gomez in a low, emotionally charged, voice.

“I’ve lied to you Antonio, and I guess you know that. I ain’t Gina’s brother; I’m a rancher from Laramie that part was true. …..and everything else I told ya too, about Texas and the fire and all…about being on the drift and then meeting Slim…how that changed my life.”

The big Mexican gave him a sad smile.

“Yes I believe all that Jess, no man could talk of such things the way you did, with such…..sentimiento err how you say……such feeling, and lie about it. I know from what you have told me, how important your friend is and the old lady…err Daisy.”

Then he looked profoundly sad,” and your boy Mike, how much you care for him…all this I believe.”

Jess nodded,” thank you.”

He took a deep breath.

“Well, I guess that’s what it’s all about, we are in big trouble at the ranch, had two bad seasons, drought…. flood, lost stock, had a hell of a lot of bad luck I guess. Anyway me and ol’ Slim have darn near worked our butts off ta keep afloat…but this last thing as happened, losing our prime stock…..well that’s it, the end of the line, we’ll lose the ranch, all the land and Daisy and Mike will be homeless. Me and Slim will have to do our best ta start again from scratch…but if I’m honest we’ll never get a home together again, not in time to see Mike through his childhood anyways.”

He gave Gomez a sad look.

”After what the boy went through, seeing his folks killed, scalped by Indians…I made a promise to him, said he’s always have a home with me and Slim…and that’s a promise I aim to keep….no matter what it takes,” he finished very softly.

There was a very long silence, before Gomez turned to Jess.

” I guess I would do the same in your place amigo.”

Jess looked across and saw that Gomez’s hand was shaking so much he was nearly spilling his whiskey. He had, had the shakes all day and Jess knew it was the beginning of the withdrawal symptoms and wondered how bad he would get before Gina came back with his drugs when she went to town the following day.

Gomez put his glass down and indicated his shakes to Jess…

” I am in need,” he said quietly.

Jess just nodded with understanding.

“I think the fairest way is for us to shoot it out amigo,” he said after much thought,” …you would agree to this?”

“When?” said Jess softly.

“I think you owe it to me, to wait until I am feeling a little better,” he said indicating the shaking hand again. After all Jess I could have shot you on sight, or anytime as you slept…but I was curious as to why you were here, so I allowed you to live. When I have my, ‘medicine’, I will be back to normal, and I figure we are pretty evenly matched…no? “

Jess just nodded again.

“So I will regain my pujanza…err, my strength and vigor and then we see who is the fastest mi amigo…si?”


The following morning Gina set off for town armed once again with a prescription, one of many,written out by a Doctor friend back in Mexico.

Gomez was jumpy and shaky from first thing , refusing breakfast and merely drinking strong coffee fortified with whiskey and by late morning he retired to bed to sleep it off.

When he awoke in the afternoon Jess could see at once he was in a bad way. He was as white as a sheet and shaking and after a while he staggered up and started pacing around outside the cave. Jess went out and began grooming Traveler to give him something to do and keep out of the way of Gomez who was now cussing violently to himself looking like a man about to lose all reason.

Jess had kept Traveler very close by since the incident with the Cheyenne and when he had finished attending to him, he ground hitched him within sight of the cave and reluctantly returned to where Gomez was now standing peering down to where he hoped to see Gina returning along the riverbank. After a while he sank down on a large rock by the cave entrance bowing his head in his hands and Jess walked over and sat down beside him.

“Feelin’ sick?” he asked quietly.

When Gomez nodded Jess went and got a canteen and offered the fresh water to the bandido who took it and drank gratefully.

“Gracias amigo,” he said giving Jess a weak smile.

Then the smile vanished and he looked old and sick, “what’s keeping her?” he said angrily.

“You should have let me go,” said Jess,” I’d have been quicker.”

“Si, but they might have queried you, Gina is known to this doctor, he will always oblige……”

Suddenly he leaned forwards clutching his belly and groaning he stood up.

“Necesito mi cama…err forgive me Jess, I need my bed,” and with that he turned and entered the cave, Jess watching him, pity in his eyes.

When Gina still hadn’t returned by late afternoon, Jess was as concern for her as he was for Gomez.

He entered the cave and went and squatted down beside the Mexican who was now writhing in pain, the stomach cramps making him shout out. Jess found a damp cloth and wiped the man’s sweating brow.

“Take it easy, Antonio, she can’t be much longer I guess………”

Gomez was now looking very pale and obviously in great pain…”you don’t understand,” he said, cussing and sweating……”.you don’t know how bad I am feeling amigo.”

“Oh yeah, I have a pretty good idea,” said Jess bitterly.

Gomez’s head swiveled and he suddenly looked at Jess properly, for the first time since he had sat beside him offering his support.

“You too amigo,” he asked in a hushed voice, “you have been in this Hell too?”

Jess just nodded,” yeah I have and I kicked it in the end Antonio, maybe Gina has done you a favour not turning up… ….do you think you could try an’ give it up, ride out the pain for a little longer?”

Gomez merely shook his head,” no my friend it is too late for me, the alcohol, the ‘medicine’ I am completely hooked on it all, there is no future…no chance for me now.”

Jess shook his head sadly.

”Want me to go and see if I can find her, it’s nearly dark now Antonio, I’m kinda worried about her myself.”

“Si, si…...you go Jess and gracias…you find her….. ,”and he closed his eyes exhausted.

Jess had a very bad feeling, why in Hell had he let her go off on her own with those renegade Cheyenne possibly still around?

In actual fact he had offered to go alone and then to accompany her and that was when Gomez had got really upset and forbidden it.

“She will be fine she does not need you to hold her hand amigo,” Gomez had said angrily. And Jess remembered Gina saying how jealous he could get and so backed down rather than cause any more tension in the camp.

Now it was still quite light outside the cave and he saddled up Traveler and after heading down the back trail he spurred him on towards the river bank which he knew Gina used as a guide on her way to and from the town of Pueblo some fifteen miles away.

He had been riding for some time when he heard the sound of a single gunshot ring out in the distance and he reined Traveler in and listened carefully, but there were no more shots and after a moment he turned his horse in the direction of the gunfire and kicked him onto a gallop.

It must have been about ten minutes later tha the saw a diminutive figure trudging towards him in the distance and as he drew close he saw it was Gina, on foot, with no sign of the pretty Palomino mare she rode.

He hurried Traveler forwards and leapt off as he neared her and she ran into his arms, crying hysterically, and it was a good few minutes before he could make any sense of what she was saying.

“It’s Rosie,” she said at last, referring to her horse,through shuddering sobs ,” its Rosie, she fell and her leg was broken Jess, she was in so much pain……”

“You’ve shot her….you have shot her haven’t you.” he said urgently, not wanting the animal to suffer, remembering the single shot he had heard.

She nodded and started crying again, the great sobs wracking her body as Jess held her close.

After what seemed like forever, to Jess. she finally calmed down and pulled back slightly so that she could look him in the eye.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

He gently wiped a tear away with his finger,” it’s OK, of course you’re upset, who wouldn’t be , she was a real good horse, the best eh?” said softly, looking deeply into her troubled eyes.

Then suddenly she reached up and they were kissing at first tentatively and then more passionately, until Jess pulled away, shaking his head gently.

“No,” he whispered,” this ain’t right, come on honey, you’re just upset, let’s get back.”

She gave him a hurt look, but backed off a little.

“Antonio’s in a real bad way,” he continued and taking her hand he led her over to Traveler and helped her up, before jumping up behind her and with one arm gently holding her waist he kicked the bay on to a fast trot, back towards the mountains.

By the time they got back to the camp it was dark and Jess reached up and lit the lamp they had placed strategically near the cave mouth and the whole of the area within was suddenly illuminated and they could see Gomez lying on the makeshift bed at the back of the cave, groaning and writhing in pain.

Gina ran across to him immediately and Jess joined her and helped to raise his head while she administered a good draft of the Laudanum. Gomez’s eyes were wild and he was gasping for breath such was his distress, but after a mercifully short time he seemed to relax and fell into a deep stupor.

“Thank God for that,” whispered Jess,” I hate seeing him that way.”

“Bring back memories?” asked Gina with a sympathetic glance at the dark rancher.

“Some, although I was never as sick as that I guess.”

They turned away from the Mexican leaving him to rest.

They had a scratch super and then settled down to rest by the fire at the mouth of the cave. Gina had decided to sleep out there and leave Gomez the bed they had been sharing as he was still very restless, even after a second dose of the Laudanum.

Jess gave her the cot he had been using and he stretched out nearby, on his bed roll, with his saddle as a pillow, and they were having a last coffee before turning in and staring out at the moonlit view of the distant mountains, the sounds of the night all around them.

After a while Gina turned to him and said,” about what happened between us out on the trail before…..”

“It was nothing,” said Jess quickly,” you were just upset about your horse and I was there for you that’s all.”

“If that’s what you want to think,” she said softly.

“What else am I supposed to think?”

“That I ….. I am very attracted to you,” she said blushing a little and looking down, before looking up at Jess from under her lashes to gauge his reaction.

Jess just shook his head and cast an anxious glance towards the back of the cave, but Gomez appeared to be still sleeping.

“You know how I was around you back in Laramie,” she persisted.

“I know you used to make me feel real uncomfortable flirtin’ with yer husband a few feet away,” he said crossly.

She just looked away to the distant mountain and then said, “so what’s going to happen?”

His head swiveled towards her,” between us?”


“Nothin’, I’m goin’ to take you back to yer husband and collect my $10,000 and you’ll live happily ever after, “he finished, somewhat tongue in cheek.

Ignoring his sarcasm, she continued, ”What about our escape, what are you going to do about Antonio?”

Jess was silent for a long time before turning to her and saying,” we talked last night, and I guess we’ve come to a decision, and when he’s feelin’ better we’ll settle it once and for all.”

“No,” she said in a shocked voice,” not that…… I don’t want you having a shoot-out, why can’t we just ride out and leave him?”

“Can’t do that Gina,” Jess said firmly,” I like the guy…can’t pretend I don’t, but he’s wanted for murder in three states and who’s to say how many other innocent people he’ll kill before he’s done….?”

Gina started crying quietly and Jess wasn’t too sure whether the tears were genuine or just a ploy to get him to react.

He was staring across at her thinking so deeply about what to do, that he didn’t notice Gomez emerging from his bed and coming over to stand by the couple, until he spoke.

Gomez turned angry eyes on Gina, “who are you crying for, mi amor, for me or for Jess…or just for yourself maybe huh?”

She turned startled eyes upon him, “for you….and Jess I guess I don’t want to see either of you killed in a pointless gunfight.”

“You act like you care,” he spat,” but you betrayed me mi amor, you passed him off as your brother…for why, because you wanted him here with you…Oh yes I heard what you just said to him…or did you know he was going to kill me eh?” he asked his anger rising.

“At least Jess has been honest with me now, but you…you have betrayed me on every level, you…Jezebel,” he spat.

Jess stood up quickly and walked over to Gomez and looking him in the eye, said, “she didn’t know about me coming in here to arrest you Antonio, I promise you that, she just figured I was here to take her back home to her husband.”

“Ha…husband,” yelled Gomez,” just a word, he is not your lover, you have told me that, you are with him for his money and the security……that is all.Bah…. You are no longer worthy of the great Antonio Gomez, you are just a common slut, the way you chase after this man, who has no interest in you……”

“Antonio, please,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry…..”

“No, you have made your decision, you go back to your….. oh so boring husband and life in Laramie……. we are through mi amor!”

Then turning to Jess he said quietly,” and …tomorrow we will finish it too amigo…for once and for all……si?”

Jess looked broken,” I’m sorry it has to end this way Antonio.”

The big Mexican looked infinitely sad, “me too mi amigo, in another time…another life… I think we could have been good friends,” and with that he turned back to his bed.


“Just get some sleep Gina, there ain’t anymore to be said,” and Jess lay down and turning on his side, away from her, and closed his eyes, but sleep was a long time coming.

He awoke at first light and seeing that Gomez and Gina were both in a deep sleep he quietly left the cave and walked over to check on Traveler.

Once the horse’s needs were tended to he made his way down the steep track to the river to wash. Stripping off his shirt he knelt down by the edge of the water and started cleaning himself up, but after a while the water felt so good that he stripped off to his under shorts and waded in. After half an hour or so he came out, and dried off and he had just pulled on his denims and fastened his gun belt when he heard a noise behind him and spinning around, his gun in his hand in a split second , he stood facing Gomez.

“Easy boy, you might want to put that thing away, I figured we’d jaw some before it came to that….. “

Jess looked sheepish and holstered his gun.

”You shouldn’t creep up on a man, Antonio,” he said quietly.

The older Mexican nodded in agreement.

” I should have known better, particularly with someone like you Jess,” he said with a small smile.

“So what did you want to talk about?” asked Jess, looking over at the bandido, but not making any move towards him.

Gomez looked out to the mountains across the river before replying quietly.

“Now is the time amigo, before Gina awakes, women can be so…..emotivo…..err, you know emotional, we do not want her crying and fussing over man’s work….”

Jess nodded,” got no argument with you there,” he said.

“So, this is the way it will be, in a moment, I will back off and we will finish it…si?”


“One thing mi amigo, if you win, please take what you want…in the cave I have some money…..it is yours, better to be given than to take si?”

Jess had a lump in his throat and couldn’t speak; he just stared at his adversary.

“You lose, I will go back to my Mexico to die.”

Jess looked shocked.

“Oh yes mi amigo, Antonio Gomez is at the end of the line, the drugs, the alcohol, have taken their toll…I will not have long now…but… he held his hand up to make his point. But I will not be taking Gina with me, I will see she is escorted back to her husband on your behalf…. And hopefully, your partner will receive the bounty in your place…. I hope so, I would not like to see the old lady and the boy homeless. …. Now enough talking….”

He looked Jess in the eye and then backing off a little, assumed the gunfighters stance.

“One final thing amigo……. make it a clean shot through the heart… I don’t wish to linger… and I will do the same for you.“

Jess’s blood was pounding in his ears, a cold wind had suddenly sprung up and it sent a shiver down his naked back, his shirt and hat still on the rock where he had left them before his swim.Or was it fear he thought, it was a long time since he had been so unsure of the outcome of a gunfight, Gomez having the reputation that he had.

He watched Gomez’s eyes for the tell-tale sign that he was about to draw…. He waited and knew Gomez was doing the same and the tension was almost unbearable by the time the Mexican finally drew…..

Jess was a fraction of a second faster and his shot hit its target in the centre of Gomez’s chest making the big man buck and fall to the ground instantly.

Jess ran over and squatted down beside the Mexican, but he was already dead and he stayed there with his head bowed, until he heard Gina approaching.

She just stood several feet away looking at the scene before her, her eyes wide in shock, one hand covering her mouth as if to prevent a scream from escaping.

After a few seconds he went over to her and she flew into his arms, crying and he looked down and said softly, “it was the way he wanted it, Gina… a good clean shot through the heart.”

Just for a moment Jess wondered if the Mexican had deliberately thrown the fight, wanting an end to things, but he cast the thought from his mind, he would never know…… and ideas like that could drive a man crazy.

He was suddenly aware of his state of undress, his shirt and hat over by the river, and he was still holding Gina closely. She must have realised too as she gently disengaged, running a hand down his naked chest as she stood back a little. Their eyes locked and he felt a frisson of desire at her touch and then noticed the knowing look she gave him. What did she want of him he wondered?

Jess just stood there undecided as to what to do, his emotions all over the place, the adrenaline pumping through his body after the gunfight and now he felt all his senses buzzing again, but this time for a different reason, but suddenly all thoughts of romance where wiped from his mind as a bullet whistled past his ear and another one thudded into the ground just by his feet.

In a split second he had dragged Gina behind a large rock, had his gun out and was returning the fire. It didn’t take him long to figure that it was the Cheyenne raiding party back again, but this time some of them had rifles and others bows and arrows. Three arrows came in, in quick succession, the third hitting Jess in the arm. It didn’t penetrate; just caught him a glancing blow, causing blood to splatter from his arm alarmingly, but it made little injury save a nasty gash. It was enough to galvanize him into action as far as Gina was concerned though.

He turned to her and said urgently,” back track round the hill and up to the cave and hide there until I come for you.”

She began to shake her head, but he grabbed hold of her wrist roughly and yelled at her,” just go……don’t argue… I’ll cover you,” and with that he pushed her away in the direction of the hidden trail just behind them.

With one last anguished look she did as she was told and as Jess fired a volley of shots in the direction of the braves, she high tailed it up the trail to safety.

Jess reckoned they were the same Indians that had previously knifed him and he didn’t relish getting up close and personal with them again. Two of the braves were keeping him pretty busy firing relentlessly, but he figured the others would be trying to advance and attack him from the back and he couldn’t see anyway out.

He didn’t want to follow Gina up to the cave as he would lead the Indians up to her, and he had heard terrible tales of what these renegade braves would do to a white woman. He cussed under his breath at the thought and returned another barrage of fire, killing one of the braves and seemingly injuring another.

The firing got more sporadic and finally stopped. To Jess the silence was more eerie than the gunfire though, and he had a right to be wary as suddenly he was jumped by a brave from out of nowhere as he tried to reload. The Indian wrestled Jess to the ground his empty gun forced from his hand.

He managed to get free of the man and punched him hard sending him flying, but then two further braves were upon him, kicking and punching. Again Jess managed to get free and that was when he saw the knife in his attacker’s hand. This time he was ready though and reaching down into his boot he pulled out his own hunting knife, and the two men circled each other, lunging and back stepping, both trying to wield the fatal blow.

The redskin was the first to draw blood, with a vicious slash across Jess’s chest, but then he managed to get in close and lunging thrust his knife deep into his assailant’s guts, killing him almost immediately.

By now Jess was feeling exhausted from the fighting and loss of blood, but there was just one Indian left and seeing all his comrades lying dead he attacked Jess with the force of ten men, the light of vengeance in his eyes. Jess did what he could and the fight continued until finally he was wrong footed and he fell back hard. The Indian pulled his tomahawk from his belt and raised it an evil triumphant grin on his face as his arm came back and the lethal weapon was aimed at Jess’s jugular.

Jess looked up at his assailant and knew his time had finally come, he had a fleeting thought about them all back at the ranch, would Gina escape and be able to tell them how he died , or would they just always wonder, when he failed to return?

He closed his eyes and waited for the blow to fall, knowing there was nothing he could do…all this happening in just split seconds, but for Jess time seemed to have slowed right down and be moving in slow motion. The tomahawk came down towards its mark and then there was the explosion of a rifle firing and the Indian gasped a look of total shock on his face before he fell dead, across Jess’s prostrate body.

He opened his eyes and pushed the weight of the dead Indian off him, not understanding what had happened and then he pulled himself gingerly up, one arm grabbing the now profusely bleeding slash to his chest, and that was whenhe saw Gina standing a few feet away, Antonio’s old hunting rifle, still smoking ,in her hands.

He stood up and walked very slowly towards her, and stared at her for a minute, compassion in his eyes before gently removing the gun from her grasp and throwing it down. Then he took her trembling body in his arms and held her close, gently kissing the top of her head, “thank you sweetheart,” he whispered softly. “Thank you…..”

After a while he felt her trembling stop and he pulled back.

Looking down she saw the livid gash across his chest still oozing blood and the arrow wound to his arm, and gave a little gasp of alarm, before takinghis hand and leadinghim to the large boulder and gestured for him to sit.

He collapsed down, leaning his back against the rock, closing his eyes and breathing deeply, suddenly aware of the searing pain across his chest and his throbbing arm.

“Take it easy ,”she whispered,” I won’t be a minute,” and she rushed back up to the cave for clean water, the whiskey and dressings before immediately starting to tend the wounds, but after a moment she turned troubled eyes to him.

“Jess, this arrow wound looks dreadful, you don’t think the arrows were poisoned do you?”

He gave her a weak smile, “guess I’d be dead by now if they were.”

“Don’t say that,” she gasped, before continuing to clean and bind the injuries.

When she had finished he immediately set about burying the Indians, much to Gina’s dismay.

“Jess you must rest, you’re badly hurt please come on back to the cave a lie down for a while,” she said earnestly.

He shook his head and cast her a distressed look.

“I can’t do that, no matter what they were, a man deserves to be buried. It won’t take long anyways, I won’t go too deep, there will be others come back to claim the bodies take ‘em to their burial ground I guess.”

“What here,” she asked, “there are more nearby?”

“Probably and if there are they’ll want the bodies, they are different to us Gina, they put the bodies up on a big scaffold, in the burial ground…it’s real important to them, guess you have to respect that.”

So he buried the Braves, wrapping the bodies in some wolf skins he found in the back of the cave and then, sticking the warriors head dresses and arrows in the ground marking the spot, he stood back to survey his work.

“Why have you done that?” she asked, looking down at the fresh grave, with the weapons and belongings of the warriors on or near the spot.

“Mark of respect,” he said quietly,” it’s the Indian way, and like I say, whether you believe these young warriors were right to bushwhack us that way or not…well they’re dead now and so I guess yer have to do what’s right by them.”

Then he turned his attentions to Gomez.

“You go back to the cave Gina while I sort things out down here,” he said gently, gesturing to the body of the dead Mexican.

“What will you do…… bury him here?” she asked.

“No I reckon not, apart from the fact that i tprobably ain’t good to leave him around here with the Cheyenne comin’ back, well, I figure he deserves a proper last resting place inthe town.”

She just nodded sadly and turning went up to the cave to start to break the camp.

Meanwhile Jess went about the sad business of wrapping up Antonio’s body and tying him across his big grey stallion, ready for the journey to Pueblo, where he figured he would inform the Sheriff and make sure the big man received a decent burial.

After a while he returned to the cave and found Gina with her head bowed going through Antonio’s few possessions.

“Here,” she said handing him an old wallet;” I think he said he wanted you to have this.”

He opened it and found it contained nearly a hundred dollars, plenty to bury him and still have some over for the odd hotel room on their journey back.

He was just about to stuff the wallet in his back pocket when something made him open it up again and looking deep inside he found an old faded photograph of a beautiful woman with a young child in her arms and Jess guessed it must be the bandit’s wife and child. He stared at the picture for a long while before carefully placing it back in the wallet. Then he removed the money and stuffed it in his pocket before taking the wallet and placing it carefully in Gomez’s pocket.

“Figure you’d want to take them with you to your last resting place Antonio,”he said softly.

Chapter 7

Shortly afterwards they started their journey to Pueblo.

They arrived mid-afternoon in the busy town that had a checkered history. It had started as an Indian settlement then a trading post amongst the Indians and white men, being a good place to set up camp at the meeting of the Fountain and the much larger Arkansas River. Later gold had been found and now the town was booming with the coming of the railroad link to Denver and was home to many people, some law abiding and some much less so.

As Gina and Jess rode in that afternoon, Jess leading Gomez’s mount with its sad burden, many citizens stopped to watch as he reined in by the Sheriff’s office and after helping Gina down entered the jail.

The Sheriff was an elderly man and not known for his easy temperament or genial manner.

“Well?” he asked acerbically as Jess entered, not even looking up from the papers he was working on.

Jess exchanged a look with Gina before saying,” good afternoon Sheriff, my name is Jess Harper and this is Gina Morrison…..”

The Sheriff butted in quickly,” yeah, yeah….so like I said…well?”

Jess sighed deeply, trying to keep his patience intact, but with the wounds to his chest and arm now hurting something fierce and feeling hot and tired after the long ride he had the feeling he was not going to last out much longer, and the legendary Harper temper might well come to the fore pretty damn soon.

“Brought a man in for you to identify before I take him over to the undertaker,” he said equally succinctly.

The Sheriff looked up from his paperwork for the first time and pushing his hat back said, “so who have you got for me cowboy?”

“Antonio Gomez,” said Jess quietly.

The Sheriff’s head suddenly shot up.

”The hell yer have?” he said in surprise, before leaping from his seat to investigate.

He went outside and checked over the body before gesturing they should return to the office to complete the paper work.

After a while he turned and scrutinized Gina, “ain’t I seen you in town before lady?” he asked.

“Maybe,” she said looking to Jess for reassurance.

“Yeah, I know you, bin visitin’ the doc more than once I reckon….….so iffen you knew Gomez was around why didn’t you come and tell me?” he asked flushing up and beginning to look angry.

“It wasn’t down to her,” said Jess quickly, “she was Gomez’s prisoner, he abducted her from Laramie.”

“Well she seemed to be able to come and go to town OK,” said the Sheriff throwing Jess an accusing look.

“Look it was real difficult, he had a hold over her, and anyways if she hadn’t gone back to the cave he’d have come into town looking for her and that would have ended in a shoot-out, is that what you wanted, innocent people shot maybe?” he asked, beginning to sound annoyed himself now.

The Sheriff wasn’t going to let it go and turning to Gina he said,” I could have you for aiding and abetting.”

“Aiding and abetting what,” yelled Jess,” he ain’t done anything, not in these parts .Anyways she’s helped me, and I’ve brought him in without any blood being shed…save for his……..I thought that’s the way you’d like it Sheriff!” he finished angrily.

The Sheriff took note of Jess’s attitude and then he saw the blood stains on his blue shirt and the cuts and abrasions to his face and decided to back off, not wanting to risk any confrontation with this highly volatile young man.

“Yeah, yeah, I guess so, err….thank you young man.”

“So where is the undertakers?” asked Jess feeling slightly placated.

“Town won’t be payin’ for a burial,” spat the Sheriff, back on his high horse.

Jess suddenly saw red and putting his face very close to the elderly Sheriff’s he said menacingly,” I didn’t ask ‘em to did I………... I’ll stand the cost.”

The Sheriff backed off looking distinctly nervous…”as you please, undertakers two blocks down, on your right, can’t miss it.”

Jess threw him a hard look.

”Thank you Sheriff,” he growled,” nice doin’ business with you,” and opening the door for Gina he followed her out.

When Gina and Jess left the Sheriff’s office Jess was fuming and the sight of crowds standing around gawping at Gomez’s corpse didn’t help his mood any.

He elbowed his way through the crowds who were pushing and shoving the get a better view of the notorious outlaw and turned angry eyes on them.

As he approached he saw a man lifting the blanket enshrouding the body and grabbing the man roughly by the shoulder he shouted,” have some Goddamn respect, he’s dead ain’t he what more do ya want!”

The man backed off looking sheepish and the crowd parted as Jess led the big grey down the street towards the funeral parlour.

By the time they finally entered the undertakers Jess’s patience was practically gone.

“Got a man outside needs burying,” he said briefly,” I can pay…… can you do it for me?”

“Certainly sir”, said the polite elderly man, casting a compassionate glance at Gina and back to Jess.

Jess sighed deeply, “it’s Antonio Gomez …make any difference? “

The undertaker didn’t miss a beat,” no sir that will be fine, although I am afraid the local bylaws wouldn’t permit interment within the town cemetery.”

Jess sighed again quietly and gave the man a tired look, “no I figured that.”

“I can find a very nice quiet spot just outside the graveyard,” the elderly man continued earnestly,” if that would be acceptable sir?”

Jess gave him a sad smile,” guess it wasn’t you as made the rules,”he said, “yeah that will be fine thank you.”

He paid for the coffin and a headstone and was turning to go when a wave of nausea and dizziness suddenly struck him and he grabbed hold of the counter for support.

“Jess?” said Gina, looking concerned.

He swallowed and said faintly,” I’m OK Gina.”

The elderly undertaker fetched a chair and made Jess sit and offered him a drink of water.

Jess drank gratefully before handing the glass back, “thank you.”

“You look very pale sir, are you feeling unwell.”

“He has been wounded……… we were attacked by some Indians,” said Gina, looked troubled.

“There is a good clean hotel just a block down,” said the kindly man,” I think maybe you need to rest the night sir?”

Jess had really wanted to brush the dust of Pueblo from his boots as soon as possible and be on his way, but now he was beginning to feel he wouldn’t make it as far as the hotel never mind up on Traveler’s back and out of town.

In the end the decision was taken from him as he gently keeled over in a dead faint, landing on the undertaker floor with a dull thud.

When he awoke he was lying in a hotel bed with a cheerful looking doctor leaning over him listening to his chest.

Looking round Jess took in the neat room, Gina hovering in the background looking anxious and then the booming voice of the smiling doctor took his attention.

“Back with us again then are you young man?”

“The name’s Jess, Jess Harper. How’d I get here?” he asked looking perplexed.

“Old Harry, the undertaker and his assistant brought you here, probably not the best of places to collapse Jess, might just find yourself boxed up and despatched before you’reready,” he said, laughing long and loud at his joke.

Jess cringed, his head aching and looking down at his arm, that was throbbing painfully, he was surprised to see it looking about twice its normal size.

The doctor followed his line of vision and said,” Gina here tells me you have suffered an arrow wound to your arm Jess?”

“Yeah, but she cleaned it out real good with spirit,” he replied.

“Um, not enough I’m afraid, looks to me like there could have been traces of poison on the arrow, not enough to kill you, just give you a nasty infection at the site of the puncture and to make you feel pretty sick for a few days. I’ll need to keep my eye on you for a little while Jess, but you should be feeling better soon,” he said patting his good arm kindly.

“So, just do as your good wife says and I’ll be back to check on you tomorrow…OK?”


The doctor gave him a concerned look fearing possible memory problems,” yes, Gina here”, he said gesturing to the beautiful dark haired woman, now looking even more anxious.

“Not married,”whispered Jess feeling distinctly faint again.

The doctor gestured to Gina’s wedding ring,” but…….”

Jess cast him a hard look,” she’s married alright,” he said firmly,” just not to me…….”

The doctor looked from Gina to Jess and back,” ah…yes well….um…tomorrow then, good day”, and he was gone in a flash.

“What’s the matter with him?” asked Jess giving the closing door a puzzled look.

Gina was silent for a long time and Jess peered over at her,”…well?”

“It might have been me,” she said quietly,” I might have given him the impression that we were married…..”

“What! Why?”

“Because I……. booked a double room for us.”

Now it was Jess’s turn to be speechless, but after a while he looked at her and said quietly, “so why would you do a darn fool thing like that?”

She looked down before coming over and sitting on the edge of the large bed, and taking his hand said softly, “Because I wanted to be with you…….to look after you.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes…of course what else?”

“I dunno….you tell me.”

She looked down, before looking him in the eyes again,” you made it clear you weren’t interested,” she said softly, “I’m not stupid……. I just want to be around to nurse you…..I need you right now Jess, to get me home safely, that’s all,” she finished sadly.

He knew she was alluding to their conversation back in the cave on the eve of Gomez’s death, how she had said she was attracted to him and he had turned her down and now with his head pounding and arm throbbing he just wished she would leave him in peace.

He made a huge effort to focus on her.

” I’m OK; I just need to rest up. Go and get yerself a room Gina and get a good night’s sleep and tomorrow when the doc comes……. you put him straight, just say he must have misunderstood you…yeah?”

She gave him a long look before finally nodding, “alright if that’s what you want.”

“It’s what I want,” said Jess wearily before closing his eyes and drifting off to sleep.

It was a couple of days before he was well enough to get up, but as soon as he felt he could ride he decided they would be on their way even though it was against the doctor’s advice.

On the third day they were finishing breakfast together in the hotel dining room when Jess brought up the subject of their journey, saying they must leave that day.

“Jess you’re still really weak and it is a long ride, please see sense,” said Gina.

“No we’ve gotta get going, it’s been too long Gina, I have to get back and settle up the loan on the ranch before the bank starts gettin’ mad again, all this has taken longer than I thought it would already. Get packed and I’ll meet yer at the Livery, I just need to send a wire to Mort,” and with that he was gone, leaving Gina feeling concerned and frustrated by his attitude.

She had secretly had feelings for him back in Laramie and although she made out her flirting with him had just been a bit of fun, it was in fact anything but a game to her, and she had been testing the waters seeing if he could be persuaded into an affair with her. She knew from local gossips that he had been involved with a married woman once in the past and so she thought it would just be a matter of time before she managed to make him succumb to her charms.

The truth was that Gina had been missing her passionate, if at times turbulent, relationship with Gomez and whereas Morrison offered her security and money, she found him incredibly boring and their love life was practically none existent. Then Gomez had come for her and their passion for each other had been rekindled, but he was sick and could not meet herneeds as well as he had done inthe past. She was a very passionate woman and needed the love and adoration of men like others needed food and water and she was frustrated and needy.

And now just to be close to Jess fired up all her sensuality, making her feel almost light headed with desire. However as much as she flirted or tried to use her physical attributes to affect, Jess had remained resolute while Gomez was alive save for that one encounter, that she played back in her mind night after night.

It was when she had felt him respond to her kisses when he had comforted her after her horse had been shot. She thought she was finally making progress, but then he had backed off. Later when he had been so sick and she had booked the double room she thought she would finally make a move on him…….one that he would be unable to resist. She was more than aware of her own attractiveness, her perfect figure, her flawless complexion and her beautiful Latin good looks and all she needed was the right opportunity to seduce him she thought. What man in his right mind could resist a woman like her lying naked in his bed?

Then Jess had ordered her to book another room and it was obvious that he really wasn’t interested, or maybe he had an idea of what was in her mind and knew that he would be unable to turn away from such temptation. But Gina was far from giving up and she decided to continue to stalk her prey and she had plans in place for when he finally fell for her charms.

Gina had got used to the good life and she had no intention of being a working rancher’s wife, maybe not knowing where the next meal was coming from, always at the whim of the weather and the animal’s well-being and worth. Oh no Gina wanted more than that and she figured once she had Jess as her adoring slave then she would fix it so that he picked up the $10, 000 reward from her husband…But it wouldn’t be going to pay off the ranch debts it would be going with her and Jess to start an new life in California. All she needed was a plan to put him in a position where he couldn’t resist her allure. And if that meant slowly grinding him down by constantly being amatory, then so be it.

Meanwhile Jess was breezing into the Telegraph office and after a few minutes started dictating his message.

“To: Mort Corey, Sheriff Laramie, Wyoming. Gomez dead Stop Gina found well Stop On way home Stop Inform Sherman and Morrison Stop Confirmation of Gomez death via Sheriff…..”

“What’s the name of the Sheriff here in Pueblo?” Jess asked the wire operator, breaking off from his message, remembering the morose character he had met on his arrival in town.



“Sheriff Jolly.”

“Yer kidding me!”

“No Sir.”

“OK, Confirmation of Gomez’s death via Sheriff Jolly Stop Regards Jess Harper Stop.”

Once the message had gone Jess hurried down to the Livery and found Gina waiting with Traveler and Ghost, Gomez’s big grey stallion saddled and ready to go.

They had decided that Gina would keep the big horse after the sad demise of her own saddle horse and Jess was amused to find that the horse was called Ghost.

Gina gave him a sad smile.

” Antonio had a reputation of being able to disappear from the scene of a crime like a ghost and so when he acquired this old fellow, he called him Ghost, partly because of his coloring and also because it was down to Ghost here that he always escaped so quickly…he was just a very fast horse that was all, no miracle of disappearing into thin air!”

Jess shook his head in admiration.

“He sure was a legend,” he said quietly,” maybe not for all the right reasons, but I guess folk won’t forget him in a hurry.”

“No,” said Gina sadly looking down,” I guess not.”

Jess suddenly felt a pang of pity for her and reaching over he squeezed her hand affectionately,” come on, let’s go home,” he said gently and they mounted up and rode briskly out of Pueblo, heading north for Colorado Springs and then Denver.

It was a warm day and they didn’t push their mounts too hard, both aware of the long arduous journey ahead of them.

After they had been riding for a while they reined in to take a drink from their canteens. Gina was wearing skin tight denims and a tightly fitting red shirt that contrasted well with her black hair, which hung glossy and lose around her shoulders, and she knew she was looking good. After she had drunk her fill she removed the bandana from her neck and pouring a little water on it she seductively unfasten a couple of shirt buttons and ran the damp cloth over her neck and chest.Looking up from under her lashes at Jess, she was rewarded by seeing him suddenly shift his gaze from where it had been resting on her exposed cleavage, off to the horizon.

He said nothing, but after a moment said more gruffly than she thought necessary,” come on Gina, let’s get movin’.”

They had ridden on in silence for a while before Jess, who was a few paces ahead, suddenly reined Traveler in and put a hand up, gesturing for her to stop too.

She looked into the distance where he was focusing and what she saw made her blood run cold, a slow moving column of about twenty or thirty Cheyenne.

She looked over to Jess anxiously.

“What is it?”

“Burial party by the looks of things, guess they’ve been back for those braves I buried back at our camp.”

As they watched the Indians advanced slowly towards them.

“What shall we do, cut and run, or fight?” Gina asked turning terrified eyes to Jess.

“Neither, we just stay here wait it out.”

“Are you crazy?”

“No, don’t worry, they won’t attack while they are escorting their dead to their last resting place, just trust me on this one Gina, the safest thing is to just wait for them to pass.”

The Indians continued and after what seemed like hours, but was in fact only a few minutes, they drew parallel with where Jess and Gina were sitting their mounts just watching. They were only a few yards away and Jess recognised the brave that had tried to steal Traveler on the first attack and who had sustained the broken arm. That was why he hadn’t been on the second raiding party and Jess figured that broken arm had saved the brave’s life.He was riding beside a Chief who wore the full regalia of office and Jess wondered if the brave was the chief’s son as he saw them deep in conversation, glancing over in his direction.

Jess was very well aware of the Indian hierarchy and how the small groups of renegade braves went against the tribal code and beliefs and were very much castigated when they went off horse stealing and killing needlessly, bringing the whole tribe into disrepute. Now he guessed that the warriors who had attacked him and Gina had been acting against the Chief’s wishes, as had this other brave, who had at least survived his attack on Jess.

The conversation finished and the Chief rode a few paces towards Jess and raised his hand in a sign of peace, which Jess immediately reciprocated.

Then the Chief did something which Jess never expected. He gestured behind him to the bodies of the dead braves, lying across their ponies and still swathed in the wolf skins Jess had buried them in. Then he extended both hands flat, sweeping them out in a curve outwards and downwards, all the while his eyes locked on Jess.

Jess acknowledged the gesture by removing his hat and holding it against his chest in a gesture of respect and regret for the dead warriors.

The old Chief nodded wisely, before once more raising his hand in peace and turning his pony back to the trail, where he continued on his sad journey.

Jess sat his horse, his hat still in his hands and his head bowed until all the Indians made their slow journey past him and on towards their burial grounds up the mountain.

When they had finally gone Gina breathed a sigh of relief,” so what was all that about?” she asked,” I know the sign for peace, but what was the other thing he did, raising his hands in that big sweeping gesture?”

Jess felt incredibly moved, and swallowed hard before replying,” he was thanking me,” he said softly.

Gina’s eyes opened wide in amazement,” why…….. it was you that killed them, he must have known that, the way that young brave had obviously recognised you.”

Jess said nothing for a while and then said,” the Indians aren’t that different to us, there are good and bad, and there are hot headed youngsters like those braves that went off half-cocked trying to steal my horse….steal you”, he said reflectively.” Just the same as we get youngsters going off the rails, drinkin’ fightin’…. Anyways those young bucks go against the Chief and the tribe… and that Chief knew perfectly well I had to kill them to protect what was mine…he’d have done the same in my place…. No what he was thankin’ me for was the respect I showed his dead and the understanding I have of the Indian ways….that’s all….”

Gina sat and thought about what he had said for a few minutes,” don’t make light of it…your understanding of them and their ways, that is. I figure if more people had your understanding and compassion, there would be less trouble between the Indian and white man. And there is something else,” she said softly,” I’m so darn glad I’m riding with you, figure I couldn’t be in safer hands,” and with that she kicked her big horse on to a brisk trot.

Jess stared after her an unfathomable expression in his eyes before kicking Traveler on to catch her up.

Chapter 8

They continued on their journey stopping off and finding some shelter to have their lunch during the heat of the day before pushing on during the late afternoon, riding until dusk when the weather was cooler.

Eventually Jess called a halt.

“Better call it a day I guess, it’ll be dark soon”, he said, absently rubbing his bad arm, the arrow wound still quite painful.

“Are you all right?” asked Gina throwing him a concerned look.

“Sure, can you gather some wood for the fire and I’ll see to the horses, looks like a good spot over there,” he said gesturing to a small standing of pines on the banks of the river Fountain, which they had been following all day.

Before too long they were sitting around the fire, beneath the trees, enjoying beans and bacon and chatting.

“Figure we’re about five miles from Colorado Springs,” said Jess looking out to the distant mountain of Pike’s Peak, we’ve made good time. Then two maybe three days to get to Denver….reckon we’ll stop overnight there,” he said.


Jess blushed a little and looked down, trying to collect his thoughts.

“Well guess we’ll both be in need of a hot tub and a comfortable bed,” he said,” and I know a good place there.”

“Oh, really,” she replied, giving him a quizzical look.

“Sure, Ma Bennett’s, I think you know it?”

She just nodded and went on eating and Jess breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn’t queried their stop over anymore. The last thing he wanted was for her to be aware that he had a girl in town, knowing she would either tease him mercilessly or worse still, be jealous.

As it was he was going almost crazy with the thought of seeing Emily again. He just hoped and prayed that she would still be interested in carrying on where they had left off on his way out, and the thought made him feel like just getting on his horse and riding day and night to get to see her again.

After supper Jess suggested they have an early night, and set off at first light, and Gina seemed reasonably compliant with that, laying out her bed roll at once, uncomfortably close to his, Jess thought, as he got up to fetch more wood for the fire.

He was suddenly acutely aware that this was the first night they had spent completely alone together and he remembered her trick of booking a double room for them back in Pueblo and he wondered what the night would hold.

All Gina’s subtle little gestures,of seductively unbuttoning her shirt to cool off or‘accidentally ‘brushing up against him, were not lost on Jess, and he knew she was still very interested in deepening their relationship.

Now he looked back over to the camp where she was brushing her gleaming hair, and shook his head,” oh no Jess boy,” he said quietly to himself, “never mess with a married woman, especially when her husband is good for $10, 000,” and with a grim smile he collected the wood up and returned to the camp.

He came back and threw some of the wood on the fire and then moved his bedroll away a little, ignoring the frown on Gina’s pretty features as he did so. Then he disappeared off, saying he was going to have a last check on the horses and when he came back, quite a while later, she had turned in and was pretending to be asleep. Jess smiled to himself, looking down at her beautiful face, she sure was some woman he thought and in different circumstances….well, he sure as hell wouldn’t have been moving his bedroll away, he thought wistfully, before turning and bedding down himself.

The following morning when Jess awoke Gina was missing, but on looking down towards the river he saw her washing at the edge, so busied himself stoking up the fire and getting the coffee on.

When she returned she seemed in good spirits and she still had her shirt unbuttoned after her wash and didn’t rush to fasten it either Jess noticed, the glimpse of her tanned breasts giving him a sharp stab of desire. Damn the woman he thought darkly why in Hell did she keep torturing him this way when she knew nothing could come of their relationship.

He was very quiet over breakfast and as soon as they had finished they broke camp and were on their way. Jess rode the day hardly speaking and by the time they set up camp that evening Gina was getting increasingly frustrated with his attitude.

After a supper of one word answers or simply grunts to her questions she finally sighed deeply and said,” for goodness sake Jess what is the matter?”

He turned innocent eyes to her,” nothin’”

“Really…..because I think there is,” she insisted.

Now it was his turn to sigh,” maybe I just don’t like bein’ taken for a fool”, he said, his deep blue eyes penetrating hers, looking more angry than she could ever remember.

“I… I don’t understand,” she stuttered, blushing deeply.

“Sure you do,” he muttered,” and it ain’t goin’ to work Gina. I’m deliverin’ you back to your husband, takin’ my money and goin’. If you ain’t happy in the relationship, well that’s up to you I guess, just tell him and move on. But I’ve been hired to do a job and I aim to do it…..and I guess it would be a darn sight easier iffen you’d just stop what yer doin’…. I am only human you know,” he said finally giving her a hard look.

She stared at him for a moment, before looking down,” I’m sorry,” she said softly.” I didn’t mean to…..”

“Sure you did,” said Jess, butting in and giving her a weak smile,” now let’s just forget it; we’ve still got one Hell of a journey ahead of us, might as well try and get along…yeah?”

She just nodded, still looking very embarrassed and shortly afterwards retired to bed, making sure she was a reasonable distance away from him.

Once the air was cleared between them they got on much better and over the next couple of days there was quite a bit of banter and teasing between them and Jess began to relax in her company. From Gina’s point of view though this cheerful fun loving Jess was even more attractive to her and she ached for him, but was careful not to make that obvious to the young cowboy.

On the night before their arrival in Denver Jess was very pensive though and after supper he just sat sipping his coffee and staring into the fire. After Gina had watched him for a while she could tolerate his sad introspective look no longer.

“Are you feeling alright?” she asked quietly.

Jess had been deep in thought about Emily, imagining what might possibly happen the following night and he flushed up, almost as though Gina had read his thoughts, but he gathered his wits together quickly.

“Sure,” he said smiling across at her, “be good to see old Ma Bennett again, she’s a nice woman.”

Gina just nodded in agreement, but then continued softly”, so tell me about your girl Jess, that’s who you were thinking of wasn’t it?”

“Huh?” said Jess playing for time.

“Millie, isn’t it, from the saloon, didn’t I see you at the Laramie dance with her a while back?”

Jess recovered quickly, “Oh yeah, well,we’re just real good friends, go out together when neither of us is dating any one ya know? “

“Oh… I thought you were together,” she said softly, and Jess cursed himself for not just letting her go along with that idea.

“I see a lot of girls,” he said lightly,” not the settling down type see? “

“Um”, she said, and left the matter there, but Jess couldn’t help but feel she had somehow wrong footed him and was glad when it was time to turn in.

The next morning they were up early and made Denver by mid-afternoon.

They rode straight to Ma Bennett’s place and knocked on the door and as soon as she saw Jess standing there she enveloped him in a big hug, before pulling back and contemplating the grinning cheerful cowboy.

“Still in one piece then I see boy,” she said and then with a little smile she looked over to Gina,” and I see you managed to find Miss Jones on your travels too…without too much blood shed I hope,” she said peering over at Jess again, noting he had lost weight and looked a mite peaky to her old eyes.

He smiled over at her.

”Well iffen you’ve got a couple of rooms for us I’ll tell you all about it over supper,” he said, and with that the young couple were ushered in.

They sat down with the elderly woman and enjoyed a cup of coffee before Jess made his excuses saying he needed to stable the horses and would be back in time for a good soak before supper.

Once he had left Mrs Bennett turned concerned eyes on Gina.

”Your friend doesn’t look too well my dear,” she said kindly.

“We’ve not had an easy time,” replied Gina, “Jess was attacked by Indians twice and sustained several injuries, the last one an infected arm from an arrow wound and I don’t think he’s really over it yet.”

“Maybe you could stay a few days,” suggested Ma Bennett, brightening,” have a rest and some of my good cooking, you both look like you could do with fattening up some,” she said with a cheery smile.

“Thank you, but I don’t think Jess will do that, he has important business in Laramie….. “

“Oh, that’s a shame dear, anyway, you can rest tonight at least, I’ll get the hot water going for your bath,” and she hurried off about her business.

Meanwhile Jess had visited the livery and left Traveler and Ghost in the capable hands of his young friend there and was now marching down Main Street towards the Golden Ball, his heart in his mouth, the anticipation of seeing Emily again making him feel nervous.

It was still early evening as he entered and the dim bar was relatively quiet as he wandered over and ordered a beer.

After a while he called Al the bartender over and asked casually,” Is Emily around tonight?”

Al gave him a hard look, “she ain’t seeing anyone right now,” he said, before leaving to serve another customer.

When he came back and picked up a glass and started polishing it Jess tried again.

” I think she’ll see me,” he said, “can you ask her, say Jess has come callin’?”

The barkeep cast him an angry look,” I said she ain’t seein’ anyone right now, which bit of that don’t you understand Mister?”

Jess had just about had enough, he was tired mentally and physically after the difficult few weeks he’d experienced and the only thing that had kept him going was the thought of seeing Emily again at the end of it all.

He banged down his empty tankard and reaching across the bar grabbed the man by the front of his shirt and leaning close stared him the eye and said in a menacingly quiet voice, “and I said I’d like to see her…now do you go and ask her or do I go up myself?”

The barkeep was somewhat shaken by Jess’s aggressive manner and thinking that he’d like to avoid any confrontation with the tough looking cowpoke, he wrenched himself free before going to the foot of the stairs and yelling,” Emily get down here, someone for you.”

After a few minutes Emily reluctantly entered the bar and turning to Al, said,” I thought you said I could have some time off to pack, I don’t start until nine tonight.”

Al just gestured to where Jess was standing behind her, “friend to see you, “he said gruffly.

Emily spun round and as soon as she saw Jess her eyes opened wide in delight and she ran round the bar and straight into his arms.

On the long ride back Jess had begun to convince himself that he was setting too much store by the relationship. After all what had happened?A long chat in the bar and then just those few stolen kisses in the back yard……. but now she was in his arms and he felt her trembling at his touch he knew he hadn’t imagined the deep feelings between them. Then when she finally pulled back and looked him in the eyes he was sure. Yes whatever was between them might be very new and fragile, but it was sure something real special he thought.

She took his hand and pulled him over to the quiet table in the corner and they sat and just stared into each other’s eyes for a full minute before either spoke.

Finally it was Emily who broke the silence.

“Did you get him then……. Antonio?”

Jess just nodded.


He nodded again and she gave a little whimper, looking deeply saddened.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, covering her hand, lying on the table, with his own.

“It was a fair fight and a good clean end, what he wanted.”

“You spoke then?”

“Oh yes, I got to know him well. I liked him Emily, liked him a lot…..it was real hard what I had to do, but I did have to do it and we both knew that.”

She nodded.

“I’m glad you got to know him a little,” she said,” I knew you’d like him.”

Jess nodded sadly,” yeah, but he was in a hell of a state you know Emily, addicted to the drink and Laudanum, it was no life really.”

She took that on board and just bowed her head feeling pity for the big Mexican.

After a while she looked back into Jess’s eyes and what she saw made her stomach flip, the deep affection plain to see.

“How about you,” he asked,” did I hear you say you were packin’?”

She nodded, “yes I’m leaving town tomorrow on the morning Stage…. “

“Leaving,” he almost shouted and then more quietly, “why….I mean yer can’t…..”

“I’m sorry Jess I have to it’s all arranged, I’m going home and my Pa will be riding out to meet me, I have to go…he’d be so worried if I didn’t turn up after…after what happened,” she finished softly, looking down.

He just stared at her, “after what happened, what do yer mean…what did happen?”

Her eyes suddenly filled with tears and she looked away into the middle distance.


She still didn’t answer and then Jess saw she was too distraught to speak.

“Emily,” he said urgently, “has someone hurt you……?”

She just nodded and then the tears brimmed over and spilled unheeded down her cheeks.

“Oh no…no,” he said softly,” was it a customer…did he want you to…..”

She just nodded again.

A nerve was twitching in his cheek and his hands clenching and unclenching…”did…….. he……?”

“No,” she whispered “he nearly did, he followed me up to my room and burst in, hit me and I fell on the bed…then……….”

Jess closed his eyes not wanting to hear this, but knowing he had to.

“Go on,” he said.

“He was on top of me, ripped my dress off and then … I screamed and screamed and finally Al came and then Benwas there and they pulled him off…took him away.”

“Is he still here … in town?” asked Jess his voice frighteningly quiet.

“No, Ben jailed him and then, I don’t know how it happened, but he escaped.”


“He escaped, another man busted him and Ben shot him…shot them both…. “


She nodded.

“Saves me a job then,” said Jess quietly.

“So why are you goin’ he can’t hurt you now.”

“I have to get away Jess, I’ll never feel safe here again… and anyway, this life, it isn’t me…. I only did it to get back at my folks.”

He gave her a faint grin, ”oh? “

“Yes, there was a big row I was in love with a boy back home and Pa said he was unsuitable and forbade me to see him, I was all for eloping, but David …ever the gentleman said no…..maybe Pa was right, I was too young and he had no money…so …so he joined the army and I ran away and found the sort of job I knew Ma and Pa would be furious about,”she finished with a wicked little grin at Jess.

Just then there was a shout of laughter from the other side of the Saloon, which had begun to fill up, and Jess felt the hand he was still holding tense as she looked anxiously up at the swiftly filling bar.

He looked around,” he shouldn’t make yer work,” he said softly, “you ain’t over it yet are you?”

She shook her head….” I don’t think I ever will be Jess….”

“Want me to talk to Al for you, tell him you ain’t well enough to work?”

She shook her head adamantly.

”No you can’t do that he won’t pay me if I don’t work my notice out and it’s not fair to leave the other girls with all the work either. Listen Jess can you come back later…sort of keep an eye on me?” she asked with an earnest look.

“Try and stop me,” he said softly

She beamed at him, “I’ll go and finish my packing then,” she said,” and see you back here about nine…OK?”

“I’ll be here,” he promised and standing, watched her as she ran lightly up the steps to her room, before turning and leaving for Ma Bennett’shis bath tub and supper.

He and Gina filled Ma Bennett in on the happenings of the last few weeks and after supper Gina said she was having an early night and Ma Bennett insisted on checking the dressings on his wounded arm. As he sat on a kitchen chair submitting to her gentle fussing he fixed her with his deep blue eyes and laughing said,” you sure remind me of someone I know.”

“Oh?” she said raising a quizzical eyebrow,” someone nice I hope”.

He looked off into space thinking of them all back at the ranch.

”Oh yes,” he said after a while,” someone very nice, Miss Daisy our housekeeper. Well, she’s more than that really, more like a Ma to me……fusses something rotten when I’m hurt,” he said, indicating the fresh bandage Ma Bennett had just applied.

She smiled back at him,” I’m glad,” she said….”glad you’ve got someone to care for you that way”.

Their eyes locked in mutual affection and then she said more briskly,” so will you be needing a key again tonight young man?”

Jess nodded,” please… I’m seeing…a friend,” he said suddenly blushing as he would have done under Daisy’s scrutiny.

Ma Bennett, realised what he meant at once, “she’s real special isn’t she son?”

He just nodded and said softly,” yeah, I guess, but she’s going away…don’t know if I’ll see her again.”

The old woman looked sad and then leaning over and squeezing his shoulder said kindly,” you make the most of your time together then boy… and maybe you will see her again …if it’s meant.”

He turned to go, but she called him back just as he was leaving and with a wicked wink said,” I’m a very deep sleeper you know dear, I shouldn’t think I’ll hear you coming back in tonight….breakfast at eight suit you?”

Jess suddenly realised what she was implying and blushed again, before answering with a little chuckle, “yeah, I guess eight will be fine, thank you………. ‘night, Ma’am.”

When he landed back at the Golden Ball it was much livelier than before, with someone banging out a tune on the old piano and a lot of raucous laughter and shouting. Jess strode to the bar and ordered a whiskey and this time asked for the bottle, and he peered around the crowded room before knocking back the strong drink in one.

After a few minutes when there was still no sign of Emily he decided to risk Al’s anger again by asking where she was, when she suddenly appeared from a back room and stood behind the bar looking pretty much like a rabbit that had just spotted a big rattler, as she surveyed the boisterous clientele, Jess thought to himself.

She looked down the bar and then saw him and her face lit up, at once transforming her into the most beautiful woman Jess had ever clapped eyes on. Her long auburn hair was swept up in a sophisticated style and she wore a sparkling comb holding it in place .Her deep red dress was low cut and trimmed with fine black lace and fitted her closely showing off her hour glass figure to perfection. As she came forwards from the back of the bar every male head turned, but she only had eyes for Jess and ran over to him at once and had the bar not been separating them he knew she would have run into his arms. But she was working and he realised she had to comply with a certain code so just made do with looking deep into her eyes and reaching across the bar he gently squeezed her hand.

“You came,” she said.

“Sure, did you think I wouldn’t? “

She smiled, “no I pretty much believe you always do as you say Jess Harper.”

Then she noticed the bottle in front of him.

He gestured to it now and said,” I figured this is the only way Al would let you out from behind the bar, if I paid for a bottle for us to share.”

She grinned at him, “you’re learning fast,” she said as she came out from behind the bar and they made their way over to the quiet table in the corner.

Once they were seated Jess picked up her hand again and held it tightly, before looking deep into her eyes.

” Emily do you have to go?” he said quietly, “we’ve only just found each other…it seems so darn hard to let you go now.”

She looked down and then up into his eyes.

” I guess you’ll think I’m crazy,” she said,” but I don’t feel like we’ve just met, I feel like I’ve known you always, like I can trust you…… “

“I feel the same,” he whispered, unable to believe what was happening, the way she made him feel, like nothing else mattered.

“Then you must understand,” she said softly,” this is no place for me, I have to go Jess, the truth is I’m plain scared, even now sitting here with you to protect me, I’m still frightened of ….of all the this,” she said casting a glance about the rowdy bar.

“I know, I can feel you trembling,” he said looking down at the small white hand he was still holding.

“Guess I’m bein’ kinda selfish, sure we can still see each other after you leave here, you can maybe visit Mort and as soon as the ranch is back on its feet, I guess I could take a trip down to Albuquerque…..”

They were so lost, deep conversation, that they didn’t notice the tall ugly man stagger over to their table and stand swaying looking down at Emily until he lurched unsteadily and knocked Jess’s elbow.

His head shot up and he looked at the stranger who was now giving Emily a hard look.

“You want somethin’ Mister?” asked Jess looking up at the newcomer.

“Just looking,” said the man, still staring at Emily, “want a drink Honey?”

“No thanks,” said Emily quietly,” I’m with this gentleman.”

The man ignored Jess and continued as though Emily hadn’t spoken.

“See I figure it would be kind of nice to get to know you Honey.”

Jess pushed his chair back, stood up and casting the stranger an angry look said, “the lady said no Mister, so figure you’d better move on.”

Again the man ignored Jess and still staring at Emily said,” see I’d like to know what it is about you that got my best buddy shot. He was just tryin’ to be neighborly ya know, came up to your room just for a bit of fun… and then you had to go screaming the place down…well, Hell Honey, you’re a tramp ain’t ya, it’s your job to go with the likes of my buddy. Old Rufus………. and he ended up dead…..now that just ain’t right. I bet you like a bit of fun really dontcha,” and with that he grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her up out of her chair and into his arms.

Jess’s temper exploded, and he pulled Emily away from the tall man’s grasp and then laid a hay maker on his jaw which sent him flying clean across the bar, where he fell to the floor with a resounding crash, bringing a table and several glasses down with him.

Jess bounded across the saloon and grabbing the tall man by his shirt front hauled him up and landed another punch to the jaw which sent him sprawling.

Then the big man shook his head to clear it and seemed to get his second wind and leaping up he threw a hard punch at Jess, catching him in the stomach and winding him, sending him to his knees where the other man viciously kicked him in the belly.

Jess lay retching with the pain for a moment before dragging himself up and launching himself at the ugly man again. This time punching him in the stomach and giving him a crack to the back of the neck as he keeled over. He hit the floor hard and finally lay there out cold.

Jess stood over him panting and rubbing his belly, blood pouring down his face from where the man’s signet ring had gashed his cheek.

Emily ran over and put an arm round him, looking down at the tall ugly man, shock and fear on her face.

Then the Sheriff walked in and coming over gave Jess a friendly wink before saying,”see you’ve met Pete Atkins then.”

Jess just nodded, still out of breath, then he managed to say,”we weren’t actually formally introduced, so what’s his problem then Ben? “

“Apart from being a drunk and wastrel, he was also a friend of that low life that attacked Emily here,” he said, casting the saloon girl a concerned look.

“I ordered him out of town until Emily had gone and he’s barred from this place too, guess I’ll have to keep him in jail until he sees a bit of sense.”

With that he hauled the now semi-conscious man up and frog marched him from the bar.

“Come over for a coffee before you go Jess,” he called and touching his hat to Emily he walked out with his prisoner.

Then Al came over and apologised.

“Real sorry about that Mister, I never noticed him until you were layin’ into each other.”

“That’s OK,” said Jess quietly, swaying a little, the vicious kick to his belly making him feel dizzy and sick.

Then Al turned to Emily.

”I guess you’d better finish for the night Emily, take your boyfriend out back and clean him up some and I’ll see you tomorrow before you go, full pay… and a little bonus, make up for this ruckus someway,” and with that he returned to the bar.

With Emily supporting him Jess made his way behind the bar and into a small kitchen area, illuminated by a single lamp hanging from a nail in the ceiling, furnished with an old table, a couple of wooden chairs and a sink.

Emily pushed a chair out and Jess sank down thankfully, his breath coming in ragged gasps as the pain in his belly radiated, making him feel sick to his stomach.

“You OK,” asked Emily,” you’re awfully pale?”

Jess just nodded and she busied herself pouring some water into a basin and finding clean rags to wash out the wound to his cheek.

At her gentle touch Jess felt like a thousand butterflies where flying about in his stomach. He could smell her perfume as she leaned over him, so close that a strand of her hair, which had come lose, tickled his face.His pulse was racing and all he could think of was her nearness.

He had an urge to take her in his arms, but he resisted it, knowing how the fight had upset her. She was pale and visibly shaking, but he knew she was trying to hold it all together as she treated him, so he said, and did nothing.

Once the cut to his face was tended she made to unbutton his shirt, but he put up a hand to stop her and their eyes locked.

“What is it?” she whispered.

“I dunno, I feel kinda funny you looking after me this way…”

The real reason was that he just didn’t know if he could bear her gentle touch for much longer without reacting.

“It’s alright,” she insisted, “come on Jess I saw how hard he kicked you, let me have a look, we may need the doc.”

Reluctantly he allowed her to unbutton his shirt and pull it out of his denims and she looked at the damage and sucked in a shocked breath.

“He’s broken the skin, God Jess you can see the boot mark, he’s such a viscous bully,” and her eyes filled with tears.

“Hey it’s alright,” he said quickly.

“No, it isn’t you’ve been hurt, all because of me and I’m so, so sorry.”

He looked into her sad eyes and then reaching up from where he was sitting on the chair ran a finger down her cheek brushing away the tears. He just couldn’t stand it any longer; he felt he would go crazy if he didn’t kiss her. Feel that tender warmth beneath his lips that he had thought of night after night on the trail. Then he slowly got up from the chair and leaning down kissed her very tenderly, just brushing her lips with his.

She responded, kissing him back and he took her in his arms kissing her more deeply, all his senses coming alive and a stab of desire in his guts making him feel dizzy.

She gently disengaged after a few minutes and smiling up at him said softly, “sit down again Jess I must clean this abrasion thoroughly; I don’t want you getting sick”.

He did as he was told, desperately making an effort to calm his beating heart, breathing deeply.

Trying to make light of the situation, and grinning at her he said,”abrasion eh…. ….sounds like yer know what yer talkin’ about.”

She returned his smile,” I did some nursing back home, I was going back east to learn properly after I’d married David, but then there was that big bust up with my folksand I came marching out here instead.”

“Do you regret that,” he asked, “after everything that’s happened, with that Rufus guy and all?”

She thought for a few minutes and then shook her head,” no………… because if I hadn’t have come out here I’d never have met you.”

Again their eyes locked.

“Oh sweetheart,” he whispered, did she really feel the same way he did he wondered, Goddamn it he wanted that so much.

She looked down as though gathering her strength to make a decision, and then said,” come on let me clean this wound properly Jess and then …………….”

“And then?” he asked his eyes questioning, not daring to breathe … waiting for her answer.

“I’ve got some whiskey and good coffee in my room, you look like you could use one….you can come up……just for a drink, that’s all…………..OK?”

“Sure,” he said smiling at her,” that’s OK.”

Once all his injuries were tended to they made their way quietly up the back staircase to Emily’s room.

She opened the door and lit a lamp and Jess was pleasantly surprized. It was a large room, a welcoming fire crackling away in the grate with a sofa pulled up in front of it. The only other furniture in the room being a large double bed and a screen which Jess imagined Emily used as her changing room. There was another door just off the bedroom which was a small kitchen and she disappeared inside, returning a moment later with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses.

She gestured to the couch for Jess to sit and after pouring them both a good measure, passed his glass over and sat down beside him, relaxing back and closing her eyes for a moment, before looking over at him.

“Cheers”, she said softly, “and thank you Jess.”

He raised his glass to her,” nothin’ to thank me for, I’m just glad I was around when that low life showed up.”

They chatted on about this and that, and then Emily mentioned Ma Bennett.

“I saw Mary Bennett just a few days ago and she was wondering how you were doing.”

“She’s  agood woman,” said Jess, “made us both real welcome.”

Emily’s head swiveled, “both?”

“Sure me an’ Gina.”

“Gina? Oh Gomez’s woman, of course, I forgot you would be bringing her back with you……she’s very beautiful isn’t she?” she said wistfully.

“I guess.”

Emily was very quiet and just sipped her drink and then,” so I imagine it can be really romantic out there under the stars, just the two of you.”

Jess looked down, remembering all the times he had, had to fend off Gina’s flirting.

“Oh sure,” he said with a bitter laugh, “real romantic.”


He looked deeply into her eyes, “there ain’t anything between me and Gina,” he said seriously,” I’m just deliverin’ her back to her husband, is all.”

She just nodded, looking down into her drink.

Jess very gently took the drink from her and placed it on the floor before taking her in his arms and looking into her eyes, “there is only one person I think is beautiful, and that’s you,” he whispered, before brushing her lips gently with his and then feeling the warm sensuous reaction, leaning in and kissing her more passionately.

After a while he pulled back, he could feel her trembling beneath his touch and whether from passion or fear he wasn’t sure. He was feeling so stirred that he knew he had to rein back, not wanting to frighten her by moving things on too quickly.

“You OK?” he asked very softly.

She smiled at him and nodded, “yes, I’m OK.”

He gave her a penetrating look, “maybe I should go?”


“Because I only came up her for a drink didn’t I………. and I’ve finished it.”

“I…… I don’t want to be alone tonight Jess…..will you stay……..please?”

His heart started beating overtime again and it took all his willpower not to just agree right away, but he needed to know where he stood, what she felt about him, their relationship. Was she just feeling frightened and wanted protection…or did she want to be with him as much as he wanted her?

“What are you sayin’? What do ya want of me Emily?”

“I don’t know I’m not sure; I want to be close to you, sleep in your arms, but….. I can’t well I can’t promise anything else…..not yet…….it’s too soon after…..you know……….”

He gave her a understanding look,” that’s OK ,way I’m feelin’ after that kickin’ I’ve had, I guess I ain’t up to more than a cuddle right now anyways.”

The smile she gave made her look utterly beautiful to him,” I think I could fall in love, Jess Harper,” she said softly.

He looked back deathly serious,” I think I already have, with you………………..”

“Jess”, she whispered.

“Yes, I’ll stay tonight Emily and anyway you want things is just fine by me,” he said softly.

After a little while she cast him a shy look and suggested they should retire as they both had an early start in the morning. She turned towards the screen and gesturing to the bed said, ”I usually sleep on the right hand side”.

He nodded and once she had disappeared behind the screen he went over to the bed and quickly stripped down to his under shorts before slipping between the cool clean sheets. There was just the light from the night light on the bedside table now casting a romantic rosy glow and he stretched out, his hands laced behind his head and tried to concentrate on anything but the thought of Emily emerging from behind the screen in her night dress.After a while she finally came to him, dressed in a white cotton night dress, her long hair brushed to burning russet lying around her shoulders and a look of such sweet innocence about her that his breath caught.

She looked down at him for a moment and said softly,” are you alright with this Jess, am I asking too much of you?”

He swallowed deeply,” no,” he whispered, “come to bed you’ll get cold”.

She pulled the covers back and got in beside him and after a moment he took her in his arms and kissed her very tenderly on the forehead,” everything is alright now sweetheart,” he whispered,” just go to sleep, huh”

She nodded and with her head on his comforting shoulder, closed her eyes and relaxed for the first time since the harrowing attack.

After a while Jess slept too, although he never thought he would be able to, and it was several hours later when something awoke him. He stirred and listened intently and then he realised it was muffled sobbing coming from Emily who had now turned away from him.

He leaned up on one elbow and adjusted the night light so he could see her a little better and then he gently put a hand on her shoulder and turned her towards him. Her eyes shot open in surprize and she took a minute to register it was Jess lying next to her and then she relaxed back with a sigh.

“What is it?” he whispered.

She looked up at him tears still running down her face,” it was awful,” she said,” I was having a nightmare… about you.”

“About me?”

“Yes, I was standing out on Main Street and you were sitting that big Bay horse of yours and you just touched your hat and looked down at me…… ….oh so sadly, and then you turned your horse androde away…. And I knew, just knew…” she said turning anguished eyes on him,” that I would never see you again….”and then she began weeping quietly again.

“Hush,” he whispered, holding her,” hush, it’s OK I’m here now….”

Suddenly she was kissing him and he responded as the kisses got more and more urgent, her body entwined around his, holding him close.

After a few minutes he pushed her gently away, and shook his head, before sitting up.

“What is it?” she whispered.

“I’m sorry Emily, I can’t do this, I thought I could …but I can’t………… I think I’d better go.”


He sighed deeply,” because I want you sweetheart, I want you so damn much……….”

“That’s what I want to,” she whispered softly,” I want you too Jess,” and reaching up she pulled him back down into her arms……………

Chapter 9

When he awoke at dawn the first light of day was streaming in through the curtain less window and Jess looked down at Emily’s naked body lying in his arms and wondered how something so exquisite could belong to him.

After a little while her eyes flickered open and she smiled lazily up at him, “didn’t your Ma ever tell you it was rude to stare?” she said, with a little giggle.

He didn’t return the smile just leaned down and kissed her very tenderly, before leaning on his elbow and saying;

“I guess my Ma would have loved you as much as I do.”

“Oh Jess,” she said, tears forming in her eyes,” how can I leave you….. “

“Don’t,” he said, “come back to Laramie with me…….”

Her eyes opened wide with hope, but then it faded and she closed them to stop the tears falling again and turned away.


He gently turned her back towards him…”what is it?”

“I can’t Jess, I promised Ma and Pa I’d go home and anyway, all this is so sudden, we have to be sensible, give ourselves time…..”

He shook his head; “we could have time together in Laramie….”

But she just shook her head,” if it is meant to be, we’ll get back together, but I have things I must do and so do you.”

Reluctantly he knew she was right, he had to get the ranch back on its feet so that he had a home and a future for her, he realised that he must be strong and let her walk away, if he wanted her to come back to him.

“OK,” he said quietly,” I guess you’re right.”

Then he gave her a wicked grin,” but we’ve still got a couple of hours before the Stage is due,” and leaning down he started to kiss her and make love all over again and she held him close like she never wanted to let him go.


A few short hours later found them sitting out on a bench on the Main Street waiting for the first morning Stage. It was still very early in the day and there were few people abroad.

Jess sat holding her hand, and trying as best he could to keep their spirits up, but after a while he stopped trying to ease the situation with jokes and banter and just stared lovingly into her eyes.

“What made you change your mind last night, about yer know…sleeping together?” he asked after a while.

She looked into his deep blue eyes and said gently,” the nightmare I suppose I suddenly thought if you went away and we hadn’t…made love, then I figured I’d regret it for the rest of my life”.

He nodded, understanding,” but we will meet again won’t we,” he said urgently,” you have to believe in that Emily.”

“I believe in you,” she said softly,” that’s all I need.”

He took her in his arms and held her tightly, caressing her hair and then kissing her, ardently until he suddenly heard the sound of the stage approaching fast.

He pulled away and closing his eyes gave a little groan, before taking a deep breath, knowing he had to be strong for both of them.

Then everything seemed to happen at once, a small gaggle of people advanced to get on the Stage and then Emily’s cases were thrown up on the top and finally he stood up and taking her by the hand led her to the Stage Coach door. Everyone was waiting for her to board and she turned back just once, casting Jess a pleading look, almost as though she had changed her mind.

“Come on,” he whispered and taking her in his arms one last time he kissed her deeply, before pulling away and gently handing her up onto the coach.

A kindly elderly woman who had been watching the proceedings keenly now moved up and made room for Emily beside her and gently patted her arm to comfort her as the tears started to flow. The woman smiled down at Jess and gave a little nod at though confirming that she would look out for the distressed young lady and he gave her a small smile in recognition. Then Emily was staring out at him, and giving him a watery smile and the Stage driver hustled the team off and Jess was left standing in the early morning sunshine staring at the departing coach, his heart breaking into a thousand fragments.

After a while he swallowed and pulled his hat down hard and by the time he entered the Sheriff’s office he had a determined look in his eyes as he fought the feeling of despair just below the surface.

Ben welcomed him with a coffee and then once they were seated, he said, “you did well to finish of Gomez, it’s the talk of the town, guess you’re quite a hero.”

Jess didn’t look moved at all by that and after a moment Ben continued, “that Gina is some woman ain’t she, I sure wouldn’t mind escorting her half way across the country, you lucky dog.”

“You’re welcome to her,” said Jess bitterly.

Ben’s head shot up and he gave Jess a speculative look,” its Emily isn’t it, got you all shook up this morning,” he said softly…”just seen you together at the Stage stop, so don’t try and deny it Jess.”

Jess looked over at him, “she’s not your girl is she?” he said looking worried.

“I asked her and she just said you were friends, nothin’ serious”.

He nodded,” that’s right, but that was down to her not me… I’d sure have been up for it; she’s one hell of a lovely girl. “

Jess nodded, just wanting to be alone to lick his wounds and think about Emily in peace.

“That’s why I’m lookin’ out for her,” said Ben,” now giving Jess a hard look.”


“Yeah, I don’t want you messin’ her around Jess, she’s a nice girl and I reckon she takes relationships real serious…”

“And you think I don’t,” spat Jess, getting annoyed now.

“I dunno, do you? The way that Gina talks you’ve been getting pretty close and personal with her and then this morning I see you kissing Emily like there is no tomorrow…well what am I supposed to think?”

Jess had just about had enough,” what in hell has that damn woman been sayin’ now?”

“Nothing much, I was round visiting Ma Bennett and Gina just said as how it was nice to have such an attentive guide, or something, it was the way she looked when she said it…you know?”

“Oh yes,” said Jess bitterly,” I know all right.”

There was an uncomfortable silence and then Ben said quietly,” so you’re serious about Emily then?”

“Never been more serious in my life,” said Jess looking the big man in the eyes, his sincerity evident.

“I’m sorry buddy, guess I got you wrong,” he said after a minute,” I apologise.”

Jess sighed and then gave him a friendly grin, “no harm done I guess and that Gina can be one hell of a tease, that’s for sure. Gee you’ve no idea what she’s like Ben, never leaves a man alone”.

Ben just smirked, “sound good to me”.

“Trust me it ain’t, never mess with a married woman Ben, no matter how attractive…. And especially when there is $10,000 at stake”, he finished with a wicked grin.

“Um, so you do find her attractive then, not tempted?” he said, smirking again.

“She’s a very beautiful woman, guess you can’t argue with that, but no I ain’t tempted, and certainly not now anyways. Now there’s me and Emily.”

“Me and Emily eh, that sounds pretty permanent.”

“I hope so buddy, I sure hope so.”

A little while later Jess made his farewells and went off to Ma Bennett's for breakfast. He had been amazed to look at Ben’s big wall clock and see it was only 7.45 and he felt like he’d already done a full day’s work and would happily have gone back to bed and pulled the covers over.

As he used his key to enter quietly he stood in the hallway for a moment and could smell the bacon and eggs Ma Bennett was preparing in the back kitchen and then the worst happened, he heard Gina descending the stairs.

She stopped in her tracks when she saw Jess just inside the front door, his key still in his hand and a sheepish expression on his face. She continued down the stairs until she stood right in front of him and she took in his dishevelled appearance. He was unshaven, still wearing last night’s clothes and he looked exhausted with blue shadows beneath his eyes and worst of all she suddenly got a blast of Emily’s perfume and she realised he had been with another woman.

She fixed him with furious eyes,” well, I don’t know what you got up to last night Jess, but it sure wasn’t sleep…” and with that she marched off, her retreating figure registering disapproval with every step.

Jess ran lightly up the stairs, washed, shaved, changed his shirt and packed his saddle bags before going down to breakfast.

Gina ignored his entrance, but Ma Bennett made her usual fuss of him.

Jess gallantly tackled the good cooked breakfast, but his heart wasn’t in it and eventually he just drank his coffee, sitting staring morosely into his cup.

He was so deep in thought that he hadn’t noticed Gina leave the table to go and pack, and after a moment Ma Bennett offered to refill his cup.

He gave her a faint smile,” thank you Ma.”

“Jess, tell me if it’s none of my business, but you seem very subdued…how did it go with Emily?”

He looked at the anxious elderly face and was again reminded of Daisy and he opened up to her at once.

“It was wonderful,” he said softly,” we got on…..well, real well ya know?”

“I understand dear,” she said with a sad smile,” I haven’t always been old you know”.

He looked the older woman in the eyes;” I bet you kept all the boys guessing,” he said with a grin.

“I had my moments,” she agreed, “but what about Emily will you see her again?”

“I sure hope so yeah… I really think we could make a go of it,” he said softly.

The older woman stretched out a hand across the table and squeezed Jess’s,” I really hope so too son”, she said gently,” she is a lovely girl”.

Shortly afterwards he made his departure, giving the old woman a big hug and a kiss and a promise to visit again when he was next in town.

Gina was obviously not speaking to him so they rode out of town in silence heading for Cheyenne some hundred miles distant and Jess wondered if he would be lucky enough to have Gina sulk all the way, preferring that to her constant suggestive remarks and flirting.

They stopped for lunch with hardly a word; however by the time they camped for the night in a picturesque spot in the foothills adjacent to a fast moving river and surrounded by mighty pines, Jess was getting pretty sick of the all-pervading silence, broken only by the sound of distant thunder.

They were sitting around the camp fire at dusk sipping their coffee when Jess finally broke the silence.

“Wanna talk about it then?”

She looked up quickly and then down into the fire.


“Whatever it is that’s eatin’ you up…you ain’t said a word all day and you keep lookin’ at me like I’ve just shot your pet kitten, now are you gonna tell me what’s up?”

She said nothing for a while and then,” well if you don’t know …there is nothing to say.”


“You really don’t know why I am so upset do you?”

Jess sighed deeply; “no I don’t Gina, that’s why I’m askin’ yer.”

She looked him in the eye properly for the first time that day and said, “so who were you out with last night?”

Jess stared at her in disbelief, “well I don’t think that’s any of your business Gina.”

“Ha”, she spat,” just as I thought, you were with a hooker weren’t you?”

“What!” He yelled, “No I was not and its none of your goddamn business who I was with anyways”

“Well I think it’s very much my business, you can’t deny how close we’ve become on this journey Jess, everything we’ve been through together, I thought we were close real close,” she said casting him one of her seductive looks.

He ignored the smouldering look and said, “sure we’ve been through some tough times together and that brings folks closer, I realize that, but you ain’t my keeper Gina and I don’t have to answer to you as to who I go out with.”

“But you weren’t just ‘going out’ were you?” she shouted, standing up now and looking down at him her whole face contorted with rage,” you stayed over with her, slept in her bed, made love…………. probably all the damn night long by the state of you this morning…..” she finished bitterly turning away and walking a few paces off, away from the camp.

Now Jess was incensed, and he leapt up and marched across to her, grabbing hold of her shoulders roughly and spinning her round to face him.

“What gives you the Goddamn right to pry into my personal life,” he yelled,” sure I was with my girl…so what’s it to you?”

She wrenched herself free her eyes now blazing in fury,” because I want you of course,” she spat…”can’t you see that, I’ve wanted you all along, right from the moment we first met,”…………… and with that she ran off into the forest leaving Jess staring after her shaking, and cussing under his breath…

He turned and walked back to the fire and sank down again, lying back on his saddle the distant thunder of earlier now rumbling ominously.

All day long he had been thinking about Emily, how she was feeling…was she still in tears…was she thinking of him…… And then he played back everything that had happened the night before, the first tentative kisses, the invitation to her room, the lovely vision of her looking so sweet and young in her white cotton night gown and then the lovemaking so erotic and passionate………then he had to stop thinking about it at all, as it hurt just too much…not knowing when, or even if, he would see her again….

And now these hysterics from Gina. He didn’t believe her feelings for him were so intense, just that she was angry and frustrated at him not responding to her devious ploys to ensnare him. What sort of man acceptedmoney for finding and delivering another man’s wife and then slept with her, he thought to himself, what in God’s name did she take him for. Or maybe she had no morals herself, and what he had said to Slim that day a few weeks back was true, she had only married Morrison for his money.

As he sat pondering the problem the storm grew closer and as well as the thunder, now forks of lightening started illuminating the sky over in the direction that Gina had taken off.

“Darn woman,” he spat,” what’s she thinkin’ running off into the middle of a damn forest in a lightning storm?”

Reluctantly he got up again, although he was exhausted, the lack of sleep of the previous night now beginning to tell on him, and walked off to the edge of the forest peering into the early evening gloom.

“Gina! Gina!” He yelled walking a few more paces under the dark tall pines.

There was no sight or sound of her and he felt like going back to the warmth of the fire, a nasty chilly wind having just sprung up.

“It would serve yer damn well right iffen I left you to your own devices,” he said to himself,” get yerself good and lost for the night, then you might not be so darn fussy.”

Then there was another brilliant flash of lightening and going back to check the horses were safely hitched and dowsing down the fire, he turned up his jacket collar and took off in the same direction Gina had taken half an hour earlier.

He made his was gingerly into the murky depths of the forest, being careful to way mark his route, knowing how easy it was to become disorientated in these vast woodlands, where the tall trees all looked alike.

He continued calling Gina’s name but by now the wind was much stronger and the thunder was rumbling incessantly in the background. Jess pulled his collar up more closely and his hat down over his eyes and wished he’s stopped to put on his rain slicker realising that the rain would come at any minute. He knew these summer storms could be devastating to man and animal alike and he just hoped there would be enough rain to dampen down any fires caused by the lightening as the woodland was tinder dry.

He need not have worried, as a few minutes later the Heavens opened and torrential rain started to fall causing flash flooding, the dry ground turning to a muddy quagmire in moments.

He continued on through the forest, the only light now coming from the sporadic lightening and he yelled even louder, trying to make himself heard above the wind that was now blowing through the pines with a mighty roaring noise.

Then it happened, the one thing he had dreaded when he realised Gina had taken off under the trees, there was a lightning strike and one of the huge trees was torn wide open and fell to the ground with an ear splitting cracking noise. The tree was on fire, but the rain soon began to dowse the flames and he skirted round the huge fallen pine, calling out with renewed effort.

Then suddenly the wind fell for a moment and he heard a distinct sound somewhere off to his left, he turned and started running in that direction, falling over hidden branches a couple of times,but picking himself up and running forwards, calling and then stopping to listen. Eventually he heard it again, this time quite distinctly and nearby,” Jess, Jess….!”

“Over here,” he yelled and then he suddenly saw her illuminated by another white flash of lightening, standing just a few feet away, soaked to the skin andstaring at him as though rooted to the spot.

He ran over and took her in his arms holding her close as she started to sob hysterically.

“It’s OK”, he said gently,” come on let’s get back to the camp before you freeze to death.”

She was wearing a thin silk shirt and denims and her clothes were sodden and clinging to her, and Jess could feel her shaking as he held her. He quickly took off his jacket and put it around her and then slinging an arm round her shoulders started guiding her back to the relative safety of their camp.

The storm was still raging around them and when they got back Jess looked around for somewhere safe away from the worst of the driving rain and gale force winds. He checked on the horses and apart from being soaking wet they looked to be OK and he loosed their ground hitches and moved them nearer the river and in the lee of some bushes that gave them a modicum of shelter. Then he went back to the camp where Gina had collapsed near to the dead ashes of the fire. Jess could see there was no way of reviving it and decided they should cut their losses and move away nearer the river too.

When he had got some water on their arrival at the camping place,he had noticed the overhanging river bank. An area that had been eroded away over years of the rivers passage, when it was in spate in the winter. But now in mid-summer the river level was much lower and the overhang was a good few yard away from the water.The overhanging river bank formed an almost cave like space, going in several feet and giving shelter from both the driving rain and the wind. Jess brought their bedrolls and saddlebags down and then went and fetched Gina, who was still sitting motionless in front of the dead fire. Jess had noticed some driftwood at the back of the under hang and looking deep inside his saddlebags he produced his flint and after several frustrating minutes final got a spark to ignite the dry wood and soon had a fire of sorts going. He braved the elements again and returned with more wood and figured if he was careful some of the less wet fuel would burn OK.

Then he turned his attentions to a now violently shivering Gina.

“Get your wet clothes off,” he said gently,” and you can have my bedroll to wrap up in, it’s been folded up under my saddle and it’s quite dry.”

She threw him a shocked look;” I can’t just strip off in front of you,” she said.

“Sure you can,” he said smiling at her, “come on Gina you’ve been flaunting yer self around me for days,and now is no time to suddenly go shy on me…you need to get those wet things off right away, or you risk getting real sick.”


“OK I’ll turn my back, now get those things off now.”

She eventually did as she was told with much arguing and fussing and when he turned back to her she was enveloped in the blanket and sitting as close to the fire as she could, but she was still shivering.

Jess was soaking wet too and pulled some dry clothes out of his saddle bag before starting to strip off himself, just turning away from her as he removed his sodden denims replacing them with clean, dry ones. Then he pulled a small bottle of whiskey out of his saddlebag and uncorking it offered the bottle to Gina. She shook her head and looked away.

“Go on,” he insisted, “its medicinal”, and after a moment she took a swig from the bottle and shuddering passed it back to him. Jess did the same and then after packing it away came and sat down beside her in front of the now blazing fire.

After a while he glanced across at her.

“That was a darn fool thing you did,” he said impatiently, “could have gotten yerself killed.”

“Like you care,” she spat back, looking mutinous.

“Sure I care,” he said with the ghost of a smile, “you’re worth $10,000 to me ain’t you?”

She turned furious eyes on him and then suddenly saw the joke and gave a little chuckle.

“That’s better,” he said smiling back.

“Like I said we’ve got a long journey ahead of us, no point in fussin’ and fightin’. “

“I suppose not,” she said quietly.

Then looking deep into the fire she sighed and turned to look him in the eye again,” so….. I didn’t know you had a girl in Denver Jess, who is she?”

Jess’ heart lurched at the mention of Emily and although he really didn’t want to share his personal life with Gina he figured he should try and keep the fragile truce that had just been forged.

“Girl I met on my way down to fetch you,” he said briefly, “we hooked up again last night.”

She gave him a penetrating look,” so…. it’s quite a new relationship then?”

He just nodded.

“But important enough for you to spend the night together…so what is it Jess…love at first sight?” she said playfully, giving him a patronizing smile.

He looked deep into her eyes and said very softly,” yes… I guess so.”

Gina looked shocked to the core…….

”What you’re in love with this woman?” she said more aggressively than she meant to.

“She’s not ‘this woman’ her name’s Emily…… and yes, I am…..”

Gina took a while to assimilate this bit of news and she was about to ask more, but as she looked across at Jess she saw a look of such abject misery mixed with longing in his eyes that she decided not to torment him by talking about the obviously very raw subject anymore.

“Guess I’ll bed down then,” she said softly.

He glanced across at her and merely nodded before looking back into the flames.

It was sometime later that he decided he would try and sleep himself and although he was weary he doubted if he would be able to.

He got the other bed roll that he had been drying by the fire and was just about to stretch out when he glanced across at Gina and what he saw shocked him.

She was as close to the fire as she could get and lying on her side, but she was still awake and she was now shivering uncontrollably and on closer inspection, her face was tinged with blue.

Jess crawled across so that he was beside her and gently turned her over so that she was looking at him.

“Gina are you OK?” he whispered.

“Cold,” she said shuddering.

“Look, I’m going to lie beside you, to get you warm OK?” he asked looking at her in concern.

She just nodded and he lay down behind her and spooned up to her, pulling her in towards him, a protective arm slung across her belly, holding her close.

Gina cuddled up to him and closed her eyes, a contented smile on her face, she might feel freezing cold and sick, but lying in Jess’s warm embrace it was sure worth it she thoughtto herself as she finally drifted off to sleep.

Jess just lay there wide awake, his chin resting on the top of her head, her raven hair cascading down around her shoulders and tickling his cheek and her perfume invading his nostrils as he held her close, feeling her tense body gradually relax into sleep. He lay there unable to stop himself from comparing this situation with the one he was in the night before and somehow lying with another woman…..the wrong woman, in his arms was even worse than being completely alone and his heart ached for Emily.

He must have eventually drifted off into sleep and it was daylight when he was finally awoken, by a gentle kiss on the lips. For a moment he thought he was back in Emily’s bed, and he responded kissing her back more firmly and then he knew this was different….it was all wrong and opening his eyes he saw it was Gina who was kissing him and running a hand down his torso towards the buttons on his denims.

With one hand he grabbed hers, stopping her from moving any further down, and then he pulled back sharply and focused on her face still only inched away.

“What in Hell are you playin’ at?” he spat.

“Well I thought that was wholly obvious Jess, you’re not unfamiliar with love making are you…. I just thought you might be looking for a little comfort seeing as the ‘love of your life’ isn’t here to provide it………….”

Jess leapt up and stared down at Gina who had now let the blanket slip and was lying there naked, looking up at him with teasing eyes.

He shook his head in incredulity,” you’re really out of order, you know that?” he said bitterly, before striding off down to the river to try and wash away the smell of her perfume that seemed to have permeated his clothes and skin.

When he finally returned she was fully dressed and had brewed some coffee. She passed a cup to Jess who just grunted his thanks and then squatted by the fire as he drank it, looking deep into the flames.

After a while she looked over at him and said,” look I’m sorry OK… I could see how you were hurting, I just thought it would make you feel better…. “she finished, suddenly unable to look him in the eye.

“Are you crazy,” he said,” how could cheating on the woman I love by sleeping with another man’s wife make me feel better?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

Jess sighed deeply,” look from now on I’m treatin’ you like my maiden aunt…and iffen you look like you’re goin’ to die of the cold, well you can just go ahead and do it, because sure as hell I won’t be helpin’ you out again…..”

She was completely silent and as he looked across at her he noticed she looked very pale and ill and felt a moment’s compassion, thinking that maybe he had overreacted a little, the way he was missing Emily making him over sensitive.

He sighed again and then said more gently, “you want some breakfast?”

She just shook her head.

“No, me neither, guess we’ll get goin’ as soon as you’re ready,” and with that he drained his cup and went off to saddle the horses.

Thankfully the rain had stopped and they rode on throughout the day, pausing only for a short while at lunchtime to water the horses, neither Jess nor Gina feeling hungry, and by dusk they had made good progress covering nearly forty miles and were now about fifteen miles from Fort Collins.

They had crossed some very high ground with magnificent views, but neither of them really appreciated the countryside around them as Jess was still deep in thought and Gina had begun to feel more and more poorly as the day progressed. She felt cold and shivery, even though the sun was now scorching down and she also had a bad head ache and felt really sick. She decided not to say anything to Jess in case he thought she was making it up, trying to get his sympathy, and so whenhe cast her a concerned look and asked if she was feeling OK she just nodded, spurring the big grey stallion on in front, so that he would be unable to scrutinise her any further.

Finally he called a halt near a fast moving stream, the Rockies in the background and a view down to a valley below and then a straight run towards Fort Collins where the ground flattened out.

As Gina reined in he slipped down from Traveler’s back and walking over to her pointed out a small shack, set amongst some trees just back from the stream. It looked pretty dilapidated, and had obviously been abandoned many years ago, the door was hanging off and a thick vine covered one wall and the roof, which was at least still intact.

He reached up patting the grey’s neck.

“What do ya think, fancy a proper roof over your head for a change?” he asked grinning up at her.

Wondering if this was some sort of peace offering, as he was aware that she was less than armored with sleeping alfresco, she smiled back.

” I don’t suppose it will be up to Ma Bennett’s standard, but at least there is a roof,” she said, and the two made their way over to investigate further.

Jess pushed the door open a little further and stood back for Gina to enter and she was pleasantly surprised by what she saw. It was a single room shack, with a stone fire place, a pot hanging down over the fire for cooking. There was also a dusty old couch set in front of the fire and in the corner at the back of the room a makeshift cot. Apart from the dust of ages, the place looked reasonably clean with no evidence of rats or mice and Gina turned to smile at Jess, “just like home,” she quipped.

Jess suddenly had a vision of the Morrison’s place. One of the best ranches in the Laramie area with its acres of land and formal house furnished with the finest and most ornate furniture, from red velvet covered couches to French tables and chairs, and he grinned back at her,” yeah, guess it is at that,” he said enjoying the joke.

He went off to tend to the horses with a promise to bring some wood back with him for the fire and after much searching Gina located a broom and started tidying up a little.

On his return Jess lit the fire and found an old working lamp suspended from a beam over the hearth and so they were soon sitting companionably in the rosy glow from the lamp and fire, enjoying the meal Gina had produced, finally having got to grip with cooking trail fare.

However after a few mouthfuls Gina pushed her plate away and just sipped her coffee.She was seated on the battered old couch, looking into the flames with Jess was seated on the floor near the fire, enjoying his meal. As he finished he looked up at her and suddenly noticed she had hardly eaten anything.

“Gina are you alright?” he asked, looking worried.

“Yes… I’m fine.”

“No, you ain’t you’ve been feelin’ ill all day haven’t you?”

“Well, a little…… I guess, I still can’t seem to get warm, and my heads aching too.”

“I think you’d better turn in,” he said softly,” we’ve pushed it pretty hard today. I guess you’ve just over done it some and getting soaked to the skin can’t have helped any, sure hope you ain’t caught a chill.”

He gestured to the cot in the corner,” you take the bed, I’ll be fine down here on the floor, I’ll go and get the bedrolls while you sort yourself out,” he said, leaving the room so that she could get ready for bed in privacy.

When he returned she was lying down on the cot in her underclothes and he quickly covered her up with the bedroll and gave her a small smile.

”Get some sleep Gina, you’ll feel better in the morning,” and with that he left her to go and sit back on the couch, the little shack now very warm with the blazing fire going.

Before long he turned in himself and slept well and when he awoke, could smell coffee brewing. He sat up, rubbing his eyes and looking around and then saw Gina, up and fully dressed, leaning over the fire, cooking up some bacon and biscuits.

“Mornin’ Gina, did you sleep OK?”

She just nodded without turning and continued with her task, before eventually passing him a plate of breakfast and cup of strong coffee.

As he glanced up, thanking her he noticed she was very flushed.

” Are you feelin’ OK, you look kinda warm?”

She gave him a weak smile,” it’s hot leaning over the fire.”

He nodded.

”Thanks for doing that,” he said, after he had enjoyed the meal, and for the first time he realised how hard it must have been to adapt back to living on the trail after all the pampering she had at the Morrison place, with her own cook and maid to do all the work.

“Guess you’ll be glad to get home,” he said casting her a glance as she took her place on the couch with a cup of coffee.

“In some ways I suppose so,” she said in a guarded way…”but I’ll miss….. “

“What?” he asked with a friendly grin, wondering about what she could possibly miss out of the difficult few weeks they had experienced.

She looked down before, looking over at him and giving him a penetrating look.

“You,” she said simply.

He put his empty plate down quietly and then looking over at her said very softly,” Gina don’t …please, there ain’t any point in talkin’ that way… you know that…”

She just nodded and whispered, “Yes I know.”

“Come on let’s get packed up, time we were movin’”, he said briskly, standing up and starting to tidy their stuff together.

She got up from the couch and then she staggered and would have fallen if Jess hadn’t leapt forwards and caught her.


“I’m alright just a tad dizzy,” she said quickly, shaking her head a little, but not attempting to move fromhis embrace.

He looked down into her flushed face and noticed a slick of sweat on her brow and then was suddenly aware of the heat emanating from her body which was close against him.

“No you’re not,” he said firmly,” you’re burning up, you have a fever Gina and by the looks of it a real bad one, come on,” and he led her back to bed.

“I can’t,” she said collapsing back on the bed, “we have to get back….”

“It’s Ok, I’ve got to the end of next month to make the payment,there’s plenty of time, getting you well, that’s the important thing,” and with that he tucked her up again and brought her some cool water.

Jess spent the rest of the day checking on her, offering cool mountain stream water and wiping down her sweating brow with the cool water too. He even made her some broth, but she was unable to drink more than a couple of spoonful’s before saying she felt sick.

By mid-afternoon she suddenly took a turn for the worse the fever raging and making her toss and turn restlessly. Jess knew all about treating fevers ,God knows I’ve had enough of ‘em myself, he thought and when he had been really sick he knew exactly what Miss Daisy had done…..stripped him off and bathed him in ice cold water, to finally bring his temperature down. Hereally didn’t relish having to nurse Gina that way, but standing looking down at her thrashing about in such discomfort he knew there was little else he could do.

He went and fetched some more icy cold water in his canteen and some strips of clean rags from his saddle bags, to be used as bandages if he was hurt, and prepared to wash her.

“Gina…Gina,” he said softly.

She opened her eyes and looked into his for a moment…” I feel real bad Jess,” she whispered.

“Yeah, I know sweetheart, now listen, I’m gonna have to strip you off a little, to get some real cold water over your body, ‘tis the only way to break the fever , you understand?”

“Yes, I understand…”


Then he very gently started to unbutton her shirt and helping her to sit up pulled it off, revealing just her camisole beneath it. It was a very brief garment with a low neck and thin straps and he decided to leave that in place offering her some modesty. Then he took a deep breath before leaning over and unbuttoning the denims she was wearing, and again gently pulled them off, revealing just her knee length draws. He quickly replaced the blanket across that area and then set about washing the cool water over her arms, chest and legs.

Gina stirred during this onslaught with the cold water and looked down at her semi naked body before fixing Jess with a small smile and saying,” I thought you were going to treat me like your maiden aunt….”

He smiled back,” yeah…. …..a maiden aunt with a real bad fever…”

After a while she began to shiver again and he covered her with the blanket, until she threw it off, feeling too hot again, and so the next couple of hours proceeded, with Jess alternating with the hot and cold, to try and break the fever.However it wasn’t until the small hours of the following morning that she eventually seemed tocool down and fell into a deep exhausted sleep.

Jess got up from the edge off the cot where he had spent the last few hours and stretched, rubbing the aching muscles in his back, before wandering over to the fire and pouring himself a cup of coffee from the pot he had left there. It was tepid and stewed, but it tasted real good to the weary cowboy and after draining his cup he collapsed downon his bedroll by the fire an fell asleep instantly.

The following morning he was awake at first light and went over to check on his patient and was pleased to see her eyes were clear and bright andshe looked much more like her old self.

She looked up at him as he sat down on the edge of the bed watching her and said, “Jess what are you doing?” looking around her as if for the first time.

“Just checkin’ on you, you’ve been real sick,” he said.

She gazed up at him and then down at her naked arm stretched out on the covers and then it all came back to her. The tender way he had nursed her, washing her body with the cool water and holding her head as she drank and she looked up into his kind blue eyes and said,” I can’t thank you enough Jess….for looking after me that way.”

“That’s OK,” he said looking embarrassed…”all part of the service Ma’am.”

She chuckled at his turn of phrase, and said…”well I think its way beyond the call of duty and I shall tell Geoff how caring you have been when we get back.”

Jess suddenly looked shocked,” maybe leave out the bit about me strip washin’ you,” he said with an anxious look in his eyes.

She smiled up at him,” yes, I guess that had better stay our secret,” she agreed.

It was several days before Jess considered her fit to ride again and he was kind and thoughtful during her convalescence, cooking her small meals and sitting and chatting to her ,regaling her with tales of hunting trips and the funny things young Mike got up to and all in all she found him to be a truly wonderful companion. Cheerful, funny and relaxing and she wished with all her heart that he would see her in a different light.

Chapter 10

It was on the third day after her illness that Jess proclaimed her fit to ride again.

“But we ain’t goin’ far,” he said as they rode off away from the small shack that had been their home for the last few days.

“These fevers can take it out of a body and I don’t want you getting tired,” he said,” ten, maybe fifteen miles today, we’ll call into Fort Collins for supplies and maybe stay there if you’d like?”

“No, it’s fine, you’ve spent enough money on hotels and stuff,” she said,” I’m happy to be out under the stars Jess, and at least the weather is good now.”

Jess threw her a surprised look, but accepted what she said and they rode on, hitting Fort Collins by mid-afternoon, where they stocked up on supplies before riding out taking the trail for Cheyenne after which they would strike out left for Laramie and home.

“I reckon it’s about another forty miles to Cheyenne,” said Jess as they pitched camp that night,” should make it easy in a couple of days, some tricky mountainous tracks to cross, but then another two, say three to Laramie, we could be home by the end of the week if all goes to plan,” he said happily looking over to where Gina was cooking their supper on the camp fire.

“The repayment ain’t due until the end of next week, so should make it OK, as long as your old man comes up with the cash”.

“Oh he will, don’t you worry about that, Geoff always pays his debts”, she said wryly.

“Yeah, I’m sure he does,” said Jess seriously,” I wasn’t doubting him…but it sure is a hell of a lot of money…he must think a great deal of you,” he said casting her an admiring look.

Her head shot up and she looked irritated,” oh yes he’s good at throwing money at problems, but he didn’t think of coming and fetching me himself did he?” she said looking both at once hurt and angry.

“He was shot you know,” he replied, placating.

“Yes I know and I thought he was dead, but you said he was fine when you left so there was no reason he couldn’t have come to find me himself.”

Jess was silent for a moment,” yeah……..except he’s not a gunfighter.”

“And you are I suppose,” she said sarcastically.



“Yes really, and I reckon if there was anyone, between the two of us, was more likely to get their head blown off by Gomez …well it was more likely to be Geoff than me….is that what you wanted?”

“No… no, of course not…….it’s just….”


“Well, his whole attitude, he buys me stuff sure, anything I want, but he wouldn’t have sat up all night nursing me the way you did Jess….”

“Well if you feel that way maybe you should talk to him, tell him how you feel.”

She was very quiet for a long time, just looking into the flames and then she said quietly.

“This thing about you and me Jess, it’s because I’m married that you won’t have anything to do with me…that’s why isn’t it?”

“I guess, I try and make it a rule never to mess with married women, I learnt that a while back…” he said giving her a candid look.

“So what if I wasn’t married?”


“What if I left Geoff? Oh Jess don’t you see, with that $10, 000 reward we could take off together, start a whole new life off in California maybe …huh……….., what do you say Jess, we could be so good together. I could make you happy, I know I could,”she said jumping up from where she was sitting by the fire and running over and throwing herself down next to him, taking his hand and pressing it to her lips, looking seductively at him from under her long dark lashes

Jess just stared at her looking aghast, before pulling his hand away and standing up; backing away from her like she was some sort of crazy person.

“You really don’t know me at all do you?”he said very quietly.

“Do you really think I’d con Geoff out of all that money and run away with you? What about Slim and Daisy, not to mention young Mike…the ranch, the whole reason I took on this goddamn job. Do you think I’d have risked my life for all that money if it wasn’t for a real important reason. And even if all that wasn’t so…. I’m in love with someone else, so that ain’t ever going to happen Gina, not ever. I’m real sorry if you’re in an unhappy marriage , but that ain’t my fault and I can’t do anything about it.Now please can that be an end to it, ‘cos nothings goin’ to change……. you understand?”

After several minutes she just nodded.

“Your foods ready, I’m turning in,” she said bitterly before lying down on her bedroll and turning away from him.


She just ignored him and Jess stood there a look of deep sympathy on his face, gazing down at her before he shrugged and turning away went and got his supper, knowing there was no more to be said on the subject and Gina would just have to deal with it in her own way.

He looked over at her again before he turned in , but she was either asleep, or doing a very good job of pretending and either way, Jess figured it better to let sleeping dogs lieand he went and stretched out by the fire. He lay there for a long time looking up into the star lit sky and mulling over this latest fracas with Gina, and wondering what the next day would bring, before he finally fell into a restless sleep.

He hadn’t realised how tired he was and as dawn broke he rolled over and went to sleep again and it was much later when he finally awoke to the heat of another summer’s day beating down from a cloudless sky. Jess squinted up at the sun and figured it must be getting on for mid-morning and he wondered why Gina hadn’t awoken him.

He sat up, yawning and running a hand through his tousled hair and peered around him looking for her. He finally noticed the fire was out and there was no sign of breakfast and the camp sight looked unusually tidy. Then he saw that Gina’s belongings were missing including her bedroll and saddlebags.

He leapt up and ran down the gentle slope towards the river where the horses had been ground hitched, but now only Traveler stood there. His head came up from where he had been grazing and he gave a little whinny of pleasure and welcome at the sight of Jess, but there was absolutely no sign of Gina’s big grey, Ghost, or of Gina herself.

Jess cussed under his breath,” dang woman, what in Hell is she playing at now?”

He scouted around the area and soon saw the tracks of the big grey, taking off in the general direction they were to take that day, still heading for Cheyenne. However Jess knew that there was some very difficult terrain ahead.It was easy to lose ones way if not an experienced traveler,and even worse there could be mountain lions, or even bears in the area.

Jess lost no time in breaking camp and after saddling up Traveler and he was soon following Gina’s tracks. He figured she had a good two or three hours start on him and he urged his mount on as quickly as possible, just pausing occasionally to check his was still on her trail.

It was a few hours later when he came to afork in the old trail he had been following and sliding down from the saddle to check on Gina’s progress his heart missed a beat as he suddenly saw that she had taken the left hand fork in the track that had an old signpost pointing to Laramie. Jess knew for a fact that that old back route had been out of commission for many years. It had been a trail frequented by mountain men needing a short cut from Fort Collins to Laramie and the terrain was very tough even in those days, with the narrow mountain tracks having many bends and a dangerous drop to the gorge below in several places.

Jess had travelled it once or twice in the past but now after several landslides it was completely impassable. He realised Gina must have thought it would be a good short cut and probably hoped Jess would miss the fact that she had gone off the route they had agreed, and she would get home alone without him. What was she trying to prove he wondered ,assert her independence, well it could cost her life, he thought bitterly as he edged Traveler up the steep trail following her tracks, slowly and cautiously, dreading what he would find around every bend.

Sure footed as Traveler was, even he stumbled a couple of times on the rough terrain sending lose rocks cascading down into the gorge over a hundred feet below. Eventually the trail opened out into a large grassy area before narrowing again and growing even more narrow and steep and Jess decided to leave Traveler there and continue on foot. He ground hitched him and patted him gently on the neck, “won’t be long boy,” he said softly, before pulling his hat down, a determined look in his eye as he strode out along the hazardous trail once more.

He had been walking for about ten minutes when turning a bend he saw Gina and Ghost a few yards ahead. She had dismounted to lead the horse and as he stood watching the big grey suddenly dislodged a large rock and the noise of it falling spooked him and he wrenched his reins from Gina’s hands and with a startled whinny, took off along the pass as fast as he could scattering more rocks and shale as he went.

Gina stood stock still, her back up against the rock face, looking down the steep drop just a couple of feet away, completely frozen with fear.

Jess waited a moment or two before calling her, not wanting to shock her into losing her footing. After a few minutes he moved in a little closer and then called her name.

Her head shot up and as soon as she saw him she cried out, “Jess, Oh thank God, help…please, help me………”

“Just stand still,” he said gently, “I’ll come and get you.”

He inched his way towards her trying to prevent yet another landslide and eventually he reached out and took her hand and with their backs still to the rock wall, slowly made their way back to where the ground was firmer, and he had left his mount.

As soon as they were safe, Gina threw herself into his arms crying uncontrollably, and he did his best to calm her before gently pulling free.

“Stay here and don’t move, I’ll be back shortly.”

“Where are you going Jess…don’t leave me here….please…..”

“I’ve gotta go after Ghost Gina, you don’t stand a chance of getting back without a mount and Traveler can’t carry supplies for two , plus two in the saddle, would be just too much to expect of him…”

“But Jess, the rocks all slipped after he ran off, you’ll never get through and certainly not back with him…. “

“I’ve gotta try, now stay put, I’ll be back”, and with that he proceeded cautiously up the steep track and then disappeared out of view around a bend.

He continued on and then finally rounding another sharp bend saw the big horse grazing on a flat stretch of grassland that ran for a few yards before closing into the trail again. On closer inspection Jess saw that the trail beyond was completely blocked by another land slip, so the animal was effectively trapped, the only way out, back the away they had come.

Jess advanced slowly on the old horse and had no problem catching him and after a moment of petting him and offering a sugar lump, Jess jumped easily up into the saddle.

He figured he had more chance of persuading the horse back along the track if he was in the saddle rather than attempting to lead the strong horse. He knew the animal would obtain a certain amount of confidence having Jess on his back and felt he would be able to control him better. However he also knew that if the horse lost his footing, or panicked and went over the edge, then they would both plunge to their death, but that was the risk he felt he had to take. They were over forty miles from civilization in the heat of a Wyoming summer and he knew they would have little chance of survival without their mounts …so he felt there was really no choice.

Using all his horsemanship, and communicating with the horse with his legs, hands and voice, he very cautiously made his way back down the track, keeping the big grey as far away from the steep drop as he could.

Even so, several rocks were displaced and the horse gamboled and sidestepped a few times before Jess gained control again. Then it happened again, just before the end of the trail and Gina watched her heart in her mouth, as the horse spooked and shimmied nearly tipping both himself and Jess over the edge. Jess got him back in control again though and spurred him on, and minutes later they were back on safe ground and Jess threw himself from the saddle, sweating and panting with exertion.

Then Gina was there and they embraced, both shaking with fear and relief.

Jess pulled back after a moment and locked eyes with Gina, and then suddenly they were kissing, passionately and wildly, both reacting to what had just happened. Jess felt all his senses exploding, the adrenaline pumping through his body and the fear and exhilaration of the death defying ride suddenly turned into basic animal desire as Gina kissed him deeply and sensually.

He was losing himself in her, returning her kisses ardently, cupping her face between his hands, suddenly not caring about anything else, the consequences of their lust unimportant, as he pulled her down, and lying entwined, their kisses becoming more urgent. They were clinging to each other and he was caressing her ….…..

Then something happened that brought him back to his senses with a bang…….

There was suddenly an ear splitting cry from Traveler and pushing away from Gina Jess was just in time to see a mountain lion charge his horse, lunging at his throat. Traveler was too fast for him through and rearing up he lashed out viciously at the cat, catching him a glancing blow which sent him sprawling, then the horse screamed again in anger and fear, rearing and showing the whites of his eyes….

That initial blow from Traveler’s hooves, that had felled the cat, gave Jess just the chance he needed to draw his gun and shoot the beast dead before he was even back up on his feet again. He holstered his gun and ran over to his spooked, prancing horse and grabbing the reins started calming him, talking gently and stroking his neck. After a while the animal relaxed and Jess ground hitched him, before checking that the big cat was completely dead.

Then he walked slowly back to Gina and looked down at her, embarrassment in his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered,” I was out of order there, I should never have acted that way… it was just a reaction I guess… I didn’t mean…… “

“Didn’t mean what Jess?” she said looking totally drained,” didn’t mean to hold me, kiss me….start to make love to me…. Didn’t mean what?”

“Didn’t mean to hurt you I guess, I’m sorry, I got kinda carried away there, out of control and it was wrong….”

“Was it,” she whispered, “it felt so right to me…”

“Come on, you’re upset, let’s get the horses and head back to the trail, sooner we’re away from this place happier I’ll be,” he said casting a final look at the steep drop and the crumbling track before turning to collect their mounts.

Gina threw him an exasperated look, before following him and shortly afterwards they were mounted up and heading back to the trail for Cheyenne.

Jess decided that they should ride on and try and make Cheyenne by nightfall, thinking that it would be easier for them to book rooms in a hotel rather than sleep out alone under the stars again. He was feeling very confused with his emotions all over the place and didn’t want to risk anything else happening.

What had he been thinking of he kept asking himself, as he rode along , still shaking with emotion.The woman drove him crazy with her frettin’ and fussin’ and she wasn’t even his type, so why had he acted that way. All he could think was that she was stunningly beautiful and how had kept on at him. Constantly offering herself, even wanting to run away and start a new life with him. Well, there was only so much a man could take Jess figured. Hell he wasn’t made of stone and after that horrendous ride over the dangerous cliff edge trail, he was so wound up that…well things had just suddenly gotten out of hand…real out of hand, and he felt desperately ashamed of his behavior, knowing that things would have led to their natural conclusion iffen the mountain lion hadn’t suddenly shown up.

Now as they finally rode into Cheyenne it was almost dark and casting Gina an anxious look he could see that she was exhausted and he felt a pang of guilt at pushing them both so hard to get there. He reined in his horse beside one of the better hotels and nodding towards it said, ”this do you Ma’am; they have hot tubs and real good food, my shout huh?”

She gave him a weary smile,” that sounds good.”

He jumped down from Traveler and helped her down,” come on,” he said softly,” I’ll book us in and then take the horses down to the Livery.”

They walked up to the very smart reception desk and were greeted by the manager.

“Yes sir?” he said giving Jess’s somewhat disheveled appearance a rather haughty look.

“I’d like two rooms please,” said Jess.

Two rooms sir?” asked the manager casting Gina a licentious look.

The glance wasn’t lost on Jess and he felt suddenly protective of her.

“I said so didn’t I?” he said scowling at the little man.

“Just so sir, numbers 8 and 9 are free, first floor front, anything else sir?”

“Yeah we’d both like to book a hot tub and dinner at about 9pm OK?”

“Certainly sir” and he showed Gina up to her room, as Jess went off to the Livery.

Much later Jess was washed and changed into a clean shirt and trousers and sat waiting in the reception area for Gina to appear and just before 9 she made her way elegantly down the stairs towards him. Every head in the lobby turned as she made her entrance, looking sensational in a figure hugging jade green dress, her raven hair tied up on her head in a sophisticated style.

Jess leapt up and escorted her to the dining room, where they sat and finally relaxed for the first time, after the day’s trials and tribulations.

“You sure scrub up well,” he said with a grin.

She smiled back,” I was just in time to catch the haberdashery before it closed and they had this little number on offer and I couldn’t resist it…It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to dress up you know Jess,” she said quietly.

“Yeah, I know, it’s been tough for you,” he said.

She just nodded and started perusing the menu.

“I’ve been thinkin’, I guess we’ve got just about enough cash left for a Stage ticket, would you like to catch the morning Stage to Laramie and I’ll follow on with the horses?”

Her head shot up,” No,” she said loudly

A few of the other diners turned their heads and she looked down before continuing more quietly,” I mean, no Jess I want to go with you, have these last few days together.”

“But you could be home by nightfall he insisted; it will be another couple of days at least by horse. We’ve pushed those old boys so hard, particularly Traveler all the way down to Pueblo and back, we’ve got to take it real slow, especially the way we pushed them today.”

“I don’t care”, she said, taking hold of his hand resting on the table, “I just want us to be together a little while longer and then I’ll be back with Geoff and you needn’t worry about me anymore.”

He looked down to where she still clasped his hand and then back into her earnest eyes.

“OK,” he said” you win; we’ll finish the trip together.”

They then concentrated on enjoying their meal and just chatted easily about trivial matters and it wasn’t until they were enjoying a final coffee in the hotel’s deserted lounge, much later, that Jess broached a more serious issue.

He sipped his coffee and then said,” that was a dang fool thing you did today you know Gina; you could have got us both killed taking off that way. So why did you do it?”

“It was that conversation we had at supper the night before,” she said taking a deep breath, before forcing herself to continue.

“When you said you’d only taken the ‘damn job’, risked your life…for your friends back at the ranch”

She sighed and took another deep breath before continuing,” and then when you said you were in love with Emily, and there was no chance of us being together…ever…well I was just so darned upset Jess…. I’ve never been rejected before, never, and I guess I took it real hard…….. I decided to take off to teach you a lesson. I knew you’d be real mad…but worried too…but I never meant you to nearly lose your life rescuing me… I never meant for that honestly Jess,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

He nodded,” yeah, I understand, don’t go gettin’ upset”, he said casting her a wary look.

“I just need to know you ain’t gonna to do the same fool thing tomorrow, is all, I need to know you’ll still be here when I wake up in the morning Gina and I’m not going to have to take off lookin’ for you again…. “

She looked up at him from under her long dark lashes,” well there is one way you can be sure of that….sleep next to me,” she said with a little giggle, trying to make it seem like a joke.

Jess knew the truth of it through and taking her hand said softly,” maybe another time another place…well things could have worked out, but not now Gina, when I’m beholden to your husband and have my family back at the ranch to look out for. And…well there is Emily, I guess I don’t know if that will work out or not between us…with her being so far away right now…but I have to believe it will…because I…. love her and I think she loves me too….I’m sorry…”

She looked down for a moment.

“You have nothing to be sorry about, it’s me… I’m the one that has made life so difficult for you… and I promise I’ll try and behave from now on.”

They exchanged a look of deep understanding and then Jess stood up,” guess I’ll check on the horses before I turn in…you goin’ up?”

She nodded and he took her hand and led her out of the lounge and to the bottom of the staircase.

Then he leaned in and kissed her very gently on her cheek, “‘night Gina.”

“Goodnight,” she said softly, before making her way upstairs to her lonely bed.


The following morning Jess was up early and went and checked on the horses before breakfast and then on his way back to the hotel he called in at the Stage office and was pleased to see his old friend the Stage driver Mose sitting with a coffee before taking the early Stage out.

He leapt up and pumped Jess’s hand when he saw him.

“Well, then here’s a sight for sore eyes, they’ve all been a frettin’ about you back at the Sherman place yer know boy,” he said fixing Jess with his rheumy eyes.

“Well I don’t know as why, I sent a wire to Mort, from Pueblo sayin’ I was on my way back asked him to tell Slim and Geoff.”

“That was some time ago Jess, I guess they’d expected yer back by now.”

“Yeah well, I got beat up and shot some and then Gina got sick……but guess we should make it back in a couple of days, got to take it real slow Mose, those old horses are kinda feelin’ the strain now. Just be sure Slim and Geoff know OK?”

“OK boy, I’ll tell ‘em your on your way,” and Mose gave him a toothless grin before taking off for his Stage and leaving Jess to wander back to the hotel.

Chapter 11

They set off at a steady pace after breakfast and as it was another scorching day Jess suggested they carry on until noon and then spare the horses and themselves the heat of the day and carry on later when the sun was less fierce.

And so it was that they took a good break after their lunch with Jess doing what he did best, laying down, his back against an old log and with his hat tipped over his eyes he fell fast asleep in a matter of minutes.

Gina sat watching him for a while, marveling at how easily he could just fall asleep, before wandering down to the nearby river to bathe and cool off. She had a little swim and then dressing again relaxed looking over the beautiful countryside, wandering what would happen when she returned home again.

Could she make a go of it with Geoff or should she do as Jess had suggested, talk through her problems and then leave if they couldn’t be resolved. If only she knew that her husband cared about her she thought, showed it in some way, had at least offered to come and find her instead of paying Jess.

If he showed her that he really loved her….if he was more like Jess she thought bitterly, the way he could be so emotional, so honest about his feelings… The way Jess had looked when he had spoken about Emily had made her heart ache, if only she had a man that cared as deeply for her, and she sat looking into the middle distance deep in thought.

It was the blood curdling scream that awoke Jess. He leapt up from where he had been asleep against the log, his gun in his hand immediately, and then heard the click of a colt .45 cocking and felt the cold steel at his neck.

“Drop your iron real slow Harper,” said a strangely familiar voice.

Jess half turned to try and see who had the drop on him, but the gun barrel dug more deeply into his neck.

“The iron now Harper, or the next scream you hear from your woman will be her last.”

Jess did as he was bid immediately, throwing the gun down on the ground, well away from him.

“That’s better, now put your hands behind your back,” and as Jess did so he felt the cold metal of handcuffs against his wrists and heard the snap of them fastening and then he was shoved so hard that he fell badly on his side, a stab of pain running up his hip as it made contact with the hard ground.

He lay there panting and getting control for a moment before turning and looking into the hard eyes of Bill Dyke, the foreman Geoff Morrison had fired after Jess exposed him as the man who had attempted to rustle the Sherman cattle.

“You,” he spat,” I might have known a low life like you would get the drop on a man when he’s asleep, only chance you’d have with me I guess,” he said, giving the man a disgusted look.

“Shut it Harper if you know what’s good for you, you’re on borrowed time right now so don’t rile me.”

Just then Bill’s kid brother Sam pushed his way through the surrounding bushes, thrusting a terrified Gina in front of him. Her hands were also tied behind her back and he shoved her hard so that she fell on the ground near to Jess, crying out in pain and distress.

Jess leapt up and tried to kick out at Sam, but he was merely punched hard in the stomach for his trouble and unable to retaliate fell to his knees in pain.

“Steady with the merchandise,” said Bill, throwing his brother a tough look,” don’t go hurtin’ the little lady Sam, she’s worth one hell of a lot of cash to us.. but we need her fit and well bro.”

Then he turned to glance at Jess who had fallen back and was still gasping in pain.

“Unlike Harper here , who is completely expendable, but guess we’ll have some fun with him before we dispatch him eh kid? “

Once it was cooler the Dyke brothers decided to move on and roughly pushing Jess up onto his mount Bill removed the handcuffs and tied his wrists to the saddle horn with leather thongs and his legs to the stirrup irons.

“Now get yourself out of that one Harper,” he spat….” And iffen you do, well old Sam here will have his rifle trained at the back of your head and you’ll be dead meat before you hit the ground…understand?”

Jess just nodded and once Gina was tied onto her horse too, Bill took their reins and leading the horses set off at a brisk pace, Sam following, the rifle cradled in his arms.

They rode all afternoon and through the early evening and dusk was falling before Bill reined his mount in and signaled for his brother to stop too.

“Guess this is as good a place as any,” he said, looking around him.” Plenty of cover, stream below there for water, yes I reckon this will be a real good hide out for me and our two guests Sam, while you go off tomorrow and complete that bit of business.”

Jess and Gina were pulled down from their mounts and tied roughly with their backs to a tree, and their hand tied in front of them, while the two brothers set up camp, lit a fire and made themselves a meal.

Afternighthad fallen it was very cold compared with the heat of the day and being so far away from the fire Jess and Gina were soon freezing. Jess yelled to Bill to come over and after a while he sauntered across.

“You want something Harper?”

“Not me, but Gina is freezing cold and hungry, I thought you said you were goin’ to look after her?”

“Oh, guess she’ll be OK, after all she’s got you to cuddle up to Harper, and there ain’t enough supper to go round,” and with that he marched off. However after a few minutes he returned with a blanket that he threw across them and a canteen of water.

“Thanks,” said Jess gruffly.” So what are yer doin’ with us?”

The big balding man squatted down by Jess and pushing his hat back he regarded him with an evil grin.

“Sure I’ll tell you how its goin’ to be Harper. See I felt it was kinda unfair that you should get all that reward money for this little lady, so I figured I’d have my share. Sam and me have just been waitin’ around for you to do all the dirty work. We figured you’d pass through Cheyenne on your way home and as soon as we spotted you in the hotel we sent a nice little note to her husband via the morning Stage saying he’s to bring the money to Baxter’s Ridge and leave it there iffen he wants to see this pretty little woman again. “

“He won’t buy that,” spat Jess,” he knows I’m bringing her home.”

“Well you see that’s as where you’re wrong, because I also said as how you and Miss Gina here had gotten close, real close and I’d had to despatch you to bring her back safely…of course he don’t know it’s me…just signed it a ‘friend’…but well I guess they’ll find your body eventually, so will know the truth of it….”

“Except it ain’t the truth,” said Jess angrily.

Dyke’s head shot up…….”oh come on Harper, a man with your reputation with the women, you’re really telling me you’ve spent all this time alone with this gorgeous woman and not succumbed to her charms?” and with that he wandered off back to the fire.

Jess turned to look at Gina,

” I’m sorry ,”he whispered.

“Why none of this is your fault?”

“Sure it is, I shouldn’t have fallen asleep like that, should have kept an eye on you…kept you safe, that’s my job.”

“And you’ve done a pretty good job of it so far…. Geoff won’t believe that note, I’m sure , he’ll come looking , it will be alright….”

“I sure hope so,” he said softly and then,” come a bit closer, so we can keep warm”, and he reached under the blanket for her hand and held it gently between his own, and after a while they finally fell asleep.

When they awoke at dawn they were cold and stiff and more than a little hungry, but again they were refused food, or a hot drink and just had water from the canteen.

After Bill and Sam had finished their breakfast Sam prepared to ride out, but before he left both men walked over to where Jess and Gina were still tied up.

“Look Dyke, will you give Gina some food and untie her, she’s feelin’ real bad…please.”

“Oh, please now is it Harper….getting a bit uncomfortable are we, needing some care and attention?

“Just for the lady, I ain’t askin’ for myself.”

“Well that’s good,” said Bill,” ‘cos yer sure ain’t getting any Harper… in fact I’m just gonna make sure you behave yourself while my brother here is off doin’ our business….”

With that Jess was released from the tree and dragged roughly up and his hands were untied.

There was a split second when Bill’s attention was taken with Gina and Jess made a dive for him and pushed him to the ground , but before he could do more Sam brought his rifle down hard on the back of Jess’s head knocking him out cold.

Gina screamed,” leave him alone Bill, please.”

Bill turned to stare at her a malicious grin on his face,” what’s up Mrs Morrison, got the hots for him have yer?”

Gina shook her head,” just don’t hurt him please ,”she whispered.

Bill turned to his kid brother.

”I guess it’s payback time,” he said nastily,” you remember all the times Mrs Morrison was real hard on us Bro? How she made us do all the hard work around the place and nagged her husband to make us do even more?”

“Always moaning weren’t you lady?” he said turning back to Gina.

“Well let’s see how you like seeing this lover of yours suffer a little then,” he laughed bitterly.

With that the two men threw Jess on his back and pinioned him to the ground by tying his hands and feet to stakes they hammered into the hard earth, his arms spread high above his head and his legs spread, like an animal skin left to dry out.

Then they tied him to the stakes with dampened leather thongs,

After a while Jess came round and shook his head and looked around him, straining to move, his expression one of ill hidden horror as his predicament slowly dawned on him.

Bill then turned his attention back to Gina.

“See, way it works is the leather dries out in the sun and shrinks, cutting into the flesh. I’ve seen a man lose his head that way once with a leather thong tight round his neck…. Anyways we won’t be botherin’ with that, reckon a day or so pegged out in the hot sun should see an end to him … and you my dear will have a ringside seat…nice way to pass the time while we wait for Sam here to bring the cash back.”

Gina became hysterical.

” No…. no Bill please you can’t that’s inhuman…..!”

“Oh well that’s where you’re wrong dear lady, guess I can do what I like….”

Then Sam rode off leaving Gina and Jess in Bill’s company as the sun slowly rose and started beating down out of another perfect blue summer’s sky.


It had been early the previous morning, just after breakfast when Geoff Morrison rode into the Sherman yard. Slim walked out of the barn to meet him a welcoming grin on his face.

“Good to see you Geoff, I guess you’ve heard the good news,” said Slim as the older man slipped down from his mount and hitched him to the corral fence.

Slim was surprised to see that his neighbour looked particularly dour.

“So what good news would that be?” he asked.

“Why, that Jess and Gina will be home soon. Mose bumped into Jess in Cheyenne yesterday , said they would be home in a couple of days.”

“Oh will they,” said Geoff darkly, “well that isn’t what I’ve been lead to believe.”

“What do you mean?”

“Read this,” said the big rancher passing a well-thumbed letter over to Slim.

Slim took it from him and read:

If you want your lady back in one piece leave the money you promised Harper under the tall pine at Baxter’s Ridge, tomorrow by noon, and then ride back home. She will be returned safe. You were crazy to trust that low life Harper; he’s been takin’ you for a fool and sleeping with your wife. I finished him so I guess you owe me his share, signed ‘A Friend’

Slim’s head shot up and he looked pale and shocked.

“You don’t believe this rubbish do you?”

The older man just shook his head.

” I just don’t know Slim…I mean Jess does have a certain reputation with the ladies… and my Gina is mighty beautiful….”

Slim was furious.

”My best buddy goes off and risks his life to bring your wife back and that is what you think of him! Do you really believe he would do that to you?”

Geoff looked him in the eye, and after a long pause finally said, ”no…no of course not… and if he did I guess it would have been Gina that made the running, she’s no angel…… I know that.”

Slim just nodded absently.

“I’m more worried about Jess, come on Geoff lets ride into Laramie and see Mort. I figure your ‘friend,’ is gonna have a reception committee waiting.”

It was agreed that Mort and Slim would ride in at dawn the following morning and take cover in the caves overlooking Baxter’s Ridge, where they would get a good look at the ‘friend’ but would be unobserved.

Then Geoff would ride in just before noon, leave the bag of money and then head for home, before doubling back and meeting up with the others and trailing their mystery man back to where Gina was being held and hopefully Jess too.

Everything went exactly according to plan, with Mort and Slim observing the young man through binoculars, from their hiding place way above the pine tree, as he picked up the money bag.

“I’ll be danged,” said Mort softly,” if that ain’t Bill Dyke’s kid brother. Didn’t Geoff fire them after that business of the rustling of your beasts?”

Slim nodded.

”Sure did, his brother Bill wanted to get the money for fetching Gina back, but Geoff reckoned he wasn’t up to the job and hired Jess.”

“Guess he figured the route Jess would take home and somehow managed to get the drop on him”, said Mort thoughtfully.

Slim gasped,” I sure hope he didn’t bushwhack him Mort, he couldn’t outdraw Jess, that’s for sure, but he could have back shot him… hell Mort, you don’t think he really is dead do you? “

Mort looked grave,” I dunno Slim, but the sooner we shadow that low life back to his camp, sooner we can knock the truth out of him.”

Just then Geoff re-joined them and the men set off after their quarry, keeping well back, but shadowing his every move.


After Sam had left the camp on his quest for the money, Dyke had amused himself by taunting Jess for a while and when he refused to bite he wandered off and sat drinking hill whiskey and making suggestive remarks to Gina. But she refused to speak to him as well and so he concentrated solely on imbibing whiskey and finally, slumped down with his back to a tree and fell into a drunken stupor.

As soon as she was sure he was asleep Gina glanced over at Jess who was just a few short feet away from her,sweating inthe morning sun and cussing gently under his breath.

“Jess,” she said softly,” he’s asleep, can you get free?”

He shook his head ,” no chance, look….”

Then she looked more closely and saw that the thongs had already begun to dry out and were eating into his ankles and wrists, one wrist even starting to bleed a little with the harsh pressure from the leather strap.

“Oh Jess,” she said throwing him an anguished look,” is it as painful as it looks?”

“It hurts some,” he said softly, ”are you OK?”

“Yes, I’m fine…… Someone will come Jess, I know Geoff will see through that stupid note, he won’t believe what Bill said about us…being you know…lovers.”

“I sure hope not,” said Jess, casting a worried glance in her direction.

“Jess, you have absolutely nothing to feel bad about, we can honestly say that nothing has happened between us,” she said, a hint of regret in her tone.

“Yeah, thanks to a mountain lion,” said Jess with heavy irony.

Gina cast him a sheepish look, “oh yes, well maybe we won’t mention that to Geoff.”

“Good thinking,” said Jess dryly.

After a while he closed his eyes and Gina could tell the pain was getting worse with the glaring sun now beating down.

The sweat was pouring down his face, his shirt soaking and after a while he became very restless rolling his head and pulling ineffectually at the bonds and then stopping as they dug in even more, blood now running freely down his arms from his wrists.

“Gina, he croaked I need some water, is that bastard still out cold?”

“Yes,” she said ,”oh Jess I wish I could help you, but he’s cuffed me again and bound me so tightly… “

“It’s OK, just keep still, don’t try an’ struggle, it’ll make things worse, someone will come, Slim and Mort….may be…..” he whispered before lying very still.

“Jess….?Jess!” She yelled but he was unconscious.

As she continued to watch him closely she noticed that he had ceased to sweat, his shirt now completely dry and his chest rising and falling rapidly, his breathing fast and ragged.

After about an hour she saw his head move again and he blinked and then groaned loudly.


He looked over at her, “my head,” he said weakly,” achin’ something fierce….”

“I’m not surprised,” she said,” Jess you’re burning up, you have to get out of that sun.”

She turned to where Dyke was still slumped against a tree, snoring loudly.

“Bill…… Bill, for the love of god will you wake up!” she yelled urgently.

After several minutes the big man stirred and opened an eye,” wa….?”

“Bill, please wake up and help Jess, you have to get him out of this heat…… “

Suddenly he was awake and taking in the situation.

He looked at Jess and then back to Gina, before growling, “ I have to … have to… I don’t have to do anything for you anymore Mrs Morrison. Or are yer forgetting your old man fired me?”

“Please Bill, I’m begging you, he’s going to die…. “

He looked at her again an evil smile on his face .

“Well yeah, I guess that’s about the size of it Ma’am, iffen we don’t get some drinks down him….. now I figure Sam should be back in ….say another three hours, let’s see how he is then…. And if he’s still alive, he can have a drink to celebrate,” he said beginning to laugh harshly at his own wit.

“You miserable bastard!” she screamed.

At this Dyke rose and staggering over and gave her a sharp backhander across the face.

”Hush yer mouth, or I’ll finish him off right now.”

Her eyes filled with unshed tears, but she merely looked down and said no more.

At the vicious attack Jess had strained to free himself once more , but had collapsed back again, the thongs now cutting in deeply making any movement impossible.

“It’s OK Gina,” he whispered, “just do as he says,it’ll be OK”, before he drifted off again.

And that was the last coherent thing he was to utter for some time.

The sun continued to beat down throughout the afternoon and Jess was soon completely delirious, muttering and shouting out and looking wildly about him, before blessedly falling back into oblivion.But each time he came round Gina saw he was weaker and weaker and his delirious muttering faded to a soft whisper as he fought his imaginary demons.

It must have been a good four hours later when Sam final rode back into camp, looking weary but triumphant. He slid down from his mount holding a black bag aloft.

“Got it Bill, easy as taking candy off of a baby,” he laughed.

Bill grabbed the bag and looked in the top before closing it again and pushing it behind his saddle on the ground, for safety.

Then he clapped his brother onthe back,” guess this calls for a celebration,” he said, digging about inhis saddlebag and coming out with yet another bottle of moonshine.

He pulled the cork and took a swig before passing the bottle to his kid brother who also took a good pull and handed it back.

Then Bill’s ugly face split into a huge grin.

” I almost forgot, the little lady over there wanted her boyfriend to have a drink… and I promised him one as soon as you got back.”

With that he went and squatted downbeside an unconscious Jess and slapped his face several times to bring him around and after a few minutes his eyes flickered and opened.

Bill supported his head and put the bottle to his lips forcing a good amount of the moonshine down his throat.

Jess reacted violently coughing and retching as the fiery liquid hit his paper dry throat.

“What in hell are you doing,” shouted Gina,” alcohol will kill him in his state, it’s the worst thing for him right now.”

“Well is that a fact,” snarled Bill, pouring another good measure down Jess’s throat before dropping his head back down on the iron hard earth, “wellI won’t waste it on him then honey…how about you?”

Gina just threw him a filthy look and he backed off and sprawled down by the fire Sam had just lit.

“It’ll be dark in a couple of hours and it gets real cold at night round here,” he said,” figure we’ll need this later.”

“Hear that Harper,” yelled Dyke,” it’ll be nice and cold for you tonight, make a change eh…but you’d better enjoy it while you can, because it’ll be the last one for you. You’ll be goin’ to meet your Maker tomorrow and we’re headin’ back down to the Mexican border at first light……

Then a moment later there was the sound of a twig snapping and both men spun round from where they were lounging by the fire and found themselves looking straight into the barrel of Mort Corey’s shot gun, Slim and Geoff flanking him.

“So you think that do you Dyke, well reckon there’s going to be a change of plan, because your goin’ nowhere!”spat Mort furiously.

Then all Hell broke loose as Bill Dyke made a grab for his rifle standing up against the tree. But Slim was too fast for him and kicking the gun out of reach he launched himself at Dyke, sending him flying with a hard punch to the chin. The older man fell back and landed heavily, but Slim ran over and dragged him up again raining punches to his head and body, until he was screaming for mercy.

Meanwhile Mort had easily overcome Sam, removed his gun and handcuffed him, while Geoff had run over to a near hysterical Gina and was trying to remove the tight ropes.

Slim was still laying into Dyke and after a moment Mort finally came over and hauled the tall rancher off him.

“Steady Slim, you’ll kill the bastard, simmer down will you?”

Slim finally backed off and leaned forwards trying to catch his breath, before giving Mort a hard look, and then tipping his head to where Jess was still lying, said, “have yer seen what he’s done to my buddy, Mort, killing is too dang good for him!”

Mort nodded.

” Yeah, I know,” and then patting the big man on the shoulder said quietly,” go see to him Slim; I’ll finish up here. And the Sheriff went off to handcuff a now semi-conscious Dyke.”

Slim ran over to Jess and squatted down beside him, taking in his injuries properly for the first time.

“My God,” he whispered,” what have they done to you.”

Jess squinted up at him.

“Hey, I’m sure glad to see you partner,” he whispered, “I don’t reckon I could have held out much longer.”

Slim shook his head in disbelief at his buddy’s wounds and started cutting through the leather holding his wrists and ankles to the pegs in the solid ground and then gently pulled him up to a sitting position. But then he had to try and remove the tight leather thongs from where they had bitten into his wrists and it was a difficult and painful job.

After a moment Mort came over and offered a canteen, but after a mouthful Jess was coughing and heaving and he looked so ill that Slim lay him down again and giving Mort a deeply concerned look went to fetch clean bandages from his saddlebags.

Geoff had now freed Gina and the pair were embraced warmly, Geoff seeming overjoyed at finding his wife alive and well. Then he looked over and saw Slim’s sombre expression and realised Jess was in terrible pain, Mort trying to comfort him. Gina followed his gaze and whispered,” oh, poor Jess.”

As Slim passed them with the medical supplies Geoff said softly,” is there anything we can do?”

Slim just shook his head sadly.

” I don’t think there is anything much we can do except make him comfortable.”

Gina suddenly looked distraught,” he will be alright though?”

Slim looked upset, “I sure hope so,” he said softly before going back to start bandaging him up.

He completed the task as quickly as he could and then glanced down at his friend and was deeply concerned by what he saw. Jess was in obvious pain and his breathing was shallow and rapid, a look Slim had seen once before in a soldier serving under him during the war.

“Where does it hurt buddy?” he asked quietly.

“I dunno, all over, cramps…in my arms, legs… and my heads achin’ somethin’ fierce….then suddenly the cramps seemed to get worse in his stomach andhe lay on his side bringing his legs up his eyes and mouth closed tightly, as he tried not to cry out.

Slim exchanged another look with Mort,” we have to get some water into him some way, and cool him down too,” he said anxiously.

“Jess, listen…can you hear me…?”

Jess just nodded his eyes still closed.

“I’m gonna have to strip you off, wash you down with cold water to cool this fever OK?”

He opened his eyes and squinted at his buddy.

“Where’s Gina?”he whispered.

Slim gave him the ghost of a smile.

”I reckon you can’t be too bad if your still worried about your modesty,” he said with a soft chuckle.


“OK, she’s not here right now, so quit your fussing and let’s get you sorted out OK pard?”

It was over an hour later when Slim finally finished tending him. He had stripped him down to his undershorts and then washed him down with the icy river water and even managed to get him to drink some water, but he couldn’t keep it down. Now Jess had fallen into a restless sleep and Slim covered him over with a blanket and joined the others by the fire, as dusk fell.

Sam and Bill Dyke were chained to a tree some distance away, but the others gave Slim concerned glances as he joined them round the fire.

“Well?” asked Gina.

Slim just shook his head,” too early to say yet, it will be a couple of days before he gets better…or….”

“Slim?”said Mort.

Slim just gave him a bleak look.

“You’ve dealt with this before haven’t you?”

Slim looked at the kindly Sheriff, his expression one of fear.

“Yes, yes I have Mort; in the war……….one of my men was pinned down that way, by an Indian raiding party, left him to die….”


Slim gave a deep sigh.

“He wasn’t out in it for as long as Jess has been….and……..he didn’t make it,” and with that he stood up and went back over to his friend, his back to the others, but Mort knew how distressed he was.

Gina looked down and started to cry quietly and her husband put a comforting arm around her.

Mort looked over and gave her a grim smile, “don’t have him dead and buried yet Mrs Morrison, Jess is a lot tougher than he looks you know and he’s a fighter… “and with that he got up and wandered over to check on his friend too.

During the evening Jess took a turn for the worse, restless and confused hardly seeming to recognise Slim as he continued to wipe his face and chest with cool water.

Gina came and offered to take over while Slim had some supper, but he refused saying he wasn’t hungry, so after casting Jess a worried look she went back and sat beside her husband, although she didn’t seem hungry either and just sat staring into the fire.

One by one the others turned in, the camp settling down for the night and soon all that could be heard was gentle snores from Mort and the sound of a lone wolf calling to his mate far, far away.

Gina and Geoff had sat up by the fire a little while longer than Mort, just chatting softly.

Geoff holding her hand.

” I’ve missed you so much darling ….. I just thank God I’ve got you back safely,” he said sincerely.

“And Jess,” she said looking across to where he was lying, Slim talking quietly to him.

Geoff looked down and then deeply into her eyes.

”Yes,” he said quietly,” and Jess, I’ll never be able to thank him enough for what he’s done bringing you back to me.”

She couldn’t look him in the eye, but just nodded and squeezed his hand.

” I’m tired she said let’s turn in.”

Chapter 12

Slim sat up, still swabbing Jess down and trying to get some water into him , although he was nauseous and delirious for much of the time, muttering stuff which made no sense to Slim and calling for someone called Emily all the time. Finally the fever seemed to lessen a little and when Jess’s eyes opened he had the light of comprehension in them once more.

“Hey buddy how are you feeling now?”

“OK I guess, kinda thirsty,”he croaked.

Slim offered him the canteen and supported his head as he drank and this time the water stayed down.

“I’m cold,” said Jess after a few minutes and Slim saw he was shaking and went and fetched another blanket and then helped him back into his clothes.

Jess had looked down at his naked state in surprise, “no wonder I’m dang cold, ”he said with feeling.

Slim chuckled,” well you were a mite warm for a while there Jess, I figured you needed cooling down some.”

Then the light of recognition was in his eyes, “oh yeah, that bastard Dyke pegged me out to dry didn’t he ….”

“Yes buddy and you’ve been kind of out of it ever since.”

“You got him… and Sam?”

“Yeah, don’t worry they’re hog tied real good and going nowhere.”

“And Gina, she OK?”

“Oh sure,” said Slim giving him a speculative look,” real concerned about you though pard.”

Jess blushed.

Slim sighed deeply; “please tell me there is nothing going on between you two….”

“There’s nothin’ goin’ on…..honestly Slim.”

He grinned down at his friend, “well that’s a relief.”

Then he noticed that Jess had started sweating again and knew he wasn’t out of the woods yet.

Slim sat up with him swabbing him down with cool water until he fell asleep, and then leaning back against a log and tippinghis hat over his eyes, Slim dozed too.

It was in the early hours of the morning when he was gently shaken awake by Gina.

“Slim, you’re all in, go over by the fire and get some proper sleep; I’ll look after him for a while.”

He began to protest but something in her eyes made him stop.

“OK thanks Gina, just try and keep him as cool as you can and call me if there’s any change,” and with that he wandered off to the fire a yard or two away and stretched out on his bedroll, falling asleep almost instantly.

Jess groaned in his sleep and after a few minutes his eyes flickered open.


Gina leaned over, from where she was kneeling beside him, “he’s gone for some sleep, can I get you something?”

“Water please,” he whispered and she supported his head and helped him to drink from the canteen before he relaxed back, peering up at her.

“Geoff pleased to see you?” he asked.

“Um………yes, very, more so than I thought actually.”

“Hell Gina, you must know he cares for you, a man wouldn’t spend that sort of cash unless …well unless it was real important.”

“I guess, I just wish he was more…you know romantic.”

Jess sighed.

“Well tell him then…ask for what you want Gina….shouldn’t have thought you’d have too much of a problem with that,” he said sardonically.

She raised an eye brow at him,” I think you must be feeling a little better if you can start kidding with me.”

“So who’s kidding?” he said with a small grin.

She smiled down at him and then sighed deeply,” Oh Jess I sure am going to miss you…so much….”

He said nothing, just stared up at her an unfathomable expression in his eyes, and after a while she leaned down and kissed him very gently on the lips,” now go to sleep,” she whispered.

He caressed he hair very tenderly, before closing his eyes and a few minutes later she saw the gentle rise and fall of his chest and knew he was sleeping peacefully.

When Slim awoke at dawn he got up and wandered over to his buddy and was shocked by what he saw.

Gina, lying next to him, fast asleep, her head resting on his chest and Jess’s protective arms holding her close.

He looked down at the sleeping couple for a minute before casting an anxious glance in the direction of her husband, but Geoff was still dead to the world.

Slim breathed a sigh of relief and squatting down, he gently shook Gina awake.

She opened her eyes, looking straight into Slim’s wary ones.

”I guess maybe you should…get up before your husband wakes,” he said quietly.

She looked embarrassed and carefully disengaging from Jess’s warm embrace stood up, looking down at his still sleeping form, before turning away and walking over to the opposite side of the fire from where her husband slept on.

She sat down with her back against a log, looking into the embers of the camp fire, where the coffee pot was heating up, and a few minutes later Slim joined her, sliding down next to her, his back against the log and his long legs stretched out.

After a moment he poured them both a coffee and then casting her a searching look said softly,” guess it’s none of my business, but what is there between you and Jess?”

Her head shot up and for a second she looked angry, then her irritation faded. She took a deep breath and after a moment said, “nothing, there is nothing between us, not the way you mean anyway…….not on Jess’s behalf that is. He has behaved as a complete gentleman.”

Then she turned candid eyes on the tall rancher.

“It is I who have not been the complete lady…..I’m afraid I have not made this job easy for him….. I guess he’s earned his money,” she said with a small smile.

At that Slim’s head shot up and he threw her a concerned look,” of course you don’t know do you?”

“Know what?” she asked with a puzzled look.

“I guess that is for your husband to say,” replied Slim quickly and he was prevented from explaining further as Mort suddenly awoke and demanded to know if there was any more coffee in the pot.

The rest of the camp awoke and ate breakfast and soon Mort was making ready to escort his prisoners back to town and Gina busied herself tidying the camp and tending to Jess.

She was just going to fetch some more wood for the fire, as she had noticed Jess was shivering again, although he was lying near the fire he looked pale and ill, and she was more than a little worried about him.

Geoff followed her and grabbing hold of her hand lightly asked, ”where are you off to honey?”

“Firewood,” she said briefly, “then I’ll prepare some more coffee, that’s one way to get some water into Jess,” she said with a tight smile.

He shook his head,” No.”


“We’re going back to town with Mort and the prisoners. I’ve talked to Slim, he’s fine to stay here with Jess, until he’s well enough to ride, that is. I sent a couple of the hands over to the Relay to help, before we rode out, so he doesn’t have to rush back.”

She shook her head,” I can’t go Geoff, Jess needs me.”

He grabbed hold of shoulders, spinning her around to face him.

“No, he doesn’t,” he said softly,” not as much as I do Gina… I need you.”

“Well, I’m here aren’t I?” she said.

Geoff cast a glance behind him to where Jess was dozing and then back at his wife.

” I don’t know,” he said very quietly “….are you?”

“Geoff what is the matter why are you being like this?”

“Because you’re my wife, and I want you to act that way… plus we have issues to discuss, important ones and I can’t do it here… please Gina…come home….”

She looked him deep in the eyes and then gently caressed his cheek, “alright Geoff, if you really need me.”

“Oh, I do…. “ he said fervently.

Meanwhile Mort was packing up his gear and Slim walked over.

“Will you be OK with those two no hopers?”

“Sure, reckon they’ll be getting a nice long stay in the Cheyenne jail for what they did to Jess.”

Slim just nodded.

“He will be OK you reckon?”

“Sure, tough as old boots, had me worried for a while there though,” said Slim giving the Sheriff a tight smile.

“Um…. So when are you gonna tell him the news about Morrison then?”

Slim looked dour.

”I dunno, it will break him after all this, figure I’ll wait until he’s a mite stronger……I…”

Just then Gina came and butted in, saying they were ready to go, and soon they were riding out, with promises to see Slim and Jess as soon as the dark haired cowboy was up to the ride home.

Gina had cast Jess an adoring look as she left, but he merely smiled and wished both her and Geoff a safe journey.

“I’ll see you …about the job when you are better,” said Geoff giving Jess an uncomfortable look and glancing across at Slim, before riding out beside his wife.

After they had gone Jess heaved a deep sigh of relief.

They spent a quiet day, with Jess mostly sleeping. Slim went off and bagged them a couple of rabbits for supper and made some broth from them for Jess, which he enjoyed.

It was getting dark by the time they had finished and Slim threw some more wood on the fire as the evening had turned chilly.

“That was real good,” said Jess appreciatively,” guess you’re getting better at cookin’ Slim.”

Slim just shook his head grinning back at his partner.

”I think you were just hungry; you haven’t eaten in a couple of days.”

“Um… sure will be good to get back to the ranch and Miss Daisy’s cookin’,” he said with a grin, “she and Mike OK?”

“Sure they’re fine, she’s been frettin’ about you, but she’ll be OK once you’re home and the young ‘un can’t wait to hear all about the gunfight with the legendary Antonio Gomez.”

Jess looked saddened for a moment, “oh yeah, that…You know he really wasn’t as evil as he was painted; I quite liked him in the end.”

Slim looked momentary shocked, “really?”

“Yeah, he’d just had a few bum deals Slim, lost his family and that’s what turned him bad…reckon iffen he’d had some help same as me…well he could have straightened himself out.”

Slim just nodded thoughtfully…”yeah, maybe.”

Jess stared into the fire for a long time, before finally stirring himself and saying, more cheerfully,” anyway at least I made it, and I guess all our troubles are over eh buddy, can’t wait to see that bank manager’s face when we pay off the loan in full.”

Slim’s face clouded for a split second, before he recovered,” yeah, it’ll be swell.”

Then he quickly changed the subject, “so who is Emily then?” he asked turning quizzical eyes on his buddy.

Now it was Jess’s turn to play his cards close to his chest.


“Oh come on Jess all the time you were delirious yesterday you kept calling out for Emily…..so?”

Jess looked down blushing furiously,” just a girl I met…”

“Just, a girl you met,” asked Slim grinning at him, “sounds like a mite more important than just some girl you met to me.”

“OK, OK so she’s kinda special I guess.”

It was completely dark now and all that could be heard was the crackling of the camp fire and the muted night time sounds all around them.

“Well, are you going to tell me about her?” asked Slim after a while.

Jess was silent for so long Slim thought he wouldn’t reply and then he started talking very softly.

“I met her on my way up through Denver, workin’ in a bar, and we…well we hit it off right away, I knew it was somethin’ real special…you know what I mean Slim?”

“Sure, I guess I do….”

“Anyways, we got real close and then I had to take off the next day and all the time I was on the trail…….. all I could think off was gettin’ back to her,” and he sighed deeply.

“We hadn’t…… you know,” he said casting Slim an embarrassed glance, “and I well…… I kept wondering if she’d be up for it when I made it back……”

He gave a grim chuckle,” if I made it back that is….. Then I got to thinking, maybe I’d set too much store by it all, we’d just talked….. kissed some, maybe she didn’t feel the same way….but……….”

“But what Jess?”

Jess looked over at his buddy, properly for the first time since he had started speaking, a look of astonishment in his deep blue eyes.

“She did Slim, she felt the same as me…..she loves me too……. I guess,” he whispered almost reverently.

“You love her,” asked Slim looking surprized, “but you hardly know her Jess, how long did you spend with her on the way back?”

“Just one night…….”

Slim gave a slow whistle, “she must be some girl.”

“She is Slim…”

“So what did Madam Morrison make of you going AWOL all night?”

Jess grinned across at his friend” she wasn’t best pleased.”

“I imagine not, she sure has got the hots for you, you know that Jess?”

“Don’t Slim, don’t joke about it, she’s driven me nearly crazy.”

“So who’s joking?” said Slim with a hard laugh.

Jess just stared moodily into the flames.

“We talked some this morning, when I finally untangled her from your arms,” he said with a grin, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

“Oh really,” said Jess sarcastically.

“Yeah, she said she’d given you a kind of rough time, but you’d behaved like a perfect gentleman.”

Jess looked down a small smile playing round his lips, “she said that did she?”

“Yeah, so weren’t you tempted, she sure is a damn beautiful woman.”

Jess just continued to look into the fire but refused to answer so after a while Slim gave up teasing him.

“So when do I get to meet, Emily then?” he asked smiling across at his partner.

“I’m not sure exactly, she said she’d try and come and stay with Mort as soon as she could.”


“Yeah, she calls him Uncle Mort,” said Jess casting Slim a warm grin, “her Pa was at school with him apparently, so he is a real good family friend.”

Slim thought about this for a while and then said, “hang on a minute, Mort was raised and went to school in Albuquerque!”

“That’s right that’s where she lives, well her Ma and Pa do….”

“So ain’t that rather a long distance romance then Jess?”

Jess looked down for a long time before replying.

“ As soon as we’ve got the ranch up and running again, bought in all the new stock, I reckon there should be enough leftover for a small ranch house down on the North pasture…. I aim to ask for her hand Slim… if she’ll have me.”

Slim said absolutely nothing just stared at his friend with a look between shock and horror on his face.

Jess looked back,” well what’s wrong, I ain’t thinkin’ of movin’ on Slim, I want to stay at the ranch, I’ll still see you and Daisy and Mike everyday…. And you’ll love Emily, really you will.”

“I’m sure I will,” said Slim faintly…”it isn’t that Jess……it’s just, goddamn it, this is so dang difficult,” he said looking down.

“Slim what is it, what’s wrong?”

“We have to talk Jess, about this job you’ve done for Morrison…. I have to tell you something…………..”

There was a long pause as Slim looked down again, trying to collect his thoughts.

After a while Jess became impatient.

”Well come on then, what about the job…. I did everything that was asked of me didn’t I? Gomez is dead and Gina’s home with her husband and……….. Oh wait a minute. ……”

Jess’s head swivelled and he threw his buddy a hard look.

“He thinks I’ve had his wife don’t he…...that note you told me about, the ransom note Dyke sent, said I’d been playing around with Gina and he believes it don’t he,” he said turning angry eyes on Slim,” he’s goin’ back on the deal ain’t he?”

He sighed dramatically, closing his eyes, feeling mad as all get out.

“He believes that hoodlum over me…”then he turned and looked Slim in the eye,” Hell you do too don’t you!”

“No!I don’t Jess, you said nothing happened and I believe you and so does Geoff…. It’s not about that…..”

“Well what is it about then?”

“The money Jess, Geoff Morrison is practically penniless, he can’t pay you…”

“What!” Jess exploded leaping to his feet and then swaying and nearly falling.

Slim jumped up and grabbed his arm and pushed him gently down again, so that his back was resting on the log. He closed his eyes and his breath came in harsh gasps as he struggled to get control.

“You OK?” asked Slim kindly offering the canteen.“Hell, I didn’t want you to know about this until you were stronger Jess.”

“How long…?”


“How long have you known?”

“Oh, I see, just a few days, a week maybe, I couldn’t contact you; there was no way, with you being on the trail. And anyway, it wouldn’t have made any difference would it, you’d still have rescued her, even if you’d found out.”

Jess looked down,” yeah, I guess so….. I’d help out a friend for nothin’, you know that Slim, it was just that the money is so dang important to us right now. “

“Yeah,” he said with a big sigh

“So how did he lose it, I thought he had thousands?”

“He did, but it was all invested back East, something went wrong with his shares and he’s lost the lot.”

“But the ranch?”

“Having the same problems as the rest of us, it was only his investment that were holding everything together, now he’s going to have to sell the place and move back East, he’s got a small place there, and he’ll start again. He feels terrible about it Jess he really does.”

“He feels terrible!” spat Jess looking angry again.

“He said once he’s sold the ranch he’ll split the proceeds with you…but it will be too little and too late to help us, I’m afraid, the bank wants their blood money and they want it come next Friday.”

“Do Daisy and Mike know?”

He nodded, “yeah, they’ve been swell about it, more worried about how you’d take it, to be honest.”

“So why didn’t Geoff tell me himself….afraid I’d have knocked him into next week?”

Slim cast him a weak smile…”well wouldn’t you have?”

Jess ducked his head before smiling back,” yeah, probably.”

Then a thought struck him and he went ghostly pale, his eyes reflecting deep hurt.

“Hell Slim….. Emily, I can’t offer her anything… I can’t ask her to marry me now….….”and he sank his head into his hands.

Slim felt completely helpless, and just looked on in consternation, knowing there was nothing he could say or do to make things better.

They turned in soon after and the following day Slim saw that Jess was as weak as a kitten and still unable to ride. He seemed to have given up on getting himself better too, and refused all food and just drank coffee, staring moodily into the fire or sleeping.

When he has refused breakfast, lunch and now supper Slim finally lost patience with him.

“What are you trying to do, starve yourself to death as some sort of protest?”

Jess just cast him a baleful look.

“Jess, I know your hurting, and you’re about to lose everything, but we’re all in the same boat, you, me, Daisy and Mike, and I’d really appreciate a bit of help here buddy. I can’t handle everything on my own…. “

After a while Jess looked over at him and gave him a weak smile.

“Sorry, I guess I have been a bit selfish…acting like some love sick kid….Come on Slim pass over some of that stew, if I’m ever to taste Miss Daisy’s fried chicken again I’d better get well enough to ride back home.”

Slim grinned over at him.

“Now you’re talking,” he said piling his friend’s plate high.

After that Jess made a token effort to be cheerful and get himself fit and healthy, but Slim could see his heart wasn’t in it and he was just going through the motions for his friend’s sake.

Never the less the following day Jess professed he was ready for the long ride back to town and then the ranch, but Slim wasn’t so sure.

“Jess you can hardly stand unaided, how are you going to stay in the saddle it’s a good thirty miles from here.”

His friend gave him a weary look,” is it really,” he said feigning surprize, “well if it’s that far we’d better get started hadn’t we buddy…”

Slim gave him a gentle cuff on the head for his cheek.

“ OK, have it your way, but I guess I’d better saddle up for you, way you’re looking you couldn’t lift it….Don’t want you fading away before you’ve even got up in the saddle,” he said laughing as he went off to prepare their mounts.

As it was, Jess managed to stay the distance, but it took them longer than they had anticipated and it was late when they finally hit town .Slim looked over at his buddy as he reined Traveler in and saw he was just about done in.

“Figure we’ll maybe put up at the hotel,” he suggested,” ride on home tomorrow?”

Jess considered that for a few minutes before finally agreeing.

”I guess I’m pretty beat,” he admitted.

They booked a couple of rooms and after dinner turned in and it wasn’t until the following day that they caught up with Mort.

He beamed at the two ranchers when they walked into his office and all three were soon drinking coffee and catching up on the news.

After a while Mort gave Jess a speculative look,” I believe you’ve made friends with my Goddaughter,” he said.


“My Goddaughter little Emily Peters…from Albuquerque?”

Jess flushed, “oh Emily…sure…ain’t so little now though Mort,” he continued with a wink.

“Hum… and I hope she is just a friend,” said Mort looking at him sternly,” she’s a nice girl I hope you haven’t been fooling around Jess.”

“Me?” asked Jess turning innocent blue eyes on his friend, but his heart missed a beat at the thought of Mort finding out their true relationship.

“So, you’ve heard from her?” he asked weakly.

“Yes, got a letter yesterday asking if she could come and stay, of course I said yes”, he said grinning at the young cowboy,” she also said……”

“Yes…….. what?” said Jess urgently.

Mort grinned across at Slim and tipping his head back towards Jess said,” just good friends eh Slim? “

“Mort will ya tell me!”

“She said to tell you she’s missing you something fierce and can’t wait to see you again.”

Jess just beamed and said nothing while Slim and Mort exchanged a look and chuckled.

“So why didn’t she write to me?” asked Jess after a minute.

“Wasn’t sure of the address, and I guess she didn’t want letters of a …err…..a personal nature to go astray….”

Again both men chuckled, but Jess refused to rise to the bait and just looked into the middle distance thinking about his girl.

Slim shook his head again and gave his buddy a gentle cuff round the ear.

”Come on Romeo; let’s get you home I expect Daisy will be wanting to interrogate you about your love life….”

“Not if she don’t know about it Slim,” he said, “and she won’t will she?”

“Well that depends buddy, I mean…what’s it worth?” he said laughing again.

“How about me not giving you a bloody nose,” Jess replied giving him a hard look.

“See, he’s getting dangerous now Mort,” said Slim, trying hard to hide his mirth.

“Go on, get out of here,” laughed Mort,” some of us have got work to do!”

Chapter 13

When they reached home it was still early and they reined in their mounts on the rise above the ranch looking down at their home sitting peacefully in the early morning sunlight, smoke rising from the cook stove chimney and the gentle whinny of horses in the corral.

Jess’s emotions were in turmoil, it seemed so long since he had been home and now when he had expected a triumphant return, celebrating a job well done and planning for their future, in reality he was facing their eviction and an uncertain future for them all,making the homecoming extremely poignant. He turned to look at Slim and saw that he was feeling the same way and he gave his buddy a sad smile before kicking his mount on down the trail and into the yard.

Mike came tearing out of the house almost before they had dismounted and Jess gave him a bear hug, not feeling strong enough to pick him up and throw him up in the air which was his usual form of greeting after a long absence.

The youngster seemed to sense that all as not well at once and pulling back he looked deep into Jess’s eyes.

”Gee, it’s good to have you back Jess……but are you OK?” he asked seeing the still painful, peeling skin on Jess’s face.

“Sure Tiger I’m fine just got a mite sunburnt is all.”

Then Daisy was there and he hugged her too. She was almost overcome with emotion, never having admitted to how worried she had been about this latest venture, but now he was home safely she seemed to give in to her feelings for a moment.

With tears in her eyes she said,” welcome home dear…come on in you look like you need a good square meal.”

Jess looked across at Slim exchanging a grin with him before putting his arm round Daisy’s waist and saying, ”that I do Daisy; Slim there has practically starved me half to death these last few days!”

Daisy knew that all the laughter and banter was hiding their true feelings and she saw Jess flinch as he entered the house and noticed the neat piles of boxes set against one wall where Daisy had already made a start on the packing.

They sat down to coffee and pie around the table and caught up on trivial news before Jess went off with Mike to tend the horses leaving Daisy and Slim alone.

As soon as Jess left the room she turned anxious eyes on Slim,” so how did he take the news.”

“As you’d expect he was none too happy about it…… Hell what am I saying, he’s devastated Daisy, all that effort and pain he’s been through, all for nothing……………..”

“He looks terrible,” she said softly,” what went on, really Slim, he’s made light of it all but something bad happened didn’t it? ”

“Well, you know that’s the way he copes Daisy, just making a joke about everything, but I guess it was rough on him, real rough, but he hasn’t shared it all with me yet. All I know is what I saw first-hand.”

He sighed deeply, and cast her an anxious look.

“Go on.”

“He was pinioned out in the sun by Dyke, tortured Daisy; he was in a bad way when I got there. I figure an hour later and…well I’d have been too late.”

She gave a little gasp,” no wonder he looks unwell.”

“He’s bounced back , pretty much now I guess, but it was touch and go for a while there Daisy, and then I had to break the news to him about Morrison going bust……..”

Just then there was the sound of a buggy driving into the yard and getting up from the table Slim went to investigate and was just in time to see Geoff helping Gina down from his smart rig.

Jess and Mike emerged from the barn to see who the visitors were and Slim saw Jess stop in his tracks at the sight of the Morrisons a wary look in his eye.

Geoff advanced upon Jess, looking embarrassed and fearful at the same time.

The two men stood staring for a moment before Geoff finally broke the silence.

” I’m so, so sorry Jess, what can I say?”

Jess just nodded looking grave.

”I figure there ain’t anything you can say Geoff, nothin’ that will make any difference anyway, we’re gonna lose our home and that’s it………guess you’ve lost everything too.”

Geoff turned to where Gina was standing hesitantly behind him, castingher a look he glanced back at Jess, before replying, ”no ….not quite everything……. at least not yet.”

The he sighed deeply,” Gina wants to speak to you….”

“Oh?” said Jess peering across at her a questioning look on his face.

Just then Slim strode down from the porch where he had been cautiously viewing the proceedings, ready to wade in if Jess had lost his temper.

Now he smiled across at his neighbour, “coffees hot if you’d like to come in,”he said smiling.

Geoff nodded,” thanks Slim,” and followed the tall rancher into the house as Gina advanced upon Jess.

Mike was still standing beside him and he glanced down at the youngster and then back up at Gina.

Knowing what she was like and thinking he would have to do some hard talking, he turned to Mike and said kindly, “go on in the house Tiger, I need to have a quiet word with Mrs Morrison.”

The boy looked surprized for a moment and then seeing the look in Jess’s eyes, knew not to mess with him and said ,”sure Jess,” and ran off, closing the ranch house door behind him, thinking, not for the first time how real strange grown-ups acted sometimes.

Jess gave her a guarded look, before gesturing that she should accompany him back to the barn.

Once inside he nodded to a bale of straw and she sat down, composing herself before looking up at the dark haired cowboy, who was lounging against one of the stalls, his hat tipped back, waiting for her to speak.

“How are you now Jess?”


She sighed at his less than helpful manner.

“Jess, this isn’t easy for me.”

He didn’t make any attempted to help her, just waited for her to continue.

After a moment she looked up at him and said, “did you know Geoff and I are going back East?”

“I had heard.”

“Will you miss me?”

“Gina… please don’t….. “

“You see….. I’ll miss you,” she broke in before he could continue.

“I’ve told Geoff all about us………”

“What! Gina there is no us…..”

“I’ve told him I’m in love with you,” she said ignoring his outburst.

He just stared at her shaking his head, thinking how he really didn’t need this added problem in his life.

“I love you Jess,” she said again looking up at him from under her lashes.

Jess could feel himself getting angry.

“You don’t even know me Gina,” he said firmly.

She jumped up from the straw bale and ran towards him, standing close.

”Of course I do, Jess you are so different after boring old Geoff. Your life is so…. so romantic, so exciting and so are you,” she said coming even closer and staring hard at his lips, as if she could somehow mesmerise him into kissing her.

He turned away.

“You’re crazy,” he muttered.

He sighed deeply, looking down.

“That’s all some crazy fantasy you’ve dreamed up… that ain’t me Gina.”

Then turning back he said,” you wanna know what the reality of being a rancher’s wife is Gina…well I’ll tell you. It’s being constantly weary with all the work, cleaning and washin’ and cooking, see you wouldn’t have a maid iffen you lived with me. Then there is my work, you think it’s exciting?It’s back breaking ,exhausting work, I’m out ten maybe twelve hours a day, longer at round up, looking after the beasts, riding fence, Mustanging, horse breaking… and none of its romantic or exciting, it’s just damn hard work. I’d come home of an evening traipsing mud into the house, worn out and you’d be worn out after looking after the tribe of kids we’d have an……”

“Kids?” she echoed, suddenly looking at him and seeing him properly for the first time.

“Sure kids,” he said, “I want, at least four…why don’t you like ‘em?”

She just shook her head looking profoundly shocked,” no…no not really, I never wanted any.”

He just shook his head and gave her a pitying look.

“Shall we start again Gina”, he said softly,” see you really don’t know me at all do you….all this romance and excitement; well it’s just in your head….”

She finally nodded.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said softly, before coming a step closer and reaching up, she put her hands on his shoulders and she leaned in very close,” there is one thing I haven’t got wrong though……..”

“Oh?” he whispered looking deep into her eyes, just inches away….

She leaned in for the kiss, at first very gently brushing his lips with hers and then there was a current of electricity between them, like a thunderbolt, and he responded kissing her deeply and passionately ,pulling her in even closer, his hand caressing her back, so their bodies moulded together, her hands in his hair, pulling him to her………

Then after a few minutes she pulled breathlessly back a few inches and continued in a whisper, “like I said one thing I haven’t got wrong…. You’re one hell of a kisser Jess…… “

He was just about to go for round two, when he heard someone clear their throat and leaping away, he looked up to see Slim standing by the barn door, peering over at him.

“Err, Jess…… Geoff is just going, is Gina ready? “

Gina whipped round and blushed deeply before turning away to compose herself.

“Yeah, we’re coming Slim,” said Jess gruffly, standing to one side to allow Gina to walk out of the barn.

Geoff was already seated on the buckboard and Slim handed Gina up next to him, looking somewhat flushed and dishevelled.

Geoff looked at his wife and then down at Jess before saying quietly to Gina,”everything alright?”

She looked across at him and gave him the ghost of a smile, “yes, dear, everything is fine, let’s go home.”

Geoff gave a relieved sigh, and nodding to Slim and Jess he clicked the team on and out of the yard.

After they had left Slim turned to his partner and gave him a quizzical look,” so… what was all that about?” he asked.

“Don’t ask,” replied Jess,” just don’t ask,” and strode off back to the barn without a backward glance, leaving Slim just shaking his head a look of reluctant admiration in his eyes.

It was much later that evening, before he had a proper talk with Daisy. Mike had gone off to bed hours since and Slim turned in not long after saying he was bushed, but Jess said he was fine and he’d stay and keep Daisy company a while longer.

The elderly housekeeper saw the dark shadows under his eyes and knew he was really weary though.

” I’m fine,” she said gently,” you don’t have to stay up chatting dear.”

“I want to Daisy,” he said smiling across at her from his rocker, both of them sitting by the fire and enjoying a coffee,” I guess I won’t be able to do this much longer, just sit and chat at the end of the day.”

Her sweet old face clouded, “no I suppose not… I shall miss that Jess.”

“Yeah, me too….So when are you and Mike moving out to town?” he said softly, hating to hear the answer, but knowing he must prepare himself.

“On Saturday,” she said quietly.

“What!” he exploded,sitting up and turning towards her, “but that’s only two days away Daisy. The payment ain’t even due until next Friday and then it’ll take them a while to sell the place.”

“Yes I know Jess, but Slim and I thought it better for Mike to get settled in above the mercantile before school goes back next month, and old Charlie Jones has been so kind about letting us have the rooms in exchange for my helping him out in the store, well I feel I should go as soon as I can. His wife has been sick you know and he needs the help.”

All the time Daisy had been talking Jess had been looking down, his face a mask of wretchedness.

But now he looked across at her and said,” yeah, sure I can see that, guess I’m just being a mite selfish…don’t want you to go, either of you……”

“I know dear,” she said quietly,” and if there was any other way…….”

He sighed deeply;” guess I’ve tried all the ways I know… …”

“You’ve done your very best; nobody could have done more Jess….. I just thank God you are safely home again. It could so easily have gone the other way, Slim told me about what that despicable Bill Dyke did to you…. I’m not a vindictive woman but I hope Mort locks him up and throws away the key,” she said indignantly.

Jess grinned across at her,” I love it when you get mad fighting our corner,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling.

“Oh you,” she laughed giving him a playful slap on his arm.

Then looking more serious again said, “so tell me about Antonio Gomez, was he really a desperate bandido, as evil as they say?”

Jess was silent for a while considering.

“No, not really Daisy, he just had some real bad breaks, lost his adored wife and small son in a range war and blamed the law for not protecting them better. He started killin’ got on the wrong side of the law and then just couldn’t find his way back, figure I know how that felt,” he said softly……”if it hadn’t been for Slim…well…”

“Um, maybe, but you have strength of character Jess, you have had tragedy hit your life, more than once, but you never went on a useless killing spree……”

“No, I guess not. Anyways, I kinda liked him, felt sorry for him too…. He was sick you know Daisy, addicted to the drink and……Laudanum too.”

Daisy had noticed Jess’s hands had been shaking on several occasions since he came home and she had attributed it to the bad time he’d gone through recently, but now she stiffened… “oh Jess you weren’t tempted, you haven’t taken any have you? “

He shook his head violently,” Hell no Daisy…least that is, not intentionally.”

She gave him a questioning look.

“See I was hurt, kinda badly.”

“Oh, tell me dear, was this before the incident with Dyke?”

“Yeah, way before, I got jumped by a band of renegade Cheyenne, and one of them stabbed me in the guts, pretty badly. Anyways, I fought ‘em off, they didn’t have any firearms, and I did…. Then Gina found me and took me back to Gomez’s hideout.Says a lot for the guy that he didn’t shoot me on sight. Anyway, I was in some pain and that night she gave me some Laudanum, but I got rid of it, spat it out, I swear Daisy, there’s no way I’m ever puttin’ myself through that again.”

She gave a little sigh of relief and reaching out squeezed his hand.

“Then later on I realised Gomez was addicted, Gina was late back with his supply and he was so damn sick Daisy, it was awful to see.”

“I know,” she said simply,” I saw it in the war, that’s why I was so hard on you Jess, I couldn’t bear for you to get in that state.”

“Thank God you were,” he with feeling,” then turning anguished eyes on her said very softly,” how are we gonna manage without you Daisy? “

They sat in silence for a while and then she changed the subject.

“So what did Gina want?” she asked her eyes twinkling.

Jess cast his eyes to Heaven, before swivelling to face the elderly housekeeper.

“Me,” he said with a sheepish grin.


“Yeah, she got this crazy idea that she was in love with me, how I was romantic and led an exciting life,” he said casting her an amused look,” so I had to put her straight.”

“Silly woman,” said Daisy briskly,” that husband of hers adores her, and he needs her badly right now too.”

“Yeah, well I told her how it would be…married to me, the endless work, cookin’ washin’ cleaning the place with me workin’ all the hours God sends, not to mention the tribe of kids I want… that was the thing that really put her off,” he laughed, exchanging a look with Daisy,” figure I made her husband look like a real good deal!”

“Um, good,” she said and then with a little smile,” makes you wonder how I’ve stuck it so long doesn’t it,” and they laughed companionably.

Then her face clouded,” oh dear,” she said softly,” that was something I was so looking forward to, when you and Slim finally found the right girls and settled down.”

He turned questioning eyes on her.

“Helping to look after your children, if you wanted me to that is…”she said her eyes bright with unshed tears.

Jess immediately took her hand in his, “and you shall Daisy, I’ll get this place back for us if it’s the last thing I do. I promised Mike he would always have a home with me, and that goes for you too…. I promise.”

She pulled herself together and then casting him a quizzical look, said,” well I know you’re not involved with Gina, so who are you really in love with Jess?”


“Come on I know there is something going on.”

Jess looked mutinous for a moment,” has Slim….. “

“No dear Slim has said nothing, he didn’t need to, I always know when you boys are in love, you get this sort of look about you.”


“Yes sort of dreamy, standing around looking out to the horizon and sighing…. ……..and you’vebeen doing that a lot since you landed home…so are you going to tell me all about her…or if you’d rather not…..”

Jess looked across at her and gave a small smile, “no its OK Daisy I’d like to tell you… Her name’s Emily and she’s special Daisy…real special….I met her out in Denver, she was workin’ at the saloon, but she really wants to train as a nurse…..”

“Well that would be useful dear, the amount of times you need medical attention,” she said dryly.

He grinned back,” anyways she had a fall out with her folks and got saloon work, but she’s back home now in Albuquerque”.

“Albuquerque, that’s an awfully long way off Jess. “

“Yeah, I know, but she’s comin’ outso see me, stayin’ with Mort…oh yeah she’s his Goddaughter….”then his face fell, “at least she was comin’ out,until I found out about losing the ranch.”

He paused and turned troubled eyes on the older woman.

” Gee Daisy I thought I had something to offer her, a future… but now well, I guess I’ll have to tell her……”

“No dear, still see her; love will find a way and if she’s right for you, well I guess she’ll stand by you no matter what.”

“I hope so Daisy, I sure hope so,” he said giving her a sad smile.

Daisy turned in soon after, but Jess sat on by the fire thinking about the future and wracking his brains as to what he could do to turn around the events about to unfold.


The following morning all was busy as Daisy continued to pack up her and Mike’s belongings and Jess sought sanctuary out in the barn , hating all the hustle and bustle and Mike joined him shortly afterwards on the pretext of grooming his old pony.

“Gee it’s worse than when she does the Spring Cleaning in there,” the child said turning to Jess.

“Guess you’re right buddy; think we’ll lie low in here for a while until things calm down some, huh.”

The boy just nodded and got down to brushing his mount before stopping after a while and turning worried eyes on Jess.

“What’s goin’ to happen to Flash?” he asked patting the pony,” I know I can’t keep him at the mercantile… “

Jess’s heart skipped a beat, this was the question he had been dreading. He had managed to find a home for Buttons, the dog, with a neighbour and Mike’s friend was having his pet ‘coon, but a horse was a different matter altogether. Most of the local ranchers were experiencing financial difficulties of some sort and none could afford to feed another mouth, particularly that of a useless old pony.

Jess pushed his hat back.

”Well, I’m not too sure Tiger, me and Slim have gotta keep our mounts, can’t work without ‘em, but old Flash here, I guess he’s kinda expendable.”

Mike turned huge innocent blue eyes on Jess, “what does ex…expend…..mean?”

“Expendable? Means not really needed…he don’t work see Mike, he’s not essential.”

The youngster’s eyes filled with tears,” but he is Jess……. he is needed by me…he’s my best friend after you and Slim and Aunt Daisy…you’re not gonna sell him are you Jess…?”

Jess thought it mighty unlikely that anyone would want the little pony, but the alternative was unthinkable.

He sighed deeply.

”Look Mike, I’ve got a little money left and Mr Morrison is giving me some money from the sale of his place, so I’ll pay for him to stay at the Livery…for… well for as long as I can……OK?”

“Oh gee Jess, that’s just swell, I couldn’t stand to lose him…not after everything else, you understand don’t you?”

“Sure I do boy,” and Jess pulled him close in a big hug, “don’t worry Mike, it won’t be forever, we’ll be together again just as soon as I figure something out.”

Slim who had been about to enter the barn had stopped in his tracks and listened to this conversation and changed his mind, walking away sadly shaking his head.

It was much later that night when he finally confronted Jess.

They were sitting outside on the porch enjoying a last coffee before turning in when Slim turned to his partner and said quietly, “why did you tell Mike that you’d stable his horse?”

Jess looked back taken by surprise, but he quickly pulled himself together,” because that’s what I aim to do.”

“But be realistic Jess, you can’t afford it, not long term anyways”.

Jess looked down for a while before replying, “well maybe it won’t be for too long, things could change, maybe we can buy the place back… “

“And just how do you propose to do that?”

“Same way as last time, find someone as will pay me to sort out their problems…”

Slim’s head shot up, “don’t beat about the bush Jess, you’re talking about bounty hunting aren’t you?”

He was silent for a long time before replying very quietly, “yeah, I guess I am.”

“No”, shouted Slim,” I won’t let you do that, it was bad enough last time, nearly got yourself killed, not again Jess….”

“It ain’t down to you though is it?” said Jess giving him a hard look.

“If you really care about Mike and Daisy then you won’t do it,” said Slim stubbornly.

“It’s because I care about them that I’m doing it,” he spat in exasperation.

They were silent for a long time and then Slim tried another tack.

“You’re a free agent now Jess, figure our partnership will be dissolved once the property is sold, I thought you might be going down to Albuquerque….try your luck down there.”

Jess’s head shot up at the mention of the town.

“I ain’t turning my back on Mike and Daisy,” he said softly,” no matter what, I promised them a home with me for as long as they want it and I aim to keep that promise, no matter what it takes.”

“What about Emily?” asked Slim, playing his trump card, not caring how dirty he played as long as Jess was kept safe and gave up the crazy notion of bounty hunting for a living.

Jess just threw him an icy stare,” that was a bit below the belt wasn’t it buddy?” he said, before scrapinghis chair back, standing up and makinghis way to bed, without so much as a goodnight or glance in Slim’s direction.


The following day was Saturday and the day they had all been dreading, Moving Day for Mike and Daisy. They were all up at first light and the buckboard packed to overflowing and as soon as the men had dealt with the early morning Stage they planned to take off for town.

Old Mose had jumped down from his seat on the Stage and given Daisy a warm hug when he arrived.

“We sure are going to miss you out here Miss Daisy,” he said sorrowfully,” the place just won’t be the same without you.”

She smiled deeply into his rheumy old eyes, “now will it be me you miss or my coffee and apple pie Mose?” she said trying to lighten he situation.

“How could you think such a thing Miss Daisy,” he said in mock consternation, “why you of course, my dear lady.”

“Well in that case you must visit at the mercantile,” she said with a little smile” and I may even have time to bake the odd pie for you between serving customers.”

“Serving customers,” repeated Mose,” it’s a crying shame that’s what it is, you having to lose your home, ‘tis bad times……..real bad times,” and he went off shaking his head sadly.

Finally they were ready to go and with Slim up on the driving seat and Mike in the back with all their worldly possessions, Daisy took one last look around the yard before being helped up next to Slim by Jess.

It had been decided that he would stay and look after the Relay as another Stage would be by at noon, and Slim reckoned it would take most of the day to settle Mike and Daisy into their new quarters. Jess looked up at Daisy and Mike now, trying hard to keep it together, but seeing them this way he had a lump the size of Texas in his throat, and had to keep reminding himself that they were only going to town and he would see them soon.

Just as Slim was about to click the team on out of the yard Buttons broke free from where she had been tethered in the barn and came rushing out barking and trying to jump up on the buckboard with Mike. Jess was just glad of the disruption and was able to hide his emotions as he made a grab for the dogs collar and then he waved off the family as Slim rushed them out of the yard .Once they had gone he picked the frantically yelping dog up, before carrying it under his arm back into the ranch house closing the door firmly behind him.

Chapter 14

As Slim had predicted it took him most of the day to unload the buckboard and then make sure Mike and Daisy had settled reasonably comfortably into their new home. Mike was understandably tearful and said he was missing Jess and Buttons something fierce already.

Then Slim had taken him to one side and talked gently to him.

“Now listen to me Mike, you’re the head of the household here now. I want you to look after Miss Daisy for us, until we can be a family all back together again, me and Jess are relying on you to do that, you understand?”

The boy seemed to raise himself in stature.

“Yes sir, I can do that, I’ll try and keep her cheerful, ‘cos I guess she’ll be missin’ home as much as me,”he replied looking bravely up at the tall rancher.

“Good boy,” said Slim patting him on the shoulder. “Jess will be by to visit in a day or two, to check you’ve got everything you need, and any problems you just send a note with old Mose OK?”

The boy nodded and after chatting briefly to Daisy, Slim finally took his leave with a heavy heart.

When he drove the buckboard back into the yard it was nearly supper time and he was wondering what sort of reception he would receive from Jess. He had hardly spoken that morning and Slim knew that he had hurt him deeply by suggesting he go down to be with Emily in Albuquerque, implying that he would think that more important than Mike and Daisy’s future happiness.

He also knew how Jess’s emotions were all over the place ,desperately missing his girl as he was, and Slim admitted to himself that he had been completely wrong in what he had said. But hell he just wanted to keep his best buddy safe and the way Jess had been going lately he would be shortly running out of those nine lives he professed to have.

He unhitched the buckboard and tended the horses before slowly making his way across the yard and as he entered the ranch house he was greeted by the smell of roasting chicken.

After a moment Jess popped his head round from the kitchen and giving Slim his shy smile said,” it’ll be on the table in five, if yer wanna wash up Slim.”

They were shortly sitting around the table enjoying a quite passable roast dinner, much to Slim’s surprize.

When they had finally finished he gave a deep sigh of satisfaction and having wiped his mouth with his napkin, said, “well that was wonderful Jess, I reckon if Emily won’t have you, I’ll marry you myself.”

Jess grinned back at him,” sorry you’re not my type Hard Rock.”

Slim chuckled and then looked serious,” I’m sorry about what I said last night, I was way out of order.”

Jess just ducked his head.

” It’s OK,” he said softly, “you were just lookin’ out for me I know that Slim…. It’s just that I have to do something you know….?”

Slim nodded.

”Sure I understand, maybe we’ll come up with a plan, but right now I really don’t have a clue as to what.”

They somehow managed to get through the rest of the week, but with Friday looming they became more and more morose, just going about their work, barely speaking as the reality of what was about to happen hit them.

On the Thursday Jess finally lost his temper.

He had been mending the corral fence and he managed to gash his hand with the hammer painfully.

“Garl darn the bloody thing,” he spat throwing the offending piece of fencing down, and turning to his partner, “why in Hell are we doin’ this Slim… I reckon it’s down to the new owner to sort it out,” and with that he marched off to the barn, his back registering extreme displeasure.

Slim left him five minutes to calm down before following him over.

He found him stroking Traveler, as he knew he would, the nasty scrape now wrapped in an old rag to stem the bleeding.

Slim walked over and tipped his head to the bandaged hand,” you OK, want me to take a look?”

Jess just shook his head,” nah, it’s just a scratch.”

Then his temper returned and he kicked the stall savagely making Traveler’s head shoot up, his eyes rolling showing white with shock at his master’s sudden change of mood.

Jess turned on his friend,” why Slim, it’s all so danged unfair, we ain’t got much here, but what we’ve got is good, and we’ve worked hard for it…...sweated blood for every last thing we’ve achieved, it’s our home goddamn it and some city slicker from back east will probably come and buy it up as some sorta dude ranch, they sure seem to be the only folk with any money these days!”

“We don’t know that Jess, it could go to someone local, might even keep us on…. “

“You’re kidding Slim, ain’t nobody round here got two cents to rub together, they’re all in the same boat as us…” and then he slumped down on a bale of straw, his temper suddenly spent.

After a moment he got up and went back into Traveler’s stall and offered the horse a sugar lump,” sorry old boy,” he said softly, caressing the horse’s velvety nose.

Finally the Friday morning dawned and the men went about their tasks as normal.

When Mose drove in on the early morning Stage he took in their miserable faces and said “, so when’s the dead line then boys?”

“Twelve noon,” said Slim, squinting up at Mose seated on the Stage box.

“You goin’ to the bank then?”

“Ain’t no point,” said Jess, “we don’t have the money, guess they’ll figure that out when we don’t show.”

“So what happens then?”

“I suppose the bank will make arrangement for the auction within a week or so,” said Slim quietly,” then that’s us out of here.”

“They just can’t do that,” said Mose furiously,” what about the Stage line?”

“Well I guess they’ll try and sell it as a going concern, staff the Stage Stop as usual and me and Jess will stay on until something’s fixed up, so don’t fret Mose.”

“It ain’t right,” said the older timer,” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this is all wrong, throwing you good boys out on the streets through no fault of your own. Your old Pa would have been mad Slim… real mad!”

And with that he hustled the team out of the yard at speed.

The men just carried on as normal doing routine repairs and tending to the stock, until just before noon when Slim suddenly marched off into the house.

He emerged a few moments later and standing on the porch called over to Jess to come and join him.

Jess looked over from the corral where he was mending harness and what he saw made his eyes open wide in surprise.

He walked over to where Slim was now seated on the porch and he gestured to Jess to sit next to him and then he raised the bottle of whiskey that had so stunned Jess.

“Thought we’d have a little drink to mark the occasion,” he said, pulling the cork out and pouring a good measure into the two tumblers he had placed on the old wooden table between them.

Jess looked awestruck,” this ain’t like you Slim, drinkin’ on a week day…drinkin’ at noon on a week day too,” he continued.

“Yeah, well maybe this isn’t a usual week day”, said Slim dryly, passing Jess a glass and raising his own to his partner.

“Here’s to us Jess and the end of an era……….”

Jess raised his glass and knocked the fiery liquid back in one, grimacing as it hit his throat.

Slim did likewise and then refilled their glasses, before drinking it back in one again.

Jess looked shocked,” hey take it easy partner…”

“Why should I?” said Slim loudly,” all my goddamn life I’ve taken it easy, done the right thing, worked hard….and look where it’s got me…..figure its time I kicked off some, was a bit more like you…”he grinned blearily at Jess, “you know, free spirit and all that”…….. and he poured them both another drink.

“Iffen yer goin’ to be more like me I figure you should learn when to quit while yer ahead Slim…you ain’t used to drinkin’ spirits in the day…. Hell, I’m not used to drinkin’ spirits in the day,” he said, slurring a little, and suddenly wishing he’d bothered with breakfast and he hadn’t just drunk three large whiskies on an empty stomach.

He looked across at Slim and saw he was looking slightly the worse for wear too.

“Figure I’ll make us some coffee,” he said a while later standing up and swaying a little.

Slim just shook his head, “won’t that sober us up though?” he asked squinting up at his buddy.

Jess grinned down at him,” well yeah, that’s the general idea Slim.”

Slim peered up at his partner, watching him swaying gently, but not actually making a move to go and make the promised coffee.

“Don’t wanna do that,” he said eventually,” sober up that is………”

“Miss Daisy wouldn’t approve,” said Jess throwing him a cautionary look.

“Um…well she ain’t here is she,” he said softly, before pouring them both another drink.

“Slim I really think……. “

But Slim was never to know what his buddy really thought because at that precise moment a rider came galloping down the track.

Jess looked up and tried unsuccessfully to focus on the newcomer.

“Someone’s in a hurry,” he said, and both men looked on with interest as Mort Corey came into view and finally reined in his big buckskin and looked over at the two cowboys a bemused expression on his face.

He took in the scene and then looking over at the usually sober and sensible Slim said,” it’s a bit early in the day for you ain’t it Slim?”

Slim had suddenly reached melt down, and he felt all the anger and resentment of the last few weeks rising up within him.

“Some law is there then Sheriff, some law as says a man can’t get drunk on his own property?”

Jess turned on his partner,” hey Slim that’s enough,” he protested.

Then looking up at the Sheriff said kindly,” sorry Mort, he don’t mean it…. Just, well feelings are running kinda high right now, with losing the ranch and all.”

“Yes I know, that’s why I’m here,” said Mort dismounting and hitching his horse up to the rail, before joining them on the porch.

“So the bank manager’s got you doing his dirty work has he Mort, sent you over to serve us notice has he?”

Mort ignored the comment and looked over to Jess who seemed marginally more sober.

“Any coffee on the go” he asked politely,” because I figure your partner here could use some Jess.”

Jess nodded and swaying slightly made his way to the door before gesturing for the Sheriff to join him,” comin’ right up,” he said, leaving Mort to haul Slim out of his chair and bring him into the house.

Shortly all three men were sitting round the table drinking their coffee, but it wasn’t until Slim had imbibed his second cup that Mort turned to Jess and said ,” got something for you.”

“Oh, what’s that Mort?”

Mort dug in his vest pocket and bringing out a bulky envelope slapped it down on the table in front of his friend.

Jess and Slim stared at it in surprise.

“Well aren’t you going to open it?” asked Mort, pushing his hat back and grinning at him.

Jess exchanged a look with Slim, before tearing open the buff envelope.

His eyes opened wide in shock as he surveyed the contents and then he spilled them out onto the table, hundreds of dollar notes.

Slim’s mouth opened as if to say something and then closed.

Then he tried again,” how much?” he whispered.

Jess took another look, thousands he said in a shocked voice,” four, maybe five…..”

Mort smiled at him,” $5,000 less the payment in full to the bank. I took the liberty of going over to pay off the loan before I left town, here’s the receipt,” he said fishing in his vest pocket.” Paid in full, you and Jess are now the proud owners of this spread again, lock stock and barrel,” he said looking encouraginglyat the tall rancher.

I don’t understand, said Slim weakly,” where did it come from?”

Mort turned to Jess.

“You remember handing overGomez’s body to the Sheriff in Pueblo, Sheriff Jolly?”

“Oh yeah, well named,” said Jess sarcastically.

“Well, he gave you a receipt for the body, but what he didn’t do was to tell you there was a bounty onhis head for the sum of $5,000!”

Jess gave a low whistle,”I never even thought toask, I knew I was in line for that $10, 000 from Morrison, so I guess it wasn’t important.”

“Yeah, that’s what the Sheriff thought, and why he tried to swindle you out of the money. It wasn’t until you got back and thenI heard Morrison had negated onthe deal that I thought I’d check it out.”

“Gee, thanks Mort.”

“Oh, don’t thank me , it was your friend the Sheriff out at Denver that did the hard work. Ben rode down to Pueblo and had a few hard words to say to Sheriff Jolly, including threatening to report him and making sure he lost his badge if he didn’t come up with all the cash pretty damn quick. Anyways, upshot is he wired it over late last night and I went and saw the bank for you, and here we are,” he finished triumphantly.

Both Slim and Jess looked at him in amazement for a moment before they jumped up slapping him on the back and shaking his hand, thenSlim said,” I guess this is a cause for celebration, would you care for a drink Mort?”

Jess and Mort exchangedan amused look,” guess old Slim here is picking up on your bad habits Jess,” he said jokingly.

“Well I can’t see as how that’s true ,”said Jess with mock indignation,” I sure never drink in the day.”

Mort glanced across to where Slim had now found the bottle and was holding it up a questioning look on his face.

Mort looked over shaking his head and chuckling.

”Well I don’t usually imbibe at this time of day either, but hell it’s a celebration and my Deputy is minding the town…so don’t mind if I do Slim…just a small one mind……..”

By the time the late afternoon Stage came through Jess was the last man standing and he staggered over and squinted up at the driver, old Den Jackson.

The old timer glanced down at the young cowboy grinning at him swaying a little and said,” are you OK son?”

“Ssssure thing,” Jess slurred, “want me ta change the team then? “

Den looked down again and then said, “horses will last to town I reckon Jess, don’t you bother yourself,” and he clicked the team out of the yard, a grin on his face and chuckling to himself.

Jess returned to the welcome shade of the porch where Mort was lounging with his chair tipped back andhis feet up on the rail.

“Where’s Shlim gone?” he asked looking around him.

“Gone for a nap”, said Mort, helping himself to another drink and topping up Jess’s glass.

Jess slumped back down onhis seat and looked out to the horizon and gave a contented sigh.

Then turning to Mort he said,” so have you known Emily since she was a kid then Mort?”

Mort looked puzzled for a moment and then remembered Jess had fallen for little Emily Peters.

“Yeah sure,” he drawled,” lovely little girl she was, strong natured though , always standing up to her Pa, but then old Marty Peters needs some standing up to I guess, he’s kinda……“

“What?” asked Jess.

“I don’t know……. he’s a real good friend, do anything for you, you know Jess, but well, where Emily is concerned he just wants to control her life completely…. “

“Yeah, I heard about him refusing to let her marry her boyfriend…err, David, that’s why she upped and ran off to Denver.”

Mort chuckled,” yeah, that sounds like Emily.”

Then he shook his head sadly,” thing is Jess, he loves her so much, he figures no one is good enough for his little girl.”

Jess’s head swivelled andhe gave Mort an anxious look,” I guess that would include me then?”

Mort looked sheepish.

” I guess so…he’s already written me about you Jess, he’s done some research, asking about you down in Texas…and well, you can imagine the stories he’s heard.”

Jess looked thunderstruck.

”Oh yeah,” he said,” I can just imagine and probably all the tales got about twenty times worse in the tellin’.”

Mort nodded,” if it’s any consolation I told him you were an honest upright citizen who deputized for me, was the one person I’d want at my back ina ruckus and as how you’d be my number one choice as a son in law!”

Jess smiles weakly across,” is that for real or is it the drink talkin’?”

Mort was completely honest,” bit of both, I did tell him you were OK Jess, but like I say, there ain’t a man alive that he’d want to marry his precious daughter.”


The following morning there were three men with three very sore heads sitting around the breakfast table.

Mort’s ‘just one small one’, had led to another and another ………….. and he had ended up sleeping on the old leather couch in the living room.

Now he took a sip of his coffee,” so who’s idea was it to open that second bottle of Red Eye then?” he asked with a little groan.

“Him,” said Jess and Slim in unison pointing at each other.

“Weren’t me,” said Jess belligerently,” didn’t even know we’d got another bottle.”

Slim tapped his nose “ah, hidden in the back of the barn against a rainy day,” he said, still sounding far from sober.

“So it was you then,” said Jess looking vindicated,” and guess we had one hell of a storm yesterday, never mind a rainy day.”

Later Mort made his way back to town with Jess, who couldn’t wait to share the good news with Daisy and Mike.

They had been overjoyed at the sudden turn of events and Mike was all for saddling up his pony and riding home there and then with Jess. However Daisy was a little more thoughtful.

“Oh Jess dear I’m absolutely delighted, of course I am,” she said dabbing a hanky at her damp cheek where the tears had fallen after Jess had gently broken the good news.” But………”

“What, what is it Daisy?”

“Well dear Charlie has beenso kind giving us a home here that I can’t just walk out at a minutes notice, his wife is still recovering from that illness andI think I must stay at least another week or two.”

Jess gave a huge sigh of relief,” is that all, well sure Daisy you stay as long as you need to, just as long as you come home in the end.”

She smiled across at the earnest young rancher,” why of course I will dear, did you think I would not?” she said with a little chuckle.

“Well I dunno Daisy,” said Jess with his hands in his pockets, giving her a mock appraising look,”everytime I’ve visited you’ve said how thoughtful Charlie is, and what fun it is serving all the ladies, hearing all the gossip first hand and all. Well I guess that’s more fun than lookin’ after two beat up ol’ cowboys always dirtying the place up and rippin’ their clothes and all,” he finished the suspicion of a smile in his eyes now.

“Jess Harper, you’re teasing me,” she said quickly and then more softly,” you know I’ve missed you boys terribly,” giving him a little slap on the arm.

He pulled her into a big bear hug,” heck Daisy we’ve missed you too.”

Just then a beaming Charlie walked over,” hey Jess, put my staff down and let her get on with her work, and you’ll have her home soon enough!”

Shortly afterwards Jess took his leave, promising to return the followingweek to pack all their stuff up and return Mike and Daisy home to their rightful place.

As promised Daisy returned by the end of the month and things gradually settled down into the old routine. But with one big difference, none of the members of the Sherman ranch took their lifestyle for granted anymore. All of them had, had their reasons to thank God for the sanctuary the place had provided for them in the past, and now it was doubly important to them , by virtue of the fact that they had so nearly lost it all.

It was Slim’s home of course, but hard won, hewn out of the wild landscape by his own father who had lost his life trying to protects it. For Jess it simply stood for the turning around of his life from one of constant searching and running…searching for he knew not what, until he found it at the Sherman place, and running from his difficult, traumatic and wild past. Here he had found friendship and security which he would have fought to the death to protect, and in fact nearly had done so.

For Daisy it had meant security and the chance to love and care for others again, something she had desperately needed in her life after the death of her son in the war and then later, her dear husband. She sometimes lay awake at night shaking with fear at what her life might have become, if she hadn’t found the ranch and the young cowboys who had made it their home. Here she had learnt to love and care again and her life, although hard, was to her mind perfect.

And as far as little Mike was concerned, it had been a fresh start for him after the tragic death of his Ma and Pa, killed in an Indian raid, along with all the other passengers on the Wagon Train, save for the one little boy hiding terrified in the bushes watching the massacre.

Jess was the only person he had ever shared the true horror with, and it made for an extremely strong bond between them.He hadn’t disbelieved his friend for one moment when he had promised he would sort out the problems of their eviction from the ranch and they would all be together again soon. He knew that if Jess made a promise, then he always kept it, just like Slim and Aunt Daisy and the child was growing up strong and secure in their love.

Chapter 15

As the days since their return to the ranch turned into weeks and there was still no word from Emily, Jess became more and more edgy, spending his time working allhours, ending up exhausted and short tempered. One day after a pointless spat with Slim about something trivial he had marched off to the barn, cussing loudly leaving Daisy and Slim exchanging worried looks.

“It’s this business with Emily that’s getting him down,” said the elderly housekeeper,” he’s been like a cat on hot bricks these last couple of weeks waiting to hear from her. Oh Slim, you don’t think she has forgotten all about him now she is safely home, after all she lives a long way off, maybe she just couldn’t see it working?”

Slim tipped his Stetson back and frowned.

” I don’t think so Daisy, according to Jess…we’ll they’re in love, I reckon it’s more likely her Pa has put a stop to things.”

“Talk to him Slim, maybe he needs to go and see her, find out once and for all, get it out of his system, because if he doesn’t well, he’ll drive us all crazy before too long,” she finished with a small smile, trying to make light of something that was really bothering her, hating to see one of her ‘boys’ upset.

“OK Daisy don’t fret,” said the tall rancher patting her arm affectionately before making for the barn.

Jess had come out again though, and was taking his feelingsout on the woodpile, chopping logs with a vengeance, stripped down to his waist in the hot noon day sun, sweating profusely and looking furious.


He ignored his buddy and carried on attacking the logs.

Slim went over and grabbed him gently by the shoulder, spinning him round and making Jess lower the axe immediately and look at his friend for the first time.

“What? “

“Will you put that axe down before you do some damage and come and rest a while I want to talk to you.”

Jess gave him an angry look,” we just did and you’re talkin’ rubbish iffen you think we should spend good money out on that new harness when the one we’ve got can be mended easy… “

“Jess, it’s not about that………. and that’s not why you’re so mad either is it…….it’s about Emily, all this working your butt off, not sleeping nights, losing your temper at nothing…….”

“I’m OK,” said Jess sulkily, it ain’t nothin’ to do with that.”

“Sure it is,you’re like an old grizzly bear with a sore head…now come on Jess talk to me.”

Jess slumped down on a large log and Slim lounged against the fence nearby.

”Well, are you worried that you haven’t heard from her?”

Jess looked down for a long time before finally replying,” yeah, I guess so, I kinda thought she’d have been here a while back.”

“Do you think maybe her Pa’s put a stop to it?”

Jess’s head shot up,” after he heard all about my murky past, probably,” he said laconically.

“So what are you going to do? “

“Nothin’, what can I do?”

“Well, I don’t know…………. go down and see her, see her Pa, tell him how you both feel.”

Jess just shook his head,” you know I can’t go off to Albuquerque now, it would take way too long and we’ve gotta start bringing the stock downfor the winter in another few weeks, not to mention mending all those fences on the south pasture before we do it. We might have enough money to throw at the place now Slim, but that ain’t no substitute for hard work and we’ve got one hell of a lot of that to do before this place is out of the woods.”

“Do you think I don’t know that Jess, but I hate to see you this way, I could manage for a month say…. “

But Jess just shook his head and looked out to the distant horizon.

”Maybe her Pa’s right,” he said softly, “maybe I ain’t good enough for her.”

“Jess, don’t talk that way…..Jess? “

But his buddy was focused on the track, and Slim turned to see two riders galloping towards the yard, before turning and looking at his buddy again.

Jess’s face was alight with joy.

” I’ll be…………” he said, before throwing the axe down and running towards the riders.

Then Slim recognised Mort Corey as he rode into the yard and reined in his mount, accompanied by one of the most beautiful young women Slim had ever clapped his eyes on.

“You lucky son of a……” he whispered to himself as Jess ran forwards, and reaching up helped the girl down before taking her inhis arms and kissing her passionately.

After a few minutes they parted and Jess looked deeply into her eyes like nobody else existed, his arm still holding her gently around her waist.

Mort looked on indulgently from where he still sat in the saddle and looking down at the young couple said, “Emily this is Slim Sherman, Slim, my Goddaughter, Emily Peters.”

Then turning to Emily said, ”and I think you know Jess here,” with a huge wink at Slim.

Emily suddenly remembered her manners.

“Mr Sherman…. Slim, lovely to meet you,”and disentangling herself from Jess’s gentle grasp she went over and shook hands.

“And you too Emily,” he said with a huge grin,” maybe old Jess will re-join the human race, now that you’re here.”

She exchanged a secret smile with her lover and returned to him taking his hand, almost as though they had to touch to convince themselves that she was really here.

“Coming in Mort, dinner shouldn’t be too long?”

“Aw I’d really love to Slim, but I’ve got to be getting back, thing is I’ve a favour to ask you good folks.”

“Sure what can we do for you?”

“Well this young lady,” he said tipping his head towards Emily, “has been a bit naughty andcome all this way without warning me andthe thing is I’ve got to go to Cheyenne to deliver a prisoner, be gone two,may be three days and I was wondering if you could put her up?”

“Well sure,” said Jess at once beaming up at the Sheriff,” if that’s OK with her Pa that is,” he said quickly, trying to do the right thing.

Then Emily chirped up, “oh, yes Pa said any friend of Mort’s was just fine for me to visit with.”

Mort exchanged a disbelieving look with Slim, but merely grunted.

“Well, see you at the end of the week and thanks again,” and he kicked his big buckskin off up the rise.

Slim grinned across at the star struck lovers and said softly,” come on Emily, let’s go meet the others.”

Then turning to Jess said,” and hadn’t you better get washed up and dressed buddy?” giving him a huge grin and tipping his head to where Jess still stood sweating and shirtless after his foray with the woodpile.

He cast Emily a sheepish grin and then went off to wash while Slim escorted her inside.

Daisy and Emily hit it off immediately and were soon chattering away like old friends as Emily helped her serve the meal.

After they had eaten they sat around with their coffee chatting, when the subject of where Emily should sleep finally came up.

Daisy had just suggested Emily share her room, as visiting ladies so often did, and then she said, “Oh dear, I’d forgotten, you boys dismantled the spare bed before the move andit’s still inbits over in the barn.”

“Well Emily can sleep in my bed,” said Jess quickly.

All eyes turned to stare at him and he suddenly realised what he had said and blushed to the roots of his hair.

“No……no,” he stuttered,” I didn’t mean that, I thought Slim and I could move out to the bunk house, just for a couple of days,” he finished turning pleading eyes on his buddy.

“Sure,” came the smiling reply, “no problem.”

Then Mike who had been sitting quietly listening to the grown-ups, turned innocent blue eyes on Emily and said, “I guess you really wouldn’t want to bunk down with Jess anyway.”

She turned laughing eyes on the youngster, “oh really why not Mike? “

“Well, he has these nightmares sometimes, yells and screams something fierce, wakes Slim up and then he has to sit and talk to him if its real bad and then….. “

“OK, Tiger that’s enough,” said Jess quickly casting Emily an apologetic look.

But the boy wasn’t finished yet,” and as for Slim well he snores and I guess you wouldn’t want to sleep in his bed either.”

“Mike I think it’s time you collected the eggs isn’t it?” said Slim.

“I already…….”

“Go and check again Tiger,” said Jess firmly and with that the boy knew when he was being dismissed.

“Yes sir,” he said politely and slipped from the table and once the door closed behind him the others gave way to stifled laughter.

Then Jess excused himself and Emily and said he would settle her into the room and pack up his and Slim’s stuff for the bunkhouse.

They entered the room, Jess leaving the door ajar for proprieties sake, knowing Miss Daisy was big on that sort of thing, and he watched his girl as she hungrily surveyed the room.

She turned to face him thenand said,” I’ve thought about you here so often , wondered what your room was like, imagining you lying at night, thinking of me ……..maybe?”

He took a step closer and took both her hands inhis and with an intense look said softly,”every goddamn lonely night since you left.”

She desperately wanted him to take her in his arms again, but knew it was neither the time or place and so gently removed herself from his grasp and went further into the room.

“Which bed is yours?” she asked looking across at him.

He nodded to it, “the furthest one from the door.”

She went over and sat on it,” I’ll use this one then,” she said softly,” guess that will make me feel close to you.”

They busied themselves getting her settled in and then he took her ona guided tour of the ranch, but he was unable to get as close to her as he would have liked because Mike dogged their every step, staying as close to Jess as he could and although it was annoying, he did nothing wrong, in fact hewas almost silent, he was just constantly there.

Jess knew exactly what it was all about. Mike had an instinct as to Jess’s feelings for a girl and he knew this one was real special and as usual he started fretting about his position with Jess who was the single most important person in his life.

Ever since he had overheard Slim and Jess talking about Emily, he had dreaded Jess taking off to visit with her, maybe even not coming back. Now she was actually here and he could see how much she meant to his buddy, but did he love her , care about her more than him. That’s what was on the child’s mind as he trailed round after the young lovers, desperate to be included and accepted and to keep his special place in Jess’s heart.

After supper when Mike’s bedtime came round Jess excused himself and went to put the boy to bed.

Once he was washed andunder the covers and Jess had told him a couple of stories he sat back and gave the youngster a shrewd look.

“You’re kinda edgy about Emily bein’ here with me ain’t you Tiger?” he said softly.

The little boy refused to look him inthe eye and after a while whispered,” yeah, I guess so.”


The boy said nothing and then Jess saw a single tear run down his cheek.

“Hey, Tiger,” he said pulling the boy towards him and hugging him, before pulling back andtipping his chin up, so the lad looked him in the eyes.


“I guess, I’m kinda jealous, figure you love her somethin; fierce and you’ll be goin’ off down south with her and getting’ hitched and having another little boy and you’ll forget all about me………” and he started crying properly.

Jess feltthe tears stinging the backs of his own eyes and swallowed hard before pushing the boy away and looking deep into his eyes.

“Listen to me Tiger, and listen real good. I ain’t never goin’ ta leave you. I made a promise that you’d always have a home with me and I’vekept it so far ain’t I?”

The boy nodded.

“Well, I promise that when…if…. I ever get hitched and have kids they won’t replace you…not ever, becauseyou’re real special and you are my buddy and I love you Tiger and nothin’ and no one is ever goin’ to change that…understand?”

The boy gave a deep shuddering sigh,” yeah, I do Jess ….. an’ I love you too….and…. “

“And …….what Tiger?”

“I think Miss Emily is really nice and very beautiful….”

“You and me both partner”… and Jess sat on with him, until the child finally relaxed into a deep peaceful sleep.

When he finally made it back to the living room Slim had already gone over to the bunk house saying he was beat, and then Daisy made a great fuss of yawning.

“Think I’ll turn in too, if you don’t think me rude Emily, only it’s been a long day.”

“No of course not,” smiled the young woman,” maybe I should go too”, casting a glance at Jess.

“How about a last coffee on the porch,” he said quickly,” it’s a lovely night…. “

“OK,” she smiled and Daisy left them, but not before giving Jess a small wink.

Jess brewed another pot of coffee and they took it out to the porch and once settled, Emily turned worried eyes on him.

” Is Mike OK ?”she asked.

“Sure, just kinda protective of me, likes to know where he stands, but he’ll be fine now we’ve had a talk.”

She nodded,” Daisy told me a little of his past and how good you are with him….he’s a lovely little boy.”

Jess just nodded.

They were silent for a while and then she looked concerned again.

” I didn’t know you got such bad nightmares,” she said.

He just shook his head,” does that bother you… Mike made it out worse than it is…..”

“No, of course it doesn’t bother me, it’s just that there is so much we don’t know about each other. It’s funny,” she said reflectively lookingout to the moonlit distant hills, “funny how little I know about you and yet…”she turned to look deep into his eyes, “and yet I feel I know you…… like I have always been in your life….”

“I feel the same,” he whispered, taking her hand.

They chatted on together in muted tones so as not to disturb Daisy sleeping on just the other side of the wall and after an hour or so Jess saw her stifle a tiny yawn.

“ Emily , you’re beat aren’t you, I should have realised, after that long journey and all.”

She smiled at him ,” I am a little tired, but I just don’t want to go in and leave you.”

He got up reluctantly and taking her hands hauled her to her feet, before leaning in so that he was only a few inches from her and she could feel his warm sweet breath on her cheek.

“Want me to come and tuck you up?” he whispered with a cheeky grin.

She gave him an innocent look,” now I don’t think Miss Daisy would approveof that Jess.”

“Probably not, anyway we’vegot all tomorrow, I told Slim I was takin’ the day off, thought we might go downto the river for apicnic.”

“Oh that sounds lovely,” she said with enthusiasm.

“And what’s more we’ll go alone,” he said, his hands now coming up to cup her face and looking deeply into her green eyes,” guess we need a little privacy, huh?”

She leaned in and his lips brushed hers before kissing her deeply, his thumb gently stroking her cheek, and his heart poundingso fast and loud he thought she must hear it .He never wanted the kissing to end, but knew it had to, for that night anyway, and eventually he pulled back and she turned andopened the door before looking back, “‘night”, she whispered.


He wandered back to the bunkhouse andwas surprized to see the lamp still lit and Slim lying propped up against his pillows reading, but he put the book down whenJess came in.

He sat downonthe other bunk and yawned widely,” thought you’d be asleep longsince.”

“I couldn’t get off, thought I’d read a spell, good evening?”

“The best, she’s really somethin’ ain’t she Slim,” he said beaming across at his partner.

“Sure is, real beautiful and kind and gentle too…..so how old is she then Jess?”

“How old,” he scratched his head and looked thoughtful,” dunno, never asked , a mite younger than me I guess, twenty three, maybe twenty four, why do yer ask?”

“I don’t know, but doesn’t it strike you as odd that her Pa should be so protective of her, I mean she’s a grown woman and should beable to choose her own friends I’d have thought?”

“Uh, Mort reckons it’sbecause he cares so much about her, fathers and daughters are that way sometimes I guess.I figure if I had a daughter like that I wouldn’t let her out of my sight,” he said grinning at his friend.

“That’s why it’s strange he’s let her come all this way alone and that business she told us about staying with any of Mort’s friends…well…. “

“You sayin’ she’s lyin’?” asked Jess beginning to look annoyed.

“No, well not really, I just think she’d do anything to be with you, she really cares for you anyone can see that.”

Jess just nodded ,somewhat appeased.

“So what are you doingtomorrow?”

“Goingfor a picnic….alone, I’ve explained to Mike, a little, but if you could kinda keep him occupied I’d appreciate it…we need some time together…you know Slim…….?”

“Sure, I know alright,” he said with a wicked wink, “don’t worry buddy, I’ll see you’re not disturbed.”

“Thanks Slim,” and he stood up and started getting ready for bed. He stripped down to his undershorts and then went and washed , before turning back to where Slim had abandoned his book and was stretching out on his back ready to sleep and Jess wandered over and sat on his bed again, but made no effort to get in.

“What?” asked Slim opening his eyes again and glancing across at his buddy, on the other bunk.

” Think I should wire her Pa, say she’s stayin’ here?”

Slim looked up to heaven”, quit your worrying Jess and just go to sleep will you”, andfinally the lamp was turned down and they were soon snoring gently, all at peace with the world.

Chapter 16

The next morning the men were up early and Jess completed all his chores and helped Slim with the morning Stage before hitching up the little lightweight rig, usually used by Daisy for visiting friends, and was ready to go by mid-morning.

Emily too felt she should pull her weight and had helped Daisy with her work, before the older woman finally shooed her out.

“Off you go Emily, you are a guest here and anyway Jess will be getting impatient,” and the two women exchanged a little smile at the ways of men folk.

She was wearing a pretty green cotton summer dress, and was aware that is was a little low cut and so not wanting to shock Daisy she had thrown a light green silk shawl around her shoulders and had left her auburn wavy, hair lying free, the effect being stunning. making her look both at once innocent and yet alluring.

“You look beautiful my dear, have a good time,” said Daisy squeezing the young woman’s hand before she ran out to where Jess was waiting in the yard.

He stared at her in pure delight for a few moments before coming to his senses and helping her up on the rig and then he jumped up beside her and hustled the old work horse Rosie out of the yard and up the rise to the main road and the river, about an hour’s drive away.

It was another warm sunny early fall day and once they arrived at their destination Jess wasted no time in unloading the picnic and spreading a rug down on the soft grass at the river’s edge, then he went and ground hitchedthe old horse leaving her to graze.

When he returned, Emily had divested herself of the shawl and was sitting on the rug her arms hugging her knees as she looked keenly out at the river sparkling in the brilliant sunshine and blue mountains beyond.

“It’s so beautiful here,” she said turning to look up at Jess.

He gazed down at her, the soft curve of her figure revealed by the low cut dress, her hair aflame in the brilliant sunlight and her exquisite green eyes, now smiling up at him.

” Yeah, real beautiful,” he said,although it wasn’t obvious as to what he was alluding.

He sat down beside her and looked across at the view for a few minutes before gently taking her hand.

She turned and looked him in the eyes.

“Emily…. I…….”

“Hush”, she whispered, “don’t talk,” and she gently stroked his cheek, looking deep into his dark blue eyes.

“You OK?” he whispered.

She nodded, looking down at his lips and firm chin before dragging her eyes back up to his.

He leaned forwards and putting a hand behind her head pulled her towards him as he went in for that long awaited kiss……... and then he pulled back a little and whispered her name, before pushing her gently downon the rug and taking her in his arms, kissing her again with passion and abandonment as their bodies entwined………..

Much, much later they ate their picnic lunch and then wandered down the river bank, hand in hand until they stopped and sat down on a large boulder overlooking the river.

“So, your Pa is OK with you visiting?” asked Jess casually, after a while.

Emily was silent for a moment, “why do you ask?”

“Well according to Mort, there ain’t a man alive as is good enough for you, and yet he gives you his blessing to travel halfway across the country to meet up with…shall we say someone as he doesn’t altogether approve of? It don’t make sense.”

“Why do you think he doesn’t approve?” she asked looking surprised.

“Because he’s done his homework. Found out I’ve been on the wrong side of the law more than once, been in prison…even felt a rope around my neck ………..see you said you didn’t know me Emily, maybe it’s time you did,” he said bitterly.

She looked shocked for a moment and then taking a deep breath gathered herself.

“ I only judge the man I have seen,” she said firmly,” the one who is brave and strong and fights for what he believes in and the tender,caring man,” she said casting him a loving look.

“That is all I know about you, and all I need to know. I love you and trust you and your past doesn’t concern me.”

He gave her a grim smile,” guess it will concern your folks though….. So why did he let you come here?”

She sighed deeply before replying, “he didn’t……. he doesn’t know I’m here, he thinks I’m staying with a girlfriend in Town, but I guess it’s only a matter of time before he finds out.”

Jess shook his head sadly,” that’s right,” he said softly,” because I aim to tell him.”


“I’m sorry Emily, but if we’re going to make a go of things we have to have your parents blessing, you know that….”

She nodded sadly,” yes I do, I really care about them and couldn’t run off and elope behind their backs, I’ve grown up a lot since David…..…but I had to see you Jess , I just had to before…….. “

“Before what?”

“Before I go back East to Nursing School.”

He just stared at her dumbfounded.

“So when were you gonna tell me,” he said eventually,” before or after I’d made a fool of myself by proposing?”

“Oh Jess, I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt you… I…..”

“Well you have,” he said gruffly turning away from her.

“No listen to me, you’ve got it all wrong, nothing would make me happier…prouder than to be your wife Jess…. But Pa has convinced me, that I must….”

“Must what,” he spat angrily,” consider your options in case a more worthy suitor arrives on the door step, someone as your Pa can be proud of?”

“Stop it, Jess…stop it,” she shouted getting upset and angry,” hear me out……..!”

He said nothing, looking down hopelessly.

“Pa has convinced me that I must take my place at the Nursing School, I aim to do Midwifery, it’s a good life Jess and I can work in the community once I’m qualified, work to help you out financially on the ranch. I have a real calling for it and I don’t just want to be a wife, I want to make something of myself too….is that so wrong?” and she finally burst into tears.

He watched her for a moment, before taking her in his arms,” no…no of course not,” he whispered,” just takes some getting used to is all.”

It was much later when they finally drove back to the ranch with a new intimacy and understanding between them. Jess was completely amazed and shocked by the turn of events, but as he gradually got used to the idea he began to feel very proud of Emily’s attitude and desire for a worthwhile career. After all Daisy had been a nurse and look how good she’d turned out he thought to himself with a little smile.

They drove into the yard and reined in the horse, and Jess alighted and tenderly reached up for Emily helping her down and then continuing to hold her, an arm slung possessively around her waist ,as he walked her into the house, and Slim hid a smile at his friend’s overt protectiveness.

A few minutes later Jess emerged and unhitching the horse, took her off to the barn to groom and feed her and Slim joined him a few minutes later.

“So did you have a good time then pard?”

Jess turned from his task and Slim was surprised that he looked somewhat less than elated.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“As good as that then, I thought you were madly in love with the girl… couldn’t wait to get her alone for some romancing?“

“I am, and the lovin’ part went real well,” he said casting his buddy a small grin. “It’s just….well things ain’t quite as they seem, and Jess went on to fill his partner in on Emily’s revelations about running away from home without her parents knowledge again, and also the proposed two year nursing course she was intent on taking.

Slim let out a low whistle at this latest news.

”Uh… long time to wait buddy, are you sure you can’t persuade her to change her mind? “

Jess was very thoughtful and then said, “nah, don’t think I should try, if it’s really what she wants….and she said to me back in Denver, iffen its meant to work out then it will, and I figure she’s worth waiting for.”

“Well if that’s the way you feel Jess, I think you’d better do as you say and wire her Pa. You need to get in good with him to stand a chance with her I reckon.”

At supper that evening Daisy announced that she had been asked by a neighbour to look in on his sick wife.

“Mary is far from well,” she said,” and I may need to stay a couple of nights will you be alright?” she asked casting a troubled look around the assembled company.

“Sure,” piped up Mike right away,” it’s the weekend Aunt Daisy and I was goin’ to stay with Tommy Jackson anyway, don’t you remember?”

“Oh yes, of course dear,” said a somewhat preoccupied Daisy.

“I’ll do the marketin’ for you tomorrow Daisy, and drop off Mike on the way,” offered Jess,” I’m goin’ to town anyway, and I guess Emily will help me?”

She nodded her agreement.

I need to send that wire to her Pa too, thought Jess to himself as he looked over at his beautiful girl, and I wonder what trouble that’ll bring?

“That’s all settled then,” said Slim,” I’ll push on mending the fences in the south pasture ready for when we bring the stock down and be back in time for supper.”

Emily beamed across at him.

” I can’t guarantee to be of Miss Daisy’s standard, but I’ll have a go at cooking supper for you all,” she said gamely and Jess reached under the table and squeezed her hand.

It was agreed between them that Jess would indeed wire her Pa and ask him to stay too, with the hope that if he saw Jess’s present lifestyle then maybe he would feel more kindly towards him and so they set off early the following morning bound for town.

Jess called in at Mort’s office while Emily did the shopping and he was surprised and gratified, to hear that Mort would be at least another three or four days out of town.

“Apparently the Circuit Judge landed ahead of time and Mort is a key witness so is staying for the trial,” said Lon, his deputy. “Say you don’t have a problem with that do yer Jess boy?” asked the young Deputy playfully,” ‘cos I’ll put up the little lady iffen you’re getting tired of her company. I mean I know she should be rightfully staying with the Sheriff and I am his deputy so…..”

“Just you watch it,” said Jess playfully tipping the deputy’s hat down over his eyes,” she’s my girl and don’t you forget it Lon,” and with an exchanged grin the two men parted company.

“Looks like your stuck with me a while longer,” said Jess when he met Emily by the buckboard a while later.” Mort will be out of town another few days.”

Her face lit up,” oh good,” she said, then turning a wheedling look on Jess, “do you have to wire my Pa Jess, can’t we just have a little longer?”

“All done,” he said succinctly, then more gently, “he’ll be worrin’ honey, I know I would be if you were my daughter, we have to do what’s right, no matter how hard it is for us.”

“I guess you’re right,” she agreed,” how did I come to find such a good man?” she asked laughing and putting an arm around his waist.

He just smiled down at her, and then kissing her lightly on the lips, said “come on sweetheart, let’s go home.”

Whatever it was Jess had in mind for when they landed home to the deserted ranch house, it never came to fruition.

They were just unloading the buckboard when he heard the sound of a horse galloping in fast.

Emily glanced up from where she was standing beside him and then gave a little gasp,” oh no.”

“What is it?”

“It’s Pa Jess, Pa come to find me,” she said a look of alarm in her eyes as she moved closer to him taking his hand, and visibly shaking.

Marty Peters was a tall man, with his daughter’s striking auburn hair, but his eyes were a deep brown and now looking down at the young cowboy they held a look of such fury that Jess felt apprehensive.

He leapt down from his mount and strode over to the couple and as he came closer Jess was surprised to see that he looked much younger than he expected, in his early forties at the most .But any rational thought was quickly driven from his head as the man lunged forwards and grabbing Emily’s arm pulled her to him.

“What are you doin’ here girl, alone with this…..this hoodlum, where is Mort and why did you run off again… I thought you’d learnt your lesson the last time, after what happened in Denver….!”

He finally paused for breath casting Jess a look of distain.

“Look Mr Peters I can see yer upset, but will you just hear Emily out, she came here to see me and I…… “

“You…you,” spat Peters, ” you killed a good friend of mine, murdered Antonio for the blood money.”

Then turning to his daughter,” is this what it has come to Emily, you are looking to marry a Bounty Hunter?”

Jess was incandescent with rage at this.

“I ain’t no Bounty Hunter,” he shouted,” I brought him in because he was wanted in three states for murder and robbery, but I went out originally to fetch a friend’s wife back home, that Antonio had abducted and God knows I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been desperate for the money.”

“Whatever he did, I remember him as a good neighbour and friend.”

Jess looked down,” I kinda liked him too, but he was sick, real sick, addicted to drugs and alcohol and to killing to I reckon, he wasn’t the man you knew…. “

Then Emily piped up, “it’s true Pa, what Jess has said ,and he only did it because he was in danger of losing this place, his home and that of his friends and family…. He did it for them.”


“I’ve an adopted son, this is his home,” said Jess quietly,” I figured it was worth fighting for, to keep a roof over the boy’s head… and my partner and housekeeper too, they’re important to me….. “

“Well that’s as maybe,” blustered the tall man.

Then he saw that Emily had drifted back to Jess’s side and was holding his hand and he suddenly saw red.

“If you’ve been fooling around with my little girl……..!” he yelled.

Jess and Emily said nothing for a moment, but their closeness was evident.

Then Emily spoke up, “I love Jess,” she said loudly,” I haven’t done anything I didn’t want to do.”

“Have you.......”the man took a deep breath flushing angrily,” have you been intimate with this man Emily? “

Jess took a step forwards, standing protectively in front of her, shielding Emily, and said very softly,” I guess that kind of thing is real private between two people… … and nobody else’s business.“

“Not when one of them is only just eighteen and has had her head turned by an older man!” spat Peters.

“What!” gasped Jess looking form Peters to Emily and back again.

“Why she’s just eighteen man, didn’t you know? “

He just shook his head, looking stunned.

Jess just never saw the punch coming, but suddenly Peters laid a blow to his chin which sent him flying across the yard.

He lay where he had landed for a moment before slowly getting to his feet and staring at the other man who was advancing upon him.

“Look Mr Peters, I really don’t want to fight over this,” he said, breathing deeply and trying to control his temper.

Peters just kept coming and laid another hard right hook to Jess’s face followed by a devastating body blow that sent him groaning to his knees.

Emily screamed and ran forwards, “Pa, no please,” but he just pushed her roughly away.

After a momentJess got to his feet, blood pouring down his face from a cut lip, and shaking his head, looked hard at his opponent.

” I ain’t gonna fight you,” he said quietly.

The older man was still enraged and threw himself at Jess pounding his fists into his muscular body, but Jess just tried in vain to push him away without retaliating.

Then suddenly everything happened at once.

A horse galloped into the yard scattering pebbles and raising the dust as the rider leapt off and running over pulled Peters off Jess and landed a punch which sent him flying across the yard, and then Slim stood over the man, fists balled and challenging him to move.

The older man shook his head and then snarled, ”I see Harper has got a trained lackey to fight his battles for him.”

Slim looked down with furious eyes.

”Believe me Mister if Jess had decided to fight you, there wouldn’t be much of you left right now, guess you’re pretty lucky he showed such restraint.”

Then hauling the man up he said, “so who are you, and what are you doing here?”

Once Marty Peters identity was verified things calmed down some and they entered the ranch and Slim made some coffee, while the others settled round the table. After a moment Emily got up and fetched some clean cloths and a bowl of water and started cleaning Jess’s wounded face, so gently and tenderly that her Pa had to look away, feeling almost as though he was spying on a private moment, and he was left in no doubt as to his daughter’s true feelings.

Once Slim returned he said,” so Mr Peters,” let me get this straight, your daughter took off a few days ago saying she was visiting friends, but instead hightailed it up here to see Jess, without telling you?”

“That’s right,” said the older man aggressively.

“Well I don’t see why that gives you the right to knock nine bells out of my partner,” said Slim casting him a hard look.

“Well don’t you,” spatPeters,” why don’t you ask him, ask him what he’s been getting up to with my daughter, stringing her along doubtless, until he gets bored and finds someone his own age.”

Slim looked angry now.

”Well I guess they’re both consenting adults, it’s nobody else’s business and what’s more…”

Jess who had been sitting just staring into his coffee suddenly came to life,” leave it Slim,” he said firmly, “I guess her Pa has a right to be concerned about her.”

Then turning to Marty he said sincerely,”you have to believe me I didn’t know she was so young, and I was worried, figured she’d taken off without telling you and that’s why I wired you this morning.”

“Oh, sure you did,” said Marty sarcastically.

“He did Pa honestly,” piped up Emily,” and he’s looked after me real good, if it hadn’t been for what he did in Denver I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

Her father looked slightly appeased at that.

” Yes, well guess I am beholden to you for that Jess,” he said quietly, looking the younger man full in the eye for the first time.

Jess just ducked his head in acknowledgement and then said softly,” I’d like a word with your daughter, in private, if you don’t mind?”

Peters nodded”, yes, I guess you need to talk, before she comes home with me.”

Jess stood up and taking Emily’s hand left the house and headed for the barn.

Once they were inside he dropped her hand and just stared at her for a full minute before saying.


She just looked puzzled.

“Why did you lie to me Emily…… about your age?”

“I…... I didn’t she stuttered, I just didn’t tell you.”

“Yeah, but you knew I thought you were older, heck I thought you were nearly my age,” he said gruffly.

“Does it matter, age is just a number, I haven’t changed, I’m still the same person Jess.”

“Sure it matters,” he said turning away from her and leaning against one of the stalls looking down, trying to find the words.

He remembered what he was like at just eighteen, and the eighteen year old Jess bore no resemblance to the man today. He’d changed beyond all recognition, his values, thoughts, beliefs, darn near everything he thought. What if Emily changed, sure she might love him now, but would the twenty five year old Emily, or the forty year old…. He just didn’t know.

She walked over to him as he stood, still with his back to her, and snaked her arms around his waist.

” Jess? “

He shrugged her off and moved away a little.

“Please, don’t be this way.”

He groaned quietly,” I feel so doggone bad Emily,” he whispered.

She grabbed hold of his arm and turned him around to face her, and drew a shocked breath as she saw the look in his eyes, one of pain and regret.

“Why, what’s the matter?”

He looked deeply into her eyes.

“I feel like I’ve taken advantage of you,” he said softly,” I shouldn’t have done…what I did with you…..if I’d known you were so young…so inexperienced, I never would have…..I’m sorry Emily….”

“No,” she said loudly, “don’t say that… it was me that wanted it…back in Denver, it was me that started things, you were prepared to leave, Jess you were a complete gentleman. And yesterday, by the river it was I who said ‘hush’ when you were so obviously going to talk to me. Maybe ask if it was OK, what I wanted, you didn’t rush me or force your will on me…….it was me…. Me who did all the running and you have nothing to be sorry or ashamed about… neither of us do, after all we’re in love aren’t we…….aren’t we Jess?” she whispered tearfully.

He pulled her into his arms and held her close, kissing the top of her head, tenderly,” yes.” he replied softly,” yes of course we are.”

Chapter 18

Meanwhile back in the ranch house Peters sipped his coffee morosely, casting odd glances out of the window to where his daughter had disappeared with Jess.

After a while Slim had, had enough.

” She’ll be quite safe with Jess you know,” he said frowning at the older man.

“Uh”, said Peters,” I’ve heard a lot about your friend Sherman, got a couple of my men on the case, went down to the panhandle in Texas, he’s got quite a reputation there for his fast gun and equally fast temper…”

“And did these men tell you about his family being burnt out and killed by the Bannister gang, and how as a fifteen year old kid Jess went after them alone? Then later enlisted as a boy soldier and had a bloody awful war…….or how he went on the drift still looking for vengeance on those who killed his family? Never having a proper home or guidance….huh?”

Slim sighed deeply, “sure he got into trouble, rode in gangs, made friends with outlaws, but he was a kid trying to survive and he eventually learnt right from wrong the hard way…But he has learnt from his mistakes and I guess that has made him a better, stronger person.”

Then he went over to the loose brick in the fireplace and removed Jess’s gunslinger weapon and handed it to Peters.

“This is the weapon he arrived with…..and he put it away ,and all his gunslinger ways, once he settled down here and it hasn’t been in his hand again since, until he went after Gomez.”

Peters stared at the gun and then at Slim, listening intently,” go on.”

“We were about to lose this place and Jess saw a way out for us, a last chance to save this ranch for us all. Gomez had abducted our neighbour’s wife and he came to Jess and offered him $10,000 to get her back and get Gomez banged up. And he would have done that, taken him in, he didn’t need the bounty he just wanted Gina back. It was Gomez that insisted they fight it out and then when Jess got back our neighbour had gone to the wall, couldn’t pay the debt. It was Mort, Peters, your friend that claimed the bounty on our behalf and saved the ranch for us……”

The older man shook his head thoughtfully.

“Maybe I have misjudged him some….about the Gomez business anyway.”

Slim gave him a weak smile.

“Why don’t you stay with us, just for a couple of days, Mike and Daisy are away and there’s plenty of room. You could maybe give Jess a chance; get to know him a little better?”

The man thought long and hard,” I guess I owe him something for what he did for Emily in Denver… and she does seem real smitten….yes Ok Mr Sherman, I will stay, thank you.”

“Slim,” he said grinning at the other man. Then poured them both another coffee to seal the deal, and Peters leaned over and shook the blond rancher’s hand.

“And you can call me Marty, and thanks for putting me straight,” he said grinning back.

When Emily and Jess returned the atmosphere if not totally convivial was certainly much lighter.

Marty Peters rose from his seat and advanced on Jess with his hand outstretched.

“Figure we got off to a bad start,” he said offering his hand,” maybe we can make amends?”

Jess stared at him for a moment and then took the outstretched hand and shook it warmly,” sure,” he said,” for Emily’s sake, eh.”

Emily cooked a wonderful supper and Slim found some whiskey left over from their rather raucous celebrations the night Mort had ridden in with the Bounty money, and the men visibly relaxed.

Marty still found it hard to see the way his daughter so openly adored Jess and he felt uncomfortable when bedtime arrived wondering what the sleeping arrangements were. However his fears were unfounded as Jess and Slim said their goodnights and went off to the bunkhouse, with Jess merely giving Emily a chaste kiss on the cheek as he left. And shortly afterwards Marty bedded down in Mike’s room, with his new roommate, Bandit, Mike’s racoon!


“Well he’s sure changed,” said Jess once they were out of earshot,” what did you say to him pard?”

“Oh, just what a truly wonderful human being you were,” said Slim lightly.

“Really, that good eh,” mused Jess with a twinkle in his eye.” Go on then so what do I have to do to pay yer back?”

“How about your round in the saloon for the next…say month?”

Jess considered this and then grinning at his buddy said,” sure that sounds fair to me.”

Slim shook his head.

” Garl darn it, you must have it bad,” he muttered, chuckling to himself.

That evening the men had talked over their whiskeys and started to get to know each other a little.

“So do you like fishin’ and huntin’?”asked Jess turning to Marty Peters.

“Love it, don’t get a lot of time mind you, like you folk, running the spread back in Albuquerque takes most of my time and energy. I’ve got workers sure, but I still do a hell of a lot myself.”

“Yeah, it sure is a full time job,” agreed Slim,”even on a smaller spread like this”.

Jess looked enthusiastic,” well its Sunday tomorrow, how’s about us takin’ the day off Slim, and going up to Paradise and doin’ some fishin’ might even scare up a deer or two for Marty.”

“Sounds a great idea,” beamed Slim.

“Paradise, well where is that, I mean it’s real pretty round here, but…… Paradise?” asked Emily with a little laugh.

Slim chuckled, “it’s just what Jess and I call it, a few acres of dense brush, pine, a stream. It’s a little parcel of land about an hour’s ride away, down to the south of the spread. It abuts our neighbours land and he’s been after it for years, thought we might have to sell to him too, until Jess sorted out our finances,” he said grinning at his partner.

“Yeah, we sure didn’t want Morrison getting his hands on it,” agreed Jess, “whenever ol’ Slim and I have any spare time we’re over there hunting, fishing, swimming in the water hole ,it’s a real swell place, you’ll love it,” he said turning to Emily his face radiant.

” I’m sure I will,” she whispered, giving him her loving smile.


As Jess had said, Emily loved Paradise as did her Pa and they had some good sport, with Marty bagging a deer and all three men catching a very respectable amount of fish.

After their picnic lunch, Emily relaxed back saying she was going to have a nap and Slim decided to try his luck at getting a wild turkey a little further on into the dense brush.

Jess looked down at Emily who was settling herself back for her nap and his body ached for her, he just wanted to hold her, kiss her….but he knew now wasn’t the time or place, not with her Pa standing around that was for sure, and taking a deep breath he turned away from his girl, and suggested the two men try their luck at fishing from the swimming hole just a few minutes’ walk down stream.

They had been fishing for a while, sitting in companionable silence when Marty turned to Jess and said casually, “so has Emily told you about going back east to Nursing School?”

Jess sighed and looked down before turning to the older man,” yes she has.”

“So what do you think?”

Again Jess took his time in answering then he said quietly,” I guess if that’s what she really wants to do, then she should go….……. I want to marry her, but I want her to be happy too, and if going to school is what she really wants….well I wouldn’t try to stop her.”

“You’d wait for her, until she’d trained?”

“Yeah, I’d wait.”

“You really do love her don’t you?”

Jess just nodded, then looked Marty in the eye and said sincerely,” yes, I do.”

Just then there was the sound of a gun firing and a bullet whistled past within an inch of Marty’s head.

Jess instantly threw the older man to the ground and shielded his body, whilst returning the fire, his reactions lightning fast.

When another bullet nearly hit Jess he grabbed hold of Marty’s arm and half dragged him behind the cover of a nearby boulder, before sending off another volley of shots at their unseen assailants.

Marty who wasn’t wearing a gun and was completely unused to this kind of violence just kept his head down, relying totally on Jess to protect him.

The shooting was coming from the other side of the swimming hole and after a moment one of the men broke cover in an attempt to escape and Jess took his chance and winged him.

Then another man started running for his mount and Jess instantly shed his gun belt and boots and dived into the water hole, swimming across in hot pursuit.

He caught up with his attacker just as he was attempting to mount up, but Jess dragged him back down and landed a punch to the jaw which sent him flying. However he quickly rallied and came back at Jess hard throwing a punch which knocked him off balance and he fell into the water, but quickly lunged back pulling the younger man in with him and they continued trading punches in the shallows. Before too long Jess got the upper hand and pulled the younger man semi-conscious out of the water hole, coughing and spluttering.

Jess had realised who they were just as soon as he had swum over and engaged in close combat, and now he hauled Jody Price out of the water and went in pursuit of his brother Jonathon, who was holding his wounded arm and looking sheepish.Then crossing the stream further down where it was shallow, he frogmarched the two boys over to where Slim and Emily had now joined Marty, alerted by the gunshots.

Jess pushed the two teenage boys down roughly and they fell looking up fearfully at the dark haired cowboy, dripping wet and looking so angry that they quaked in their boots.

Jess scowled down at them furiously.

” God knows you boys are always in some sorta trouble, but I never thought I’d see you bushwhack a man in cold blood that way, what are you thinkin’?” he spat staring at the pair of youngsters.

“Just meant to scare you off,” saidJody sullenly.

“We’d never have done it iffen we’d realised it was you Jess,”said Jonathon, the younger boy, pleadingly.

“I bet yer wouldn’t,” said Jess bitterly, knowing that was indeed true.

“And that doesn’t make it right anyway,” said Slim taking a pace forwards.

“Well we was hungry, Pa sent us out to get some grub in town, but we sorts lost the money,”…started Jonathon.

“Yeah lost it in the saloon, by the smell of you,” Jess spat.

“So, we thought we’d just take your fish seein’ as how we were expected back, figured it’d be a mite quicker,” sniggered Jody eyeing up Emily now.

Jess caught the look and was incensed.

“Why you…..” and he gave the youngster a backhander that sent him sprawling.

The boy cowered, looking really terrified now as Jess advanced on him.

“I’m sorry he stuttered, really I am Jess….. “

Slim strode over and grabbed Jess by the arm,” easy buddy, let it go,” he said firmly, and Jess halted and took a deep breath to steady his nerves.

Slim stood towering over the youngsters.

” You can’t carry on this way,” he said,” now go get your horses, I’m taking you home to your Pa and after he’s tanned your backsides I’ve no doubt Mort Corey will be riding over to see you, once we let him know what you’ve done .And should Mr Peters here want to press charges I’d say you two will be looking at quite a spell in jail.”

Once Slim had ridden off with the pair Marty turned to Jess and pumped his hand.

“Thank you so much, I guess I’d be a goner if it hadn’t been for your quick reactions son.”

Then he turned to his daughter, visibly shaken.

”You’ve never seen anything like it,” he said,” the speed this boy can draw a gun…so darn fast, that’s amazing,” he said turning back to Jess who was now flushed with embarrassment.

“Figure it’s better than bein’ too slow,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

“Don’t make light of it,” said the tall rancher,” I owe you my life Jess and I won’t forget that.......no sireee.”

“Just have a word with Mort, give him a statement and he’ll do the rest.”

The older man took off his Stetson and scratched his head,” I dunno Jess, there so darn young and maybe they didn’t really mean to harm us…..”

“Just do it Marty, it’s what they need to straighten them out.”

Then he continued more softly,” iffen someone had cared enough about me to get me banged up at that age, then maybe I’d have seen the light a hell of a lot sooner.”

The older man patted his arm, “you don’t look to have turned out too bad from where I’m standing,” he said quietly.

Then Emily advanced upon him and put a gentle hand on his chest,” Jess you’re soaking,” she said giving him a troubled look.

Her touch sent a spasm of desire through him, so strong that he felt physically dizzy for a moment.

Emily noticed and said,” are you OK?”

He gave her an intimate look and gently removing her hand said,”sure sweetheart.”

She had felt his heart pounding at her touch and then something in his eyes made her realise how he was feeling and she looked down and flushed slightly,” you’d better sit in the sun and dry off,” she said softly, drifting away to her Pa’s side, checking he too was alright after the recent ordeal.

Slim was back within the hour saying that old man Price had laid into his sons something fierce.

“Should have left them to your mercies Jess,” he said grinning across at his buddy,” figure they’d have got off easier.”

“That bad?” asked Jess looking impressed,” well all I can say is he should have done it a mite sooner.”

“I can’t argue with that, those boys are way out of control.”

“You OK now Marty?” he asked casting their guest an anxious look.

“Just fine Slim, and it hasn’t spoilt the day any, still got that venison for supper to look forward to haven’t we?” he said grinning across at the blond rancher, and shortly afterwards they left for home.

Once they arrived back they dismounted and Jess glanced over at Slim and gave him a little imperceptible nod towards the house.

Slim understood at once,” you fixing supper for us then Emily?” he asked grinning at the young woman.

“Well of course,” she said giving him a puzzled look.

Then Slim turned to Marty, ”would you mind helping me put up the horses Marty, I guess Jess will need to get some wood for the cook stove,”he said giving his friend a little smile.

“Sure,” said Jess at once and went off to the wood pile while Emily disappeared indoors.

A few minutes later he entered the kitchen by the back door and shed his load of logs and then opened his arms and Emily ran into them.

He held her close smiling down into her eyes.

“What was all that about” she asked smiling back, “surely Slim knows I’ll cook?”

“Just makin’ an excuse for me to have a few moments alone with you,” he whispered, “that’s why he got me to fetch the wood and your Pa to do the mounts.”

She shook her head,” you devious pair,” she said softly as he moved in for the long awaited kiss.

They kissed passionately, not wanting to part, but after a few minutes Jess felt things were moving on too quickly and knowing that they couldn’t reach their natural conclusion, he pulled back.

“Your Pa will be in, in a moment,” he said, his voice husky with desire,” I think we’d better back off some.”

She sighed deeply.

” Jess I go back tomorrow; we have to have some time alone.”

“Look, I don’t know as how your Pa would like that honey, I think he’s getting’ to like me some, but that…well I reckon he’d go crazy.”

Then he looked thoughtful,” of course if he didn’t know about it…. Is he a deep sleeper?”

“Oh Jess,” she giggled,” I guess he is, especially after a drink or two.”

Jess headed for Daisy’s medical cupboard and produced a bottle of very strong bootleg whiskey.

“For medicinal purposes only,” he said grinning at her.” Daisy usually uses it for cleaning out wounds, or as a painkiller, iffen we’re really beat up bad and I’ll tell you it’s got one Hell of a kick, should put yer Pa out for the count.”

Just then they heard voices approaching and Jess put the bottle down and cupping her face between his hands he gave her a final deeply sensual kiss,” I’ll fetch you about midnight,” he said softly, before disappearing off into the living room the bottle and three glasses inhis hands.

Chapter 19

Marty just about made it through supper before he had to give his apologies and took himself off to bed and Slim wasn’t in a much better state, but Emily noticed that Jess hardly drank anything and just smiled to herself and then exchanged an intimate look with him, knowing the reason for his sobriety.

“Make that about 11, not mid-night,” he said very softly, undercover of a peck on the cheek, before he retired for the night, helping Slim up and supporting him across the yard.

Once they reached the bunkhouse Slim lurched down onto his bed and stared blearily across at his partner, “that hill whiskey sure packs a punch,” he slurred.

Jess tipped his hat back;” you can say that again,” he said surveying his friend,” state of you Slim, it’s a good job Daisy ain’t here.”

“Well we’d never have been drinking it if she was,” said Slim honestly.

Then peering over said,” how come you’re stone cold sober then?”

Jess said nothing, just turned and started preparing for bed.

“Ah… I see,” slurred Slim in a sudden moment of lucidity, “you’ve got bigger fish to fry haven’t you buddy?”

“Don’t know what you mean,” said Jess turning innocent blue eyes on him.

“Sure you do,” said Slim with a lopsided grin, “just don’t let her Pa catch you at it Jess, there’s only so many times a man can save another one’s life…and you’re in his good books right now, but if he finds out you’ve been messing with his precious daughter again……..well……”

“He ain’t gonna find out though is he Slim”, said Jess gruffly giving his friend a hard look.

Slim raised his hands in surrender, “hey not from me buddy, anyways I’m asleep”, he finished closing his eyes and a good few minutes later he was snoring gently.

“Well so you are,” said Jess softly, grinning down at his friend, and then walking over to the basin started to wash and shave in preparation for his hot date.

It was just before eleven when he made his way silently in through the back door and found Emily sitting in the main room, waiting for him.

She had never looked lovelier, wearing a low cut jade blouse tucked into a dark skirt, her hair was lose around her shoulders, brushed to a gleaming, burnished gold.

He took a deep breath before going over and as she stood up he took both her hands in his and gave a low whistle,” you look so darn beautiful,” he whispered” I’m nigh scared to touch you.”

“Oh, that would be a pity,” she whispered leaning in and kissing him very softly on the lips.

He responded and then taking her hand whispered, “not here, come with me,” and stopping only to grab her wrap she followed him out of the silent house, the only sound that of her father’s gentle snores.

It was actually an extremely mild night as they were currently enjoying an Indian summer and Emily was plenty warm enough as they made their way across the home pasture behind the ranch house and through the littlegate and onto the path that led down to the creek.

It was a wonderfully quiet, private place with huge pines and several boulders strewn down by the water’s edge, as though thrown there by some ancient giant. Jess often came here when he wanted to be quiet and think, or sometimes just to fish.

Now he led Emily over to a large flat boulder that made an ideal seat and the two sat down looking at the moonlit water.

“It’s beautiful here,” she whispered smiling at him.

“You don’t have to whisper,” he said, “we’re a long way from the house; nobody will know we are here, it’s quite safe.”

“It’s been magical being here with you,” she said softly,” I don’t want to leave you Jess I really don’t.”

He just sighed and looked deep into her amazing green eyes.

“You’re supposed to say, well don’t go then,” she said giving him a pleading look.

He just shook his head gently.

” I ain’t goin’ to,” he said.

She looked upset for a moment and then puzzled,” why not, don’t you care anymore?”

He placed a hand firmly on her shoulder and turned her slightly so that she looked into his eyes, “sure I do,” he said,” but that’s why I want you to go, I want the best for you and I figure you need to do this nursin’, you’d always regret it if I asked you to stay….”

“I wouldn’t … I….”

“Let me finish,” he said softly,” you’re young Emily and I guess you’ve still got some growing up to do…”

She shook her head, but he ignored it and just continued, “and you’ll be going to a new place, Boston will be incredible, you’ll meet new people have a whole different lifestyle …and maybe after a while you won’t want a beat up ol’ cowboy anymore.”

She could suddenly bear it no longer.

“Don’t,” she shouted, “don’t talk that way, it’s not true,” and she burst into tears.

“Sweetheart come here,” he said suddenly contrite and he took her in his arms and held her close, gently kissing the top of her head until she relaxed against himher tears slowly coming to an end and after one final shuddering sob she pulled back and looked up at him.

“I may be young, but I know my own mind Jess, I love you now and I always will.”

“OK then,” he said softly, “do it for me, go to Boston, get yerself all educated up and then …well if you still want me, I’ll be here waiting for you.”

“Promise?” she asked looking searchingly into his eyes,


She sighed deeply and then said very quietly,” kiss me Jess.”

He looked at her for a moment, sitting illuminated in the moonlight and his heart skipped a beat, she was so very lovely, how could be bear to send her away………..

He leaned in, and cupping her face, he brushed her lips with his as gently as a butterfly wing, before kissing her more firmly, his hands now tangled in her long, burnished hair and he gave a soft groan of desire as he kissed her more and more deeply, pulling her close to him and she responded, her soft body moulding itself to his firm, lithe one as he kissed her face, her hair and then he pushed her already unbuttoned shirt back and kissed her shoulder…………

After a little while he picked her up and carried her to alarge pine tree, set back from the river, and placed her, almost reverently, on the short, sweet smelling grass beneath it, before lying down next to her and taking her in his arms…………..

Dawn was breaking as the young couple made their way back to the ranch.

Jess stood by the back door, holding her in his arms and kissed her very gently,” I love you Emily,” he whispered, before letting her go, and she gave him a look of such adoration that it made his heart skip a beat.

“See you later,” she said softly, running a finger gently down his cheek before turning and running inside the house.

Jess entered the bunkhouse and walked quietly over to his bed and threw himself down on it and gave a sigh of satisfaction tinged with sadness, how could he let her go.

Supposing she met someone else, or merely fell out of love with him and the whole idea of being a rancher’s wife? It was such a gamble, insisting she must follow her dreams, but what else could he do, he thought…he had to let her go and just hope and pray that she would come back to him someday.

Breakfast that morning was a very low key event.

Slim and Marty sat staring at their coffee, Marty with a grim expression on his face and Slim emitting the occasional low groan, both nursing monumental hangovers, while Jess and Emily just stared hopelessly into each other’s eyes, making no pretence of eating breakfast.

Finally Marty pulled himself together sufficiently to tell his daughter it was time she packed up her stuff if they were to make it over to Mort Corey’s place in time for lunch. They planned to visit with Mort that day and then get the noon Stage on the following day, so that Emily had time to make all her preparations for Nursing School, where she would be heading off to at the end of the month.

Jess stood staring after father and daughter, until they had turned the bend in the rise and disappeared from view. The young couple had said their goodbyes at the ranch, Emily preferring that than to have to go through being upset in front of everyone,like when she had said goodbye to Jess in Denver. She remembered the sweet old lady on the Stage and how she had comforted her as she broke her heart at leaving her lover.

This time however, the couple had, had a little more privacy. With her Pa still nursing his hangover, it was easy for Emily to excuse herself and run out to the barn where Jess was saddling up the horses. As she entered he turned and opened his arms and she ran into them. He held her close feeling her heart beating as fast as his ownand then he pulled back a little and putting a finger under her chin tipped her head back so that he could look deep into her eyes and saw them brimming with unshed tears.

“Don’t,” he whispered, “don’t upset yerself sweetheart,” and he leaned down and kissed her passionately, pulling her to him, like he never wanted to let go. ….

Then she heard her Pa calling her and reluctantly took a pace backwards,” I will see you again won’t I?” she said ,her green eyes full of pain.

He nodded,” sure you will…….come on,” and taking her by the hand led her out to her waiting Pa.

Now as he stood in the yard watching the dust settle from where they had just ridden off he felt just about as low as he could remember.

Slim came over and slapped him gently on the back,” come on buddy work to do……and at least you haven’t got a headache the size of Texas.”

Jess gave him a weak smile,” every cloud has a silver lining eh Slim”, he said sarcastically, before going off to clean out the barn.

Mike had gone straight to school from his friend’s house, but Daisy landed home on the noon Stage and was surprized to see that Emily had left already, and even more surprised that her Pa had landed at the ranch in pursuit of her.

“Well, I expect you all had some explaining to do,” she said,” andIimagine Mr Peters was none too pleased with Jess or his daughter.”

Slim grinned across at her,” well you couldn’t be more wrong Daisy; I guess Jess is just about ol’ Marty’s best buddy now.”

“Well how on earth did you turn that round Jess dear?” she asked turning amazed eyes on the dark haired young cowboy.

“Just by my scintillating charm and wicked sense of humour, not to mention saving his life….”Jess said with a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.


“Long story Daisy,” Jess said with a grin and went off to settle the stock for the night.


So Slim filled her in on recent events and when he had finished Daisy looked troubled.

“Poor boy, he’s making light of things but he must be missing her terribly already, and two years, that’s an awfully long time to wait.”

Slim just nodded, and then Mike and Jess returned and they sat down to supper.The conversation was kept to the mundane, Daisy especially trying to keep things light, but Jess was very quiet and retired early.

The following morning he looked to be in an even worse state, refused breakfast and then went about his chores like a zombie and by morning coffee break Slim could stand it no longer.

“Why don’t you just ride into town and see her one more time?” he said as Jess sat looking into his coffee cup and making no attempt to drink it.

He looked over at his partner and just shook his head,” she don’t want that,” he said quietly.

Slim just shook his head and left the table,” I’ll get on with mending that harness,” he said and casting Daisy a despairing look left the room.

Daisy looked over at Jess and could see how upset he was, and covering his hand with hers said kindly,” what is it dear?”

Jess turned sad eyes on the elderly woman,” I dunno Daisy, I just feel like there’s unfinished business between us… I just need to see her one more time, make sure she understands my commitment I guess….. I kinda think that maybe she thinks I won’t wait, what with all that stuff with Gina….and then things her Pa has probably heard about me. Well if I’m honest I guess I don’t have too good a track record with women, not lately anyways,” he said with a sheepish grin.

“Well you have been hurt very badly in the past,” said Daisy immediately rushing to his defence,” but when you find the right girl there is no one more loyal and honest than you and I’m sure Emily knows that.”

He just nodded and looked down again.

“There’s still time, if you hurry,” she said gently,” to say that last goodbye….. “

Jess looked at her and then she saw the Harper light of battle in his eyes.

“ There is isn’t there,” he said , and leaning over and kissing the elderly woman on the cheek he jumped up, grabbed his hat and ran out of the house, and a few minutes later she heard Traveler galloping out of the yard at speed.

Back in Laramie Emily and her Pa had enjoyed a very pleasant visit with Mort Corey, at least her Pa had. Emily had spent most of her time in a trance, replaying her last moments with Jess over and over in her mind, much to the amusement of the older men.

After she had retired to bed the previous night the friends had stayed up with a last whiskey and Mort said, “your daughter has sure got it bad, she’s in a world of her own ain’t she?”

Her Pa smiled indulgently,” time was I’d have been real troubled about that you know Mort, but I guess my little girl would go a long way before she found anyone as good as Jess.”

Mort raised a quizzical eye brow,” you’ve sure changed your tune, time was I thought you wanted to shoot any man that came within spittin’ distance of her.”

“Yeah, well I guess Jess is different, he’s mature, sensible, won’t take any foolishness from her. I mean look at the way he’s insisted on her going off to college. It’s what is best for her, we all know that, but well, I guess it’ll be real hard for him to let her go…but he’s putting her needs first, I like that in a man.”

“I told you he was OK didn’t I,” said Mort with a grin,” guess you should just have listened to me, saved yourself a long journey,” and the two men chuckled.

Meanwhile in her room Emily was crying herself to sleep. Why oh why had she told Jess not to see her off on the Stage the following day? If only I could see him one last time, promise that I’d wait for him, I would be faithful all through collage, he has to understand that, he has to… and these were her last thoughts as she fell into an exhausted sleep.

Then, the following morning as she was waiting on the side walk for the Stage to arrive and she kept glancing anxiously up and down the street, maybe he would ignore her request and come anyway. What did it matter if she cried in public, all she wanted was to feel his warm embrace, his kiss…just one last time.

Then the Stage rolled in with old Mose, who she had met at the ranch, up on the box. He clambered down and threw their bags up and then giving her his toothless grin said,” dearie me, I guess it will be doom and gloom at the Sherman place now you’re shipping out, guess I’ll be giving ol’ Jess there a wide berth for a week or two… reckonhe’ll be real upset at you goin.’”

“Thanks Mose,” she said smiling,” it’s not for ever though, I’ll be back as soon as I’m finished at college.”

“Sure,” he said smiling and handed her up and tipped his hat to her Pa, before jumping back up on the box and was just about to click the team off when he heard a shout behind him and looking round saw Jess riding Traveler, hell for leather down Main Street. He leapt off and ran to the Stage Coach door and pulling it open, was rewarded by Emily jumping down into his arms much to the delight of the other passengers.

He took her in his arms and kissed her passionately; completely oblivious to his audience within the coach and then pulling back he said breathlessly, “I just had to see you one last time.”

“Me too,” she said.” I was wrong to tell you not to come, I wanted to see you so much, so much Jess….“

“It’s all goin’ to be OK,” he said quickly,” I’ll wait Emily, I promise…. “

“I will too,” she said before kissing him one last time.

As the couple drew apart the passengers cheered and Marty jumped down and helped his daughter on board again, before turning and shaking Jess’s hand,” take care,” he said, “we’ll be seeing you, yeah?”

Jess just nodded, “yeah, be seein’ you Marty.”

He jumped back on board and then Jess stood back as Mose finally rushed the team off down Main Street and out of town.

He stood back, watching as it disappeared from view and then he felt a tap on his shoulder and spinning round saw Slim standing there grinning athim.

“Daisy figured you might be in need of a friend round about now,” he said softly.

Jess just nodded,” yeah, I guess…. “

“How about a cold beer,” suggested Slim, tipping his hat towards the Saloon.

Jess visibly brightened, “yeah I reckon a nice cold beer would go down well, right now.”

“Oh, I’m glad about that partner,” said Slim with an evil grin,” because as I remember it, you owe me……. your round for a whole month, I think we said? “

“Aw Slim”, said Jess rolling his eyes.

Then shaking his head and grinning at his friend, said ” oh come on then,” and slinging their arms around each other they made for the saloon and a welcome drink……or two.


It took Emily a long time to settle down to her studies. In fact such was her homesickness and desire to see Jess again that she very nearly threw in the towel and abandoned her career as a Midwife.

However when she wrote to Jess voicing her fears and needs it was he who told her she must stick it out, through the first semester at least.

‘Dang it girl, you’ve got to give it a fair go, or you’ll regret it when you’re older…’were his exact words.

He had been working on the epistle all evening , cussing under his breath and screwing up several previous efforts, all thrown in the general direction of Slim’s waste paper basket, before he eventually completed the seventh and final copy.

By this time Daisy and Mike were long in bed and Slim just about to turn in when Jess waylaid him.

“Can ya check it for me Slim, the spellin’ and all?” he asked shyly.

Slim read it through a couple of times, squeezing his eyes to make out Jess’s rather individual form of handwriting and then threw him a sad look.

“What’s up ain’t I done it right?” asked Jess looking a mite embarrassed.

“No, I mean yeah its fine,” said Slim quickly. “No it’s not that pard. The spelling, grammar, can’t fault it…heck I can evenjust about read your writing…it’s just….. “

“Hell just what Slim, spit it out,” he growled.

“Well are you sure you really want her to stay in Boston? It sounds like she’s missing you something fierce….and I know you are missing her….don’t you think maybe she should come home huh? Things are just fine with the business, we could think about building a place for you both….maybe a spring wedding?”

Jess looked shocked and then really thoughtful, before replying.

“You know I really think I could make a go of it yeah…..But what iffen she suddenly decides she’s made the wrong decision, when she’s got a couple of young ‘uns at foot and one on the way…huh Slim, what then? She could darn well regret it all her life. You know how keen she was to do the nursin’……she’s just homesick, is all, she’ll git over it.”

“That sounds kind of hard Jess.”

His head shot up and his blue eyes flashed at that.

“Goddamn it Slim, I’ve got to be. She’s young, real young and I can’t have her throw away this opportunity, just for me….if she sticks it out a while longer she might get to enjoy it.”

The letter was duly sent and there was no reply for several weeks. Then one morning Mose brought a letter addressed to Jess.

He wandered off to the barn with it and then was real quiet for the rest of the day and it wasn’t until they had turned in that night that Slim finally asked him about it.

“Well, so how’s young Emily doing Jess, you never said anything?”

The dark haired cowboy stretched out on his bed and stared morosely up at the ceiling for a while before turning to look at his partner.

“Just swell,” he said eventually and after a moment passed the first page of the letter across.

Slim read the closely written lines carefully before beaming at his buddy.

“This is great, gee she’s so darned enthusiastic….the way she describes attending her first birth, she sounds so happy and excited….that’s great she’s settled so well, I figure you were right to make her stick to it pard.”

The letters became less and less frequent and Jess knew it was over.

“You can’t know that of sure,” said Slim one evening as they sat out on the porch sipping a whiskey apiece before turning in.

“Sure I can,” Jess said softly…”it’s like I said, you change one hell of a lot as you grow Slim….we both know that and I guess she’s just kinda grown out of me…”

“Hey pard don’t say that,” said Slim looking genuinely upset for his buddy.

Jess just shrugged looking out to the distant, moonlit hills…

“There ain’t no point in puttin’ my life on hold any longer Slim, I guess I’ll write her and finish it.”

“Jess…no …why?” said Slim looking distressed.

“Because she won’t do it, that’s why. Like I say she’s moved on, grown up and changed…it don’t take a genius to see that, but she wouldn’t end it with me Slim, be too worried about hurtin’ me I guess…..so Ifigure it’s down to me to do it.”

“Jess, you’re wrong…you don’t know that for sure……”

Jess was silent for a long time and then he said quietly, “that’s where you’re wrong Slim, see I talked to her Pa.”

“Her Pa?”

“Yup, Marty was in town visiting Mort a few weeks back, when you were off on that cattle buyin’ trip….”


“He confirmed what I’d thought all along. Seems she loves the job, way of life out there…been offered a real good job when she qualifies too…. Her Pa said she wouldn’t be takin’ it though….because of me…..”


“I can’t let her do it Slim , throw her career away just for me…..see I really do love her, and I guess that’s why I have to let her go…..”

“Jess…are you sure about this?”

Jess just looked stubborn.

“I’ve decided, that’s it Slim, I’ll write and set her free tomorrow….and that’s an end to it, understand!”

It was a good five years later whenEmily married a wonderful man. He was a doctor and they had met shortly after she qualified. Both were extremely dedicated to their chosen vocations and where as Henry went on to become a senior consultantEmily progressed in her chosen career and ended up as the Head of Nursing at the hospital where she had trained. The couple never had children of their own , such was their commitment to their chosen careers, but they had a long andhappy marriage.

If Jess ever had any regrets about his decision to ‘set Emily free’ as he saw it, he never voiced them. But the decision had not beeneasy or taken lightly.

It was Slim who finally turned things around for his pard, a few months after the relationship with Emily was irrevocably over.

“Ok,” he said firmly one Saturday night,” get yourself ready Jess, were going to town!”

“We are?”

“Sure, you’ve done moping and I figure it’s time we kicked off the traces some and had us some fun, what do you say pard…..huh?”

Jess looked at him long and hard for a full minute, before his face finally relaxed into a happy grin….

“I say, now you’re talkin’, come on buddy lets paint that ol’ town red!”

That was when he finally started to heal and a few months later he met and fell for another beautiful young woman…. one of many, before he finally found his true love and settled down…..

But he never forgot Emily and their world wind romance……all those years ago, or the beautiful Gina and the infamous bandit, Antonio Gomez.

“I guess that was our Last Chance of saving this ol’ place, when I went off after Gomez that time,” he said to Slim many years later…..as they reminisced about those bygone days.

The tall rancher nodded seriously, as he glanced around his beloved home,” that it was Jess…..that it was……”

The End

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