#21 The Persecuted

The Persecuted


Patty Wilkinson

For Bertie with love & thanks

(Some Adult Themes, Strong language and Violence)

Chapter 1

Jess Harper partner in the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station lay back on the cool grass under the shadow of a tree in the south pasture. Pulling his hat over his face sighed happily as he settled down for a nap in the noonday heat.

It must have been about an hour later when he felt the vibration of hoof beats. Sitting up quickly he reached for his gun and looked up to where a rider was fast approaching. He peered over and then smiling holstered his gun and lay back down, pulling the Stetson back in place. A few minutes later it was tipped up and the handsome face of Slim Sherman his buddy and partner in the ranch grinned down at him.

“I thought I’d find you bunking off out here.” he laughed before stretching out beside his friend.

Then casting a glance over,”So you been busy?”

“Kinda, found a few fences as needed mending and the odd stray steer, but can’t say I’ve busted a gut Slim.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s the way it is in ranching, one minute you’re so all fired busy you could just drop down dead from exhaustion and then sometimes it’s like this, we get a real peaceful spell.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Jess stretching out, ”and I figure we should be glad of it, but I reckon I’m ready for a bit of excitement around here Slim, it’s been way too quiet lately.”

“Umm, you just be careful what you wish for Jess… I like it peaceful.”

They relaxed back in the heat of the afternoon for a nap.

The men couldn’t have been more different, Slim being the sensible easy going one who had inherited the Sherman Ranch and Relay after his loving parents died, leaving him to bring up his young brother Andy. The weight of being a businessman and surrogate parent weighing heavily on his young shoulders and he had been much too serious with a tendency to worry about things in those early days.

At the same time Jess was being brought up on the Texas panhandle, the son of a tough father who often beat his children and wife, leaving Jess to try and pick up the pieces. Until one traumatic night when the family home was torched by outlaws, leaving the fifteen year old Jess an orphan and most of his siblings dead.

The following years had been difficult for both men. Slim struggled to learn the business and act as Ma and Pa to his kid brother.

Meanwhile, Jess with revenge in his heart, pursued the gang who had committed the atrocity. Then later he signed up for the Confederacy and fought a bitter war. While Slim signed up for the Union.

After the war Jess went on the drift, living by his fast gun. After many conflicts and balancing the tight rope between law and crime, he finally landed at the Sherman Ranch. Then after many ups and downs he eventually turned his life around forever, promising Slim to lay down his gunslinger weapon for good.

The two men had forged a deep and lasting friendship over the years, their differences somehow making the bond stronger. Some of Slim’s sensible, levelheadedness and business acumen being absorbed by Jess, with the young gunslinger’s happy go lucky personality, sense of boyish fun and experience of saloon girls and poker being passed on to Slim…

Now they considered themselves equal partners in the business and in the world. Both men were accepting of, if not always agreeing with, the other’s way of life and point of view.

Jess had now settled down and his years of taking off at the least excuse, to help old friends or just experience his true lost love the Great Open were over. Now he had settled down and there was little that upset him as he was generally happy with his lot.

Since he landed at the Sherman spread the ranchers had adopted young Mike Williams. He had been found wandering by a troupe of Japanese performers and brought to the ranch one stormy night. Once it had been found that his parents killed in an Indian raid and he had no other kin the ranchers had taken him in. Now the youngster, with his blond hair and big innocent blue eyes had not only found his way into their home but also their hearts and not long after his arrival he had been officially adopted by the pair.

Once Mrs Daisy Cooper joined them as housekeeper and honorary Ma the family was complete.

Daisy was a wonderful woman, widowed and in her later years she was still spry and had no problem in keeping up with her three ‘boys’ as she affectionately called them. Indeed there wasn’t much that they got up to that she wasn’t aware of. From one of them being injured, to the bottle of Red eye secreted in Slim’s cupboard, ‘medicinal purposes only really Daisy’. To Jess’s relationships with the saloon girls and much more, she took it all in good heart, never judging them and always ready with her support and wisdom in times of trouble.

Thinking of her now Slim glanced over at his buddy.

“I guess we don’t need to tell Miss Daisy how quiet it is right now, she’s been harping on about painting the inside of the house again, says it’s a good time with all this hot weather.” Jess whipped his hat from his face and ran a hand through his black hair looking distinctly worried.

“Hell Slim I’m away in Cheyenne for a week delivering those horses. I’ve been back a day and you’re tellin’ me now? You should have told me this morning buddy and I could have said how busy we are right now. What with all the…. Err all the …… new fences we’ve gotta put up ,”he said the light of inspiration in his eyes.

“Um, well I might have done if I could have got you out of bed this morning Jess. I swear sleeping is your new hobby, you’re getting like an old Tom cat all you do is eat, sleep and”…… a big grin formed on his face…. “So how did you get on with Miss Victoria then?”

Miss Victoria Goldsmith was the owner of the largest and smartest saloon in Cheyenne, the Golden Nugget, and she was one hell of a cool customer. She ruled the place with a rod of iron standing no nonsense from staff and customers alike and the word on the street was that even the Sheriff gave her a wide berth. He had never been in there to sort out a fight, as nobody would dare to think of mussing up her smart decor. And if the décor was fine-looking that was nothing to Miss Victoria herself. She had golden hair which she wore in a sophisticated style piled up high and ice blue eyes set in a perfect oval face, the features those of a classical beauty. With her faultless hour glass figure and long legs she was every man’s dream.

However unlike the saloon girls she didn’t flaunt her obvious attributes but dressed in a business like way with long skirts and tailored high necked blouses. But wondering exactly what these unrevealing clothes hid made her even more alluring to her clientele.

Now Jess grinned across at his buddy.

“Got on well……real well.”

“You don’t mean you actually…… “

Jess nodded in confirmation, “…Yeah.”

“Well I’ll be… how in hell did you manage that?”

“I’ve told you before Slim; it’s all in the kissin’.”

“Yeah, but you’ve got to get close enough to kiss her in the first place. As far as I know nobody ever has… so? “

“I just told her I was feelin’ real lonely and hungry too…. then gave her that wounded puppy look and I guess she felt sorry for me. Said she was just goin’ for a break and invited me into the back parlour for some supper and then…… … well, one thing led to another……..you know how it is?”

“No I don’t buddy tell me … what was she like? “

Jess’s eyes got that faraway look, “Amazing… she was just amazing,” he said softly.

“Go on.” said Slim quickly.

Jess turned his gaze on his buddy and then looked down, “Oh no, you know I never talk about my ladies Slim. “

The tall rancher sighed knowing the truth of it.

“Oh well I guess we’d better get to it then,” he said getting up reluctantly.

“Get to what, there ain’t nothin’ to do right now Slim.”

“Sure there is, we’ve got all those new fences to put up haven’t we?” he said with a laugh, hauling his buddy up.

“Aw Slim……”

When they arrived back at the ranch at supper time Daisy and Mike both came out to meet them, the youngster running over and grabbing Traveler’s bridle and looking up at the dark haired cowboy excitedly.

“Whoa Tiger, what’s with the reception committee, we ain’t late fer supper are we?” Jess asked.

Daisy walked over, ”Nothing like that dear, but have you and Slim seen any strangers around when you were out?”

Slim had reined in and now he slid down from the saddle, ”No Daisy, why what’s up?”

“We’ve had a visitor,” said Mike his eyes sparkling,” and he took some eggs and I thought they’d been stolen and then aunt Daisy came and looked and found some money and a note on the corn bin.”

“Huh?” said Jess tipping his hat back.

“It’s true,” said Daisy, ”look.”

She passed the note over to the men.

Please accept payment for eggs, a deed of necessity and my humble apologies for any distress I may have caused.

“Huh?” said Jess again, looking completely befuddled.

“I don’t think this is from a man, reads more like a lady and one that’s swallowed a dictionary too, really well educated I’d guess,” said Slim.

Then turning to Jess said, ”I figure she’s just saying that she was real hungry, so took the eggs and hoped we aren’t too bothered by it,” he said.

“Well why didn’t she say so,” said Jess looking affronted, ”and we are bothered too, what about breakfast?”

“You and your stomach,” said Slim giving him a playful clip around the head which Jess neatly ducked, “I’m telling you, just like an old Tom cat,” he said aside out of Daisy’s hearing…”food , sleep and…“

“OK, OK you’ve made your point,” said Jess quickly, leading Traveler off to the barn and shaking his head, a grin on his face.

That was to be the first theft of several. The house cow was milked one morning before the ranchers were up and about, some apples were taken from the store in the barn and even some biscuits left over from breakfast that Daisy had put on the kitchen table were stolen. But there was always a well written apologetic note and some money left.

After the episode of the biscuits Jess lost his temper.

“Hell Slim this is gettin’ serious now, whoever it is, well they’ve been in the house while we were off in town. What are they gonna be takin’ next, our clothes, fire arms? I don’t care how dang sorry they are this just ain’t right.”

“I agree buddy, reckon we’re going to have to be a whole lot more careful around here in future, and lock the place up properly when we’re away.“

“Hmm,” said Jess thoughtfully, ”guess we’ll have to try and find that back door key, I ain’t seen it since you stuck it down Mike’s back to try and stop that nose bleed last year.”

Things came to a head the following week.

Slim had driven Mike and Daisy into town to shop, leaving Jess at home as he was feeling none too well.

The previous day he’d been visiting his good friend Millie who worked at the saloon. Millie and Jess went way back to his childhood on the panhandle and he had once told Slim that she was the best darned female friend he had ever had. They had a deep friendship and she was the one he always turned to when in need of her cheerful company or a little loving. In fact they tended to spend time together if neither was dating anyone else and if Millie occasionally shared her bed with Jess, well that was nobody’s business but their own they both figured.

Yes Millie sure was a good friend and lover … but the one thing she wasn’t, was a good cook. However that didn’t stop her experimenting and insisting Jess try her latest dish. This he had reluctantly done the night before with predictable results and now he was lying in bed with his guts churning and feeling tremendously sorry for himself.

He rolled on his side, his knees up as he held his belly and groaned softly, ”I told her that sauce had a funny taste,” he whispered to himself, closing his eyes tightly as the pain gripped him again.

Then he heard the back door open and with a super human effort he staggered up from his bed and made his way out to the living room.

“Hey Daisy,” he called out,”you got any of that special medicine of yours, I’m dyin’ here.”

When there was no answer he shuffled into the kitchen and his head shot up as he saw the door wide open and a man tearing away across the yard, their phantom thief had struck again!

Forgetting the pain in his belly, Jess took off after him and diving he tackled the slight man to the floor.

“Got ya!” he yelled triumphantly and dragging him to his feet he grabbed hold of his shirt front. He was just about to lay one on him for good measure when the thief’s hat flew off, exposing dark cropped curly hair and the unmistakably feminine face of a very pretty young girl.

“You’re a girl,” said Jess in astonishment.

“Please don’t hit me,” she cried, her large brown eyes opened wide in fear.

Jess suddenly was aware that he was still grasping her shirt and had his fist balled and immediately let her go.

“Of course I won’t hit yer,” he said in exasperation,”What do yer take me for? “

She looked more closely at him and after a moment gave him a shy smile.

”Jess… is that you, Jess Harper?”

Jess peered at her uncomprehendingly and then said hesitantly, “Yeah… whose askin’?”

“Jane Wright…..”

“Davy Wright’s little sister?” He said after a moment’s thought. ”But you’re just a kid… just seven years old.”

“Not any more I’m not,” she said smiling properly at him now,”I’m all grown up.”

“Well you sure are,” he said standing back and surveying the womanly figure that was only slightly disguised by the man’s denims and shirt.

Then after a moment he grinned at her,”So why the men’s duds and the stealing Jane, why didn’t you just knock on the door and ask?”

“Because I was afraid I was in the wrong place. Thought maybe this wasn’t where you lived and after what happened……… well I was just too scared to knock and ask. But I couldn’t go any further. I had to stay around here until I was sure one way or the other. I was desperately hungry, but I had to do my brother’s bidding and this is where he believed you lived.”

“Your brother’s bidding huh?” said Jess quietly, suddenly remembering the old fashioned ways and speech of the family he had befriended way back…. years ago as a child on the panhandle.

“Well yeah, I live here OK,” he continued. ”I’m a partner in the ranch now, just been away a while, over in Cheyenne…. So what brings you here Jane and what are you talking about… what happened to scare you?”

She sighed deeply, ”I guess there is so much to tell I don’t know where we to begin, all I know is… that you are the only true friend I have in the world and the only one Davy really trusted. With us folks being so different and all, you were the only one back in Texas that really befriended us kids.”

“Yeah well I guess it was real hard back then for us all. Us regular kids had problems enough, but you guys with the ’Friends’ thing …well I guess that made it real hard for you all.”

She just nodded, ”You could say that and being Quakers in Texas wasn’t easy… we were persecuted as you know…. Still are…”

“So what are you doing here and why have you come lookin’ for me? Hey not that it ain’t real good to see you,” he said quickly remembering his manners.

She cast her eyes down, looking really troubled before glancing back up at Jess…

”I’m in trouble and Davy… …Davy passed away some weeks ago… and I just didn’t know where to turn. He was sick, real sick, but before he died he wrote you this letter,” she said pulling it from her shirt pocket.

Jess looked upset, ”I’m very sorry to hear that,” he said softly, ”I was real good friends with ol’ Davy, he was a good buddy to me….real good.”

Then the words, ’in trouble‘, registered and he cast another glance at her feminine figure his eyes narrowing slightly, ”What kinda trouble?” he asked suspiciously.

She seemed unaware at his implication and just stared back at him with guileless brown eyes.

“I’m homeless,” she said simply, ”After Davy died they came and burnt down the shack and…”

“What?” he exploded, “Why ever did they do that … and who….”

“The neighbours, mostly those ones that persecuted us for being different way back when you lived there. They said it was to fumigate the area as Davy died of the scarlet fever…. But it wasn’t that, they just wanted me out. One man in particular….. Wilber Jacobs. …… he wanted me homeless so he could take me in as his skivvy…. …..and more…..”

“What do you mean?” he asked softly, taking her hand.

“He wanted me to work for him. I had no choice Jess. I had nothing just the clothes I stood up in. At first it wasn’t too bad; he even paid me a small wage, that’s how I could pay for the things I took from you.”

He nodded,”Go on.”

“Well that was ok for a couple of months but then he started making suggestions….. “


“Of an immoral nature, I mean Jess.”

He looked mystified and then the light dawned, ”Oh, yeah… right. But heck Jane he’s old enough to be your Pa.”

“Not quite, he’s about forty and such a dreadful man Jess, no finesse at all.”

Jess let that one go, remembering how Davy’s turn of phrase used to defeat him as a child, both children having been taught at home by their incredibly intelligent mother. He wondered briefly what had happened to her kind clever parents but decided that could wait.

“So what happened then?” he asked.

She looked down flushed with embarrassment.

“He came to my bed one night and tried to…. to do things….. I didn’t understand Jess, I have led a very simple life, I know no men other than Davy and you… I am completely unversed in the ways of men and women, of adult love… I know nothing.”

“No I guess not,” he said softly.

”Did he … hurt you?” he asked feeling his pulses beginning to race as the wave of anger coursed through him.

She shook her head, ”No, I screamed so loudly I think he was worried someone would hear and then I kicked and bit him, and he went away. The next morning I ran away. I only stayed there to try and earn enough money to travel out here,” she finished sadly.

“And did you? Have enough money for the fare I mean?”

She shook her head, “No, so I took one of our horses that Wilber had taken after the fire. I also found some old clothes of Davy’s out in the barn. After what happened with Wilber I thought I’d be safer travelling as a man.”

He grinned at her noting the shapely figure and beautiful elfin features.

“So did you fool anyone?”

She smiled back,”I imagine so, I just made sure I didn’t get too close to anyone. A figure riding in the distance looks like a man if they are dressed that way.”

“Gee, you travelled all that way alone, you must have sure wanted to get here.”

She nodded, ”Yes we were friends once Jess, the only one Davy and I had as children. As I say it was Davy’s last wish,” she said, again offering the letter.

He took it from her and then led the way back into the ranch house and put the coffee on. Once she was sitting at the table gratefully sipping the strong brew, he ripped open the envelope.

My dear Jess,

If you are reading this, I did not survive my last illness and I am in the promised ‘better place’ with my dear parents, leaving my little sister alone in the world.

I now must ask you a very great favour my dear friend. Can you please care for her, help her to find a home and income? I believe she will be ostracized if she remains here in Texas. Maybe they are more accepting of different religions and philosophies in the West, I truly hope so.

Please protect her innocence Jess, she has absolutely no worldly ways and is free of any carnal knowledge and I would wish that she remains this way until marriage.

I pray you will feel able to do my bidding and I know there is no better person I could wish to care for my beloved little Jane,

May God bless you, my dear friend,

Davy Wright.

Jess read it several times, still somewhat befuddled by some of the words, but hating to show his ignorance in front of Jane, he decided to run it past Slim later. But what was obvious was that he was left lookin’ out for young Jane and had little choice in the matter…… and was Davy hinting he should marry the girl?

He cast his mind back to that time on the panhandle when he had first come across the family with their old fashioned puritanical dress and strange way of speaking.

Jess had been out hunting, his Pa having drunk all the housekeeping money away. He was just on his way home with a brace of rabbits over his shoulder when he came across the, then ten year old, Davy sitting with his baby sister in a clearing in the woods poring over a picture book.

Jess wandered over and squatted down beside them and after a while said, “So what are you doin’ book learnin’ when it ain’t even a school day?”

Davy had glanced up and took in the eleven year old Jess. He was dressed in ripped denims, an old shirt that was far too big for him and no shoes. Then he looked into those deep blue questioning eyes and knew instinctively that they were destined to become friends in spite of their obvious differences.

“We’re just reading it for fun,” he explained.

Jess threw him an incredulous look, “For fun?”

“Well absolutely yes, you see it’s a really interesting story. All about this man called Robin Hood who steals from the rich and gives it to the poor.“

Jess hunkered down into a more comfortable position liking the notion, ”Well go on then,” he said, “tell me the story…”

And that was how the friendship began.

After a while little Jane had crawled up onto his knee and lay there sucking her thumb as she listened to the story and Jess who was used to this from his own little sister offered no protest and he was again raised in the esteem of his new friend.

Later they took him home with them to their shack deep in the woods and introduced him to their parents.

Mr Wright had smiled benignly at Jess and said, ”So do thy parents know thou are off in the woods alone my boy?”

Jess looked puzzled, ”Yeah, sure, Ma sent me to get some grub,” he said holding up the rabbits.

Then Mrs Wright appeared dressed in a long black dress buttoned up to the neck, and a black bonnet, which looked old fashioned even to Jess’s inexperienced eye. Then he noticed that little Jane wore a similar dress almost as though it were some kind of uniform.

Jess finally became aware that the ma was speaking to him.

“I said thou are welcome to dine with us my dear.”

“Thank you Ma’am, but I’m expected back, ma is waitin’ on the rabbits.”

“Oh yes of course, but thou wilt come back and visit again… that is if thy parents do not object?”

“Oh they don’t care what I do,” said the brutally honest Jess.

Later as he was walking back, Davy accompanied him for a little way.

“So why should my folks object,” he asked the lad giving him a puzzled look, ”and why do your Pa and Ma talk like someone in the Bible?“

Davy laughed, “That is just our way. Our faith you see Jess, we are a member of the Friends Society.”


“We are from a religious group known as The Quakers?”

“Nope, I’ve no idea what you’re talkin’ about buddy.”

“It’s a kind of religion. We believe that all men are equal. For example we are as good as the Indians and they as us. Men and Women are equal too.”

This was a very novel concept to Jess,” Well they sure ain’t in my house,” he said morosely, thinking of the way his Pa beat his Ma for the least thing.

“And our Meetings are not like your Church Services, we have no Minister, but anyone can stand and say something, or we all sit in silence and wait on the Lord.”

“So those dark ol’ dresses your Ma and sis wear and that strange hat your Pa wears, that’s all part of it too?”

He nodded.

“Wow, so folks don’t like your way of doin’ things then? “

Again Davy nodded, ”We have been persecuted since we arrived a few weeks ago; sworn and spat at when we went to town, so now we stay here deep in the woods. All we want is a peaceful life Jess, not to hurt others or even convert them. “

Jess smiled, “Well I reckon you’ve got a friend buddy, ‘cos it sure don’t bother me none,” and the two youngsters shook hands. And that was to be the start of a deep friendship which was to last until the fifteen year old Jess left town after his home was fired by the Bannister gang leaving him an orphan.

Suddenly he was awoken from his reverie by the sound of the buckboard rattling into the yard and Mike calling out,”We’re back Jess.”

He jumped up to greet them and introduce Jane.

Daisy and Slim smiled and welcomed her and if Daisy found the young woman’s dress of a man’s shirt and denims, slightly odd she was too polite to say so.

“Well my dear if you are an old friend of Jess’s you must stay here with us while you are in the area. I have a spare bed in my room, if that would suit you?”

The girl nodded eagerly, ”Oh yes, if it’s no trouble?”

“None at all, come along let’s settle you in,” and she bustled off with the young woman.

Once the bedroom door had closed behind them, Slim cast his buddy a measured look.

“So, is she another one of your women then Jess?”

Jess flushed up.

“No she ain’t, read this letter guess it explains as to why she’s here,” and he handed Davy’s letter over.

Slim gave a low whistle after he had read it, ”She’s certainly not one of your conquests,” he said with an apologetic grin.

“I can have women who are just friends yer know,” he said bitterly.

“Sure, sure you can,” said Slim still grinning the look in his eyes making a lie of his words.

“Anyway what am I goin’ to do with her? Hell Slim she can’t stay here forever.”

“Um, you’re right, way things are right now we can’t really afford to feed another mouth for too long.”

“It’s OK Slim, I’ll pay her way out of my wages, and you won’t lose out.”

Slim looked over,” I didn’t mean it that way, and you can’t afford it indefinitely pard, reckon we need to find her work and maybe a live-in post?”

Just then Mike marched in carrying a bulging pair of saddlebags,” These belong to the pretty lady,” he said smiling, ”I’ve put her pony up in the barn.”

“Thanks Tiger,” said Jess and knocking on Daisy’s door handed the bags over.

A little while later Jane emerged, now dressed in a long black frock severely buttoned to the neck and a dark bonnet.

Mike stared at her in astonishment, but a firm look from Slim warned him not to comment and the men folk went about their business leaving Daisy and Jane to get to know each other.

Chapter 2

“I first met him when I was about three,” she said in answer to Daisy’s question. “Growing up it was like he had always been in my life and he was the only real friend my brother and I had at that time, because of our way of life. We are Quakers you see Daisy,” she said holding her breath and waiting for the inevitable hard look and sarcastic comment.

But none came, Daisy merely smiled and said softly, ”Now there is a way of life I wholly endorse. It is so sensible thinking that we are all equal. If more people thought that way maybe there wouldn’t be these terrible wars and the unrest with the Indians… so needless. Jess has a blood brother in the Arapaho tribe you know dear I think he embraces some of your ideas too.”* See Blood BrothersThen she smiled indulgently at the young woman, “So tell me, what was Jess like when he was a small boy?”

The young woman looked dreamy, “Oh he was lovely Daisy, he was my hero growing up, so brave the way he stood up to his dreadful father.”

Then she put a hand to her mouth,”Oh dear, I don’t mean to speak out of turn, do you know of his upbringing?”

Daisy looked sad and then said, “Yes he has confided quite a lot to me. I know of the terrible poverty and his father’s aggressive nature.”

“Jess got many a beating, but he was so… so philosophical I suppose. He just used to say that was his life and he’d never known different. I think that’s why he liked visiting us and Ma and Father loved him. He was so honest and kind to a fault. So good with me as a tiny child, but then he was used to babies having that big family.”

Then she sighed deeply,”That was the only time I saw him really cry… after the baby died.”


“Yes his Ma had lost a few babies after Jess was born, miscarried. But this one, little Annie, she was about two months old when she died. She was born sickly and then she caught a chill and just faded away. Jess came around to visit, he’d be about thirteen then and I was about five. I asked how little Annie was and…. he broke his heart, said she’d died in his arms… asked why my God had allowed it? “

She looked up at Daisy tears in her eyes, “How does a five year old answer that? Even Father didn’t have the words. He just said it was God’s will and not for us to question. Anyway, Jess being Jess, was really angry for a long time, he eventually put it behind him but I think that tested all our faith at the time.“

She paused her eyes glazing as she looked back over the years.

“Anyway, not long after that I was playing near the creek and I fell in. It was Jess that pulled me out, even though he couldn’t swim himself, he somehow waded in and grabbed me and took me home. Then I developed a fever and they all thought I would die. Father asked everyone to pray for me… even Jess and he wouldn’t at first, said he didn’t believe in it all. Then I got worse and I remember him coming in and kneeling by my cot and praying and praying and that night the fever broke and I got better,” she said simply.

Daisy too had tears in her eyes now and reached out and took Jane’s hand and squeezed it fondly.

Then Jane pulled herself together and continued with her tale.

“He was very close to Davy, my brother. They were inseparable until that dreadful day when the Banisters burnt his house down. Jess came around the following day and I have never seen anyone look so distraught. He was white and shaking, could barely speak… the shock I suppose. Then he eventually told Davy all about it, the babies crying for him, his Ma screaming and how he got out with his sister Francie and then tried frantically to get back in. He tried to rescue his Ma and Pa, and the other young ‘uns, but the neighbours held him back. He was badly burnt as it was, his hands and bare feet all blistered. Ma tended him and Father gave him clothes and some boots that Davy had outgrown.”

“The poor boy,” whispered Daisy, looking shocked to the core.

“I knew all about it of course, but to hear a first-hand account, just makes it all so terribly real.”

Jane nodded.

“It was awful to watch, to see him that way, so terribly bitter Daisy. Even as a youngster he was a fast gun. He never wore it when he visited as he knew Father didn’t approve, but Davy and I knew he had quite a reputation. When he swore revenge on the Banisters I was so worried… “

Daisy just nodded, ”I can imagine, I’ve seen him like that……so angry, wanting justice and determined to get it with his gun, it frightens me too.“

She nodded.

“He rode in on that last day, came to say goodbye. Father saw the gun, tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t be swayed. I was about seven then and I was so terribly upset at the thought of him taking off and being killed.“

She sighed deeply.

“He was up on his horse and I ran to him and grabbed the bridle, begging him not to go, but he said nothing, just looked down at me and gave me that shy smile of his.”

And then I cried, ”But Jess you can’t just go, who will look after you, and ….“

She looked down, choked with emotion and again Daisy took her hand.

“And? Go on dear.”

“And he said, ‘I will Jane… I’ll look after myself from now on…’ “

“Then he pulled his hat down hard and he had this look in his eyes, such strength, such determination…. and then he just rode out and I didn’t see him again until just now.”

Then she looked up at Daisy.

“Davy met a mutual friend a few years back and he told us that Jess was happy and settled here in Laramie and I was just so relieved,” she said with a little smile.

“And I am so pleased to meet you my dear,” said Daisy softly, “You can be assured that we will all do our best to help you now.”


Meanwhile outside Jess and Slim were leaning on the corral fence chatting.

“Well she sure isn’t your usual type of girl,” said Slim grinning over at his partner, and comparing the dowdily dressed, if pretty Jane, with the sophistication and beauty of Miss Victoria, not to mention the lovely Millie.

“Aw Slim will you stop it, I told you I ain’t clapped eyes on her since she was seven years old.”

Then Slim looked properly at his friend and could see he was looking distressed.

“Hey Jess what’s up?” he said gently.

Jess swallowed, looking down before glancing over at his buddy,”She told me Davy was dead. The best darned friend I had when I was growing up. I guess he was worth all the fights, he was a real good friend to me.”

Slim looked surprised,”Fights? “

“Sure, see him and the family were Quakers. They weren’t understood by the local folk, sure weren’t liked anyways and so when the neighbourhood kids got wind of the fact that I’d buddied up with Davy, I got beaten black and blue.”

Then he grinned and looked over at Slim, ”But you know me, always the rebel and so I just fought back… never told old Davy or Jane though, they’d have been real upset I guess.”

Slim marvelled again at the stoic attitude of his best friend,”So how did he die?”

“The scarlet fever and then the local worthies decided to fire their home to stop infection spreading, can you believe that Slim?”

“So what made her come all this way? After all you from what you’ve said she was just seven when you lit out?”

“Her brother, Davy, reckoned she’d be safer here with me, like he said in the letter.… After what they did to her home I figure he was right. That ain’t all Slim, this bastard Wilber Jacobs … a neighbour, took her in to work for him and then hit on her…. Poor kid didn’t know what was happening. “

“He didn’t…?”

“No she kicked off yellin’ and screamin’ and high tailed it the next day. But I tell you Slim, if ever I meet that hombre…..”

Slim leaned over and squeezed his shoulder, “Well she’s here now and she’s safe, guess that’s the main thing.”

“Yeah I guess.”

“She seems very innocent according to that letter from your buddy Davy. Real inexperienced and I figure we have to really look out for her Jess. Maybe get Daisy to talk to her as well, get her to wise up about men and their…. …’evil ways’,” he finished with a small grin.

Jess nodded, “I figure you’re right, but that’s up to Daisy, because I sure ain’t goin’ there,“ he said with a horror stricken look. “Me neither,” said Slim mirroring his buddy’s expression, ”I guess that one’s down to good ol’ Daisy.”


It was a few days later when Jess discovered Jane’s amazing talent.

She was out in the barn watching Mike grooming his pony, with a sketch book and pencil in her hands when Jess strolled over.

“So what are you up to?” he asked indulgently, squatting down beside her… and then he saw the picture.

It was an exquisite portrayal of Mike with his pony, not only capturing a faithful likeness, but much, much more, an almost spiritual communication of the obvious love between the boy and horse.

Jess looked at it for a full minute and then across at Jane,”Heck this is so, so good,” he said with feeling,”I never knew you could draw this well honey.”

Then he remembered even as a small child how she had enjoyed painting and had even done a childish picture of Jess and Davy together.

She smiled up at him now, “It’s the one thing I love above all other and all my pictures were burnt in the fire,” she said sadly.

“But you can do more,” said Jess casting her an affectionate look. ”Iffen they’re anything as good as this I reckon you’re a real artist.”

“I’d like to be,” she admitted, the light of true passion in her eyes,”I’d so love to go back home … to my parent’s home that is, Pennsylvania, and go to school, learn properly.”

“Well maybe you will someday,” he said softly, looking back at the picture, ”maybe you will.”

In the meantime he knew he had to try and find her some work and so the following day he hitched up the buckboard and drove her to town.

Daisy had tried to persuade the young lady to wear something a little less formal, her Plain Dress so obviously advertising the girl’s religious ethic. However she would not be moved. So Jess set off with her clothed in the buttoned up black dress, cape-let and black bonnet.

As soon as they hit town he knew she should have heeded Daisy’s words. They were openly stared at and one or two folk even made derogatory comments, albeit quietly, none wanting to risk igniting the legendary Harper temper.

He took Jane’s arm and strode down Main Street, his head held high, ignoring the less than welcoming attitude of most of the town’s people.

However after the third time he had entered a store asking if they had work suitable for the young woman and had received a blank stare and shake of the head, he began to get annoyed.

“Well it says in your window help wanted,” he said glaring at the elderly shop keeper in the haberdashers,” so you need help, she’s offerin’ to supply it… so what’s your problem?”

“The young lady just isn’t suitable.”

“How so?” asked Jess refusing to be brushed off.

The elderly woman turned to Jane.

“It’s your dress dear, so dowdy and old fashioned, not really the sort of image I want in a place that sells beautiful fabrics.”

Jane pulled herself up to her full five feet and looking the woman in the eye said, ”I wear the Plain Dress to profess my allegiance to the Quaker faith and I will not change that for anyone.”

The old woman looked from her to Jess.

“There you are Mr Harper, she’s admitted it herself, she’s one of those peculiar Quaker folks. It’s not right, not right at all and what would our dear Reverend say if I employed the likes of her?”

“He’d probably say well done for the act of Christian charity… but looks like he ain’t gonna get the chance because I wouldn’t have her work for a bigot like you anyways! Taking Jane’s arm he left the shop quickly.

She stopped outside and turned to Jess.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, ”you see I view it as God’s will for me to wear the Plain Dress. It reminds me every day that God’s will must come first… This is not just a dress… it’s who I am, what I believe in… do you understand?”

He gave her a searching look, “Yeah, I guess so and anyways it’s a free country ain’t it, you should be allowed to believe in what you want to without old harridans like her readin’ you the riot act,” he said angrily.

However if Jane thought he was angry then, well she just didn’t know Jess and it was later in the morning when she experienced the full force of the Harper temper.

They were just returning to the buckboard after a fruitless search for work when Jake and Marty Robbins all but fell out of the saloon both somewhat the worse for drink and on seeing Jane at once started making lewd comments.

“So that ain’t your usual style then Harper,” said Jake leaning back on the hitching rail, chewing on a match stick and looking Jane up and down. “No sirree, you usually go for those saloon girls with their real low cut dresses and plenty of leg on view, so what are you up to, caught religion have you?“ “Shut your mouth Robbins,” spat Jess making to pass him and move on, a protective arm around Jane.

Then Marty staggered up and stood by his brother.

“Maybe she’s got hidden depths,” he said, visually stripping the young woman naked, a salacious grin on his face.

He leaned forwards and ran a finger down her cheek, ” Yes I reckon there’s a nice little figure hidden away under that ol’ black dress, but I guess you’ve seen it Harper knowing your track record with the ladies.”

He never knew what hit him. Jess threw a right to the chin sending the taller man sprawling in the dust and then dragging him up by his shirt sent him flying again with a haymaker to the face, splitting his lip and sending a stream of bright red blood running down his chin and onto his shirt front.

Then Jess was hauled off his quarry by Jake who threw a punch at him, blacking his eye. But the fit young cowboy quickly returned the punch and sent Jake flying over the hitching rail where he collapsed, out cold on the sidewalk.

Jess stooped down and picking up his hat used it to brush himself down before turning to look apologetically at Jane.

“I’m sorry you had to see that honey,” he said softly.

“So am I,” she said stoutly, ”that isn’t the way Jess; one must lead a peaceful existence if one is to follow in the ways of the Lord.”

“Is that so?” said Jess with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

She gave him a rueful smile at that, “And now your teasing me,” she said quietly.

He nodded, “Just a little bit, come on let’s go home,” and taking her hand he led her back to the buckboard.

Later that afternoon, Mort Corey, Sheriff and good friend of all at the Sherman Ranch, rode his old Buckskin into the yard at a fast trot. He slid down from the saddle and wandered over to where Jess was leaning on the corral fence watching a skittish looking mustang galloping around.

The wiry middle aged man removed his hat and raked his hand through his greying locks before replacing it and glancing over at the young cowboy.

”Howdy Jess, mighty fine piece of horseflesh,” he said nodding at the big boned grey horse.

Jess agreed, ”Sure is, ornery one though, I’m fair black and blue from him tipping me off,” he said with a depreciating grin.

“Hmm,” said Mort, ”and I guess that isn’t all that’s made you black and blue. That’s a nasty black eye you’re sporting there boy.”

Jess put a hand up to his face and gave him a wary look.

“Yeah, I’ve heard all about you littering my Main Street with those no good Robbins boys, so what was all that about Jess?”

“We just didn’t see eye to eye on the right way to speak about young ladies I guess,” said Jess honestly, ”and I had to explain it to ‘em.”

“Um, thought that would be about the size of it, defending a young lady’s honour were you?”

“Somethin’ like that.”

Then looking surprised he said, ”Don’t tell me you’ve ridden all this way to have a moan at me for fist fightin’ Mort?”

Just then Slim wandered over, “So what’s the boy done now?” he asked.

“Oh just saving a fair maiden as usual,” said the Sheriff with a cheerful grin.

”You were born at the wrong time you know Jess,” he continued, ”should have been one of those knights in shining armour, rescuing damsels and slaying dragons.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” said Jess dryly, ”so what did you come all this way out for if not ter give me a dressing down then Mort?”

“Come to ask a favour of one of you, need an escort to take a prisoner over to Cheyenne, any offers?” he asked casting Jess a quizzical look.

“I do hear tell, you’ve got a new lady friend over there Jess,” he said, turning to wink at Slim, ”I believe the ‘ice maiden’ has succumbed to the Harper charm?”

Jess blushed and looked down, ”Who told yer that?” he mumbled.

“Oh it’s just the word on the street that’s all…. but if you don’t want to go Jess?”

“I didn’t say that did I?” he replied quickly.

“We sure ain’t too busy around here right now, what do you think Slim?”

“I think I’d never hear the end of it if I objected,” he said laughing over at his buddy.

Just then the afternoon Stage bowled in and Jess went over to start changing the team, leaving Slim to see Mort off.

The older man scratched his head and looked over to where Jess was now exchanging banter with Mose the Stage driver. Young Mike helping him to change the team.

“How does he do it Slim, that Victoria has knocked back everyone that’s ever made eyes at her and he strolls in and hits the jackpot first time, how on earth does he do it?”

Slim grinned back at the Sheriff, “He reckons it’s all in the kissing, that and his wounded puppy dog look, says it never fails.”

Mort jumped back up in the saddle, “Tell him to be in town on the early Stage will you Slim, sooner I get rid of that no good back shooting scum turned over to be tried in Cheyenne happier I’ll be.” With that he touched his hat in a farewell salute and rode out of the yard.

The subject came up again at supper time.

“So they finally caught the terrible man who shot that young man in the back then?” said Daisy as she passed the potatoes around.

“Sure did,” said Slim,” and Jess here is going to make sure he makes it safely to his trial in Cheyenne”.

“Oh yes, so if you get the early morning Stage will you be back in time for supper, shall I keep it hot dear?” she asked arching a questioning eyebrow at Jess.

He failed to meet her eyes and just muttered,”Doubt it Daisy, got some business may have to stay the night, maybe two….”

“Yes,” piped up Mike, ”and he’s going to see the ice maiden too, I heard the Sheriff saying, that’s right isn’t it Jess?”

Jess flushed up, his face a study of discomfiture, ”err what?” he said feebly.

“You know the lady the Sheriff was talkin’ about before the Stage pulled in, he said…..”

“It’s not real good to listen into grown up conversations,” said Slim quickly, trying to be diplomatic.

“Well I was just interested, so is she really made of ice Jess… kinda like a snow man?”

“Mike!” said Jess with a warning look, that told the boy, enough.

“Ok,” he said hanging his head, ”I was just interested, is all.”

Then the subject was changed and it wasn’t until much later that Jane brought the subject up again.

The others had all retired and Jess had been over in the barn checking on the horses and when he returned was surprised to see Jane still sitting up by the fire.

He sank down in his rocking chair next to her and smiled across, “You OK?” he asked, ”been kinda quiet since we got back from town.”

She just nodded.

“Did it upset you, that fight? I’m sorry Jane. I guess I just lost my temper, way they were behaving… “

Then she turned troubled eyes on him,” Is it true Jess, what they were saying about you?”


“They were saying about your liking the saloon girls and being a ladies’ man?”

Jess blushed to the roots of his hair and then said softly,”I like the ladies yeah and one of my best friends is a saloon girl sure. But that doesn’t make her a bad person Jane and I figure we shouldn’t judge others anyways, ain’t that what your religion says?”

She nodded, ”Yes, but it also says no good will come of fornication and I believe that is what is in your mind, your ‘business’, in Cheyenne with this ‘ice maiden’.”

“Now look here,” he said jumping up from his seat, “that’s none of your business Jane. That is my private life and I won’t have you or anyone else tellin’ me how to lead it… you understand?”

You don’t understand,” she said looking up at him beseechingly, ”I am only trying to save your immortal soul, don’t you see, no good will come of these evil liaisons out of wedlock.”

“Yeah, well just you let me worry about my immortal soul,” he said turning to go to his room. ”I reckon I’ve done one heck of a lot worse things in my life than spending some time lovin’ the ladies and I guess it’s down to me on the day of reckoning to explain myself….”

“Nevertheless, to avoid fornication let every man have his own wife and every woman her own husband, 1 Corinthians 7:2,” she quoted.

Jess just stared at her shaking his head ,”And to think I wanted Daisy to explain all about the birds and bees, well guess you’ve got that covered already,” he said, before turning and going into his room.

He barged in and slumped down on his bed, before casting Slim a baleful look,”Did yer hear that?” he spat.

“Kind of hard not to pard, I just hope Mike is asleep.”

“Well did you hear all she said then? It’s the cheek of her, tryin’ to tell me how to lead my goddamn life Slim!”

“Well I guess she’s kind of got a point, you do enjoy all the pleasures of marriage without the pain,” he said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, but I never make no promises either. All the girls I see know where they stand and they are happy with that. So where does Miss holier than thou Jane get off tellin’ me what to do? And to think we were goin’ to ask Daisy to explain all about adult love, reckon she knows more than us”.

Slim shook his head, ”Oh no she doesn’t pard. She’s just quoting the Bible and copying what her Ma and Pa have taught her, I reckon she doesn’t really understand what it’s all about, it’s just all words to her. I don’t believe she understands what love, and that special relationship between adults is really all about yet, if she did I figure she’d be a lot more understanding.”

Jess stretched out on the bed and laced his hands behind his head, ”You reckon?”

Slim nodded,”And I think Daisy does need to talk to her, explain things, if she will.”

“Can you ask her then Slim? I won’t get time with me takin’ off first thing”.

Slim sighed deeply, ”Well that isn’t a conversation I relish, but yeah, OK I suppose so,” and with that they finally settled down for the night.

The following morning when Mose pulled the Stage in he gave Jess a toothless grin,”I hear you’re deputising for Mort today and takin’ that low life to Cheyenne?”

Jess nodded and hauled himself up onto the box beside the old timer.

He waved down to Slim and Daisy who were there to see him off, then he leaned down and said quietly, ”err I think Slim has something he wants to discuss with you Daisy, before Jane gets up,” and giving his partner a cheeky wink, he tipped his hat to the pair and Mose urged the team out of the yard at a fast pace.

Chapter 3

Later that afternoon after having delivered his prisoner to the Cheyenne jail he strolled down the street to the Golden Nugget. He pushed his way through the bat wing doors and stood for a moment waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light, before making his way over to the crowded bar.

One of the pretty young barmaids came up at once to serve him, but she was repelled by a look from her boss Miss Victoria, who moved swiftly to serve Jess.

He ordered a beer and then smiled across at the ice maiden, his pulses racing at the sight of the incredibly beautiful woman.

She gave him a nod of acknowledgement and then went back to her duties.

She moved about the room, pretending to deal with other clients, but all the while weighing up Jess and after a while she moved back over to his place by the bar and said in her deep husky voice, “You haven’t been around much lately then Jess?”

He looked across and nodded, “Yeah, well it’s a fair way to Laramie and I can’t just drop everything at the ranch and ride over… no matter how much I might want to.”

She gave him an appraising look…”And did you want to?”

He looked deeply into her cool blue eyes, “So what do you think?”

“I don’t know tell me.”

“Sure I wanted to … one hell of a lot,” he said softly, leaning over the bar and taking her hand in his.

She looked at him from under her lashes and then suddenly seemed to come to a decision and opening the bar hatch gestured for him to enter.

”Come into the parlour,” she said softly, “supper is ready,” turning to give her bar manager a quick apologetic glance.

“You hold the reins will you John?”

The tall good looking man gave her a small smile of acknowledgement. However as he watched Victoria and Jess leave together his eyes were stony.

Jess cast a quick glance around the bar and saw all eyes on him. This wasn’t the way he liked to play things. When he stayed over with Millie he always made his way up to her room via the back fire escape, so that he didn’t draw attention to their intimacy. But here Victoria seemed to almost want to flaunt it and he felt a slight embarrassment, for her if not for himself.

However there was no way out now without looking churlish, so he followed her through to the back room.

As soon as they entered the back room, she closed the door behind them and then turned to look at him. All thoughts of supper suddenly leaving Jess’s mind when he saw the lustful look in her eyes.

“I’ve really missed you,” she said simply.

He looked down at her wearing the usual high necked crisp white blouse and dark business skirt, but knew all too well what passion these conventional clothes hid.

Even now she licked her lips and undid the top button of her blouse before gliding over to stand oh so close to him. Close enough for him to feel her sweet breath on his cheek.

“It’s so warm tonight,” she said seductively.

He nodded and then looked down at her parted lips before his gaze flicked up to engage with hers, a wealth of understanding passing between them. He finally leaned forwards and brushed her lips tenderly with his own…. Then he kissed her more deeply, pulling her in towards him in a sensual embrace.

“Vicky,” he whispered……then taking her hand he led her over to the big old couch and threw himself down, pulling her onto his knee, again leaning in for a passionate kiss. Before gently pushing her back down and lying beside her, holding her in his warm embrace and letting their shared passion finally take its inevitable course.

Much later the couple made their way upstairs to her room and she brewed them some coffee laced with whiskey and they sat and talked long into the night. Before finally settling in her big soft bed and making love again, this time without the desperate passion of earlier, but slowly and tenderly the act so erotic that Jess just wanted to stay in her arms forever.

At dawn the following day she awoke in his warm embrace and it looked very much like she had similar thoughts.

“Do you have to travel back today?” she asked as he lay next to her, his head resting on his elbow and looking down, into her blue eyes, a protective arm slung across her naked belly.

“I guess I should,” he said softly, ”I’ve a mess of Mustangs waitin’ on me to break ‘em for a neighbouring rancher.”

“Oh do you have to Jess?” she asked pleadingly.

“Sure,” he said giving her a quizzical look, ”it’s my livelihood, you know that.”

“What if it wasn’t though?”


“What if I offered you a job here? Working in the bar for me and acting as my protector, sort of body guard?”

He sat up and looked concerned, ”Why, do you think you need one?”

“I don’t know, there is a lot of jealousy in this business, I run the best place in town and I’m a woman in a man’s world, sure I’ve had threats.”

“What, recently? Because iffen you’re worried you should tell the Sheriff, he’s a good man and he’ll look out for you, times I can’t be here that is…..”

She looked crestfallen,”So you won’t do it Jess, won’t work for me, you don’t care enough?”

“It ain’t that …….really Vicky,” said Jess looking pained, ”but Hell we’ve only been together five minutes, you can’t expect me to give up everything just like that. I’m a partner in the business you know and I love the work, workin’ with the horses an all, heck it would near kill me bein’ stuck indoors all day…”

“I see,” she said with a resigned look in her eyes, ”well if that’s the way you feel, I guess there is nothing more to say,” and she made to get out of the bed.

But he put out a restraining hand and pulled her gently back into his arms.

“Don’t,” he whispered, ”don’t go this way, feelin’ mad at me.”

“I’m not mad, just hurt, I thought… well I thought you cared for me, would want to be here.”

“I do,” he groaned, ”it’s just that, well its one hell of a big step, giving up my life back in Laramie.”

Then his eyes lit up, ”How’s about I come over most weekends and we try it, see how we get on, huh?”

She smiled deeply into his eyes and then leaned across to kiss him, ”Yes,” she whispered, ”I’d like that very much,” and then she melted in his arms once more as he started caressing her and whispering her name softly.


It was two days later when he finally landed back at the ranch, looking decidedly peaky and exhausted to Daisy’s eyes, although Slim had another word for it when he caught up with Jess later in the barn.

“Looks like she’s pretty much done wore you out buddy,” he said with a knowing smile.

“Aw, Slim don’t start,” said Jess who was grooming Traveler, although to Slim’s eyes he looked more like he was leaning on the horse for support.

“So how was it?”

Jess looked down for a moment, before his eyes flicked up to meet his friend’s gaze,” She’s offered me a job there, and wants me to move in with her.”

Slim’s head shot up, ”Gee… that was quick work, so what did you say Jess?” he asked looking concerned.

Jess grinned over at his friend, ”What do ya think, I ain’t no saloon monkey Slim, and I can’t be one even for the likes of Miss Victoria. Did say I’d spend more time with her though, figure I owe her that and we’ll just see how it pans out.”

And so it was that Jess started making the arduous journey to Cheyenne every weekend for the next few weeks, with mixed reactions from the folk at the Relay Station.

Miss Daisy just wanted him to be happy and she could see that Jess was indeed totally besotted with his new girlfriend, but the long journey was obviously taking its toll and he was tired and distracted during the week.

Slim missed his buddy’s company. Especially their Saturday nights in town, but was philosophical enough to just accept the situation. Anyway he was pretty sure that Jess would get it all out of his system sooner or later and return to the fold, so to speak.

Mike too, missed Jess and their leisure time together playing checkers or swimming and fishing down at the creek. So Jess tried to make it up to the boy in the week by spending extra time with him during the long light summer evenings.

But strangely, it seemed to be Jane who took his absence to heart most. Although she had not castigated him again for what she saw as a transgression, knowing that he would not take her criticism well.

Instead she just acted as though his relationship with Victoria wasn’t happening and refused to even mention his absences during the long weekends. In reality she missed him dreadfully when he was away. She was beginning to be torn apart by jealousy as her feelings for the young cowboy became stronger and stronger the more she saw of him.

Jess tried to be his usual caring self as far as the young woman was concerned. He had even gone up to the attic with Slim and rooted around until they found Slim’s childhood box of watercolour paints and presented them to an overjoyed Jane.

Afterwards he had kindly spent an afternoon posing for her along with Traveler. The resulting painting was a real masterpiece and greatly admired by all the family, to such an extent that Slim had proudly hung it on the mantle.

Jane had captured the relationship between Jess and his horse perfectly. But it was the faraway look in his eyes that captivated the onlooker. A mixture of longing and sadness and she knew that he had been thinking of his girl back in Cheyenne. However Jane had to be true to herself and just drew what she saw, even though that look in his eyes near broke her heart.


Jess continued to visit with Victoria throughout the summer, their relationship getting more and more intense and he was finding it difficult to leave her on the Sunday evening, the week in between seeming endless and lonely.

One Sunday night he couldn’t drag himself away and he stayed over until the Monday morning. Even then he had to sprint down the street to catch Mose as he was just about to set off. He virtually threw himself up on the box beside the old timer, fastening up his shirt buttons and strapping on his gun belt as he did so.

Mose cast him an amused look, ”Couldn’t get your butt out of bed then son?” he said chuckling.

Jess looked annoyed, ”Just drive the damn thing will you Mose.”

“Oh, she’s chucked you out with a flea in your ear has she Jess?”

“No she ain’t, just kinda upset at me leavin’ if you must know.”

Then he settled down to the long bone shaking journey home and cast his mind back to the last few hours with Victoria, her words still echoing around in his head.

“Please don’t leave me Jess; it’s getting more and more difficult every time you go,” then she cast him an agonised look, ”…well isn’t it?”

He hung his head, “Yeah, I guess it is Vicky, but what’s a man to do? I have to work…. but Hell I wanna be with you too…. so goddamn much. “

Then he had taken her in his arms and made love again. Breathing in her perfume, tasting her sweet lips, caressing her, at first gently and slowly and then finally reaching a crescendo of the deepest passion, those last moments so bitter sweet as he knew he must leave her. And afterwards they had clung together and she had cried for him to stay.

“Jess, I think I love you, doesn’t that mean anything?” she asked, the tears now streaming down her face.

“Sure it does and I feel the same too but… “

“But what Jess?” she cried, brushing the tears away angrily.

“Don’t,” he whispered, ”don’t do this honey, I have to go, you know that, but I’ll be back on Friday, we’ll talk it all through then, huh?”

He had stood up hurriedly pulling on his denims and throwing his shirt and vest on before glancing back towards the bed, and what he saw made his heart ache, such was the look of pain in her eyes.

“I will see you again?” she asked.

“Of course, you know that, come on sweetheart, you’ve just gotten yourself all upset.”

“You’re right, as usual,” she said with a watery smile, ”it’s just…”

“Just what?”

“Well I’ve just got a bad feeling, like I won’t see you again, you’ll take care won’t you Jess… I couldn’t stand it… if anything happened to you ….“

“Hey,” he said reaching down and trailing a finger tenderly down her cheek, ”ain’t nothin’ bad going to happen to me except a mouth full of abuse from ol’ Slim when I finally land home.”

She gave him a genuine smile now, ”Off you go then and have a good week and we’ll talk properly… about us next week yes?”

He nodded, “Sure honey,” and he leaned down and kissed her passionately.

He stood back up and gazed down at her one last time drinking in every last detail, before turning and walking to the door, where he turned and touched his hat in a last little farewell gesture, ”Next week, I promise, we’ll talk.”

She nodded and he finally left, tearing down the stairs and across the street to the Stage.

Mose peered over at him, “You feelin’ better now?”

He nodded, ”Yeah, sorry about that Mose, so how are yer doin’?”

“Oh, can’t complain son, my rheumatics is playin’ up some… but can’t grumble.”

Jess nodded casting him a sympathetic look, “So how about everyone at home?”

“Well, Slim was as mad as a wet hen when you didn’t show last night. Blamed me for goin’ without yer, but I told him straight as you were in the saloon makin’ eyes at that Miss Victoria.”

“Thanks Mose,” said Jess sarcastically.

“Well he was a bleatin’ on about as how you ain’t finished breakin’ that last band of mustangs. Said as how old Benson has been on his back sayin’ he needs ‘em green broke afore the fall round-up….. And then there was young Mike’s accident….”

At this Jess spun round in his seat,” What…… is he hurt Mose?”

“Nah just shook up some. He tried to get on that big ornery grey. Said as how he didn’t want you getting in trouble from old man Benson and so he thought he’d have ago at horse breakin’ ter help yer out. Nearly broke his neck darn fool kid… plucky though,” he said grinning over at his friend.

Jess had turned pale and looked anguished, “He’s OK though Mose, not hurt bad?”

“No, I told you, just a few bruises and if Miss Daisy hadn’t stepped in I guess he’d have had a trip to the woodshed as Slim was so darned mad at him.”

“Yeah, he would be,” said Jess softly, ”hell this is all my fault Mose, I should have finished that job by now, would have done too if I hadn’t been high tailin’ it over to Cheyenne all the time.”

“Hey don’t go a beatin’ yerself up Jess, I reckon a man needs a bit of female company from time to time. She sure is a cracker that Miss Victoria, yes sirree,” he finished reflectively.

Slim ran out of the barn when he heard the Stage approaching and as it came to a standstill beside him he glared up at Jess, “You’ve decided to come home then?”

Ignoring the less than friendly welcome Jess flung himself down from the Stage and threw his buddy an anxious look, “How’s Mike?”

Slim’s expression softened a little, “He’s OK don’t go fretting. He’s inside, I kept him home from school seeing as he’s still pretty bruised and …. “

But Jess was quickly striding towards the ranch house.

“I’ll just change the teams then shall I?” Slim called sarcastically after him, but Jess had already disappeared inside.

He saw Mike immediately, lying on the old leather couch, tucked up with a colourful rug around him looking pale and wan, but he sat up and threw Jess a broad grin as soon as he entered.

Jess was across the room in two giant strides and squatting down beside the couch threw his arms around the boy and held him tightly for a moment , before pulling back and examining the pale little face. He had a nasty bruise to his forehead and dark shadows beneath his eyes telling of a disturbed night.

“What in heck were you thinkin’ of Tiger,” he said in exasperation, ”You tryin’ to get yerself killed?”

The youngster shook his head, ”Slim said Mr Benson was real mad and he might cancel the order on the mustangs if they weren’t ready in time, so I thought I’d try and help,” he said his bottom lip now quivering.

Jess hugged him again, “It’s OK Mike I know you were only trying to help, but I’m back now and if I work every hour of daylight I figure we’ll get those ol’ nags up ter scratch in time for Mr Benson. So don’t you go a frettin’…. OK?”

“Sure Jess,” said the boy with a watery smile, “I knew everything would be alright as soon as you came home.”

“So did I.”

Jess spun around to see Jane standing just behind him looking very emotional…”You should have been here,” she said softly ”we all needed you.”

Jess looked down, embarrassed, “Yeah; well I’m here now …”

“It is so wrong what you are doing,” she whispered, “can’t you see that Jess…..no good can come of that sort of…liaison.”

Jess looked angry, ”Look Jane I know you mean well. But you really don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. What are you sayin’ this accident of Mike’s is some sort of Devine retribution for … me an’ Vicky’s relationship?”

“No. I’m not saying that,” she said flushing up at the mention of Victoria, ”I just think you should have been here instead of…..”

He glanced down at Mike and then taking Jane none too gently by the hand led her to the kitchen before glaring, through narrowed eyes, at her and speaking quietly so the boy wouldn’t hear, Jess breathed, “Instead of what Jane….?”

“You know what I mean, spending time in wickedness and lechery.”

He shook his head looking even angrier, ”Like I said, don’t go talkin’ about what you don’t understand. What Vicky and I have is very special and I won’t have you talkin’ that way. Its private Jane, real private and I guess I don’t have to justify myself to you either,” and turning on heel he slammed out through the back door and stood panting, for a moment, trying to calm himself, before moving off to the corral and the mustang breaking.

Slim found him in the barn about an hour later banging about, obviously in a bad temper.

The tall blond rancher never held a grudge for long and part of his anger had been fueled by worry, about Mike and the mustang deal too. But now he was happy to forgive his partner for his tardiness in returning home.

He advanced on his friend and said softly, ”What’s the matter Jess?”

“Dang cinch strap busted,” he said rifling around in the depths of the barn for a replacement.

Slim grabbed his shoulder and turned him around gently, ”Jess what’s really the matter?”

He looked down before his eyes flicked up to his buddy’s kindly benign ones, and sighed deeply.

“It’s Jane,” he said removing his hat and raking his hand through his dark locks, “she don’t agree with me seeing Vicky. She don’t understand the way I feel about her… how special it is between us, she just seems to think it’s down to sex, but it ain’t Slim, it’s so much more than that……”

“It sounds kind of serious pard?”

Jess looked down and then back up at his friend, “Yeah, I think it is Slim… real serious.”


Later that evening after Jess had retired for the night, exhausted from working the mustangs, Slim had a quiet word with Daisy. She in turn went to the room she was still sharing with Jane knowing she had to try and comply with Slim’s wishes but worried about finding the right words.

“You see Daisy, I think it’s really serious between Jess and this Miss Victoria and I figure if Jane goes on kicking off this way lecturing him on the rights and wrongs of it all, well I can see him just walking out, moving over to Cheyenne like Miss Victoria wants.”

“No Slim, surely not, he loves his life here. He’d be miserable working in a saloon all day long, even if it is a smart one. He wouldn’t turn his back on all this would he, the partnership and everything?”

“Um, I guess you’re right Daisy, but this Victoria sure seems to have a strong hold on him and I know he’s pulled both ways. But I just don’t want him to go rushing into anything because of something Jane has said, you know how dang stubborn he can be.”

Daisy shook her head sadly, ”I know, and she wouldn’t deliberately hurt him, in fact quite the reverse. I think a lot of this sounding off is more down to plain old fashioned jealousy rather than religious zeal.”

Slim looked quite shocked, ”You think so?”

“I do, I don’t think she recognizes the feelings in herself. She is extremely naive and has led a very sheltered life. However I believe those same feelings that she is condemning so much? Well she is actually denying them in herself.”

Slim sucked in a deep breath, ”Life isn’t easy is it Daisy?”

She smiled back, “You can say that again dear, anyway wish me luck,” and she went off to try and talk some sense into young Jane.

When she entered the room Jane was in bed, but sitting up reading her Bible.

“Can we have a little word dear?” asked Daisy, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

Jane put the Book down at once and gave the older woman an anxious look, ”Yes of course.”

“It’s about Jess dear”.

At his name Jane flushed up and looked wary, ”He is cross with me I know, he thinks I’m prying into his personal life Daisy.”

“And are you dear?”

She just looked down tearfully, without answering.

Daisy sighed and then took the girl’s hand.

“I have lived here with my boys for a number of years Jane, and I know perfectly well what they are like. Their strengths as well as their weaknesses. I, like you, have a strong religious ethic, but I have never felt it my place to judge them, and I don’t really believe you should either my dear.”

“But Daisy,” she said looking at the older woman with anguished eyes, ”I am just concerned for him and it is wrong what he is doing, sleeping with that woman… and a saloon owner too… Jess is worth so much more than that. He is such a wonderful man, he should be thinking of marrying a more worthy person, and give her children, who will be brought up in the ways of Godliness and….. “

Then she came to a stop, her hand flying up to her mouth as she realized she had said too much.

Daisy squeezed her hand kindly, “Like you, my dear…. Do you think you love him Jane?”

Then the tears really flowed and she started sobbing uncontrollably as the older woman held her close a look of deep concern in her kindly old eyes.

After a while she finally came to a hiccuping stop, and apologized.

“That’s alright Jane, but I think we must talk openly about… well about what your mother would have told you had she still been alive.”

Then more gently, “Do you know anything of the love between a man and a woman?”

She shook her head, ”Only what I have read in the Good Book and that it is a sin out of wedlock.”

Daisy nodded in agreement, ”But what you must remember is that Jess has not had your strict religious upbringing, but I do believe that he is very moral in his own way. He has always been totally honest with his ladies and has entered into a mutually acceptable and agreed, relationship with them. He is a young man Jane and as such has… well he has certain needs. The power of sexual attraction and love is very strong and when the two are mixed together well, it can be an irresistible combination. I have no doubt that he is in love with Victoria and whether or not they decide to marry or not is their business. But one thing is for sure we cannot change anything Jane and to try would be for you to lose his friendship.”

“But I can’t help how I feel Daisy. Every time I see him my heart beats so fast I think he must surely hear it. I have butterflies in my stomach if he so much as glances in my direction, and when he is close to me I just want him to kiss me, to hold me. Oh Daisy it is so wrong and how can I compete with a beautiful woman like that Miss Victoria anyway?” she finished tearfully.

“Oh my dear I am so sorry, but neither should you try. Jess is in this serious relationship and only he can decide where it leads him. You must just be strong my dear and put all these thoughts of him from your mind,” and she held her in a comforting embrace as she started to silently weep again.

Chapter 4

The following morning Jess was hard at it working the mustangs and Slim and Daisy were standing watching after they had just seen Mike off on the Stage to school and Jane was in the house making a start on tidying up after breakfast.

They leaned on the corral fence watching him ducking and diving on a young Palomino, the grey finally having been broken.

Daisy shuddered slightly never liking to watch him working with the horses like this. Knowing how dangerous it was and dreading seeing him take a spill.

“So how did you get on last night?” asked Slim, softly as he kept an eye on his buddy, ready to dive in and help him if he was unseated.

“Well, she is very emotionally involved,” whispered Daisy, ”just as I thought, she seems to think she’s in love with him and was talking marriage. She thinks Victoria is unworthy. Do you think we should tell him?” she asked casting an anxious glance up at the tall rancher.

Slim gave a low whistle, ”Gee Daisy, I reckon not, I figure he’s got enough on his plate right now with everything going on back in Cheyenne. Jane’s so young and innocent, sounds like just youthful infatuation, guess she’ll get over it,” he said with a reassuring smile.

“Um maybe, but I think the sooner we can find her work and somewhere to lodge the easier it will be all round.”

Just then the bronco tipped Jess off and he fell hard in the dirt and let fly with some choice expletives, not seeing Daisy standing close by and she gave Slim a rueful smile.

“Err I don’t really think that Jane and Jess would be a marriage made in Heaven, too many things she’d have to try and change,” she said chuckling and watching as the young cowboy leapt up from the dust and advanced on the mustang, the light of battle in his fierce blue eyes.

He worked hard all week from dawn to dusk and by the Friday he was pretty much done in. But he wanted to finish just one last horse knowing he could then take off to see Vicky the following day with a clear conscience.

It was late afternoon and Slim was just about to suggest his partner took a break when it happened. Jess was sitting on the big black stallion one minute and flying through the air the next, landing badly, hitting the corner of the corral fence before sliding to the ground and lying unconscious as the lethal hooves of the angry horse rained down near him.

Slim vaulted the fence in the blink of an eye and tore across the corral, but not before one of the hooves had come down viciously on Jess’s thigh.

Slim waved his arms and yelled at the horse and it backed off just enough for him to haul his buddy under the fence rail to safety.

Slim very gently turned his buddy over onto his back and quailed as he saw his deathly pallor. Blood was pouring from his temple after colliding with the fence post. The right leg of his denims was turning dark with blood as well, the stain growing larger by the second.

“Oh buddy,” he whispered and then Daisy was there looking down, with horrified eyes.

“Let’s get him up and into the house,” she said, ever the practical nurse, ”we must stop the bleeding on that leg Slim, it could be from an artery, I don’t like the look of it at all,” and she helped lift the still unconscious man and they carried him in and placed him on the couch.

Jane saw them arrive and looked on in shock as Daisy and Slim swung into action, this being a situation they had unfortunately found themselves in far too many times.

Slim removed his boots and then unbuckled his belt and removed the blood stained denims and he sat back in alarm as he saw the full extent of the damage to the thigh, the blood still pouring out.

Then Daisy was beside him again and after cleaning the jagged wound as well as she was able, she applied a wad of clean rags and instructed Slim to keep pressure on the wound in an attempt to stem the bleeding, while she turned her attention to the deep gash to his head, tenderly cleaning out the dirt and grit.

Meanwhile Jane just looked on horror stricken, before falling to her knees and praying quietly.

After a little while Jess’s eyes flickered open and the first thing he heard was Jane reciting the Lord’s Prayer. He looked up into Slim’s anxious face and then with a small smile playing around his lips he said softly, ”Hell I ain’t dead am I pard? Reckon I can hear an angel praying for my immortal soul”.

Luckily Jane was out of range and didn’t hear his facetious comment, and Slim gave him a gentle cuff, and said softly, “No I reckon you’ve still got one or two of those nine lives left Jess.”

However Daisy looked very serious, “This is no joking matter Slim, he needs Doc Sam to stitch up this nasty wound and sooner rather than later, he’s still losing a lot of blood.”

Just then they heard the afternoon Stage rolling in and Slim went off to dispatch Mose to take a message for the doc to visit pronto, while the women folk continued tending Jess

Daisy went to get some more clean rags to stem the blood flow, leaving Jane perched on the side of the couch keeping the steady pressure down on the pad over the wound, as she looked into his pale face.

“Hey, it’s OK,” he whispered, ”I’m gonna be alright you know, just got stomped on some by that old mustang. Sam will fix me up, he always does.”

But as she watched she saw that he had started to shake and he turned even paler. Her heart started beating faster and her palms became clammy as she stared at him in ill concealed dismay.

“What is it Daisy?” she asked as the older woman came back in and cast an anxious look in Jess’s direction.

“He’s just very shocked due to the loss of blood,” she said quietly, “Can you go into his room and bring me another blanket Jane?” and she leaned over Jess and brushed his dark hair gently back from his forehead, ”Just hold on dear, Sam will be here soon…..”

By the time Doctor Sam Baker, physician and good friend of the ranchers, bustled in some time later Jess was deeply unconscious again. The blood was still oozing out, albeit at a slower rate, and he was still looking deathly pale.

Daisy had sent a very upset Mike off with Jane to prepare a scratch supper in the kitchen and now Slim sat by his buddy, wiping his face with a cool cloth and keeping steady pressure on the thigh.

Sam’s cheerful authority raised the atmosphere as he clapped Slim on the shoulder taking his place at the bedside, with a cheery, “So what has old Jess been up to now?”

However when he removed the dressing and saw the extent of the damage he sucked in a deep breath and went about cleaning and suturing the wound immediately a look of worry on his kindly features.

Once he had finished he sat back scrutinizing his patient.

“How long has he been out Daisy?” he asked.

“About an hour now Sam and he was very shaky before too, quite advanced shock.”

“Um, he doesn’t look too good, we need to try and bring him around and then get as much fluid into him as he’ll take, I reckon I’ll stay around for a little while, just until he’s over the worst.”

Daisy knew that for Sam to stay that he must be really worried as he usually surrendered his patient into her more than capable nurse’s hands. However she made no comment and just went about the business of washing Jess’s face and chest with icy cold water in an attempt to bring him around. Finally his deep blue eyes squinted open and seeing the doc there gave him a weak smile, “Sorry to bring you out Sam, I had a little argument with an ornery stallion and I came off worst.”

Sam smiled back,“Well you know as how I like any excuse to come out here and sample Miss Daisy’s cooking,” he said with a wink, and the good lady went off to check on how Jane and Mike were doing with the supper preparations.

Jess managed to drink some water and then fell into a deep sleep as the others gathered around the supper table and Sam was finally introduced to Jane properly.

The older man smiled across at her, ”I’ve been admiring the picture of Jess and Traveler. You have an exceptional talent, you really have captured them both so well,” he said beaming at her.

She blushed prettily looking down.

“Thank you, I love drawing, but Father used to say it was too worldly to draw friends and wildlife and I should just restrict myself to Bible pictures or religious icons really,” she said demurely.

“Well whatever your subject you are certainly very gifted.”

Then he looked thoughtful. ”You know my brother is coming for a visit next month? He is the patron of a Gallery in Philadelphia, where he lives, and I’d really like him to see your work my dear. I’m sure he would be very interested.”

Jane nodded warmly and then the Doctor left the table to check on Jess again.

Much later after Mike had been finally persuaded to go to bed with the promise of a story from Jane, the others sat around the table and turning to Daisy, Sam said, “That was a wonderful meal Daisy. Especially welcome at present, with my housekeeper convalescing from that wretched influenza and over at her sisters.”

Daisy looked concerned.

“Oh I’m sorry to hear that, you must miss her?”

“Sorely, my little Carrie is a wonderful daughter and an even better nurse, but a cook she isn’t I’m afraid, not up to your calibre anyway Daisy.”

“Oh, I can’t take the credit for the meal tonight, it was dear Jane who cooked, as I was too busy tending to Jess. “Then she exchanged a glance with Slim, “I wonder now….. “


“Are you looking for a temporary replacement for Mrs Braddock then Sam?”

“Well yes she’ll be gone about a month, why are you offering Daisy?” he said his grey eyes twinkling, ”I can’t see Jess and Slim taking much to that notion.”

When she explained about Jane’s need for a job and the problem with her being accepted in Laramie because of the attitude to her Quaker beliefs Sam was really angry.

“I cannot believe how bigoted folks can be in this day and age. Yes I would love her to work for me for a while, if the child would like to.”

A little later Jane re-joined the party, her story telling duties done, and seemed quite amenable to Sam’s suggestion. However Daisy saw her dart a quick look over to where Jess was still dozing. She knew that the Jane really didn’t want to leave him. However she also knew she had no real choice and couldn’t expect the kindly folk at the ranch to feed and clothe her forever. “Well that’s decided then,” said Sam happily, “maybe you could start on Monday?”

She nodded looking relieved, ”And it’s only Friday now, so Jess will be feeling better by then too won’t he?”

The doctor raised a quizzical eyebrow at Daisy, but made sure Jane didn’t see him and with a secret smile said, “Oh I should think so, he’s tough as old nails.”

Then addressing Slim and Daisy, ”But he will need careful nursing for the next few days and then no riding for at least a fortnight, he must keep off that leg unless he wants permanent damage. It is a really deep wound and there is still the possibility of nerve damage. Keep a sharp eye on him Daisy, and small sips of water, every hour or so throughout the night and all day tomorrow too I’m afraid.”

Then grinning at Slim, ”I know what an ornery cuss he can be when he’s sick, but it really is vital he makes up his fluids …. I’d stay the night and help but Carrie is all alone with Mrs Braddock away.”

“Oh don’t worry,” said Slim smiling at his friend, ”I’ll sit up with him, Daisy’s done enough for one day”.

“Oh couldn’t I please,” piped up Jane quickly, ”I’d love to help and to say thank you to you all for being so kind to me… especially Jess,” she said flushing a little and looking down, unable to meet Daisy’s eye.

Sam and Daisy exchanged a glance, the doctor’s suspicions proving correct. Heck his own daughter had fallen under the handsome cowboy’s spell when she was a young girl, suffering a dreadful crush on him and now to Sam’s intelligent old eyes this girl seemed to be in the throes of the same infatuation.”

He chuckled to himself, well at least her help would save Slim and Daisy a sleepless night and she looked young and fit enough to cope.

“I don’t see why not,” said the doctor, ”and he may behave better for a young lady than you two!”

And so it was that once Sam had ridden out, Daisy made for her room, with strict instructions that Jane call her if the patient deteriorated at all.

Jess had come around by this time and although he looked distinctly bleary eyed he was a better colour and the trembling had stopped.

Slim looked down at him, “You OK buddy?”

Jess nodded, ”I guess.”

“Hum, you near shortened my life by a good ten years again today,” he said with a chuckle.

Then looking more serious, “Jane is going to sit up with you and nurse you through the night and you just behave yourself Jess, none of your attitude, just do as you’re told… understand?” he said giving his buddy a mock glare.

“Ok, Ok,“ said Jess dozily ,”keep yer hair on…... so when didn’t I behave?”

Slim cast his eyes to heaven, ”How long have you got?”

Then turning to Jane he smiled down at her, sitting on the edge of the couch, “Good luck and just call me if he gets too much of a handful,” and with that he wandered off to bed yawning loudly.

Jess cast her a wary look, ”You ain’t gonna start lecturing me again are yer?” he said, already feeling exhausted and sick to his stomach, his head throbbing and he just craved some peace and quiet.

She remembered her conversation with Daisy and how she had warned her that if she tried to change Jess and interfere in his personal life she would be in danger of losing his friendship, and that she just couldn’t countenance.

“No, of course I’m not, it was nobody’s fault, least of all your own you’ve just had an accident Jess, that’s all.”

He pondered the truth of that, maybe if he hadn’t been so darned keen to hurry up and get the job done so he could take off and see Vicky again, then he wouldn’t have had the fall, he’d been dog tired and knew he should have taken a break earlier.

Then he suddenly thought… oh Hell, how was he gonna get to see Victoria… he had to, he just had to go, she was expecting him, he’d promised and she’d been so darned upset when he had lit out earlier in the week.….

He closed his eyes and gave a low groan.

“Jess! Jess are you OK?” asked a worried looking Jane, as she leaned across and took his hand.

His eyes flew open at her touch and he saw the alarm in her eyes.

“I’m OK,” he said softly, “just thinkin’ on something… “

“What, can I help?”

He gave her the ghost of a smile, ”No I guess not.”

She did as Sam had told her and made sure that Jess had water every hour or so, which necessitated her keeping awake and then trying to wake him up and force him to drink which was no easy task.

“Heck Janie will you leave me alone,” he muttered when she shook him gently awake yet again in the wee small hours of the morning.

At the use of her childhood name her heart melted. She remembered how he had been in those far off days, a mixture of strength and vulnerability, with an endearing protective streak towards the then small girl.

“Come on Jess,” she said, an encouraging smile on her pretty face, “you have to drink, the doctor was most insistent; you want to feel better don’t you?”

He muttered something under his breath that she couldn’t quite make out, but eventually pulled himself up and took the proffered tumbler of water and drank it down.

“Now will you let a man sleep,” he growled before slipping back down and rolling on his back, snoring lightly within minutes, while she kept her silent vigil over him, drinking in the dark handsome features. So young and innocent looking in repose…. Her heart hammered in her chest as she reached over and gently brushed his hair back from his forehead, but he slept on unaware of her adoration.

It was getting on for dawn, and Jane had finally succumbed to an exhausted sleep stretched out in Jess’s rocker, when he awoke, knowing what he must do.

He glanced across and once he was sure she was asleep, he gradually pulled himself up on the couch and gingerly pulled off the blanket and put his feet to the floor and looked around for his clothes, suddenly aware of his nakedness, bar his white under shorts.

He peered around in the semi gloom and swore lightly under his breath when he realised Daisy must have taken them to be washed and then he remembered the torn blood stained denims and figured he couldn’t wear them to go a courtin’ anyway.

Very slowly he dragged himself up and then sucked in an agonised breath as he put the weight on his damaged leg, feeling the pain ripping through him, and making him sway as a wave of dizziness threatened to floor him. He stood there for a moment breathing deeply.Once he got his balance he made his way slowly and painfully to his room. Opening the door quietly he slid inside. Slim was asleep lying on his side, turned away from Jess and snoring quietly.

Once his eyes were accustomed to the gloom, he made his way across the room to his chest of draws, his leg dragging painfully, the wound throbbing, but he persevered and finally found the clothes he was looking for and dressed as quickly as he could, before turning and shuffling quietly out again.

At the front door he took his gun belt from the hook and pulled his hat on before turning back to glance at where Jane was still fast asleep on the rocker, a look of affection in his blue eyes, and after a moment he let himself out and with super human effort started limping across the yard to the barn.

Later when he thought about it rationally he figured he must have been a tiny bit out of his mind to try and attempt such a stupid thing, but all he could think of was his all-consuming need to see Victoria.

He knew that if he waited around for the early morning Stage everyone would be up and try to stop him from travelling. So he reckoned his only chance was to ride Traveler into Laramie and pick up the Stage from there.

Traveler’s head shot up and he gave a little welcoming nicker as Jess entered.

“Good boy,” he said approaching slowly, now each step agony, the sweat pouring down his face and back. He entered the stall and stroked the horse tenderly before turning and collecting his saddle.

As he lifted it he felt a wave of nausea and dizziness almost brought him to his knees. He would have fallen if he hadn’t grabbed the stall to steady himself. He stood swaying for a moment or two, swallowing deeply. It was when he finally threw the saddle across Traveler’s back that he knew he wasn’t going to make it.

He suddenly experienced a searing white hot pain in his thigh, and then he felt himself falling and spinning, spinning out of control into an endless blackness and he fainted, falling in a heap at Traveler’s feet.

The old horse moved carefully back so as not to tread on his beloved master, and leaning down blew gently through his nostrils and nudged Jess’s head very lightly with his nose, but he remained deathly still.


Jane stirred and looked around her taking a minute to collect her thoughts and then she remembered the trauma of the previous day and jumping up to check on her patient she stopped in her tracks at the empty couch.

Maybe he’s made the trip to the outhouse she thought, but surely he wasn’t strong enough? Her heart pounding with fear she ran hurriedly to check and when there was so sign of him she rushed back in and knocked loudly on the men’s bedroom door.

“Slim! Slim is Jess in there with you?”

After a moment a bleary eyed Slim appeared, pulling on his denims, his fair hair tousled and a worried look on his face.

“No, I thought he was with you, heck Jane he isn’t well enough to go anywhere……. have you checked the… “

“Yes he’s not there, or in the kitchen.”

Slim’s head shot up and his eyes narrowed and were suddenly alight with anger.

”The dang fool, if he’s tried to make it over to Cheyenne,” and with that he charged out of the house heading for the barn with Jane in hot pursuit.

He pulled the door open and stood there for a moment adjusting to the dim light within and then gave a small sigh of relief as he saw Traveler still in his stall. Then he saw the saddle on the horse’s back, and something in the way the animal was reacting didn’t look right, he was obviously distressed. His head nodding up and down, his ears flicking and he snorted as Slim approached and the big horse moved uneasily in the stall.

“Easy fellah,” said Slim softly as he opened the stall door.

And then saw Jess lying face down in the straw….

He swore under his breath and turning to Jane said, “Can you give me a hand to get him up?”

Somehow they half carried, half dragged the unconscious man back to the ranch. This time Slim deposited him in his own bed in their shared room and said softly, “Guess I might have to lock you in here you stubborn fool, if you won’t listen to reason.”

Jane, who was standing just behind Slim was ashen and looked tearful.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, ”this is all my fault, I shouldn’t have fallen asleep, I should have stopped him.”

Slim gave her a kind smile.

“You don’t know him too well do you? Trust me, once Jess makes up his mind to do something a herd of stampeding steers wouldn’t stop him. He’d have just gone no matter what I guess,” he said sadly.

“Why,” she said bitterly, ”why has he done this to himself, he must have known the dangers?”

Slim just ducked his head, ”I guess he’s just in love Jane, ‘tis a mighty powerful emotion and sometimes… well a man doesn’t think straight.”

Then he left the room to fetch some water to clean his buddy up. He failed to see the look of abject wretchedness on the young woman’s face as she looked down at the injured cowboy, now looking even more ill than before.

When Jess came around though, Slim read him the riot act.

“What in Hell were you thinking of… that was the most stupid dang thing I’ve ever witnessed … even for you Jess, I swear if you move from that bed I’ll not be held responsible,” and he strode out of the bedroom slamming the door behind him, nearly knocking Daisy flying as she came in with a drink for Jess.

She sat down on the edge of the bed, passed him the cup and gave him a small smile, “He doesn’t really mean it dear, he’s just worried about you.”

Jess just looked down into his coffee cup and sighed.

“I know Daisy and he’s right, it was a damn…excuse me……darn silly thing ter do, I know that… it’s just….”

“What dear, what can be so important that you have to take off that way. If this Miss Victoria is as fond of you as I think she is, well surely she’ll understand that you can’t travel… being so badly hurt.”

Then she gave him a firm look, “And believe me you are badly hurt Jess, Doc Sam said there could be permanent damage to the nerves if you don’t rest”

His head shot up and he looked distressed, ”I’d better behave then hadn’t I,” he said with his shy smile.

She nodded.

“Look Jess if you are so upset about not meeting up with Victoria, why don’t you send her a note with Mose, the Stage hasn’t been through yet…… I’ll fetch you some paper.”

Jess sat up in bed chewing the end of the pencil a troubled look in his eyes. Hell he had enough of a problem communicating his feelings in words when he could see his love, preferring actions… but to actually write something down, well there was a challenge.

In the end he decided to keep it short and to the point,

Dear Vicky,

I am so sorry sweetheart but I am laid up at the ranch after a kinda bad fall and won’t be able to make it over for a week or two. I miss you like Hell.

All my love,

Jess XX

He even felt kind of awkward just writing that and asked for an envelope and sealed it down well.

“Tell Mose he ain’t to go poking about in there,” he said to Daisy.

“Alright dear, I will be sure to tell him.”

“And he’s to deliver it personally.”

“Yes, alright, I’ll tell him that too!“

“And Daisy, he’s to give it to nobody other than Vicky herself, right?“

“Jess!” she said in exasperation, and she marched off smiling to herself and shaking her head in amusement.

In the end Jess did listen to reason and Slim didn’t have to go to the lengths of locking him up in the bedroom and his behaviour was quite good… for Jess that was.

He still complained endlessly of having to drink mostly water or milk with just one gut rot coffee a day and he was frustrated at having to stay lying in bed doing nothing. However Jane did her best to entertain him with memories of their childhood on the panhandle and Mike kept him company and played checkers, while Daisy tenderly cared for him, giving him good food and kindness in equal proportions.

Meanwhile Slim was kept pretty busy running the ranch and relay and that made Jess feel even worse than the gnawing pain in his thigh, knowing he wasn’t pulling his weight around the place.

In the evenings Slim sat with him chatting about the day, enjoying their coffee, on the odd occasion laced with a drop of Slim’s Red eye. It was one such evening shortly after Jane had left to work for the doctor, and Jess was beginning to regain his strength, that the two men really talked properly about the relationship between Jess and Miss Victoria.

“So what’s going on pard? You sure have been burning the candle at both ends lately, working all week and then taking that long journey, coming home exhausted, guess she must be worth it huh?”

Jess nodded, ”Oh she’s worth it Slim. I just wish I knew she was alright, that she’d got my message,” he said turning anxious eyes on his buddy.

Daisy had duly given Mose the billet-doux as promised, with all Jess’s instructions, and the old timer had gone off in good spirits.

“Tell the boy not to fret I’ll give it to the pretty lady personal like and maybe she’ll treat me to a little drink for my trouble,” he said with a cheeky wink before he hustled the team out of the yard.

Slim entered the house the following day after seeing the Stage off and he had no news for his partner.

Jess was lying on the couch when Slim returned from changing the teams.


“I dunno Jess.”

“What do yer mean you dunno, what did Mose say?“

“It wasn’t Mose it was ‘Happy’ Hopkins.”

Jess sighed deeply, Happy was named because of his morose character and as well as being dour he was also a man of few words, never using two where one would do.

“So tell me what did you say exactly?”

“I said, how’re you doing Happy and he said, OK”

“So I said, so where is Mose and he said, sick. “

“Then I said, so do you know when he’ll be better and he said, dunno.”

“And,” here he sighed dramatically, ”I said, so has he delivered Jess’s message to the Golden Nugget and he said, dunno, and then he drove off.”

“Aw Slim, couldn’t you have found out somehow?”

“Jess he doesn’t know, you’ll just have to be patient.”

All that had been three days ago and Jess was getting more and more worried with no news of what was happening in Cheyenne. Old Mose may have been a dreadful gossip, but at least folk got to hear stuff Jess mused.

Now he turned his attention back to Slim.

“I dunno what I’m gonna do Slim, she wants me there so bad. I feel terrible leavin’ her, but just as bad iffen I left you and everyone here.”

Slim shook his head sadly, ”That’s something you’ve got to figure out for yourself pard, but by the sounds of things the lady wants a decision and sooner rather than later I’d guess.”

Shortly afterwards they retired to bed, but lying in the dark Slim knew his buddy was unable to sleep as he heard him tossing and turning, his mind a fever of indecision.

Chapter 5

The following day Daisy had gone off to do the marketing and Mike was at school when the noon Stage drove in.

When Slim returned from changing the team he looked over at his buddy who was sitting in his rocker by the fire, his leg up on a footstool. He’s still looking real peaky Slim thought, knowing that his news wouldn’t help matters any.

“So what did he say?” asked Jess eagerly.

“Well, I said had he any news of your letter being delivered and he said nope.”

“And so then I said had he heard how Mose was and he said nope.”

Slim gave his friend a small smile, ”And so then I said had he any idea when Mose would be back and he said…… “

“Nope!” said Jess and Slim in unison.

Then giving him a gentle clip on the head, Slim marched into the kitchen to make them both a restorative coffee.

When he returned he handed Jess a cup and then gestured with the Laramie Sentinel, “He did bring the local paper though, you want to read it first?”

“What, that rag, nah yer alright thanks, that darn editor will print any rubbish to turn a buck whether it’s true or not.”

“Oh, you’re just sore because he spelled your name wrong when he wrote that article about you being Deputy and bringing those bank robbers in, err what did he call you?” he asked his partner with a grin.

“Jessie Hacker,” said Jess bitterly.

Slim laughed, “Yeah,that was it.”

“Anyways that was only ‘cos I beat the hide off of him the week before at poker, it was just his misguided way of revenge,” said Jess now grinning back at his buddy.

Slim settled in the chair next to Jess ready to enjoy a break before he got on with the chores.

Relaxing back he shook out the paper and perused the headlines.

“Um, it says here that another bank has been turned over, Rawlins this time and it looks like it’s those Mexican bandits again.”

“Guess there won’t be any darn money left in Wyoming way they’re goin’, robbin’ us right left and centre and then high tailin’ it back down south and over the border.”

“You’re not wrong there pard.”

“It’s a bad business,” said Jess, absently rubbing his painful leg.

Slim lowered the paper, ”You OK buddy, leg hurting? “

“Some, darn stitches pullin’ is all.”

Slim raised his paper again and shaking it out turned the page……

Something in the whole atmosphere of the room suddenly changed.

Jess saw Slim’s knuckles whiten where he was holding the paper and he sat up in his chair, staring intently at the page.

“What is it?” asked Jess picking up on this new charged atmosphere.

Slim slowly lowered the paper and the look of shock and distress in his eyes was plain to see.

“What is it Slim, come on your frightening me now,” Jess said, keeping his tone light, but his heart had suddenly started to beat a little faster Slim just continued to stare at him for a further minute.


He finally spoke, his voice thick with emotion, ”Gee Jess, I’m so… so sorry…. “

Jess’s face was a picture of distress, ”For God’s sake Slim, just tell me !” he yelled.

“She’s dead buddy… Victoria, she’s dead.”

There was deathly silence in the room and a range of emotions flitted across Jess’s face as he tried to make some sense of those shocking words, from horror to disbelief and finally his eyes flashed darkly in anger and his face drained of all colour as he spoke.

“What’re you saying Slim, she ain’t dead,” and grabbing the paper from his friend’s grip he peered down at the brazen headlines.


Then he started reading it aloud, ”Mrs Victoria Brown owner of the prestigious Golden Nugget Saloon… “

Here Jess stopped reading and stared up at Slim in bewilderment, “But she ain’t married, her name ain’t Brown either….”

“Looks like she is… was,” said Slim softly.

Jess continued looking down at the page but suddenly his eyes misted over and the print all merged together and then his hands were shaking so much that he just couldn’t make the words out anyway.

He handed it back to Slim “Read it to me will ya?”

Slim took the paper back and quickly scanned the page, “You don’t want to hear this Jess, not now anyway, when you’ve got over the shock huh? “

“Just read it!” he yelled looking frantic.

Mrs Victoria Brown owner of the prestigious Golden Nugget Saloon, Cheyenne was brutally shot down on Monday by her husband Frankie Brown who had recently been released from a five year prison sentence in Colorado. It is understood from a witness that Mr Brown arrived, unannounced, at the Saloon on Monday to try and make amends with his estranged wife. Against Mrs Brown’s wishes he forced his way into the back parlour and shortly afterwards a loud argument ensued, and moments later six gunshots were heard. On running into the back room Mrs Brown’s head barman, Mr John Evans, witnessed a horrific scene.”

“She was ….. “

“Jess you really don’t want to hear this,” said Slim, looking up at his buddy.

“Go on,” said Jess, the expression in his eyes hard as granite.

Slim sighed, “She was lying in a pool of blood and had died from multiple gunshot wounds to ….to the head and chest.

Slim looked up at his friend.

Jess had gone even paler and was now sweating and swallowing hard and Slim thought he might chuck up, or even faint.

He took a deep breath, “Finish it Slim.”

Brown then turned the gun on Mr John Evans, barkeep, and said, ’that’s what she gets for messing around and the bastard that’s been with her is gonna get the same,’ he then threw a note at the barkeep, and said ‘you tell him, the guy that wrote this shit to her, tell him I’m on his trail’. Before shooting John Evans in the arm and making his escape through the back entrance of the saloon. Several towns’ folk opened fire on the murderer and it is believed that he was injured but managed to make his escape. The Sheriff and a posse followed him as soon as they were able but it is thought they lost his trail somewhere by the Laramie River. The cause of the atrocity was thought to be the note, previously mentioned. The letter allegedly of a personal nature, sent from Mr Jess Harper of the Sherman Ranch and Relay station near Laramie, who had been seeing Mrs Brown for several months. There is a Bounty of $10,000 on Frankie Brown’s head for first degree murder.”He glanced over at his buddy and was heart sick at the depth of misery in his eyes.

“Well at least that bastard editor spelled my name right this time,” said Jess sarcastically, ”even told the killer my address, so figure he’ll be knocking on our door any day now… and by God I’ll be waitin’ for him,” he said dangerously quietly.

Then he stood up and limped over to the window peering out, his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets, before turning his anguished gaze back on Slim, ”I have to go to her Slim… be with her.”

Slim stood up and strode over to his friend looking into his eyes with deep compassion,“No pard you’re not well enough and there is nothing you can do for her now anyway.”

Jess gave a bitter laugh, “No, reckon I’ve done enough.”

Then looking totally defeated he said, “This is all down to me Slim, this is all my fault.”

“Of course it’s not, are you crazy? Hell she lied to you Jess, she should have told you she was Wed.”

“So what are you sayin’ it’s all her fault this bastard husband walks into town and blows her brains out? It’s all her fault?” he yelled looking furious.

“No I’m not saying that, just simmer down buddy, take it easy huh?”

Jess cast him an incredulous look, “My woman’s just been brutally murdered and you’re tellin’ me to simmer down?”

Both men glared at each other and then Jess turned away and sank back in his rocker his head in his hands.

He had a pain in his chest like he had been stabbed, and his heart was pounding in his ears as wave after wave of nausea threatened to overtake him.

His thoughts were churning round and round, Vicky dead it couldn’t be so…it just couldn’t and yet he knew it was.

He swallowed hard trying to gain control and after a moment he felt Slim squeezing his shoulder gently.

“I’m sorry pard, I’m only trying to help and I guess I’m just making matters worse… just tell me what I can do Jess…. I’m so dang sorry………… you know that don’t you?”

Jess felt tears pricking behind his eyes and closed them tightly.

“Don’t,” he whispered, “don’t be kind to me Slim, reckon that will just about push me over the edge right now…”

Then getting up he staggered towards their room and pausing at the door he gave his friend the ghost of a smile.

“Thanks Slim, but I figure I just wanna be alone right now … don’t wanna see anyone, not even you,” and with that he went inside and closed the door quietly behind him.

It was about an hour later when Daisy drove the buckboard into the yard and Slim went out to meet her.

He handed her down and was about to reach up for the shopping when something in her demeanour stopped him and he turned back and said ,”Daisy? “

“Oh Slim, have you heard the terrible news about Jess’s lady friend?” she asked, her eyes wide in shock.

“Yeah just, Happy brought the Laramie Sentinel, but luckily I read it first, was able to break it to him, but it was still an awful way to find out.”

“Why didn’t Mr Hopkins tell you, instead of you both having to find out that way?””

Slim pushed his hat back and gave the elderly woman a small smile, “Well you know old Happy, he isn’t one to chew the fat.”

“Unlike the people of Laramie,” she said severely.

“Anyway that is of no consequence now, so how is he dear? “

“Taken it pretty badly Daisy holed up in our room right now.”

“Oh, the poor boy I must go to him,” and she turned towards the door.

“No Daisy,” said Slim, gently restraining her, ”he really doesn’t want to see anyone at the moment, I figure he’s real upset and when he’s that way…..well, he doesn’t like anyone to see him. You know that.”

She just nodded, “Yes that sounds like Jess, we’ll just leave him then, he’ll come around in his own time.”

“So you heard it in town then?”

She nodded, “The gossip in that town is surely sinful Slim. Every store I entered talking about it and speculating as to Jess’s relationship with her, and of course as soon as they saw me they wanted to know all about it,” she said angrily.

Slim shook his head, ”I’m sorry you’ve been put through this Daisy.”

“Oh it doesn’t bother me. But Slim dear, I saw Mort Corey in town and he is very worried about Jess. He thinks this man is totally crazy and will just shoot Jess down indiscriminately if he gets him in his sights, we really have to be careful of him.”

“Sure Daisy I’d already realised that and I’d really like to get him away from here for a while, but I figure he won’t be able to sit a horse for a good while yet, not with that leg. And Daisy when he comes round, I think you need to look at that leg, he’s in a bit of pain with it I reckon.”

The day drew to its close and it wasn’t until Slim turned in that he was able to have a word with Jess.

It had been a very subdued supper, with Mike taking on the general atmosphere of stress and worry, if not fully understanding the situation, Daisy and Slim very quiet with their own fears about the immediate future.

When Slim finally turned in he saw that his buddy was awake, just lying there staring up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes.

“Jess you OK?”

“Yeah, I guess. “

“Daisy kept you some pie back if you’re hungry?”

Jess just shook his head.

“I came in before to tell you supper was ready, and you were asleep, least ways you were pretending to be.”

Jess turned to look at his friend at this, then said sheepishly, “Sorry pard.”

“Hell that’s OK Jess, I know you’re really hurting, I understand and so does Daisy.”

“Yeah, but what about the rest of the town,” he asked bitterly. “I guess word has got around now it’s been in that rag… I figure Vicky’s reputation has been shot to bits, the way that guy writes a story”.

“That’s the least of your worries Jess. I’m more concerned about Brown coming gunning for you and so is Mort.”

“Well I ain’t,” said Jess looking furious, ”I’m more concerned with Vicky’s memory right now.”

Slim looked across at his old friend, ”Jess are you feeling OK, physically I mean, you don’t look too good pard.”

Slim had noticed the pallor and slick of sweat on Jess’s face and he looked really sickly with an almost greenish hue to his complexion.

“I’m OK,” he said stoically, “just need to get my head down I guess.”

He got up and slowly started undressing and washing before limping back over to the bed and throwing himself down with a low groan.

He turned back to Slim who was propped up on his pillows watching his friend concern written all over his face and said, “I know you think she was wrong to lie to me Slim, and I guess you’re right. But I think she really did love me and I figure she’d have gotten around to telling me she was Wed at some stage. I think she reckoned I wouldn’t have got involved if I’d known she was a married lady.”

“No more you would Jess,” said Slim gently.

Jess shook his head sadly, ”I guess you’re right there pard…. if only she’d told me, been up front. Iffen she was separated from this guy we could have worked something out, got her a divorce or somethin’…. I dunno,” he said running his hand through his unruly black locks.

“Jess I just want you to remember none of this was of your doing, it’s just tragic circumstances, you know?“

“I guess……. I just feel so goddamn bad Slim…..” and he threw an arm up, shielding his eyes and Slim saw his naked chest trembling and knew his friend was desperately trying to gain control over his emotions.

After a moment Slim reached out and doused the lamp, giving his buddy the privacy he needed.

“Night,” he said softly.

But Jess never replied and after a moment he turned away on his side and the room was silent. He swallowed hard, a lump the size of Texas in his throat making any further conversation impossible as he stared out bleakly into the darkness.

It was in the small hours of the morning when Slim was awoken by Jess crying out in anguish.

He quickly lit the lamp and jumped out of bed and went to sit on the edge of Jess’s and looked down at him.

He was mumbling, his head lashing about on the pillow and a slick of sweat covering his naked torso and face.

Thinking he was suffering from one of the dreadful nightmare she was afflicted with, Slim gently tried to shake him awake, but then Jess suddenly sat bolt upright screaming.

”Nooo!” he yelled, before falling back down again muttering and mumbling, obviously delirious.

Slim could feel the heat radiating from him, just by sitting close, and then when Jess finally opened his eyes a little Slim could see them glittering, unnaturally brightly with fever.

Just then there was a light tap on the door and Daisy was there in her dressing gown a look of concern in her tired eyes. She quickly took in the situation and disappeared returning a few minutes later with clean cloths, bandages and a bowl of cool water.

“How long has he been like this?”

“I don’t know Daisy he just woke me yelling and moaning, but I figure that leg has been bothering him most of the day.”

She tutted, ”I really should have changed this dressing earlier, but when you said he was sleeping I didn’t want to disturb him.”

Now she carefully unwound the bandage and was shocked at what she saw, the limb red and angry.

“Oh dear this is very inflamed, no wonder he has a fever,” she said casting Slim a worried look.

“I really think we need Sam back tomorrow to take a look.”

She swabbed him down with the cool water and then turned his pillows, but still the dark haired cowboy thrashed about every now and then calling out heartbreakingly for Vicky.

Daisy and Slim exchanged an apprehensive look before Slim insisted she return to bed.

“It’s OK Daisy. I’ll look out for him. You look done in…. I just need to keep him cool yeah?”

“Yes dear, thank you and we’ll call the doctor tomorrow, that wound needs cleaning out again and re-stitching I think.”


It was the end of the week before Jess was well enough to sit up and take notice again and the first thing he said to Slim was, “When is the funeral, I ain’t missed it have I Slim? “

“No you haven’t missed it,” he said gently, ”but you sure aren’t well enough to attend. “

Jess painfully pulled himself up in the bed and cast his friend a hard look, ”Sure I am, when is it?”

“Tomorrow afternoon Jess.”

“Well OK, I can get the morning Stage, be there in plenty of time.”

Slim just shook his head, knowing that it wasn’t worth the breath trying to argue;

“OK we’ll take the early Stage.”

“We, what do ya mean we?”

“ Surely you don’t think I’m going to let you out of my sight looking this bad do you Jess, and do you really think Daisy would allow it?”

Jess looked down and then back up into his friend’s eyes, giving him the ghost of a smile, ”No I guess not,” he said softly, ”thanks pard.”

The following morning the men set off first thing, much against Daisy’s wishes, but she, like Slim, knew there was nothing she could say or do that would change Jess’s mind.

The Stage stopped for fifteen minutes in Laramie for new passengers to get on and the driver to take a short break and Slim and Jess took the opportunity to catch up with Mort.

When they entered the office the Sheriff looked up and then gave a small gasp at the sight of his good friend.

“Gee Jess you look darned rough,” he said conversationally as the pale rancher limped in.

“Well howdy Mort, good to see you too,” said Jess sarcastically.

Mort shook his head and gestured to the chairs opposite his desk.

“Reckon you’d better take a seat before you fall,” he said wandering over to the coffee pot and returning with two cups.

“So any news of Frankie Brown?” asked Slim getting straight to the point.

Mort shook his old grey head, ”And neither will there be if my guess is correct, the word on the street is that he was really badly wounded, I figure he’s fallen somewhere in the foothills north of Cheyenne and is buzzard bait by now.”

Then turning to Jess said, ”Nah I reckon he’d have been gunning for you by now Jess if he meant business.”

“Well that’s sure a relief,” said Slim honestly, “‘cos the way my buddy is right now I reckon he could barely lift an iron never mind shoot it straight.”

“Aw Slim, that ain’t true, I’m OK.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure you are pard,“ said Slim looking over to Mort and casting his eyes to heaven.

As they walked back to the Stage they were delighted to see Mose about to climb up to the box, but turning he saw the ranchers and went over and pumped Jess’s hand.

“Garl darn it son, I’m so darned sorry fer your trouble,” he said sadly.

“Thanks Mose, so how are you, been sick?”

“Yes siree, had that darn influenza……. not as bad as Mrs Braddock, but bad enough ter keep me on my back this past week,” he said.

Then turning to Slim said as an aside, ”Young Jess there looks more dead than alive, he OK to travel?”

Slim gave him the ghost of a smile back, ”No I reckon he isn’t, so do you want to try and tell him? “

Just then there was a flurry of excitement as Jane came tearing across the road from the Doc’s place and threw herself into Jess’s arms.

“Are you alright ?“ she said breathlessly, ”Doc Sam said you weren’t so well when he called. You’re not travelling today are you, you look terrible?”

Jess took her gently by the arm and moved away from the Stage where the passengers were all enjoying this enfolding drama.

He looked down into her troubled brown eyes, ”I have to go Jane, have to pay my last respects and whatever you think about my relationship with her, surely you can see that is right?”

She looked up into those oh so blue, sad eyes and was lost at once.

“Yes,” she said softly, ”of course,” and then she reached up and kissed him tenderly on the cheek, “safe journey,” she whispered.

Neither of the young people were aware of the pair of middle aged worthies passing by and tutting to each other.

“Did you see that my dear, passes herself off as a Godly person, but openly shows affections to that… that…. adulterer?”

“I did Agnes, and that Jess Harper, why it’s positively scandalous the way he is around the women folk. The good wives of Laramie will have to lock up their daughters while he is still roaming the streets, nobody is safe,” she whispered casting the dark haired cowboy rather a wistful look.


As Jess stood by the graveside listening to the reverent intoning of the funeral rites he fought to keep his emotions at bay, knowing full well that every eye was upon him watching and waiting for the least show of weakness.

His face was impassive as he stared down, his mouth a straight firm line, his eyes although full of pain, dry and the expression almost hard. He stood stiffly to attention, the only show of any emotion being a nerve twitching in his cheek and then as the coffin was lowered into the ground he closed his eyes tightly and grimaced as if in pain.

Every fibre of his being wanted to cry out, to jump down into the pit and relinquish his love from her last resting place, to hold her one last time… to say goodbye properly and alone without this audience of vultures watching his every move.

Only Slim recognised how much his buddy was hurting and also the amount this ordeal was taking out of him. As he watched he saw him sway a little and reaching out grabbed his arm and held tightly for a moment until he steadied himself and cast his friend a small nod of thanks.

The committal was over. The many mourners turning away and starting to slowly disperse when suddenly a man dressed from head to foot in black strode over to the grave side. He looked down at the casket in its last resting place, before looking up to where the few remaining mourners still stood by the graveside. John, Victoria’s faithful head barman, Slim and finally Jess, his head bowed in sorrow. His emotions raw as he finally let go, knowing he was alone with just Slim and John.

After a moment, the tall man in black said, “So which of you is Jess Harper?”

Jess’s head shot up, ”I’m Jess Harper, who’s askin’?”

“Frankie… Frankie Brown, I believe you knew my wife Harper… well, real well?“

Jess’s whole demeanour changed and he was suddenly alert, his hand hovering over his gun, his eyes narrowed black with fury.

“So you’re the lowlife that murdered her? “

“The goddamn whore asked for it,” he spat.

Jess stiffened at that and took a deep breath before he shook his head and went to turn away.

“Don’t you bloody well turn your back on me Harper; we’re going to have this out here and now.”

Jess just shook his head again sadly, “This ain’t the time or the place, ain’t you got any respect? “

“No more than you have beddin’ another man’s wife.”

“She called herself Miss Victoria, and like everyone else in Cheyenne I thought she was a single lady, iffen it makes any difference to you, guess you’re bound to shoot me down no matter what though?”

“Well I figure you’re not so stupid then Harper, because that’s exactly what I aim to do, reckon you’re none too well, but then neither am I…..so….. “

His hand now hovered over his gun and Jess’s eyes narrowed as he knew there was no other way so he just waited, the ever twitching nerve in his cheek the only sign of stress.

Then Brown finally drew, but Jess had drawn and shot the tall man straight through the heart before the other's gun was even levelled.

Later, and for many years to come, the remaining graveside mourners were to tell of the reluctance of Miss Victoria’s young lover to have a shoot-out, and then, when he had no choice, how he had relied on his lightening reactions to shoot Frankie Brown through the heart and he fell dead from a single shot, a look of shock on his furious face.

“Never seen the like before,” said one old timer, ”the speed of that young cowboy, looking none too well either, but boy could he hit leather when he needed to!”

As the man fell dead Jess turned away and Slim saw he was about to fall himself and he ran to his side and held him.

“Are you OK pard?”

Jess shook his head to clear it, “Yeah …I’m OK,” he muttered.

And then the Sheriff who had been with the mourners, returned and said, “It’s alright Jess I saw everything, no blame attached.”

Jess looked down to where the man in black had fallen and saw Victoria’s husband properly for the first time, and then turned his tormented eyes back to the Sheriff, Jeff Masters, an old friend.

”I didn’t know Jeff, believe me I really didn’t know she was married when I met her.”

“Sure, I believe you son and anyways, she’d been estranged from him for five long years, he’d no call…….”

Slim was just fast enough to catch his buddy as he almost collapsed, keeling over and supported him, he looked purely done in, to Slim’s concerned eyes.

“I’m OK,” he whispered again, although Slim could clearly see he was not.

“Come on pard let’s get you back to town rest a while before we make the journey home,” he said gently.

Then John Evans was at their side, “Come back to the Nugget,” he said quietly, ”I guess you and me have some unfinished business Jess.”

Half an hour later the three men were seated in the back parlour of the Golden Nugget, the room bringing back such vivid memories to Jess that he was finding it real hard to sit there and he threw the whiskey that John had handed him, back in one desperately trying to think of an excuse to leave.

However he had seen how distraught the big sandy haired barman had been at the graveside and although he had never got on particularly well with him, he felt he owed him some time at least, if he needed to unburden himself about something or just share his grief.

Jess always figured that John was so wary of him because he knew Victoria had offered Jess a job, thought John was worried about his place in the pecking order should Jess join the workforce.

As it was John had been her right hand man and co-managed the place. Jess remembered the look of pure hatred John had thrown him the morning after he had stayed the night, that first time. Afterwards there was a very shaky truce between the two men primarily for Victoria’s sake neither man wanting to upset her.

After a few minutes John threw his whiskey back too and then replenished their glasses before looking the dark haired rancher in the face.

“Guess it’s time to be totally honest with you,” he said, “for Victoria’s memory that is… I figure she’d want you to know certain things…. to know that none of this sorry business was your fault either.”

At this Jess’s head shot up and his eyes narrowed, “Go on,” he said quietly.

He sighed and then started speaking in a low tone, all the time looking deep into his glass.

“It was all a set up that first time she saw you. Invited you back here and then…” he swallowed hard, “and then you spent the night. See she’d heard of your reputation as a fast gun, heard it from me. I’d seen you in a shoot-out in Laramie a couple of years ago and I’d never seen anything like it, before or since…. And even today with you banged up the way you are, well you sure didn’t disappoint you’re fast alright.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Jess impatiently, “so what’s that got to do with my sharin’ her bed?”

Here John sipped his drink and casting a quick look at Slim as though he felt he might need protecting he said, “Because her husband was due out of jail and she figured that she’d need protecting because she’d been having an affair for the past three years.”

“Huh?” said Jess looking puzzled, “but she never saw anyone, that’s why she had that nickname the ice maiden, she ignored all the play men made for her…..”

Then he thought to himself that it had been kinda easy for him; even with his sweet talking she sure had succumbed real easily to his charms.

“So who was he, the man she was havin’ an affair with,” he asked looking surprised, ”‘cos I never saw anyone else around.”

“Me,” said John softly, “she had been seeing me … until you happened along.”

Jess just looked completely shocked,then it all made sense, the filthy looks, the sarcasm, he wasn’t scared for his job he was just plain jealous.

“See the plan was that she’d bed you to make sure you stayed around, then get you on the payroll and when Frankie showed up, you’d be the one to have the shoot-out with him… you were meant to be just a decoy Jess…. that’s all.”

Jess shot out of his chair and went to grab the big man but Slim was there in a flash and restrained him.

“Jess let it go, it’s all over now……. done with, no point in getting in trouble.”

Jess wrenched himself free from his buddy and strode over to the window and stood staring out onto the back yard with unseeing eyes.

He didn’t believe it, he couldn’t believe it. All that loving that closeness and he’d been duped; he was just some hired gun?

Then John’s voice penetrated his brain.

“That was the way it was going to be until the following day, after you’d stayed. She came and found me and told me…. told me it was all over between me and her, said she couldn’t believe it but she was in love… properly in love for the first time in her life and it was you Jess…. it was you she wanted, not me.”

Jess couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“What,” he said softly, “she dumped you after three years… just like that and you took it? You stayed and had to watch her and me together, how did you do that?” he asked almost in awe.

“Because I loved her, so damn much,” the big man whispered.

“I thought that if I stayed around she’d get over you… maybe it was just one of those things, just physical and she’d come to her senses. Or even Frankie would shoot you down and then I’d be around to look out for her again…. I wouldn’t have stood a chance against him, never been good around guns and so that’s why she got you in…. but then the whole thing backfired when she fell for you.”

Jess just shook his head sadly, “I’m sorry John, I never knew….”

“Anyway she knew he was due out soon and that’s why she wanted you to move in.”

“Why… why didn’t she say for God’s sake? I’d never have left her iffen I’d known,” he said turning anguished eyes on the barman.

“She didn’t say anything as she wanted you to come because you wanted to be here, with her. Not out of a sense of duty, the only reason being you were worried about her, can you see that?”

“Sure I guess…..”

“Then he was out earlier than we expected, he’d heard about an affair in jail, but didn’t know it was me….I was out at the bank when he landed. He pushed in here and that’s when he found the note you’d written her, signed all my love, so he thought it was you that had been seeing her all these years…… “

He swallowed deeply before continuing, ”I heard the shots just as I got back… ran in and saw her ……“ John just shook his head……… “He winged me and ran off and you know the rest,” he finished quietly…. “So you see Jess, it wasn’t your fault, we should have told you the truth and maybe we could have figured out what to do…..”

A little while later the men got up to leave, but at the door Jess turned and looked back at where John still sat, a sad lonely figure.

“John,” he said softly, ”I have to ask you, when I was away, back in Laramie in the week did you….” he looked down embarrassed, but needing to know, “did you and her ever…? “

The tall man shook his head and gave Jess a heart-breaking smile, “No never again, after she met you she never even kissed me, I promise you that.”

Jess just nodded, ”I thought not,” and with a little salute he went out closing the door quietly behind him.

Chapter 6

If Jess thought that was to be an end to the matter then he was wrong and he was to be sorely tried before he was able to finally grieve and begin to put the matter behind him.

He had returned to Laramie that day and Daisy fussed around him, desperately wanting to make everything better, but in her heart knowing she could not. Once home in the bosom of his close friends, hell he thought of them as family now, he could just be himself. It was then that Daisy saw the raw emotion and pain on his face as he sat by the fireside after supper and her heart bled for him.

Slim had taken Daisy to one side and told her about the graveside shoot out and how Jess had turned his back on Brown not wishing to desecrate her resting place.

“Goodness knows what the holier than thou brigade in Laramie will make of that,” she said sadly and went on to tell Slim about the dreadful gossip which was currently doing the rounds. As to how one supposedly God fearing woman had set up a rumour that Jess was having an affair with Jane at the same time as Victoria.

Slim’s eyebrows shot up in amazement, “Don’t these old biddies have anything better to do than tittle tattle about folk?” he spat angrily.

“I really think you should try and keep him out of town for a week or two. Until all this business settles down, if he gets wind of these terrible rumours he will be so furious.”

“You can say that again,” said Slim, with a small smile, ”I sure wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of his temper if he does, that’s for sure.”

However the following day things were to get even worse for Jess and his reputation within the town however.

He was out riding fence when the noonday Stage delivered the weekly copy of the Laramie Sentinel and it was a good job too, thought Slim when he saw the incriminating headlines:

Grieving Husband Shot Dead at Graveside by Wife’s Lover.

It then went on to say Jess Harper had been in an alleged three year relationship with Frankie Brown’s wife and on finding out, the husband was so traumatised that he had committed a crime of passion. Murdering his beloved wife while the balance of his mind was unstable, for which he was totally repentant. Then on visiting the grave her callous ex-lover, Jess Harper had gunned Brown down. It also went on to say that Jess had run out on Victoria once he knew her husband was coming home and left her in the lurch. The final nail in the coffin of Jess’s honour was when it was suggested that, our source was led to believe he was now sharing his home with a young woman of the Quaker faith.

Slim turned pale and passed the paper over to Daisy as they sat at the kitchen table with a coffee.

“Good grief Daisy we can’t let him see that he’ll go crazy.”

She read it closely and then looked up at the blond rancher in shock, “How can that dreadful little man get away with telling such outrageous lies, not a word of this is true.”

“Oh old Burt is clever Daisy, very clever, see how he scatters ‘alleged’ and our source ‘was led to believe,’ never actually states the facts. But, even so I reckon he’s outdone himself this time I think Jess would have a very good case if he sued for liable.” “Yes, but knowing Jess he’d probably rather deal with it all with his fists. I agree with you Slim, just get rid of that dreadful rag and hopefully it will all blow over before he goes to town next.”

Meanwhile back in town Carrie and Jane were also reading the newspaper looks of horror on their young faces.

“How can they possibly say things like this about Jess,” said Jane almost in tears. ”He’s not like that at all. He’s good and kind and …..” Then the tears really came and Carrie leapt up from her chair and went to comfort her new friend.

A strong bond had been forged between the two girls and now Carrie decided it was time for some plain speaking.

“You really like Jess don’t you,” she said softly… “I mean really like him?”

Jane blushed and then wiping her tears away said, “Is it so obvious?”

“Only to one who knows,” said Carrie with a sad little smile.

“I fell for him too, when I was just fifteen, had this massive crush on him, nearly drove him crazy.” she said with her attractive little giggle. See the Doctors Daughter

Jane’s eyes were huge,” Goodness, so what happened?”

“Oh he was wonderful, such a gentleman about it all, even when I kissed him.”

Jane’s hands flew to her mouth, “You kissed him, oh Carrie, how could you that is so brave. So what was it like?”

Carrie looked dreamily into the distance, “Wonderful,” she said softly, ”tender, gentle, but with just a hint of danger… excitement… and then he pulled away and sent me off to bed telling me to behave myself,” she said with another little giggle. “Well I was only fifteen and I was far too young for him, I can see that now, but it hurt like hell at the time.”

“Um,” Jane looked reflective, “do you think he’ll ever want to get married and settle down?”

Carrie shrugged, ”I’m not sure, but if he ever does I guess it will be to Millie, they are perfect together, although they just don’t seem to see it. She’s his best friend you know.”

“Oh the beautiful little brunette, that works in the saloon with the dimples and the pretty laugh?”

“Yes that’s her. She’s such a good friend of mine, real fun to be with.”

“She’s the only other person, except for you and the Doctor who has been kind to me,” said Jane sadly, thinking she should really be feeling madly jealous of the relationship between Millie and Jess, but she couldn’t, she really liked the girl. But then she really loved Jess… or she thought she did anyway.

Carrie cast her friend a thoughtful look, “Anyway Jess is a wonderful friend and I love him like that now. I guess it’s easier that way, stops your heart getting broken,” she said softly squeezing Jane’s hand and the two girls exchanged an understanding little smile.


The following Saturday Slim had been called to a meeting of the Stage company in Cheyenne and Jess was left to do all the work.

He landed back at the ranch in the late afternoon, looking hot and dusty and took himself off to the old outdoor shower to clean up before coming into the house.

He entered a while later, his shirt hanging open exposing his firm tanned torso, the towel slung around his neck and his dark hair still damp.

Daisy popped her head round from the kitchen and thought how very young and handsome he looked, “Alright dear, all done for the day?” she asked smiling at him.

He grinned back, “Sure am, I’m just off to town for a couple of beers and to see Millie, it’s been ages,” he said quietly.

The smile froze on Daisy’s face, “Oh must you dear aren’t you tired after all the extra work?”

Jess just gave her a puzzled look, ”Nah, I’m fine now I’ve had a wash, might stay over… you’ll be OK?”

“Oh yes dear I’ll be fine,” she said softly. But will you she thought. Should she tell him? She frowned to herself, no maybe it would all be yesterday’s news by now and she went off back to her baking just hoping nobody showed him the latest edition of the Sentinel.

Jess rode slowly into town early that evening and he was at once aware of a strange atmosphere. He knew that the local people had viewed him differently since he had displayed his open support of Jane and her faith. However today the people on the street seemed to be glaring at him or if not openly hostile then at least wary of him and his heart ached for Jane and the persecution she had received all her life. Just for being different he thought, suddenly realising what it felt like first hand.

He left Traveler at the livery with a very quiet and withdrawn Jim, the owner. They usually exchanged some banter and chat, but today the elderly man took the horse to his stall and then throwing Jess an anxious look disappeared around the back.

When Jess entered the saloon a little later it was still early and very quiet with two old timers chewing the fat at the bar, sipping whiskey and Tom the barkeep polishing glasses.

Then he heard the sound of raised voices, one he recognised as Millie’s.

“Well I don’t believe a word of it, it’s all lies, don’t you think I’d know if he’d been seeing her for three years Lily, we have no secrets, I’d have known and as for the rest of it, it’s pure rubbish.”

Then Lily answered, “But Mill it’s in the Sentinel, in the paper in black and white you can’t argue with that.”

Millie gave a little gasp of impatience and turning away from Lily, looked straight into the blue concerned eyes of her best friend.

“Jess, I didn’t see you there.”

“What’s up Millie, what’s wrong?”

“Oh nothing’s the matter it’s just a girl’s tiff.”

He turned his gaze on the blond haired pretty young barmaid, ”Lily?“

Lily marched across and threw the paper on the bar for Jess to see and Millie made a dive for it, but he was too fast for her, the brazen headline already making his pulse race:

‘Grieving Husband Shot Dead at Graveside by Wife’s Lover.’

The colour drained from his face and his eyes were flashing almost black in anger as he scanned the article.

Tom stopped polishing his glasses and wandered over, ”Now come on Jess don’t go frettin’ nobody believes anything in that ol’ rag anyways, you don’t want any trouble.”

Jess just shot him a furious look before picking the paper up and marching down Main Street to the Sentinel office.

As he barged in Burt was just about to close, but was still wearing his old green apron, his spectacles up on his bald head and he was making a note on some copy at his desk with a blunt pencil.

His head shot up as Jess marched in and he had a look of consternation on his old face as he saw the murderous glint in the young cowboys deep blue eyes.

“Now then Jess boy, don’t go getting mad… it’s just a newspaper article, I meant no harm.”

“Mad !” yelled Jess, ”I’m way beyond mad, what in Hell do ya think you’re doin’ Burt? This is plain liable, ain’t a word of truth in any of it and you know it!”

“It’s just a story Jess, no need to take on so, I’ve had a bad time lately business wise. That last affair with Miss Victoria being shot down, well that sold a lot of papers and so, when I saw a chance for a follow up, I had to do it… my sales went up by 50% this week!”

“Oh well don’t let a good story get in the way of the truth as long as your sales figures are up,” said Jess bitterly, ”never mind the fact that you’ve just shot my reputation to bits… again! Not to mention Jane and Victoria’s. I’m still grieving here, for a woman I loved, and I sure as hell don’t need all this rubbish as well. You’re just making money out of other folks misery Burt and that’s just plain wrong.”

Then striding over he grabbed him by the shirt front and yelled, ”I ought to stuff this goddamn paper down your throat, make you eat your words!”

The old man quaked in his boots and trembling tried to pull away, ”I’m sorry Jess, really I am. I didn’t think……. It was just a story, I never thought of the feelings of the folks involved and that’s the truth. I can see you’re upset and I’m truly sorry.”

Jess sighed deeply and let the man go, pushing him roughly away, “Yeah well I want a full apology and the true facts in next week’s paper, or I’ll be contacting the Sherman family solicitor, do you understand?” he shouted.

“Yes, yes… full apology and the facts, you’ve got it… “

Jess turned on heel and left the office slamming the door behind him.

He stood outside the saloon for a few moments to take a deep breath or two and calm himself before pushing his way in through the bat wing doors.

Now it was later in the evening the place had filled up with the usual Saturday night customers, and as Jess paused on the threshold for a moment, they all gradually stopped talking and turned to look at him their drinks suspended, until an eerie silence prevailed.

As Jess made his way to the bar the crowd parted letting him through, still all staring, waiting to see what he would do.

“Bottle,” he said stony faced to Tom, before throwing some coins on the bar and taking the proffered bottle of Red Eye and a glass to a table at the back of the room.

He kicked a chair out, straddled it and after pulling the cork from the bottle poured a drink and sank it in one. Then he poured another and just sat staring deeply into the tumbler as though he would find the answers to all his problems there.

Gradually the bar returned to normal and peace was restored until about an hour later.

That was when Jake and Marty Robbins entered the saloon, still smarting from the altercation with Jess when he had floored them both after they had insulted Jane.

It was a while before they spotted Jess still looking into his drink at the back of the room. They sauntered over and leaning on the bar Jake said, “Well looky hear Marty if it ain’t the ‘wife stealing’ Jess Harper. So ain’t got your woman with you tonight then…. Oh no I forgot, she was killed wasn’t she?”

Jess’s heart was pounding nineteen to the dozen and all he wanted to do was get up and splatter that insolent face to kingdom come. But he took a deep breath and just said, ”Shut it Robbins, iffen you know what’s good for you.”

Marty replied, ”Oh well don’t fret Jessie boy. You may have lost the lovely Victoria, but as I hear tell that cute little Jane is keepin’ your bed warm.”

At this Jess could take it no more.

With an almost primeval roar he launched himself at Marty, smashing his fist into his face so hard that he sent him sailing across the bar where he crumpled against the wall. Then he strode over and dragging him up, threw another punch rendering him unconscious.

Next thing Jake was pulling him away and landed a lucky punch to Jess’s face, blacking his eye. But he retaliated in kind with a quick right and left to the jaw and finished with a punch to the belly which left Jake on the floor groaning and retching.

Jess staggered up and furiously eyed the rest of the bar.

“So any other takers?” he spat, ”Anyone else wanna judge me? Discuss all the lies that weaselly bastard Burt has printed about me? Because it ain’t true, none of it and you’ll find out next week when he writes a full apology…but iffen you’d like to discuss it some?”

“That won’t be necessary Jess.”

Mort Corey stood there his rifle cradled in his arms, having been summoned by a fearful Millie.

“OK folk’s the shows over.”

Jess leaned down and picking up his hat, dusted himself down with it before jamming it hard down on his head and returning to his seat.

Mort gave the Robbins brothers, who were just coming around, a hard look.

“Git off home boys, real quick before I lock you up,” he spat. Then snagging a glass from the bar went over to join Jess.

He sat down in the chair opposite him and said companionably, “So wanna pour me a drink and tell me what all this is about Jess?”

Jess sighed deeply before pouring the Sheriff a drink and one for himself.

“Guess you know,” he said, ” that damn article in the Sentinel, seems like everyone knew about it except me.”

“Well maybe they knew what you’d do when you found out,” said the Sheriff peering at his old friend.

“Wouldn’t you do the same for God’s sake? There’s only so much a man can take you know Mort.”

“Yeah, yeah I know Jess and I’m real sorry. But I can’t have you breaking up Tom’s saloon this way no matter how sore you are.”

After a moment Jess threw his drink back and grimaced, then said, “Yes I know Mort and I’m sorry, I’ll see old Tom right, but I was sorely tried ….”

“So are you all done now?”

“I guess.”

“Good. I need to talk to you about some business. Is there any chance you could cover for me next week? I’ve got some business up in Rawlins and Lon the deputy is down with the darn influenza.”

Jess looked into his glass, ”So what do ya think the good and the great of Laramie will make of that, the evil wife chasin’ Jess Harper bein’ in charge of the town?”

“You just let me worry about that. You’re the same Jess Harper that I’ve always had at my back. Would trust with my life… have done more than once! I guess you’ll do for me no matter what folk think,” he said giving his friend a sincere look.

Jess looked him in the eye and smiled, “I guess it would be kinda churlish to refuse, bein’ as that’s the way you feel,” he said quietly, ”I guess it would be an honour to look after your town for you Mort.”

Then with a twinkle in his eye, ”That is if the three free meals from Miss Molly’s Café and use of yer hot tub out back is still included in the deal like last time?”


Later that evening as the crowds began to disperse Millie joined them at the table, throwing a familiar arm around Jess’s shoulders.

“You OK Hun?” she asked. “Sure.”

Mort took in the loving look in her eyes, and decided three was a crowd, ”I’ll be off, to make sure everyone gets home peaceably and see you tomorrow Jess?”

“Sure Mort,’ night.”

“You still mad at me?” asked a wide eyed Millie.

“No I’m not mad at you. I figure you were just tryin to stop me kickin’ off.”

“Didn’t work,” she said with a small smile.

“Never has,” he agreed.

“I guess you’re still that wild cowboy I knew back in Texas,” she said with a laugh, “So coming up for coffee?”

“You bet.”

When he entered her room he surveyed the familiar scene. A fire was crackling in the grate and an old sofa pulled up in front covered by a bright rug. Millie’s huge old bed in the window covered by a pretty patchwork quilt, her feminine bits and bobs and fripperies dotted about the place giving a feel of homeliness and warmth.

He sighed happily and removing his hat, gun belt and boots he left them by the door and padded across the room in his stocking feet to join Millie on the couch.

He accepted the offered cup and they started chatting easily as old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while are able to do.

Then after a moment he said casually, “So you still seeing that Ben then?”

He was referring to a handsome young rancher Millie had been seeing shortly before Jess got involved with Victoria.

She looked down into her cup and said, “No, that’s ancient history now.”

Jess felt a sudden elation, but forcing his features into a look of concern said, ”That’s too bad, so what happened?”

She looked up, ”It all got too serious. He wanted to go out West to California with the Wagon Train and take me with him as his bride.”

Jess’s eyes opened wide in shock and he gave a low whistle, ”Wow, so why didn’t you go honey?”

She just shook her head and gave her charming little giggle.

“Oh Jess really, can you see me as a pioneer wife, I’d want to come back home the minute I broke a finger nail!”

He joined her laughter, feeling almost light headed with relief, ”Yeah, that sounds about right,” he agreed.

Then she sobered, ”I was so sorry to hear about Victoria and all your trouble,” she said softly.

He looked down, ”Thanks.”

“She was real important to you wasn’t she?”

“I guess. She wanted me to move out there,” then he shook his head sadly, ”Maybe if I had I could have saved her…. but, oh I don’t know…”

“Go on,” she said softly.

He looked deeply into her kind brown eyes, “Maybe I just didn’t love her enough, nor her me… she wouldn’t have sold up and moved out here either, both just too darned stubborn I suppose.”

She gave him a little smile, ”Well stubborn is your middle name Jess.”

He laughed at this, ”Hell you just know me too darned well woman!”

They chatted on about this and that until he finally drained his cup and rose to go.

He stretched and turning to her said, ”Thanks for the drink and the company,” before he turned to leave.

Millie stood up quickly, “So where are you off to all of a sudden?” she asked.

“Dunno, hotel if it’s not full, else I’ll bed down at the livery with Trav.”

She threw him a puzzled look, ”So when did I ever throw you out Jess Harper, what’s wrong with here like usual?”

He looked down embarrassed, ”Well things are kinda different between us right now aren’t they?” he said quietly.

“Why, because of Ben?”

He nodded, ”And Victoria, I’m still grievin’ for her sweetheart and it wouldn’t feel right for me to, you know,”….. he cast a glance at her large comfy bed, ”Sorry I just can’t it’s too soon.”

“It’s OK Jess, I don’t expect anything of you, I just want to hold you and comfort you as a friend. It doesn’t have to be about sex you know, please stay…. I’m kinda in need of a bit of company too.”

He smiled down at her, and thought about it for a moment, ”OK.”

She disappeared behind the screen and returned a while later looking very young in a chaste white, high necked night dress that Jess had never seen before and he thought how sweet she looked. She got into bed and after a moment he stripped off to his undershorts and climbed in beside her, encircling her with his arms and pulling her close.

“This feels so good,” he whispered as he caressed her hair and kissed her tenderly on her forehead.

They were just nodding off when he said very softly, ”So what was the real reason you didn’t go with Ben?”

She took so long to answer he thought she was asleep, but after a while she pulled her head up from where it was resting on his shoulder, and looked him in the eyes, ”Because he wasn’t you,” she said very softly, before she cuddled up to him again settling down to sleep.

He pulled her closer and kissed the top of her head very gently and they fell asleep in each other’s arms as innocent as two children.

The following morning when Millie awoke she saw Jess leaning up on his elbow looking down at her, a troubled expression in his eyes.

“I’m sorry about last night,” he said quietly, ”as soon as I’m over it, really over it, we’ll get things back to how they were between us…. If that’s what you want?”

She put a gentle finger on his lips, “Hush,” she whispered, ”I told you I understand… completely, and when you’re ready I’ll be here for you, you know that.”

He nodded, his eyes looking suspiciously bright, “You really are my best friend aren’t you?” he whispered.

She just nodded, looking up into those deep blue eyes she knew so well.

He gently traced a finger down her cheek, ”Love ya.”

“Love ya back.”

Chapter 7

When he entered Mort Corey’s office later that morning, he made straight for the coffee pot and on turning with the cup halfway to his lips, was just in time to see Mort making his way in from the back cell, saddlebags over his arm.

“Oh well, just make yourself at home,” he said grinning at Jess and then walking over he tipped the young cowboys chin up and said,” That’s a hell of a shiner you got there Jess boy.”

Jess put a hand up to the black eye, ”Lucky punch,” he said ruefully.

“Um, well just you see you stay out of trouble while I’m away.”

“Sure, sure you get off Mort, and when was I ever in trouble anyways?”

“Huh? When weren’t you? I’ll call in at the relay and let Slim know where you are.”

“Thanks Mort he should be back by now, tell him to save some painting for me,” he said laughing.

Mort shook his grey head, “Miss Daisy got you at that lark again?”

Jess nodded.

“Well looks like bein’ deputy will be a real doddle then, see you in a week or so,” and he took off.

Little did he know how wrong his words would turn out to be?

It was a couple of days later when Jess was leaning on the hitching rail outside the office absently chewing on a matchstick and surveying the quiet early morning town.

The bank had just opened its door and a few early risers had filed in, but other than that all was quiet.

Jess noticed a friend and neighbour Pete Jones coming out of Miss Molly’s diner after an early breakfast. He was just about to go over for a chat when something made him glance back down the street towards the bank. He saw five new horses hitched up outside, and a couple of strangers glancing furtively about. Something in their appearance suddenly made the hairs on the back of Jess’s neck rise. They wore sombreros and had flashy low slung silver guns, had the look of a Mexican Bandido written all over them.

Jess quickly attracted Pete’s attention and he wandered over.

“Hey Jess how are you doin’, standing in for Mort again?” asked the jovial rancher noticing the badge Jess was wearing on his vest.

“Pete, listen, see those hombres way down the street by the bank?”

“Yeah sure I do why?”

“I reckon they’re up to no good can you do me a favour?”

Pete agreed at once and carried out Jess’s instructions as asked. He made his way down the backs of the local buildings until he was beyond the strangers and then he walked casually across the road, grabbing their attention, as the only other person about at that early hour.

While they were checking Pete out, Jess sprinted silently down the street until he was directly behind the two men and then in a threatening harsh whisper he said, ”Drop yer irons real slow afore I blow yer brains out.”

Both men did as they were bid.

“Now hit the dirt,” Jess spat and again they complied, being totally taken by surprise.

Pete ran over and helped Jess cuff and gag them and then he looked anxiously towards the bank, “We’d better get us some help Jess, if it’s who you think it is in there, they’re real mean dudes.”

“No time,” said Jess, ”look Pete this is my job, you stay well back, go fer help, but don’t follow me in, understand?”

Without waiting for an answer he ran silently to the bank door and slowly opened it.

What he saw shocked him to the core. Doc Baker’s brother and wife and an elderly lady and her granddaughter were standing to the right hand side of the bank being held at gun point by one of the Mexican Bandits. The other two had their guns trained on the bank manager who was emptying the Safe.

Jess didn’t stop to think, he saw the innocent citizens in danger and shot the outlaw that was guarding them through the shoulder and he fell to his knees, screaming in agony.

The other men were alerted and Jess managed to shoot one through the heart, before the other man opened fire on him. Jess dived and rolled fanning his gun as he did so and brought the second Bandido down to his death, but not before he had creased Jess’s temple and shot him through the shoulder.

As Jess fell, his last thought was, at least I went down fighting, before finally blackness enveloped him.


Jess was in Hell.

“Well there’s no surprise here buddy,” he said softly to himself, ”life I’ve lived.”

He was so very, very, hot, not far from the flames of Hell he guessed. His head was aching fit to burst and further fires burned within his shoulder radiating out across his chest.

Everywhere had an unearthly red glow and Jess could stand it no longer.

“For God’s sake, just throw me into the inferno, let’s get it over with,” he gasped…

Then he heard a familiar deep voice above him, ”Now why on earth would I want to do a darn fool thing like that Jess?”

He tried so hard to open his eyes, but he just didn’t have the strength.

Then the voice came again, “Can you open your eyes Jess, come on buddy talk to me.”

He struggled, so hard and eventually he was able to pryhis eyes open and finally focus on the figure above him, ”Sam…. Sam that you ?” he whispered.

“Sure who were you expecting, Satan?”

Jess looked around the hospital room in Sam’s house and saw the blood red light of the sunset flooding the room and realized he had been dreaming.

“Maybe,” he said softly, ”but I sure am glad to see you instead.”

“Well after what you did this morning there would be only one place you’d have been heading for and that’s Heaven. The way you saved those poor folks Jess was way beyond brave. Anyway you aren’t going anywhere thanks to my professional care… as long as you behave,” he finished with a mock glare.

It was the following day before he was really able to sit up and take notice, when Slim visited him.

“Hey pard,” he said softly as he saw the dark haired cowboy coming around, “you been getting in trouble again?”

“I guess,” whispered Jess.

“Word on the street is you’re some kind of Hero,” he said gently.

“Is that so, well anyone told Burt yet, make a good headline,” he scoffed.

Then Doc Sam was there looking over at him, ”Got another visitor if you’re up to it buddy?” he asked.

Jess just nodded, still feeling dazed.

Then there was a taller, older version of Sam standing by the bed, with a goatee beard and reaching down he took Jess’s hand and shook it firmly.

“Just wanted to thank you for what you did son. Bravest darn thing I’ve ever seen in my life. That way you shot them down, so damn fast, well it was poetry in motion son, the way you rolled and fired pure poetry…..I tell you…. “

“OK Vince,” said Sam kindly, ”you’ve made your point, but I think Jess here, needs his rest,” he said trying to ease his rather volatile brother away, as he could see Jess was tiring.

“Of course, of course,” boomed Vince, “see you later young man, when you’re feeling more yourself.”

Jess nodded weakly and Sam led his brother from the room.

“You OK?” asked Slim, once they had departed.

He nodded, “So all those folks in the bank were OK? “

“Sure, in every other raid those Bandido had murdered all the witnesses. I guess everyone there owes their life to you Jess and I know Vince is indebted to you.”

Jess merely shrugged this off, as Slim knew he would.

“Anyone else been by?” he asked casually.

“No…. well only Millie,” Slim said with a grin, knowing that was what his pard wanted to hear.

“She OK?” he whispered.

“Hardly, real upset about you, saw you being carried out from the bank, blood covering your face, looking more dead than alive, she was in bits pard Sam told me.”

“Go an’ tell her I’m OK Slim please,” Jess whispered, his eye lids closing fast as he lost all his strength …” tell her”…… and then he was asleep again.

Slim sat there shaking his head and watching his buddy sleep, ”Tell her what Jess… that you love her? I guess she already knows that…but I’ll go tell her you’re OK,” and giving his friend one more concerned look, he rose and left him to sleep.

The following day Jess had visits from several people all telling him what a hero he was and what an asset to the town, but he took it all with a grain of salt and just carried on as normal. Slim visited again and filled Jess in on all the local news.

“So who’s minding the shop across the road and the prisoner?” Jess asked.

“Lon’s gotten out of his sick bed, reckons he can manage. The one you shot is fine, but feeling pretty sorry for himself. I reckon he won’t give Lon any trouble and Mort’s wired to say he’ll be back in a couple of days. So all you’ve got to do is hurry up and get better pard because there’s a paintbrush back home with your name on it.”

“Aw Slim, you get off home and tell Miss Daisy I’ll be back before she knows it…. sadly,” he said with a chuckle.

However the following day when Carrie checked him she saw that his temperature was up and he looked none too well she quickly told her Pa.

“Oh no,” he said softly as he checked over the young cowboy,” I’ve got a horrible feeling he’s got a dose of this influenza Carrie, and he really doesn’t need it what with these nasty wounds.”

She looked concerned, ”Do you want me to nurse him Father?“

“Well, normally yes, but you’re needed over at the Patterson place, what with the new baby due any day now. No I guess this is down to Jane to deal with him, if she will. I’m run off my feet with all these new cases and Mrs Braddock is still far from well.”

Then Jess woke up and started coughing and Carrie helped him to some water.

“Thanks,” he whispered, ”sorry about that,” and then he put a hand to his head.

“Headache Jess?” said a concerned Sam.

He nodded, “Yeah.”

“And a sore throat too?”

He nodded again and then stopped as it made his head throb even more.

Sam and Carrie exchanged an anxious glance, ”Looks like we’ve got us another case,” said Sam, frowning down at his patient.

Surprisingly when he broached the subject of nursing Jess to Jane she seemed reluctant.Sam knew that she’d had the illness earlier in the year so she was in no danger So he was puzzled when she seemed less than keen to help.

“There is really nothing to it my dear, just a case of keeping him swabbed down with cool water to lower the fever and giving him drinks when he coughs too much. That bullet was embedded deeply and I had the devil’s own job to remove it and he’s a lot of stitches. Too much coughing and he could burst them so it’s essential someone is here with him 24 hours a day for a while at least.”

She looked really shocked at that, “What sleep in the room too?”

“Well yes, Carrie’s done it on many occasions and she says the little cot is very comfortable.”

She looked down embarrassed, but just nodded, “Alright, of course I’ll help you Doctor Baker.”

“Good girl, after all you nursed your brother through his last illness, so caring for Jess can’t be so different.”

Different enough, she thought, trembling at the thought of the close intimacy she was to have to endure, feeling as she did about him.

Since her absence from the ranch and Jess’s company her infatuation had got even worse and now she could barely look at him without her pulses racing and heart beating so fast she felt positively out of control. However she had no choice, Carrie had been dispatched to see the latest Patterson baby safely into the world and Doc Sam was out and about dealing with new cases daily and so she just had to get on with it.

She entered the hospital room, on the ground floor at the back of the house, and walked over to the bed.

He was lying on his back, his chest naked save for a swathe of bandages covering his shoulder and he was deathly pale with a slick of sweat covering his chest and forehead. He had pushed the covers back as he was obviously hot and she could just see the top of his white undershorts and was relieved to see that at least he was not completely naked.

Jane went to the nightstand and returned with a cool damp cloth and tenderly started to try and cool him down. After a few minutes she was rewarded by his darkly fringed lashes fluttering and then parting to reveal his blue eyes, glittering with fever.

“Hey Janie, you drew the short straw huh?” he said with a rueful smile.

She gave him a questioning look.

“Looking after ornery Jess Harper, not something any right minded person would wanna take on I guess.”

She smiled then, “Don’t be silly I want to look after you,” the use of her childhood name suddenly making her feel close to him all embarrassment fading.

“Well thanks sweetheart, but I’ll warn yer I ain’t the best of patients, but I’ll try real hard to behave, I promise.”

At the endearment she flushed up and turned away, busying herself with tidying the medicines on the nightstand, but Jess didn’t notice as he closed his eyes once more giving in to the pain and fever.

It was in the small hours of the morning that she was awoken by his hacking cough and she leapt out of bed, pulled on a dressing gown and ran over to his bedside. As she adjusted the night light she was able to see he was red in the face, gasping for breath, one hand gripping his shoulder as he continued to cough.

She instinctively hauled him to a sitting position and helped him to sip some water, but he still continued coughing intermittently and she sat down on the edge of the bed supporting him and gently rubbing his back, trying to offer some comfort.

The violent coughing had caused tears to stream down his face and as he eventually gained control he brushed them away with the back of his arm, gulping and swallowing, the violence of the spasm almost making him retch. He took another couple of breaths and was finally able to speak.

“I’m so sorry honey. I guess you don’t need this racket wakin’ you from your beauty sleep.”

“It’s alright,” she said blushing again and offering him some more water, ”I’m glad to do it.”

“Well, I appreciate it anyways,” he said softly, “you’re a good kid you know that?”

“I’m not a kid anymore Jess I’m a grown woman,” she said, more sharply than she meant to and he looked hurt.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, ”I didn’t mean no disrespect, guess you’ll always be little Janie to me though.”

She hung her head so that he couldn’t see her expression and after a moment he leaned forwards and tipped her chin up so that he could look deeply into her eyes.

He was shocked to see tears welling up and he said at once, “Hey Janie what have I said, I didn’t mean to upset you really I didn’t.”

“Nothing,” she said quickly rising, his touch having sent her pulse racing and butterflies flipping about in her stomach, “nothing at all, I’m fine,” she said with a bright fragile, smile, “are you OK now?”

“Yeah, thanks,” he said softly, but still his blue eyes held the light of concern and she turned the lamp back down and returned to her bed where she lay in a maelstrom of emotions, using all her willpower not go back to him and confess her true feelings.

The following day he was worse. Much worse and doc Sam’s worst nightmare came true when a violent spate of coughing did indeed tear the delicate stitching to the deep shoulder wound.

It happened when the doctor was out on his rounds and Jane was alone. She almost panicked when she saw the deep red stain beginning to seep through the bandage. Jess was in obvious agony as he cussed softly under his breath, his eyes closed tight against the vicious pain that was radiating from his shoulder across his chest.

All she could do was place a pad over the wound and press down firmly, while praying the doctor would return soon.

As it happened Carrie was the first back, having delivered Mrs Patterson of another bouncing baby boy the night before, mother and baby doing well.

As soon as she entered the room and saw Jess pale and in pain and Jane’s terrified face she took over at once.

“We need to operate as soon as Pa comes home,” she said softly to Jane, ”are you OK here if I prepare everything in the operating theatre?”

“I.. I think so, oh Carrie I hate to see him this way, can’t we do anything?”

“No, Pa will be back shortly and then we’ll give Jess an anesthetic, and he’ll be out of it,” she whispered as an aside to her young friend.

Then reflectively, ”Poor Jess he hates having the ether, it makes him sick as a dog. But he must be completely still for Pa to be able to patch him up properly,” and with that she went off to prepare.

True to her word, Jess spent most of the night chucking up, the pain in his already sore chest made even worse.

It was Jane who sat up with him again though, not Carrie, as the doc didn’t want to risk cross infection through Carrie. As Midwife she visited many babies, and the good doctor was afraid she might carry the influenza to them.

Jess was both embarrassed and exhausted as he apologized to Jane yet again whilst she set about cleaning him up.

“Hush,” she whispered, ”it’s alright, you can’t help being ill. Just try to relax and sleep a little if you can.”

When Sam looked in the following morning he seemed at once very concerned for his young patient. He was sleeping, but he had a terrible grey pallor and his breathing was shallow and harsh and obviously painful and he was shaking with chills.

“How long has he been like this Jane?”

“I’m not sure I checked him about an hour ago and then I dozed off for a little while. What is it doctor? He wasn’t breathing that way in the night… he was very sick, but that was all,” she whispered looking frightened, “what’s wrong doctor?”

Sam shook his head sadly, ”Bad news I’m afraid my dear, it looks to be lung fever.”

Jane’s hand shot to her mouth and her eyes opened wide in shock….”Oh doctor is it my fault, should I have seen it coming?”

“No, no Jane dear, it’s nobody’s fault, just a common consequence, in some patients, after the influenza. Jess is physically very vulnerable at the moment and so that is why he has succumbed.”

“But he’ll be alright,” she said looking hopefully up at the tall handsome man…. “Won’t he….?”

The doctor shook his head, ”I’m not sure, he’ll need careful nursing and then all we can do is wait and pray my dear…. Especially pray”.

Sam sent word to the ranch straight away about Jess’s worsening condition and Slim and Daisy were there as soon as they were able, leaving Mike in school feeling seeing his friend so ill would upset him too much. They walked into the room and as soon as they saw the state of their dear friend their eyes opened wide in shock.

“How can this be?” asked Slim turning anxious eyes on the doctor.

“He was fine a couple of days ago, laughing about coming home and moaning about the painting and now this… I can’t believe it Sam,” he said with a catch in his voice.

Daisy squeezed his arm, ”These things can happen very quickly especially if the patient is already badly hurt as Jess is, that’s true isn’t it Sam?”

He nodded, “He went downhill so dang fast,” he shook his head sadly, ”just a waiting game now I’m afraid, I’m, so, so sorry,” he whispered.

They both wanted to stay, but Sam said there was nothing they could do and he was concerned that Jess might still be carrying the flu virus and didn’t want them to catch it, so sadly they returned home. But with the promise that Sam would let them know as soon as there was any change.

Before he left though Slim sat quietly with his buddy on his own, Daisy giving him the privacy she knew he needed and went to visit with Jane for awhile.

Slim sat watching the erratic painful breathing for a long time before his friend’s eyes finally flickered and opened, gradually focusing on Slim.

“What ’re you doin’ here Hardrock?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

Then swallowing hard said with the ghost of a smile, ”Thought you were paintin’.”

Slim felt so emotional he couldn’t reply and he felt the prick of tears behind his eyes and had to blink quickly.

Jess noticed at once and said softly, ”Hey what’s up Slim, someone died or somethin’?”

He just stared at that and then said quickly, ”No, nothing like that, just kinda missing you, thought I’d look in on you, that’s all.”

Jess took this in, his harsh breathing all that could be heard in the deathly silent room, and after a moment he said, ”I’m real sick aren’t I Slim?”

Slim closed his eyes tightly before looking down into his best friend’s deep blue, questioning eyes.

“Yeah,” he said softly, “real sick Jess, you might not make it.”

He was very quiet for a long time and then he said softly, ”Thanks for being so straight with me pard…. but I ain’t goin’ nowhere yet. Gotta lot of livin’ to do,” then with a tiny smile, ”gotta lot of lovin’ to do too… so don’t you fret, you ain’t getting rid of me that easy.”

Slim looked down at him, ”I’ll come visit you later in the week OK?”

“Sure,” he whispered and reaching over offered his hand.

Slim took it and shook it firmly and then reaching over ruffled his buddy’s hair, ”See you later,” he said and turning walked quickly from the room, pausing only at the door for a moment, where he looked back at his friend, but he was already asleep again.


The headline the Sentinel carried that week was:

Local Hero’s Life Hanging by a Thread!

It carried on to say that Acting Deputy Sheriff, Jess Harper, an upstanding local resident fearlessly tackled a gang of Mexican Bandido single handed thereby saving the life of five innocent Laramie citizens.The bank manager was quoted saying, “The local people would forever be in the debt of this honourable and brave man”

It finished with the sad news that Mr Harper had sustained serious injury during the raid and was now sadly thought to have succumbed to lung fever, with his days believed to be numbered.

It then went on to speculate as to funeral arrangements. Although obviously, no date had yet been set at time of printing.

When Mose delivered the paper on the Thursday noon Stage he was hopping mad.

“I don’t know which is worse, when ol’ Burt’s got it in fer you or iffen he’s tryin’ to be nice,” he said darkly.

“Got Jess dead and buried afore he’s even made his mind up to meet his Maker… and iffen I know Jess he sure won’t go without a darn good fight!”

Slim looked at the headline and then scanned the article, before handing it back up to Mose.

“For God’s sake, get rid of that before Miss Daisy or Mike see it.”

“You don’t want it?”

“No I don’t want it, just get rid of it will you?”

“It’s paid fer you know.”


“OK, OK so how is the boy then?”

“Like you said he’s fighting Mose. Now are we going to change this team or stand here jawing all day?” he said angrily.

However Mose knew he was just hurting and he went about the work in his usual cheerful manner, before jumping back up on the box.

“Say howdy when you visit and give him my best. Tell him to stop skiving and come and get some work done,” he said as a parting shot and Slim threw him a small grateful smile in acknowledgement, knowing his old friend was trying to keep his spirits up.

Jess was truly battling for his life, every breath a painful effort, grinding him down until he was all but done for. He had lost so much weight his face looked gaunt and his ribs stuck out as he lay on his back, gasping for breath, groaning and cussing softly.

Sam looked down at his very good friend and mused that if the boy still had the strength to cuss then there was still some fight left in him.

That night he had decided to stay up with him knowing that the crisis was on its way and Jess’s future would be cast one way or the other, although the manner in which he was struggling to breathe Sam didn’t hold out much hope. However he wanted to be with him when the end came.

It was in the early hours of the morning that Sam thought Jess’s time must surely come, such was his distress. The breaths coming in harsh gasps, the young cowboy totally delirious, his head rolling on the pillow and occasionally he called out for Slim, or his Ma and then Millie…

Sam was swabbing him down, but Jane had given up on all physical help and was now relying purely on the Spiritual as she knelt at the bedside praying fervently.

Somewhere deep down in Jess’s subconscious he heard her and he remembered that dreadful day when he had pulled her from the creek and she had developed lung fever and her Pa asked everyone including Jess to pray for her, and how he had refused, still mourning the death of his baby sister, his faith in God shattered.

And then he had visited again and seeing how sick the little girl was. He had thrown himself down on his knees beside her cot and prayed as he had never prayed before. Begging, cajoling and finally berating God and eventually pleading again…. and the following morning the fever broke and she was cured.

Sam was suddenly aware of a subtle change in the room and at first he couldn’t figure what it was. And then he realised, the room was deathly silent, Jess’s harsh gasps had ceased.

In fear and trepidation he looked down at his patient and then very gently felt for a pulse in his friend’s neck….. And there it was a firm strong beat and brushing a hand across his forehead he felt it cool and dry… Jess was sleeping peacefully, the crisis was over and he had emerged on the other side… he would recover.

Sam gave a huge sigh of relief and then he gently reached down and touched Jane’s shoulder and her head shot up at once a look of horror in her eyes…. “Is he…?”

He shook his head, “No he’s fine, he’s going to be OK Jane.”

She stared at him for a whole minute and then her face crumpled as she started to weep hysterically. The doctor reached down and pulled her up into his arms holding her close and talking calmly to her as he would his own daughter.

The whole of Laramie rejoiced at the news that Jess Harper would live, save for two people. One was old Burt who had already written the obituary and was looking forward to lots of sales from a suitably sensational headline. The other was the Mexican Bandido that Jess had wounded during the raid, and who was still awaiting trial in the Laramie jail. He was in the custody of Lon as Mort had been delayed in Rawlins. After initial treatment at Sam’s surgery he was convalescing in the jail cell and making a good recovery by all accounts. Once he was well enough he was to be shipped out to Cheyenne to join the other two bandits, the lookouts who were already there awaiting the circuit judge.

Jess was still too weak to receive visitors but Sam was convinced he would make a full recovery in time if he just behaved himself.

Jane continued nursing him tenderly and trying hard not to let her heightened emotions show. But she was again finding it difficult and after being so close to losing him she felt she must be completely honest at some stage no matter what it cost her. She had to explain how she felt about him and maybe, just maybe he would learn to return the feelings in time she thought.

He still had the severe cough and needed round the clock nursing and so it was a couple of days after the crisis that he awoke coughing badly. After she had helped him drink some cool water she settled him down again and briefly left the room to refill the pitcher from the kitchen, just next door.

When she returned to the dimly lit room her senses were suddenly alerted to a subtle change. Then she saw the sash window had been opened wide and the cool night air was blowing in. She looked puzzled and wondered if Jess had managed to get up and open the heavy window. But then glancing over at the bed what she saw made her recoil in terror.

A man was leaning over the bed, his hand poised above Jess’s chest, the glint of a knife blade suddenly visible in the light from the lamp on the nightstand.

She gave a piercing scream, wakening Jess. The man shot a glance over at her for a split second, before turning his attention back to Jess, determined to complete his deed no matter what.

He lunged down with the knife. However Jess was just able to roll out of the way and grab the man’s hand a struggle ensuing. But in his weakened state he stood no chance and as his attacker gave him a vicious backhander he lost his grip and again the man held the knife aloft ready to plunge it into the depths of Jess’s chest.

Then a single shot rang out and the assailant seemed to stay poised with the knife in mid-air for a second before slumping dead across Jess’s body.

Jane stood there shaking in terror, the smoking gun in her hand, from where she had quickly plucked it from Jess’s holster hanging on a hook by the door.

She stared down at the gun and then threw it to the floor, her eyes wide in horror at what she had done and her slim frame shaking from head to foot.

Moments later Carrie and Sam burst into the room. Carrie ran to comfort Jane, while Sam strode over to Jess and helped pull the body of the assailant from where he was still collapsed across the young cowboy.

As soon as he fell back he was exposed as the Bandido that Jess had wounded and a few minutes later there was a pounding at the door and Lon stood there looking pale and groggy.

“Gee folks I’m so darned sorry. The prisoner started yellin’ awhile ago, sayin’ he’d got a belly ache. I went in and he suddenly pulled this knife on me…should have realized he’d try and pull a stunt like this the way he’s been sounding off.”

“How so?” asked Jess who had managed to pull himself up in the bed and now stared down at the prone body of his adversary.

“He’s been ranting on to anyone who will listen that he aimed to get even with you for killing his brother and cousin. Said he didn’t care what happened to him as long as you died,“ he said casting Jess an anguished look.

“Are you alright,” asked Sam casting the deputy a worried look, “I told you it was too soon to return to work you know Lon.”

The tall man shook his head to clear it, ”Yeah, apart from the bash on the head I got from the prisoner, took my gun and then coshed me with it….I’ve just come to.”

Then all eyes turned to Jane as she fell to her knees weeping bitterly, “Oh God… God forgive me,” she wept…before Carrie gently took her away up to her room to try and calm her.

The whole event had an incredibly traumatic effect on Jane. Her beliefs and whole lifestyle lay in tatters as she had broken one of the most fundamental Commandments, ‘ Thou shalt not kill’, and even though she had to do it to save Jess she could not reconcile herself to that basic fact.

Somehow she felt she should have resolved the problem differently. Even though everyone told her she could not have saved Jess in any other way she just refused to believe them and sank into a deep depression.

Jess himself tried hard to pull her out of this trough of despondency she seemed to have entered, but she just sank deeper and deeper refusing to speak or eat, until Sam was really worried about her.

By this time Jess had finally recovered well enough to return to the ranch and the following week Mrs Braddock was due to return home thereby ending Jane’s stint as housekeeper for the good doctor.

“Maybe when I get her home Daisy will be able to get through to her,” Jess said as he shared a coffee in Sam’s study.

“I sure hope so. Maybe that’s all she needs a good dose of Daisy’s common sense. However I think it goes far deeper than just the shock of killing that man; it goes way into her deep rooted beliefs. Don’t forget she has been brought up in a very religious atmosphere; she’s bound to be traumatised by what she’s done and unable to forgive herself.”

“Don’t I know about it buddy,” said Jess quietly, “I saw it all first hand, how her whole family were, to think she’s gone against all that to save me… well I feel just so bad about it all.”

“But not so bad as if she’d done nothing,” said Sam with a wry smile, ”you’d have stood no chance if she hadn’t dispatched that hombre.”

Jess just hung his head, ”Yeah and I guess I’ll be forever in her debt. I just wish I knew what I could do to make it all better for her.”

Chapter 8

Sam needed the hospital bed for another emergency case and so Jess decided to stay in town that night, before finally collecting Traveler from the livery and returning home to the ranch.

He wandered over to the saloon and as soon as he entered he was greeted by several people coming over and slapping his back or pumping his hand. He thought again how easily people could be swayed by the press. However he was just happy to be alive and so took it all in good spirits.

Then Millie was suddenly there in his arms, having run from behind the bar ignoring the clients. Really not caring what folk thought as she reached up and kissed him. He held her tightly and kissed her tenderly back, before releasing her. ”Thanks for all you’ve done for me sweetheart,” he whispered softly.

Millie has been the one constant, apart from Slim and Daisy, who had visited whenever Sam had allowed it. She’d spent time cheering him up in her own unique manner by telling him jokes and generally trying to keep his spirits up.

She bought him a beer and he leaned on the counter chatting with her in between her serving other customers. However it wasn’t until the evening was drawing to a close that they were able to talk properly.

Tom looked around the emptying bar and then turned and grinned at the young couple, ”Go on you two get off, me and Lily will finish tidying up tonight.”

They didn’t need telling twice and with a hasty, “Thanks Tom,” Jess ran lightly up the stairs, following Millie to her cosy room.

Once inside he closed the door quietly behind them and took her in his arms, kissing her very tenderly.

Then he pulled back looking deeply into her eyes and whispered, ”You’ve no idea how good that feels…. There was a time back there I thought I’d never hold you again….”

“Don’t,” she said putting a finger lightly to his lips, “I can’t bear to think of it…..”

He took off his hat and gun belt and hung them on the hook by the door before sitting down on the bench and starting to remove his boots, but Millie squatted down in front of him and pulled them off, ”Here let me,” she said softly.

Then she stood up and offering her hands hauled him up too.

“Hey I’m not an invalid yer know,” he said with a grin.

“I know. I just feel like I want to care for you though Hun, after all you’ve been through, is that so bad?”

He leaned forward and encircled her with his arms, “No that’s not bad……..not bad at all……. So got anything else in mind?” he asked cocking a cheeky eyebrow in her direction.

“Well that all depends on how fit you’re feeling,” she said with a coquettish look.

“Oh fit enough I reckon,” he said moving in for a kiss that was suddenly very passionate as he pulled her closer and gave a little groan and whispered her name.

“Jess, are you sure you’re OK with this?”

“Oh yes,” he said softly, ”Way more than OK, come here woman,” he said chuckling as he picked her up and carried her over to the big comfortable bed.


The following morning Millie awoke at dawn and lay propped up on her elbow looking down at his sleeping face. His early morning dark stubble highlighted his paleness and with the shadows under his eyes and gaunt appearance she knew he was still far from well and she longed to be able to just care for him. She knew in reality that he had to return to the ranch and would at least be in Daisy’s capable hands. But that didn’t stop the need to feel he was safe where she could see him and look out for him and she was amazed at how much the events of the last few weeks had affected her.

She had been close to Jess for years, since they grew up in poverty together back on the panhandle. Over time their lives had been entwined through thick and thin and she had begun to think of him as her best friend and the one constant in her life. Sure they were both free spirits and went off with other people and had romances, but they always told each other first. And strangely, she thought now, they always seemed to end up back together again. Licking their wounds sometimes, and relying on their deep understanding and loving friendship to make everything OK again.

Lily had once asked her why they didn’t just up and get Wed as they were obviously so perfect together, but the truth was Millie was scared… scared that if it didn’t work out, then she would lose the best friend she had ever had and she knew Jess felt the same.

But, these last few weeks had made her review things. She had nearly lost him, she knew that and she doubted that she would ever be able to commit to anyone else while Jess was still around, Ben being a prime case. She had loved him… thought she had, but when it came to moving west with him and leaving Laramie…….and Jess , she just couldn’t do it.

Suddenly his darkly fringed eyes flickered open and he gave her a sleepy smile, ”Hey, mornin’ sweetheart,” he drawled, before leaning across and kissing her and then falling back onto the pillow.

She caressed his cheek gently. ”You feeling OK? You still look pretty beat.”

“I’m fine,” he said quickly, ”Guess you’re all the medicine I need.”

“Um, maybe I am…… you have to go home today?”

He just nodded, “Work to do, I feel kinda guilty leavin’ it all to Slim; and then Jane’s comin’ home tomorrow, guess I’ll have to try and talk some sense into her. “

“Yes, Carrie said she’s taken this shooting business really badly”.

He nodded gravely. ”I guess it went against everything she stood for taking a life like that. Fact is I wouldn’t have made it otherwise…. Just gotta figure a way of helpin’ her through it all,” he said sadly.

She smiled at him, “You will, I’m sure.”

Then he gave her a speculative look, ”But I don’t have to go just yet, got time to buy you breakfast at Miss Molly’s and, maybe………” he leaned in for another kiss, pulling her close……

Sometime later at Doc Baker’s place, just across the street from the saloon, Carrie awoke.She glanced across at the other bed where Jane had been sleeping to find it empty. Looking up she saw her sitting up on the window seat, peering down at the road below a look of misery on her pretty face.

“Jane?” said Carrie jumping out of bed and going to join her friend, as she peered out of the window.

She was just in time to see Jess and Millie standing on the sidewalk outside the saloon, laughing at something and then he suddenly pulled her into his arms and kissed her lightly before letting her go. Then they continued down the sidewalk to Miss Molly’s café, he still with an affectionate arm slung around her shoulders and she laughing up into his face.

They paused again for a moment just below the window and Jess said something to Millie and she retaliated with a gentle clip to the head and they both laughed again as they disappeared into the café, their easy, loving intimacy obvious to the unseen onlookers.

After a moment Carrie said, ”Come on Jane. I did warn you not to fall for him. I told you how it was between him and Millie…. Well you’ve seen it for yourself I guess…….. There’s really no point in fretting, but I do know how difficult it can be, truly I do…” she said as she glanced at Jane and saw how upset she was.

Then she threw an arm round her friend and held her as she wept and finally persuaded her back to bed where she cried herself to sleep.

An hour or so later Carrie quietly let herself out of the house and ran lightly down the street to the livery and as she had hoped was just in time to see Jess hauling Traveler’s saddle into place.

He turned when he heard her enter and threw her his shy smile, ”Hey sweetheart, what are you doin’ out and about so early?”

“I wanted to catch you before you left. To have a word with you, before you see Jane again,” she said hesitantly.

“Oh?” he said a wary look in his eyes as he ran a hand down Traveler’s rump, before leaving the stall to come and face her.

“What’s wrong,” he asked quietly, ”Is she worse… gee this shootin’ business has really upset her ain’t it?”

She nodded, ”Yes she is upset, but not just because of that…. she saw you and Millie together just now, leaving the saloon earlier.”

“Oh,” he said looking down and flushing a little, then his expression turned stony.

“I’ve told you before Carrie, what goes on between me and Millie is our business and as long as she’s happy with the way things are, well I guess that’s all that matters… it’s private, you know that.”

She moved towards him and took his hand in hers before looking up earnestly into his face, “Jess I wasn’t judging you, you are my friend and so is Millie, and you know me better than that…. “

He looked into her eyes and then saw the truth of it, ”Sure I do, I’m sorry sweetheart, but I guess Jane isn’t so understanding. Still at her Bible bashing is she then, got me down as a wicked sinner?”

She shook her head, ”No I guess not. That’s the dreadful thing about this business Jess. She hasn’t touched her Bible since the shooting, or prayed or anything, she says she’s too sinful to talk with God anymore… it’s just so sad.”

He shook his head, “I just wish there was something I could do….. “

“That’s why I came over this morning Jess, to warn you to be gentle with her. You see she’s got this thing about you right now… a sort of fixation you might say.”


“She’s got a massive crush on you Jess. In fact I think it’s more than that I think she really is in love with you, or thinks she is anyway.”

His jaw dropped and his eyes widened in shock and then he laughed, ”Nah, you’ve got that wrong Carrie, what little Janie….? Nah, yer kiddin’ me….”

She tightened her grip on his hand, ”Jess will you take me seriously for once? I’m telling you the girl has got it bad… it’s almost as though she’s replaced God in her life with you and she’s heading for a breakdown if it isn’t dealt with and soon.”

He sighed in exasperation, “So what do you want me to do? Up and marry her out of pity…. for saving my life, guess I owe her….“ he said with a hint of sarcasm.

“Jess please this isn’t helping…”

He looked down, ”Sorry, I guess you’re right, it’s just kind of a shock, that’s all.”

Then brightening, “Hey, maybe Daisy will know what to do?”

“No,” she said quickly,” I guess this one’s down to you Jess.”

Then she gave him a small smile, “Anyway you’re pretty good at letting girls down lightly, goodness knows you’ve had enough practice.”

“That ain’t so!”

Then she laughed, ”I always forget how shy you can be. But you have to face her sometime Jess…. or I don’t know what the girl will do,“ she said sobering quickly.

He nodded before leaning forwards and kissing her cheek gently.

“Thanks Carrie, you’re a good friend to me and I will deal with it, I promise,” and with that he led Traveler out of the stall and hopping lightly on board gave her a little salute before riding out of the livery and down Main Street at a brisk trot.

As he rode towards home he was feeling troubled. Was it all his fault? Had he done or said something to make her feel this way? He wracked his brains, but could think of nothing. Hell he hadn’t even flirted with her the way he did with most young girls, in reverence to her religious convictions and the memory of her brother. He thought back to that letter and how Davy had spelled out the fact that Jane was a complete innocent and he wished her to remain that way until marriage. Had Davy been implying that Jess should become involved with her he wondered? Or even planted the seed of an idea in Jane’s mind, wanting her to be looked after, following his death… it was possible Jess concluded.

He rode into the yard and slid down from Traveler’s back and started walking him towards the barn when Slim came out leading the early morning Stage replacement team.

“Howdy buddy,” he said grinning, “You’re just in time to change the team, Stage is due in any minute.”

“Well you might let a body tend his horse and have a coffee before you start your slave driving ways,” laughed Jess before striding over and shaking his friend’s hand.

“Gee its sure good to have you back pard,” said Slim beaming at him, then looking more closely, “but you still don’t look too well Jess.”

“I’m OK.”

“You look worn out buddy, so what did you get up to last night then?”

He just looked down and grinned, ”Oh just spent some time with Millie is all.”

“Um, well I guess that accounts for the state of you,” he said laughing and hitching the team up to the corral fence ready to go, he turned and walked back to the barn with his friend.

Slim leaned on the stall watching Jess unsaddle Traveler and start to brush him down and after a moment said, ”So how’s Jane doing now? “

Jess stopped in his tracks, the hand wielding the brush suddenly poised in mid-air, frozen.


He sighed deeply and then finally turned round to face his friend, “Not so good, seems to have had her faith shattered and…..”

“And what pard?” asked Slim looking concerned at his friend’s obvious discomfiture.

“Well it sounds crazy, but Carrie seems to think she’s got the hots for me , or somethin’,” he muttered looking down, suddenly finding the stall floor fascinating.

Slim grinned at his friend’s embarrassment, “Well sure she has, I’ve known that for ages.”

“What! Well why didn’t yer say something?” spat Jess angrily.

“The girl’s gotten herself in a stupid state over me and I could have said somethin’ sooner Slim…. Stopped it… before it got this far.”

Slim dipped his head, ”Yeah, I guess you’re right, but Daisy and I thought….. “

“Daisy knows all about this too…. Hell am I the last to find out?”

“Look, I’m sorry OK. Daisy had a long chat with her and she admitted she was in love with you. Way back when you were still seeing Victoria. Well I figured you’d got enough on your plate, riding over to Cheyenne all the time, the stuff you were going through with her. Then after Victoria died, well there just never seemed a right time to tell you, and we figured it was just a youthful crush… that she’d get over it…”

“Well she ain’t, Carrie reckons she’s makin’ herself sick with it all…”

Then he turned distressed eyes on his buddy, ”I just don’t know what to do Slim, how to handle it. I owe her so much, how in hell can I hurt her after all she’s done for me?”


The following morning when the noon Stage rolled in the whole family were waiting to welcome Jane home again and to try and make her feel better.

As the Stage rattled in and came to a standstill Mose cast Slim and Jess a quizzical look, ”Lady on board,” he said succinctly.

“That’s not a lady,” piped up Mike grinning, ”it’s just Janie.”

“Um,” said Mose, but just jumped down from the box ready to see his friends’ expressions when the door was opened.

Jess opened the door and put a hand up to help Jane down, a welcoming smile on his handsome face, which froze as he saw her properly.

She took the offered hand and stepped down from the coach, before giving him an alluring smile, “Well what do you think?” she said lightly, giving a little twirl, “the new me.”

Jess’s mouth hung open and his eyes were wide in shock, he slowly closed his mouth and then swallowed without answering.

She was dressed in a figure hugging, bright blue dress that was slashed to the knee showing an ample amount of slender leg and was cut low exposing a soft curve of cleavage. The ensemble was topped off by a perky little hat in the same bright blue and set at a jaunty angle.

Below the hat seductively painted eyes peered up at Jess and her face was also heavily made up, with plenty of rouge and ruby red shiny lips completing the picture. She looked to be everything she was not….. worldly, experienced and almost tarty.

Jess took a deep breath, “What in Hell have you done to yourself?” he whispered, in despair.

She turned stunned eyes on him, “You don’t like it?”

He just shook his head, “What would Davy think iffen he could see you now Janie? Hell you look like a hooker,” he spat before marching away, leaving her speechless.

She turned desolate eyes on Daisy, ”I thought……..thought he’d like it, thought this was the kind of girl he went for… sophisticated……..a woman of the world….?”

“Come inside dear, we need to talk,” said Daisy kindly.

Casting Slim a quick glance, she jerked her head to where Jess was standing a few yards away looking out to the horizon and studiously ignoring the events in the yard. She then took the girl’s arm and walked her indoors.

After the Stage team had been changed, and Mose had swept out of the yard, having taken umbrage at not being offered coffee, Slim walked over to Jess and squeezed his shoulder gently.

“ I figure we need to talk buddy.”

“What’s there to talk about, this is all my goddamn fault, her dressin’ up that way. What’s she thinkin’ Slim, does she see me as the kinda man as would go with prostitutes? That I’d want her to dress up lookin’ that way, Hell Davy will be spinning’ in his grave!”

“Jess, cut the poor girl some slack. She obviously doesn’t know her way around smart clothes or make-up. She’s just like a little kid playing with her Ma’s grown up clothes, only thing is she hasn’t got a Ma to teacher her…Don’t worry Daisy will sort her out.”

“Well I sure in Hell hope so, because iffen she goes out lookin’ that way she’s goin’ to end up in a mess of trouble Slim.”

Meanwhile inside Daisy’s room Jane was breaking her heart and desperately scrubbing at the offensive make up. Daisy had been tact itself and offered kindly advice and support, but the devastating effect of Jess’s comment had cut deep and the girl was inconsolable for awhile.

Eventually she had pulled herself together and with Daisy’s help selected an outfit that was smart and pretty, but with the hint of femininity she was seeking. Then the older lady showed her how to apply makeup sparingly, so that it enhanced her natural features, but was barely discernible and she began to feel a little better and able to face the world again.

However by the time she emerged from Daisy’s room Jess had made himself scarce and was not seen again until after supper.

It was dark when he rode in and bedded Traveler down for the night before strolling across the yard to the porch where Jane and Slim were sitting in the cool of the evening enjoying a final coffee before turning in.

Jess stopped, looking shy and embarrassed and then turning to Slim said softly, ”I figure me and Janie need to talk some Slim…. Would you mind?”

“Sure pard,” said Slim getting up at once, ”I was turning in anyway, Daisy’s already gone, so you won’t be disturbed,” then leaning over he kissed Jane gently on the cheek, beforegoing in.

“Goodnight Slim, and thank you… for everything,” she whispered giving him a warm look.

“You’re welcome,” and with a small wink, he left the couple together.

Jess slid down into Slim’s vacated chair next to Jane and stared out into the darkness for a moment, before looking back at her, dimly illuminated by the porch lamp.

“You look real pretty,” he said softly.

She just nodded in acknowledgement.

He sighed deeply, before trying again, ”What I said before, I’m real sorry sweetheart; it was just such a shock you know?”

She said nothing so he continued.

“Well, when I think of you, I have this vision of innocence… purity if you like, someone real special, someone unique I guess. Not like all those other girls, Hell you don’t need to dress up that way Janie, your beautiful just as you are.”

Her head swivelled towards him at that, ”You really think so?” she asked.

“Sure, you’ve always been real pretty, ever since you were a little girl.”

She looked down at that and said softly, ”I loved you so much when I was a little girl. It near broke my heart when you rode out that day… do you remember what you said?”

He shook his head, raising an enquiring eyebrow.

“I said who’s going to look after you? And you said… ‘Me I’m goin’ to look after myself from now on’…. And I went back in the house and cried and cried,” she whispered.

“Yeah, well that was a long time ago,” he said with a hint of bitterness, ”and I guess lookin’ after myself was the least of my worries back then.”

“So how did you feel, did you miss me at all,” she asked……..“did you love me just a little bit back then?”

He looked deeply into her eyes and then said softly, ”Sure I did and Davy and your Ma and Pa too. I guess you were the nicest family I’d ever met, real caring… real honest,” he finished softly.

“And now,” she whispered…. “Do you love me now?”

He sighed deeply looking down, “Sure I do, you’re a real good friend….”

“I didn’t mean it that way.”

“I know….”

“Jess…. please….”

“Don’t Janie, don’t do this to yourself. I’m not right for you. You must know that deep down… it would never work.”

“Please just listen to me…. I… “

He stood up and went and leaned on the hitching rail looking out to the horizon, the moonlight touching the distant hills, a perfect romantic evening…. “No,” he whispered.

She jumped up and grabbing his arm pulled him round to face her, “Why not,” she cried, “Is it the intimacy?…I could learn to be that way with you… I know I could….”

“No, Janie listen to me, I don’t want that from you. I love you, the memories of you as you were as a kid, we were friends. We still are I guess, but there is a difference between loving someone and being in love and every thing that means… and I reckon I ain’t the right person to teach you the difference… and anyway…. “

“Anyway, what Jess?”

“I’m seeing someone right now, Millie, you know that. It wouldn’t be fair to her… or me… please honey, just see sense…..”he said throwing her a deeply concerned look.

She just stared for a moment the tears welling up in her eyes before turning on heel and running inside.

Jess turned back to the hitching rail and punched the upright hard, cussing softly.

Chapter 9

The following morning Jess lit out after breakfast figuring the more space he put between himself and Jane the better it would be. Maybe Daisy would be able to make her understand the way things were? He had managed to have a quiet word with their beloved housekeeper before he left for the day and had filled her in on the previous evening’s events.

“I guess I handled it real badly Daisy, but I just get kinda nervous when girls start talkin’ that way about love an’ all you know?”

“Oh I know alright dear,” she said kindly, ”you prefer a nice uncomplicated relationship, like with Millie.”

“Yeah, well I guess I can’t help that Daisy. It’s just the way things are right now. I ain’t looking to take me a wife or settle down with a brood of young ‘uns and when I do I’d kinda like to make the decision myself,” he finished irritably.

“I understand Jess dear, of course I do, but you have to understand too…… that Jane has very little experience of men. I expect she looked up to you when she was young. She admitted to me she used to hero worship you and I guess she just hasn’t grown out of it, maybe if she gets out and about a little she’ll meet some nice young men?”

“Um, well I’ll leave all that match makin’ stuff to you Daisy,” he said quickly, ”I’m outer here, expect me when you see me,” and he was off down the trail in a cloud of dust leaving Daisy watching him and shaking her head and chuckling to herself, before she made for the house and another chat with Jane.


As it happened Jess felt kind of guilty as to the way he’d spoken to Jane the previous evening. So he eventually decided to return for supper and have what he termed in his own mind as ‘round two’, with her directly after the meal. Maybe clear the air some at least he thought.

He arrived back in plenty of time and when he walked into the ranch house he picked up an air of tension at once.

Daisy was in the kitchen and Slim at his desk working on the accounts. Jess threw his hat on the hook by the door and came across to look over Slim’s shoulder.

“How we doin’ buddy still solvent?”

Slim grinned up at him, “Yeah, just about.”

Then he frowned, “Hey Jess you see Jane on your way back?”

“Nope, should I have done?”

“Maybe, she went off to town this morning to meet up with Carrie, she was kinda upset after last night Jess.”

The dark haired cowboy ran a hand through his tousled locks,” Gee Slim, I didn’t mean to upset her, that’s why I’m back, thought I’d try talkin’ to her again. I don’t know what I’m gonna say though,” he finished lamely.

“Well just be nice to her pard, it can’t be that hard.”

“Yeah and as soon as I do that she thinks I wanna up and marry her and give her half a dozen young ‘uns. Hell she’s a nice enough kid Slim… but come on….”

“Well, I’m getting kind of edgy, she should have been home by now, said she would be back to help cook supper, think I’d better take a look.”

“No, you carry on with your work cookin’ the books pard,” he said with a wicked grin,” I’ll go find her.”

As it happened he had to go further than he thought to locate Jane and he had been riding for a good twenty minutes when he saw a late afternoon Stage batting towards him. He remembered that it was a special run carrying a wages shipment and was manned by armed guards as well as Mose up on the box.

As the Stage neared him Mose pulled on the reins and brought the vehicle to a shuddering standstill.

“Hey there Jess boy,” he said, ”just hoping to meet you or Slim. So why have yer left your light carriage and horse cluttering up the road back a spell, the horse weren’t even tethered, could cause a nasty accident that boy.”

“What!” yelled Jess looking stunned.

“I said could cause a nasty accident.”

“Not that, you sure it’s our buggy?”

“Sure I’m sure and that old Buckskin of yours pullin’ it, well grazin’ by the wayside, anyways”



“Did you see Jane, Mose, she was driving?”

“Nope, no sign of anyone. I thought that Miss Daisy would have been up. So I had a good look around. It looked like a rider had been by, guess someone gave her a lift maybe? Anyways I’ve tethered the beast now, but you need to see to him Jess boy.”

“Sure, sure… just tell Slim will you? Say I’ve gone lookin’ for her and if I don’t get back tonight to fetch Mort out, first thing… OK?”

“Sure, don’t worry son, she’s probably off with a friend, you know these young girls…. “

Jess spurred Traveler on into a gallop, his heart beating fast and a sweat breaking out down his back, ”What the hell are yer playin’ at girl,” he whispered his anxiety making him sound harsh.

When he got to the buggy he led Chief, the buckskin, off the road and put the buggy in a safe position before liberating the old horse from the shafts. He then tied his lanyard around the old horse’s neck and attached the other end to his saddle horn before slipping down from his mount and searched the whole area thoroughly for tracks.

He squatted down and looked carefully, using all the skills his Arapaho blood brother had taught him and his face suddenly grimaced at what he saw. Distinct signs of a struggle and he could easily make out Jane’s small riding boots and a much larger pair, before both disappeared, obviously having mounted a big heavy horse.

At least if they’re riding double they can’t have gotten too far he thought and made to follow the tracks across country heading south.

He had been riding for nearly an hour and dusk was just falling when he heard it, a piercing, blood curdling scream followed by another and another.

He spurred Traveler on and cresting a low ridge he saw the plain unfolding before him and in the distance near some standing trees a fire was lit, a horse tethered and he could just make out two figures struggling on the ground. Then Jane let out another agonized scream, “Help me someone please help me.”

Traveler seemed to cover the ground in a matter of seconds, and Jess had leapt off his back before he had even stopped. Hitting the ground running he tore at the big man who had Jane pinned to the ground. He hauled him off with such force that he flew through the air, the attack completely unexpected, and fell in a heap several feet from Jane.

“Get up you miserable low life,” Jess snarled, striding over and dragging the man up by his filthy shirt front before landing a deadly punch to his chin which sent him reeling. He fell heavily, his hands up in protest now, imploring his assailant to stop and pleading for mercy.

Jess dragged him up again and threw him down by the fire, his face furious, as he saw who it was.

“Wilber….. Wilber Jacobs, well how do you feel about takin’ on another man, or is it just young girls you beat up?” he spat angrily.

The man looked dazedly up at Jess, ”Do I know you?”

“Sure you do Jacobs, its little Jesse Harper, the snotty kid you beat black and blue back on the panhandle once. For mixing with the… err now just remind me what did yer call the Quaker family…? Oh yeah, I remember the outcasts…. I seem to recall it was you as set the town against them. Had them run out, persecuted for their beliefs? So it beats me as to why you should travel all this way just to see young Jane here again,” he finished belligerently, glaring down at the ugly older man.

“She’s mine… I bought her, she works for me and stole a horse, she could hang for that,” shouted Jacobs rallying and angry.

“Yeah and you could hang for rape too, that’s iffen you make it back to town alive,” he said threateningly.

“And the horse wasn’t stolen either, it was hers, had her Pa’s brand on him, so I guess that makes you the horse thief in the first place,” he spat angrily.

Then he turned and strode over to where Jane was standing shaking and watching the two men.

As he approached she threw herself into his arms, ”Oh Jess thank God,” she whispered before collapsing.

He picked her up and took her to the fire where a blanket had been laid and then went quickly and fetched his bedroll and canteen, before covering her tenderly and once he was sure she was comfortable he returned to where Jacobs was still lying in a submissive position.

“You really are a prize bastard ain’t yer,” he drawled.

“Look Harper, I’ve got money, plenty, I’ll compensate her for the bit of bother… here,” he said throwing a wallet in Jess’s direction.

“Bit of bother!” he yelled irate again.

“You call that a bit of bother?” turning and pointing to where a beaten and now unconscious Jane lay, “and you think you can just pay her off, why … you….” and leaning down he gave the older man a back hander that sent him sprawling, blood now trickling from a cut lip..

“No more, no more please you’ll kill me…. “

“Oh no,” said Jess quietly, ”I ain’t goin’ to kill you. You’re goin to go through all the humiliation of a trial and then chucked in jail… and they can damn well throw the key away as far as I’m concerned.”

Then he tied the man tightly to a nearby tree and said, “Not another word from you tonight Jacobs and I might just be able to remember I’m a law abiding’ citizen….”

Then he walked back to Jane and threw himself down beside her, growing anxious as she still lay there looking completely lifeless. He checked her pulse and it was erratic, but strong enough and he figured she was just having a reaction to the violent attack and fainting was her body’s way of coping.

Then he gently pulled the covers back to inspect her wounds and nearly retched when he saw the scratches to her face and arms and the way her dress had been practically ripped off exposing her naked flesh beneath now covered in fast forming bruises.

He looked down closing his eyes and swallowing hard, trying to get control.

It took all Jess’s strength not to go back over to Jacobs and lay into him again. But he didn’t trust himself not to finish him completely. So he contented himself with cleaning Jane up and tending her wounds as best he could, before lying down next to her, settling down for the night and just praying that she would come round soon.

After an hour or so he threw some more wood on the fire and then wiped her face down tenderly with some cool water from his canteen and at last her eyelashes finally flickered and she opened her eyes wide in shock and she recoiled away from him, her mouth open ready to scream.

“It’s OK ... Jane it’s Ok it’s me Jess, you’re safe honey.”

She blinked as she took this in and then pulled him to her, ”Oh Jess I was so frightened.”

He took her in his arms, tenderly stroking her hair and holding her gently. After a while she lay down again and he lay behind her spooning up, to keep her warm, an arm firmly around her waist, holding her close.

“Its’ OK honey, I ain’t goin’ to let anything happen to you, I promise, never again,” he whispered and after a while he felt her relax against him and finally, heard her even breaths and knew she was sleeping. He kissed the top of her head tenderly, ”It’s OK Janie,” he whispered, before he too fell asleep.

Jess was dreaming and a kaleidoscope of visions kept spinning in front of his eye. Janie in the creek drowning as her childish screams rent the air. Jess was there plunging into the fast moving water. It was over his head and he felt himself sucked under as he scrabbled desperately about for the little girl. Then he finally caught hold of the hem of her dress in his hands and grabbed hold. Finally he pulled her out, passing her over to Davy who had just run up. Both boys terrified, running home with their precious burden

Next there was the sound of praying. Jess as a young boy, kneeling at the end of Janie’s cot… And then she was praying for him in his recent illness, the two voices merging, getting louder and louder …..Turning to heart breaking sobs as he saw her face when he told her he couldn’t love her the way she wanted … the pain in her eyes.

And then the face changed, but the eyes were the same… and the pain was the same. Jane’s face now slowly morphed into Davy’s and he was pleading with Jess…. “Please buddy look after her, look after my little sis…. Jess… Jess!”

He was suddenly shaken awake, “Jess! I’m frightened… so frightened, he can’t escape can he, he can’t get free?”

He shook his head, trying to clear it of the dreams, Davy’s face the pain in his eyes, the pleading still so clear… so very real…..

“It’s OK sweetheart, he can’t escape, but I’ll go check him,” and he pulled himself up and went to check on the prisoner. He had to stop halfway though, as a bout of violent coughing caught him and he bent double for a moment until the spasm finally passed and he was able to continue about his task.

Once he was sure Jacobs was firmly tied he returned to Jane and squatted down beside her, ”It’s fine,” he said softly, ”he ain’t goin’ nowhere.” and then he made her comfortable and stretched down beside her again and they finally drifted off into a fitful sleep.

The following morning when he awoke he looked down at Jane’s still sleeping form and felt sick to his stomach at what he saw.

The bruising to her face and chest had turned an alarming dark purple and almost black. She had a black eye and lacerations and bruising to both arms as well, and he dreaded to think what other injuries were hidden by the remains of the dress that clung to her lower body.

His mouth was dry and he felt his stomach churning and again it was all he could do to stop himself delivering retribution on his prisoner. But what would it serve if he were hung for murder he reflected and turned his attention to making Jane ready for the journey to Laramie. There he would deliver Jacobs to Mort and get Jane checked over by Doc Sam.

She was awakened and again shrank back in fear until she woke properly and saw it was Jess lying next to her. He was leaning up on his elbow a look of deep concern in his blue eyes.

“It’s OK you’re safe,” he said quickly, “ain’t nothin’ goin’ to happen to you I promise Janie.”

She gave him a ghost of a smile and sitting up was suddenly aware of the ripped clothing and multiple wounds.

“I fixed you up as well as I could last night, but I figure we’ll get you straight to Doc Sam’s this morning,” he said gently.

Then noticing her distress at her torn dress he quickly removed his jacket and put it on her buttoning it up securely.

“That better sweetheart?”

She nodded, “Thanks Jess.”

Without even thinking about breakfast, knowing Jane was probably feeling as bad as he was, he broke the camp, and tied a gagged Jacobs to his mount, before coming back and gently helping Jane up onto Traveler.

“Steady boy,” he said softly, knowing his old horse generally would not tolerate anyone other than himself up, unless Jess was around to lead him.

He jumped up on Chief, riding the Buckskin bareback and leading Traveler .With Jacobs moving slowly in front, knowing Jess’s rifle was aimed at his back, they started to make their way to Laramie.

They were a few miles outside town when they were met by Slim and Mort coming out to look from them.

“Thank God,” said Slim sincerely when he saw the trio riding up. But when they reined in he reeled back in shock as he saw the beaten and bruised appearance of Jane.

“What in Hell?” he exploded.

Jess just tipped his head to where Jacobs was sitting his mount, head bowed in shame at what he had done.

“Ask that lowlife,” spat Jess angrily.

Mort quickly took charge, seeing that tempers where in danger of flaring. They made their way back to town, where Jess took Jane over to Sam to be looked after , before returning to Mort’s office.

As he entered he saw Jacobs was locked up and Mort threw him a speculative look before pouring him a coffee and passing it over.

“You OK Jess?”

He dipped his head, ”I guess… just tell me though Mort, he’s gonna get the book chucked at him ain’t he, you are going to prosecute?”

“Sure, what with your evidence and Jane’s we should have enough to nail him for a good long spell Jess, don’t worry about that.”

Then he said quietly, ”I figure we’ll need Sam over here after he’s finished patching Jane up, he looks to be in kinda a bad state Jess?”

“Yeah, well he’d have been in one Hell of a worse state iffen I hadn’t reined it in,” said Jess bitterly.

Mort glanced over to Slim and back, “Yes, well I guess I can understand that Jess, but you steer clear of him now, I can’t condone anymore violence, savvy.”

“Sure I hear you Mort and as long as he gets what’s due him, then that’s an end to it as far as I’m concerned.”


This occurrence marked a subtle change in the relationship between Jess and Jane. Whether it was the impact of seeing her helpless, frightened and badly hurt. Or that extraordinarily real dream where Davy appeared to him pleading for Jess’s pity and understanding, he didn’t know, but he did know that he felt incredibly protective of her.

In fact it went way beyond protective. His feelings for her were suddenly very erratic, moving from tenderness to pity … to something else he couldn’t define…..deep affection? But Jess being Jess didn’t ponder on his feelings too long or maybe wasn’t even totally aware of them at the time. But he just knew he had to do right by her and keep her safe and happy.

Daisy was the first to notice this delicate shift in the rapport between the two, when she saw Jess spending more and more time with Jane. Letting her paint him and just chatting and laughing together and if she was away in town or visiting neighbours with Daisy he got anxious and edgy if she was a tiny bit late back.

She mentioned this new liaison to Slim late one night when they were the only two still up, enjoying a cup of Daisy’s special cocoa.

“Well I thought you wanted him to be a bit more understanding of her,” said Slim looking puzzled in response to Daisy’s worry that the two were getting too close.

“Oh I did dear and I think Jess is just being genuinely friendly and looking out for her, no more than that. I’m just worried as to what Jane will read into all this attention he’s paying her.”

Slim beamed across, “Come on Daisy you worry too much, she knows they’re just good friends now… just relax its fine.”

It wasn’t until Jess had refused to ride into town for the third Saturday running in preference to staying in and keeping Jane company, that Slim too began to feel concerned about the situation.

He was in the barn saddling Alamo up and Jess was grooming Traveler when Slim tried one last time.

“Come on Jess this isn’t like you to miss a Saturday night. I can tell you Miss Millie was real put out when you didn’t show for the dance last week.”

Jess looked momentarily wounded, but quickly rallied,” Tell her I’m real sorry will you Slim? I’ll ride in and see her next week sometime…… maybe.”

Slim’s head shot up,” Maybe? Don’t you think Millie’s worth a bit more than ‘maybe’, Hell what’s come over you lately Jess? You spend all your free time mooning around Jane like she’s made of china and she’s going to shatter if you’re not there to keep her safe.”

Jess turned from his task and opened his mouth to say something and then seemed to think better of it and closed it again, turning his back on his friend.

“Jess…… please talk to me pard, what’s this all about?”

“Nuthin’, just don’t want her out here alone with Mike at his friends and Daisy staying over to help with the Jones new baby right now… ‘tis all.”

Slim just shook his head, ”She’s fine with it. It’s just you that’s making all the fuss like you’re her big brother or something. Hell Jess I know you feel kind of responsible for her, but you can’t let it change your life. Millie will be waiting on you in town tonight, she really needs to see you Jess, been missing you…..something fierce.”

Jess hung his head and just said very softly, ”Can’t Slim…” and after a moment the big blond rancher sighed and rode out of the yard at a fast trot without further comment.

As the hoof beats faded away Jess threw his arm across Traveler’s back and rested his head on it closing his eyes and breathing deeply, feeling a sudden yearning for Millie. Hell he wanted to see her so dang much. To hold her, talk to her… but something deep inside prevented him, his sense of duty and loyalty came to the fore and blotted everything else out. He knew what he had to do and he would do it no matter how hard.

As far as Jane was concerned she was completely flummoxed. She didn’t know whether Jess was courting her or merely being friendly and caring in a brotherly way, but it didn’t make any difference to her, because her feelings were completely out of control. Even though she kept telling herself he was just being kind, just looking out for her for the sake of Davy’s memory, another part of her had the stirring of hope in her heart. Maybe he really had feelings for her. Maybe he was really attracted to her, after all he had said she was a beautiful girl with no need for makeup and the like, and he had loved her as a child. Now he admired her painting talent, could he possibly be interested in her?

The more he stayed around her the more she began to think it could be true. Then she had overheard an argument in the barn where Slim had been urging Jess to go to town with him and he had refused. How Slim had said Millie was missing him badly, and then Jess’s reply so low she couldn’t hear it, but still he stayed home that night.

After Slim had ridden out Jess finished the chores and finally came and sat by the fire with Jane as she worked on her latest painting and he caught up with the news from the Laramie Sentinel, finally allowed back in the house.

Jane glanced over at him a couple of times. She smiled gently and couldn’t help fantasizing that they were an old married couple and this was their own home, a typical Saturday night, the children tucked up in bed asleep.

After a while he put the paper to one side and smiled over at her, ”You OK now?” he asked kindly.

“How do you mean?”

“All that business with Jacobs and all?”

“Oh I see yes, I think so… It’s helped me with you being so attentive, so caring Jess, I really appreciate it, and I know Davy would have done too.”

He just ducked his head and said softly, “Well I do care, you know?”

Her head shot up and she looked him in the eye, “Do you… really?”

“I guess so yeah.”

She stared at him her heart pounding, what was he saying, he loved her… he wanted her, or he just wanted to look out for her, care for her as a friend?

She had to know, she just had to. All evening her emotions got more and more aroused until she could bear it no longer and she knew she had to act.

They had finished their last coffee of the evening and Jess had been out to check the stock and when he came back was surprised to see Jane still up and standing by the fireside waiting for him.

He wandered over and smiling down at her said, ”Are you OK sweetheart, thought you’d be abed by now?”

She stared up at him, her eyes seeming huge in the dim light from the oil lamp and leaning towards him she said softly, “I’m just going now.”

Then she looked up into those deep blue friendly eyes and remembered what Carrie had said. What it was like to kiss Jess…and she couldn’t stand it any longer. She reached up and closing her eyes as Carrie had schooled her she found his lips and gently caressed them, with her own.

Jess was totally taken off guard and when Jane’s soft gentle lips engaged with his he felt a fission of desire flow through him. But he held back, this was Davy’s little sister. She was special, real special and not the sorta girl to be messed with before marriage.

He pulled back and said, ”Goodnight, Janie…” but the look in his eyes held no rebuke and she went off to bed happily enough..

………And that was when he knew what he had to do. For Davy’s memory, for the way she had nursed him….. Hell for the way she had killed that Bandido. Saved his life….. iffen it hadn’t been for Jane, well Jess would be dead now… he knew what he had to do…..

He was lying in bed on his back, hands laced behind his head staring up at the ceiling when Slim arrived back an hour or so later. He came in quietly, but when he saw Jess was still awake he adjusted the nightlight and sat down on the edge of his bed peering across at his buddy, ”You still awake then?”

Jess nodded, ”I thought you’d have stayed over?”

Slim shook his head, ”Nah Lily was out of town her Ma’s ill. So I just had a few hands of poker, lost the last couple so called it quits and came home.”

“So how was Millie, she real mad at me?”

Slim suddenly looked serious, ”Worse than that buddy,” he said softly,” she was upset, real upset…. had tears in her eyes, guess I’ve never seen Mill that way before…”

Jess sucked in a shocked breath, ”I’ll ride in first thing,” he said quietly, before turning on his side away from Slim, feigning sleep.

Slim knew he was upset and the talking was over for the night so he turned in. When he awoke at first light Jess’s bed was empty and he was just in time to hear him riding out of the yard.

Chapter 10

When Jess rode into town it was still early and the saloon was yet to open. He tethered Traveler and strode across the sidewalk and hammered on the door and after what seemed an age old Tom finally pulled the door open.

“Garl darn it we’re closed,” he yelled, and then focusing on Jess said, “Oh it’s you, come on in,” and dragging Jess in by the arm he closed the door behind him.

He cast a speculative eye at the young cowboy, “So what are you doin’ abroad so dang early son?”

“I gotta see Millie, Tom.”

“Um, well I ain’t so sure she wants to see you. She was proper upset last night, heard her cryin’ and that ain’t like our Mill and …..”

“Yeah, yeah I know Tom, that’s why I’m here,” said Jess impatiently, “so can I see her or what?”

“Sure, keep yer hair on boy, go on up… I’m goin’ back to my bed,” and with that he shuffled off to the back room where he slept.

Jess ran lightly up the stairs and knocked on Millie’s door and it was opened almost at once.

As soon as she saw who it was her expression became impassive and she turned and went back into the room, before calling behind her,” Boot’s an’ gun.”

Jess knew the house rules and if she wanted him to divest himself of these things as usual, well at least he was being invited in.

He did as he was bid and left his gun, boots and hat by the door before wandering over to the big old sofa, pulled up in front of a cheerful fire and Millie gestured for him to sit.

She stood looking down at him for a moment and Jess thought she looked adorable. She wore that same white high necked nightdress, with a pretty shawl around her shoulders. Her dark hair was loose and curled around her beautiful face that was devoid of make-up and her feet were bare. She looked so young and innocent. Just as she had as a child back on the panhandle as Jess remembered her, and he felt a surge of love for his dear friend, making the task he was about to perform even more difficult.

She finally came and sat down beside him, curling her feet up under her and casting him a questioning look.

Closer to, he could see her eyes were a little puffy from crying and they had dark shadows beneath making his heart twist at the thought that he was the cause of her distress.

“I’m sorry I ain’t been around much sweetheart… real sorry.”

She just stared at him, “So are you seeing someone then?”

“Yes… no… err….. That is yes, sorta,” he finished lamely.

She looked unmoved, “Well which is it Jess, yes or no.”

“Yes… “

“So why didn’t you tell me?” she said in exasperation.

“Heck we’ve always been honest with each other Jess. You only had to say you’d met someone, I’d be Ok with that.” But for the first time ever in their relationship she wondered if that was the absolute truth.

“I… I dunno, I guess I didn’t wanna tell yer because it would make everything seem kinda final.”


“Yeah, I’m gettin’ married.”

“What… married? Who… I mean who to Jess?”

He ducked his head and said very softly, “Jane … I’m marryin’ Jane.”

Millie looked amazed,” Why?”

He shot her a hard look, ”Why do most people get married?”

“Because they’re in love, maybe?“

“Well, then.”

“So you love her… you love Jane?”

He said nothing just looked down.


“I’m real fond of her yes.”

“That’s not what I asked, do you love her?”

“She’s a good kid, bright, intelligent, real pretty, I guess we can make a go of it.”

She leaned forwards and took his hand looking deeply into his troubled blue eyes.

“Why are you doing this Jess? Out of some old fashioned sense of duty to her, out of loyalty to your dead friend? If you marry it will be for life, she’ll give you children, want them brought up in her belief, is that what you really want?”

He leapt up and thrust his hands in his pockets and turned with his back to her, starting into the fire, “No, it’s not what I want,” he shouted, “but it’s what I have to do!”

He turned to look at her and was startled to see tears in her eye. He sank down on the couch beside her and leaning in gently cupped her face between his hands.

“I’m sorry sweetheart; I didn’t mean to yell at yer, I’m just kinda edgy right now.”

Then the tears welled up and as one ran down her cheek he wiped it away with his thumb.

“Don’t Mill, please don’t,” he whispered, ”you’ll always be my best friend…. No matter what….. “

Then another tear coursed down her cheek and suddenly he was kissing it away, kissing her hair, her face and then down to her mouth. He brushed her lips with his own so gently, so tenderly and then he felt her respond beneath him and they were suddenly kissing passionately, almost as if their lives depended on it and he held her tightly, like he would never let her go.

After several minutes he pulled away and he too had tears in his eyes.

“I can’t,” he whispered softly, ”I just can’t do it can I? Marry someone else when we are like this together…. I don’t think I could bear the thought of never being able to be with you this way again Mill…..”

Then she was suddenly sobbing uncontrollably and he pulled her close again and felt his shirt being soaked with her tears as he rocked her gently, whispering endearments.

Finally it was over and sniffing she gave him a watery smile, ”I’m sorry, don’t know what’s come over me lately, I’m not usually such a cry baby.”

Jess knew the truth of it, hell he’d known Millie since she was knee high to a grasshopper and he could count the number of times he had seen her cry on the fingers of one hand.

Then he ran a gentle hand over her forehead, “You’re a mite warm Millie, you feelin’ alright?”

She shook her head, “No not really, got a splitting head, but I guess I didn’t sleep too well last night.”

Again he felt a twist of pain at what he had put her through.

“Want me to get Doc Sam over?” he asked anxiously.

She shook her head.

“No I’m OK,” then her face lit up in a beautiful smile, “Of course….. Sam. He might be the answer to all your troubles Jess.”


“Why didn’t I think to tell you before?” she said exasperated with herself.

“See I was chatting to Carrie a while back and she said her uncle Vince … “

“The one staying with Sam, his brother?”

“Yeah, the one you saved in the bank hold up. Anyway, they’ve been visiting a cousin over in Cheyenne, but are due back soon. Well this Vince is the curator of a huge Art Gallery back in Philadelphia and I think he may be interested in displaying her work. Even more exciting, Carrie thinks there may even be a job going.”

“Does Jane know about this?”

“No, apparently Sam and Vince only talked it over the night before he left for Cheyenne. But he’s keen to discuss it with her as soon as he lands back.”

Jess gave a huge sigh of relief.

“That might be just what she needs and that is where her folks were from originally. She might even be able to join a Friends group out there.”

The smile on Millie’s face suddenly froze. ”Oh Jess how are you going to break it to her that the Wedding is off?”


“The wedding Jess,” she said impatiently, ”you asked her to marry you… remember?”

“Oh no I ain’t, I wanted to tell you first. I ain’t even courted her yet. Hell I only kissed her for the first time last night… well she kissed me actually,” he said with his cheeky grin.

She gave him a quizzical look, “And what was it like?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh.. nice, real nice… as nice as it would be to kiss any pretty girl,” he said softly…..”but she wasn’t you Mill,” and then he leaned forwards and kissed her again very thoroughly.


When he rode back into the yard much later Slim was there to greet him and the two men walked into the barn together. As Jess started to tend Traveler, Slim leaned on the loose box door and said, “So you going to tell me what all this is about then Jess?”

Jess looked down for a moment and then said, ”Yeah, I guess I owe you an explanation.”

“See I decided to Wed Jane… “

“What!” Slim exploded, gaping at his buddy.

“So when did this all happen? Does Millie know… what does Jane think, has she said yes? Hell I thought she was looking kind of excited this morning. She got up for a coffee and took it back to bed, but she sure had a spring in her step. Hell Jess are you sure about this… I mean do you love her?”


“Gee, does Daisy know?”

“Slim! Will you shut up and listen to me.”

“Sure, sure sorry pard… well?”

“I said I was goin’ to ask her, but I’ve decided against it. Millie made me see I was doin’ it for all the wrong reasons… and she was right as usual.”

Then he went on to explain the whole story as he had to Millie.

At the end Slim drew a deep sigh. ”Nothing is ever straight forward with you is it pard?” he said with a grin. “So why is Jane looking so all fired pleased with herself this morning? You say she doesn’t know any of this and you haven’t proposed?”

“Oh well I kissed her last night, could be that,” he said casually.

“You and your kissin’,” said Slim shaking his head in mock despair and the couple went about their morning chores.

Meanwhile Jane was still lying in bed going over and over and over again, every second of that kiss. It had been just as Carrie had described it. She had felt her heart beating so fast that she thought it might burst as she reached up to kiss him. Then she had closed her eyes and brushed his lips gently with her own.

At once a myriad of emotions and new physical feelings had coursed through her young innocent body. Her stomach had flipped over with a thousand butterflies flying around and she felt a wave of dizziness and a feeling of desire that she had never experienced before. Then he had kissed her back, so softly and for a moment held her close before releasing her and pulling gently away, his eyes kindly and warm.

Was there a look of love in them? She tried to imagine there was. Although if she was being totally honest they had just shone with the usual light of friendship that she knew so well. But love could grow couldn’t it she thought and he must be interested. He had kissed her back and he hadn’t looked angry or embarrassed. Maybe there was hope… more than a little hope and she smiled to herself and allowed herself to imagine a future with Jess. Their beautiful children and a Godly and fulfilling life together was all she wanted.

However it was only to be twenty four hours later that all her dreams were to be shattered.


The following day the early morning Stage rushed into the yard and for once Jane was standing with the men chatting as it swept in and rattled to a shuddering standstill.

“Hey Mose, you’re in a hurry this morning,” said Slim beaming up at the old timer, ”hope you’ve time to rest a spell coffee’s on.”

Mose jumped down from the box and ignoring Slim’s banter he strode across to where Jane and Jess were standing chatting.

“Jess boy, got some news from the Doc.”


“Yeah, its Miss Millie, apparently she’s been taken real sick, she’s over at the Doc’s place and been askin’ fer you…. and …. “

But the words were no sooner out of his mouth than Jess was tearing across the yard to the barn and he emerged a matter of moments later on Traveler and galloped out of the yard in a cloud of dust, leaving Jane looking pale and shocked.

Mose shook his old head sadly, “She’s real poorly Slim. Got this wretched influenza doc said, and has been taken real bad…. Don’t know what ol’ Jess’ ll do if she don’t pull through, the way those two are together,” and shaking his old grey head again he made for the house and a restorative coffee, leaving Jane staring down the track looking totally stunned.

When Jess arrived in town he threw himself from Traveler’s back and barely spending the time to tether him, strode across to the Doc’s door and his knock was answered quickly by an anxious looking Carrie.

“Oh thank goodness,” she breathed, “its Millie, she’s gone downhill so fast. Pa is worried, thought seeing you might help,” and with that she turned and showed him into the hospital room at the back of the house.

As soon as he entered he knew she was in a bad way. Sam was leaning over listening to her chest with his stethoscope and she was wheezing. Her head was rolling on the pillow and beads of perspiration forming on her brow, her eyes squeezed shut as if in pain.

Sam looked up and beckoned him over moving to one side so Jess could slip into his place and sit on the edge of the bed.

He took her hand and she immediately opened her eyes and looked up at him, the ghost of a smile on her deathly pale face, “You came,” she whispered.

“Sure I did and I’m gonna stay here and look after you until you’re better,” he said, smiling down at her and then casting a quick backward glance at Sam which brooked no argument.

Sam turned away hiding a smile, knowing better to argue with the young rancher and then he moved to leave. He paused at the door looking back to where Jess was tenderly wiping her forehead with a cool cloth and for the first time figured she had a real fighting chance.

From that time on Jess never left her side.

On the third day when he had, had no rest and precious little to eat Sam went in at bedtime and said,” Jess take a break will you, I’ll sit up with her tonight, you have a rest.”

He just shook his head stubbornly, “I ain’t leavin’ her Sam, not until she’s well.”

Sam hung his head and then said very softly, “She really is sick buddy and there is just a chance she might not make it you know. You have to prepare yourself for that Jess.”

“No!” he shouted, and then seeing he had disturbed her, said more quietly, ”No I don’t Sam, because she’s gonna get well I ain’t gonna let her die……..you hear me,” he said firmly, giving his friend a hard look.

Sam flushed suddenly feeling incredibly moved by his friend’s faith and he patted his arm, ”I believe you may be right Jess, if you’ve got any say in it anyway,” and he left quietly, knowing that Jess would be true to his word and would not leave Millie’s side.

A little later she woke and looked up at him, “You still here?” she whispered.

“Sure I told you I wasn’t goin’ anywhere, I’m goin’ to nurse yer through this Millie.”

She gave him a little smile, “I can’t picture you as a nurse,” she said softly.

“Sure I make a darned good nurse,” he said in mock affront, ”nursed old Slim through enough gunshot wounds. Not to mention I was the one did most of the carin’ when Mike had the Chicken Pox. Nah, a little ol’ dose of flu ain’t nuthin’ to worry about,” he said stoutly, ”I’ll have you better in no time.”

She gave him another little smile, ”Yes, I believe maybe you will.”

Then she started coughing again and he supported her, gently rubbing her back until the spasm was over and then fetched her a cool drink, before she fell back into a restless sleep.

He stretched his legs out and lay back in the bedside chair, feeling bone weary. But still he kept his vigil over his sleeping friend all through the long night.

Meanwhile back at the Ranch and Relay Station, Jane was suffering terribly. From the time that Jess had ridden out without so much as a backward glance, she had mourned their lost relationship. Her eyes were suddenly opened to what had really happened.

Jess was just being kind to her in memory of his dear friend Davy as much as anything she mused. He was a loyal friend and an honourable man and he felt the need to care for her. Especially after she had been instrumental in saving his life and she knew how guilty he felt about that business and the fact that she had lost her faith for a while. But now at least the one good thing to come from the difficult time was that her faith was restored. She prayed long and hard for her forgiveness after taking a life; and also a return to good health for Millie

She also spent time considering her options and one thing she was sure of, she couldn’t remain at the Ranch. It would be impossible living in such close proximity to Jess. Being so close to him, loving him so much, but having to just settle for just his friendship. Since that one kiss a whole new range of emotions and feelings had been ignited within her and she was fearful of what she might do if left alone with him again.

Then suddenly, about a week after Jess had ridden out, all her prayers were answered as to her future.

Sam and his older brother Vince and his wife Muriel visited.

They all sat around the table with coffee and cake and the first thing Slim said was, “So how is Millie doing, only Mose didn’t seem to hold out much hope?” he said looking anxious.

Sam beamed across at his friend, ”Little more than a miracle, she was so poorly, but then Jess just refused to give up on her and that in turn seemed to get her fighting back. I’m pleased to say she’s turned the corner! She’s on the mend and sitting up and taking notice again.”

“And not a moment too soon,” chirped up Muriel, “that poor boy is exhausted, never left her side once and hardly ate or slept for over a week, he looks a wreck poor love.”

“That sounds like Jess, he’s a good loyal friend,” said Daisy. Then she smiled inwardly at the fact that the smart, middle aged Muriel had obviously fallen under the Harper spell like so many before her.

“I just wish he’d up and marry the girl,” said Slim dryly, “put us all out of our misery.”

“Um,” said Sam, ”They sure make a lovely couple. I reckon if Jess ever does decide to settle down it will be with Millie, but guess they’re both young, got a bit more living to do before they’re tied down to a family.”

All these light-hearted comments were like a sword piercing Jane’s heart and she stared down into her drink willing herself not to cry.

Then Vince cleared his throat, “Anyway why we have come today is to see this exceptionally talented young lady and to offer her a proposition if she will be kind enough to consider it.”

Jane cast him a surprised look, “But of course.”

“Good, good, now my dear may we see some more of your wonderful paintings?”

Jane ran to her room and returned at once with an armful of colourful illustrations and the older man studied them carefully.

After a while he turned to his wife, ”Just as I said isn’t it my dear, potential genius here with the correct training.”

“Absolutely and your subject matter, so interesting,” said the older woman holding a picture of Jess aloft, gripping onto a mustang for dear life, his athletic, fit body shown off to full advantage.

Jane gasped, “I would love to study art, it has always been my heart’s desire, but I’m afraid college would be far too expensive for me…“ she finished looking crestfallen.

“Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about that,” said Vince casting her a fatherly smile, “No, hear me out and tell me what you think.”

He smiled across at her encouragingly before beginning to explain.

“As you know I am the curator of a prestigious gallery in Philadelphia which has a small, but excellent art school attached. Now talented artists like yourself are eligible for scholarships and I am in no doubt that you would qualify. But of course you will still need to save for the future and pay day to day living expenses and this is where our plan comes in,” he said glancing fondly at his wife who nodded excitedly in agreement.

“You see my dear,” he said turning his full attention back to Jane, ”We have a young daughter at home, Gillian and we are in need of a nanny for her as our dear Miss Briggs is about to retire, bless her. Anyway Gillian is a lovely child, ten years old and at school during the day when you would attend your lectures and then we would just need you to care for her at the weekends and some evenings. Mrs Cooper here has told me how good you are with young Mike and I have no doubt that you and Gill would hit it off tremendously well…. We would reimburse you generously and of course you would have free bed and board. Live as a family member. So what do you say Jane?”

Jane could hardly speak for a full minute as a wealth of emotions flooded through her mind. Joy.. oh her heart’s desires come true at last. Excitement… what an adventure. Relief a home and parent like figures to care for her. Then finally deep sadness to be leaving Jess and for one dreadful moment she felt she couldn’t do it, couldn’t leave her dear friend… But then common sense prevailed, she knew she had no future with him and she must just accept that fact and move on, no matter how heart breaking.

She turned to Muriel and Vince, ”I would be delighted to accept your kind offer she said quickly, when do I start?”

Chapter 10

Millie’s health went from strength to strength and by the beginning of the following week Sam let her go home and Jess went with her for that first night just to settle her back in and make sure she had everything she needed.

She was curled up on the couch in front of the fire covered in a colourful blanket and sipping a cup of coffee sometime later, and surveyed Jess putting clean sheets on the big old bed.

“You’re turning into a real old Mother Hen, do you know that,” she said giggling, after he had asked her if she was warm enough for the third time.

He strode over and made to clip her head which she neatly ducked laughing up into his sparkling blue eyes.

“That ain’t so,” he said indignantly, “Just lookin’ out for you is all,” he finished finally chuckling at the idea of him being even fussier than Daisy.

Then he sobered and sank down on the sofa beside her, ”Gee it’s good to see you back to your old self,” he said softly.

”Thanks to you, I think the Doc was about to give up on me until you marched in and took over,” she said giving him a warm, heartfelt smile.

“Um, well it’s all over now and I guess we can look to the future… speakin’ of which I’m gonna have to go home tomorrow Mill. It’s time to start bringing the stock down soon, afore we get the fall storms. I’ll be out to see you come Saturday though I promise,” he said giving her a sincere look.

“Well you better had Jess Harper or I might just have a relapse,” she said laughing and he pulled her gently to him and tipping her chin up bent to kiss her deeply, “ Here’s something on account and the rest on Saturday,” he said with his wicked wink.

He rode back home the following day, wondering what sort of reception he would have from Jane after his prolonged absence and felt a bit guilty at riding out that way without saying goodbye to anyone. As he rode in Slim strolled across from where he’d been chopping logs and reaching up shook his buddy’s hand, ”Good to have you home pard.”

Later over coffee, Jess had assumed Jane was out visiting and said casually to Daisy, “So when’s Jane back, figure I’d better spend some time with her to make up for taking off that way…”

Daisy and Slim exchanged a look and said nothing for a moment.

“What?” he asked looking concerned.

“She’s OK ain’t she, heck she ain’t got this influenza too has she Daisy?” he asked looking anxious and half rising from his chair to check her room.

Slim pulled him gently back down, “No nothing like that Jess, it’s just that she’s gone.”

“Gone,” he echoed looking bewildered, “gone where?”

“Back to Philadelphia with Sam’s brother,” he said telling him of her job and chance to study. ”We figured you were kind of busy looking after Millie so we didn’t tell you, and anyway Jane specifically asked for you not to be told.”

Jess looked deeply hurt at this and turned to Daisy, ”Why Daisy was it something I did, was she mad at me?”

“No dear, quite the reverse,” she said softly, ”you know how much she admired you… well loved you I think… “

“Heck Daisy she was over all that,” he said looking embarrassed.

She just shook her head, ”I don’t think so. Anyway she told me she would find it too distressing to say goodbye, so she asked me to send you her love… and give you this,” and she pulled an envelope out of her apron pocket and passed it across the table.

He stared at it for a moment like it would up and bite him.

“Well aren’t you going to see what she says?” asked Slim grinning at the expression on his friend’s face.

Jess glanced from him to Daisy and back, ”I guess,” he said picking up the letter and ripping it open.

They both watched as his expression turned from one of mild anxiety to deep emotion and were surprised to see his eyes tear up.

He swallowed deeply and then pocketing the letter said, “Excuse me,” and walked out of the room making for the barn.

Slim gave a low whistle, “So what do you make of that?”

She shook her old head, “I’m not sure, but I imagine Jane was declaring her feelings for him.”

“Whatever she said it sure hit home,” said Slim gazing out of the window to where his buddy had just disappeared inside the barn.

A little while later he wandered over and stood watching Jess groom his mount.

“Want to tell me about it?” he asked softly after a moment or two.

Turning Jess shook his head sadly, “No, I guess not… don’t ask me Slim, please, it’s kinda private, you know?”

Later Jess placed the letter in the bottom draw of his chest in his room, inside an old Bible, and it was never referred to again, although Slim knew he occasionally took it out and read it.

And so life went back to normal at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station as it had been in early summer before the phantom egg stealer arrived, aka Jane.

Jess spent all his free time with Millie and there was much speculation about their relationship, but as ever Jess just said it was between him and Millie and nothing to do with anyone else. However he did tell Slim that if they ever decided to tie the knot, his pard would be the first to know.

Jane kept in touch and wrote to Daisy regularly, always with a little PS for Jess and he would ask Daisy to add some snippet of news or other…and so time flew by. Until Jane had been gone a little over two years and a letter and parcel arrived from Philadelphia, brought over by Mose on the early morning Stage.

It was mid-summer and so Mike was on holiday from school and when Mose jumped down from the box he said, ”Parcel here for you son and a letter for Miss Daisy.”

Everyone sat around the table with their coffee and watched Mike open the parcel and were charmed to see a beautifully illustrated children’s’ book of Bible stories.

As Mike looked through he marvelled at the beautifully drawn detailed pictures, ”Hey this is real neat,” he said, and then turning to the front of the book again, his mouth fell open in shock.

“Heck it says here… illus… iller…”

“Illustrated,” said Daisy helpfully.

“Yeah, it’s illustrated by Miss Jane Wright. Hey its Jane… our Jane she’s done all the pictures in a real book,” he yelled in high excitement.

The letter to Daisy went on to explain that Jane had successfully completed her studies and had been offered a lucrative contract illustrating books of a religious nature. How thrilled she was and all her friends at the Quakers Meeting House were proud of her too.”

“I’m so pleased for her,” said Daisy softly, ”She’s worked so hard and it can’t have been easy for her especially…” she was going to say with a broken heart, but she stopped herself in time, not wanting to upset Jess and just said, ”especially being so far from home.”

But nobody noticed as Mike was piping up again.

“Hey Jess there is an envelope in the back of the book with your name on it.”

Jess flushed up, wondering if this was another declaration of undying love and pondered how he could get out of opening it in front of this audience.

But Mike was having none of it, “Come on Jess hurry up, I wanna see what she’s sent you.”

So having no choice he opened the envelope carefully and a delightful little miniature fell out onto the table cloth. It depicted Jess grooming Traveler. The love and care he always showed his horse shining out from the fine brush work from the stance of the horse, his head turned to look at his master, to the loving look in Jess’s eye.

Everyone was silent for a moment drinking in the magnificent work before all speaking at once, declaring it to be the work of an exceptionally talented young lady. But Jess remained silent having read the inscription on the back and was deeply moved, it read:

‘To my dear childhood friend Jess Harper with deepest love and affection, as ever, ‘signed, ‘Jane Wright.’

Later that evening as the men were having a small whiskey out on the porch before turning in Slim was flicking though the book again. After a moment he stopped at a picture depicting the Nativity. However this picture just had the Holy Family in the centre and one visitor, probably a shepherd.

The young man was kneeling down by the crib a look of awe on his handsome face, his dark hair caught in the glow from a lantern and his deep blue eyes dancing with delight….

Slim stared at it for a good five minutes, “Well I’ll be… looky here Jess.”

He passed the book over and watched his partner’s face as comprehension finally dawned… “It’s me Slim,” he said in awe, “she’s painted me in as a shepherd.”

Slim nodded grinning back, ”Looks like she’s not too worried about your immortal soul anymore pard,” he said with a laugh, “I reckon she thinks you’re destined for Heaven when the time comes.”

“Well would yer believe it,” said Jess grinning from ear to ear, “Me a shepherd visitin’ Jesus eh… wait till I show Millie!”


Jane went on to be one of the most famous illustrators in America with her work much sought after and her original oil paintings changing hands for hundreds of dollars. But no matter how hard times were Jess was never tempted to part with the miniature and it was passed down through the generations.

Jane reclaimed her faith and was as stalwart at the local Quaker Meeting House where she eventually met her husband to be. She was happily married for over forty years and had three beautiful and talented children.

She kept in touch with Daisy all her life, but never returned to Wyoming, or met Jess again. But all her days she kept a miniature painting of a handsome young cowboy on her bedside table. His blue eyes dancing in merriment as he smiled out at her from the picture. Never a day passed when she didn’t think of him and offer up a little prayer for his safety and happiness.

The End

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