#24 Missing Without Trace

Missing Without Trace


Patty Wilkinson

(Some violence, strong language and adult themes)

Chapter 1

Slim Sherman, the tall blond rancher and owner of the Sherman Ranch and Relay station reined in the team of horses and brought the buckboard to a halt outside the Laramie mercantile and turned to smile at his Housekeeper, Mrs Daisy Cooper.

Then he withdrew his wallet and handed some notes over to the surprized motherly lady.

“Why whatever is this for Slim?” she asked,” you’ve already given me the housekeeping money.”

“Come on now Daisy, do you really think I haven’t noticed you eyeing up those new bolts of material old Jones has in the haberdashers, not to mention all the hints you’ve been dropping lately about new curtains in the parlour.”

Her pretty old face was suddenly wreathed in smiles, “Oh you…. but you know those old curtains are practically threadbare and let all the drafts through, just think how snug it will be with those heavy new curtains.”

“OK,” he said raising his hands in submission, “I’m convinced.”

Then Jess Harper the young partner in the ranch jumped down from the back of the buckboard where he’d been listening intently to the conversation. Handing Daisy down he grinned at her, his deep blue eyes sparkling with pleasure,” You just enjoy choosing that material Daisy and then I’ll shout you lunch at Miss Molly’s café later.”

At that Mike Williams, Slim and Jess’s ward, the youngest member of the group, leapt down from the buckboard and grinned up at Jess, “Gee Jess can I have sausages?”

Jess leaned down and ruffled the young boy’s shaggy blond hair, “ Sure you can Tiger,” then he reached in his pocket and withdrew some coins, “ there you are, for some candy, but save it until after lunch, and you take good care of Aunt Daisy, while me and Slim attend to some business OK?”

“OK Jess, see ya and thanks,” he grinned as he and Daisy bustled off down the street.

“Well I need to go to the livery to pay the feed bill, so where are you off to, as though I don’t know?” asked Slim grinning across at his buddy.

Jess threw him a pained look, “Well I actually do have some business before I go visit with Millie,” he said referring to his girl friend, who worked at the saloon.

“Gotta pay some checks into the bank, call in at the mercantile too, so how’s about we meet up in the saloon just before noon for a quick beer before we meet Daisy?”

“You got it pard, see you there,” and Slim marched off in the opposite direction.

It was an hour or so later when Slim finally strode into the Laramie saloon and greeted Tom, the old barkeep and good friend.

Tom poured him a cool beer without being asked and slid it across the bar with a welcome smile.

“Thanks Tom,” he said and took a good pull of the drink before leaning with his back to the bar and surveying the saloon which was just beginning to fill up with thirsty shoppers it being Saturday lunchtime.

After a while he looked over to Tom again and said quietly,” Jess still visiting with Millie? “

Tom just shrugged,” Dunno, he was here a while back, they could have gone out somewhere, its Millie’s day off.”

As time went on Slim began to get impatient,” Just tell him he’s supposed to be over the road paying for lunch,” said Slim tersely,” once he shows his face downhere again, that is.”

Tom shook his head, grinning over at his friend,” Young love eh Slim.”

“Um,” said Slim darkly,” guess there’s a time and place though….. and right now he’s in the wrong place,” and he strode out of the bar feeling annoyed.

When he arrived at the café Daisy and Mike had already ordered and he sat down and made a vague excuse for Jess, but Daisy saw through it at once, and just gave Slim a little smile, but said nothing.

As the meal drew to a close, and there was still no sign of Jess, Slim became more and more annoyed and suggesting Daisy have a coffee he rose saying he’d just go and find Jess.

He marched across the street feeling a little surprized at his partner’s behaviour. Sure he had a very close relationship with Millie. He would often stay over with her after a dance on Saturday nights, but he was also a very private man and not one to flaunt his relationship openly and so this sudden departure from his usual behaviour was out of character.

He entered the bar and after scanning the crowd, he saw his buddy wasn’t in evidence and so ran up the stairs and tapped lightly on Millie’s door.

She answered it almost immediately and smiling in welcome threw the door open wide, “Why hello Slim, come on in, how are you?”

Slim looked a little embarrassed and stood where he was,” Sorry to bother you Millie, it’s just that I was looking for Jess. We’re just about to head off home and I wondered if he was coming with us, or staying on in town? “

She looked surprized and again invited him to enter and as soon as he did so he realized the comfortable little room was empty.

“I thought he was buying you lunch at Molly’s,” she said,” he invited me but I’d promised to help Lily with a special dress she needs for tonight.”

“So he has been here?”

“Oh yes, he left over an hour ago, said he’d ride back into town tonight to take me out, with it being my day off.”

Then she noticed Slim looking perplexed.

“Is everything alright, didn’t he show for lunch then?”

“No,” then he pulled himself together,” you know Jess, he probably met up with someone and didn’t notice the time, he’s most likely waiting for me in the buckboard now,” andwith that he made to leave, touching his hat and apologising for disturbing her.

She smiled back,” You just tell him from me he’d better not stand me up tonight, I’m not as understanding as you and Miss Daisy,” she giggled.

Slim wandered off down Main Street retracing Jess’s steps and the bank and mercantile staff both said yes he’d been in, yes he was alone and no, he didn’t seem to be worried about anything, or dashing off anywhere.

Then he went off to the livery, as his buddy was obviously not in town, to see if he’d rented a horse, but Bert said he hadn’t clapped eyes on Jess for over a week and so Slim had to finally return to the café saying he couldn’t find Jess.

He played it down for Mike’s benefit, saying he’d probably gone visiting a friend, but Daisy could see how worried he was and once they returned home and Mike had run off to play with his dog, she turned to Slim a concerned frown on her face.

“What’s this all about Slim, are you just fibbing for Mike’s benefit, and is Jess with Millie?”

Slim shook his head,” No I wish he was Daisy, he did visit, then left to come to lunch… but never made it.”

“So what do you think has happened dear, he can’t just have disappeared into thin air can he?”

Slim shook his head and went off to put the horses in the barn , but returned to the house just a few minutes later holding a note in his hand and looking even more worried.

“Slim, whatever is it dear; you look white as a sheet.”

“Come here, sit down Daisy,” he said pulling a chair out from the dining table before taking the one opposite and fixing her with an anguished look.

He sighed and then said,” Traveler is missing,” referring to Jess’s horse,” and this note was pinned to the stall.”

Daisy took the note and read it through.


Some personal business came up and I’m needed back in Texas. Get Pete Jackson in to help out and pay him my wages, don’t know when I’ll be back… if I’ll be back, that is. I’m real sorry, Jess.

She read it through again and then looked up at her dear friend and said, “Why Slim, that isn’t like Jess to just up and leave that way, something must be seriously wrong.”

Slim nodded,” It used to be just like him, when he first moved in here Daisy, you didn’t know him then.”

He gave a thin smile,” He was real wild and unpredictable, always taking off to help out one of his old buddies, usually one walking on the wrong side of the law too…. but that was then, now he’s changed so much, I just can’t believe this of him.”

Daisy knew all about Jess’s chequered history and just nodded with understanding.

Slim looked down at the note again, “There is something not right about this,” he said quietly.

“What do you mean dear?”

“Well look at it Daisy, it’s real neat, whereas when Jess writes it usually looks like a dying spider has crawled across the page.”

She gave a little smile, even though she was upset, as the account described Jess’s writing so well.

“And look at the spelling too,’ personal’ and ‘business’ both spelt perfectly, and I’m not being funny Daisy, but we both know old Jess isn’t the best at spelling.”

“Well he’s much better than he used to be, if the poor boy had benefited from proper schooling he’d have no trouble,” she said staunchly standing up for the young man she’d come to think of as one of her sons, with Slim and little Mike completing her family.

“Yes, I know Daisy and you’ve worked wonders with him and he’s a real quick learner, but even so, not one spelling mistake?”and he shook his head.

“So what are you saying dear, that he didn’t write this at all?”

“No, I’m not saying that, it is definitely his writing, but it looks to me like he’s copied a note someone else has written.”

“You think he’s been abducted, not gone of his own free will then?”

“I don’t know Daisy, but I sure aim to find out,” and with that he went off to saddle up Alamo, his mount, and shortly afterwards she heard him leaving the yard.

Slim had no problem in following Jess’s trail from the ranch and up onto, and across, the main Laramie road. However the thing that worried him most was the fact that not only could he see Traveler’s hoof prints but also those of another rider, so it did indeed look like his buddy had been escorted from the premises, but either willingly or under duress Slim had no way of knowing.

He followed the tracks across the range and almost halfway to the lake before they seemed to double back on themselves and then completely disappear and Slim could see signs that they had been deliberately wiped away and his heart missed a beat, knowing now for sure that Jess really was in some trouble.

He carried on up as far as the lake and the cave, but there was no sign of his pard nor any tracks and Slim figured that whoever it was that had spirited him away was certainly good at their job and there looked to be no way he could trace his friend.

He finally knew he had to get back home, to where Daisy was desperate for news, and so with a heavy heart he turned his mount back towards the ranch.

When he rode in she ran out of the house,her eyebrows arched in question, but he just shook his head sadly before jumping down from the saddle and walking over to join her.

“I’m sorry Daisy, nothing, but it looks like we were right, there was another rider with him and the tracks have been completely erased, halfway to the lake, looks like a professional to me.”

She took a sharp breath, her hand dashing to her mouth in shock,” Oh Slim, what can all this be about,” and then her eyes opening even wider,” and what are we going to tell Mike?”

In the end they decided to just play Jess’s absence down, saying he was off visiting a friend and would doubtless be back as soon as he could.

The boy was used to one or other of his adopted family being away on business so was not unduly upset, but Slim and Daisy were, and so Slim promised to ride in and have a word with Mort Corey, the Laramie Sheriff and very good friend to all at the Relay Station.

He arrived in town later that evening and went straight to the saloon where Millie was surprisingly working behind the bar.

“Thought it was your day off,” he said smiling across at her.

“Yeah, well that was before your no good partner went and stood me up,” she said fiercely.

Slim’s heart plummeted as his last hope died, he knew that if was humanly possible for Jess to get into town he would have done, or at least left a message for his best girl.

“You not heard from him then?”he asked looking worried.

Millie’s demeanour changed at once as she suddenly realised something was seriously wrong.

“No, so you didn’t find him at lunchtime then?”

Slim shook his head and filled her in on the latest developments.

She looked suddenly tearful,” I’ve got a real bad feeling about this you know Slim.”

“How so?”

“Well if that note is right and he’s gotten personal business down in Texas, well I just figure it ain’t goin’ to be anything good.”

Slim remembered that she and Jess went way back and had been brought up in the same small town on the panhandle and bowed to her knowledge of Jess’s less than savory past there.

“So you think it might be someone, well not too law abiding that has taken up with him then?”

“Well that about covers most of the people we knew,” she said with a bitter laugh, “best thing we ever did was get out of Texas…. That part of Texas anyways, I’m worried Slim, real worried.”

“Don’t be,” he said softly,” I’m going to speak to Mort maybe he’ll be able to help.”

He marched over to Mort’s office and found him with his feet up on the desk,drinking a last cup of coffee before heading for home.

“Evening Slim,” he greeted his friend, “you off to the dance tonight then?”

Slim shook his head and after helping himself to a coffee threw himself down in the chair opposite Mort’s desk.

“No, I guess I’m here on official business Mort, see it’s Jess, he’s gone missing.”


“Well yeah,” and then he filled him in on the happenings of the last few hours, including the way the tracks had been wiped away.

“Um,” said Mort thoughtfully,” so are you sure he’s heading for Texas then?”

Slim shook his head,” I’m not sure of anything to be honest Mort. Hell you remember how he was when he first landed, how he was forever taking off on some lost cause or another, but he’s changed now buddy, you know that,” he said casting his friend a beseeching look.

“Sure, sure he has,” said Mort,” and if he’s taken off this way, well then I figure it wasn’t willingly.”

“Um that’s what I think, but what can we do Mort, he could be anywhere.”

“Well I guess all I can do is wire some of the lawmen down in Texas, ask them to keep an eye open for him, but we don’t really know if he’s in trouble Slim, there might just be something he needs to sort out…. Maybe even a girl involved, you know Jess,” he said casting a grin in Slim’s direction.

“I guess,” he said quietly, “but I don’t know Mort, I’ve just got a real bad feeling.”

Then Mort took pity on his good buddy,” Well I reckon I’m done for the night, Lon the deputy will be here in a minute, so why don’t we go and buy that ‘real bad feeling ‘ of yours drink or two, huh?”

Slim gave him a tired smile, “thanks Mort that would be great.”

Chapter 2

Jess smiled to himself as he made to cross the street after leaving Millie in her comfortable room over at the saloon. It was a shame she couldn’t make lunch he mused, but he’d see her that night and he couldn’t wait.They had been friends for a long time, in fact he always told Slim she was the best dang female friend he had, but just lately that deep friendship had developed into something more concrete, something that might really be very special he thought. He shook his head, hell, him and old Mill actually thinking on making a go of things…. Well sometime in the future that was what she’d stipulated, but even so, maybe one day…..

Then he was suddenly thrust from his reverie by a small shifty looking man who ran up to him and said breathlessly, “You Jess Harper?”

Jess stopped in his tracks and threw the man a hard look, “Who’s askin?”

“Never mind that son, your buddy, Slim is it…. he’s hurt real bad asking for you.”

Jess didn’t stop to think, and much later he was to kick himself for the stupid error, but at the time, well ol’ Hardrock needed him and so he went without a second thought.

The older man chased off down an alley behind the saloon with Jess hot on his heels and then he saw what he thought to be his buddy lying face down in the dirt and he ran over and knelt beside him…. and that was to be the last thing he remembered for some time, as he felt a sharp blow to the back of his head and then nothing more as he crashed to the ground, out cold.

The man,prostrate on the floor, stood up as soon as he heard Jess fall and then a third man ran up and between them they dragged Jess’s unconscious form up from where he was sprawled in the dirt and dragged him down to the end of the alley where there was a buckboard waiting.He was then unceremoniously thrown in the back and covered by a tarp and two of the men jumped in the back beside him whilst the third took the driver’s seat, urging the horses on to a brisk trot and they were soon bowling along Main Street heading for the edge of town.


He was laying on his side on the damp earth his hands and feet tightly bound, the pain in his head agonising.When he moved slightly he felt a wave of nausea threaten to overwhelm him, as he opened his eyes and took in the camp fire with three men huddled around it.

Then he heard it, the voice he thought he would never hear again, hoped he would never hear again anyway, that of Ralf Jessop, notorious gunfighter, outlaw, sometime gambler and ex friend. Very ex friend Jess thought ruefully. Hell he’d never wanted to clap eyes on Ralf Jessop again, not after he’d stolen Jess’s girl, cheated and double crossed him and then left him for dead out on the Texas plain.

Then he squinted over and yes, the other man was Charlie Winters another member of the Jessop gang and then he saw the weaselly little man that had conned him over Slim, and thought he must be part of the gang too.The gang he had ridden with on and off for a couple of years, until the odd misdemeanor and high spirits suddenly changed to serious crime……….. until the day Ralf shot an innocent man dead, just for the thrill of it, and that was the day Jess walked out for good.

But Jessop couldn’t bear the thought of Jess turning his back on him and that was when he got his evil revenge, turning Jess’s then girlfriend Jenny against him by lies and subterfuge and then implicating him in a crime he had not committed.

Then he had left him more dead than alive out on the Texas plain for the law to find and bring to justice, tipped off by Jessop. That had cost Jess a short jail sentence and he had eventually got his revenge onJessop one cold dismal winter’s day in a one horse town in Texas. The shootout had ended with Jessop with a life threatening wound to the chest,while Jess walked away without a backwards glance.

That had been over five years ago and this was the first time he had seen him since and he really didn’t relish meeting after their last encounter that was for sure.

He flexed his muscles and tried to lose his hands, but the binding just tightened and as he tried to roll over and pull himself up, the earth started spinning and he gave a low groan and swallowed hard.

Hearing him, Jessop jumped up from the fire and wandered over.

“So you’re back with us then Jess.”

Jess swallowed hard again, thinking he was about to chuck up, such was the pain in his head, but after a moment he gained control and whispered huskily, “What do you want Ralf, I thought we finished our business once and for all last time when we had the shoot-out.”

Ralf gave him a bitter smile, “Yeah; you were a tad faster as I remember.”

“So what do you want,” asked Jess again, his patience wearing thin,” and why have you got me all trussed up like a prize turkey?”

“Well, I figure when I tell you about my little plan you won’t have too much of a notion to stay around, so let’s just call it a precaution, until you see things my way.”

“And why would you think I’d ever see things your way?” asked Jess throwing him a hard look.

“Because the alternative might not be to your liking, I figure we can do this the easy way, or the……..well the real hard way……... but either one, well the outcome will be the same; you’ll do as I want you to.”

“Which is?”

“Remember my kid brother Jodie?”

“I guess yeah, about as trigger happy and crazy as you, but with slightly less common sense,” said Jess dryly.

“Um, well you may have a point there, anyways the thing is, he’s currently languishing in the Cheyenne jail, waiting to be sent to Laramie for a trial for alleged murder of one of the town’s prominent business people.”

“Matt Clayton, a big rancher and on the town council, yes I heard all about that, young Jodie gunned him down in a robbery out at his ranch didn’t he?”

“Well, that’s the word on the street, but my little brother ain’t gonna hang for it Jess and you’re the one that’s going to go and get him out of there.”

“I am?” asked Jess giving his adversary a dazed look.

“So why in Hell would I wanna do a darned fool thing like that?”

“Like I said, you won’t like the alternative.”

“Oh really,” said Jess giving him a defiant look.

“Yes… really.”

Then he turned his back on Jess, “come on over boys, I figure Jess here needs a little persuading to throw his lot in with us.”

The weaselly looking man who Ralf referred to as Claude West and Charlie Winters wandered over an evil glint in their eyes and proceeded to pull Jess up and tie him tightly to a nearby pine, his arms pulled upwards and his legs splayed out so he looked like a giant star, and then they set about systematically beating him to within an inch of his life.

It started with a vicious backhander from Charlie, splitting Jess’s lip, bright red blood running down his chin and onto his blue shirt, before he followed through with a knee to the groin, causing Jess to retch and groan in agony.

Jessop watched him dispassionately before reaching over and grabbing Jess by the hair so that he could look into his dark pain filled eyes,” give up then, gonna help me out now?”

“Rot in hell,” whispered Jess and then the battering really started with blow after blow raining down on his head and body and he just had to stand and take it, tied to the tree as he was, unable to defend himself in any way.

Several times throughout the proceedings Jessop called a halt and asked again if Jess would agree to assist them, but he refused to even reply, just shaking his head.

After what seemed like a lifetime to Jess he finally blacked out and the next thing he knew he was cut down from the tree and was having a canteen of water thrown in his face to revive him and then the beating started all over again, with them kicking him viciously as he lay curled into a ball just willing it to stop, until he had blacked out for the third time Jessop finally called a stop.

“It’s no good boys, carry on this way we’ll kill him and he’ll be no darned good to us dead, tie him up real good Charlie and we’ll try again later.”

However the only thing Jessop managed to achieve was for Jess to scribble a note for the folk back at the ranch, reluctantly copying from a letter written by Jessop, albeit with a gun at his head and then Claude had been quickly dispatched with it and returned sometime later with Traveler in tow, reporting that the family had returned and seen the note.

“You covered your tracks well didn’t you?”

“Sure, sure Sherman will have no chance of tracking us, don’t you worry boss.”

Then the men laid into Jess again, finally leaving him in pain and hungry as they retired for the night.

Jess came around sometime in the early hours of the morning and was hurting pretty much as bad as he could ever remember, his guts were churning and there wasn’t a part of him that was crying out in pain.

His wrists and ankles were tied so tightly that the circulation was almost cut off, his head throbbed and he felt sick to his stomach, the bitter metallic taste of blood in his mouth.

But beneath it all was the rising Harper temper, he was good and mad and he knew instinctively that is was his notorious temper that would see him through this ordeal and he lay there planning his revenge as the sky slowly lightened and a new day dawned.

The following morning the men had breakfasted well and spent time taunting Jess, as they ate their fill and refused to even give him a drink. Then they again laid into him, but it soon became obvious that he was prepared to die before he would do as Jessop wanted.

After breakfast he had sat down with Jess and almost in a friendly way explained exactly what the plan was.

“See Jess it’s this way, you’ve often played Deputy for ol’ Mort Corey, collected prisoners for him in the past and the Sheriff over in Cheyenne knows you well, trusts you. So when you waltz in to collect the prisoner to take him over to Laramie, well he won’t suspect anything wrong, like I say, he likes and trusts you buddy.”

“And that’s exactly why I ain’t doin’ it… and I ain’t your buddy either,” he spat.

That was when Jessop ordered his men to thrash the prisoner yet again, but like the previous day he finally put a stop to it, really fearing for the recalcitrant man’s life as Jess still stubbornly refused to give in.

He lay on his side groaning and cussing softly as the three men stood over him, Jessop undecided as to what he should do next and knowing that time was running out. He knew Mort Corey had arranged to send Lon, his Deputy, out to fetch the prisoner back the following week when the circuit judge was due to sit, and now things were getting desperate, he had to do something and as soon as he could.

“What about fetching that partner of his, Sherman, out,” suggested Claude,” he seemed mighty upset when he thought he was hurt, maybe we could work him over, that might persuade him?”

“Um,” said Jessop thoughtfully,” a bit risky trying to abduct Sherman he’s no pushover and I reckon he could take as much of a beating as this one, wouldn’t want his buddy to give in either… but…”

“What boss?” asked Charlie.

“Well when you were doing your snooping around town these last few days didn’t you say you saw Harper with a girl, said he seemed kinda sweet on her?”

“Sure that little brunette piece from the Saloon, err……Millie, that’s it her name’s Millie.”

At Millie’s name Jess’s head shot up and he threw Jessop a venomous look,” You just leave Millie out of this,” he said sharply,” or so help me…. “

Jessop grinned across at the other two,” I think we have the lever we’ve been looking for gentlemen, get yourselves off to town and invite Miss Millie to our little party,” he said with an evil laugh, which continued more loudly when he saw the look of shock on Jess’s face.

Abducting Millie proved more difficult than the men had surmised however as she seemed to spend most of her time at work, within the confines of the saloon, or else when she did venture forth she always seemed to be in the company of one or two girl friends.

In the end Claude sent a bogus wire, saying her Ma had been taken ill in Cheyenne and asking for Millie to visit her, and it was only pure luck that he knew about Millie’s Ma as he had overheard a conversation between Millie and her friend Lily, saying what a good Christmas she had spent with her Ma back in Cheyenne.

So it was that the following day Millie was alighting from the noon Stage in Cheyenne, feeling deeply concerned about her dear Mother, when a weaselly little man ran over and said, “is it Millie, I’m sorry I don’t know your surname.”

Millie cast him an unsure glance her gut reckon being one of revulsion.

“What do you want,” she said hurriedly,” I have to get to my Ma she’s real sick.”

Claude looked somewhat abashed,” No she isn’t my dear, that was down to me… or I should say your friend Mr Harper, he asked me to send that wire, wanted to be sure you came, he’s in trouble.”

Millie turned pale,” Jess…. in trouble… but why the lie he knows I’d go to the ends of the earth for him if he needed me.”

The sly little man looked furtively around,” Well he’s in trouble like I say, big trouble, guess he didn’t want anyone knowing his whereabouts see, especially the law or that pompous partner of his Sherman.”

“I don’t believe you,” she said stoutly throwing him a dark look.

Claude quickly back peddled, realizing he’d said too much and obviously the wrong thing to boot.

“Well, sure he’s innocent,” he said quickly,”just needs some help from his friends to sort everything out.”

Millie still looked hesitant really not liking or trusting this strange little man.

Claude peered over at her, his piggy little eyes looking even more cunning,” He’s hurt too Miss, real bad, been asking for you over and over he has.”

Then he played his trump card and brought Jess’s blood stained bandana out of his vest pocket,” said to show you this iffen you was in any doubt.”

Mille went even paler and then made her mind up.

“Take me to him,” she said at once and Claude led her across the street, to his horse and a small sturdy little pony he had hired for her, and they took off at speed out of town, towards the distant mountain range.

Charlie and Ralf had taken Jess over to the foothills just beyond Cheyenne to lie low and await Millie’s arrival and although Jess had been in a bad way on the ride over he had recovered sufficiently to try and jump Charlie when Ralf was down at the creek washing.

However, unfortunately the tall outlaw arrived back just in the nick of time to defend his friend and Jess received another wallop over the head for his trouble, rendering him unconscious for most of the afternoon and when he finally came around he was dismayed to find his legs shackled with a heavy chain and his hands cuffed in front of him and a blindfold around his eyes.

“What the hell,” he swore as he came around, his head throbbing and then when he couldn’t see he thought he was blind for a split second, until he felt the bindings around his eyes and putting up a tentative hand he touched the tightly bound rag knotted around his head.

“Get yer hands down Harper,” spat Charlie, “time you learnt to toe the line, the wraps come off when I say so and not before,” and then he aimed a brutal kick at the young cowboy, making him reel in pain, all the worse for the shock of not seeing the blow coming.

After that he just lay on his side, unmoving and was still laying that way at dusk when Claude and Millie finally rode into the camp.

He heard the horses trotting in and then some cursory conversation in the distance between Claude and Ralf, and then he heard Millie call his name and then a scream.

He rolled over and tried to stand. He staggered for a moment before finally pulling himself up and tearing the blindfold off. There in front of him stood Millie, held in a vice like grip by Ralf, his hands digging into the soft flesh of her upper arms and she screamed again,” Get off me, let me go you big oaf, let me see Jess.”

“OK see him,” spat Ralf suddenly letting her go and projecting her forwards so that she fell against Jess.

He was unable to hold her in his arms because of the handcuffs, but she held him close and looked up into his anguished blue eyes,” It’s OK honey,” she whispered,” I don’t know what you’ve done, but it’s alright.”

“It ain’t,” he said with feeling,” it ain’t alright at all you shouldn’t be here Mill.”

But she hardly seemed to hear him as she saw the full extent of his injuries and put a hand up to his cheek, “Your poor face,” she whispered.

He just shook his head, his eyes never leaving hers,” I’m OK,” he said softly.

“Well sweet as this is, we’ve got some business to talk through,” said Ralf dryly.

“Jess, shook his head, no…… no business Ralf, you leave her alone, or like I said I’ll…..“

“Oh but Jess old buddy, we still have to come to an agreement about that little job I want you to do for me.”

Jess just stared at the older man, taking in his grey streaked hair, his pock marked face and then the steely glint in his eye.

His heart started beating faster and he broke out in a sweat and then it happened, so quickly he couldn’t have foreseen what was to occur.

One minute Millie was still standing beside him and the next Ralf had grabbed hold of her and spun her around to face him and then in one swift movement he gave her a stinging backhander across the face, cutting her lip and sending her sprawling to the ground.

“No!” Jess bellowed,” goddamn it Ralf leave her!”

He turned then with a triumphant look on his ugly face.

“Well Jess, will you do that little bit of business for me or do I have to teach this young lady another lesson?”

“I’ll do it,” Jess spat at once,” and so help me God I’ll get you for this too….”

“Yeah, sure you will,” snarled Jessop, grinning down at the chains binding Jess and then gave a grim laugh,” sure you will, but not right now buddy,” and with that he marched off leaving the two of them together.

Jess ran to her, as well as he could with the restriction of the shackles around his ankles, and dropped to his knees beside her,” Millie, sweetheart I’m so, so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” she whispered sitting up and taking his cuffed hands in her own, “it’s alright we’ll get through this as long as we stick together.”

Claude was sitting at a distance, but had a rifle trained on them, so they just sat down together, backs against and old fallen log and chatted softly, Millie still holding his hand and looking deep into his concerned blue eyes.

“What’s it all about,” she whispered, “what is this business he mentioned then?”

Jess filled her in about the plan for him to dupe the Sheriff and spring Jodie Jessop.

She shook her head vehemently, “You can’t Jess, he’s up for murder isn’t he, what would the law do if you helped him escape?”

He shook his head, “Stick me in jail and chuck away the key I guess,” he said bitterly,”but I ain’t got no choice.”

“What do you mean, just refuse?”

He looked down for a long time before replying softly,” That,” he gestured to where she was dabbing her bleeding lip with her handkerchief,” that was just for starters. I don’t do as they say and they’ll work you over good Millie, and that just ain’t gonna happen,” he said throwing her his stubborn look.

“If they so much as breathe heavy around you they’re dead meat,” he finished angrily.

“Jess hush,” she whispered,” you can’t do anything, not the way you are now,” she said glancing down at the chains that bound him.

“They won’t keep me this way for ever, I’ll get my chance, don’t you worry Mill, and they’ll get what’s comin’ to them for what they’ve done tonight.”

After a while Ralf sauntered over,”I figure you’d better bed down Jess, looks like you’ve got a busy day tomorrow.”

Jess glared at him,” I ain’t goin’ anywhere until you promise me you’ll treat this lady right, I want her to stay by me tonight and she needs some food and water and a blanket.”

“Well I really don’t think you’re in any position to make any deals here Jess…”

Then he looked down into those steely blue eyes and saw such blind fury in them that a shiver ran down his spine.

“OK Jess, as you say,” he replied after a minute,”we’ll care for the little lady just as long as you keep your part of the bargain tomorrow and you’ll ride out and fetch Jodie back.”

Jess head shot up and he scowled at the outlaw, “Said I would didn’t I?”

Jessop nodded thoughtfully, “Yeah that you did son and I guess I’ve never known you go back on your word, I’ll fetch you both some supper and then you turn in huh?” and he wandered off back to the others.

When he returned Jess asked for his bedroll from his saddle, it was late Spring but the ground still struck mighty cold and he could see Millie shivering already.

Ralf merely nodded and did as he was asked and made sure Millie was as comfortable as possible.

Chapter 3

The following morning Jess woke up with Millie in his arms.Ralf Jessop had finally removed the handcuffs when he brought their supper and blankets over.

“Figure I can cut you some slack Jess, but don’t even think of tryin’ to vamoose out of here because one of us will have a rifle trained on you all night long.”

Jess just nodded and accepted the food and blankets without any sarcastic comments as he really wanted Millie to be as comfortable as possible.

Knowing her so well he was concerned about her comfort; sure she had ridden when they were young, and suffered the same discomforts poverty brought, which they had all had to put up with back on the panhandle.

However her later years had brought much more sophistication and ease of living and she had once joked that she hadn’t taken up an offer of marriage, from one of her former beau’s and a place on the Wagon Train out West, as she would want to come back home as soon as she broke a finger nail.

Well Jess knew she had just been kidding, but also that the tough life out on the trail was really not to her liking and so now he tried to make it as easy as he could for her.

Once they had eaten and settled down, as well as they could with Jess still shackled and a rifle trained on them, albeit from afar, they started to discuss their predicament properly for the first time.

“I rode with Ralf, Charlie and his kid brother Jodie way back, never knew Claude then,” he explained quietly,”they were just a gang of wild men, someone to stay with. Yeah, they got into some trouble shooting up towns, gettin’ drunk, but nothin’ real bad and to be honest, after the war when I was alone I kinda craved the company, missed the other guys in my regiment”.

“Then things changed, they started really kicking off, robbing people… then one day Ralf killed a guy, just in cold blood Mill… for no good reason, ‘cept he were drunk and half crazy…and that’s when I lit out …didn’t wanna know anymore.”

“So what are you going to do?” she whispered.

“Exactly what they say,” he responded at once,” as long as you’re OK.”

“Jess you can’t, you really can’t, it goes against all you’ve worked for over the years, you’d be throwing away the trust, the whole life that you’ve worked so hard to get.”

“Yeah well that’s nothing compared to you, I figure a man has to make choices sometimes in his life,”….. …then he was silent for a long time.


“Well I reckon there is no choice,” he said turning his deep blue eyes on her,” I can’t… hell won’t take any risks where you’re concerned.”

“I’ll be OK Jess… “

“No, no you won’t, he’s desperate Millie, his brother’s life is at stake, and he ain’t messin’ here sweetheart, he’ll beat you up real bad or worse……. iffen I don’t do as he says, so there ain’t no discussion on it OK?” he said firmly.

“OK,” she whispered, seeing the stubborn look in his eyes again.

Then he pulled her close, “you alright, warm enough?”

“Yes,” she whispered as she cuddled up close, “now we’re together again I’m fine,” she said softly.

Then they lay there for a while, just holding each other, before she continued.

“Everyone is so worried about you back in Laramie you know Jess, you just disappearing without trace that way… “

He looked upset,” I’m so darn sorry about that, just couldn’t help it, I was caught unawares… I was so dang stupid, but then, well I just thought that big galoot Slim was in trouble, that’s how they tricked me.”

“It’s OK honey, everyone will realize it wasn’t your fault as soon as we get free….”

“Um… but will they?” he said to himself, knowing what the gang expected of him in the morning.


Jess and Ralf rode out shortly after dawn leaving Charlie and Claude watching Millie.

Just before they rode out Jess cast the couple a murderous look and said quietly, but menacingly, “she’d better be OK when I ride back in or so help me I’ll kill you both.”

The men’s gaze swivelled from Jess to Ralf, fear in their eyes.

“Don’t you worry about the little lady Ralf reassured him, she’ll be as safe as if she was my dear old Ma… all you need to worry about is getting the job done.”

Jess nodded,” Come on then let’s get to it, ”he said briskly as he kicked Traveler on, out of the camp and towards the dreadful deception he knew he must commit in Cheyenne.

He had known the current Sheriff in Cheyenne Doug Masters for several years and the two men had always got on well and worked together on several occasions with Jess even deputizing for him a few times and they had always watched each other’s backs.

Jess had even saved the Sheriff’s life at one stage although Jess being Jess had always played this down and said it could have equally gone either way.

So now as he rode reluctantly into town he felt pretty much as bad as he had ever done,almost as bad as if he had been duping Mort or even Slim.

Ralf stayed back on the edge of town and as Jess left he said,” Get to it boy, you do this right ……or else your pretty little girl won’t be so pretty anymore Jess…not with a knife run down that sweet little face.”

Jess made to lunge at him, but the rifle was there pointing at his guts,” Hey simmer down boy,she’ll be just fine as long as you do what you have to…understand?”

Jess just nodded grimly and kicked Traveler on down Main Street.

He tethered him outside the Sheriff’s office and strode into find Doug busily cleaning his rifle, but he put it down immediately when Jess entered and with a face wreathed in smiles said, “ Hello stranger, so how’re you doin’ Jess and what brings you to these part?”

Jess tried to summon up a genuine smile, feeling sick to his stomach at this subversion, and said, ”Well buddy I’m on official business come to collect your prisoner, a guy called err… Jodie… Jessop?”

The Sheriff looked a little surprised and the said,” Sure you can have him, but I thought Lon or Mort was collecting him next week?”

The he suddenly registered the horrific bruising to Jess’s face and sucking in a deep breath said, “Hell buddy you’ve sure been in the wars, so what happened?”

Jess thought quickly and then said,” Yeah, well I guess I have Doug and Lon is laid up worse than me. A big ruckus with some drovers in the saloon. Mort’s stuck in town on his own with Lon no use right now, so I offered to get the prisoner seeing as I was down this way on business anyway.”

“Say that’s mighty kind of you,” said Doug, “so you got the papers?”

Jess’s heart missed a beat and he broke out in a cold sweat… “Papers…… well, sure I know I should have waited for them Doug, but truth was I was in such an all fired hurry to get to my meeting here… about a mustanging deal I clean forgot to get them from Mort…. I figured it wouldn’t matter seeing as how you know me so well?”

The Sheriff looked concerned for a moment and then his face broke into a friendly grin,” Sure, sure Jess, iffen you can’t trust friends then who can you trust, eh buddy?”

Jess just nodded in agreement, but his heart plummeted, and he couldn’t remember a time when he felt worse , the whole deal and what it meant, going totally against all he had tried to achieve over the last few years.

The Sheriff went straight away to collect the prisoner, ”I guess you’ll want to be getting off,” he said,“and the prisoners horse is in the livery, you’re riding back then Jess?”

“Yeah, thought it would be quicker, I’m pretty busy at the ranch right now you see Doug.”

“Sure, sure I understand buddy, just say howdy to Mort when you land back and tell poor old Lon, I hope he’s better soon.”

Jess ducked his head in affirmative and grabbing hold of the prisoners arm held it firmly and pushing him roughly out towards the door said, “Sure I will Doug, talk soon,” and left quickly.

Once they were mounted and on their way out of town Jodie turned to Jess and said” Thanks Jess, long time no see… but hell buddy I’ve never been happier to see anyone that’s for sure.”

Then turning anxious eyes on his old friend said quickly,” I am right ain’t I Jess, you have come to spring me… not take me back to Laramie?”

Jess just hung his head and said desolately,…..” Yeah, I came to spring yer.”

When he arrived back at the camp he jumped down from Traveler and ran to where Millie was sitting quietly by the fire.

She stood up when he came over and ran into his arms.

“You OK?”

“Yes, glad to see you back though,” she said with feeling.

“Yeah, well let’s go saddle your pony, we’re out of here.”

Then Ralf came over an arm slung protectively around his younger brother and a big grin on his face, but he pulled himself free, his hand hovering over his gun and the grin faded from his face when he heard what Jess said.

“Oh no you don’t Jess, you and the little lady aren’t going any place.”

Jess head shot up and he cursed the fact that although Ralf had given him his iron back it was filled with blanks as were the bullets on his belt, purely for show.

“What you sayin’?” he asked gruffly, his eyes narrowing.

“Just that you and Millie are our insurance out of here if a posse catches up with us anytime. I guess they won’t be doing much shooting iffen we put the lady up front of us.”

“So you expect us to go all the way to Canada with you?” asked Jess throwing him an incredulous look.

“Yeah, I expect just that Jess, and who knows you might remember just who your real friends are in time and join up with the old gang again. It’s a whole new world up there buddy, banks to rob, people to con and nobody will know us… rich pickings I guess.”

Jess just turned away and cussed and then looked back at him,” You’re crazy, you know that?” he whispered.

All the time they had been talking Jodie had been weighing up Millie and now he came forwards and stood really close to her before reaching out and running a finger gently down her cheek.

“Well ain’t you a little beauty,” he said softly, “I figure you and me are goin’ to get real well acquainted on our trip honey.”

Jess was enraged,” Leave her alone Jodie,” he spat.

Jodie turned a mild look on Jess, “Huh?”

“I said,” yelled Jess moving in between Millie and Jodie, his furious face inches from the younger man,” I said leave her alone.”

Jodie stared back, now slightly uncertain, his eyes flicking from Jess to Millie and back,” She your woman then Jess?”

Jess turned and looked at Millie and then back and said quietly, “Yes she’s my woman now back off.”

Jodie put his hands up in a gesture of submission, “OK , OK Jess no need to get riled,” and he wandered off to the fire to get some coffee.

Then Jess turned back to Ralf the light of reason in his eyes,” Come on Ralf you can’t really expect us to traipse all the way to the goddamn border with you”.

Ralf just shook his head and grinned, “I said so didn’t I Jess boy,” and then he suddenly sobered and walking slowly over to Millie he put a finger under her chin and tipped her head back, viewing the bruise to her cheek that he had inflicted on her arrival.

“Like I said before, unless you want this pretty little lady to be scarred for life you’ll do exactly as I say.”

Jess turned and was about to swing a punch, but Ralf drew like lightening, “and I don’t have to remind you you’re loaded with blanks do I boy,” he said laughing before he holstered his gun and wandered off to sit with his brother.

Jess took Millie’s elbow and walked her over to the log where they had spent the night, noticing as he went that Claude had been obviously told to watch them and saw he had his rifle trained in their direction, albeit unobtrusively.

“Was it awful?” she asked her concerned brown eyes scanning his face.

He ducked his head, looking down at his clasped hands.

“Just the worst, lying to old Doug that way… hell I feel just terrible Mill.”

She reached out and took one of his hands in her own, “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, “this is all my fault, if I hadn’t been so darned gullible this would never have happened.”

He shook his head, “Hush honey, none of this is your fault, come here,” and he threw a comforting arm around her shoulders.

Shortly afterwards Ralf marched over, “Are you sure you convinced the Sheriff you were heading for Laramie then?”

“Sure I did,” said an angry Jess, “couldn’t afford not to could I?”

“Um, let’s just hope he doesn’t wire Mort Corey to check your story, and anyways we’re gonna have to move it because come tomorrow when you don’t land with the prisoner it will only be a matter of time before they smell a rat.”

They headed out almost immediately riding due north as Ralf had a plan. They were to head north a ways and then Claude would remain behind and remove their tracks, then they would turn due west bypassing Laramie and Rawlins by several miles before heading back up towards Casper and then north up through Montana and on towards the distant boarder.

They rode for several days until they were in the foothills just to the north of Rawlins and as the days wore on, and they put more miles between themselves and Laramie the worse Jess felt. He also hated to see the effect the hard riding was having on Millie, she was saddle sore and exhausted and he knew that somehow he had to liberate her if they were ever going to get out of the dreadful situation they found themselves in. He really couldn’t see her making it all the way to the Canadian border and he worried in case she got sick or took a tumble from her horse and so as they rode on, he slowly tried to formulate a plan.

He knew they would be passing within a day’s ride of Rawlins shortly, where he had a good friend in the Sheriff there, Red Smith who would look after Millie for him, but Jess was very unsure as to what his reception would be, as now it would be known to all that Jess Harper was riding on the wrong side of the law once again. Then he still had the problem of how to get Millie away from the group who seemed to constantly have the couple under surveillance day and night.

So it was with incredible luck that they ran into a small group of mountain men, later that day, heading off towards their home up in the distant hills. At first when they spied them in the distance Ralf was very wary, but whenJess said he recognised them and they were the last people to have anything to do with the law and would certainly not be running off to report the sighting of Jess and the Jessop gang,he relaxed some.

“Look Ralf, they’re more likely to cut up rough iffen I just ride on by and don’t stop and pass the time of day with them, maybe do a little trading.”

“Trading,” asked Ralf raising a quizzical eyebrow, “now would that be the sort of trading I think you mean?”

Jess grinned at him and tapping his nose with his finger said, “You wait here I’ll go and see what I can do,” and he kicked Traveler off to a fast trot, leaving the others waiting for him.

He knew perfectly well that what he had told Ralf was true, old Denver James and his boys wouldn’t care if Billy the Kid was riding past and would no more dob him in to the Sheriff than sell their granny,so he knew it was useless asking for their help, however they did possess something that might just benefit him in another way.

Jess reined his horse in and nodded to the tall old man dressed from head to toe in buckskin and to his two sons.

“Howdy Denver, boys, good ter see you.”

“Why Jess Harper what are you doin’ in these parts boy?” asked Denver giving Jess a toothless grin.

“Oh just huntin’ with some buddies, but to be honest Denver we’re gettin’ kinda dry, wondered iffen you’d got any of yer supplies with you?”

“My supplies you’re after is it then boy,” he said with a wicked wink,” well I hope you’re not keeping company with any of your lawmen friends right now are you?”

“Oh yeah, you can be pretty sure that I ain’t,” said Jess with irony.

“Good, good, yes well I do have a few bottles on me as it happens if you’ve got some cash?”

“Sure, sure I got the money.”

“Well then how many would you like then son?”

“I reckon about four bottles should do it,” he said thoughtfully, then noticing Denver’s raised eyebrow,” err, hit the spot that is,” he finished giving the mountain man his shy smile.

The deal was done and the men shook hands before making off in different directions, Jess returning to the gang with his booty.

“Well Jess boy sure ain’t no flies on you,” said Ralf beaming across as Jess showed him what he’d bought.

“Well, I’ve done me some thinkin’ and I’ve kinda decided maybe it makes sense to side with you, after all we had some real good times in the past, see I figure maybe we’ll seal the deal, me coming back into the gang,”he said beaming across at the men and holding a bottle aloft to make his point.

Then he heard a little cry of shock from behind him and turned to see Millie’s devastated gaze, “Jess no,” she whispered.

“Hey you’re my woman ain’t you,” he said harshly,” just get used to it, we’re ridin’ with the Jessops and that’s an end to it,” he spat before turning back to Ralf.

“I guess we’ll crack a couple of these open tonight to celebrate, huh?” he asked raising a questioning eyebrow at the outlaw.

“Sounds swell,” smiled Ralf, and the men rode off leaving Millie staring after them tears brimming in her deep brown eyes.

It was about an hour later when they finally decided to stop for the night and once the camp fire had been built up and a scratch meal consumed the men really got stuck into the hill whiskey and they were all soon two parts drunk, with Jess looking by far the worse for wear.

The laughter, tall stories and banter went on long into the night with Millie sitting away from the men, just staring at Jess not wanting to believe what she was seeing.

He seemed to have reverted to the wild, crazy boy he had been all those years ago, when he was for ever in trouble, walking a tightrope between law and order and the darker side of life, and looking at him now she felt a deep sadness at this lapse.

How had this happened, one minute he had seemed to be her kind loving friend, deeply concerned about lying to an old buddy and now he had changed into someone she hardly recognised as he laughed and joked with his former gang members.

Once Ralf and the others had seen how much Jess was enjoying their company, not to mention the illicit spirit, they finally let their guard down andstarted treating him as one of them again, as the laughter became more abandoned andthe jokes more risqué.

After a couple of hours the men finally began to feel the effects of the strong liquor and one by one they fell into a drink induced sleep by the warm fire.

Millie, who had been sitting in the shadows, shuddered and watched as Jess finally got up and made his way towards her and she wondered what he would expect from her in his inebriated state.

It was with great surprized then that he came over and collapsed down beside her and said in a perfectly sober voice, “Gee sweetheart I’m so dang sorry about that.”

She leaned forwards and could barely even smell the drink on him.

“Jess are you OK are you sober?” she asked in surprise.

“Sure I am,” he said with a grin, “hardly touched a drop all night.”

And then taking her hand he said again, “I’m real sorry the way I acted before, see thing is I couldn’t tell you what I was doin’ as I wanted you to act real shocked … like you were real upset about me joining the gang again.”

She just stared at him open mouthed.

“Well I don’t have to pretend I am real upset, hell Jess I just can’t believe you’d act this way, what would Slim say and Daisy, heck little Mike what are you playing at…….I just can’t believe it, that you’d join the gang again,” she said, tears once more forming in her eyes.

“Well good,” he said stoutly,” because I ain’t.”


“I was just kidding, I had to get them to trust me, and then get them real drunk so you and I can get outer here, right now,” and pulling her to her feet he made towards their mounts.

“You mean, you’re not really riding with them again?” she said her eyes shining.

“Of course I ain’t what do yer take me for Mill?”

“I’m sorry, I’m just so confused, you were such a good actor, you really had me believing it all.”

“Well good and they did too, so come on sweetheart let’s get you back to Rawlins.”

“And you,” she said casting him an anxious glance,” you will be with me won’t you?”

“Sure, sure I will,”he said quickly, taking her elbow and hurrying her towards their mounts, but she failed to see the look of sadness in his eyes as he rushed her along.

They arrived in Rawlins at first light and seeing a light still burning in the Sheriff’s office made their way directly there, Jess’s mouth dry, fearing the sort of reception he would receive from his old friend.

When they entered Red looked up from where he was sitting, feet up on the desk, enjoying the first coffee of the day.

When he saw Jess his eyes lit up in friendship and then he remembered the wire he had received just the day before and the friendly smile was replaced by a wary look.

“Jess… hey Jess boy you OK? “

Jess came in and sank down on a chair opposite the desk, Millie sitting next to him and taking his hand as though to try and offer support.

“No I ain’t Smitty and that’s the truth.”

Then he explained everything that had happened how he had been duped in the first place and abducted, and then how they had used Millie as a lever to force him to toe the line and spring Jodie Jessop and how terrible he had felt about betraying his friend Doug Masters, the Cheyenne Sheriff.

Red seemed to visibly relax,” I figured it must be something like that, but looky here Jess, you’re in big trouble buddy,” he said as he passed a wanted posted over the desk to him.

Jess just nodded.

“Well I figure it ain’t the first time I’ve been on one of those.”

Red just shook his head sadly, “ so what are you figuring on doing, I believe you buddy but I guess the law will need some proof that you didn’t just up and spring Jessop.”

“Yeah I figured that, that’s why I’m going back.”

Millie and Red spoke in unison.



“I’m going back to the camp Red, they trust me now ,I can get close to them and then when their guard is down I’ll take ‘em, bring ‘em back in.”

The Sheriff shook his head,” No Jess you can’t do that the odds are against you, four to one you’d never do it, let me get a posse up we’ll ride in after them.”

Jess shook his head,” They’re too darned smart they’d be off afore you got close and they’d be blood loss on your side as well as theirs, no Red you’ve gotta let me do it my way, besides it’s Sunday ain’t it, by the time you get everyone out of Church and a posse formed they’ll be long gone, the only way is for me to ride back now, get there while they’re still sleeping the grog off, that way they won’t realised I’ve seen you and …. anyway….“


“Well it’s down to me ain’t it, I feel I’ve gotta make amends for what I’ve done.”

“But you had no choice Jess, I know that.”

“Sure you do, but maybe you’re kinda bias being a buddy and all,” he said with a tired smile.

Millie had sat silently through all this talk and now she turned to Jess the tears streaming down her pretty face,” No please Jess, please don’t go back.”

“I’ve got to sweetheart, I’m sorry, “he said and rose,” and I ‘ve gotta go now, ain’t fair on Red to hang about here, he gets caught helping me, well I guess that makes him equally guilty in the eyes of the law.”

Then he looked over at Red and could see how worried he looked,” You are goin’ ter let me go ain’t yer Red,” he said softly,” You do really believe in me … don’t you?”

His buddy held his gaze for a good minute before coming over and shaking his hand.”You really need to ask?Sure I do Jess, you just get the Hell outer here before anyone sees you though, OK, and good luck.”

Jess nodded his thanks.

“Oh and Jess technically Claude and Charlie aren’t wanted for anything right now, they’ve paid their debt, both not long out of prison.”

Then he shook his head,” But the other two, well Jodie is up for murder and I just heard last week so is his brother, Ralf, he killed a woman in Texas last month, so I reckon they’ve both got a date with the hang man sooner or later.”

Jess pulled his hat down hard, “I’ll get ’em Red, don’t you worry.”

Then he turned to Millie and ran a finger gently down her cheek, the look of love in his eyes and the simple intimacy making Red turn away, feeling like an interloper.

Then he took her in his arms and kissed her very tenderly,” I swear I’ll come back to you as soon as I can… just get home to Laramie and explain it all ter Slim for me will ya… please sweetheart…. OK?”

She just nodded unable to speak.

“Take care of her will yer Red?”

“Sure buddy, watch your back Jess and I’ll wait to hear from you.”

“Thanks Smitty, I won’t forget this….” And then he was gone.

Chapter 4

The days immediately after Jess went missing were very difficult at the ranch as they all missed their friend so much, the worry fired by the fact that they had no notion of where he was and what sort of trouble he was in, hell if he was even still alive, making it all the harder to bear.

Slim had made several more sorties out towards the lake to where the trail seemed to be leading but found no further clues and then his time was taken up with doing the work of two, loathed as he was to buy extra help in as Jess had suggested in his note.

So it was almost a week later when he finally rode into town again to see if Mort had heard any news, but before that he called into the Saloon to do likewise with Millie, knowing that if it was humanly possible for Jess to get a message to her then he would, even if it was just a short note like he had received.

It was early and still quiet when he entered and Tom was behind the bar idly polishing glasses, but he came over with a raised eyebrow as soon as he saw his friend.

“Morning Slim, kinda early for you ain’t it?” he said with his friendly grin.

“Well I’m not here for a drink Tom, just wanted a quick word with Millie if she’s around.”

The smile faded from the older man’s face at the mention of his chief barmaid.

“Well I’ll tell you Slim I’m real worried about our Millie, real worried.”

“Oh, how so?”

“Well she got this wire from her Ma see, saying as how she was real sick and could Millie get herself over to Cheyenne pronto.”

“Yeah, well her Ma does suffer with her health some I know, so what’s the problem?”

“Well she went off real upset, so a couple of days later I wired her Ma to check how she was, see when Millie would be heading back and then … well I got a reply just today, seems Millie never arrived and her old Ma is fit as a flea, save for the worry about her daughter that is.”

“Old Mose helped her down from the Stage and then he saw her chatting to this guy and next time he looked up she’d plain disappeared into thin air. Well Mose thought no more of it, thought it was just a relative come to fetch her.”

Slim sucked in a deep breath,” Hell … does Mort know?”

“Yeah, just come back from telling him, he’s gonna wire Sheriff Masters, but that’s all he can do really.”

“Thanks Tom,” and Slim left and strode across to Mort’s office.

The grey haired Sheriff smiled in welcome and tipped his head to the coffee pot,and Slim went and helped himself before returning and sitting down on the chair opposite the desk.

“So any sign of your recalcitrant partner?” he asked grinning.

“Nope, that’s why I’m here Mort, I wondered if you’d any news?”

Mort shook his head, “Nah, sorry.”

Then giving his friend a speculative look said, “You know Millie is missing too?”

“Yeah,I just heard.”

Then after a moment, he said quietly, “You don’t think the two things are somehow connected do you Mort?”

The sheriff pushed his hat back and gave Slim a thoughtful look,” I was just wondering that myself… don’t think they’ve eloped do you?” he said with a grin.

Slim shook his head at once, ”Hell no, he wouldn’t do that, he knows Miss Daisy would skin him alive if she missed the wedding of the centenary,” he said returning Mort’s smile.

Then he sobered,” Unless….”


“No… nothing.”


“Well,” he said softly, “unless she was in the family way, then they might run off together. Jess not wanting her to be talked about, go through the shame….…. But no, he wouldn’t put us through all this he’d have told me, at least, before he took off.”

Mort nodded, “No, it looks to me like we were right the first time and he’s been taken off against his will… but where or why, well that sure is a mystery.”

They were just sipping their second coffee when the door banged open and Lon breezed in.

Mort’s head shot up when he saw his deputy was alone and peered behind him,” Well you took you’re time anyone would think I’d sent you down to Mexico not just Cheyenne,” and looking behind Lon again said,” And where’s the dang prisoner.”

Lon looked acutely embarrassed , especially when he saw Slim sitting there, but he turned his eyes back to his boss and said quietly, “You ain’t gonna like this Mort,” and his eyes flicked anxiously back to Slim and then downwards.

“Well go on, spit it out boy, and don’t tell me you’ve lost him?”

Lon looked up again and flushed angrily,” No I ain’t boss… he’s been sprung!”


“Yeah….” Lon swallowed deeply hardly daring to continue, but knowing he had no choice.

“Yeah,he’s been sprung by… Jess, by Jess Harper, Mort.”

Then turning troubled eyes onto his good friend said, “I’m real sorry Slim.”

Both men just stared in shocked amazement.

After a moment Mort said,” Are you sure Lon?”

“Oh I’m sure,” and he went on to tell the whole sorry tale that had been related to him by the sheriff.

“ Sheriff Masters is so dang mad, well more upset really as to how Jess had duped him, just kept shaking his head and saying ‘I thought I knew the boy I really did,’ he’s real unhappy.”

“Um, I bet he is,” said Mort, reeling from this latest news himself.

Then he turned to look at Slim who looked very pale and shaken.

“You don’t believe this of him do you Mort?” he asked his eyes pleading.

“What can I think?”

Then he asked Lon to explain exactly what had happened again and both men sat and contemplated the evidence.

“So did Jess know the Jessops at all?” asked Mort.

Slim hung his head and was silent for so long that Mort thought he wouldn’t answer.

“Yes,” Slim finally whispered,” he knew them alright, rode with them once.”

But then his head shot up and he stared angrily at Mort,” But that was one hell of a long time ago Mort, he’s changed now, he wouldn’t go and take up with them again, I just know he wouldn’t.”

Mort just shook his head sadly,” I agree with you Slim, but the evidence is there for all to see, he’s sprung a murderer and if he’s in league with his older brother Ralf, well I’ve just got a wanted poster out on him too… wanted for murdering a woman down in Mexico. Hell Slim if he’s with them he’ll have every lawman and bounty hunter in the country lookin’ out for him, he’ll have no chance.”

Slim just ducked his head in despair and said no more.


He returned to the ranch knowing full well that he must tell Daisy and Mike before anyone else got there first, and so it was with a heavy heart that he entered the ranch house later that morning.

It was a Saturday andas Mike was off school he had been helping Daisy bake some cookies and was in high spirits when Slim marched in throwing his hat on the hook by the door and making for the coffee pot on the stove.

Mike started telling him excitedly about how they’d baked some cookies and he was just sure Jess would be real pleased when he came home and how he was sure it wouldn’t be too long now…

Daisy cast one look as the man she fondly thought of as her older son and her heart missed a beat, such was the look of despair in his eyes as he turned to look at her and the boy.

She instinctively put a protective arm around Mike’s shoulders and said softly,” Slim whatever is it?”

He took his cup and went and sat down by the kitchen table and gestured for her to do likewise.

“Is it Jess ,”whispered Mike his little face suddenly troubled,” is he hurt Slim?”

Slim shook his head,” No… no he’s fine Tiger, as far as I know that is…. But well he’s got himself in a bit of trouble.”

“Go on,” said Daisy, hardly daring to breathe.

He sighed deeply,” I’ve got to tell you this because I guess the whole of the town will be talking about it by now… and the school,” he said throwing Mike a sad look.

Then patting the boys arm he said gently,” But you’re to pay no mind to what they say about him, you understand Mike?”

The child looked puzzled,” So what are they saying he’s done? “

Slim looked the boy in the eyes, “They’re saying he’s sprung Jodie Jessop and he’s riding out with him and the Jessop gang. “

Daisy took a shocked breath, her hand shooting to her mouth, “No”… she whispered,” he wouldn’t… I don’t believe a word of it….”

“It’s true alright Daisy, he conned Sheriff Masters into handing the prisoner over, said he was fetching him for Mort and thenjust rode out… disappeared without trace. That was over a week ago and nobody has seen him since.”

Then Mike suddenly yelled ,” He didn’t do that, he wouldn’t and I’ll deck anyone that says different!”

Then Slim took the tearful angry boy in his arms and held him close as he cried in anger and frustration, not being able to come to terms with the fact that his hero seemed to have turned bad.

“No you won’t Mike,” Slim said after a while,” that’s not what Jess would want, no fighting, you just walk away from the gossip and then Jess will explain the truth of it all when he comes home.”

Thenthe boy’s eyes shone with the light of hope.

“He will?”

“Sure he will, now you go fetch your fishing line and we’ll go down to the creek for an hour or so before supper,”and the boy ran off happy enough with this unexpected diversion.

Daisy turned sad eyes on the blond rancher slumped in his chair, all pretense of hope drained from him now the boy had left.

“So do you believe that,” she asked softly,” he will come home and explain?”

He turned anguished eyes up to her,” I really don’t know Daisy, I sure hope so, I can’t give up on him… I just can’t , not after all this time, I can’t… no I won’t believe this of him, there must be a good reason.”

“I agree with you whole heatedly my dear, and we must hold strong for the boy’s sake.”

He nodded,” It’s going to be tough for him hearing Jess’s reputation torn to shreds… for us all,” he said softly.

Then he patted her arm gently,” But I do still believe in him Daisy no matter what, I believe he’ll come through in the end….”

However it was the cool, calm, patient Slim who got into a scrap over the situation rather than Mike, who behaved immaculately, walking away from the gossips as he’d been told.

It was just a few days later when Slim was having a quiet drink with Tom and commiserating the fact that there was still no news of Millie when a couple of trouble makers from the Bar H ranch came in and immediately started taunting Slim about his’ jail bait partner.’

“I always knew that Harper was no good ,”said Wes to his friend,” for all his high faulting ways, bein’ friends with the Sheriff and all, well he reverted to type in the end, no good Texan scum, that’s what he always was.”

Slim roared in anger and knocked the man for six and was just about to do the same to his buddy when Mort came by and stopped the fight , taking Slim off back to the office with him.

“So what are you going to do Mort, lock me up, reckon I’ve taken after my, ‘no good Texan scum partner’ do you?” he yelled belligerently.

“Now come on Slim, simmer down,there’s no need to be this way,” said Mort placatingly,” you really aren’t helping Jess by getting into this sort of scrap you know, he really wouldn’t expect it of you, of all people.”

Slim slumped down on a chair, all the fight drained from him, “Yeah, I know Mort and I’m real sorry.”

The he turned his eyes up to his friend, the light of battle back in them,” I’m just so dang frustrated, don’t know how to sort all this out for him.”

“Well, you can’t buddy,” said Mort gently, turning and sitting himself, “I guess neither of us can, we’ll just have to wait until he comes to his senses and comes home.”

“You sound like you think he wants to be out on the trail with that low life Jessop,” spat Slim, suddenly angry again.

Mort just shook his head sadly,” I don’t know what to think, maybe he is being held against his will… but Jess being Jess will get himself out of it , if that is the case. I guess we’ve just got to wait and see what happens and in the meantime you try and keep out of trouble,” he said casting his friend a warning look.

“Yes Mort,”said Slim softly, and he rode out of town some time later swearing to himself that he wouldn’t return until the matter had been resolved one way or the other.


As it happened he was to have the answers to some of his questions sooner rather than later.

It was just a couple of days later when the Stage rattled into the yard with Mose beaming down at the tall blond rancher as he came out to change the team.

“Got a real special passenger on board,” he said grinning down from the box.

Slim raised a questioning eyebrow and went around the side of the Stage and on pulling the door open stood there his face suddenly wreathed in smiles as he contemplated the passenger within.

Then he reached out and helped her down before holding her tightly in his arms,” Millie, thank God you’re safe,”he whispered.

Then he pushed her gently away so that he could look at her properly and noticed the slight bruising to her cheek and the agitated look in her eyes.

“We have to talk,” she said softly, casting a quick glance over to where Mose was making a start on changing the team,” in private, “she whispered.

“Sure, you go on inside Millie, get Daisy to give you a coffee and I’ll be in as soon as Mose is on his way.”

Ten minutes later Daisy and Slim were sitting around the table, their coffee forgotten and all eyes on Millie.

“Well,” asked Slim, “what happened to you Millie, Tom and your Ma have been real worried.”

“It’s OK I wired Ma from Rawlins,” she said quickly.

“Rawlins,” Daisy said in surprise,” what on earth were you doing over there dear? “

“I was with Jess…”

“Jess,” yelped Slim in surprise, “you’ve seen him then?”

Then she explained all about the events of the last couple of weeks and Daisy finally broke down in tears, Slim feeling pretty close to doing the same, as he said,” So he did it all for you then Mill, to keep you safe?”

She nodded,” I feel just terrible, but those men were desperate, Jess knew what they had done to him and the thought of me getting some of the same…..well he just couldn’t face it. He had to go and dupe Sheriff Masters, but he was almost sick with the shame of it later, he felt just terrible.”

“So they beat him,” asked Daisy,” did they hurt him badly?”

Millie looked down unable to meet her elderly friend’s candid gaze.

“Please dear tell me,” she said softly.

Finally Millie looked up, “Yes,” she whispered,” they nearly killed him. He refused to do as they said before I arrived and Ralf said they had beaten him to with an inch of his life, poor Jess,” she finished, fresh tears coursing down her cheeks again.

Then she looked over to Slim, “Jess was adamant that you shouldn’t say anything about Sheriff Smith’s involvement. You see he should really have arrested Jess… but he believed in him, trusted him to go and round up the Jessops and vindicate himself I guess.”

“What!” exploded Slim, “you mean he was in the safety of the Sheriff’s office and he went back out again to try and arrest those hoodlums?”

She nodded, “Red Smith tried to talk him out of it, but Jess figured he’d have a better chance of bringing them in as they trusted him, said by the time the Sheriff had raised a posse they’d be long gone. He said it was down to him to sort it all out…….. But he also said you mustn’t tell anyone where he was, just to trust him to deal with it all and clear his name.”

Slim just shook his head,” Darned stubborn mule head, why won’t he accept any help?”

“He just didn’t want to get anyone else into trouble or hurt, especially you,he said he thought it was his problem, no one else’s.”

“Yeah, that would be about right,” sighed Slim.

“Oh Slim dear what are you going to do?” asked Daisy turning troubled eyes on him.

He reached over and taking her hand squeezed it gently,” I think you know what I have to do Daisy……”

Chapter 5

Jess made good time back to the camp and he was pleased to see that all the men were still slumbering peacefully around the camp fire.

He wasn’t unduly surprised through when they finally awoke and cracked open another bottle to top up their breakfast coffee.

Jess turned it down when the bottle was passed his way however.

“Can’t beat it for dusting the cobwebs away boy,” said Ralf grinning across at him, “hair of the old dog yer remember?”

Jess nodded sure he remembered the wild ways of the old days when a hair of the dog would lead to another all day drinking spree.

Ralf looked muzzily around him, “So where’s yer wench gone then Jess?”

The moment Jess had been dreading had arrived, but he steeled himself and said casually,” we had a big bust up last night, she figured she didn’t wanna ride with us so I told her to git goin’.”

Ralf threw him a speculative look,” You did that huh?”

“Said so didn’t I?” spat Jess angrily,” two a penny women, there’ ll be another along.”

Jodie looked up in surprise,” I thought she was your woman Jess, you sure seemed real close.”

“Yeah, well I thought so too,” said Jess bitterly,” but she didn’t want any part of this, so she’s out.”

“You mean you chose us over your girl?” asked Jodie in surprise.

“Sure I did,” said Jess grinning openly now, “like I said women come an’ go… but buddies… well I guess that’s something different.”

Ralf’s face relaxed into a huge smile,” well, it sure is good to have you back on board Jess… I thought you’d changed… but not that much it seems, not deep down.”

Charlie Winter who had been sitting contemplating his coffee looked over then and smiled at Jess, “Good to see you’re back,” he laughed,” hell I remember the time you had a different girl every night Jess, that’s the way you wanna be buddy.”

Jess nodded,” Sure that’s the way I wanna be,” he agreed, even though the thought of Millie being so far away was breaking his heart.

Shortly afterwards they took off, heading due north for Casper, then they would make for Montana and all points north to the border.

As they rode on through the rocky landscape Jess got the impression that there was some bad feeling amongst the men and not just because they all had sore heads from the previous nights over indulgences either.

Jess decided to use this possible divide to his advantage and when Jodie and Ralf were away picking something off for supper, he decided to make his move.

The men were sitting around the fire, the late afternoon having turned chilly, for spring, and after a while Jess said innocently enough,” I’m surprized you two are seein’ this one out.”

Immediately Charlie’s head shot up and he said.” what do you mean Jess?”

“Well those two,” he said tipping his hat to where the brothers had recently left the camp on their hunting sortie,“have got a noose waitin’ on them, but as I understand it, well you two are free men right now ain’t yer… just surprized yer willin’ ter take the risk, amount of interest they’ll be from bounty hunters and the like.”

Claude threw Charlie a concerned look,” Yeah, I guess he’s right Charlie, hell I only joined this outfit because I knew you, and you promised I’d have a good life,but reckon I’m about ready to cash my chips in, don’t reckon much to Canada anyways, too darned cold.”

Charlie took a swig from the bottle that was doing the rounds again and looked thoughtfully into the fire.

“Um… maybe you’ve got a point there,” he said looking morose,” guess I’ll sleep on it.”

“So what about you Jess, why are you staying around?” he asked suddenly casting the dark haired cowboy a quizzical look.

“Well I ain’t got much choice,” said Jess dryly,” seein’ as how I’m wanted fer springing Jodie, may as well cut my losses and try out Canada, might be easy pickin’s like ol’ Ralf says.”

Matters weren’t helped by the return of the brothers, with nothing but a couple of scrawny rabbits between the four men and then they found the bottle had been drained during their absence, causing a major argument.

As they finally turned in that night, still muttering veiled threats, Jess smiled to himself, what had that old Major said in the war…divide and conquer, that was it, and he turned over and fell into a deep sleep, feeling positive for the first time in weeks.

The following morning when he awoke his prayers had been answered and Charlie and Claude had lit out at first light, taking the pack mule and a couple of rifles with them and Ralf was incensed with fury when he realized what had happened and was all for going after them.

However Jess’s voice of reason finally won through as he said how the three of them could travel lighter and faster without the others. Then he played his trump card,” I guess the grog will go further too, once I catch up with old Denver and fetch us some more.”

That was the clinching argument and the camp broke, the men pushing on for Casper, all thoughts of their recalcitrant buddies forgotten.

So now with it being two to one Jess figured the odds were far better and so he was just waiting for the right time to take them.

They continued on through the mountainous terrain, the travelling taking all their energy and Jess was beginning to wonder when the best time to strike would be, when suddenly fate seemed to be on his side.

They were riding through a deep ravine when suddenly Jodie who was riding ahead came a cropper off his horse.

The critter was unpredictable as Jess had already noted, but a real pretty Paint, which Jess knew was Jodie’s weakness, caring more about the look of his beast than its temperament.

He lay there in the dirt the skittish critter fussin’ and finally taking off, after it had been spooked by nothing more than a harmless piece of blowing tumbleweed.

Jess and Ralf rode over at speed, and as Ralf threw himself from the saddle to check on his winded kid brother, Jess took the opportunity to draw on them.

Once it was established that Jodie wasn’t hurt ,Ralf stood up and dusted himself off, then turned to Jess, who was still mounted and said, “No harm done……” but then he suddenly saw the look in the dark haired cowboy’s eyes, and the gun trained on them.

Jess had his rifle levelled at them and said quietly, but menacingly,” Hell, you didn’t really think I’d changed that much did you boys…...did you really think I’d give up everything I’d fought for justto fall back on the wrong side of the law and throw in my lot with you again?”

Ralf looked at him in disbelieve,” You’re one hell of a good actor, that’s fer sure boy, I believed yer”.

Just for a moment Jess felt a wave of remorse, yes he had duped his former friends, but what other way was there, and he had to do what he knew was right.

Then he remembered the way Ralf had treated him in the past.

Stealing his girl, getting him a jail sentence and he remembered who he was dealing with, low life killers who would sell their granny for a pittance.

He sat in the saddle, staring at them, the rifle aimed at their bellies,” This is the end of the road,” he said gruffly, “unbuckle your gun belts and get on yer knees.”

Both men just stared at him.

“You’re kidding us Jess,” said Ralf, eventually,” you don’t mean this!”

“Sure I do,” he said. “Now get on your knees or so help me I’ll drop yer where you stand!”

Jodie paled and turned to his brother,” he ain’t kiddin’ Ralf, just do it,” he whispered, before complying and a moment later after much cussing Ralf did the same.

Jess slid from the saddle and walking over kicked their irons away and then proceeded to bind their hands before getting them to remount and then he tied them tightly to their saddle horn and feet to their stirrups before sending them off ahead of him, back the way they had come, his rifle trained on their backs.

Once they had made camp that night Jess had released their hands to enable them to eat the scratch supper he had provided before tying them up again, both men shackled and bound.

Ralf looked over to where Jess was lying gazing into the fire wondering if he dare sleep.

“I just can’t believe you’ve done this to us Jess, I thought we were old buddies.”

Jess was exhausted and not a little edgy at the thought of having to escort both men back to the nearest law back in Rawlins, nearly a week’s ride away and now he lost his temper.

“What,” he exploded, “last time I saw you, you stole my girl and then left me half dead in the desert before settin’ the law on me fer a crime I hadn’t committed….”

“Well that was a long time ago Jess boy, thought you’d have gotten over it by now…. “

Jess just shook his head wearily,” Not to mention the fact that that you made me lie to a good friend, commit an offense and then threatened to scar my best girl fer life…. No I don’t figure we’re buddies Ralf”, he said with bitter irony.

“Your best girl,” said Ralf in shock, “thought you said you kicked her out, women were easy come easy go fer you?”

Jess threw him a venomous look,” Yeah, well I lied didn’t I, took my Millie to the Rawlins Sheriff and figure she’ll be safely home right now, so figure you’ve nothin left to hold over me have you?”

Then when the older man started to argue Jess got even angrier.

“Shut your mouth Ralf, before I do it for you,” he spat, glaring furiously across at him.

Ralf looked down moodily, but he knew the Harper temper of old and figured now would be a good time to hush up.

Jess managed to survive the night on little sleep but was feeling very strung out and edgy the next morning as he moodily drank his coffee before making the men mount up again, wanting to get as many miles back towards town as he could in the hours of daylight.

The same pattern was repeated over the next couple of days and he reckoned they were within about another two days ride before they reached Rawlins when Jess started to feel really rough. He was exhausted, barely daring to sleep properly for more than a few minutes at a time, even though his prisoners were tightly bound at night, shackled and tied to tree or rock.But somewhere in Jess’s brain was the message’ keep watchful, don’t drop your guard.’ and so he couldn’t sleep even when he tried to.

Then disaster struck. He never knew what it was that upset his stomach, he had eaten the same as the other men, maybe his guts were just as weary as the rest of him, but whatever it was that caused it, the result was totally debilitating as he suffered a severe stomach upset. He was chucking up all night long and then lay shaking and pale the following morning, unable to get up from where he lay slumped by the dying embers of the camp fire.

Ralf looked over at him and saw him, pale shivering and sweating and decided to take advantage of the situation.

“Say Jess boy, you might wanna untie me and I’ll fetch yer some cool water and stoke up the fire some, you sure don’t look up to much.”

Jess answered by dry retching, and just swore under his breath, before turning away from Ralf’s mocking gaze.

He continued in a similar vein throughout the day, feeling more and more ill as the brothers, in turn, mocked him or offered insincere comfort and advice.

Jess finally lost his temper with them and managed to pull himself up and fetch a drink from his canteen before glaring down at them.

“I may be pretty sick right now, but there’s nuthin’ wrong up here,” he said tapping his head, “so don’t go thinkin’ I’m gonna do something crazy like untie you ‘cos I ain’t.” Then this little speech seeming to drain him of all his energy and he collapsed down by the fire again and remained there throughout the day and the following night. It wasn’t until the next morning that he finally dragged himself up and back in the saddle, ensuring that his prisoners were tended to and again tied tightly to their mounts.

Once they were ready to ride out Jess hardly had the strength to pull himself up into the saddle and he sat there swaying,the world suddenly spinning as he tried hard to gain equilibrium, taking deep breathes andholding on to the saddle horn for dear life as everything seemed to lurched and swim around him.

Then he heard Ralf’s mocking tone coming as from afar,” Say Jess, you ain’t about to faint on us are yer boy?”

Jess took another couple of deep breaths before shaking his head, “No, I’m OK ,”he said gruffly, before gesturing with his rifle that they should ride out and after a moment he followed them on down the trail towards the distant hills.

As the day wore on Jess felt more and more miserable as the effort of merely staying in the saddle laid him low. When they finally made camp that night it was all he could do to throw his prisoners a full canteen and some strips of jerky from his saddle bag.

“Hey we got rights yer know,” said Jodie irritably,” you gotta look after prisoners feed ‘em right, and not with this rubbish,” he said holding the offending matter up between his finger and thumb and giving it a pained look.

“Take it or leave it,” said Jess wearily,” I really don’t give a damn,” and he collapsed down by the fire wrapping himself in his bedroll, looking and feeling thoroughly wretched.

All day long Ralf had been baiting him, saying how he’d be in as much trouble as the brothers were having lied to the Sheriff and how they’d all be banged up together, and then he would start on a different tack saying why not make a clean break from his ties in Wyoming and throw his lot in with the gang again.

Now as he lay looking deep into the fire he thought back to the last few weeks and how he had, had to deceive his good friend Sheriff Masters and also put his other old friend Red Smith in jeopardy if anyone found out that he had colluded with Jess. All he could hang on to was the fact that Millie would have told Slim the truth of the matter now, so at least he wouldn’t be thinking Jess had turned against him and all he stood for. However as far as the way Jess was feeling right now… well he couldn’t remember feeling worse for a long while, either mentally or physically.

He knew the truth of it, there would be a posse and doubtless bounty hunters on his trail and the closer they came back to civilization the bigger the danger was, he surmised. He knew bounty hunters would probably shoot first and ask questions as an afterthought. The ones he had known in the past took wanted posters at face value and if they said wanted dead or alive, well then dead was a lot less trouble wasn’t it?

He remembered the wanted poster Red had shown him and he shuddered involuntarily, the thought making him feel sick to his stomach. All he‘d done, all he’d been through to change, to turn his life around. How he had been respected and valued by towns folk and the law alike, and now it had come to this. One perceived transgression and he was back on the wrong side of the law, despised and ridiculed and for one split second he thought, hell it really wasn’t worth it. If his reputation could be completely sullied after just one action, well what was the point of trying?

He sighed deeply.

“So you thinkin’ on changing your mind then Jess, throwing your lot in with us… I reckon the trail would be one hell of a lot safer iffen we were to head for the hills and Montana rather than back to Wyoming, they’ll all be gunning for us back there, you know that don’t ya boy, ”said Ralf.

Jess said nothing, just glanced over at him and then back to the fire, sighing again.

It was obvious that Ralf took his silence as possible compliance and casting a quick glance at his brother and then back to Jess said softly, “Come on boy, you know it makes sense… why don’t ya untie us, we’ll head off, maybe look up your old friend Denver on the way, get us some grog to keep out the Canadian cold, huh?”

Jess was suddenly infuriated, not least with himself, for the fact that even for a split second he had wavered and even considered that he would fall in with them.

“Go ter hell,” he yelled angrily,” shut up Ralf, or so help me I won’t be responsible,” he spat.

Just then a shot rang out and even though Jess was in a bad way, he was on his feet and his colt.45 in his hand in one fluid movement as he spun around to face the aggressor.

The tall man dressed all in black was standing on a boulder a few yards behind the camp, but he jumped down and took cover as Jess returned fire, after his shot to the dark haired cowboy’s back had gone wide.

The man fired off several more shots, one catching Jess and ripping into the flesh at the top of his left arm, before Jess dived and rolled, returning a volley of shots, and then all went silent.

After several minutes Jess got slowly up and made his way cautiously over towards the rock and then when he saw the man lying on his back in a pool of blood, advanced more confidentially and on holstering his gun hunkered down beside the body and felt for a heartbeat or pulse.

After a moment he sighed and shook his head before reaching inside the dead man’s vest pocket and withdrawing a bundle of wanted posters.

He unfolded the first and found himself staring down at his own likeness, the picture making his heart skip a beat with shock, even though he was half expecting to see it.

He gave a low whistle at the amount of bounty on his head and knew that would only be a fraction of the amount for two alleged murderers, the Jessop brothers, and once he checked the remaining posters his thoughts were confirmed……. all three men together were worth a tidy sum.

He shook his head and shoved the posters back where they had come from, before standing up and surveying the bounty hunter,” You stupid bastard,” he whispered, “should have learnt to shoot straight,” and with that he backed off and returned to the others.

“Was I right then?” asked Ralf, “That was a dirty low life, back shootin’ bounty hunter weren’t it?”

“Yeah, you were right,” said Jess quietly.

“You saw him off boy, he’s a gonna?”

Jess just nodded and sank back down by the fire again, wondering where he was going to summon the energy to bury his adversary as he clutched his painful arm.

After a few moments Ralf started nagging at Jess again.

“See… see I was right wasn’t I… you’re just as much in trouble as we are Jess you gotta see that. It’s only a matter of time before another one comes out of the woodwork and is faster or more accurate than you, or bushwhacks us all…. for God’s sake Jess show us some mercy here, let us go……….”

“What,” spat Jess enraged, leaping up and glaring at Ralf,“what mercy did you show that woman back in Texas Ralf?”

Then turning his burning gaze on the younger man,” Or that old guy you gunned down in Laramie Jodie? “

He turned furious eyes on both men now, “Oh no,” he said menacingly,” you ain’t getting’ off easy with a nice clean bullet through the heart, you’re both destined for the end of a rope and I aim to make sure that’s where you end up, so help me, ”and with that he marched off to bury the body.

Much later he cleaned up the flesh wound to his arm and after binding it with some clean rags he finally settled down to doze by the fire .But every nerve of his body was now at breaking point as he strained to hear the least sound outside the camp, aware as he was of the possibility of another strike at any minute, and he got precious little rest before finally falling into a fitful sleep just as dawn was breaking.

Chapter 6

The following morning with his arm still bothering him, he slowly went through the usual process of getting his prisoners mounted and bound to their horses before heading off at a brisk trot down the trail for Rawlins.

It must have been about mid-morning when he saw the dust haze of a bunch of galloping horses and after a moment or two a group of about a dozen riders came into view.

He reined in Traveler and called a halt to his prisoners and again aiming his rifle to their backs told them to keep perfectly still as the posse advanced at speed.

Jess looked up with hope in his heart expecting to see his good friend Sheriff Red Smith leading the group as they were now only a few miles from Rawlins.

However the hope suddenly died and the welcoming smile on his face froze as he saw who was leading the men, one Edgar Snell…..… Sheriff Edgar Snell, retired, to be precise.

As he rode up and saw the prisoners and Jess with his rifle trained on them he gave a slow evil smile before reining in his mount just feet from Jess and saying,” Well Harper, I give you full marks for ingenuity, so you thought if you tied these men up to look like they were your prisoners the little matter of springing Jodie Jessop from jail would all be forgiven and forgotten did you?”

Jess’s head shot up as he looked his old adversary in the eye for the first time in years. He was older sure, but the big man with the shock of white hair and the hard pebble grey eyes hadn’t changed that much and Jess would have known him anywhere.

He shook his head,” You’ve got it all wrong Snell, these men are my prisoners and I only sprang Jodie because they were threatening to kill an innocent girl they’d abducted.”

Snell gave him a hard look and then snarled,” Oh yes I’ve no doubt there would be a girl involved somewhere in this sorry business Harper, but don’t think you can wriggle off the hook that easy.”

Then he turned to address his deputy,” Get his guns Johnson and cuff him.”

“Look where in Hell is Red and what are you doin’ here?” objected Jess as two men rounded on him yanking the rifle from his grasp and turning a gun on him, before reaching across removing his colt and cuffing his wrists.

However he noticed that Dave Johnson, Red’s deputy and also a friend of Jess’s had ignored the terse command and was now eyeing Jess uncomfortably, obviously not wanting anything to do with this cavalier treatment.

Jess turned back to Snell and repeated his question.

“Out of town, been called to a big trial and I’m covering for him until further notice, and dang glad I am too. You won’t pull the wool over my eyes the way you seem to be able to with Smith and Mort Corey, but I guess old Sheriff Masters has finally got your measure,” he said with another cunning smile.

Jess ducked his head and flushed feeling the terrible shame of the betrayal of his friend again.

“You don’t have to lecture me about that,” he said quietly, “ain’t nuthin as yer can say that will make me feel any worse than I do already, letting down a friend that way, but I had no choice.”

Then he looked up into the older man’s eyes, “Really you have to believe me Sheriff Snell, I’m tellin’ the truth, there’s no way I’d have lied to him iffen there had been any other way out.”

“My, my Harper, you’ll have me in tears in a minute, so sincere … so convincing… you almost had me sucked in there for a moment, if I didn’t know what a down and out liar you really are.”

“That ain’t so,” said Jess hotly, “and we both know none of this is about here and now, this is all about what happened before, ain’t it Snell?”

Now it was the old Sheriff’s turn to flush up, but whether from anger or guilt it was impossible to say.

“Be quiet Harper, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you don’t,” muttered Jess grimly under his breath.

“Quiet or I’ll have you gagged,” and then he got one of his men to take Traveler’s reins and lead him as the three prisoners were finally escorted back to town.

However they had only gone a mile or so when Jess remembered about the back shooting Bounty Hunter and he called for a stop, so he could tell the Sheriff the where abouts of the body.

“What,” stormed the Sheriff,”you admit you killed the man!”

“Well sure I did, it was him or me and the bastard bushwhacked us, tried to back shoot me, only reason I’m here is because he was a lousy shot, and iffen I hadn’t dispatched him I figure he’d have gunned us all down. He sure wasn’t lookin’ to take us alive if he had the choice of dead. What do you expect me to do just stand there and let him take pot shots at me?”

“No,” boomed Snell,” but I expect you to surrender your weapons to a man carrying out his lawful duty, to surrender to him when asked.”

“I just told yer didn’t I, he weren’t about askin’… more about shootin’.”

Then the Sheriff turned to Ralf,” Is that the way it was Jessop?”

Ralf glanced across at Jess and then gave his brother a furtive look before answering.

“Well from where I was standing that wasn’t the way it happened at all.”

Then licking his lips a look of great thoughtfulness on his face he continued.

“That Bounty Hunter lit into the camp, took us unawares I guess. Explained as how he had wanted posters on us and iffen Jess there would give up his gun, well he’d deliver us back into town pick up his cash and be heading home, sweet as a nut…. “

Then he gave Jess a cold calculating look,” Well, old Jess there he seemed to agree, but he’s got a real hot temper and as soon as the guy had holstered his gun, thinking we were OK to ride with him, then Jess there drew on him… killed him in cold blood Sheriff. Poor hombre never stood a chance. Then Harper turned on us and said we’d be getting the same if we squawked to the law… but well we ain’t got nothing to lose, heading for the gallows I guess… but him,” he spat glaring at Jess, “he’s a real bad ‘un Sheriff and needs locking up.”

Snell turned his evil gaze on Jess,” Oh I think we can do better than that for Mr Harper, after your statement, I reckon he’ll be having a noose waiting for him back in town too,” and with that he kicked his mount off, leaving Jess staring after him in shocked amazement.

When they got to town the men were thrown into the cells at the back of Red’s office. Snell uncuffed Jess he threw him forcibly into the cell making him stagger and fall onto the cot,catching his injured arm as he did so, and it started bleeding again through his makeshift bandage.

Jess looked down in pain and then suddenly realized it might just be his savoir.

“Look Sheriff,” he said quickly,” see I’m injured that goddamn Bounty Hunter did this to me, I just shot back in self-defense.”

“Oh sure… sure you did,” said the Sheriff sarcastically.

Then he threw a look at Ralf who was sharing Jess’s cell,” No I reckon you sustained that injury when you were having a little tussle with your friend Ralf here, am I not right?” he asked turning innocent eyes on Ralf.

Ralf caught on at once,” Yeah, I figure that was how it happened Sheriff, now you’ve reminded me,” he said with an evil wink.

Jess just stared at the lawman in disbelief,” You’re not gonna believe me, no matter what I tell you are you?” he said wearily.

The Sheriff grinned evilly back, “No I guess I’m not … oh and Harper………”

Then he leaned in real lose so Jess alone could hear what he said.

“You were right boy, this is all about before………..and not about now, but you and me are the only two that knows it….” then he wandered off clanging the cell door behind him, chuckling to himself.

Jess collapsed down on the bunk and sank his head in his hands, total despair taking over.

“Don’t feel too good does it Jess boy when the whole world’s agin yer?”said Ralf grinning over.

“I guess it ain’t the first time,” said Jess suddenly knowing he sure as hell wasn’t going to let the Jessops see him this way, feeling utter defeat, no siree he was made of sterner stuff and heck things couldn’t getmuch worse anyway could they?

He was still feeling real sick from the stomach upset he had endured, his belly aching something fierce, and he felt weak and shaky after his lack of sleep over the last few days.

And so it was he bunked down that night on the uncomfortable cell cot, but fell into a deep sleep almost at once, feeling totally exhausted.

For some reason Snell had decided to bunk Jess and Ralf down in the same cell and Jodie in the one next door and it wasn’t until the first punch hit him that Jess realized why.

He was fast asleep, when suddenly he was dragged from his cot to the floor and kicked brutally in the guts and this assault was quickly followed by several blows to the head and stomach as Jess pulled himself up and tried to retaliate.

It was pretty much a done deal before they even started trading blows though, Jess was not only exhausted from illness and the blood loss from the bullet wound, he was also taken completely unawares and so after a desultory attempt at retaliation he was finally floored and lay on the cold cell floor, in a pool of blood.

It wasn’t until the deputy came in the following morning to take over from Sheriff Snell’s shift, and he checked on the prisoners that he saw Jess lying unconscious on the floor.

“What the hell,” he swore as he unlocked the cell and helped Jess up onto his bunk,” what happened to you buddy?” he said softly.

Jess came around almost at once, and looked around him like he didn’t even know where he was and then after a moment saw Ralf sitting on his bunk gloating.

“I guess Ralf happened to me,” he said quietly.

Dave Johnson the deputy quickly called for the Sheriff.

“Hey there Edgar, what’s been going on here while I’ve been off duty?” he asked.

Sheriff Snell plastered a look of surprise on his face,” Nothing as far as I know, so what’s been going on than boys?”

“Jess got kinda mad at me tellin’ about the Bounty Hunter business,” said Ralf quickly,” guess he felt we had some unfinished business.”

Johnson just shook his head, ”I know Jess real well and if he’d started some business like that he’d sure have finished it, looks more to me like you hit on him when he was asleep?”

“Why no deputy I sure wouldn’t do anything like that, like I say, ol’ Jess here has a real short fuse and he just lit out and attacked me, didn’t he bro?” he asked casting his innocent gaze over to Jodie in the next cell.

“Sure, sure that was the way it happened,” he agreed,” Harper went berserk, but my big brother is a match for him I guess. “

“So Harper went berserk, and you never heard anything Sheriff is that right?” asked Dave Johnson, throwing him a hard look.

“That’s right,” said Snell,” and I figure we need to speak in private deputy”, he said gesturing to the door to the office.

Dave threw Jess a concerned look,” I’ll be back directly,” he said quietly and left with his boss.

Snell closed the door and then turned on his deputy,” I don’t have to remind you of your duty, and your allegiance to the State and the Law do I Deputy Johnson? “

“No sir……it’s just that… well didn’t you hear anything Sheriff?”

“Nope not a thing and I think you’ll find Harper is making a fuss about nothing….”

Johnson looked down and then, “Sheriff, I’m really not happy about any of this business, Jess shooting that Bounty Hunter in cold blood, well I just don’t believe it. I know Jess well, and he wouldn’t do that, not now… and not even in the past when it seems you knew him….he just ain’t that kinda guy… you must know that?”

“I know he’s a lying bastard who is only fit for the business end of a rope, after the life he’s lived…way he is…..” spat the Sheriff angrily“and that’s where he’s going to end up, if I have my way.”

“But…. Sheriff……. Hell you can’t be serious Jess is ….well he’s a really great guy. I know he has a past, but he’s changed Sheriff, he’s happy, got a real special best girl in Laramie, an adopted family he loves…good friends, he’s respected…. Hell I respect him, he’s got a real good life now, and I know he wouldn’t throw that away!”

“And is that what you have too Deputy?” asked the Sheriff very quietly.

“Well, yeah, sure you know I have a lovely wife and home, a baby, one the way… so why do you ask?”

“So this job is all important to you, the money, being as how you’ve a growing family?” Snell asked.

Dave looked puzzled,” Well sure, it is everything to us…….. my livelihood, all I’ve ever known.”

“Well then I reckon that’s a real good reason for you to keep your mouth shut about last night… it was just as Jessop said, Harper lit into him and came out worst… you got that?”

Dave just stared at him,” Or else? “

“Or else……. I reckon there are plenty of others would like your job and with your boss away for several weeks I figure you need to decided who your friends are, yes?”

Dave Johnson looked down, his heart beating fit to burst, how could he betray an old friend this way… but …Sue and the new baby… well he had kin to look out for first….

“I reckon you won’t mind if I take the prisoner over to the Doc’s to be cleaned up?” he asked sarcastically.

“Oh yeah, you can do that Deputy… as long as that is all you do.”

Dave half carried Jess over to the Doc’s place such were his injuries, although as ever, he tried to make light of things, but when he finally collapsed on old Doc Meres couch it was obvious he had taken abad beating.

The doctor knew Jess quite well and had treated him on the odd occasion he had got himself into trouble while helping Red out. Now he looked very concerned as the dark haired cowboy lay there pale and shaking.

“So Jess,would it be simpler to ask you where it doesn’t hurt?” he asked, in his usual way of trying to relax his patients with a little humour.

Jess liked Johnathon Meres, the doc, who reminded him a little of Doc Sam back in Laramie, and said quietly,” I reckon you’re about right there Doc, figure I’m pretty beat up.”

It was much later when the doctor had dealt with Jess’s injuries ranging from severe cuts and abrasions to a suspected rib fracture, and he was relaxing back on the couch enjoying a welcome coffee, that Jess and Dave Johnson finally managed to talk.

“So what’s it all about Jess, none of this sounds like you,” said the sandy haired, tall deputy, then as an afterthought,“I sure wish Red was here, he’d know what to do.”

Jess agreed with this, but just said,” ‘It’s OK Dave, I understand you can’t do nuthin’ I figure old Snell’s got something over you too?”

The Deputy looked down embarrassed,” He said I’d lose my job if I sided with you Jess and you know Sue is carrying my second… I … well…. I need the money.”

Jess immediately sat up from where he was still reclining on the doctor’s couch,” Hey buddy, I don’t expect yer to put your neck on the line for me… I figure we ain’t gonna be able to do anything until Red lands back anyway… if he lands back in time that is,” he said ruefully.

“What’s it all about, this vendetta between you and old Sheriff Snell, because he sure hates you something fierce Jess?I don’t have all the evidence yet, but it kinda looks like he’s trying to frame you for murder and get you hanged,” Dave said softly.

Jess sighed deeply,” How long have you got Dave?”

The tall deputy looked down at him, ”All night I figure, doc has said as to how you’re to stay over here so as he can keep an eye on your injuries and I reckon I’m to guard you, so reckon we’ll settle down later Jess and you can tell me all about it, huh? “

Jess smiled grimly across at him,” Yeah, I figure you need to know, thanks Dave.”


Later that day Dave settled down to hear Jess’s story of how he first came upon Edgar Snell.

“It was just after the war ended,” said Jess his eyes misting as he remembered back to the bitter, hurting young man he had been then…. and wild, Hell he was sure wild alright.

He had come back to Texas and had a short liaison with a childhood sweetheart, but she had wanted things he wasn’t ready to give, a home, family and security. Jess was feeling sick, sick in body mind and spirit and he knew he had a lot of healing and a lot of living to do before he was ready for that kind of commitment. So he rode out one bright morning heading for the distant horizon and just letting his horse make the decisions as to where they went.

That was how he ended up in San Angela another small Texas town, Sheriff Edgar Snell’s town.

Jess was feeling wild when he rode in and in need of a good fight to dissipate some of his energy and he wasn’t to be disappointed. Just an hour or so after entering the saloon and halfway down a bottle of Red Eye, some poor unfortunate drunk decided to start regaling the saloon with his tales of perceived cowardice and slovenly ways of some of the Confederate troops. So Jess lost no time in wading in to protect the besmirched reputations of his fellow brothers in conflict.

He swaggered over and threw the first punch, declaring to the whole bar that, that one was for his dead comrades who couldn’t defend themselves. Well that comment set off a mini civil war within the bar, there being a large group of union supporters in who were passing through on a cattle drive.

The fight that ensued was bloody, but short lived as someone had called for the Sheriff and Jess was on the deck, bleeding profusely from a split lip. He was being consoled by one of the most sophisticated and beautiful women he had ever clapped eyes on, when Sheriff Edgar Snell strode in sending a shot into the air which immediately brought the fracas to an end.

Jess took little notice of the Sheriff’s entrance, all his attention on the ministering angel at his side.

The beautiful woman had crouched down beside him and smiling warmly into those amazing blue eye, said, “Hey cowboy, are you OK?” she asked in a southern drawl.

“Guess I’ll live Ma’am,” he answered, his eyes roaming down to her delectable cleavage and back again to her amused violet eyes.

“Well I guess they haven’t beaten the sassiness out of you,” she said with a giggle.

“No Ma’am,” he grinned back, and then he was suddenly aware of a pair of shiny brown boots just inched from where he was lying.

Edgar Snell glared at the saloon girl,” Do you know this low life Crystal?” he barked.

She shook her head,” I guess no……. not yet that is but who knows,” she said standing up and staring defiantly at the middle aged Sheriff.

“Maybe I will be getting to know him if he’s staying around town that is…”

“Oh he’ll be staying around for a while my dear, in one of my cells,” he snarled.

“Come on get up.” he said kicking Jess’s leg non to lightly.

Jess staggered to his feet ignoring the now flushed and angry looking Sheriff.

“I figure I’ll see you later then Crystal, ”he said locking eyes with the flame haired beauty,” the name’s Harper , Jess Harper.”

She just nodded and then the Sheriff frog marched him roughly out of the bar along with a couple of the other chief troublemakers, as identified by the barkeep.

Once they arrived at the Sheriff’s office Jess was divested of his gun and thrown unceremoniously in a cell to cool off.

He spent the afternoon sleeping off the whiskey and when he awoke at dusk his elderly cell mate looked over and gave him a toothless grin.

“Hell you really don’t mind who you upset do you stranger?” he said chuckling to himself.

Jess turned his head and looked over, from where he was still lying on the bunk,” Huh, what do you mean?”

“Well I’ll tell yer son, as I reckon yer need to know, “he sighed and then carried on.

“First off this had been a tough old town, until Sheriff Snell landed here a couple of years ago, brawls like the one we were just in were meat and drink to the men around here, almost a daily occasion, kinda good exercise yer know?”

Jess just nodded.

“And women, hell every other place was a brothel or a bar… but now well, that kinda thing is frowned on… see Sheriff Snell likes a good clean law abiding town.”

Jess lay there and thought about what his new friend had said, “Yeah, well I guess I can live with that, it’s not like I’m thinkin’ of settlin’ down here.”

“Um… good job, and the other thing is……. well see he’s kinda sweet on that Miss Crystal. “

“Oh really and so what does she say about that?” asked Jess sitting up and taking an interest at the beautiful saloon girl’s name.

The old timer chuckled again, “ I figure she kinda puts up with him for a quiet life, but she ain’t seriously involved with him… No our Crystal is her own woman, she takes a liking to a man, well she just goes ahead and sees him anyway, no matter what old Edgar says……but…..”

“But what?” asked Jess turning his enquiring gaze on the old man.

“Well iffen you’re thinkin’ of getting involved with Miss Crystal you just watch yer back boy because the Sheriff will come after you either clean or dirty. He don’t care much which way as far as Miss Crystal is concerned…… I reckon I’d just get out of town iffen I was you boy.”

Jess just grinned across,” Well you ain’t me are you mister and it’ll take more than the likes of that ol’ Sheriff to tell me who I can see…” and with that he had turned over and gone back to sleep, with the ease of the young.

The following day at noon the Sheriff hauled Jess out of his cell and read him the riot act before handing him his weapon back.

“If you’ve got any sense boy, you’ll be heading out of town.”

“Well, I reckon that’s somethin’ I’m kinda lacking Sheriff,” said Jess with a wicked wink and sauntered out of the office, the Sheriff’s baleful stare following him.

Jess went straight to the saloon and asked for Crystal and she came out from the back almost at once and plucking a bottle from behind the bar gestured for him to join her at a quiet table towards the back of the saloon.

They sat down and she looked him over and leaning across tipped his chin up and scrutinized his face for bruises.

“You took quite a beating cowboy, so was that all done in here yesterday?”

He ducked his head and then glanced up again and looking her in the eye he said quietly, “Sure, where else….. I’ve been banged up inthe cells ain’t I?”

“Um,” she said softly,” that isn’t always the safest of places so I’ve heard.”

He just shrugged,” I was OK…. ……have been up to now anyways, but I guess whether I stay OK all depends on something.”


“Yeah, whether or not you’ll go out with me?”

“Well I don’t know about that cowboy,” she said looking up at him playfully, “might be kinda bad for your health.”

“Figure that’s a risk I’m happy to take,” he said, his eyes never leaving hers for a moment.

She smiled then,” OK you’re on,” she laughed, reaching out across the table and taking his hand.

They finished their drink and then she led him up to her room.

He stared around him in surprise at the opulence that greeted him as he stood at the threshold and looked around him.

The room was furnished with a plush red velvet couch and matching armchair pulled up in front of a huge fireplace with a brass fender and ornately framed oil painting above depicting an English hunting scene. There were various other paintings around the walls, a luxurious brightly patterned rug on the floor and deep crimson heavy drapes at the window and in the corner a large brass bed with an expensive looking crimson coverlet on top.

Jess glanced around him, his eyes quickly flicking away from the bed, and walked over to the fireplace to study the picture.

Then he turned and smiled at her as she walked over to join him.

“Nice place you’ve got,” he said softly.

She smiled,” Yeah, most of this stuff belonged to a relative, he shipped it over from the old country over fifty years ago and I inherited it all.”

He nodded,” The boss must think a lot of you, looks like you’ve got the best room in the house?”

She nodded smiling,” Well you see cowboy, I am the boss, well kind of, see I bought into the place a few years back I’m the co-owner along with old Bert the barkeep.”

He gave a low whistle, “You must be pretty well off then?”

She smiled,” I get by, made me a lot of money in the past and now I have girls working for me… at another place that is…”

“Working for you?” And then Jess realized who he was talking to…… Crystal was a Madam.

He turned and gave her a speculative look, ”So you’re err… not in that line of business no more? “

“Oh no, long since retired, so don’t you worry cowboy I’m not going to start charging you.”

Jess looked down and flushed, “I never thought you would…. But what about the girls, I thought old Edgar ran a nice squeaky clean town?”

She just smiled,” Oh Edgar turns a blind eye seeing as how it’s me. Same with the bootleg whiskey I sell, I scratch his back and he mine….. if you get my drift?”

“Oh I get it all right, so where do I fit in, I don’t wanna make any trouble for you Crystal.”

“Don’t worry, you won’t the Sheriff knows the score. I’m my own woman, I see who I want and he knows if he doesn’t like it well tough.”

Then she looked up into the deep blue eyes that she found so fascinating, “So are we going to stand here talking about the Sheriff all afternoon… or what?”

Jess held her gaze before he looked down at her seductively smiling lips and then back to her eyes before saying softly,” Oh definitely ‘or what’,” before he leaned in and kissed her very passionately.

And so it was Jess started seeing one of the most beautiful, sophisticated and worldly women he had ever dated.

She was a complete contrast to his last lady who was very young and naive, Jess being her only experience of adult love, whereas Crystal had experience in droves and was exciting and stimulating beyond his wildest dreams. She also had the added advantage that she neither wanted, nor expected anything from him save some fun and good loving. Unlike his previous girlfriend who was so intense, wanting commitment from him, commitment he just couldn’t give right then.

It was soon common knowledge that Crystal was keeping company with the dark haired handsome young cowboy who had so recently hit town.

Jess was so fixated with her that he even found himself a job at the livery so that he could pay his way and stay in town for a while.

Meanwhile Edgar just stood in the side-lines biding his time, like a deadly snake waiting to strike as soon as the opportunity arrived.

And arrive it did a few weeks later when Edgar managed to frame Jess for a petty crime he had not committed, bu twas in the same area at approximately the right time.

Snell managed to bribe a couple of witnesses, with the result that Jess had to serve a month in the cell behind Snell’s office.

Jess had only been in there a day when he awoke to a cute blonde haired young girl staring in at him from beyond the cell door.

He sat up at once and grinned across,” Howdy honey, what can I do for you?” he asked.

She flushed up a little,” I guess it’s what I can do for you, I work at the café opposite and we look after the prisoner’s food, do you want a full breakfast, or just coffee?”

He stood up and went to the bars smiling down at her,” Gee a full breakfast would be swell,” he said, thinking things were looking up some.

“Coming right up,” she grinned back before turning and dashing out of the door.

It became a regular thing that young Becky arrived with his food and he noticed after a while that she was funny and flirty when they were alone, butquiet and almost brusque when the Sheriff was around and so one day he questioned her about it.

She looked down and flushed a little before saying,” Well Pa doesn’t like me talking to men.”


“Pa, he’s well……. kind of protective of me, especially since Ma died when I was little.”

Jess threw her an incredulous look,” So the Sheriff is your Pa?”

“Sure didn’t you know?”

Jess just shook his head, but after that he was much more wary around her, especially when Edgar Snell was about.

So Jess did his time and at the end of his sentence was overjoyed to be reunited with Crystal, who he had not seen during his incarceration, at his request, knowing that it would wind up the Sheriff far too much.

He was even able to secure his old job back at the livery.

He had wandered over on his release and seen old Jed who owned the livery and giving him a friendly wink said,” So I don’t suppose you’ve kept my job open have yer?”

The old man smiled at the cheeky young cowboy and then looking more serious said,” Word on the street is that old Edgar framed you… as you were getting a mite too close to Miss Crystal, would that be the case then boy?”

“Yeah,” he said bitterly,” but I guess we’ll have pay back at some stage. A man don’t do that to me…… even if he is hiding behind a badge, it weren’t easy for me being banged up in that cell day after day,” he said almost to himself, “yeah, I guess he’ll pay in the end.”

Then he turned back to the man he’d begun to think of as a friend, “So are you saying I can come back? “

The old man clapped him on the back, “Come on in son, the coffees on, hot and strong just the way you like it.”

Jess continued his liaison with Crystal and it became even more passionate after his enforced absence, and he really didn’t give a damn what the Sheriff thought, although he was doubly careful as to what he did and where he went, not wanting to be stitched up again.

What he did find disturbing though was the continued presence of Becky in his life.

She visited the livery most days to look after her pony, which was stabled there, but after a while she started coming by really early, knowing that Jess slept up in the hay loft and old Jed wouldn’t be abroad until later in the morning.

The first time she landed Jess was stripped to the waist and having a wash under the pump in the yard and she lingered chatting to him, before going in to tend to her mount. After that she made it her habit to arrive when he was just starting the day and often made his coffee and sat and chatted.

In truth young Becky had a massive crush on the handsome young cowboy and although she knew Jess was seeing Crystal it didn’t deter her and she pursued him with a single minded devotion which was truly awe inspiring.

This went on for several weeks with Jess getting more and more uncomfortable in the young girl’s company.

Sure she was real cute and he fancied her if he was honest. Hell he was a young hot blooded boy, but he also had a modicum of sense and knew to start messing with the Sheriff’s daughter would not be a good move, not good at all.

That was why he reacted the way he did when she started to get real close and personal…. And then one day it happened.

He was grooming one of the livery horses and she came into the stall with him and called his name softly.

He spun around and saw her right behind him and he tried to back up some but came hard against the mount he was tending.

“What do you want?” he asked more harshly then he meant to and he saw her expression momentarily freeze, before she again smiled at him and came even closer.

“Just this,” she whispered, and reaching up kissed him very softly on the lips.

Jess was a young man with a very passionate nature and so for a second or two he kissed her back, before coming to his senses and saying, “Hey whoa there Becky, what’s this all about?” scanning her face,” I thought we were just buddies,” although he was aware that she thought of him in a different light, but not to this extent.

She shook her head, tears welling in her deep brown eyes, “I thought you knew,” she said softly,” I love you I want to marry you Jess, you’re all I’ve ever wanted… I … “

“Hey, slow down here… where has all this come from? I ain’t given you any cause to think things are this way between us have I?”

She looked down and said nothing…

“Have I?” he insisted.

“Well, no I suppose not…”

“Hell Becky you know I’m seeing Chrystal just now.”

“Oh Jess she’s way too old for you…..”

“And you’re way too young, how old are you Becky, fifteen, sixteen?”

“I’m seventeen, old enough to be married, have a home and a baby too,” she said with conviction.

He just shook his head sadly,” Well that ain’t what I want honey, there was another girl a way back who wanted the same and I walked away, I ain’t ready for that sort of commitment, you find a nice boy your own age… “

“I don’t want that, don’t you understand all I want is you…” and she ran off in tears.

It was early the following morning when everything finally came to a head.

Jess had spent the night with Crystal and he was just leaving the saloon at dawn.

Crystal was seeing him out and they stood on the sidewalk for a moment or two in a passionate embrace, before Jess suddenly sprang away fromher and spun around as he heard someone approaching from the shadows and a second or two later Sheriff Edgar Snell came into view and he looked incandescent with rage.

“Harper,” he bellowed “what have you done to my little girl?”

Jess stood there open mouthed with shock,” I ain’t done nothin’ Sheriff,” he replied after a moment,” why what has she said?”

The older man came up close now.

“Nothing she says you’ve done nothing, but she’s been crying her heart out all night over you. Saying as how she loves you… well a young girl don’t get that way without some encouragement Harper, so what have you done?” he yelled.

“Nothing,” said Jess sincerely,” sure she said all that stuff to me yesterday, and kissed me too. But I said as how I didn’t wanna settle down and apart from sharin’ a kiss, I’ve done nothing, made her no promises Sheriff I swear.”

“Well now Harper, how about I say I don’t believe a word of what you’re saying?You’ve seduced my little girl and broken her heart and you’re gonna pay for that boy.”

Then he turned to Crystal,” Get away inside; this ain’t for your eyes.”

She ignored him and then said,” Don’t be stupid Edgar Jess hasn’t been fooling about with young Becky, just simmer down.”

But the Sheriff was way too mad to even think of calming down and he backed off from Jess and took the gunfighter stance.

Jess just stared at him,” Oh no… I ain’t fighting you Sheriff”.

“You don’t have a choice from where I’m standing boy….. I’m ready when you are.”

Jess exchanged a glance with Crystal,” Do as he says honey, I don’t want you hurt.”

She withdrew a little, but still stood watching the two men, trembling with fear.

They were in the deserted street now and the Sheriff cast Jess a baleful look,” Come on then kid, let’s see how fast you are then,” he said with a bitter laugh, imagining him to be all bluster, a typical young man with ideas above his station.

However Jess just shook his head,” No sir, I always make it a rule never to draw first, you want this… then you draw. “

The Sheriff cast a beady eye on him,” OK if that’s the way you want it….”

Both men stood there as the first red blush of the sunrise hit the street and then finally Edgar Snell went for his gun, but Jess was there, his iron in his hand in a split second , even before the Sheriff had cleared his holster.

Jess stood there for a full minute, the gun trained on his adversary.

“Go on then,” spat the Sheriff, “shoot me down, that’s what you want isn’t it?”

Jess just shook his head,” No… I tell you Sheriff there’s two things I never do. One is draw first and the other is shoo ta man down in cold blood… and seeing as you don’t even have your colt in your hand……. well I guess that’s what it would be …don’t you?”

Then he simply turned and walked away.

It was just a week later that Jess rode out of San Angela for the last time and that was nothing to do with the shootout and everything to do with the threats that the Sheriff had made to Crystal.

He had basically said that either Jess rode out, or her business would go to the wall and as far as Jess was concerned there was nothing else he could do, even though Crystal was heartbroken.


Now coming slowly back to the present, Jess turned sad eyes on Dave the Deputy of Rawlins.

“So you see I left town. I never messed with his precious daughter, the way he thought I did… and I gave up Crystal or else he’d have closed down her business… But I guess he lost face when I out drew him……..I figure he was the only person in town who hadn’t heard of my reputation as a fast gun,” he said bitterly, shaking his head…” But even so I can’t figure why he’s held a grudge all these years… hell Dave why does he wanna see me swing?”

Then suddenly a shape emerged through the shadows of the doctor’s night room and Edgar Snell stood there.

“So you want to know why I want you dead do you Harper?”

Both Jess and Dave sat up startled not knowing how much the elderly Sheriff had heard.

As if reading their minds he said, “Oh I’ve been here a while, and I don’t believe this tissue of lies any more now than I did first time around.”

Jess stared at him,” I just don’t get it Sheriff, I did what you wanted I rode out and left Crystal and your daughter, why are you so goddamn mad at me still?”

The Sheriff advanced and glared at him,” Well that isn’t the way I see it!”

He looked down, gathering his thoughts.

“See Harper what you don’t know is that pretty soon after you left town Miss Crystal sold up her share and moved on… Hell that upset me something fierce,”he whispered.

Then his anger took over again,” But that ain’t the worst of it… my little girl near broke her heart when you rode out…… and then she upped and married the first man that asked her.”

Jess just stared at him,” Well that’s good ain’t it… at least it wasn’t me…”

The Sheriff shook his head and swallowed hard before replying,” She married a real wrong ‘un .All he wanted was a woman to have his babies…. She had four within four years, and then……. the fifth one killed her….she died in childbirth.”

Jess sucked in a deep breath, “Hell I’m real sorry about that Sheriff.”

Then after a moment…” But you can’t really blame me for that. She chose a husband… I left town like you wanted… yer can’t put any of this at my door!”

“Well I can……. and I do… and you’re going to hang boy, sure as day follows night.”

Then he turned to the deputy,” And if he goes missing that is down to you deputy,” and with that he stormed out of the doctor’s office, leaving Jess and Dave speechless.

After a while Dave just shook his head,” He really means it you know Jess, he really does mean to see you hang and the judge is due next week, you’ve gotta get out of here buddy.”

Jess looked down, his expression one of stubborn determination, “No Dave, if you’re offerin’ to help me…well you can’t. Like Edgar says, he’ll see you out of a job iffen you do……. see you and your family out on the streets, hey buddy I can’t ask you to take my side…hell, I understand.”

Dave dipped his head in thought, then after a minute said,“ I think I may have an answer Jess……hear me out. You’ll be back in the cells tomorrow night and I’ve done this shift it will be the Sheriff over in the jail. But seeing as how you are still poorly, you’ll be placed away from the other prisoners in a small cell off the office where we can keep an eye on you.”

“So,what difference will that make.”

“Just that the Sheriff will be able to watch you… and more important, you can watch him….. “

Chapter 7

And so it was that Jess was once more ensconced in the jail, but in the small one by the office, with a clear view of the Sheriff, whilst the cells at the back were cut off from the day to day happenings in the Sheriff’s place of work.

However as he lay on the rough, cheap bunk mattress this time he knew it wouldn’t be for long.

And later that evening, the plan plotted by Dave and Jess, the previous day, was played out.

Dave had organized for a bottle of hill whiskey to find its way into his bosses desk draw, knowing what a fondness he had for the grog, the idea was that once he had weakened and succumbed to the strong drink and was out for the count, Jess would make his move and escape.

As hoped, the Sheriff had far too much whiskey, and fell asleep at his desk, and then Jess, using a duplicate key supplied by Dave, stealthily unlocked the cell door and breathed the sweet air of freedom once more. Then he hauled up the unconscious drunken Sheriff and left him by the cell, his key in the lock, so that it would appear that he had been the one to liberate Harper, for whatever reason, and Jess figured he would be so embarrassed that he couldn’t remember what had happened that he wouldn’t start pointing the finger of blame at anyone, wanting to keep the whole business private.

Meanwhile Dave had left Traveler saddled and with a gunny sack full of provisions around the back of the jail, before he took off for the saloon, where he had a bar full of alibis genuinely able to say the Deputy Sheriff was in the bar when the break outtook place.

It had been agreed that Jess would head for the mountains beyond Rawlins and lie low there until Red came back and was hopefully able to deal with the situation. So he rode out of town and made tracks as though he was heading home to Laramie, before backtracking and wiping out his trail as he did so and then made for the mountains.

The following morning when the deputy walked into work he was greeted by his boss sitting at his desk, head in hands and groaning gently.

“Hey Sheriff what’s up?”

Then glancing over to the cell door feigned an expression of shock and said, “Where’s the prisoner?”

The Sheriff looked over and spat,” Well where in hell do you think, he’s escaped hasn’t he,pulled a stunt last night, said he was feeling real sick and when I went in the bastard managed to overpower me, hit me on the head and I ‘ve only just come to,” he finished, groaning again.

Dave hid a smile, knowing the story of the aching head was the only part that rang true.

“Well what are you doing standing there,” he asked angrily,” go and organize a posse,” and Dave wandered off to do as he was bid.

Jess had ridden throughout the night and by mid-morning the following day he had reached the caves half way up the mountain range, where he knew he could hole up indefinitely. It was the perfect area to hide out with extensive views down to the plain below and Rawlins in the far distance, so anyone advancing could be easily observed, long before they arrived. There was also a labyrinth of caves and so Jess knew he could just disappear without trace if the need arose.

The cave he had chosen was huge with a high ceiling and it went back over fifteen feet and so there was ample room to hide Traveler away as well as himself, should the need arise.

He was very aware that his life depended upon him staying undetected until Snell finished his spell of filling in for Red and so he was very careful to keep well. He only risked a small fire right at the back of the cave to keep warm at night and cook scratch meals. However the truth was that he wasn’t really hungry at all. He still suffered from bouts of nausea and stomach pain and was beginning to think the vicious kicking to the guts that he had received from Ralf Jessop in the cells had really damaged him.

He spent most of his days surveying the distant plain for any signs of a posse approaching and the nights lying by the fire, curled up, often in pain and feeling more and more miserable as the days wore on.

It was on the third day of his self-imposed exile that he saw a lone rider approaching; obviously tracking him as he frequently stopped and dismounted before riding on and Jess cursed the calm weather that had preserved his tracks across to the caves.

Then as he watched, the look of fear in his eyes slowly turned to surprise and then joy as he recognised the lone rider.

He felt his breath coming in gasps as his heart beat faster and he took one last look before running down the hillside to greet the newcomer.

The tall blond cowboy reined in his mount as he saw Jess running towards him and then he jumped down from the saddle and was suddenly embracing his best buddy…. Slim had finally found him.

Jess pulled back after a moment, feeling the tears pricking the back of his eyes,” hey what are yer doin’ here Slim?” he managed at last.

“Well what do you think, come to sit it out with you of course.”

“You know then … everything that’s been happening?”

“Sure, Millie landed and told us how you’d gone out after Jessop and so I went over to Rawlins expecting to find Red on the case…but found that bastard Edgar Snell instead.”

“Bastard?”said Jess raising an eyebrow,” see you’ve got to know him already then.”

“Um, met him briefly and he really doesn’t like you much buddy. Anyways then Dave took me off to the saloon and filled me in on everything that’s been happening.”


Slim nodded, and then he looked more closely at his friend,” Hell Jess you look really rough.”

“Well thanks.”

“No I mean it pard, you look bad and real skinny, even for you… are you sick?”

“Kinda, seem to have a permanent belly ache. That bastard Ralf kicked me down there a few days ago and I don’t seem to be able ter get over it.”

Slim clicked his fingers,” Knew I should have brought Miss Daisy along to tend to you.”

“So how are Daisy and Mike?” he asked grinning at his friend as the two men made their way slowly back up the hill, their arms slung around each other as Slim filled him in on all the family news.

Once the initial joy at seeing his buddy was over, he suddenly realised what danger Slim was putting himself in.

They were sitting around the sulky fire at the back of the cave after a scratch meal that evening and drinking their coffee, when Jess looked over the rim of his tin cup and said quietly, “You shouldn’t have done it, you shouldn’t be here Slim.”

The blond cowboy’s head shot up,” Sure I should we stick together don’t we?”

“Yeah, but if Snell comes lookin’ , well you’ll end up in prison alongside me and then what ’ll happen to the business… not to mention Daisy and Mike?” he said his expression suddenly fearful.

Slim just shook his head,” It’ll be OK, Red will be back soon.”

“And what can he do,” burst Jess aggressively,” Snell’s got the Jessops to swear an oath that I murdered that low life Bounty Hunter, two against one.”

“Yeah, but Dave said you had a gunshot wound when you came in, that surely verifies your story.”


“It proves it Jess, that you had a run in with someone. It couldn’t have been the Jessops like they’re saying because you had ‘em trussed up like turkeys when you brought them in Dave said, the whole town saw.”

Jess just shook his head and stared into the fire.

“So why is he so all fired mad at you, Dave said something about you and his daughter?”said Slim with a questioning glance at his partner.

Jess looked up sadly,” She was just a kid Slim and an over protected one at that, Snell never let her date anyone…. and then I came along and I guess she got kinda infatuated.”

Slim shook his head a smile playing around his lips,”Know why doesn’t that surprise me?”

Jess looked hurt,” I didn’t encourage her honest I didn’t.”

“Well she sure seemed pretty smitten, if you leaving made her so devastated she married just anyone on the rebound.”

“There was no rebound Slim, there was no affair, I keep tellin’ yer she was just a kid.”

“Oh really,” said Slim and an eyebrow rose in disbelief.

“OK so I kissed her…. once… well she kissed me and I kinda obliged…”

Slim chuckled at this and shook his head.

“Hell Slim I was a young man, easily encouraged you know? But I heaved to and I never did anything else I swear. She wanted the whole thing, a home, kids, Sunday lunch with the family, hell I wasn’t up for any of that Slim.”

“So that’s why you hightailed it out of town then?”

He shook his head his expression turning misty as he stared into the fire again, “No that was down to Crystal.”


“Yeah, well she worked at the Saloon, part owned it actually, and she was a Madam as well…Jeez she was beautiful Slim. She had this mane of red hair and amazing sorta violet eyes, and a figure…….” He sighed deeply and then came back to the present.

“Anyways she was seeing Snell off and on, keeping him sweet and so he turned a blind eye to her workin’ girls and the bootleg she sold… but then after our little set to… “

“Set to?”

“Yeah, he got kinda jealous about me and Crystal I guess and so he called me out.”

“And you outdrew him I guess?”

Jess gave the ghost of a smile, “No contest pard. Anyways after that he threatened to close down Crystal’s business so… well I rode out the next day.”

“So let me get this right……..you were fooling around with the Sheriff’s girlfriend?” asked Slim in amazement.

“No she weren’t they just had an arrangement. She wasn’t seeing him… he was way too old for her anyways,” he said quietly.

Slim just shook his head in grudging admiration, “You really don’t care who you rile when a woman’s involved do you Jess?”

Jess looked back,” She wasn’t his girl Slim and she was real keen on me and anyway, like I said, I was young back then…. easily encouraged.”

“Um,” said Slim grinning at him now,” and if she was as beautiful as you say I guess you didn’t need much encouragement,” and both men chuckled softly, knowing exactly what Jess was like around beautiful women.

The following morning it was obvious that Jess still wasn’t himself. Whether it was the severe beating he’d received at the hands of Ralf or just general fatigue from the long trek chasing after the Jessops he wasn’t sure. But for whatever reason Slim thought he looked real peaky as Miss Daisy would say.

Now looking across the camp fire at his buddy looking pale and ill he said,” So when was the last time you had a proper meal then Jess?”

Jess turned lacklustre eyes on his friend, “Dunno, been on trial grub mostly, well… jerky and coffee I suppose, not been hungry,” he said absently rubbing his stomach.

“Still hurting?” asked Slim with concern.


“I reckon that bastard Ralf really damaged you and then the less you eat the harder it gets to digest your food, like a vicious circle.”

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile,” You sound like Doc Sam, referring to their doctor in Laramie, spouting on, “so how do you know so much about it then?”

“It happened to me once, when I was in the army, got a good kicking in the stomach and had internal bleeding, felt sick as a dog and couldn’t eat properly for weeks. Now what you need it a light diet, to get you eating again, milk and eggs that kinda stuff.”

Jess threw him an incredulous look, ”Oh sure, I’ll just pop out and milk the cow and collect the eggs from that load of chickens we’ve got up the mountain shall I then?” he said sarcastically.

Then Slim looked up and grinned,” Fish, that’s the next best thing, some nice fresh fish from that stream aways down the track.”

“I dunno Slim, I’ve been kinda lying low, could be Bounty Hunters, a posse any goddamn thing waitin’ out there.”

“Hey pard this isn’t like you.”

Jess ducked his head,” Yeah well it ain’t just about me anymore is it… I’m tryin’ to keep you safe too Slim.”

“Aw come on Jess, we’ve got a real good view of the plain from down there, anyone looks like trouble we can hightail it back here pronto……. Huh?Come on a bit of fishing will do you good, cheer you up some.”

Jess muttered something like it would take a darned sight more than a spot of fishin’ to make him forget he’d got a noose waitin’ back in town for him, but he rallied none the less and the men went off down the track to the stream a while later.

After they had been sitting for over an hour and caught nothing Jess said he was going to try his luck a little further downstream and wandered off a few hundred yards or so and cast his line out again.

It must have been about a couple of hours later when he had quite a presentable catch and was just thinking of wandering back to see how Slim was doing when he heard it.

A chilling scream and then the sound of snarling and growling, and he looked up  stream to see Slim rolling about on the edge of the water a big cat uponhim, mauling his arm and throwing him about like a doll.

Jess sprinted back up towards his buddy, but it was a good couple of minutes before he could get a good clean shot at the animal without the danger of shooting Slim by mistake.

He watched in horror as the animal tore at his buddy’s flesh, now worrying at his upper thigh, Slim screaming and yelling for help, before Jess finally shot the creature through the back of the skull and it fell dead at once.

Slim lay still and for one terrible moment Jess thought he was dead.

He leaned over and grabbing his shoulders shook him hard, shouting his name and after a moment his eyelids flickered and finally opened and he shouted in pain and cussed long and loud.

Jess gave him a grim smile, “I reckon iffen you can still cuss that way there’s life in the old dog yet pard,”and he quickly started to survey the injury to his best friend.

He gave a low whistle when he saw the damage to Slim’s leg, the flesh torn away and bleeding profusely, and he quickly removed his bandana and bound it as well as he was able, then he hauled him up and almost carried him the short distance back to the cave.

Jess dressed the wounds and looked after Slim the best he could but by the following morning it was obvious his buddy was in urgent need of medical care and Jess knew what he had to do.

Slim had deteriorated to such a state that he was unable to sit a horse so Jess immediately went about the task of building a sturdy litter from branches and rope and soon after breakfast he was ready to go.

Slim seemed to have rallied a little when he re-entered the cave and accepted the coffee Jess gave him and once he was finished Jess said softly, “Come on then pard, let’s get you to the docs down in Rawlins.”

Slim’s head shot up,” Are you crazy, you can’t go down there!”

Jess’s jaw clenched and he had that stubborn look in his eyes that Slim knew so well.

“I can’t not go down there,” he said firmly, “you ain’t gonna make it if you don’t see a doc Slim, these wounds are way too serious for me to deal with.”

“I’ll be fine,” Slim whispered, but his eyes were closing even as he spoke, and they both knew that he wouldn’t be.

Jess said no more just went to fetch the horses and attach the litter to Alamo, so that he could carefully pull his master along on the make shift cot.

Then he went back in and gently awoke his buddy,” Come on Slim time to go, rest on me and I’ll help yer out.”

Slim shook his head,” I can’t, it’s signing your death warrant Jess, you go back down there and Snell will see you hang for sure.”

“And if I don’t you’ll die up here in this goddamn cave Slim and I ain’t gonna let that happen, now are yer gonna try and walk or do I have to carry you?”

Slim just ducked his head and said softly,” OK buddy you win,” and allowed himself to be helped out to the makeshift stretcher.

The journey was slow and painful for Slim, and not a lot better for Jess as he was unable to ride and had to lead Alamo along at a snail’s pace so that Slim wasn’t knocked about to much. The terrain was rough and after several hours of staggering along Jess was weary, but he didn’t dare to ride Alamo as he had to constantly check on Slim, stopping frequently to negotiate the rocks and steep path. Traveler followed on behind and made no attempt to move any faster than the other horse, just loped along and paused every time Jess stopped for any reason.

They finally reached town by late afternoon with Slim dipping in and out of consciousness and Jess in a state of near collapse.

He made it down main street to an audience of surprized citizens taking in the strange scene before them and then he was banging at Doc Mere’s office door. Suddenly the good doctor was there,” Jess my dear boy,” he said as Jess nearly collapsed in his arms,” come along in… “

“No… no doc it ain’t me it’s Slim, my buddy Slim Sherman, out on the litter been mauled real bad doc…come and see please….”

“Sure, it’s OK Jess I’m coming,”and the big man followed him out to the side walk and as soon as he took in the situation he commandeered several passers by the help him carry Slim into his surgery, Jess following him in looking fearful.

The doctor had made a start on cleaning Slim up, with Jess anxiously looking on when the door was suddenly unceremoniously thrust open and Sheriff Snell stood there his colt in his hand and a triumphant look onhis face, “Harper… welcome back,” he snarled.

Jess’s glance flickered over to him and then back to Slim.

“Well come on man, what are you waiting for there’s a nice cosy cell waiting for you across the street,” he said laughing bitterly.

Jess glanced at him again and then said gruffly,”I ain’t going nowhere until I’m sure my partners OK… once I know, you can string me up, do any damn thing you like with me, but I ain’t movin’ until doc says Slim’s OK.”

The Sheriff looked astonished at this and started blustering, but then the usually mild mannered doctor lost his temper.

“Sheriff, I am trying to conduct some quite complicated surgery here, attempting to save this young man’s arm and you are not helping one whit. I will personally vouch for Mister Harper and can assure you he will not be making an escape.”

“Well, I dunno doc I….” the somewhat chastened Sheriff started.

“For God’s sake look at him man,” shouted the doctor, seriously rattled now,” the poor boy is in a state of physical and mental collapse, he’s not going anywhere. He will remain in my custody until he is fit to return to your jail, and now I wish you good day!”

The Sheriff opened his mouth to argue and then thought better of it and after casting Jess a murderous look went off muttering to himself.

“Thanks doc,” said Jess softly as the door closed behind Snell.

“Quite alright my boy, now sit down and try and rest some while I put your partner back together again, “he said with an encouraging smile.

It was several hours later when Slim was sleeping peacefully, his arm and leg skilfully sutured that the old doctor finally turned his attention to Jess.

They had left Slim sleeping in the hospital room at the back of the large house with a young nurse at hand and now back in the treatment room the good doctor told Jess to strip off his shirt so that he could examine him.

“I’m OK doc,” he said wearily,” it was my buddy that needed your services and I really appreciate what you’ve done for old Slim.”

“Nonsense my boy, just doing my job, but you don’t look at all well either young man, come on let’s check you over,” he said briskly.

Jess knew Doc Meres of old and that he didn’t stand for any messing about from his patients so after a moment he hauled his shirt off and settled on the examination couch.

The doctor listened to his chest and then examined the bruising to his abdomen carefully.

Then he sat back and looked thoughtfully at his young patient, “Not eating, feeling nauseous and stomach cramps?” he said after a moment.

Jess ducked his head and then said quietly,” Yeah, I guess that about covers it.”

“Been bringing up any blood?”

Jess shook his head.

“Good, that’s good.”

Jess looked puzzled,” I’m, OK doc. Just kinda weary and beat up… but guess I’ve been this way before.”

“Um, that’s as maybe, but you received a very bad beating while in Sheriff Snell’s custody and then you’ve been out camping rough ever since. Not eating properly I surmise,” he said with a raised eyebrow.

Jess just nodded.

“Well you could have some internal bleeding, however…… more likely just severe bruising, but even so I will keep you in for observation for a few days, just to be on the safe side……. and then maybe Sheriff Smith will have returned,” he said with a huge wink.

“Thanks doc,” said Jess with feeling, allowing himself to smile for the first time since Slim’s accident.

Shortly afterwards the doc asked if Jess would like to bunk down in the other bed in the hospital room so that he could keep an eye on his buddy , but secretly the doctor wanted to keep a whether eye on the dark haired young cowboy , being a tad more worried about his condition than he had admitted.

Jess beamed at him,” That would be swell doc and I can give you a shout if old Hardrock needs anything.”

Then his face fell, “What about Snell though, he ain’t gonna be too pleased with the arrangements.”

“You leave Sheriff Snell to me young man; after all you’re not thinking of absconding are you?”

Jess shook his head,” You gave your word to him doc, said I was in your custody, I won’t be lettin’ you down.”

“Thank you Jess, that’s good enough for me,” he said patting him affectionately on the arm.

Jess went off to check on his buddy shortly afterwards and then about an hour later he heard Snell’s raised voice in the next room and then the doctor’s low growl, and after a while the front door banged shut and silence reigned.

Jess smiled to himself and looked down at his sleeping buddy,” Round one to the good doc I reckon pard,” he said softly, before wandering over to the other cot and stretching out, exhaustion finally taking over as he fell into a deep slumber.

Slim slipped in and out of consciousness for a couple of days but on the evening of the second day he rallied and seemed much more his old self, sitting up and taking nourishment and able to chat to his buddy.

Jess had been sitting at his bedside when Slim awoke and looking up at his friend said, “Hey it’s good to see you Jess, are you feeling better? “

“Never mind about me, how are you, that old cat sure gave you a good mauling.”

Slim rubbed his damaged arm and gave his friend a rueful look,” I can’t believe he jumped me that way, seemed to come from nowhere…… thank God you were there to dispatch him,” he said sincerely.

“Um….. just wish I’d thought to get the pelt for Mike, he’ll never forgive me.”

Slim chuckled and then sobered,” So what are you doing here pard, thought you’d have hightailed it back to safety by now.”

Jess ducked his head and then looked Slim in the eye,” I can’t do that Slim, I promised the doc, he’s vouched for me, told that low life Snell I won’t do a runner and figure I can’t let him down… Especially what he’s done for you…. you could have lost that arm you know buddy iffen he wasn’t such a good surgeon.”

“Yeah…. and if you hadn’t brought me here I’d have lost it as well, but hell Jess what a price to pay, you’ve still got that noose waiting. Snell will fetch you back to the jail eventually, no matter how hard the doc tries to help you.”

“Yeah…… I know that, but hey maybe Red will be back soon.”

“Yeah… maybe,” but Slim looked very worried for his friend, and both men knew it was not without cause.

The following morning Jess was awoken to the sound of hammering and he hauled himself out of bed and padded over to the window and on pulling the drapes back looked out onto the early morning street, and then reeled back at what he saw, three men working on erecting a gallows.

He broke out in a cold sweat at the sight and when he turned back into the room he was shocked to see Slim was also awake, his mild blue eyes peering in Jess’s direction.

After a minute he said softly,” Are they doing what I think they are Jess?”

Jess merely wandered back over to his bed and sank down, staring bleakly at his buddy and then just nodded.

It was mid-morning when there was a fierce banging on the front door and the little nurse went off to investigate.

The Sheriff stood there along with Deputy Dave Johnson and two other men he had recently deputized.

“I’m sorry Sheriff, the doctor is out on his rounds,” she said, her eyes huge and troubled at the look of rage in the elderly man’s gaze.

“It isn’t the doctor I’m wanting,” he snapped,” its Harper.”

“Well he’s sick, still under doctor’s orders,” she said with more bravado than she was feeling.

“Well that’s just too bad my dear because I have urgent business with him,” and brushing roughly past her he made for the hospital room.

Jess rose from the chair by Slim’s bed, when the Sheriff burst in and Slim sat up looking angry, “What do you want Sheriff, you can’t just come barging into a sick room.”

“Sure I can Sherman, and if I was you I’d be keeping real quiet, or I might just remember you’ve been in the company of a wanted murderer.”

Slim looked furious and made to get out of bed,” He isn’t a murderer and you know it!” he spat.

However Jess came forwards and gently pushed his buddy back onto the bed, “Take it easy Slim, you’re not to get upset, the doc said so, just relax and I’ll see yer later,” and with that he went with the Sheriff, leaving Slim looking bleakly after him knowing there was nothing he could do at that moment to help his buddy.

As soon as they were across the road, the Sheriff dismissed his men and once he and Jess were alone he gave up all pretence of being a professional law man and jabbed Jess hard in the stomach with his rifle as he made his way into the cell.

Jess fell to his knees in agony and cast the Sheriff a perplexed look,” What in hell was that for?” he managed at last,” I was goin’ in the cell wasn’t I. there was no need….”

“Oh yes there was Harper, every need, I figure you need to remember who’s boss around here and I reckon that belly ache will remind you for quite a while,” he growled.

“Now quit yer whingeing and if I were you I’d get on my knees and start reacquainting yourself with yer Maker, because you’ll be meeting him pretty darned soon,” and with that he clanged the cell door and marched off.

Jess went and threw himself down on the bunk, relieved that at least he was still in the single cell adjacent to the office, not sharing with Jessop again in the back. But there again who needed another prisoner to beat him up if the Sheriff was going to do it anyway he thought bitterly.

The Sheriff spent the next couple of days systematically trying to grind Jess down by constantly referring to his imminent demise and taunting him saying how he was looking forwards to the event.

“Yeah, guess it will be the happiest day of my life seeing you swing boy,” he said one evening when the other staff had all left for the night and he was sitting with his feet up on his desk and swigging whiskey from a small silver flask he kept in his vest pocket.

“Yep, circuit judge is due in any day now and with the Jessops willing to speak agin you, well only a matter of days before you’re up there seeing the view from the gallows,” he said with an evil chuckle.

Jess did what he always did when the harassment got bad and just lay on his bunk his hands laced behind his head and stared at the ceiling with unseeing eyes trying to block the words out and focus on something…anything else.

Once maybe he would have railed and yelled back, but he’d learnt over the years to rein in his temper some and now he only lost it completely when he was just pushed too far.Right then he was thinking about his sweet Millie and he wondered what she was doing and when he’d see her again, hell if he’d ever see her again.

He had done such a good job of blocking Snell out, he failed to hear the voice start to break and rant even more harshly, calling Jess every name under the sun. Then suddenly the cell door crashed open and the Sheriff was there hauling Jess up from his bunk and then sending him crashing to the floor with a vicious backhander across his face.

Jess just lay there where he had fallen looking shocked.

“I said listen to me when I’m talkin’ you low life scum…. It’s all down to you my girl is dead; she married that wastrel Peterson on the rebound after your affair with her, when you threw her over and left town, you filthy bastard!”

Jess suddenly couldn’t stand it any longer.

“You know that ain’t true, I never had an affair with your daughter. She was just a kid and I was getting’ all I wanted from Crystal anyways why would I look anywhere else? The only reason I left town was because you threatened to close down her business. Hell Sheriff, the only affair I was having with young Becky was in her head like I told you at the time.”

“You’re lying!”

“All that happened was she kissed me and I kissed her back …. Just the once and then I told her straight I wasn’t interested, not in settling down, a family like she wanted, that was what upset her so much… and why you came gunning for me the next day too, she was upset just because I wouldn’t get involved, nuthin’ more.”

“Shut up Harper I don’t want to hear your lies, you’re going to hang if it’s the last thing I do.”

“What for a crime I didn’t commit, you know as well as I do I didn’t murder that Bounty Hunter.”

“So what if I do know it’s all lies? Sure I bribed the witnesses. I know you couldn’t gun a man down in cold blood Harper… after all you had the chance with me all those years ago and you didn’t take it did you… You just walked away… so brave, so goddamn honourable! “

Jess just glared up at him,” Go to hell Sheriff,” he muttered.

Snell lunged forwards and kicked Jess hard, as he was still sprawled on the floor, making him yell in pain, and curl up clutching his belly where Snell’s heavy boot had made contact.

“Well it doesn’t matter too much what the truth is because I’m the Sheriff around here and what I say goes,” he said with a bitter laugh.

Then he heard someone clear their throat just behind him and spinning around he saw the Circuit Judge, Mort Corey and Deputy Dave Johnson all standing in the doorway , where they had been since Snell entered the cell and had started to torment Jess.

The Circuit Judge stepped forwards,” Oh no you’re not Sheriff Snell,you are relieved of your duties as from now, and you had better remain in town until I have got to the bottom of this sorry business. By the sounds of things Mr Harper may well be within his rights to press charges against you. Return home and consider yourself under house arrest Sheriff and I trust I don’t need to send a deputy along to enforce it do I?” he asked raising a sceptical eyebrow.

The Sheriff bowed his head,he knew when he was beaten, hell he had all but admitted to his devious miscarriage of duty in front of the Circuit Judge, the game was over.

He cast Jess one last look of deep loathing and turned and marched out of his office.

Mort immediately ran to Jess’s side and helped him up on to the bunk where he sat rubbing his stomach and grinning up at his friend,” Jeez it’s good to see you Mort.”

The Sheriff patted him on the back,” We heard things weren’t going too well up here. Dave sent a wire, so I figured I’d ride along with the judge and it looks like we arrived just at the right time.”

Then the judge was there in the cell and Jess shook the offered hand,” Good to see you Judge Hanson.”

The older man smiled warmly down at the young cowboy who he knew well as Jess had given evidence, as a deputy, at several trials where the judge had presided. He knew him to be a man of his word and also a good guardian to young Mike Williams.

“I’m real sorry for your trouble here Harper,” he said sincerely,” Once the doc’s looked you over and you’re feeling a mite better we’ll sit down and discuss everything that has happened and rest assured Sheriff Snell won’t be bothering you again.”

Thanks judge said Jess softly as Mort and Dave helped him across the road to Doc Meres place.

Chapter 8

As it worked out Jess decided not to press charges against the Sheriff as long as it was definite that he would never be employed as a lawman again and he would leave town. The latter stipulation because Jess didn’t want him making any trouble for Red or Dave after the judge had left.

The judge had moved on to the next town and Jess was sitting in Red’s office, the Sheriff having finally returned, discussing the matter with his friends.

“Are you sure about this Jess” asked Mort turning a puzzled expression on his friend, “after all he did to you, Hell he’d have seen you swing iffen we hadn’t happened along, you do know that?”

Jess lookeddown before giving Mort a sad look,” A man has that kinda bitterness in him, well I guess he don’t need any more pain in his life.”

Mort and Red exchanged a glance,” Well I guess not, but even so….”

“He lost his little girl Mort, and for whatever reason he wants….no I guess he needs to hang the blame somewhere and he’s chosen me ……... Well I figure I know a whole lot about bein’ bitter….the things that happened in the past, you know?” he said casting Mort an enquiring look.

The Sheriff knew he was referring to the loss of all his kin when their home was fired by the Banister gang and then later how his fiancée was gunned down and killed in front of him.

“Yeah, I know son,” he said softly.

“Yeah, well I’ve tried to put all that behind me, I don’t always succeed I know,” he said with his depreciating grin.

Then he sighed,” But I try because that sort of bitterness just slowly kills a man…. and I guess that’s the way it is for Sheriff Snell, he don’t need me to hurt him none, he’s already doing it to himself.”

Red nodded,” I guess you’re right about that buddy, he just can’t come to terms with what happened to Becky and there was no blame involved,. She was just unlucky, the baby was breach and the doc didn’t arrive in time it was as simple as that, but he just won’t accept the fact.”

Mort smiled over at his friend,” I guess that’s an end to the business then, Dave and I are taking the prisoners back to Laramie for the trial, you wanna ride along Jess?”

Jess shook his head,” I guess not, if you can manage OK Mort, I’ll wait until Slim is well enough to ride, should be another week or so according to the doc.”

Mort sucked in a deep breath, “He sure was mauled bad, I thought he’d be well enough to come with us.”

“Yeah, the doc thought he might lose the arm, as it is it’ll be weeks before he’s fully recovered, I guess it’s going to be tough on him,” said Jess thoughtfully.

Mort nodded,” This sure has been a sorry business for the pair of you. “

“Yeah, well……” and he shrugged

Red and Mort were amazed at Jess’s laid back attitude, knowing how volatile he could be at times.

“I must say you’ve taken all this very well,” said Red, putting into words what both he and Mort were thinking.

He shrugged again, “The way I figure it I’m real lucky, with you guys watchin’ my back you helped me out before Red. Then you rode out all this way to help Mort, makes a man feel real humble… it’s just poor ol’ Hardrock I feel sorry for and I’ll try and make it up to him some way. Doin’ all the work for a start,” he said, his usual cheery grin suddenly lighting up his face and his deep blue eyes twinkling, ”I guess I won’t have any choice in that for a while anyways.”

And so it was that Slim and Jess finally headed for home and were greeted by a delighted Daisy and Mike, who came running out to meet them as they rode into the yard.

Slim slid down from the saddle awkwardly; his arm still in a sling and Daisy at once came and started fussing around him.

“Why Slim whatever have you been up to dear?”

Slim threw her a rueful look, “I got mauled by a mountain lion.”

At this young Mike’s eyes lit up,” So you killed him then?” he asked excitedly looking from Slim to Jess and back.

Jess grinned down at the youngster,” Yeah and before you ask, no we didn’t get the pelt,” he said ruffling the boy’s hair.

“Aw Jess,” he moaned as he hugged his friend, then cheering said stoically,” at least you’re both back safely, that’s the main thing ain’t it!”

Jess smiled down at him and nodded,” That it is Tiger.”

Then Daisy cast her experienced eye over Jess,” You look far from well too young man, why Jess you must have lost several pounds in weight, you look positively gaunt.”

Jess and Slim exchanged an amused glance,” Good to be home ain’t it buddy?” said Slim laughing as they made their way into the warmth of the ranch house.


As soon as he was able to get away Jess went to town as he couldn’t wait to see Millie and check for himself that she was OK, had no nasty after affects from her run in with the Jessops, although both Slim and Daisy had assured him she was fine.

He arrived mid-morning and strode into the saloon which was still quiet.

Old Tom the barkeep and good friend came forwards at once grinning at the young cowboy and said,” Morning Jess good to see you back, beer is it?”

Jess shook his head,” No thanks Tom, is Millie about?”

“No sorry son, I’m afraid she’s sick.”

The smile on Jess’s face froze, “Sick?” he echoed, looking deeply concerned.

“Hey, simmer down, she’s OK just a bad head cold, she was sneezing all over the customers yesterday. Well that’s bad for business so I sent her up to bed, told her to stay there and keep warm until she was feeling better. “

“Can I go up Tom?”

“Sure, sure as long as you ain’t a feared of catchin’ it,” he chuckled, knowing that would be the last thing on the young man’s mind.

Jess ran up the stairs and tapped lightly on her door and after a few minutes he was rewarded by it being pulled open revealing Millie dressed in her nightgown, with a shawl hasty pulled around her. Her dark hair was a little tousled and loose around her shoulders, he cheeks flushed and her dark eyes glittering a little as with a slight fever but she had never looked lovelier to Jess.

Her mouth made a perfect O when she saw him standing there, her eyes wide in surprise and then she was in his embrace, his strong arms holding her close.

After a moment she pulled back, ”Don’t get too close,” she said smiling up at him,” it’s just so good to see you, but I’ve a terrible cold, I don’t want you to catch it.”

He just grinned down at her,” Do you really think I’m bothered?” he asked and then he bent his head and kissed her deeply, pulling her close again as though he would never let her go.

He was suddenly aware that they were still standing on the threshold of her room and he guided her back inside. Once he was divested of his gun, hat and boots, all to be left by the door as per Millie’s usual house rules he padded over to the huge sofa which was pulled up close to the blazing fire.

Once they were comfortable and he had pulled a blanket around her to keep her cosy, she turned to him, her face full of concern.

“Let me look at you. Oh Jess I’ve been so, so worried about you and then when Deputy Johnson wired Mort to say you were in jail, well it was just awful.”

Then she peered more closely, ”You look real sick honey, pale and so thin. Tell me about it all, have you been hurt?”

He filled her in as best he could, about Sheriff Snell and their history, and she was amazed that a lawman could act so deviously and be so bitter about something that was blatantly not Jess’s fault.

Jess assured he was fine and then he leaned forwards and stroked her cheek gently.

“How about you, I could have swung for that no good varmint Jessop when he backhanded you.”

“Oh, I’m OK really, just glad you’re safely home,” she said.

He just gazed at her for a full minute before whispering, “Oh sweetheart I’ve missed you so dang much,” and then they were in each other’s arms again and all Millie’s fears that he would catch her cold completely forgotten as the kissing became more and more passionate and they finally moved to her big comfy bed.

Millie awoke much later and after a few moments she leaned up and surveyed her lover’s body, noting all the bruising. There seemed barely a square inch that hadn’t been punched or kicked, the bruises ranging from faint pale brown to deep angry looking purple and black and she felt terribly distressed seeing him that way.

After a little while he awoke and his deep blue eyes looked up to where she was still lying propped up on one elbow scrutinizing him.

“Guess you’ll know me again,” he said with a chuckle.

“Jess this isn’t funny,” she said almost crying in her distress, “just look at you, it looks like you’ve been used as a punch bag, you’re black and blue.”

“I’m OK, got off lightly, poor ol’ Hardrock was mauled by a cougar really badly, arm, leg… the arm is still bothering him some.”

She shook her head, “Poor Slim, I don’t know…… the scrapes you two boys get into,” and she shook her head, smiling ruefully at him.

Then he grinned back,” Well I’m home now,” he said with a cheeky wink as he leaned in for another kiss……


Things finally got back to normal at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station as the spring turned to summer and the beasts were grazing back up on the high pasture while Jess broke numerous mustangs and sold them on to the army.

The news from back in Rawlins was that Sheriff Snell had been stripped of his office and had a short prison sentence for dereliction of duty and abuse of a position of power, although Red was unable to throw the book at him and give him a much longer spell in prison because Jess still refused to press charges.

Meanwhile the Jessop brothers had both been tried and hung for murder, and the fact that justice had been done, was agreed by all who knew them.

However Jess took no pleasure from the hanging, just accepted it as their just rewards.

When Mort told him of the brothers’ demise he was surprized at Jess’s lack of enthusiasm.

“I thought you’d be cock-a –hoop,” he said smiling at his buddy,” after what they did to you.”

“Yeah well…I guess I’m glad they can’t hurt anyone else, but that’s all.”

Mort grinned over at him,” I think you’re finally mellowing Jess you know that?”

He smiled back,” Yeah, maybe I am.”

It was a few weeks later when Jess was driving young Mike back from town after a shopping trip that his attitude was to completely change however.

They were batting along, a mile or two outside town, looking forward to Miss Daisy’s lunch and nothing more taxing on their minds than the possibility of a Saturday afternoon fishing trip, when a shot rang out ripping across the couple, missing Jess by a hair’s breadth.

He instinctively brought the buckboard to a screaming standstill the horses protesting at being reined in so aggressively, as Jess grabbed Mike and threw both of them from the vehicle where they rolled in the dust, Jess automatically covering the boy, before returning the fire.

Several volleys of shots continued from both parties before Jess’s attacker finally saw sense and lit out at speed, knowing when he had met his match.

Jess gave a sigh of relief, and sat up from where he had been lying protectively across young Mike only to see a deep red stain on the front of his pale blue work shirt and then peering down in horror he saw that the blood was coming from a wound to young Mike’s upper arm and on looking more closely he saw the boy was deathly pale and unconscious.

He leapt up and ripped his bandana from his neck before tying it tightly around the boy’s wounded limb and then he picked him up and carried him tenderly back to the buckboard which he turned back towards town, fear and anger in his deep blue eyes as he hustled the team forwards at speed.

He burst into doc Sam’s office carrying the boy and the doctor immediately jumped up from his desk and ran over, telling Jess to put the child on the couch.

“What happened?” he asked calmly as he started to examine the boy who had now come to and was groaning softly.

Jess looked on almost beside himself with shock and distress,” Got bushwhacked just outside town, I thought he was OK, I thought I’d protected him,”he said his voice cracking.

Then Carrie was there leading him away a little and she sat him down and passed him a glass of cool water.

“Drink this Jess,” she said gently,” you look white as a sheet.”

He accepted the drink with shaking hands from Sam’s daughter and nurse and nodded his thanks,before peering over at his beloved child again, feeling totally helpless.

Once Sam had cleaned and dressed the wound Mike broke down crying with pain and shock and Jess was immediately by his side cradling him and talking softly to him, until the child’s eyes finally grew heavy and he fell asleep.

“He OK?” asked Jess peering up at his friend.

“Yes he’s just fine Jess, I administered a sleeping draft to help with the pain, it’ a nasty gash, and he should sleep through to tomorrow now.”

Then he gently pulled Jess up from where he was still sitting holding the boy,” Come on Jess, you look terrible, come and sit a while and tell me what happened, Mike will be fine here with Carrie.”

Reluctantly he did as he was told, but he paused by the door for a moment looking back and shaking his head sadly, before following the doctor out.

Once in the family sitting room Sam poured his buddy a stiff whiskey and one for himself, and passed it over.

“A bit early I know, but you look like you could use it…. so who do you think was gunning for you then Jess?”

Jess looked deeply into his glass before tipping it back in one and grimacing. Then he looked across at Sam,” I figure it was someone sent by Sheriff Snell, to finish off his dirty work for him.”

Sam looked shocked, he had heard all about the run in Jess had had with the old Sheriff and the reason for it and now he shook his head looking concerned, “You really think so?”

“Yeah, think I recognised him, a hombre he deputized back in Rawlins. Paid him to watch me when I was in the jail there, turns out he was a gunslinger he’d paid real well to do the job… I figure he thought he’d be more of a match for me in a gunfight, seeing as I outdrew the good Sheriff last time we had a set to.”

“Well it looks like you’ve got this gunslinger running scared,” said Sam placatingly.

Jess just stared at him with unseeing eyes for a moment, and then he jumped up,” You say Mike will be out until tomorrow?”

The doctor nodded,” Oh yes he’s well sedated and should be more himself when he wakes up, it’s not life threatening you know Jess,” he said kindly.

“Maybe not for him,” he muttered as he pulled his hat down hard and turned to leave.


He turned back and looked at his friend.

“Jess, where are you going?” asked the doc his voice filled with foreboding.

“I’m gonna find the bastard that did this and kill him,” said Jess quietly, before turning and marching out of the room.

Mort Corey, who had been immediately tipped off by a very worried Sam, caught up with Jess in the livery just as he was hiring a mount.

“Wait up Jess, I’m coming with you.”

Jess spun around at the Sheriff’s words, his face a picture of anger, but then he merely dipped his head,” I guess I can’t stop you,” he said quietly, before jumping on the horse old Bert had provided with a promise that he was a real fast ride.

He sat on his mount, frowning down at his buddy, but at least waited until Mort’s old buckskin was saddled and ready to go before he spurred the grey, Bert had hired him, out of the yard and down Main Street at speed.

They had been riding for about fifteen minutes when they came to the place where Jess had been attacked and he dismounted and checked on the tracks before pointing across land towards the distant lake.

“I figure he’s making for the caves,” he said almost to himself, looking off to the distance.

“So what are we going to do when he catch up with him?” asked Mort throwing Jess a questioning glance.

“Well I dunno what you’re gonna do Mort, but I’m gonna shoot the bastard.”

Mort shook his head sadly,” No you’re not Jess, you’re not a killer, hell ‘twas only the other day I said you’d settled down, mellowed some.”

Jess fixed him with an icy stare, “That was before someone shot down my boy… A defenseless little kid Mort! That ain’t right… and don’t go tellin’ me it was an accident, the lowlife saw Mike was there and should never have opened fire,” he spat angrily.

“Sure, I agree with you buddy and he’ll get the full force of the law on his back, but we have to deal with this legally Jess, you know that….”

Jess just looked down and Mort suddenly saw he was shaking and when he spoke his voice was thick with emotion, “This is hard for me Mort, real hard….”

“Yes I know son, and I care about that little fellah too you know. We’ll nail this bastard, but though the proper channels yeah?”

Jess still looked down, but eventually he heaved a big sigh, “Yeah, I guess,” he said softly, before re mounting and kicking the grey on towards the distant hills.

It was late afternoon by the time they saw that the trail was real fresh, and Jess’s heart started pounding and he wondered if, once he was face to face with his adversary, he would be able to keep his word to Mort.

As though he understood, Mort reined in his mount and looking down at Jess who was hunkered down checking the tracks, and said,” You are OK ain’t you Jess, I shouldn’t be worried?”

Jess looked up into his good friend’s eyes and remembered how he had ridden all the way to Rawlins to help him out and his heart softened,” Sure Mort, I’ll behave.”

They were riding through a steep ravine when the gunslinger opened fire on them and both men leapt from their mounts and dived to safety behind some rocks before returning the fire. However it was obvious that their attacker had excellent cover and depending on how much ammunition he had the gun fight could carry on indefinitely.

After a while Jess ducked down behind the rock,” This is crazy Mort, we can’t get a good shot at him up in the rocks the way he is, so how about you keep him busy and I circle around behind him?”

Mort thought on this for a minute and then made a decision, “How’s about you keep him busy and I circle around the back.”

Jess gave him a hard look, but then another bullet ricocheted off the rock behind him and he just nodded OK.

Jess did what was asked of him and exchanged a volley of shots with the other man and after a little while he heard Mort shout,” Cease fire Jess I’ve got him.”

A moment later Mort emerged from behind the rocks, the sandy haired man Jess recognised as one of Snell’s deputies in front of him, his arms in the air and a troubled look on his face.

As he advanced and saw Jess the look of trouble turned to terror and he looked back at the Sheriff as if for reassurance.

“Well what have you gotta say for yourself?” spat Jess aggressively, “Where do ya get off goin’ around shootin’ young kids… eh?” and he jabbed the man hard in the chest with his forefinger.

He turned pale and started sweating profusely,” I didn’t mean to hurt your kid Harper…. Really I didn’t…I…..”

“I’ve just come from the bedside of a kid crying in pain with a bullet through his arm, and that was down to you, no matter how much you wanna explain it away!” yelled Jess his eyes blazing.

“Please Harper I really…..”

But he never finished the sentence as Jess threw a punch to the jaw, so hard the man was knocked several feet away and was out cold as he hit the ground.

He lunged forwards and pulled him up by his shirt, but when he saw he was unconscious he threw him back down unceremoniously, and stood there glaring at him and cussing under his breath.

After a moment Mort came forwards and put a gentle hand on his shoulder,” You all done now Jess?”

He ducked his head and aimed a brutal kick to the prostrate man’s leg before turning away.

“Yeah, I guess so Mort, I’ll go fetch the horses,” he said gruffly and he strode off leaving Mort watching him, the light of relief in his eyes, his head shaking. A real mad Jess was a sight to behold he thought to himself, and part of him was kinda glad Jess still had the fire in his belly and hadn’t completely mellowed.

When they returned to town and the man was safely in Mort’s jail, Jess turned to go as he was desperate to check on Mike. But he paused by the door, his hand on the handle and turned back towards the Sheriff.

“Back there Mort, when you wouldn’t let me be the one to circle around and bring him out…. Was it… was it because you didn’t trust me not to finish him off?”

The older man’s gaze locked with Jess’s and after a moment he shook his head,” No it wasn’t that. I trusted you to do the right thing… but I know how hard that would have been for you Jess, and I figured it wasn’t fair to put you in that position.”

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile,” Yeah, well I guess it would have been a pretty close run thing,” he said softly,” thanks Mort,” and he turned and left heading for the doc’s place.

When he was shown into the hospital room at the back he was surprised to see Slim and Daisy sitting by the bed where Mike was still sleeping peacefully.

Daisy leapt up when he entered, “Oh Jess dear we’ve been so worried about you.”

Jess embraced her and smiled down, “Heck Daisy I’m OK how’s the boy?”

She looked back down to his sleeping form, “Oh he’s doing just fine dear, it will be painful for a few days, but no lasting damage thank goodness.”

Then Slim looked up at his buddy concern on his face,” So did you bring the gunslinger in then Jess?”

Jess’s expression hardened, “Yeah.”

“Dead or alive?” questioned Slim quietly, hardly daring to ask.

Jess raised an eyebrow, wondering what his friend was getting at.

“ Mose brought us the news when he drove the noon Stage in and he said the word on the street was that you’d told Sam you were going to kill him………. please tell me you didn’t pard,” he said softly.

The silence in the room was oppressive as Daisy and Slim seemed to hold their breath waiting for his answer.

Jess was looking down, and Slim could see he was shaking.

“Jess…? “

After a moment Jess met his gaze and slowly shook his head.

“No… he’s over in the jail,” then he turned and thrusting his balled fists into the pockets of his denims he walked over to the window and looking out with unseeing eyes said softly,” I sure wanted to though, by God I wanted to.”

Much later Daisy and Slim retired for the night to rooms they had booked over in the hotel, neither of them wanting to leave town until Mike was well enough to travel, but Jess had opted to sleep on the spare cot in the hospital room.

Doc Sam said he’d most likely sleep through the night, but Jess was adamant he didn’t want to leave him.

“Hell doc if the little fellah wakes up here and I’m not around I figure he’ll be real upset.”

The doctor nodded wisely,” Yes you’re probably right Jess, he was really quite shocked earlier, poor little tyke.”

When Carrie came in later that night, to check on the patient, she found Jess sitting in the bedside chair, his eyes never leaving the sleeping child’s face.

Carrie and Jess were very close friends. When she had first moved to Laramie she had a terrible crush on the cowboy and at fifteen she nearly drove him mad running after him.* See The Doctor’s Daughter. Then later the tables were turned and he had feelings for her, but never let anything come of it, thinking himself too old for the then eighteen year old. If truth were known he didn’t feel worthy of the bright intelligent young woman, and even though Carrie had protested at that and wanted them to be together Jess’s stubborn streak won through and now they were just very good friends.

She came in quietly and sat on the edge of the bed, running an experienced hand across the child’s forehead.

“Nice and cool,”” she said brightly, that’s good, no sign of fever.”

Jess just nodded.

She reached over and put a comforting hand on his knee, “He really will be OK you know Jess,” she said softly.

He finally tore his eyes away from the boy’s face and looked at her properly for the first time and what she saw in his eyes sent a shiver down her spine.

He looked totally beaten and there was a depth of sadness in his gaze that she had never seen before.

“It could have been so different,” he whispered eventually, “we could be burying him Carrie.”

“Hush,” she said quickly, being incredibly fond of the child she regarded as a little brother,” don’t talk that way Jess, please.”

He suddenly realised he’d upset her and patted the hand that still remained on his knee.

“Jeez, I’m sorry sweetheart I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m just so dang mad at myself I guess, for putting him in danger that way.”

“But Jess, none of this was your fault; you had no way of knowing this would happen.”

“Maybe not, but I guess I should have figured old Sheriff Snell wouldn’t give up that easy, he wants me dead Carrie and he’ll do it anyway he can.”

“But that’s terrible, he can’t get away with it, can’t the Sheriff deal with it, put him in jail or something?”

Jess gave her an ironic smile, “That’s where he is right now, banged up in the Rawlins jail for breach of the peace. Apparently instead of leaving town like the judge had said, he got drunk and started shooting the place up, so Red jailed him, according to Mort, he got a wire just the other day.”

“Well that’s good isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but old Red can’t keep him there indefinitely and once Snell hears his little plan with the gunslinger ain’t worked I figure he’ll come over himself.”

Then he turned anxious eyes on his friend,” Looks like I’m gonna have to ride out. I can’t risk Mike being hurt again or Daisy….” he said softly looking down, his whole demeanour one of fear and worry.

“Talk it through with Mort and Slim first,” she said quickly,” you can’t face all this alone.”

He just nodded and gave her a weary smile.

“Now you get to bed Jess,” she said, suddenly the brisk nurse,” Mike will sleep through and he’ll need you fit and rested tomorrow… OK?”

“Ok whatever you say ma’am,” he said with his cheeky grin, and she breathed a sigh of relief at the re-emergence of the old Jess she knew and loved.

“That’s better,” she said grinning at him,then she leaned forwards and kissed his tenderly on the forehead before standing to leave,” goodnight cowboy,” she whispered.

He smiled up at her,” ‘Night Carrie and … thanks.”

“For what?” she asked raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, just fer bein’ you I guess,” he said softly.

She smiled sweetly and made her leave, but Jess sat on at the bedside watching the gentle breathing of the child he had come to love as his own, into the small hours of the morning. He finally stretched out on the other cot, fully clothed, save his boots, and slept fitfully, but at dawn he was awoken by Mike calling out for him.

He was immediately by the boy’s side, “Hey Tiger you OK?” he asked, his voice breaking with emotion as he saw the youngster peering around trying to make sense of where he was.

Then he tried to sit up and fell back crying out in pain as he put weight on his injured arm.

“Hey easy there Mike, don’t try to move,” he said quickly, pushing the child gently back and pulling the covers over.

“Jess,” he whispered, “what happened?”

“You were shot Tiger, some lowlife bushwhacked us, I’m so… so sorry this is all my fault.”

“Of course it ain’t,” said Mike staunchly, “it’s the bad man’s fault,” he said with childlike logic.

“Yeah, well whatever, I’m sure sorry you’ve been hurt.”

“That’s OK,” then he looked up at his hero,” I never knew Jess.”

“Huh, never knew what Tiger?”

“What it feels like to be shot, it kinda stings and burns and aches some too it’s real nasty ain’t it Jess?”

The dark haired cowboy thought he would really cave in then, but he held it together as well as he could, and although his eyes were glittering he managed to nod and say,” Yeah, all of that Tiger.”

“See thing is, I never knew it was this way, the times you and Slim have been shot up…. Well heck I was really sorry for you, but I never knew it hurt this much, I figure I’d have been more understanding iffen I’d realised.”

Jess just stared down at him and swallowed deeply.

“Remember that time when I was just a little kid and you’d been shot up real bad, and just the next day I wanted you to come fishin’ with me and I got real mad when you wouldn’t. I guess I didn’t really understand how bad you were feeling… well I do know,” he finished.

“Come here,” said Jess softly and took the boy in his arms and hugged him long and hard.

After a while he pulled back and smiled down at him,” You’ll be OK real soon you know.”

Mike nodded,” Can I go home today?”

“Maybe, it’s up to doc Sam.”

“And Jess can I have a sling like Slim had when he got mauled by that mountain lion?”

Jess smiled down,” I guess.”

Mike was quiet for a while and then he piped up,” I’m awful hungry Jess, when do you think Carrie will bring breakfast?”

Jess grinned now, “Not for a while Tiger, it’s real early, I reckon she’s still abed, how about I go and see iffen I can find some milk and cookies?”

Then the child’s face lit up,” Gee that would be swell Jess!”

Chapter 9

Mike was allowed home later that day, with the requested sling of which he was extremely proud and he bounced back well, the injury healing quickly.

However Jess’s spirits we’re not so quick to mend and he continued to feel very much that he was to blame, if not directly , then by his past actions.

He sat down and discussed the issues with Slim, but he was completely against Jess riding out alone.

“Can’t you see buddy, that’s exactly what he wants you to do and knowing Snell if you do have a shoot-out, well he’ll frame you so it will all look to be your fault.”

“Well what am I supposed to do, just sit here and wait for him to land… and maybe shoot Daisy or Mike in the cross fire!”

“That’s not going to happen Jess, we’re aware now and as long as Mike and Daisy stay safe on the ranch, we can deal with things together buddy.”

“Yeah, I suppose…. “

“Come on Jess, this is one old guy. Sure he’s mean and really gunning for you, but when it comes down to it I figure you can outdraw him any day of the week.”

“Sure… sure but you’re missing the point Slim, he’s a devious conniving old varmint who wants me dead and he don’t mind how he goes about it… I …. well I just couldn’t bear for any of you to be hurt because of me, you must see that.”

“Yes, sure I do buddy, but it isn’t going to come to that, we’ll deal with whatever happens and Mort is onside too, so just try and relax some huh?”

As the days turned to week and nothing more was heard from Sheriff Snell, Jess did indeed begin to relax. It was mid-summer and some of the pressure was off the ranchers and whereas they had all the usual chores around the place to attend to, the pace was easy and they could take their time. They spent time repairing fences, breaking some more mustangs and generally going about the day to day routines of the Ranch and Relay Station.

So it was that Jess found himself in Mort Corey’s office one afternoon passing the time of day and enjoying a coffee after a trip to the livery to pay some bills.

They were in deep conversation about the latest tally on a local card game, when Doc Sam burst into the office.

“Hey doc where’s the fire?” asked Mort jovially.

Sam threw him a concerned look,” Not a fire exactly Mort, but more of a robbery, you see I’ve had a quantity of chloroform stolen overnight. I’ve only just missed it, and I’m worried that if it gets into the wrong hands…..well…..”

“What you mean a body might use it to bring down someone in the bank and rob it?” asked the Sheriff suddenly alert to the possible problem.

“Well no, not really it’s a popular misconception that you can just render someone unconscious with a pad soaked in chloroform, it usually takes a good five minutes to get the patient under,” he said.

“So why do you think they’ve taken it then?” asked Jess.

“I’m not sure, could be possibly to help with an abortion. I hate to say it, but there has been the odd case where a young lady has got into trouble and not wanting to seek help from me because of the shame, well……..they find a women that’ll help them out, if you get my drift.”

Both men looked a little embarrassed, but agreed they knew what Sam was getting at.

“Well that’s what I’m thinking Sheriff; it could lead to a death if it isn’t administered properly,” he said looking worried.

“Well I sure will keep a lookout,” said Mort vaguely, wondering just how he could police this latest violation of the law.

As it was a Saturday night Jess had arranged to meet up with Millie at the saloon and when he strode in a little later he was surprized to see that she wasn’t about.

After a while he became impatient, wanting to see her, and asked Tom if he could go on up.

“Sure, sure Jess, she was due on duty a good hour ago. I don’t know what’s happened to the girl, you go and chivvy her up.”

Jess ran lightly up the stairs and knocked at Millie’s door and after a moment called out, before trying the handle and was surprized when the door swung open.

He looked into the completely dark room and after a moment he struck a match and lit the lamp by the door before entering, again calling Millie’s name softly.

He thought at first that she had taken a nap and overslept, or maybe she was sick, but as he advanced into the room, it appeared there was a far more sinister reason for her absence.

There was a sickly sweet smell and then as he walked over to the bed he saw the covers were thrown around as if there had been a struggle…..Then he saw it……. a pad of rag on the floor and on picking it up the stench was unmistakably chloroform.

He dashed back down stairs,” Tom, has she had any visitors?”

The old bar keep shook his head,”No I don’t think so… and then he remembered, “Yes, yes she did Jess, her old uncle called, I remember now. He said he wanted to surprise her, but he left long since, I heard him go out the back, I was real busy in the bar so didn’t take much notice…”

Jess just shook his head in disbelief, before taking off back towards the Sheriff’s office.

When he entered, Mort was just closing up for the night,” What’s up buddy?” he asked when he saw Jess’s stricken expression.

Jess took little time in filling Mort in about Millie’s worrying disappearance.

“Well Jess it looks like who ever took her will be long gone, we’ll have to trail them in the morning, can’t see any tracks at night, you know that.”

“Sure, sure I guess,” said Jess looking anguished, hell Mort who do you think has taken her?”

Mort said nothing, but the first name that came to mind was Sheriff Edgar Snell.

It didn’t take Jess long to figure it either, and he felt sick to his stomach, wondering what Snell’s game was and whether he had hurt Millie. He thought about the wrecked bed and realised she must have put up a good fight and inwardly cursed Tom for letting a complete stranger up there and then not even hearing the struggle that must have ensued.

Later Jess and Mort returned to the saloon and quizzed Tom on Millie’s visitor and he described Snell to a T, from his long grey hair to the hard expression.

“Jeez Jess I’m so dang sorry about this,” his old friend said,” truth is I’m short staffed and I was so busy when the guy landed and said he was Millie’s uncle, well I know she does have an Uncle back in Texas and he had the accent, I just assumed.”

“Yeah, well you assumed wrong didn’t you!” said Jess angrily.

Tom dipped his head and said nothing and after a moment Jess took pity on the older man.

“Sorry Tom, I’m just kinda edgy, you know?”

“Sure, sure and maybe he’s just taken her to spook you some and she’ll be home tomorrow,” he said hopefully.

Mort had taken his buddy home with him. Jess wasn’t expected back that night anyway as Daisy and Slim thought he would be staying over with Millie and so after a good night cap of Red Eye,Mort leftJess to sleep in the spare room, although he knew he would get little rest, the agitated state he was currently in.

Jess was awake at first light, badgering Mort to ride out with him and it wasn’t long before he complied with his buddy’s request.

However it took them even less time to realize that their task was useless. Sure there were tracks out the back of the saloon to a waiting buggy, but then the tracks were quickly wiped out and even when they took all the routes out of town they were met with a big zero… Millie and her abductor seemed to have disappeared without trace.

Jess was absolutely beside himself with worry and he just sat on his mount looking desperately around, as if just by peering into the distance he would be able to see what he wanted, somehow make his lover materialize. But it was to no avail and after a while Mort finally convinced him to head back to town.

“Come on Jess boy, maybe there will be some news,” he said kindly.

But it was to be another two days of Hell for Jess before he finally had word of Millie.

He had nearly driven Slim crazy with his fussing and fretting and he seemed to be either incredibly morose, just moodily going about his chores or that behaviour was interspersed with flashes of anger, the least thing setting him off.

Slim tried to be patient as he knew how much his buddy was hurting, but he felt like he was walking on egg shells every day. Just waiting for an explosion as Jess’s temper got the better of him, the fear and anxiety he was suffering making him unpredictable.

Daisy was her usual caring self and tried to pour oil on the troubled waters by staying calm and positive, whereas Mike gave his friend and hero a wide berth being a little frightened by the volatile atmosphere.

After the youngster had retired to bed on the second day after Millie’s disappearance Slim took his buddy to one side and said quietly, “Jess I know you’re real worried about Millie, heck we all are, but you can’t keep sounding off this way, you’re really scaring Mike you know.”

Jess’s head shot up and he looked shocked,” I am?”

Slim just nodded,” He doesn’t understand. He figures maybe it’s something he’s done that is making you so darned hard to live with right now.”

Jess turned sad eyes to Daisy who had just entered from the kitchen and said softly, “Is that true Daisy?”

She just nodded.” I think we did the right thing not telling the boy about Millie’s abduction. But because he doesn’t know… well he just can’t make sense of what you’re going through right now.”

Jess looked upset,” Jeez I didn’t mean to upset the little fellah… or any of you,” he said quietly,” I’m just so dang mad… this is all my fault, if Snell has got her, well it’s to pay me back,”he said sighing deeply.

“Well if that’s so he’ll get in touch, maybe he’s using her to get you to meet up with him, have a shoot-out or something,” said Slim thoughtfully.

“Maybe,” then turning wary eyes on his friends,” I just want her back,” he said his voice breaking.

Immediately Daisy ran over and hugged him, then pulled back and gently brushed his unruly hair from his forehead, in a motherly gesture,” It will all be alright in the end dear and surely he isn’t such an ogre that he would actually harm Millie…..”

Jess just looked down and shook his head sadly,” I dunno Daisy, he sure hates me. I guess he’d do pretty much anything to get to me,” and shortly afterwards he retired to bed to spend yet another night tossing and turning.

The following morning he was mending harness when the noontide Stage rolled in and as soon as he brought the horses to a halt Mose jumped down from the box and went to meet the two cowboys as they prepared to change to team.

“Jess, Jess,” said the old timer breathlessly,”I got some news,” and he waved a letter in the young cowboy’s face, “it’s a note from Miss Millie.”

Jess’s face lit up and he snatched the envelope from Moses hand, staring at the writing on the front before grinning across at Slim,” It’s her writing OK.”

Both men looked on as Jess ripped open the envelope and skimmed the content of the letter before passing it over to Slim,and then he tore off towards the barn.

Mose looked on eagerly enjoying the intrigue caused by the young woman’s letter.

Slim read it again and then looking up at Mose said,” So where did you get it?”

“A stranger stopped the Stage a few miles back, tall grey haired hombre, just said I was to be sure Jess Harper received it as soon as possible and then rode off real fast.”

Then a minute later Jess emerged from the barn leading Traveler and hopping up lightly into the saddle, he reined him in by his buddy.

“Where in Hell are you off to?” asked Slim, looking alarmed.

“Where do yer think,” he exploded,” you’ve read the letter.”

“Jess this could be a trap, Snell’s obviously set it up. You ride over and he’ll bushwhack you, just wait a moment at least and I’ll come with you.”

Jess shook his head adamantly,” You’ve seen what she said, I’m to go alone….. I can’t risk it Slim, I can’t risk her being hurt,” and with that he hustled Traveler out of the yard and away down the Laramie road.

Mose stood there looking after him and scratching his head and then he turned to Slim,” Well is someone gonna help me change this blessed team then?” he said with feeling.

Slim just stared at him with unseeing eyes for a moment and then said,” No… err that is go knock the door Mose, Mike’s inside he’ll give you a hand,” and with that he ran off to the barn, saddled up Alamo and left in a cloud of dust just minutes later, leaving Mose staring after him and cussing about manners of youngsters today.

“Always in such a dang hurry,”he muttered to himself as he strode across to the ranch house seeking out the boy and hopefully a coffee and some pie too.

Jess rode like the wind down the Laramie road for a mile or so before cutting off across the high meadow on Sherman land heading for old Jack Hudson’s shack.

It was a small secluded tumble down place built in a small copse of pines down near the south shore of the lake. Jack Hudson had been one of the first settlers in the area and who was long dead. The old homestead had fallen into disrepair over the years and was now used as an animal feed store and occasional shelter in inclement weather by Slim and Jess and he knew the place well.

As he rode Jess mulled over the content of the letter, how Millie was scared and stranded out at the shack, begging Jess to come and fetch her. But in his heart he knew it would have been written under duress and it was, as Slim had surmised, some sort of trap.

And so it was that sometime later he approached the shack warily, having dismounted and left Traveler ground hitched some good distance away as he walked stealthily towards the abandoned old place.

There appeared to be no sign of life, no smoke issued from the chimney and he could see no trace of livestock or the buggy Snell had made his escape in and so Jess was beginning to wonder if it was all just a hoax.

He advanced slowly and then a moment or two later the shack door was suddenly thrown open and Snell stood there pushing Millie out in front of him.

“That’s far enough Harper stay right where you are.”

Jess stared in consternation as he saw Millie stumble and nearly fall, but he stopped himself from going to her aid as he took in the noose around her neck, her tied hands and the gun Snell was holding to her temple.

Jess was incensed,” leave her alone you bastard,” he swore,” let her go! “

“Oh no… I’m not about to do that Harper, you see I’ve been thinking long and hard about how to make you pay and I figure I’ve found it.”

Jess just stared at him, his heart pounding fit to burst and cold sweat running down his back.

“See it was your old friend Ralf Jessop that gave me the idea. He knew how important this little lady was to you and that was how he managed to get you to spring his kid brother, by threatening her. Oh yes Harper me and Jessop had a good chat about things when he was holed up in my jail, he said he reckoned you’d do just about anything to protect your girl.”

Jess’s eyes narrowed but he had to concede the point,” Yeah, that’s true … so what do you want Snell, what do you want me to do?”

Then Snell gave an evil laugh that sent a shiver down Jess’s spine, “Oh it’s not a case of what I want you to do… more a case of what I’m gonna do.”

Jess raised a puzzled eyebrow,” Huh?”

“Yes, this is all about me… me and young Millie here that is. You see Harper I’m not gonna kill you, well not right away anyway, because I want you to suffer the way I did when my little girl died. That was all down to you, you seduced her and broke her heart and I figure she never got over it…. How could you do that Harper a sweet young vulnerable girl like that, take her and then throw her over the next day?”

But Jess wasn’t listening to the crazy lies he’d heard so often from Snell and knew there was no point in disputing them. No his only concern was for Millie who was now white and shaking as Snell yanked the rope around her neck bringing her to her knees.

“No!”yelled Jess,” stop it, none of this is her fault, for God’s sake Snell leave her alone.”

The old Sheriff just smiled grimly and pushing the gun close to her temple again he cocked the trigger.

“I’m gonna shoot her in front of you Harper and there ain’t a darned thing you can do about it. You just see what it feels like to see the one person you really love die boy. I’m gonna blow her head off Harper… and…”

“OK,” shouted Jess quickly his hands up in submission.

“OK Snell I admit it, I had your daughter, I made love to her and she was good real good, but I didn’t want marriage, any commitment, so I walked out on her… But it was her as made all the running for me… begging for it she was, well she was a tramp Snell. Your daughter was a little tramp!”

Snell roared in anguish and fury and losing hold of the rope he turned the gun on Jess and fired.

Jess was thrown backwards as the bullet hit him squarely in the chest.

Then a fraction of a second later another shot rang out and Snell fell forwards, dead from a fatal shot in the back.

There was a deathly silence, the smell of cordite hanging in the air, smoke rising up into the clear blue sky.

Then after a few seconds Millie started screaming hysterically.

Slim ran forwards from where he had fired the fatal shot.

After following Jess and circling around the back of the shack, he had been waiting for the opportunity to pounce, but hadn’t dared act sooner as he was so afraid that Snell would shoot Millie.

Now he was at her side, removing the noose and cutting her hands free before he held her close for a moment and then they both made their way quickly over to where Jess had fallen.

There was a large red stain on the front of his shirt and he was deathly pale and very still as Slim hunkered down beside him and gently felt for a pulse in his neck.

“Slim?” Millie breathed.

After what seemed a lifetime he turned relieved eyes up to her, “There is a pulse, real faint, but it’s there. Help me carry him into the shack Mill.”

They tenderly picked him up, carried him in and laid him on an old makeshift couch in the shack, before Slim carefully unbuttoned his shirt and surveyed the injuries.

After a moment he gave a sigh of relief,” I guess it’s nearer the shoulder than the heart, but it’s still going to be really difficult to remove,” he said, throwing Millie a worried look.

“What do you need me to do?” she said with the light of determination in her eyes,” Whatever it takes Slim, we’ll do it together,” she whispered, looking down at her dear friend.

After a while Slim decided that he would have to remove the bullet there and then, there would be no time to get him back to town, bleeding the way he was. There was simply no choice the bullet needed to be removed at once.

Slim was just about to start the painful procedure when Jess’s eyes flickered and opened,” What…. Slim?”

“It’s OK buddy, that bastard shot you, but he’s dead I got him.”

Jess relaxed a little and then tried to sit up his expression fearful,” Millie…. Hell Slim…… Millie?”

“It’s OK came a gentle voice I’m here honey, he didn’t hurt me, now just lie back and let Slim do what he has to huh?”

He nodded after peering up at her, hardly daring to believe his eyes, that she was really unharmed.

Then Slim was there again,” This is going to be really painful Jess, but the way you’re bleeding out, well I going to have to remove that bullet and right now pard.”

“Sure go ahead,” Jess muttered, closing his eyes in resignation.

Then Slim turned anxious eyes on Millie,” I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to help, can you stand back here,” he said,” and hold him down, really firmly.”

She bit her lip, but nodded bravely and once she was in place at Jess’s head and leaning down to pin him down to the couch by pushing his shoulders down, Slim started probing gently.

However after a short while it was obviously not going to work, the bullet was in way too deep and every time Slim dug further in with his knife, Jess gave an involuntary jerk as the searing pain shot through him, and Mille was just not strong enough to hold him down.

After about ten minutes of this Slim was sweating profusely. Millie was nearly in tears and Jess was swimming in and out of consciousness and bleeding badly.

Finally Slim called a halt to events and whispering to Millie said softly,” This isn’t going to work, I’m just making matters worse, it’s like trying to shoot at a moving target.”

She looked thoughtful for a moment and then excused herself and disappeared into the lean to stable, returning a moment later with a brown bottle containing a clear liquid.

Slim raised a questioning eyebrow.

“It’s the remains of the chloroform he used to drug me with,” she said triumphantly,” there should be enough to put him under long enough for you to get the bullet out.”

Jess’s eyes flickered open at this.

“Oh no,” he groaned,” no Slim please you know that stuff makes me sicker than a dog.”

Slim turned worried eyes on his partner,” It’s either that or you bleed to death,”he said with feeling.

Jess looked up to heaven, and after a moment nodded,” OK, OK I guess you’ll have to use it.”

Slim smiled down, “Now you’re being sensible……… for once.”

Then Slim leaned over and removed Jess’s bandana.

“Now what’ re you doin’?” he asked looking pained.

“Need something to act as a mask for the chloroform,” said Slim succinctly.

“Oh great,” muttered Jess thinking his buddy was really adding insult to injury now.

“Look will you quit whingeing and behave,” said Slim impatiently, seeing his partner’s lifeblood still oozing out, his fear for his friend’s life being expressed as anger.

“Do you know what I have to do?” asked Millie anxiously.

Slim explained what she was needed, dripping a little of the volatile liquid onto the bandana and holding it just above Jess’s face so that he inhaled the sweet sickly vapours.

He struggled a little against it just before he went under, but Slim held him down and then he was finally out for the count allowing his buddy to complete the painful task quickly.

Then Slim padded the wound and bound his friend’s chest tightly and just prayed that the bleeding would stop of its own accord now the bullet was out.

Millie and Slim exchanged a relieved glance above the recumbent body of their dear friend.Covering him over with a blanket to keep him warm they went outside for a while, the strong anaesthetic now permeating the whole room.

They slumped down on a bench by the shack door breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the afternoon sunshine for a while, in silence, before Millie turned to Slim and gave him a small smile, “You really are something you know,” she said,” the way you got that bullet out, I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Slim gave her a weary smile back,” Yeah well I guess that’s what happens when you’re around old Hotshot there. The number of times I’ve seen the doc dig bullets out of him, well you kinda pick it up along the way.”

She smiled,” Yes I know what you mean. But he’s settled down some now though. Jeez Slim you should have known him when he was younger… her was so darned wild,” then she shook her head, her eyes misty as she remembered back through the years.

“You go back a long way dontcha?” said Slim giving her a fond look.

“Sure we were kids together. Him with the seat out of his britches, often black and blue from his Pa’s beatings, me in hand me down frocks and no shoes, we made a real pair,” she said her laughter tinged with sadness.

“Then the Banisters fired their home killing his kin… and afterwards there was the war…. and I guess he grew up real fast,” she said turning sad eyes to Slim,” I reckon he had to.”

Slim just nodded, understanding how it had been for his buddy back then. Having put together the odd pieces of information Jess had trusted him with. Them all coming together over the years and now forming a jigsaw of his pard’s troubled, early life.

“He’s changed though,” he said now,” heck even Mort said he thought he’d mellowed some over the last year or so.”

She nodded in agreement,” Yes, but I think this will set him back, the way Snell was, it’s bound to have upset him. Not to mention all that business with the Jessops.”

Slim nodded, “For what they all did to you, that’s for sure. I figure we’re gonna have to watch him when all this is over Millie. Knowing Jess he’ll blame himself for every darn thing that’s happened, to you… and Mike… I know he feels real bad about it all.”

“Well that’s crazy,” she said,” none of this was down to him, just those devious outlaws and a Sheriff gone bad.”

“Yeah, well you and I know that, but,” ……and then they were disturbed by the sounds of Jess coming around from the anesthetic and the conversation was abruptly ended.

As usual Jess was physically sick to his stomach for a good twenty four hours after coming around and it was the evening of the second day before he was well enough to have a proper conversation with Millie.

Slim had taken off for an hour or so to scare up a couple of rabbits for supper and Jess was sitting up and sipping some cool water. Millie was sitting down on the edge of the cot beside him, when he regarded her over the top of the cup and said softly,” I sure am sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused you Mill.”

“Heck don’t be silly,” she said quickly, “after all it isn’t the first time I’ve had to clean you up after you’ve chucked up… There has been the odd occasion in the past when you’ve had way too much whiskey you know Jess,” she said giggling.

He looked deeply embarrassed for a moment,” Yeah, I know, I know,” he said.

Then after a while he said softly,” I didn’t mean just that though. I meant the whole sorry business of the Jessops abducting you and then that garl darn bastard Snell too….”

He paused for a long time, before turning anguished eyes on her.

“You know I can’t help but think …well maybe you would be better off without me in your life…. Slim and the others too…. I’m just no good for you the way the past keeps comin’ back ter haunt me,” he said looking completely broken.

Millie sat up straight at this, “Don’t you dare say that Jess Harper,” she cried, “After the way we’ve looked after you and worried about you! For goodness sake, we care about you …love you…… don’t you know that you big idiot!”

Jess looked down for a long time and when he finally looked up his eyes were glittering, “Yeah, I guess I do,” he said softly.

Then he lay back looking up at the ceiling for a long time before he turned his head to look at her, “There’s something else too.”

“Go on.”

“What I said before, about young Becky, Snell’s daughter. I was lying… I never made love to her…. and she wasn’t a tramp, she was a great kid… I said all that to get him real mad, so he’d turn the gun on me….Shoot me Millie and leave you alone,” he finished, his voice breaking with emotion and fatigue.

She took his hand and was silent for several minutes and then he saw a single tear roll down her cheek,” I know,” she whispered,” of course I know……. I think it was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen… he would have killed me….”

Then she fell across him burying her face in his neck as he gently rubbed her back whispering calming words to her as she sobbed softly. The emotions of the last few days finally coming to the surface and eventually they both relaxed, and when Slim returned a while later he found the couple fast asleep in each other’s arms.

Chapter 10

Jess was well enough to travel in a few days although it was another couple of weeks before Doc Sam finally signed him off and said he could return to light duties, but definitely no bronc busting for another month.

He was getting mighty frustrated it had to be said. Especially as during his convalescence, the most taxing thing he had done was to help Daisy hang the new curtains that she had made from the material bought way back on that fateful day when Jess had disappeared without trace.

Now he longed to get out on the prairie mustanging, or even fence mending seemed appealing after being confined to the ranch for so long. So one bright sunny morning he took off for the north pasture to check fences, some of Daisy’s good cold chicken in his saddlebag and the prospect of a full day riding out.

Slim had offered to join him, but then Mose brought a note on the early morning Stage saying the Stage Line superintendent would be by at noon for a meeting and so he had to change his plans.

“Now just take things easy Jess, don’t go over doing it,” said Daisy as she stood by the door to see him off.

“OK Ma,” he said with his cheeky grin, and she leaned forwards and clipped him behind the ear.

“I think you must be better,” she said laughing,” you’re certainly sassy enough.”

He spent the morning riding fence and at noon took a break to eat and then settled down under a leafy tree to doze in the heat of the day.

The sun was still beating down relentlessly when he awoke an hour or so later and when he stood he felt a little shaky and lightheaded and realised he should maybe have not ridden out quite so far. Should have heeded Daisy’s words and taken it easy on his first day back in the saddle.

He turned Traveler towards home deciding to call it a day and then realised he was within a ten minute ride of the river so he took that direction, figuring some icy cold water would make him feel better.

He was kneeling down at the river’s edge and had splashed the cool reviving water on his face and was filling up his canteen when he suddenly felt it. Cold steel jabbed into the small of his back, and then a voice growled,” Raise ‘em high cowboy and turn around real slow.”

He cursed himself for not having his wits about him and sighing deeply did as he was asked.

He turned slowly and regarded the gaunt, sandy haired man in front of him.

“What’s your game mister?” he spat angrily as the stranger poked his rifle into Jess’s ribs before leaning over and removing his Colt from his holster and shoving it into his own belt.

Then he used one hand to remove a poster from his vest pocket and shaking it out held it up for Jess to see.

Jess peered at it and was unmoved to see his own image staring back.

Then he regarded the other and said quietly,” You got it all wrong friend, that’s way out of date, I ain’t wanted for that crime no more I…. “

“Shut it!” growled the sandy haired man,” names, Kray, Jed Kray, Bounty Hunter and I ain’t your friend Harper.”

Jess raised an eyebrow,” Well why don’t that surprise me,” he said quietly, then more loudly, “You ain’t gonna get no bounty on me Kray, because that ain’t valid anymore.”

Kray cussed loudly and cast his eyes to Heaven,” Look Harper just put these on,” he said proffering a pair of handcuffs.

Jess merely stared down at them for a moment, “Now why would I wanna do a darn fool thing like that?” he asked.

The bounty hunter cussed again and gestured to the poster,” We can do this the easy way or the hard way Harper, says wanted dead or alive on here , so which is it to be?”

Jess swallowed hard and figured now was probably a good time to cave in gracefully.

He took the offered handcuffs and put them on, before throwing him a defiant look,” You wanna waste your time it’s up to you Kray. But Mort Corey will tell you just the same as I have, I ain’t wanted no more, I came through with the Jessops, both of ‘em and they’ve already swung, so I’ve no charges to answer.”

“Yeah, well I’ll wait to hear that from the organ grinder, not one of his damn monkeys,” spat Kray, “Now mount up and let’s see what the Sheriff really has to say.”

An hour or so later they entered town, Jess with a rope around him, riding beside the bounty hunter whose rifle was still aimed at his head. On arrival Kray dragged him unceremoniously down from the saddle and frog marched him into the Sheriff’s office.

Mort who was sitting at his desk stood up immediately frowning at this intrusion as the bounty hunter threw Jess in making him stumble, then yanking the rope even tighter around his chest, the action pulling on Jess’s still healing wound.

“What’s going on?” asked Mort angrily.

“Brought you a prisoner Sheriff,” said Kray leering across at Mort and producing the wanted poster.

“Not worth the paper it’s written on,” said Mort at once,” release this man at once. He’s been exonerated and cleared of all charges.”

“What the Hell, you mean I’ve trekked all the goddamn way from the other side of Cheyenne for nuthin’,” burst out the bounty hunter, looking sorely tried.

“Well if you’d asked Sheriff Masters in Cheyenne he’d have told you same as me,” said Mort gruffly “Now get those cuffs off of him and get the hell out of my office.”

The man flushed up angrily, but reluctantly did as he was bid and Jess stood there rubbing his wrists and scowling at him.

“Well I reckon I’m not gettin’ an apology then?” Jess said finally.

“Hell will freeze over while yer waiting,” spat the bounty hunter,” you low life Texan confederate bastard.”

Jess had just about reached the jumping off place and this finally pushed him over. Without further ado he back swiped the man’s face before throwing a haymaker that sent him sprawling. Then he dragged him up and threw another punch before Mort finally stepped in.

“Ok Jess, I reckon that’s enough now.”

Then turning to Kray he said, “I figure you deserved that and then some. Now get out of my town before I find a good excuse to slam you in the cells.”

The man lurched up unsteadily and giving Jess a wide berth picked his hat up and went to the door. Then he paused and looking back said,” You’ll pay fer this you Texan bastard,” and marched out.

Mort turned to Jess ,” Are you OK?”

“No I ain’t OK!” spat Jess angrily.” When does this stop Mort, am I gonna have to look over my shoulder all the goddamn time fer the rest of my life? Where’s the next one gonna turn up, at the ranch, catch Mike in the crossfire again or maybe Miss Daisy?”

Mort shook his head,” I’m real sorry about all this Jess, I’ll do what I can… “

“Not half as sorry as I am,” spat Jess and marched out slamming the door behind him.

When he got onto the sidewalk he turned towards the saloon, feeling the need for a strong drink, when someone yelled his name.

He stopped in his tracks and turned to see the bounty hunter standing in the middle of Main Street, his hand hovering over his gun.

“Come on then Harper, you’re mighty handy with your fists, let’s see how you fare in a proper gunfight.”

Jess stood there and watched the street immediately clear and then Mort come out of his office.

“I don’t want any trouble Kray,” he shouted,” I told you to leave town, now get going.”

“Certainly Sheriff just as soon as Harper and I have concluded some business.”

Then turning on Jess he yelled, “Come on then Johnny Reb, draw on me why dontcha?”

Jess just shook his head, “Didn’t anyone tell you the war’s been over nigh on ten years?” he asked.

“Not for me it ain’t,” he snarled back,” one thing I hate more than a murdering bastard is a lowlife Reb bastard, now draw goddamn you!”

“I ain’t drawing first, you want this you start it.”

“Well, iffen that’s how you want it Harper, maybe I will.”

Jess just shook his head,” You’ve already made one mistake today Kray, don’t make another.”

“So you think I’d be makin’ a mistake drawing on you do yer?”

Jess was quiet for a while then staring at the other said firmly,” I don’t think it, I know it.”

Kray’s eyes narrowed and his hand hovered above his gun and then he drew, but Jess had his gun in his hand with lightning speed and shot him through the heart before his adversary had even aimed, and he fell like a stone.

Jess holstered his gun and walked slowly over, before looking down at the dead man.

Mort joined him and sighed, “Stupid fool must have had a death wish,” he muttered.

“Nah, just greedy,” said Jess, “there was quite a price on my head. I guess he thought it was worth chancing his arm at the beginning and then when he realized he’d lost it all, I reckon he was just pretty darn riled.”

“Well it was a fair fight Jess, just pop by later and write me a statement.”

“Sure, sure,” and he turned on heel and made for the saloon again.

The place was in uproar with everyone talking about the recent shooting, but he just glared at anyone who came close. The good people of Laramie knew when to give Jess Harper a wide berth and this was one of those times.

He strode over to the bar and ordered a bottle before retiring to a quiet table at the back , where he sat staring morosely into his whiskey.

He was about half way down the bottle when Millie came over and sat down opposite him.


He looked up,” Just leave it Millie; I guess I ain’t the best company right now.”

“Yeah well, I figure I know you well enough not to mind that too much….”

Then she gave him a pleading look,” Come up for a coffee Jess, don’t go making trouble.”

He knew in his heart he was itching for a fight, just like he used to feel years ago after the war. So darn mad all the time, maybe it was Kray’s taunts about him being a Texas Reb, he didn’t know, but he did know he just wanted to smash his fist into the first person who said the wrong thing. But even in his semi inebriated state, he knew that made no sense at all.

He seemed to deliberate long and hard, but after a few minutes he finally replied.

“OK honey,” and got up to his feet, unsteadily.

Millie cast a glance over to Tom, the bar keep, and gestured that she was going to take Jess upstairs. He just nodded, thinking that losing a saloon girl for the end of her shift was probably better than having Jess Harper kicking up a riot in his bar.

Once they arrived in her room he removed his hat, gun and boots by the door as per the house rules according to Miss Millie, still being fully aware of her sensibilities even in his inebriated state.

Then he went and slumped down in front of the fire on Millie’s huge comfy sofa, before staring into the crackling flames in front of him with unseeing eyes.

After a little while Millie sat down beside him and passed over a strong black coffee, which he looked at, without attempting to drink.

After a few minutes he put the cup down and turned his troubled countenance to face Millie and said very softly, “Look sweetheart, there’s something I have to tell yer…. I’m riding out, I’m going home.”

She threw him a surprised look,” Home… to the ranch you mean?”

“No…. Texas.”

“What! You’re going…….. leaving everything here, Slim, Daisy… Mike,”and then with a catch inher voice……..”me?”

He just nodded unable to meet her gaze.

“Why?” she whispered, and the more strongly,” Why Jess, you can’t leave everyone you love, everything you hold dear?”

“I can,” he said firmly,” can’t you see I have to.”

“I just don’t understand.”

He sighed deeply, looking down, before gazing into her troubled eyes,” I have to go because of all the folk I love,” he said softly.

“What do you mean?”

“Oh come on Millie, you know what happened with the Jessops. Even worse with Snell… when he had that gun to yer head… “He stopped speaking too moved to continue.

She took his hand,” Hey don’t fret honey it was alright in the end wasn’t it.”

He shook his head, “No, when Snell had that gun to your head I thought it was all over,” he whispered, “like it was with Maria….. or have you forgotten about what happened to her?”

She looked down,” No of course I haven’t,” knowing he was referring to the way his fiancée, had been gunned down in the bar below and had died in his arms, just a few short years ago.* See Loved, Lost Survived.

“Well can’t yer see then?” he said turning impassioned eyes on her,” I couldn’t go through that again the grief near turned me crazy. You know that Millie and I … I couldn’t bear to lose you,” he finished, finally taking her in his arms and holding her tightly.

“I know, I understand,” she whispered as he held her close,” but it’s not going to happen again like that, it’s over now, the Jessops have hung and Slim killed Snell….”

He pushed her roughly away, his eyes suddenly blazing.

“What about that no good bastard bounty hunter gunning for me just now?He won’t be the only one after making a fast buck on my hide, you can be sure of that,” he spat angrily.

“Honey will you simmer down, it’s no good getting all riled.”

Then more softly,” Promise me you’ll sleep on it at least before you make your mind up completely.”

He took a deep breath to calm himself and swallowed hard. Then he turned to her and ran a gentle finger down her cheek,” Sure I promise Mill and I’m sorry I’ve been sounding off, you don’t deserve this, maybe I’d better go.”

Then he swore softly under his breath, his eyes suddenly wide with shock.

“What is it honey?”

“I was due back home long since, they’ll all be worried,” he said, making to stand but falling back down, the strong liquor taking its toll on his already sapped strength.

“Steady,” she whispered, “you’re not about to go anywhere Jess, you looked pretty worn out when you landed in the bar and after all that drink, I guess you’re just about wiped out, anyway it’s OK.”

“I can’t leave ‘em worrying, not after all the stuff as has happened lately.”

She pushed him gently back, a hand resting lightly on his chest, “I said it’s OK, Mort came by earlier, when you were trying to set the world to rights by staring into a whiskey glass.”

“Oh, I didn’t see him?”

“No well, you were miles away and he took one look over and figured you weren’t in the mood to be messed with. So he just said to tell you he’d sent a message via Mose back to the ranch explaining everything and he’ll see you in the morning for your statement.”

He relaxed back with a sigh of relief,” Good, I wouldn’t want them worrying.”

She raised a quizzical eyebrow,” You don’t want them worrying, but you’re prepared to ride out without a backwards glance?”

He regarded her with hurt eyes,” It ain’t that way Mill, you know that.”

“Um…. But you try explaining it to that cute little kid of yours, see how Mike sees it,” she said, before picking up her coffee and sipping it, regarding him shrewdly over the rim of her cup.

If he wouldn’t listen to reason, maybe she would have to try a little emotional blackmail she thought wryly.


He rode out for home, early the next morning as soon as he had completed the statement for Mort.

“You’re very quiet today,” said the Sheriff, casting his buddy an anxious glance,” this whole thing with the Bounty Hunter has really got to you hasn’t it Jess?”

He just nodded,” You wouldn’t think there was still so much hatred and prejudice about what side you were on,” Jess said sadly.

Mort knew he was referring to the Civil War and Kray’s obvious hatred of the South.

“Yeah, well at least we’re not all like that,” he said with a friendly smile.” Look at you and Slim, both on opposite sides and now, well I reckon you’re as close as brothers.”

At this Jess turned pale and sank down in the chair opposite Mort’s desk.

“Hey, you OK Jess, too much grog, you feeling sick?” he asked casting his friend’s deathly pale countenance a concerned look.

“No it ain’t that Mort,” and then he proceeded to explain about returning to his home land, the way he had to Millie the night before.

And like her, Mort tried to talk him around but to no avail.

Jess stared down for a long time, “And there’s something else, maybe that bad feeling of Krays’, calling me a Reb and all, maybe other folk around here feel the same Mort? Maybe I should go back to Texas where I belong,” and with that parting shot he rose and left for the ranch, Mort staring after him and wracking his brains as how to deal with this latest bombshell.

Jess arrived back at the ranch just as Daisy was clearing the breakfast table and she ran over and peered up at him anxiously.

“Oh Jess dear we were so worried when you didn’t come home in the afternoon, thank goodness Mose brought word of you, but are you alright?”

He just nodded vaguely and reaching out gave her a brief hug.

“Sorry you were worried Daisy.”

Then Slim came over from where he’d been working at his desk and shook his hand, “Good to have you home Hotshot. So I hope Mort told that bounty hunter where to get off and ran him out of town?” he asked frowning.

Jess looked down,” He didn’t have to…… I killed him.”

Daisy sucked in a deep breath,” Oh dear did it really have to come to that Jess?”

“I’m afraid it did Daisy, he called me out and he wanted me dead. Wasn’t too particular as to how he did it either, I reckon iffen I’d turned my back and tried to walk away he’d have just as soon back shotme.”

“But why dear, why so much hatred, for goodness sake you’d done nothing wrong, nothing to him personally, why should he want you dead?”

Jess wandered over to the fireplace and leaning on the mantle stared down into the flames for a full minute before replying,” The war, seems I was on the wrong side.”

“That’s crazy,” said Slim fiercely,” that was years ago.”

“Yeah, well some folk have long memories,” said Jess darkly, before excusing himself to go and tend his horse.

After he’d left Daisy and Slim exchanged a worried look.

“There is something else troubling that boy Slim try and talk to him will you? Knowing him he won’t want to upset me, but he may tell you whatever it is.”

It was later that night before Slim was able to speak to Jess alone. The dark haired cowboy had taken himself off fence riding again, saying there were some repairs needed, but refused Slim’s offer of help, saying he needed some thinking time. And so it was after supper when Slim finally caught up with him, sitting out on the porch, chair tipped back, feet on the rail and a faraway expression in his deep blue eyes as he looked out to the distant hills.

Slim sat down beside his buddy and after a while said softly,” So are you all done then?”

Jess dragged his gaze away from the view and looked askance, “Huh?”

“All done thinking, you’ve been at it all day, couldn’t even get a word out of you at supper, so…. what’s wrong Jess? “

Jess looked down unable to meet his friend’s candid gaze, but eventually he replied, so quietly that Slim had to lean over to hear him.

“I’m movin’ on Slim.”

It took a moment for Slim to digest this piece of news, but then his mouth fell open in shock,” You’re what?”

“Leavin’ goin’ back home.”

“I thought this was your home pard?”

“Yeah, well you thought wrong,” said Jess bitterly, “I’m goin’ back to Texas.”

Slim was completely befuddled,” But what about your friends, hell your family Jess, that’s how we think of you, me and Daisy…. And what about Mike, you’re his Pa…. as good as.”

“Yeah, along with you, your name’s on the adoption papers too Slim, and I figure he’s better off with you as his Pa anyways,” then softly,” figure he’d have more of a chance of reaching adult hood without me, and all the trouble I bring, around.

“So that’s what all this is about, you think that by riding out you’ll keep everyone you hold dear safe?” he asked his eyes registering amazement.

“Don’t think, I know. You’ve got a real short memory Slim, or have you forgotten Mike got shot because of me. And that’s not all, Millie’s been abducted because of me…. not once but twice,” he said turning anguished eyes on his buddy….” If anything happened to her…” and then his voice cracked and he was unable to go on, just slumped down staring at the distant hills again, his eyes suspiciously bright.

They sat on in silence for a while before Slim tried again,” all this will blow over shortly Jess, and there can’t be too many wanted posters still out on you.”

Jess just shook his head,” It ain’t a risk I’m prepared to take…. You saw what happened with Snell, how he had the gun to Millie’s head and he’d have done it too Slim iffen I hadn’t riled him into turning the gun on me…. It brought it all back, the way Maria died,” he whispered, the tears now rolling down his face unheeded. “It brought back all those feelings, the way I held her in my arms as she bled to death…. “

Then after a moment he jumped up from his chair and turned furious eyes on his buddy,” Don’t make me go through all that again Slim,” he said bitterly before striding off to the barn, leaving Slim reeling at this latest twist in his best buddy’s life story.

Chapter 11

The following morning Slim rode off to town at first light merely saying he had some business to attend to. Mike had departed on the early Stage for school and Jess and Daisy were sitting over a final coffee before starting the day’s chores.

Daisy had been unusually silent during the meal and now she stared into her empty cup with unseeing eyes.

After a moment Jess reached across and covered her tiny hand with his large one and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“He’s told you hasn’t he Daisy?”

She tore her eyes away from her cup and fixed him with her kindly grey eyes,” Yes… yes he has dear.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered,” you must see that I have to do this though Daisy.”

“I see that you feel you need to yes dear, but I don’t agree with you and I know Millie won’t either.”

He nodded,” I’ve told her and she weren’t any too pleased,” he said casting Daisy a rueful look.

“Then why dear, why put yourself through all this, you don’t want to go away do you?”

He turned his dejected gaze on her,” Of course I don’t, but heck Daisy, there could be any number of folks gunning for me, Snell made pretty sure that the wanted posters were sent far and wide, who knows how many of the darned things there are out there.”

“But we’ll deal with any problem when it happens, like we always do.”

“Not anymore Daisy. I’m not gonna let any of you suffer because of me, it just ain’t right and that’s an end to it,” he said firmly.

There was a long pause and then she turned teary eyes on him.

“When were you thinking of going?” she asked in a resigned voice.

“As soon as I’ve told Mike and old Hardrock has bought some help in. I won’t leave him in the lurch, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to replace me, I know of half a dozen good men looking for work in these parts.”

She just shook her head, “Not difficult to replace?”she whispered before excusing herself and walking hurriedly to her room, leaving Jess staring after her in consternation.

The following day was Saturday and Jess took Mike off fishing to the little creek, just across the home pasture behind the ranch.

They had been sitting on a large rock at the water’s edge enjoying the warm sun on their backs, fishing lines in the stream, when Jess finally summoned up the courage to say what he had to.

He put his rod down and said gently,” I need to talk to you Tiger.”

The youngster turned his gaze on his hero and said,” Sure what about Jess.”

Then he thought for a moment,” It ain’t about my grades is it? I know I only got a B for spellin’ but they were real hard yer know Jess,” he said turning troubled eyes to his friend.

“No, it ain’t about your grades,” he said giving the boy the ghost of a smile.

The child breathed a sigh of relief, and turned innocent eyes on his best friend,” So what is it?”

Jess nearly caved in, how could he do this?Then he remembered holding the boy close, seeing his life blood on his own shirt from the gunshot wound and somehow he found the strength he needed.

“See it’s this way Tiger, I’m moving back down the Texas.”

The boy’s head shot up and he looked shocked and then after a moment, he said,” Is Slim selling the ranch then? Where will we all live Jess and what about my school, will there be one close by?” he asked his voice now tinged with excitement at the prospect of an adventure.

Jess ducked his head,” No well, you ain’t coming,” he said softly, “Slim and Daisy neither, I’m goin’ alone Mike.”

“What… without me you mean?” came a small voice, after a minute or so.

He just nodded,” I have to see. There’s people after me right now and I’m real scared that you or the others will be hurt again, like when you were shot.”

“But you’ll look after us,” the boy said with childish logic,” you’re the fastest gun in Texas, ain’t nobody faster, you’ll take care of me like you always have, no matterwhose gunning for you.”

Jess just shook his head,” I’m sorry, I have ter go, but I’ll write yer often… I’ll…. “

“No!” shouted the boy, tears running down his face now as he sprang up from the rock, throwing his line down,” I thought you were my friend and you just don’t care about me! You just don’t care no more,” and he ran off heading back towards the ranch, leaving Jess staring after him, feeling totally desolate.

If telling Mike had been difficult, finding a replacement ranch worker seemed nigh impossible. Everyone Jess found was unsuitable for one reason or another. One cussed in front of Daisy and Mike, another had very strong views on how a ranch should be run and didn’t seem to realize Slim was the boss. Yet another refused to consider the post unless he had the option of buying Jess’s partnership, which Slim was unhappy about, not wishing to make that sort of commitment with a total stranger.

Meanwhile Jess was very jumpy, constantly watching out for strangers and not wanting to let Daisy and Mike off the ranch for fear something should happen to them.

Slim’s patience finally gave out when a neighbour had ridden in to visit and seeking Jess, went into the barn. Jess had heard someone behind him and spinning around had drawn on the old chap practically giving him a heart attack. The old timer forgave Jess at once, knowing what he had been through lately, but Slim was less understanding.

“Hell Jess will you lighten up some! You can’t keep going on this way living on your nerves; you’ll be drawing on me or Daisy next. We’re a feared to go anywhere near you, way you are right now.”

“Well may be I’d better just ride out now then,” spat Jess angrily,” we ain’t too busy and I figure you’ll manage until you find someone.”

“I didn’t mean it that way Jess, you know I didn’t.”

Jess was silent looking down; trying to decide what was the best thing to do.

“Look there’s a dance in town next Saturday, stay for that at least, you want to see Millie before you go don’t you?”

“I guess.”

“Well come on then how about we have one last night out together. We’ll take the girls dancing and make a good night of it what do you say?”

“You takin’ Miss Lily then?” he asked referring to another saloon girl and close friend of Millie.

“I sure am, and when I was in town earlier Millie said she was hoping you’d be by to take her.”

“She did? “

“Yeah, looked real emotional too, she’s going to miss you something fierce you know pard.”

“Don’t start, OK I’ll come,” he sighed, “anything for a quiet life,” and he marched off to the barn, leaving Slim with a hopeful gleam in his eye.

So the following Saturday evening found the two ranchers marching down the Main Street, dressed in their Sunday best Stetsons dark frock coats, brocade vests and crisp white shirts with black string ties. Jess was feeling miserable, knowing that this would be the last time he would enjoy a few beers and a laugh with his buddy and some dancing and romancin’ with his best girl.

The street was deserted and when they walked into the saloon that was likewise, save for old Tom polishing glasses behind the bar. Lily and Millie were sitting at a nearby table in their best frocks, both girls looking very beautiful.

They made an interesting contrast with Lily having her blond hair swept up and wearing a pretty pink dress whereas Millie’s dark hair framed her face becomingly and she wore a very low cut scarlet dress, showing off her hourglass figure to full advantage.

Jess gave a low whistle when he saw her and he leaned down and kissed her tenderly before saying ,“You sure look beautiful tonight sweetheart.”

She turned her warm brown eyes up to him and smiled, determined that he should not be aware of how devastated she was feeling at his imminent departure. She had had a stern word with herself, earlier in the evening, and had decided that she would make his last night in town really special and wouldn’t let her feelings bring the mood down.

“Heck where is everyone?” asked Jess, accepting a beer from Tom.

“All down the road at the dance,” he said giving Slim a sly wink, which Jess didn’t pick up on.

“Looks to be the whole town’s down there,” said Jess dryly,” we’d better get off and see if there’s any place left to dance,” he said grinning down at Millie, determined to make the most of this last date.

They arrived at the outside dance floor ten minutes later. It was an idyllic spot on the road out of town set near some huge pines. The area was lit up in fairy tale style with lanterns casting a romantic glow. There was a small bar, several tables scattered around the edge of the dance area and a band were playing tunefully up on a raised dais at the back of the alfresco dance area.

As they walked over it did indeed look as though the whole town were assembled and then as Mort saw Slim and Jess arriving he gestured to the band to stop playing and as the merry makers saw who had arrived they all started applauding.

“What in Hell?” said Jess casting his buddy a shocked glance.

“Why is everyone clapping us?”

“Not us, just you Hotshot, come on,” and he escorted his friend over to where Mort was now standing up on the dais.

“ Up here young man,” he said grinning and offering a hand to pull Jess up beside him.

“What’s goin’ on Mort?” he said as he stepped up onto the stage, looking decidedly embarrassed by all the unwanted attention.

Mort put his hand up for silence and everyone stopped their excited chatter and looked up at the Sheriff expectantly.

“Well I’ll tell you son. You and I had a little chat the other day and it seems you’ve a mind to leave us.”

There was another burst of animated chatter and the odd cry of ‘shame’ from the good natured crowd before Mort put his hand up to silence them again.

“Now I figure there were two things bugging you. One was that there are still wanted posters out on you and you figure another ol’ bounty hunter is gonna come rolling into town gunning for you and you’re a feared for your loved ones safety, am I right so far?”

“You know I am,” said Jess gruffly.

“Well then you’ll be pleased to hear that I got a wire from Sheriff Smith over at Rawlins and he says every single poster that old Snell sent out has been accounted for, all either returned or destroyed, so does that make you feel better?”

Jess’s eyes lit up,” I guess so yes,” he said softly.

Then Mort pulled a wad of papers from his vest pocket, rather like a conjurer producing a rabbit from a hat.

He held the papers aloft,” I also believe that you were kinda upset by the reaction of that Jed Kray, as to your having fought for the Confederacy, thought as there were others in town maybe shared his view, would be glad to see the back of you?”

Jess looked wary now, but had to answer,” Maybe, it was a tough old war and I was on the opposite side to most folks here abouts….”

“Well,” said Mort grinning from ear to ear now,” this is a petition signed by every man woman and child too, thanks to young Mike ,saying as how they don’t want you to leave. Saying as to how they appreciate all you do for the town and especially how they all sleep safer int heir beds when you’re deputizing for me.”

Then he raised a quizzical eyebrow as he looked into the crowd,” Indeed there was one comedian who suggested maybe it was time I retired and gave the roll of Sheriff over to you permanently, but I ain’t gonna go that far in an effort to keep ya,” he said amongst laughter and cheers.

Then he sobered,” I guess what we’re really trying to say is just this,” he finished and turning Jess around he gestured to a banner at the back of the stage saying just two words, JESS STAY.

Jess stared at it for a long moment and then back at Mort, his eyes glittering, then back down to Slim and Millie standing just below the dais.

Slimgave him an encouraging nod.

Then Jess looked back to Mort, ”Iffen you put it that way Sheriff, guess I’d be proud to stay,” he said shyly, and with that there was a huge cheer from the crowd and the band struck up again.

Then it seemed like everyone was beside him wanting to pump his hand and slap his back. But the very best surprise of all was when Daisy and Mike suddenly came over, having been driven into town by a neighbour.

Jess embraced then both lovingly, kissing Daisy tenderly on the forehead before holding Mike tightly and whispering,” Thanks Tiger.”

“Oh that’s OK Jess, an’ I guess you wouldn’t have gone really. Aunt Daisy said you’re as stubborn as a mule, but you’d see sense in the end.”

“Oh she did, did she?” said Jess laughing over to where Daisy was blushing prettily.


Now it was nearly midnight and the band were playing soft romantic numbers as Jess held his girl in his arms as they danced slowly around the nearly empty dance floor. He gently caressed her back and kissed her hair, thinking it was about time they called it a night. He cast a glance around the area and just made out Slim sitting at one of the little tables holding Lily’s hand and looking deeply into her eyes.

Daisy and Mike had retired for the night to the Laramie Hotel earlier in the evening, and now Jess smiled as he remembered the recent conversation when he and Slim had walked them back to the hotel.

“So me and Slim will see you over in Miss Molly’s café for breakfast,” said Jess.

“Um…” said Daisy smiling up at her recalcitrant ‘son’, “I seem to remember you saying that once before, now just you make sure you show up this time.”

Then turning to Slim,” You watch this young man like a hawk, don’t let him out of your sight,” she said in mock severity.

Mike yawned widely,” So why can’t we have breakfast in the hotel dining room?” he asked sleepily.

“Well we can’t because it’s for guests only and we aren’t staying here,” said Slim without thinking and was rewarded for his thoughtlessness by Jess jabbing a vicious elbow into his ribs.

“Oh,” said the boy suddenly interested,” so where are you sleeping tonight then Jess?”

Jess flushed up and started stuttering,” Err… well…”

“Why he’s staying at the saloon as Tom’s guests aren’t you boys,” Daisy said giving them both a cheeky wink,” I believe Tom was worried it might get very busy in there later with so many towns folk abroad tonight, I expect he could do with a little extra help isn’t that so boys?”

Both men studied the side walk studiously, but agreed that, that was indeed the case and shortly afterwards they made their escape back to the dance, Jess shaking his head and chuckling, “wily old bird not much gets past our Daisy does it?” and Slim had to agree, laughing softly.

Now Jess tipped Millie’s chin up with a finger so that he could look deeply into her eyes, “Shall we go?”he whispered.

She smiled and reaching up kissed him softly on the lips,” Yes lets.”

He took her hand and led her over to where Slim was chatting quietly to Lily.

“Me and Millie are headin’ off now pard.”

Slim stood up at once hauling a surprized Lily to her feet,” OK we’re ready.”


“You heard Daisy, I’m not to let you out of my sight.”

“Aw Slim,” he said sighing deeply,” OK come on then,” he said resigned to the fact that there would be no kissing and canoodling on the way back to the saloon.

Both men threw protective arms around their girls and walked slowly back to the saloon, taking the usual route upstairs to the girls rooms via the outside fire escape.

Once outside Millie’s room Jess reached the key down from its hiding place above the lintel and unlocked the door, letting Millie in before turning to face his partner.

“OK see you tomorrow Hardrock,” he said with his cheeky grin.

Slim stood there holding Lily’s hand and hiding a smile, “Well I don’t know Jess, Daisy did say I shouldn’t let you out of my sight.”

“Huh?” Jess exploded the thought of Slim playing gooseberry any longer seriously trying his patience now, and he failed to see both girls giggling as to what they had both perceived as a windup.

Jess reached out and put a restraining hand on Slim’s chest, “I guess I can manage from here thanks pard,” he said, giving Slim a hard look.

Slim finally chuckled,” Yeah I know,” and then leaning in close he whispered,” You didn’t really think I was going to spend all night babysitting you when I’m on a promise with Lily, did you?”

Jess grinned back,” OK see ya tomorrow at Molly’s place.”

“Sure… oh and Jess it’s your call.”

“How so?” he asked looking affronted.

“Well you were supposed to shout us all lunch last time and you never showed and I ended up paying, so I figure it’s your turn.”

Jess shook his head laughing,” OK you win,” he said,” ’night pard,” and he followed Millie into her room, closing the door firmly behind him……

The End –

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