#25 The Flood

The Flood


Patty Wilkinson

(Some violence, strong language and adult themes)

(Regular readers please note this is before Jess & Millie got together)

Chapter 1

It was early spring at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, Wyoming.

Slim Sherman the owner was pacing distractedly around the small, but comfortable ranch sitting room, his long legs turning every few paces to move to the window and peer out again. He brushed a hand irritably through his blond hair.

“It just can’t keep on this way for much longer,” he said addressing his partner in the ranch and best friend Jess Harper.

Jess was currently peering out of the ranch window too looking at the cause of his buddy’s anguish, the persistent heavy rain, which had been falling relentlessly for over a week.

“Hell I’m gettin’ pretty sick of it too Slim. I figure iffen I get another soaking I’ll start goin’ rusty, but there ain’t nothing we can do about it, just have to sit it out until the good Lord sees fit to bring that ol’ sun back out.”

Just then Daisy Cooper their motherly housekeeper bustled out of the kitchen and cast Jess an anxious glance, ”Any sign yet?” she asked.

Jess who had been looking out for the afternoon Stage bearing their ward young Mike Williams home from the Laramie school, shook his head.

“I swear that darn Stage is gettin’ later each day,” he said before returning his deep blue eyes to the yard where the muddy puddles had got progressively larger as the week went on.

“What’s keeping that old rascal Mose?” said Slim fractiously, referring to the Stagecoach driver, although his tone was really born of anxiety for the youngster’s safe arrival, rather than casting aspersions on the driver.

“Well, I sure as Hell… err, excuse me,” Jess said flicking his glance over to Daisy, ”I sure as heck wouldn’t wanna be drivin’ four up in these conditions , that Laramie road is more lake than road right now.”

“Um, that’s what’s worrying me,” replied Slim soberly.

Then a few minutes later Jess’s face lit up and he called over to his partner, ”Talk of the Devil, Mose has just driven in, get yer rain slicker on Slim or I figure you’ll dissolve clear away,” and with that the young cowboy snagged his own coat from the hook by the door and grabbing his hat went out to change the team.

Mike, full of the excitement about the journey, burst in through the doorway, colliding with Slim going out.

“Gee, that was one exciting trip,” he cried, eyes sparkling, ”That ol’ Stage near went off of the road and then we got caught in a mud slick and Mose cussed something fierce before the horses finally pulled us out.”

“How do you know he was cussing,” asked Slim looking worried, “don’t tell me he let you ride up on the box in this weather?”

“Oh no Slim, we were inside,” he reassured his guardian, ”but us boys were leaning out of the window and we could hear him real clear, gee he said words I ain’t even heard Jess say,” he announced cheerfully.

“Haven’t heard dear, not ain’t,” corrected Daisy absently.

“Now go and get those wet clothes off…. and I mean all of them young man and there is clean underwear and clothes waiting on your bed, and be sure to bring the wet stuff out. I’ll wash them, though Lord knows how I’ll dry them,” she said to herself, the cosy room now empty and she went off back to her kitchen shaking her head.

”Mercy we’ll be building an Ark next,” she muttered to herself as she went.

As they sat around the supper table that night Slim’s face was serious and he was very quiet.

After a while Daisy exchanged a glance with Jess who had also noticed his partner’s unusual silence and after a moment said, “What’s up Slim, you worried about something?”

Slim looked over at Mike who was eating his supper quietly, and said, ”Mose reckons he might not get through tomorrow, looks like a whole section of the road has caved in.”

Mike took a moment to digest this information and then leapt up from his chair and did a good impression of an Indian war dance around the room.

“Yippee, does this mean no school, huh Slim…does it?” he asked excitedly.

Jess cast him an amused look, but then tried to calm the lively boy, seeing how worried Slim looked.

“OK Tiger, simmer down and come finish your supper,“ he said throwing the youngster a firm look, and he immediately fell into line, sitting back down, but his eyes still sparkled at the good news.

“So what did he actually say Slim?”

“Just that he couldn’t say for sure when he’d be able to drive through again, he was worried enough about the return journey and if this weather doesn’t stop soon… well….” and he stopped just looking down at his hardly touched meal.

Then he turned worried eyes on his friend, ”But it’s not just that Jess. It’s bad enough being cut off from town, but it’s the livestock I’m worried about.”

“They’re all still pretty near to home on the low ground Slim.”

“Yeah, and that’s just what’s worrying me, wish we’d taken them up to the high grazing sooner, figure they’d be safer up there.”

“Hang on Slim , the snow’s only just cleared we never take them up until end of next month at the earliest and there is no way we could move ‘em now in these conditions.”

“I know you’re right Jess, but I figure we need to ride out tomorrow and double check that north pasture fence. It could well be down with all the rain we’ve had and then there is nothing between them and that crazy river.”

Mike had been looking from one man to the other during this exchange and now he piped up excitedly,” Gee can I come and help too… can I?”

Both men said, ”No,” in unison, without missing a beat.

Then Jess turned to the youngster and saw the disappointment in his young nine year old face.

“Hey Tiger, we don’t want you doin’ that borin’ old fence checking, we need you to look after the homestead. See Aunt Daisy is OK for wood for the cook stove, see to the chickens and the cow, heck boy keep the place ticking over,” he said tousling the youngsters blond mop, ”That’s the real important job.”

“It is?” asked the boy looking surprised.

“Sure it is,” said Jess with conviction, ”Heck where would Slim and I be without comin’ home to a good meal , warm fire and everything ship shape?” he asked, including Daisy in his wide grin.

The youngster was immediately sold, ”Sure Jess I can see that, so I figure I’ll just have to be the man of the house while you and Slim are away.”

“You sure will,” grinned Slim, ”Now you hightail it off to bed, because we need you fit and ready at first light.”

“I will be,” said the youngster with conviction, enjoying the feeling of responsibility, ”I’ll be up at first light OK, ‘night all,” he called before making for bed at top speed.

“Well we should have thought of that one long ago, to get him to bed on time,” said Jess grinning at the other two, “Would have saved us one heck of a lot of bother.”


The following morning Jess and Slim lit out first thing leaving Mike and Daisy waving them off, Mike excited about his new responsibility and Daisy anxious for the two young men she looked upon as sons.

Both of them so different ,she thought, Slim with his deep rooted feeling of responsibility after his parents early demise leaving him to bring up a kid brother and to manage the ranch single handed too. He possessed strong ethics and a tendency to worry.

Whereas Jess the devil may care younger ‘son,’ had a chequered history of personal loss after the majority of his kin burned in a house fire set by the Bannister gang when he was only fifteen.Followed by a difficult war fighting for the Confederacy. Then he spent five years on the drift often skirting on the wrong side of the law, before he finally found his way to the Sherman Ranch, a fresh start and a place to call home.

The two men rode out at a good pace and after a few hours were at the northern edge of the ranch and it took them no time at all to see that the fence was indeed down in one place and some of the cattle had headed down towards the dangerous river’s edge.

Jess cussed under his breath before kicking Traveler his mount onto the torturous route down the slippery slope towards the flood plain, where the river was in spate. The angry noise easily discernable from several hundred yards away.

There were about a dozen steers heading in the general direction of the river and so they dealt with them first, heading then off and turning them back to the north pasture, before turning and making for a further half dozen that were now actually nearly at the teeming water’s edge.

“Crazy critters,” muttered Jess under his breath as he kicked his mount on to head them off, closely followed by Slim.

He managed to get four of them and quickly chivvied them back with the others already in the fields above, before turning back towards the river.

He stood up in his stirrups to peruse the scene below prior to heading back down and what he saw made his blood run cold. One of the young steers was heading back up towards him eager to join his fellows and he just slapped it’s rump to help it on its way. However the final one was in the river and Slim had roped him and was now at the river’s edge using all his strength to pull the critter back. But even as Jess watched he saw his partner lose the battle and hurtle into the fast moving water, following the steer that was being carried away at frightening speed.

Jess didn’t even stop to think, he spurred Traveler on to the riverside and then upstream until he was several yards beyond where Slim was now being hurtled along like a cork, bobbing up and down in the torrential waters.

Then he threw himself from the saddle, tore off his rain slicker and boots and hurled himself into the icy waters and swam strongly to where Slim was just passing, and with ‘the luck of the Devil’ he was to say later, just managed to grab hold of his collar as he passed and yank him back, before striking out to the shore, pulling his friend beside him.

It was only the fact that the river suddenly narrowed and there were several felled trees in the water that Jess finally managed to get to the shore. He grabbed the branches of one of the fallen trees and managed to haul Slim in beside him and once out of the powerful flow of the river, they edged their way along the tree until they made it to the riverbank.

There Jess hauled himself out onto the steep slippery bank, dragging Slim roughly up behind him.

They finally landed at the top of the bank one filthy, coughing pair of near drowned cowboys. But Jess eventually managed to find the inner strength to haul himself and his buddy the final few feet up to safety and they lay panting and choking on the course, meadow grass overlooking the rushing swollen river.

After coughing, retching and up chucking the filthy water for several minutes Jess finally managed to speak.

“What in Hell are yer playin’ at Slim, that’s the sorta crazy stunt I usually do,” he yelled angrily, his emotion mainly born of fear for his partner.

Slim was unable to speak, still coughing and spluttering until he finally turned streaming eyes on his friend, ”Well it seemed like a good idea at the time.” he finally managed.

Both men locked eyes and then Jess shook his head and grinned and then started to chuckle and finally they were both laughing, coughing and hiccuping uncontrollably.

“Thanks Jess I owe you,” Slim eventually managed.

“Yeah well, it can be kinda treacherous that ol river,” said Jess laconically.

Slim knew he was remembering back to the time when he had fallen in and been swept away and was believed to have drowned, until he was finally discovered weeks later suffering from amnesia, and figured his buddy was incredibly brave having risked his life that way, knowing that he had a deep seated fear of drowning after that dreadful experience. *See Lost

However he knew better than to dwell on that matter knowing that Jess would just get embarrassed. So satisfying himself that he would find some practical way of thanking him, he left the topic and started struggling to his feet, looking around for the horses.

Jess did likewise and then putting his fingers in his mouth gave an ear splitting whistle and a few minutes later Traveler trotted into view.

“How do you get him to do that?” Slim asked in astonishment.

“Easy,” said Jess and reaching into the depths of the inner pocket of his vest amazingly managing to find a couple of soggy sugar lumps that had survived the ducking. He put them on his palm for the horse to lick off.

Slim shook his head and grinned, ”Just like his owner do pretty much anything for food.”

Jess sprang gracefully into the saddle and threw his buddy a challenging look at that comment.

“You wanna ride……… or walk all the way back down the river to find yer horse?” he asked gruffly.

“Oh definitely ride,” said Slim chuckling and Jess finally relented and grinning back, took his foot out of the stirrup so Slim could swing up behind him and the two rode off in search of Alamo.

They made their way slowly back to the ranch just as dusk was falling, having made repairs to the fencing and checked all the stock we’re accounted for and in a place of safety, save for the poor animal that had perished in the river.

The rain had been coming down steadily all day and now a sharp wind had sprung up and by the time the men reached the ranch their teeth were chattering and they were blue with cold after their untimely soaking in the river.

Jess cast his pard a sympathetic glance and figured he was in the worst state of the two of them having been exposed to the icy waters of the river for longer.

“I’ll put the horses up,” he said quietly, “You go and get in the hot tub.”

Slim opened his mouth to argue and then saw the stubborn look in his buddy’s eye and closed it again.

“Just make sure Mike starts boiling up some more water for me,” he said with a chuckle, ”I ain’t using your water,” and Slim went off thankfully to warm up.

As Jess made his way across the yard sometime later the wind howled and gusted practically blowing him off his feet and the rain was suddenly torrential once more. He saw a bright flash of lightning stab through the clouds and then a mighty crash of thunder overhead and he sprinted the last few feet and threw himself inside the house leaning back on the door panting and dripping water everywhere.

Daisy was there in a moment and looked at Jess in shock, ”Oh my dear, come along in and get in the tub at once, Slim’s all done…..”

Then she saw the hesitant look on his face and knowing how shy he was, she smiled to herself and backed off, ”I have a few chores to attend to in my room, off you go now,” she said gesturing to the freshly filled bathtub in front of the blazing fire.

Jess still stood there dripping, ”Go along dear,” she said impatiently, looking at the widening puddle around Jess’s feet as he stood hesitating, ”Unless you would like me to scrub your back?”

Jess cast her a look of horror, ”No ma’am, I can manage,” he said quickly and started stripping off as he made a bee line for the tub and Daisy departed for her room, chuckling to herself at how easyhe was to tease.

The storm crashed around them all evening getting increasingly fierce and Slim and Jess went over to the barn to check on the horses, spending some time calming the fractious animals, spooked by the thunder and howling winds.

Jess was talking softly to Traveler and Slim looked up at the roof as yet another crash of thunder rent the air and turning to his partner said, ”Jeez you know I reckon this is the worst storm I can ever remember.”

“Darn Wyoming weather,” muttered Jess darkly, ”You wouldn’t get weather like this back in Texas you know.”

However before Slim could respond they suddenly heard a roaring noise even louder than the buffeting rain and howling wind.

They stared at each other in shock.

“What in hell’s that?” whispered Jess.

Then it seemed to get louder and there was an almighty mighty crash as if something very large and heavy had suddenly smacked into the barn making the whole structure shudder.

Both men ran to the door and hauling it open surveyed the yard now covered by several feet of rushing filthy water.

“What!” gasped Jess turning incredulous eyes on Slim.

Slim looked around and then he realized what had happened.

“It’s the creek,” he said in shocked tones, referring to the small stream at the back of the property just beyond the home meadow; it must have burst its banks.

Luckily there were no stock on that side of the ranch so they focused their attention on the ranch house, suddenly fearful for the safety of Daisy and Mike within.

They waded back through the water, but even as they made their way to the house the levels were dropping and they were relieved to see that although it was lapping at the edge of the porch, it had not made its way beyond there and into the house itself.

When they entered they found Mike peering out of the window, his eyes wide in astonishment and he ran over to the two men as they strode back inside.

“What’s happened to the yard,” he cried excitedly, “it looks like the lake!”

“Easy Tiger,” said Jess restraining the child from going out to investigate further, ”I figure we’ll save exploring for the morning, now off you go it’s way past your bedtime.”

“Aww Jess…”

“Never mind that, go on Mike,” he said with a firm look.

Then more gently, ”I’ll be in just now to tuck you up and we’ll decided what we’re goin’ to do about that ol’ lake in the yard OK?”

“OK,” said the boy at once appeased and he ran off cheerfully.

“So what are we going to do about that ol’ lake in the yard?” asked Slim turning anxious eyes on his buddy.

“Dunno,” said Jess scratching his head,” beats me,” and he wandered off to change his soaking denims for the second time that day.

Later, once Daisy and Mike were settled down for the night, the men sat on by the dying embers of the fire both somewhat loathed to turn in, in case the weather took a turn for the worse and the flood waters rose and did indeed enter the house.

They had sandbagged both front and back doors and the water level in the yard had dropped considerably , but the storm still raged above sending more rain to add to the already waterlogged land and bursting rivers and streams.

As yet more thunder crashed and rumbled overhead Jess turned to his buddy, ”I sure wouldn’t wanna be on the road tonight.”

“Um, me neither, guess we’d better turn in,” said Slim rising, “I figure we’re going to have one hell of a job cleaning everywhere up when this storm subsides.”

“If it ever subsides,” said Jess throwing Slim his cheeky grin.

They were just making for their room when there was a frenzied knocking at the front door.

Both men froze and exchanged a shocked glance before making for the door and their gun belts which were hanging up on the peg beside the door.

They drew their guns and Jess stayed behind the door as Slim threw it open and then gasping with shock opened it wider as a soaking wet, huge, dark skinned man holding a younger beautiful woman in his arms half walked half fell into the house.

“Please senor, please help me,” he whispered before almost collapsing in Slim’s arms.

Slim and Jess helped him in and Jess relieved the stranger of his burden placing the unconscious woman on the old couch in front of the window and turning to look at the tall man.

“Gracias mi amigo,” he gasped before collapsing on the chair Slim offered.

“Thank you, my friend,” he repeated in English.

Then, “es usted muy amable.”

“Huh?” said Slim looking puzzled.

“He says we’re very kind,” said Jess.

“De nada,” said Jess softly. (you’re welcome.)

The man grinned at his new friend and nodded.

“Usted habla Espanola?” (you speak Spanish)

“Just a little, picked it up when I lived in Texas, had a mess of Mexican friends. So you’re a long way from home?”

“Si, we are from a little town near the border.“

As the men had been talking Slim had gone and awoken Daisy and now she was kneeling down by the injured woman tenderly bathing a nasty cut to her temple.

The men looked down anxiously and then Jess went and fetched a blanket from his room to cover her and turning to the tall Mexican, said, ”Don’t worry your daughter is in good hands.”

There was a sudden embarrassed silence in the room before the man replied stonily, ”This is my wife senor, not my daughter.”

Jess winced at his, albeit understandable, mistake, and apologized looking at the rugged, bearded middle aged man and back to the incredibly beautiful raven haired young woman still unconscious on the couch.

“No it is my fault senor,” said the older man recovering his good manners, ”I should have introduced myself properly, I am Carlos Juan De La Cruz and this is my wife, Lola and we are a travelling music company.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Slim beaming across at Carlos, ”I am Slim Sherman and this is Jess Harper my business partner and Mrs Daisy Cooper our housekeeper.”

“Encantada, pleased to meet you,” he smiled back, before returning his anxious gaze back to his young wife, who suddenly stirred.

“Carlos,” she cried trying to sit up and staring around the unfamiliar room with fearful eyes.

He was immediately by her side, taking her hand and talking to her softly in their own tongue.

After a moment she looked past him and surveyed the Sherman household and Carlos introduced Slim and Daisy and then turning towards Jess who was standing a little further back finished,” and this is Mister Jess Harper.”

At the name she gave a little gasp and stared across at the young rancher turning even paler, her eyes opened wide in shock.

Carlos looked from Lola to Jess and back and then said softly, ”Conoce a este hombre, you know this man?”

She shook her head vehemently, “No!”

Then Slim took over, ”Look it’s real late why don’t you bed down in here tonight and we’ll talk in the morning huh?”

“Thank you mi amigo, we are indebted to you,” said Carlos sincerely.

The men quickly pulled a spare cot in for Carlos and threw some more logs on the fire and wishing them a good night everyone retired to bed.

Once in their room Jess stripped down to his undershorts and climbed into bed and lay there thoughtfully staring up at the ceiling.

“So…. do you know her?” asked Slim staring across at his buddy from where he was seated on his own bed.


Slim sighed deeply, ”The pretty lady Jess, do you know her?”

“No… she said not didn’t she?”

“Hum that might have been for her husband’s benefit.”

“Look I said no didn’t I?” said Jess impatiently, ”Now are we gonna get some shut eye or do I have to remind you we've got a flooded yard to sort out tomorrow?”

Slim threw him a quizzical glance, knowing about Jess’s somewhat shadowy past. Scattered with disastrous love affairs and smiled to himself, doubtless the truth would come out in the end he thought philosophically and turned in himself and was soon snoring gently.

But Jess lay staring into the darkness. Something about the lovely young woman was vaguely familiar, although he thought he hadn’t met her before…….but had he? Surely he would have remembered someone as darn beautiful as that was his last thought as he finally fell asleep.


The following morning when the men were called for breakfast they were surprised to see the sitting room restored to its usual neat state with all the bedding tidied away , the fire burning cheerfully, with fresh firewood in the log basket and the floor newly washed.

“Well someone has been busy,” said Slim beaming at their guests who were now seated at the breakfast table.

“We are not ones to take advantage of a kindness,” said Carlos quickly,” Lola and I have helped Miss Daisy with the morning chores and after this delightful, desayuno…err… ?”

“Breakfast,” supplied Jess grinning.

“Si, breakfast, then I will give you two gentlemen a hand with the flooded yard, yes?”

“There is no need really,” said Slim.

“There is every need mi amigo, never let it be said that Carlos Juan De La Cruz never paid his debts. Besides I am after another favour,” he said smiling cheekily.

“Oh, what can we do for you then?” asked Jess tearing his eyes away from the charming picture of Lola tucking into her breakfast, with enjoyment.

“Well Jess, you see we had an accident in the storm last night and our wagon came off the road and I fear one of the wheels is badly damaged, if you could see your way to helping us out, repairing it maybe, well we would be forever grateful, would we not Lola?”

“Si,” she said casting her eyes down , before looking up into Jess’s deep blue eyes alluringly, ”Forever grateful,” she repeated.

Carlos didn’t seem to notice the seductive look she had thrown Jess, but the young cowboy flushed slightly and felt his pulse begin to race a little.

“Well that should be no problem should it pard,” said Slim looking across at him, ”I figure we can get to it as soon as the yard is sorted out and the stock checked.”

“Sure,” said Jess softly.

Then turning back to Lola said, “So are you feeling better this morning Ma’am?”

She threw him another charming smile and said, “Quite better gracias.”

“There was no need to do any work,” he continued gesturing to the floor she had cleaned.

“I am very strong, very fit and healthy, I have aguante…err, stamina senor, you need not fret about me,” and with that she applied herself once more to her meal.

“Oh, well… that’s good,” said Jess faintly, before draining his coffee cup and disappearing out to the yard to make a start on the chores.

Shortly afterwards Slim joined him where he was mucking out the barn.

“Well she’s an interesting one,” he said going over and clapping his buddy on the shoulder.


“That Lola, quite a character, I saw the look she threw you and what was all that about stamina eh?” he asked winking.

“No idea,” said Jess gruffly applying himself to the task in hand. But Slim saw the way he flushed and looked kind of unsettled and wondered what was going on, but then mentally shook his head, it was never easy to figure Jess and the way he was around women, so he changed the subject.

“So, looks like the rains stopped,” he said grinning at his pard.

“Yeah, but for how long?” said Jess squinting out of the barn door at the watery sun, ”Darn Wyoming weather,” he muttered before going back to his chores.

Mike was beside himself with excitement at the presence of their exotic guests, the beautiful woman with the long black hair and expressive dark eyes. Her tall swarthy husband who reminded him of pictures of banditos from his comic books with his big sombrero and brightly colored poncho, and he was full of questions as they sat around the table enjoying a coffee break later that morning.

“So what are you doing so far from home?” asked Mike with childlike curiosity.

“Mike that’s none of our business,” said Daisy quickly, starting to apologize for the boy’s guileless behaviour.

“That is quite alright,” said Carlos quickly.

Then turning to Mike he said, ”We are travelling players, I play the guitar and sometimes the fiddle and Lola dances and sings and we are working our way back from California to our homeland of Mexico.”

Mike took this in and then said, ”That’s funny it’s usually the other way, folk head out West…I was,” he said then turning his wide innocent eyes on them, “with the Wagon Train… until…”

“Until what my little one?” Lola said gently, sensing some hidden emotion.

“Until the Indian raid,” he finally said, ”an’ everyone was killed ‘cept me.”

She looked profoundly shocked and glanced at Daisy for confirmation and the elderly housekeeper just sighed and nodded sadly.

Then Mike rallied, ”I miss my folks sure, but they’re still here in my heart ain’t they Jess?” he said turning bright eyes to his hero and putting a hand across his heart.

“You bet, Tiger,” said Jess softly, knowing that was the way he had helped the child to move on after the massacre.

That, as well as promising the boy that he and Slim would be his ‘forever and always family’.

“It’s funny isn’t it,” said the boy reflectively, ”because I landed here in a storm too, just like you did.”

“That you did,” said Slim smiling down indulgently at the lad, ”And best darned thing as ever happened to us wasn’t it Jess?”

“Sure was,” said Jess reaching over and ruffling the youngsters blond thatch of hair.

Lola’s expression softened as she watched this little scene play out, but she flushed and looked away when she saw Slim watching her.

“So,” said Carlos beaming at the boy, ”your kind guardians have said Lola and I may stay for a few days until the road is passable again and it would be our pleasure to sing and play for you one evening…. If you would like?” he finished diffidently.

“Oh wow, I sure would,” enthused the youngster.

“I guess that goes for us all,” said Slim beaming across at their visitor, ”let’s get to mending that old wheel of yours and then we can plan a day for this concert,” he said chuckling as he drained his cup and left the table with Carlos.

Then he turned back to see Jess and Lola sitting chatting animatedly as Daisy bustled about clearing the table, Mike having run off to play.



“Huh?” he said finally dragging his eyes away from Lola’s hypnotic gaze as she continued to smile at him.

“You coming to help or are you going to sit there and wait for dinner to arrive?” he asked testily.

“I’m comin’ keep yer hair on,” he muttered darkly.

“Excuse me Ma’am,” he said softly casting Lola his charming boyish smile before striding across the room and snagging his hat from the peg before going outside to join the others.

However as he marched out of the door he cannoned into Slim who was waiting for him on the porch, and watching Carlos who had wandered over to the other side of the now thoroughly brushed yard.

“What are you playing at Jess?” he whispered angrily.

“What do you mean?” asked Jess casting his buddy an innocent look.

“You know dang well what. The way you were looking at that woman Jess, I’ve seen that look in your eyes before, so just behave and rein it in before anyone gets hurt, you hear me?”

Jess threw him a look of hurt innocence, ”Heck Slim I was only bein’ friendly.”

“Sure, sure,” muttered Slim, “Come on let’s get this darn wheel fixed, use up some of that pent up energy of yours,” and he marched off, leaving Jess feeling bewildered.

“Only bein’ neighborly,” he muttered to himself as he crossed the yard to pitch in and help.

Chapter 2

As it happened Jess was to use a heck of a lot more of his pent up energy over the next few days than he would have liked.

As he had predicted the storms returned later that day but with renewed force and both men became increasingly worried about all the stock once more.

The fact that the creek out the back had burst its banks flooding the home meadow and yard now meant that the critters on the low ground surrounding the ranch could be in danger. The men knew there was nothing more for it but to do exactly what they had been trying to avoid, take the herd of steers up to the higher ground to the east of the ranch. Here the ground was not only much higher but also more sheltered due to a large pine forest that effectively protected the lower slopes of the small mountain range from the worst of the weather.

It was grueling work trying to move the beasts through the waterlogged muddy ground and as they left early the following morning they were unable to tell Daisy exactly when they would be back.

“The ground is so darned boggy it’s going to be real hard going,” said Slim, knowing his dear friend would rather have the truth than be protected from the harsh facts.

“I reckon it will take the best part of the day to make it to Pine Bluff,” said Jess and I figure we’ll camp up there and make it back by dusk the next day with any luck that is.”

They were sitting at the breakfast table and as they spoke they could hear the storm rumbling away outside and the wind moaning and young Mike looked really fearful.

“Gee Jess do ya have to go? Slim… can’t those ol’ steers just stay in the home pasture?”

“Sorry,” said Slim kindly, “We just can’t run the risk, you know all those good beef cattle we lost in the flash floods last year, we really can’t risk that happening again Mike.”

The boy just nodded looking down into his untouched breakfast.

Carlos offered to help again, but he had admitted he was no drover and although politeness forbade them saying anything Slim and Jess secretly thought he would be more of a liability than a help.

“We’ll be fine really,” Slim reassured him, ”and to be honest I’d rather you stay here and keep an eye out for the place. If that old creek floods again I reckon Daisy could use a man about the house to fix up the sandbags and the like.”

“Certainly my friend, I will care for your home and your dear housekeeper and boy as though they were my own.”

Then turning to a very subdued looking Mike, he smiled and said, ”And once all the chores are done maybe I can show my young friend here how to play a little guitar music Mexican style, you would like that Mike?”

The youngsters face lit up, “You bet, thanks Carlos!”

“And I will help Daisy with the washing and baking so that you will have clean dry clothes and apple pie on your return,” said Lola, beaming over at the older woman.

Daisy smiled back, ”Thank you my dear, I could really use the help.”

“Sounds a good deal to me,” said Jess cheerfully.

“Come on Slim sooner we go, sooner we’ll be back eatin’ that ol’ pie,” he said winking at Lola, and shortly afterwards the two ranchers rode out into the storm.

The going was even worse than they had expected with several of the steers getting stuck in a mud slick within the first hour and the men had to rope them and try and pull out the heavy panicking animals.

Then it happened again later in the afternoon, just when they were feeling exhausted, cold and wet.

Jess had roped one of the critters and was trying to haul it out of the mud when it suddenly got itself free and trampled Jess in its frenzied bid to re-join the herd.

Slim saw what had happened at once from his position herding the rest of the beasts and spurred his horse back to where Jess was face down and unmoving in the mud.

He leapt down from Alamo and running over to his buddy gently turned him over and looked down in consternation at the pale bleeding visage with a nasty gash to the forehead, blood washing down his face as the driving rain poured down on him.

“Jess, pard!”

After a moment the blue eyes flickered open and he gave a groan and cussed long and loud.

“Dang ornery critter,” he finally finished more mildly, ”last time I help him out.”

Slim grinned down at his friend relieved to see that he wasn’t too badly hurt.

“Well there’s one good thing anyway ,” he said hauling Jess up to a sitting position.

“Oh yeah, so what’s that?”

“At least I don’t have to bother cleaning the wound out, this darned rain’s done it for me.”

“Oh ha, ha hilarious,” said Jess darkly, struggling to stand and then he gave a yelp of pain.


“My knee,” he gasped, ”twisted the darn thing, you’ll have to give me a leg up,” he said as he limped over to where Traveler was standing patiently.

Slim followed him, ”Maybe you should turn back.”

“Are you kidding, leave you with this number of godforsaken ornery beasts to drive all on yer own? Hell you’re good Slim, but you ain’t that good, now will yer quit wasting time and give me a leg up for God’s sake?”

Slim knew there was no point in arguing so he did as he was bid and they carried on up the hillside and finally herded the critters through the fence gate and onto the prime grazing land, with a sigh of relief.

The area was well fenced, protected by the pine forest on one side and most importantly way too high for the flood waters to reach and they knew their livestock would besafe up there.

Once the beasts had settled and were calmly grazing Slim went about setting up camp; insisting Jess sit down and rest the painful knee, and for once he did as he was told, much to Slim’s surprise.

They had made camp beneath the relative shelter of some huge pines and although it was still drizzling a little the main storm had passed over.

Once the fire was lit and the coffee pot in place Slim went over to where Jess was relaxing back on his saddle and hunkering down beside him said, ”I’ll take a proper look at that head now.”

“It’s OK ,”said Jess weakly squinting up at his buddy through half closed eyes.

“Jess are you OK?” asked Slim immediately.

“Yeah, quit your fussing, I’m fine, just a bit of a headache is all.”

Slim leaned in and looked at the gash properly and let out a low whistle. It was so deep the white bone of his temple was showing through and the blood had continued to flow down and now soaked the neck of his shirt.

“Jess,” he exploded, ”Why didn’t you say something? It didn’t look too bad with the rain diluting the blood; I thought it was just a graze.”

Then he leapt up and came back a moment later with some whiskey to clean the wound out and some clean rags to bind it with and keep it clean.

He offered the bottle and Jess took a swig, grimacing as the fiery liquid hit the back of his throat and passed it back to Slim, who did the same.

“You ready?” he asked

Jess just nodded.

Then Slim poured some of the spirit directly into the open wound to clean it thoroughly and Jess bit down hard, but only gave a weak groan and said nothing.

Slim patted his arm, ”All done buddy,” and he proceeded to bandage the wound as well as he could.

He shook his head when the task was completed, “That’s real deep Jess, it needs stitches. I figure you need to see Sam,” he said referring to Doctor Sam Baker their family physician and good friend.

“Oh yeah, sure. Have you forgotten the Laramie road is closed and probably under several feet of flood water?”

“Um.. oh yeah, well Daisy’s a pretty dab hand with a needle.”

“Hey we’re talkin’ about my head here Slim, not one of my damn shirts yer know.”

Slim hid a smile, “She was a nurse in the war Jess and it wouldn’t be the first time she’s had to sew you up anyway.”

“Yeah, but not my face,” he said looking horrified, and putting a tentative hand up to his temple,” I’ve got my boyish good looks to think of you know buddy,” and both men dissolved into laughter.

Daisy’s sister had once referred to Jess as the one with boyish good looks and attitude, and the joke had stuck.

Now Slim shook his head laughing, ”Well she was sure right about one thing.”

“Yeah what?”

“Well you sure got attitude.”

“Aww Slim, will you shut up and make us some coffee …. And with a drop of medicinal red eye in it, huh?”

“Coming up,” said Slim getting up and punching his buddy’s shoulder lightly.

One thing about Jess he thought, he rarely lost his sense of humour for long and he went off to pour their coffee.

And he certainly needed his sense of humour too.

His head was throbbing as was his knee and as a result he got hardly any sleep that night. The fire was sulky as all the firewood was wet and both men spent a cold uncomfortable night and awoke at dawn ready for the homewards journey.

When Jess stood up he staggered a little and looked almost grey.

“Sure you’re OK to ride?” asked Slim solicitously

“Well I sure ain’t stayin’ here,” he said bitterly.

Then sighing deeply, “ I’m Sorry Slim, just feelin’ a bit out of sorts, you give me a leg up will ya?”

“Sure,” said Slim kindly, knowing that Jess’s impatience was born of the fact that he was feeling so bad.

Hell Slim was feeling bad enough himself, cold, tired and miserable and aching all over from the hard ground and penetrating cold of the previous night.

They kicked their mounts off down the foothills towards home and after a while Jess grinned across at his buddy, “Have you noticed somethin’?”

Slim shook his head, and raised an eyebrow, ”No?”

“Stopped rainin’…….. now ain’t that a shame, just when I was thinkin’ we could sit out on the porch and do some fishing when we got back.”

Slim grinned across and shook his head, yep, the old Harper humour was still intact.

It was a long slow ride home with neither of the men feeling they wanted to exert themselves too much and so it was just beginning to get dark when they finally rode into the yard and went to put their horses up for the night.

As soon as he heard them arrive Carlos dashed out.

The tall Mexican stared at the two men, taking in their weather beaten appearance. They looked exhausted, cold and wet. Then he saw the bandage around Jess’s head and he came forwards looking concerned.

“Mi amigos, you have had a very difficult trip I think, can I help, see to your horses or something, no?”

“It’s OK said Jess quickly, I’ll put Traveler up myself, but I guess ol’ Slim would like your help.”

Carlos went off to the other end of the barn and started to help Slim unsaddle his mount and rub him down.

“Your friend is not looking so well I think, why will he not accept my help?” he asked looking upset.

“Oh don’t mind Jess,” said Slim easily, “he’s just real protective of old Traveler there likes to tend to him himself, don’t read anything into it he’s fine.“

“But hurt I think, he had an accident?”

“Yeah,” said Slim casting his buddy an anxious look across the barn. “He got himself trampled by one of the steers, figure he needs the doc, but that road still looks pretty impassable with the buckboard and I figure he’s done enough riding for one day.”

Then turning to smile at the Mexican, “So everything been OK here?”

“Si senor, Mike is in the bath tub, we were cleaning out the yard and he managed to fall in the mud.”

Slim chuckled, ” I wondered where he’d got to and I noticed the place was looking better, many thanks Carlos.”

“It is my pleasure senor. Lola and I are very much indebted to you and have tried to pull our weight.”

“I’m sure you have,” said Slim smiling over at the sincere Mexican, thinking what a nice man he was.

“Come on,” he said grinning over at him, ”Let’s get that ornery partner of mine indoors and have Daisy check him out. I’ve a feeling she’s going to pull rank on him and it won’t be a pretty sight,” he said chuckling at his new friend’s puzzled expression.

As soon as Jess limped in Daisy came out of the kitchen and taking one look at her ‘difficult son’, she steered him over to the couch and made him lie down whilst she checked the head wound.

Slim had come over and stood by the couch watching the proceedings and Lola and Carlos had gone off to the bunk house where they were now sleeping, to wash up for supper and give Jess a little privacy.

As soon as the makeshift bandage was removed Daisy looked anxious and peering down at Jess, and then over at Slim she whispered, ”This is very deep, it needs to be stitched, do you think Sam could make it over?”

“No chance,” said Slim at once, “That road is treacherous and even worse in the dark.”

She stiffened and then seemed to make a decision, “Very well, I must do it then.”

“Aww, Daisy do yer have to?”

“Yes dear, it’s not just the scarring I am concerned about but the wound is still bleeding badly now I have removed the dressing. I’m afraid there is no other course of action.”

Slim took Daisy to one side, “What about anesthetic, he’s tough……. but stitching that gash without anything Daisy?” he whispered.

She looked concerned, ”Yes I know and I think we’ll just have to do what old Doc Johnson used to use before Sam arrived with his modern Chloroform.”

“What you mean a drop of whiskey?”

“Um… well more than a drop, he needs to be completely relaxed.”

Slim looked thoughtful, “I figure I’ve got just what we need out in the barn Daisy, hang on,” and he dashed out.

He returned a moment later with a bottle of pure hill whiskey.

“Why Slim Sherman whatever are you doing with that dreadful stuff?” said Daisy looking scandalized.

Slim looked a bit sheepish and then said, “It was a present from the mountain folk that stayed a while back, well I couldn’t offend them by refusing it could I Daisy?”

She gave him a smile and he saw her eyes twinkle, “You boys, I don’t know,” she muttered to herself.

Then she looked more serious, ”Well you’d better give him a few glasses and then I’ll need your help dear.”

Slim went over to the couch and hauling his buddy up to a sitting position poured him a glass of the illicit liquid and handed it over, “There you go Hotshot, down the hatch.”

Jess took the glass but looked shocked and cast a glance over to where Daisy was just disappearing into the kitchen.

“Are you crazy bringing that moonshine into the house Daisy will go mad.”

“No she won’t, medicinal see.”


“Remember old Doc Johnson, how he used to fill us full of his dreadful brandy before he pulled the odd bullet out?”

“I sure do,” said Jess with feeling, “He was real different from doc Sam.”

“Yeah, well we can’t get doc Sam right now, so I’m going to have to sedate you with this , so Daisy isn’t working on a moving target.”


“I’ve got to get you legless Jess so Daisy can get you sewn up real good and we can all have supper,” he said getting impatient now, his stomach rumbling. “Now are you going to drink that down, or what?”

Jess looked into the glass and considered the matter. He knew that the stuff in any quantity made him sick as a dog, but there again so did Chloroform and the choice of being stone cold sober to have his head stitched or, ever so slightly merry… well there was no contest, he knocked the drink back in one and held his glass out for more.

After his fourth Slim regarded him with amused eyes, “You’re really getting the hang of this aren’t you Jess?”

“Yeah well practice makes perfect,” he slurred.

“Daisy,” Slim called over his shoulder, ”I think we’re ready for you.”

“We are?” asked Jess looking uncertain and hiccuping.

“Oh yes we are buddy,” said Slim grinning at the state of his friend.

It was just one drink later that he was relaxed enough for Daisy to go ahead and easily complete the task.

In fact as Slim was to say later he was as relaxed as a skunk, but at least the procedure was quickly over and Daisy did a wonderful delicate job that would leave practically no scar.

She had just finished when Carlos and Lola returned looking somewhat shocked at the scene being played out before them, but Slim quickly reassured them that Jess was resting after a minor operation and Carlos helped carry the semi-comatose cowboy off to his bed.

When they had gone Lola turned to Daisy and said, ”Is he alright Miss Daisy, he looks dreadful.”

“Um, I reckon he’ll get worse before he gets better,” she said with irony, ”but he’ll be fine in a day or two, don’t worry my dear, now let’s get supper on.”

Jess made good use of the strategically placed bucket throughout the night and the following morning he had the hangover from hell.

Slim regarded him sympathetically.

“Jeez if you were a dog I guess I’d shoot you,” he said, with a twinkle.

Jess just groaned and said something like, ”My goddamn head is goddamn well expolodin’,” and then a variety of other expletives, until he ground to a halt groaning again.

Then Slim took pity on him and went and rinsed out a rag in cold water and placed it over his eyes and left him to sleep.

It was mid-afternoon before he showed his face and he eventually limped out of his room looking more dead than alive, pale and unshaven

“Jess what are you doing up dear,” asked Daisy briskly, “You really need to keep the weight off that badly twisted knee for at least a week.”

“Aww Daisy it’s cold in there,” he moaned, “and anyways I’d kill for a coffee.”

She took pity on the dark haired cowboy and helped him to his rocker before carefully placing his injured leg up on a stool.

“I really don’t think you need to go to those lengths dear,” she said chuckling as she bustled off to make him a cup.

“So where is everyone?” he asked as they settled down to a drink together.

“Well Lola is just doing some of her washing in the kitchen and Slim, Carlos and Mike have gone riding fence.”

Jess looked concerned, ”He’s taken Mike?”

“Yes but don’t worry they are over on the west pastureland, nowhere near the river.”

“Oh, OK, I guess it will do him good to get out anyways, he’ll be getting bored soon with the school still closed, you know how he got last time we were snowed in.”

“Don’t I just,” she chuckled, ”but it did help once we got him doing a few chores around the place, he loves the work doesn’t he?”

However before Jess could answer there was a loud knocking on the door and ignoring Daisy’s protestations Jess jumped up and went to answer it himself, always being wary of unexpected callers, as they were quite isolated situated out in the open countryside.

However he opened the door to reveal Pete Smith a neighbour from up the track a little ways.

He didn’t stand on ceremony and gazing wildly at Jess, said, “Is Miss Daisy here?”

“Sure,” said Jess throwing the door open and gesturing for him to come in, ”so where’s the fire then Pete!”

The young man turned distracted eyes on his friend, ”Ain’t no fire Jess, worse than that my Annie is in labor and I can’t get through to fetch the doc and I was wondering if Miss Daisy would help?”

Then he turned his anguished gaze towards Daisy who was still in her chair, “I know you’ve helped others with birthing, Miss Daisy and we’re in desperate need of someone experienced.”

At this Daisy came forwards, ”Why Pete dear I didn’t know her time was near?”

“Yes, Ma’am overdue in fact and as it’s her first, well we’re so darned scared , the pair of us, so can you help us?”

“Of course I will dear, I’ll just pack a case and be with you in two ticks,” and she marched off returning shortly.

Then Lola came through from the kitchen to see her off.

“Oh my dear I’m sorry to leave like this will you be alright to finish making supper?”

“But of course it is my pleasure.”

“And, make sure Mike has a good scrub after all that riding out, and an early night I think.”

“Si, si.”

“And Jess’s wound must be dressed with clean bandages, before he retires, from my special bag in the kitchen.”

“Daisy quit yer frettin’ we’ll manage,” said Jess smiling down at the diminutive housekeeper.

“Yes of course.”

“You go, Madre, as Jess says we will manage.”


“It means Mother, you remind me of my Mama. She used to fuss like you because she cared about us children so much,” she said with a loving smile.

Daisy returned the smile, ”Thank you my dear, you just keep my boys in order and I will be home as soon as I can, probably two or three days,” and with that she accompanied Pete to the waiting buggy and made off down the steep track behind the ranch up to the Smith’s ranch.

When she had gone Jess smiled down at Lola,” You wanna sit a spell if you’ve finished your chores?”

“Si, I will bring the coffee pot.”

They sat companionably by the fire and after a little while she turned her beautiful eyes on Jess and said,” I am glad we are alone at last.”

His head shot up at this and he looked uncomfortable.

Was Slim right , had he been sending out the wrong signals.

“Oh?” he said warily.

She gave him a warm smile from where she sat sipping her coffee in the chair recently vacated by Daisy.

“You really don’t know who I am, do you?” she asked after a minute.

Jess just stared and shook his head, “There is something kinda familiar I guess,” he said at last.

“That mess of Mexican friends back in Texas, where you learned some Spanish, one of them was called Chiquita Capello, no?”

He just stared at her his senses reeling; hell it was a long time since he had thought of Chiquita. Jeez she was some woman. She had been the cause of so much pain… heck so much pleasure in his life, and even now just thinking of her his stomach flipped and he felt almost dizzy with a longing to see her again.

“Chiquita?” he whispered.

“Si, and I am her little sister Delores… well I call myself Lola now.”

“You’re little Delores?” he said looking amazed, “Gee you sure grew up some.”

She smiled at the implied compliment.

“Well I’m glad you approve,” she said giving him a sultry look.

“Yep, all grown up and married too,” he said firmly, casting her a censorious look.

She looked down, “Well actually I am not married Jess.”

“Huh? “

“It is a long story querido.”

Jess flinched at the endearment, ”I ain’t your darling,” he said brusquely.

“You remember more of my language than you admit to,” she said with a small smile.

“Some words… people you just don’t forget,” he said very quietly.

“Si that is so.”

“Well what about Carlos, you’re not married you say, so why pretend?”

“No, he would like to be married I think and I pretend for proprietary’s sake of course. I occasionally offer my favors as I am in his debt. I doubt that dear Daisy would understand that sort of relationship though. So I say we are married for ease. And I stay by him because he was my savior when I was going through malos tiempos.”

“What sort of mal… what sort of bad times?” he asked.

“Do you remember Luca Fernandez?”

Jess’s head shot up, ”I’m hardly likely to forget the bastard that framed me for a crime I never committed and then sat back to watch me hang,” he spat angrily.

“Quite so he is a bastardo.”

“So is he still the biggest land owner in Nuevo Laredo then?”

Now she saw she had Jess’s full attention she continued her story.

“Oh yes, more so than when you were there. Our parents died and of course Fernandez made a ridiculously low offer for the place and land which Chiquita and I refused. But Fernandez wouldn’t listen, he desperately wanted access to our water hole, the lake you know, and didn’t care how he got it,” she said a catch in her voice now.

“Go on.”

“Well I had been singing and dancing in a small troupe with Carlos as our leader and when he heard of our troubles he came and tried to help, he had feelings for me you see?” she said quietly. ”Feelings that were not reciprocated, he is very much too old for me, but he is kind Jess and looks out for me,” she said giving him a pleading look as if trying to justify the relationship.

When he said nothing she sighed.

“So Carlos tried to fight him, tried to get the law on our side ,but pah…even the lawmen are corrupt there, in the pay of Fernandez.”

“Yeah, so I remember.”

“Yes you would have surely hung if it hadn’t been for my dear sister Chiquita,” she whispered.

He looked down and nodded knowing the truth of it,” If she hadn’t seduced his guard he would never have escaped and been able to prove his innocence.”

Then he said softly, unable to contain his desperate desire to find out any longer, ”So how is she…. is she back in Mexico?”

“Oh yes,” whispered Lola, “she’s back in Mexico.”

Then turning anguished eyes on Jess,” She’s dead Jess, she’s dead.”

Jess just stared at her, his mouth agape, eyes wide in shock and then he shouted, “No!”

She looked up and just nodded sadly, ”It is so.”

He stood up quickly and limped over to the fireplace and leaning on the mantelpiece he dipped his head onto his arm and stayed that way for several minutes.

“No,” he whispered again almost to himself.

Then turning back to look at Lola, his eyes burning with pain, ”How… why?” he whispered.

“It was an alleged riding accident, but there were witnesses that saw Fernandez’s men chasing her, whipping her horse and then it was shot from under her, she fell badly and died of a broken neck.”

Jess gasped and closed his eyes, ”Dear God no….”

She stood up and ran over to him, taking him in her arms.” Lo siento mucho.” (I am so sorry).

He held her close burying his head into her neck for a moment before pulling back his eyes glittering, “Why?”

“Because we refused to sell.”

“Well didn’t the witnesses say somethin’ surely there was something that could have been done?”

She shook her head sadly, ”We tried, but like I say Fernandez has the whole town tied up, he paid off the witnesses or threatened to kill their loved ones, so they refused to testify.”

He sighed deeply knowing the incredible power and influence Fernandez wielded.

“And then….. “she sighed deeply.

“And then?”

“He threatened to kill me too. I didn’t care Jess I was so upset by Chiquita’s passing I really didn’t care if I lived or died. No it was Carlos that got me out, saved my life…. Saved my sanity,” she finished.

“Yeah, I know how that can feel, grieving for a loved one,” he said quietly, thinking back to the time after his fiancée, Maria, had been brutally shot down in front of him.

“Guess it can turn you kinda crazy for awhile.”

She looked up, the light of gratitude in her beautiful eyes, ”You understand?”

“Oh yeah, I understand alright,” he said bitterly.

She threw him a questioning look, but he said no more and changed the subject.

“So you lit out for California?”

She nodded, ”Yes we needed to get away, Carlos said we had to anyway and I just agreed. I was sort of, how you say, out of it, didn’t really know what I was doing.”

“And so why did you decide to come back, like Mike said it’s usually people go out West, not the other way.”

“Because I came to my senses,” she said with a defiant gleam in her eye.

“I decided he couldn’t get away with it Jess, he couldn’t kill my sister and just walk away…. And so I must go back and reclaim my home and get justice for her,” and then she gave a little sob and fell into his arms.

And that was how Slim found them when he barged in through the front door a few minutes later.

He gaped in shock as the couple jumped apart and then Lola whispered, “Don’t say anything yet please Jess, not until I have spoken to Carlos,” and with that she ran off to the kitchen to make supper.

Once she had gone Slim marched over to Jess and said quietly, ”What the hell is going on Jess?”

“Look it ain’t what you think Slim, just leave it huh?“

“Leave it?” he said more loudly.

“I’ve just caught you playing fast and loose with a guest’s wife and you want me just to pretend it never happened?”

“That’s exactly what I want you to do! You don’t understand what’s going on Slim, just trust me and I’ll tell you when I can OK?”

Slim threw him a hard look, “It better be good,” he muttered, and then Mike and Carlos burst in saying they were starving and the conversation ended.

Chapter 3

Throughout the meal Carlos and Mike kept up the conversation with their animated chatter, while Slim, Jess and Lola were very withdrawn and almost silent.

After the meal was over Jess immediately excused himself saying he was beat and was having an early night.

“What about the dressing,” said Lola quickly”, Daisy said I must tend the wound after supper.”

“It’s OK,” he said quickly flashing her a sad smile, before turning on his heel and leaving the room.

“Slim, Daisy said it was important,” said Lola casting the blond rancher a concerned look.

“Don’t worry, I’ll deal with it,” he said sharply before making for his desk, where he immersed himself in the ranch books for the next hour.

His brusque manner hadn’t gone amiss and both Lola and Carlos were aware of the tension in the air and after they had tidied up, they too went over to the bunk house early.

Once Mike was also settled for the night Slim made his way to bed and found a night light still burning and Jess stretched out on his bed, hands laced behind his head, just staring at the ceiling.

As Slim entered quietly there was a split second when he caught his buddy unawares and the look of total desolation in his eyes brought him to a standstill.

“Jess?” he whispered.

The dark haired cowboy quickly pulled himself together and glancing over at his buddy said quietly, ”You ain’t gonna start giving me a hard time are you Slim, because I just ain’t in the mood.”

Slim sighed deeply, suddenly having a wave of pity for his friend, whatever was going on it had sure upset him something fierce.

“No, but I do need to check out that head. Daisy will be real mad if she gets back and it’s infected, so come on Jess just behave huh?”

Then much to Slim’s amazement he did as he was asked at once.

“Sure,” he said softly and swinging his legs off the bed, sat patiently while Slim changed the dressing.

“Looks OK,” he said when he’d finished, ”Not too painful?”

“No, it ain’t hurtin’ now,” he said quietly.

“But something is, tell me pard, what’s this all about?”

Suddenly it was all too much for Jess. He’d been asked not to say anything, but hell he hadn’t promised and anyway, he hated Slim to be thinking so badly of him.

He collapsed back on his bed again and then turning to look to where Slim was sitting on the edge of his own bed looking expectantly over, he started to tell the sorry tale of his past with the Capello family.

“I know her Slim, I didn’t realize who she was until we really started talking this afternoon, she’s the little sister of a girl I knew once…. A real special girl….. “

“Go on”, said Slim softly, refraining from making the usual sarcastic comment saved for when Jess started talking about lost loves, as he could see how upset his buddy was.

“Lola, Delores as she was then, was just twelve when I knew her sister Chiquita. She was one of a gang of young Mexican friends I had. But then something happened and Chiquita and me…..well we just clicked. Then we were inseparable, she was really something Slim,” he said his eyes sparkling at the memory.

Then they suddenly clouded, ”What you saw when you came in on us was because she’d just told me……” he sighed deeply, ”told me Chiquita is dead.”

Slim’s head shot up and he looked deeply moved, ”Hell Jess I’m sorry.”

Then more quietly, ”There is more to this isn’t there?”

“Oh yeah, there is a hell of a lot more,” said Jess bitterly and then he sat up and putting a pillow behind him lay back and started the long and disturbing story……..

“It was all in the town of Nuevo Laredo, just over the border from Texas in Mexico. I was back from the war, knew there was nothing left for me in Texas, so thought I’d try my luck over the border. Anyways, I soon hooked up with these young Mexicans, they were a great crowd Slim,” he said turning and smiling a little at the memory, “Made me so welcome, taught me the language, their ways and the food was great too.”

Slim smiled at this knowing how fond Jess was of the Mexican dishes, that he would cook occasionally nearly blowing Slim’s head off with the strong spices and peppers.

“Anyway I got real close to Chiquita and her family, Ma and her Pa and little Delores and it was Chiquita that taught me to cook that stuff,” he said, glancing at Slim, knowing his thoughts on Jess’s culinary prows…

”An acquired taste I guess. Go on,” said Slim gently, knowing that Jess was making light talk because the story was so difficult for him to relate, and a moment later he realized he was right.

“Well, I got me a job with the biggest land owner in the place a guy called Lucas Fernandez, and a bigger bastard would be hard to find, ”he whispered.

“I just needed work to stay near to Chiquita. I was working in his stables and everything was fine until I turned in one morning and found Fernandez’s son beating one of the horses. Well you know me and the horses Slim; I just lit into him, sent him flying into next week.”

Slim grinned at the spectacle, ”Yeah, that sounds like you buddy.”

“So, of course when Fernandez found out I got the thrashing of my life, lost my job and he threatened to kill me if he ever saw me again.”

“That’s a bit harsh isn’t it?”

“Not for Fernandez, that’s the way he is see, thinks he owns the whole damn world and everyone in it too.”

“So you went I take it?”

Jess grinned, ”Yeah, but not before I got the Stable ramrod to sell me the horse, a pretty little Palomino she was, sweet as a nut, so gentle, there was no need for that beating.”

“So you got one over on him in the end?”

Jess’s face hardened, ”No not really, he put the word out that I’d stolen the horse and when I was picked up and showed the Sheriff my bill of sale he darn well put a match to it, can yer believe that Slim?” he asked turning astonished eyes on his buddy.


“He was in Fernandez’s pocket, same as everyone in that goddamn town, save the Capello family and a few others with guts.”

“So what happened Jess?“

“I went for trial was convicted, set to hang the following week, until Chiquita came and fought my corner.”

“So what could she do against someone like that?”

Jess gave him a bitter smile, ”The thing she was best at……” there was a long pause as Jess tried hard to control his emotions and then he whispered, “She seduced the deputy that was guarding me, offered herself in exchange for me escaping.”

Slim’s eyes opened wide in shock.

“And you let her do that for you buddy?”

Jess sat up, suddenly looking furious, ”What do you take me for, of course not! First thing I knew about it was the following day when the Deputy came in, gave be a gun and a fast horse and suggested the border would be a good destination.”

Slim gave a low whistle, amazed at all the corruption in this Mexican township.

“Of course I had to see my girl on the way …. …and then she told me…” he sighed his eyes now teary with the memory.

“I was sick Slim, physically sick, that she’d done that, done that for me…… because she loved me so much…..“

“So then?” asked Slim softly.

“So I lit out for the border, she said I had to or it would all have been in vain, so I went. Once I was back in Texas I got all the help I needed. We found the ramrod from the stables. He’d left after the business of me being framed, and lo and behold he’d got a copy of the deed of sale for the horse, I had a re trial and got off…..then I went back…...”


“I had to Slim; I had to be with Chiquita.”

“So what happened?”

“She’d gone and nobody would say where. Just that there had been threats made by Fernandez. He had a feeling she had something to do with my escape I figure, but he didn’t know what. So her Pa sent her to friends in the south and wouldn’t tell me where, said it was for my own good,” he said bitterly. “Truth was he didn’t want Chiquita marrying a non-Mexican….. so I left, but I swore I’d go back for her, told Delores, Lola that is, to tell her.”

“And so did you? “

“Nah, I heard that she had married a guy from the south, figured it was all over….. and now she’s dead I guess it really is,” he whispered.

Then he threw an arm across his eyes and Slim knew he was struggling with the grief.

“Thanks for telling me buddy,” he said softly, ”and I’m sorry I judged you Jess.”

Jess just muttered, ”OK,” and turning on his side feigned sleep and so Slim blew out the night light and lay down himself. But sleep was elusive as he pondered again on Jess’s incredibly volatile and difficult history.


Meanwhile Lola was opening up to Carlos over in the bunkhouse.

It was a far cry from the place it had once been, merely a rough and ready set of bunks, an old stove and basic washing facilities.

Just a few years earlier Daisy’s Goddaughter had come to stay and when she had been diagnosed with consumption Doc Sam had recommended that she have her own quarters for fear of cross infection and so the old bunkhouse had been converted into pleasant guest accommodation, modernized and made much more comfortable. * See Daisy’s Dilemma

Now they sat in a couple of easy chairs pulled up by the new stove and Carlos turned to Lola and said quietly, ”There is something going on isn’t there mi querida?”

“What do you mean?”

“Between you and the dark haired cowboy, Jess, you are attracted to him…… no?”

“Oh Carlos, we’ve had this talk before, we are not married, not even promised. Yes I will lie in your bed sometimes, but that does not make us partners. I am a free agent and you always knew that was the way it was when we fled together.”

“I know, I know, but it doesn’t make it easy for me, you know how I feel about you.”

“I’m sorry, really sorry and I appreciate all you have done for me, helped me so much, but I have to be true to my feelings and you are a dear friend to me, but that is all you can ever be, you must understand that Carlos, please.”

He sighed deeply, ”I will try; I would rather have you with me under any circumstances, than to lose you completely.”

“I must be honest with you now,” she said turning her beautiful eyes upon him,” I have known Jess for many years and I deliberately sought him out, it was no accident that I asked you to take a route through Laramie,” and then she filled him in on everything Jess had just disclosed to Slim.

“So you see,” she said finally,” Fernandez is committed to have a shoot-out with Jess should he ever return to Nuevo Laredo, and my money is on Jess winning. If he could kill Fernandez all our troubles would be over. I would get justice for Chiquita and would be able to reclaim my old home. It is still mine by rights he never paid for it, just took over when I left. It is rightfully mine; mine and yours for as long as you wish to stay, if you will just help me Carlos.”

“You need my help, with what, I presume you are going to try and seduce him and then talk him into helping you?”

She looked down embarrassed, ”Maybe you are right yes.”

Then she looked up at him and continued.

“I need you to talk to him though Carlos. He was told that Chiquita had married when she was staying down south with Papa’s friends, but that was a lie. Maybe if you tell him the truth he will be so upset he will want to come and kill Fernandez,” she said softly.

Over the following few days while Daisy was still away and Jess was unable to work because of his painful knee, he and Lola spent many hours together and Carlos seemed quite resigned to the fact Slim noticed, wondering what kind of marriage the couple had, a very trusting one he assumed.

And as for Slim himself he cut his buddy some slack now he knew of the relationship with Lola and he figured Jess was just enjoying her company and talking over old times. He certainly didn’t appear to be overtly flirting with her, although he obviously found her very attractive. Hell who wouldn’t thought Slim, being quite taken with her himself if he was totally honest.

They had word that Daisy would be away to the end of the week as the baby was proving to be quite a handful for the inexperienced new parents. So it was decided not to delay their concert any longer and they would sing and play again on Daisy’s return.

Mike was especially excited at the prospect of a proper show with a real musician and dancer in his own front room and he wasn’t disappointed.

The furniture was pushed back and the ‘audience’ sat over on the old leather couch in the window, giving over the main floor space to the performers.

Then the lamps were turned down a little giving a romantic, dramatic ambience.

Carlos stood near the fire, one foot up on a stool and started playing his guitar Flamenco style. Plucking the strings with such speed and accuracy, the powerful melodic sound filling the room, the vibrant rhythm taking over making everyone’s toes tap and faces smile with enjoyment.

Then Carlos played loudly coming to a sudden crescendo, as the door to Daisy’s room opened and Lola emerged dressed in traditional Flamenco style. She wore a very low cut figure hugging scarlet dress with a full skirt, with red and black ruffles which she held in one hand, the other held over her head clicking a castanet as she made her impressive entrance.

“Wow,” whispered Mike,” is that really Lola?”

Slim and Jess merely stared completely mesmerised as she started shimmying and parading around the room in the traditional Flamenco dance, so sensual and emotive that both men were completely captivated.

The black and red dress swished this way and that as she postured and swirled, ending the dance by reaching down and caressing Jess’s cheek, her eyes burning with passion, before cavorting away and finishing in a low curtsy.

There was a second’s complete silence and then tumultuous applause from the three members of the audience, followed by much foot stomping and whistling to show their appreciation.

And so the evening progressed, the music and dancing growing more and more lively with the audience joining in at one stage. The men taking it in turns to lead Lola around the room in a passionate, fiery Latin dance she taught them.

The mood had been lightened even more by the introduction by Carlos of a bottle of Tequila and more than a little was imbibed by the adults, with Mike looking on and giggling at their antics. By the end of the evening Slim was beginning to think that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that Daisy was still away as she might have thought the banter a little too lively for young Mike.

Slim was actually just beginning to think the same thing when Lola called a halt to the proceedings.

“I think it is time I went and read a bed time story to a certain young man,” she said grinning across at the youngster.

“Aww Lola, just one more song,” he pleaded.

“Alright, just one last one,” she said.

Then she turned to Carlos with a title and looking back at the audience said, ”This is for an old friend.”

She hadn’t said Jess particularly but she gazed over at him as she said it and then Slim noticed that her eyes didn’t leave his buddy’s face as she started to sing the haunting melody, to the guitar accompaniment.

This is called ‘Lo Eres Todo, You are everything,’ she said softly,

Siempre te he mirado indiferente,I always looked at you with indifferenceeras tan solo un amigoyou were just a friend de repente lo eres todo, todo para mí,and suddenly you are everything, everything for me mi principio y mi fín.My beginning and my end Te lo pido por favor,I beg you please que me des tu compañía that you give me your company (stay with me)de noche y de día... lo eres todo. day and night.... you are everything

Slim looked over at Jess as she was singing and was surprised to see tears in his eyes and wondered what the song was about. She had sung all the songs in her native tongue, but that had not detracted from his enjoyment, in fact the reverse, the foreign language making the songs sound even more romantic and exciting.

Then Slim looked back at Lola, and saw something in her eyes. The way she was singing directly to Jess he felt something subtle had shifted in the atmosphere of the evening, a shiver ran down his spine, and again he wondered what the words meant.

Then it was suddenly all over. Lola hustled Mike off to bed and Carlos made his excuses and left and then it was just Slim and Jess in front of the fire, sitting with a final glass of the spirit before turning in.

“So what was that last song about then Jess?” Slim asked gazing across with interest.

Jess ducked his head, ”Search me,” he muttered.

Slim looked surprised, ”I thought you understood the lingo real good, heck I caught you and Lola jabbering away talking her language yesterday.”

Jess was very quiet and then he got up abruptly, ”Just leave it will yer Slim, I’m gonna check on the horses, goodnight,” and he walked out, leaving Slim staring after him feeling puzzled.

About half an hour later Lola emerged from Mike’s room Then she said goodnight before making off across the yard towards the bunkhouse. Slim wandered over to the door to dim the lamp there and peered out after her, noticing that she suddenly veered away from the bunkhouse and made for the barn. There a light was showing through the partially opened door and he shook his head, “Don’t go there Jess,” he whispered softly, thinking that Lola looked like she was about to betray the trust of her infinitely patient husband.

She entered the dimly lit barn and was just able to make out Jess’s slender form in the stall with his mount talking softly to the old horse and fondling its nose.

She walked quietly over, but he spun around at once, one hand flying to his gun, until he saw who it was and relaxed, smiling over at her.

She moved forwards and entered the stall standing close and smiling up at him.

“That was a darned good show,” he said softly, ”Thanks.”

She dipped her head in acknowledgement, ”I am glad you enjoyed it, mi amor.” (my love).

Jess’s head shot up at the endearment and he gave her a calculating look, but said nothing.

“You enjoyed my song for you, no?”

He nodded.

“You understood all the words?”

“You know I did,” he whispered.” It was about me and Chiquita, right?”

She shook her head and gave him a seductive smile, ”Oh no, mi amor, it was about us.”

“I’m not your love,” he said almost harshly.

“But you could be….”

He just stared at her looking shocked, ”What about Carlos?” he whispered after a moment.

“I have told you how it is with Carlos; he is but a good friend. Besides I have told him I have feelings for you he is bueno, alright about it, he understands.”

“Well I’m glad he does because I sure don’t,” he said looking down at her. “Where has all this come from Lola, I thought we were just friends?”

She put a hand out to his chest and looked up at him, before reaching up and kissing him very gently on the lips. After a moment he took her in his arms and responded, kissing her back. He was suddenly aware that he was feeling all the passion and emotions he used to with Chiquita, his pulses racing, all his senses on alert……… and then she pulled away.

She stood looking up at him, both of them panting slightly, her eyes huge and burning with passion.

“I guess you thought wrong then,” she whispered before turning and running from the barn and back to the safety of the bunkhouse, a small smile on her face, her plan was beginning to work.

Jess just stood there staring after her and then he put a hand to his lips and taking a deep breath, walked slowly back over to the ranch house.

When he entered the bedroom the lamp was still lit and Slim was sitting up in bed reading, but he put the book down as soon as he saw Jess and frowned across at him.

“What’s going on Jess?” he growled. ”I thought you two were just friends, what about her poor husband, Carlos is a nice guy so what in hell are you playing at?”

Jess looked furious for a moment and then seemed to calm down and slumped down on his bed, looking over at his buddy, “She ain’t married Slim.”


“She ain’t married, they just said that for respectability, didn’t wanna go upsetting Miss Daisy. The thing is they’re just friends…. Well that is I guess Lola is accommodating every now and then.”


“Well she kinda feels beholden to him, seeing as he helped her escape from Fernandez and all. But it’s no more than that, like I say she just shares his bed on occasion, but they’ve no understanding or anything like that, it don’t mean nothing to her.”

Slim took this on board, ”Maybe not, but I guess it sure means something to that poor sucker Carlos, hell you can’t do this to him Jess.”

“Do what?” Jess exploded, ”I ain’t done anything I don’t know what yer frettin’ about Slim!”

“So what was she doing in the barn with you just now, playing charades?”

Jess hung his head and flushed up a little.

“Come on Jess you know dang well what that song was about too don’t you? It was a love song wasn’t it. I saw the way she was looking at you and so did Carlos. So tell me now, what was the song called,” he asked sarcastically, “Oh yeah I remember, ‘You are Everything,’ that’s it isn’t it?”

Jess leapt up from the bed and thrusting his hands into the pockets of his denims he strode over to the window and stared out at the dark yard for several minutes before turning to face his buddy, ”OK I admit it, she is interested in me Slim, but I haven’t encouraged her honest, first I knew about it was when she kissed me in the barn just now.”

“She kissed you, so what did you do?“

Then Jess really lost his temper.

“Hell Slim will you stop being so Goddamn sanctimonious! I kissed her back, Ok… same as you would have done in my place. She’s a beautiful, sexy woman…. So what would you have done eh?”

His partner hid a smile at Jess’s phraseology, remembering sanctimonious had been on Mike’s spelling list. They had, had to look it up in the dictionary, both agreeing it was a real good word, although looking at how angry his friend was he figured it had come out unconsciously, rather than by design.

Slim sighed and then after consideration said quietly, ”I’d probably have done the same as you but that doesn’t make it right.”

“I know that,” Jess said sharply.

After a moment Slim gave him the ghost of a smile, ”So what was she like then, as good as she looks?“

Jess was very quiet for a long time and then he said quietly, ”Even better… it was like being back with Chiquita,” he said his voice breaking on the name.

Slim looked over, his expression softening and then he said gently ”But she’s not Chiquita is she buddy.”

Jess just shook his head, looking down at the floor.

“So what are you going to do?”

Again a long pause and then, ”Nothing I guess. Like you say Carlos is a nice guy, he don’t deserve that,” and he went to turn in.

Chapter 4

The following morning, breakfast was a very quiet affair with all the men having slightly thick heads after their indulgence in the Tequila and Lola brooding a little.

Following their encounter of the previous night she had expected Jess to be all over her. She was a much practiced seductress and knew just how to play her quarry. When to be daring and then when to leave them wanting more, and the way Jess had kissed her last night she had been in no doubt that he wanted more and sooner rather than later.

Then this morning nothing, he refused to even look her in the eye. He answered all her cheerful questions briefly, before getting up and saying he had work to do.

“I thought you had to rest your leg?” she said trying to throw him an appealing look, as she watched him make for the door, a slight limp still apparent.

“It’s OK,” he said gruffly,” need me some exercise and it’ll be fine, then glancing back at Mike, you coming Tiger?“

“Sure thing Jess,” and the boy jumped down from his seat at the table and grabbing a couple of biscuits said, ”Thanks for breakfast Ma’am it was real good.”

“Yeah, thanks,” drawled Jess as he went through the door.

“De nada, you’re welcome,“ she replied to the fast closing door.

“Is he OK Slim?” she asked casting the blond rancher a puzzled look, once the others had left.

“I reckon, excuse me,” and Slim too disappeared after his buddy.

Lola cast a glance over to Carlos.

“I think mi amigo has a nasty dose of guilty conscience,” she said softly. ”Maybe you should tell him you have no claims over me Carlos?”

The tall Mexican looked stricken, ”You want me to tell him that?”

She shook her head, ”No not really, that would be too much to expect. No I think if we are not going to trap him with my charms then we must use Chiquita.You must tell him that she was not married…… the whole story, it will be better coming from you.”

Later that morning Carlos sought Jess out and ran him to ground mending harness in the barn

He came in and threw himself down on a straw bale nearby and said, ”May we talk mi amigo?”

Jess’s heart started beating nineteen to the dozen and he broke out in a sweat.

“Sure Carlos, look… I’m sorry… I…. I should never have….”

“No, hush senor you misunderstand me. I am sure you have no apologies to make to me. No I wish to tell you something… something I feel you should know.”

Jess put the harness aside and gave him his full attention, ”Oh what’s that then Carlos?”

“It… it is about Chiquita, but I warn you senor, you will not like it.”

“Go on,” said Jess grimly.

Carlos looked down at his linked hands for a good minute before he found the strength to say what he must.

“When you were told she was married it was a lie… a lie perpetrated by her Papa. As you know he had his heart set on her marrying a Mexican, preferably a rich one who would invest in the ranch.”

“I guess that let me out then,” said Jess with a bitter smile.

“Exactamente…..err exactly, that is so.”

“Anyway, he lied and Chiquita was not married, was never married… “


“Because of you Jess, she had offers si… many offers, but she was waiting for your return.”

Jess’s mouth was agape, his eyes opened wide in shock, “She was waitin’ for me and I never went back? I thought I was doin’ the right thing not visitin’ iffen she was hitched an’ all,” he said in anguish.

He nodded, ”But there is more mi amigo. It came to light as to how you had escaped. The deputy got drunk one night and was bragging in the cantina, about how he had slept with Chiquita for your freedom. He was no longer a deputy you see he had been fired and had taken to the drink…. Anyway of course Fernandez heard and ……”

Then he stopped and said softly ,”I cannot do this not even for the love of my dear Lola.”

“Can’t do what, for God’s sake tell me Carlos!” he said his eyes staring at him in bewilderment.

The older man sighed deeply, ”I have to tell you that when Fernandez found out about that he….. he sought her out; working alone in the field and he… he attacked her, beat her badly ……”

“Dear God no, “Jess gasped, sitting down heavily on a straw bale and turning deathly pale….”Because of me… what she did for me….?”

Carlos just nodded in sorrow,” and the following week he set his men on her, and she had the fall from her horse and…… died of her injuries.”

“The bastard,” Jess exploded, ”I’ll kill him, if it’s the last thing I ever do I’ll kill him!”

He turned to Carlos who was now weeping unashamedly, ”I am so sorry mi amigo, so sorry I told you.”

“Then why did you?” spat Jess.

“It was Lola, she thought you should know.”

Then Jess cast his mind back to the previous week when she had first opened up to him, and he had asked why she was heading back down south and her chilling reply, ”I couldn’t let Fernandez kill my sister and get away with it. I have to go back and reclaim my home and get justice for her,” and then Slim had burst in on them and he had completely forgotten the conversation until now.

His head shot up and he looked Carlos in the eye, ”That’s what this is all about, her coming onto me, and then asking you to tell me about what that bastard did, it’s so that I will go and kill him for her ain’t it Carlos?”

When the older man failed to answer, Jess grabbed hold of his shirt front, ”Ain’t it!” he yelled.

“Si, si it is so senor, and I am sorry I told you, so sorry.”

Jess pushed him gently away, “No, I’m sorry Carlos, none of this is your fault, and you are a good man, a real…... buen hombre si?“

“Gracias senor,” he said smiling sadly at Jess…. “So what will you do?”

Jess stood up and wandered over to the barn door watching Mike playing in the yard with Buttons his dog, knowing that if he went he might never return, he sighed deeply.

Then he turned back to Carlos.

“I dunno,” he said honestly, ”I just dunno.”

He looked back at Mike, the yard and the distant hills and then their pasture land, still covered in flood water and shook his head.

The old Jess would have ridden out that day, that minute, and sure he was all fired up. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been so upset, so darn mad, but it was moderated by his responsibilities and his loyalty to the people he loved.

Yes sure there was a score to settle, but it would have to wait until he was free to go and do it, and now in the middle of some of the worst floods Wyoming had seen in decades, with their livelihood, heck maybe even their lives at stake, well that was no time to run out on those he cared about and he knew it.

Later in the day he went and found Lola. She was on her own fixing supper in the kitchen and he leaned against the wall watching her for awhile before she turned. She flushed up at suddenly seeing him there and said, ”Hola, Jess, como estas?”

“How do you think I am,” he asked angrily, “you didn’t have to start romancin’ me you know Lola. I guess I’d have listened anyway, if you’d explained what you wanted from me, without all the kissin’ an’ love songs.”

She looked profoundly shocked ”Lo siento, mi amor.“

“Well, I’m sure you are sorry,” he said bitterly, ”and I ain’t your love, will yer stop sayin’ that Lola, I care about Carlos’s feelings even if you don’t!”

“Jess, why are you being so cruel?” she said as she advanced on him and looking up into his angry deep blue eyes.

“Maybe I don’t like my feelings messed with,” he growled, “you shouldn’t do that Lola, mess with folk that way.”

“Well maybe I wasn’t messin’ maybe I meant it… maybe I’ve been in love with you since I was that little twelve year old kid , madly jealous of my big sister!”

He raised a cynical eyebrow, ”Oh really?”

“Well you’ll never know will you cowboy?” she said looking deeply into his eyes, before running a hand suggestively down his chest.

“There you go again,” he said bitterly, ”a man just don’t know where he stands with you,” and he marched off in disgust.

As it happened Jess had very little time to dwell on his relationship with Lola, because just as they thought the flood water was receding and the Laramie road would soon be passable the heavens opened again and a further deluge occurred. The home pasture was again sodden and water threatened to cover the yard once more.

Jess stood on the porch with young Mike and surveyed the scene as the lashing rain lessened some.

“Will you be OK milking Dixie?” he asked referring to the house cow,” ‘Cos I need to ride out with Slim this morning and check the boundary fences.”

“Sure thing Jess, I’ll do that first and then collect the eggs, Miss Lola said she’d make us a chocolate cake iffen we had eggs to spare.”

“She did, did she?” said Jess his eyes narrowing, wondering if she was now trying to get him on side via his stomach.

He sighed deeply and changed the subject.

“Once this rain eases off tether old Dixie in the home pasture so as she can graze. I guess there’s still some decent grass around this side of the pasture that ain’t been ruined by the flood waters. The darn critter is eatin’ us out of house an’ home stuck in the barn, but make sure she’s tethered to the fence real good Mike, you hear me?”

“Yes sir, tether her real good.”

“Yeah, because I don’t like the sound of that old creek, sure is noisy today and we don’t want ol’ Dixie anywhere near it if it goes and bursts its banks again,” he said seriously.

Then Slim and Carlos joined them.

“You all set buddy?”

“Sure Slim let’s get to it, we’ll be back early afternoon, Carlos, you’ll be OK?“

“Si, si mi amigo,” he said ruffling Mike’s hair. Me and mi buen amigo will be just fine, look after the old homestead for you si?“

“Thanks Carlos,” said Jess throwing him an affectionate look; I sure don’t know what we’d have done without you these last couple of weeks.”

Carlos beamed back at the young cowboy, so relieved that he seemed to be backing off from Lola, ”It is my pleasure senor,” he said softly, and with that Slim and Jess rode out, waving before they disappeared down the track.

After they left, Carlos and Mike got on with the chores and Mike tethered Dixie securely to the fence on a long rope and even got Carlos to check the rope was secure, before they went off to muck out the barn.

Later Carlos said he would ride down as far as the Laramie road to check if the flood water had dropped any whilst Mike said he would go and check out the progress on the chocolate cake front, hoping there would be a bowl to lick out by now.

He waved Carlos off and turned for the house, but something made him turn back and he decided he’d just check that Dixie was alright first.

He wandered over to where he had left her happily chewing the cud and then stood stock still in shock. The fence post which the rope had been attached to lay on the ground having been loosened by the soaking earth and there was no sign of the rope or Dixie. It was at once obvious to the child that she had pulled on the rope and the lose fence post had been pulled out of the ground and the rope pulled away over the top of the post and was still attached to the house cow.

He glanced over to where Carlos had recently ridden out and knew he was too far away to hear him shout and then he considered calling Lola, but knew she would fuss and say they must wait for the men to help. By then Dixie could well have drowned, so he did what he knew he must, he ran hell for leather across the home pasture towards the creek.

When Carlos returned ten minutes later he went straight inside expecting to find the youngster in the kitchen.

“Donde esta Mike?” he asked

“I don’t know I thought he was with you?“

He shook his head and then they both ran outside calling the boy.

Carlos wandered around the back and then saw the fence pole lying on the ground and the distinct tracks going across the field towards the noisy teeming creek.

“Mi Dios,” (my God), he whispered and calling Lola he started sprinting across the waterlogged field.

Lola quickly overtook him being so light and nimble and once they were halfway across they could see the child struggling to pull Dixie out of the mud on the bank of the river. He was yanking on the rope for dear life and then suddenly the creature got some purchase and freed herself, scrabbling up the bank and charging across the pasture towards the advancing couple.

However as she had crashed past Mike she had unbalanced him and they watched in horror, as almost in slow motion, the child somersaulted and fell into the bubbling waters of the creek.

They started running towards the water again and such was Carlos’s haste that he fell badly, winding himself and it was several seconds before he could drag himself out of the mud and continue down towards the swirling waters. Only to see Lola at the edge pulling off her boots and dive into the icy turbulent water after the boy.

Carlos cussed and watched for a moment, but it soon became obvious that she was floundering, her heavy skirts waterlogged and dragging her down.

He could also see Mike bobbing about quite near to the bank and making a valiant effort to swim to the shore and Carlos had to make a snap decision, he went in for the boy.

He was not a strong swimmer, but he managed to reach the child reasonably easily and was soon dragging the terrified youngster to the bank.

They collapsed in the mud panting and coughing and after a moment Carlos held the boy close, ”You are aright Mike?”

“Yes… I think so.”

“Bien, you go up the bank away from the water while I help Lola si?”

The boy nodded and started crawling up to the higher ground watching in fear as Carlos dived in again.

There was no sign of Lola and then Carlos saw her head bobbing about a few yards away and swam towards her and he finally managed to grab her and start to haul the exhausted, petrified woman towards the bank. As they progressed Carlos could feel himself getting weaker and weaker, but as the bank approached Lola seemed to get her second wind and struck out towards the safety of the water’s edge with renewed vigour.

Carlos stayed treading water and watched as she made it safely out of the bubbling swirling water and he was just about to follow her when he felt a crushing pain in his chest and grasping it he cried out in agony.However he could not be heard over the crashing waves and a moment later he disappeared below the water, dead of a heart attack, his last thoughts being that he hoped Jess would care for his beloved Lola.


Slim and Jess rode into the ranch yard about an hour later and after putting their horses up made their way to the ranch house ready for a late lunch and a rest after all the hard work of the morning riding fence.

However as soon as they entered the room they could see all was not well.

Mike was lying on the old leather couch which had been pulled up to the blazing fire. He was covered in blankets, but was still shivering uncontrollably, while Lola looked helplessly on. Her face pale and tear stained and her long black hair hanging damply around her shoulders. She too looked frozen and was wrapped in a black shawl, making her white face look even more stark in contrast, her expression agonized as she looked up at the approaching cowboys.

“What is it?” asked Jess striding over.


“Hell what’s goin’ on Lola?”

Slim put a restraining hand out to his buddy, ”Easy Jess.”

“Lola, are you OK,” he asked, ”Has there been an accident?”

She looked up at Slim and just nodded, “Its Carlos, I think he may have drowned, I tried to find him. But the water was too cold, too muddy to see…. please go and look for him…..” she cried almost hysterically.

Both men realized there was no time for further explanation.

“Where?” asked Slim briskly.

Lola told him the exact spot where Mike had originally gone in.

Both men moved to the door with Jess just pausing for a second to hunker down by Mike, ”Are you OK Tiger?”

The boy’s eyes were brimming with tears but he nodded bravely and Jess just squeezed his arm comfortingly before dashing out after Slim.

When they reached the area of bank which had been trampled they quickly dismounted and walked to the edge of the torrential waters , but there was no sign of a body and so the two men remounted and rode a half mile or so along the bank before reluctantly turning to go back.

“You think he could have got out, on the other side someplace?” asked Jess.

Slim surveyed the bubbling cauldron of rushing water, “I doubt it,” he said softly.

They were going to make for home when Jess decided to have one last look and then he spotted it, something being washed against a huge tree that had fallen across the river.

Jess slid down from Traveler and peered across the water straining to see what it was.

Then Slim rode over and reigned Alamo in beside him, “What have you got Jess?”

Jess tore his gaze away from the distant object, ”I think it’s him,” he said soberly, ”I’m goin’ in Slim.“

“Jess no its way too dangerous!”

But even as he spoke Jess was pulling off his boots and gun belt and had dived into the deep murky waters of the river.

He struck out strongly for the distant object and as he swam up close treading water his worst suspicions were confirmed, as he looked at the very dead body of Carlos Juan De La Cruz.

He sighed deeply before grabbing hold of the lifeless body and hauling it back to shore.

He was completely spent by the time he arrived. Slim was suddenly there. His firm hands pulling him out, a comforting arm flung around his shoulders as Jess heaved and coughed up the foul filthy water, panting to get his breath back.

“You dang idiot,” said Slim the fear for his buddy making his voice harsh ,”could have gotten yourself killed Jess.”

“I had ……had to do it … couldn’t let the poor bastard stay in there could I?” he said through ragged breaths.

“No, I guess not buddy,” said Slim softly, marveling at his best friend’s moral code yet again.

How many men would have said, ’He’s dead it doesn’t matter, but not ol’ Jess. He held great store by the rites of passage in life and believed all men should have a decent burial no matter what.

Slim remembered back to the times when an injured Jess had used his last ounce of strength to decently bury an adversary, and smiled inwardly, that’s what makes Jess who he is, he thought fondly.

Then he came out of his reverie.

“Come on pard let’s get you home and dried off.”

With that the two men carefully hauled Carlos across Alamo’s back before riding double on Traveler over the short distance back to the ranch.

It was later that afternoon before they could talk properly and the men could ascertain exactly what had happened that morning.

“It was all my fault,” said Mike tearfully,” I should have waited fer you to come back, I know that.”

Then turning his tear stained face to Jess said, ”I was just so worried about Dixie. I remember you saying once that, that dang critter was standing between us and starvation, as how we’d always have plenty of milk and butter and we’d just have to survive on that and aunt Daisy’s biscuits,” he said, looking up at his hero.

“Oh buddy,” whispered Jess sadly, taking the boy in his arms and holding him close as the sobs wracked his little body again.

How could he tell him that was just a flippant comment? Sure ol’ Dixie played an important part in their survival during the lean times, but she was not worth someone dying for.

Lola had been completely silent and withdrawn when the men had returned with Carlos’s body, which was now lying in state safely in the root cellar away from predators, until the men could dig his grave the following day.

Slim had insisted Mike drink a glass of warm milk , in which he had mixed some of Daisy’s herbal sleeping draft, and after a while the little boy’s eyes grew heavy and Slim carried him off to bed.

Once they left, Jess went and sat down beside Lola, who was seated on the rug in front of the fire and he gently took her hand and said, ”I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for you sweetheart.”

She squeezed his hand gently, the only acknowledgement that she had heard him.

“Lola, talk to me,” he said softly.

She still just stared into the blazing fire as though he had not spoken and after awhile he gave up and went and made her some coffee with a drop of Red Rye added and came back and hunkered down beside her.

“Here, drink this it will help warm you up some.”

She finally turned and stared at him.



“Why did he have to die Jess, he was a good man, far too good for me anyway and I treated him appallingly.”

Jess couldn’t really argue with that going on her recent track record, but he just took her hand again and said softly, “He was doing what he had to, simple as that, there’s no rhyme or reason to death, I guess it was just his time.”

She turned and gave him the ghost of a smile at this.

“So simple and yet so profound,” she whispered.

“Yeah, well I guess it’s the only way to think or you’d go crazy,” he said softly.

He sighed deeply before going on.

“Like the good book says there’s a season to everything, a time to be born and a time to die…. And I guess this was ol’ Carlos’s time.”

And those simple words were all she needed to move on from the shock and denial of the recent horrific events, to the beginning of acceptance and she threw herself in his arms and wept bitterly for her dear friend’s memory.

Much later Slim joined them again.

Jess looked up from where he was still sitting by the fire a comforting arm holding Lola close.

Slim slumped down on Jess’s rocker.

“I was thinking,” he said quietly, “Maybe you should sleep in Daisy’s room from now on? There is a spare cot in there and I’m sure that is what she would want when she gets back tomorrow.”

She looked up at Slim and gave him a sad smile, ”Thank you,” she whispered, ”You are all so kind.”


Daisy returned the following day and they laid Carlos to rest in the Sherman family plot.

Lola was incredibly touched that Slim should wish to do that.

He just shrugged and said, ”He died trying to save a member of this family, sure he has a rightful place in the family plot, it will be an honour to lay him there.”

After the simple ceremony Lola retired to Daisy’s room saying she needed to rest and Jess gazed sorrowfully after her, thinking maybe she shouldn’t be alone at that time, but Daisy intervened, “It’s alright dear, I’ll go,” she said gently squeezing his arm as she left.

The next couple of weeks were very difficult for everyone at the ranch as they came to terms with the loss of Carlos.

The men had their work cut out mending fences after the flood water finally began to recede, but Jess spent all his free time in Lola’s company trying to support her as best he could and they became very close friends and they could often be found talking softly in her native tongue.

Everyone at the ranch spent extra time with Mike too as he still felt very responsible for the events that had led to Carlos’s death and he was eating and sleeping so badly that the family got increasingly worried about him.

It was when he started having nightmares that Jess knew he had to do something.

“If only the road was open, we could ask doc Sam’s advice,” said Daisy sadly at breakfast the following day, as they took advantage of Mike sleeping in after his traumatic night, to discuss the problem.

“I’ll try talkin’ to him,” said Jess at last and once the boy was up and had eaten a little breakfast Jess took him off to the barn to help groom the horses.

The child was working on his pony, brushing him down, when Jess wandered over and entered the stall and leaning against the wall, he chewed on a piece of straw as he watched the child.

After a while Mike glanced up at his hero.

“What’s up Jess am I doing something wrong?” he questioned.

Jess shook his head, ”No buddy you’re doin’ a real good job.”

Then after a moment he said, ”You really love that ol’ pony of yours don’t you boy?”

Mike grinned across at him, “Yeah, sure, you know I do.”

“So,” went on Jess carefully, “if he was off his feed and acting up, real spooked, I guess you’d be kinda worried?”

The child looked mystified, ”Well sure I would.”

“Um, well that’s just how aunt Daisy and me and Slim are feelin’ about you right now Tiger, because you’re not feelin’ any too happy are you?”

The boy dipped his head and then looked up with innocent eyes ”I guess not, I’ve got this kinda pain in my belly all the time that makes me not wanna eat and then when I fall asleep I keep seeing Carlos drowning,” he said with a shudder.

Come here said Jess softly and the boy came and stood close to his hero.

Jess sank down on a straw bale and pulled the boy down next to him.

“You know Mike iffen Carlos was here right now I guess he’d say you’re to stop your fussin’ and frettin’, because it weren’t your fault he drowned and I guess he’d say that all he wants is for you to be happy and lead a good life in his memory too.”

The child looked puzzled, ”How do you mean?”

“Well, it’s a fact that Carlos did give his life for you and Lola. But that was his choice and I figure he’d want you to make the most of that life, to be happy and grow up strong and healthy, see?”

Mike thought about that for a long time and then he looked up and grinned at his buddy, ”Gee I guess you’re right Jess, I should really make the most of every day shouldn’t I?”

“That you should Tiger and I think if Miss Lola sees you bein’ real brave about all this then she’ll start feelin’ better too.”

“Ok Jess, I’ll try real hard.”

“And Mike, try and forget the last time you saw him, will you? Remember that night when he played for us and all the good times you shared, him teachin’ you guitar and all yeah?”

“Yes, I will Jess,” he said suddenly looking much more relaxed.

“Good, and it’s time we took a break, how about some milk and cookies? “

The boy’s eyes lit up,” Now you mention it I guess I am kinda hungry.”

It was not the end of the child’s problems, but it was the beginning of the end, and although he still suffered from the odd nightmare, they became less and less frequent. He gradually returned to his old happy go lucky self, although he would never forget Carlos and the sacrifice he had made.

The only good thing to happen over the next couple of weeks was the fact that the weather improved dramatically with a warm sun drying the last of the flooded ground. At the end of the second week they were delighted to see Mose driving the Stage into the yard at a cracking pace full of all the news from town.

That evening Daisy had retired for the night and as Lola made to follow her she paused at the bedroom door and cast a glance back to where Slim and Jess were sitting having a final coffee, by the fire before turning in themselves.

“I shall be on my way in the next couple of days,” she said softly, ”And I can’t begin to thank you both for everything,” and then looking near to tears she hastily left the room.

Jess stared into the flames and then said very softly, “I’m gonna have to go with her, you know that don’t you Slim?”

The blond rancher’s head shot up.

“You are?“

“Sure a woman can’t go all that way alone, besides……”

“Besides what?” asked Slim warily.

“I’ve a score to settle with Fernandez.”

Slim looked down, ”That was all a long time ago Jess…. “

“So that makes it alright does it?” he spat, suddenly angry.

“You don’t even have any proof that he was responsible; it could just have been an accident.”

“Oh so her horse shot himself did he?” he said sarcastically. “Any way it ain’t just about that now….”

“Well go on then, spit it out,” said Slim impatiently.

Jess dipped his head, ”Look it ain’t important as to why I’m goin’ Slim I’ve made my decision. I’ve got a few weeks before we get all the stock havin’ their young ‘uns, all the beasts are already up on the high ground, you’ll be able to manage fer awhile won’t ya?” he asked giving his friend and appealing look.

He sighed deeply, ”Sure I guess buddy, if that’s what you want.”

“It’s not what I want Slim, it’s what I have to do, for Carlos and Lola…… and for Chiquita.”

“So are you going to tell me the full story?”

Jess looked deeply into the fire for so long Slim thought he wouldn’t answer and then he started to speak very softly.

“Remember how I told you what she did for me Slim, to get me sprung?”

He nodded, “Sure I do.”

“Well apparently Fernandez got to hear about that and he….. Hell he raped her Slim,” he said his voice breaking, To get his own back on me do you see?”

“Oh Jess, when did you find that out?” asked Slim looking shocked to the core.

“Just before Carlos’s accident, Lola told him to tell me. I figure she thought it would get me on side, she wants me to go and sort out Fernandez once and for all. I reckon she knew that would be exactly what I’d do once I knew about what he’d done.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t ride out then and there,” said Slim glancing at his buddy and knowing how volatile and hot headed he could be when roused.

“Wanted to, but I couldn’t let you all down what with the floods and all, but now, well I reckon everything will be kinda quiet for the next few weeks.”

Slim turned and gave him a sad smile, ”Guess it will be real quiet without you and your antics Jess,” he said quietly.

“Yeah, well I figure you’re all due a rest from me and my antics,” he said trying to make light of the situation.

There was a long pause, ”You will be coming back though Jess?”

“Sure, sure I will what do you think?”

“I don’t know you and Lola, you’ve got awful close these last few weeks.”

Jess shook his head and chuckled softly, ”But just as friends Slim. Like you said she ain’t Chiquita and I have to remember that, no I’ll just deliver her home safe and sound, deal with that low life and hightail it home again.”

“You make it sound so easy, I heard tell from Carlos, that Fernandez is one of the fastest guns in Mexico, practically unbeaten.”

“Yeah, well he might have been back then, but I figure he’ll have slowed down some by now. He’s getting to be an old man Slim, bound to have slowed him up some,” but even as he said it he knew that Fernandez would be a formidable adversary.

The following day Jess found Lola packing some clothes and supplies into her covered wagon which had been parked behind the barn for the duration of their stay. He double checked the wheel they had repaired and then settled down seated on a straw bale, to inspect the harness. A few minutes later she climbed down from the wagon and came and sat beside him.

After a while she said softly, ”I’m really going to miss you Jess…. all of you especially young Mike.”

He turned to look at her and then after a moment, he said, ”Oh come on Lola, you didn’t really think I’d let you go all that way alone did you?”

Her head shot up at this and her eyes sparkled with joy for the first time since Carlos’s sad demise, ”You mean you’ll come with me?”

“Said so didn’t I?” he said grinning at her.

She threw her arms around him and then kissed him long and slow, but after a moment he pulled away.

“Whoa there, I’m comin’ as your friend, let’s get that straight right away,” he said gruffly.

She just nodded, ”Whichever way you want it mi querido.”

He threw her a penetrating look,” I ain’t your querido I keep tellin’ yer, friends Lola, OK?”

“Si, I understand,” she said softly, thinking there were an awful lot of miles between Laramie and Nuevo Laredo and she would make her move when she was ready, and with that they continued to pack for their journey.

The wagon was in tip top condition and Jess knew the straightest and easiest route following along the Stage route for a lot of the journey and he was able to make a deal with the Stage line to use some of their horses along the route thereby picking up fresh horses every few days and enabling them to set a very good pace as Jess didn’t want to be away from the ranch for any longer than was absolutely necessary.

Their leaving had been tinged with sadness and Daisy and Slim were secretly very worried about the outcome of the trip, knowing that part of the reason for the journey was for Jess to settle a score with Fernandez. So before they lit out Slim had insisted on bringing Mort Corey, up to speed with what was happening.

The Laramie Sheriff was a good a trusted friend of the two ranchers and although he didn’t completely agree with Jess’s vendetta, he could understand it, once he heard the full story.

“Yeah, I heard tell of that corrupt Sheriff,” said Mort, ”he was legendary for his bad practice, and he just completely sold out to Fernandez so I hear tell.”

“You’ve got it,” said Jess remembering how the Sheriff had destroyed his bill of sale on the Palomino and flung him in jail on a horse thief charge all those years ago.

“Well you’ll be glad to hear he got his comeuppance,” said Mort cheerfully, ”he was gunned down a few years back and the new Sheriff runs a very tight ship. He takes no messing from Fernandez, that’s for sure, or anyone else either so I understand,” he finished throwing Jess a hard look.

“I ain’t gonna get in trouble Mort, just reinstate Lola in her family home, she’s got the deeds and all, never sold out to that bastard, and she should have the law on her side.”

“Well that’s good,” said Mort,” I’ll wire Sheriff Rodriguez that you’re on your way and may be in need of some support.”

“Gee thanks Mort I appreciate that.”

“Um, but I guess if Fernandez comes gunning for you , you won’t be walking away?“

“You guess right Mort,” he said with a bitter smile, ”I reckon we both think we’ve got unfinished business.”

“Well just watch your back Jess and as I say, Rodriguez runs everything by the book, you act within the law and you’ve no need to worry.”

“Thanks Mort, I appreciate your help,” he said offering his hand.


That had been the day before and now they were ready to roll.

Jess hugged Mike, shook Slim’s hand and kissed Daisy tenderly on the forehead before moving to help Lola aboard.

“Just a moment,” she said and disappearing inside the back of the wagon she returned a few minutes later bearing Carlos’s guitar and handed it over to Mike.

His eyes were round with surprise, ”For me?” he gasped.

“Yes, I think Carlos would have wanted you to have it.”

“What about you, don’t you play it in your act?”

“No my angel, I have my own, and Jess will help you learn when he comes home.”

Mike turned astonished eyes on his buddy, “You can play Jess?”

“Well, a little yer know,” he said modestly.

“Do not listen to him, my sister Chiquita taught him, he plays really well,” she said laughing up at the blue eyed cowboy.

Then he helped her up and touching his hat in a farewell salute he clicked the team out of the yard at a cracking pace, leaving the sad little group waving them off.

Chapter 5

They made excellent progress as the roads were now dried out. The warm weather held and the plan to change the horses regularly worked well. With them clocking up many more miles a day than she had done with the Wagon Train.

But Jess was a hard task master insisting they set out at first light and travelled through the day until dusk with barely a break and then they fell into bed exhausted every night.

From day one Jess had set the ground rules too and Lola slept in the wagon while he slept by the campfire and he brooked no arguments about that, just saying she would be warmer and safer in the wagon.

However in reality he was still inwardly reeling from that kiss after the concert back at the ranch, and he knew that if that were to occur again while alone on the trail he would find it difficult, maybe even impossible to resist her.

The last thing he needed was any involvement with her, the mission being hard enough as it was without the added complexity of a relationship to worry about .

All went to his plan until about a week into the journey and when they camped that night Lola informed him that he had to get washed up and his best clothes on as they were having a special celebration.

“Huh, how so?”

“Well it was something they always did on the Wagon Train to keep our spirits up, come Saturday we used to have music and dancing and a special meal.”

He considered this for a minute, thinking how hard he’d pushed her over the last week and felt that maybe they both deserved to relax a little.

“OK,” he said grinning down at her.

They had camped near a bubbling stream in a verdant valley and Jess ground hitched the team to graze and then wandered off for a swim and wash, before returning to camp and changing into clean clothes.

Meanwhile Lola had been busy cooking up a storm Mexican style and Jess could smell all the herbs and spices as he returned to the camp.

“That sure smells good,” he said smiling down at her, his shirt still unbuttoned and his black hair wet from his swim.

She looked up and felt a frisson of desire as she looked at him grinning down at her.

“I said that smells real good,” he repeated.

She shook her head to try and clear it and took a deep breath to calm her jangled nerves, “Well you know, just the usual Mexican chow,” she said smiling up at him ”will you watch the pot while I wash and change?”

“Sure,” he nodded taking her vacated spot by the fire and set to, stirring the crock.

She returned about half an hour later and as she emerged from the back of the wagon Jess, took a double take, she looked sensational.

She had bathed in the river and now her black hair fell into shining curls around her naked shoulders.

She wore a white very low cut peasant style blouse, exposing her lean tanned shoulders and a generous amount of cleavage, a scarlet skirt clung to her hips and her face was subtly made up to enhance her huge dark eyes and sensual mouth.

He stared for a moment before coming to his senses and moving across the fallen log they were using as seating he made room for her to sit next to him.

“You look, err….. real pretty,” he said, smiling at her.

“And you look, muy guapo,” (really handsome).

He looked down and blushed a little, ”So shall we see if it tastes as good as it smells?” he asked lightly.

After the delicious meal which Lola insisted on washing down with some of Carlos’s Tequila, she said she would play and sing for him.

Jess was already feeling quite mellow after several glasses of the spirit and then when her beautiful voice rose in song in the tranquil evening, he was totally captivated.

She sang in the Ranchera style, traditional Mexican country music, telling of patriotism, nature, history, legend and love and accompanied herself on the guitar.

And if Jess didn’t understand every word, or the exact meaning then the haunting melodies, her beautiful singing voice made up for it.

He was lying by the fire, watching her every move when suddenly he felt a shift in the atmosphere and looking him in the eye she said softly, ”This is the last song and it is just for you, Jess, mi amour.”

She sang in her own language and then again in English and Jess watched her mesmerized by the beautiful voice and poignant lyrics.

This is called, ‘Quiero ser.’. I want to be…. She said throwing him a seductive look.

Quiero Ser…..

I want to be a free soul at dawn,

I want to believe, one day I will sleep by your side, under the sweet stars,

I want to sing to freedom, from the ties that bind you.

I need your crazy loving to see me through this time.

I want to be the one who swears you eternal love,

Without you, I will surely die, my heart broken in two……

There was complete silence when she had finished the haunting melody.

Jess stared at her not knowing what to say, but before he could collect himself she came over and sank down beside him.

“There’s no need to look so troubled,” she whispered, ”I was just telling you how I feel.”

His head shot up and he stared at her, ”You do… you really feel that way?”

She nodded flushing a little, “I wasn’t kidding you when I said I was madly in love with you at twelve and jealous of Chiquita. But now I am all grown up and I know what love really means,” she whispered,” and the more I get to know you then the more I love you.”

“Lola, I …. I don’t know what to say…….I……”

“Hush then don’t say anything,” she whispered, gently caressing his lips with a finger.

He ducked his head and after a moment he looked up into her face and then his gaze dropped as if of its own volition to the gentle curve of her cleavage, exposed by the low cut peasant blouse. Then his eyes travelled up to the pulse beating at the base of her neck and then to her luscious, slightly parted soft red lips. Finally he looked into her teasing amused gaze, almost challenging him to make a move.

He glanced back down at her mouth and very slowly moved in. His lips just grazing hers for a second, teasing, savoring the moment of anticipation before he finally put one hand behind her head and tangling it in her hair he pulled her closer and kissed her more deeply. She opened her mouth as she felt the increased pressure and gave a soft moan as he pulled her even closer, the kissing becoming more and more passionate.

After some time he abruptly pulled back and gave her a searching look.

“Is this what you want?” he said his voice raspy and deep with emotion.

“Si, si mi amore….,” she whispered a catch in her voice.

“I’m not makin’ any promises I’m a free soul, just like in your song,” he said with a wicked twinkle in his eyes, ”you know that don’t you?”

“Shut up,” she whispered, ”just shut up and kiss me, I don’t want anything from you Jess, just your loving…..”

His quirky black eyebrows arched and he gave her his charming smile, ”We’ll iffen you’re sure that’s what you want,” he whispered before taking her in his arms again.

After some time he picked her up and carried her to the covered wagon and mounting the steps at the back entered and gently placed her on the soft bed where she lay looking up at him, her dark eyes huge and burning with desire.

He unbuttoned his blue shirt, dropped it to the floor and then lay down, taking her in his arms, whispering secret endearments, kissing and caressing her face her neck……… Then they were whirling away in a kaleidoscope of sensations, closer and closer, at one with each other, entwining bodies and souls as he tenderly made love to her……. Until, at the last, she cried out his name and he held her close, their passion spent, their hearts beating in unison. Very gently he brushed her damp hair back from her forehead and looking deeply into her eyes he whispered, “Lola…mi amore,” and he held her close, caressing her hair gently, until they fell asleep in each other’s arms.

When he awoke at dawn he didn’t know where he was for a moment and then he saw her black hair fanned out across his naked chest, her head resting on his shoulder and as she lay in his arms he had a deep feeling of protectiveness, and something else, maybe the first tentative stirrings of something like love. But he refused to let himself think that way, it could never work he told himself sadly. But then her eyelids flickered and her eyes opened and she gazed up at him with those expressive brown eyes and he was lost……………

So their relationship was irrevocably changed and Jess knew there was no going back. But he was still fighting the strong feelings he had for her knowing that nothing could come of it. She wanted to live in Mexico where the pull had been so strong it had brought her all the way back from California. But Jess’s life was embedded in Wyoming now with his many friends. He thought of everyone at the ranch, his family, how could the two lives be reconciled?

He had also been worried that he was only lusting after Lola because she reminded him so much of his lost love Chiquita, but once he got to really know her he realized she was very different, but was very special to him in her own right. She was very passionate and wild, whereas Chiquita had been more reserved, albeit very loving. Then she was quite bold and worldly in her outlook whereas Chiquita had been very much the lady, quite shy and retiring, but Jess rejoiced in their differences, and was beginning to fall for Chiquita’s, oh so unique, little sister.

If Jess ever thought about it, which he didn’t, he would have thought of himself as a little wild, hot blooded and passionate. But he had met his match in Lola and once their relationship had been consummated they became totally wrapped up in each other, and that was almost their downfall.

Jess had stopped sleeping out in the open, where he could wake and be ready to defend the camp at the break of a twig, in his usual fashion, and had moved into the wagon with Lola. So he was not as alert to danger as normal, wholly engrossed in the relationship as he was.

Late one night they were just turning in, with Jess stripped down to his denims, when he thought he heard one of the horses nicker and was just about to go and check on the animals. Then Lola put out a lazy arm and grabbing hold of his hand pulled him down onto the bed and into her embrace, into which he surrendered for a moment, smiling at her and kissing her lightly on the lips.

“I should just check the horses,” he whispered.

“Oh, Jess don’t go, it’s cold out there,” she said with a little pout.

Then, ”Come here,” she whispered more seductively.

He shook his head in mock despair and then took her in his arms and started kissing her ardently.

About five minutes later things were just ‘ getting real interesting’ as Jess would have said ,when he suddenly felt cold steel pushed hard into the small of his back and a low voice growl,” Get off of her,” and put yer hands up mister.”

He froze and then did as he was asked, adjusting his denims before he stood up and turning, raised his hands as requested and looked into the face of a swarthy, tall, ugly looking man of similar age to himself.

The man turned his shotgun towards Lola, and snarled, ”You do exactly as I tell yer or the little lady gets her brains blown out, that clear Mister?”

“As day,” drawled Jess.

The man turned furious eyes on him, ”Don’t get smart with me buddy, just fetch yer cash, I ain’t got all night ter hang around here.”

“Well I guess that’s where you’ve had a wasted journey then,”said Jess firmly, ”because we ain’t carrying any, all the lady’s cash is tied up in property back in Mexico.”

The man looked discomforted and then he lurched a little and Jess got a waft of stale whiskey.

“Well maybe I’ll just sample the delights of the little lady then,” he smirked.

Jess tensed and threw Lola an anxious glance, but he should have known she’d tough it out.

She gave Jess a sly wink and then sitting up smiled seductively over at the intruder, “Well come along then honey, don’t be shy,” she breathed.

The man’s face was the picture of shocked surprise and in that split second that his guard was down Jess struck faster than a coiled rattler. Lunging forwards he wrestled the shot gun out of the man’s hands before laying a haymaker to his chin, which sent him flying out of the back of the wagon where he sprawled in the dirt.

Without pausing he threw himself out of the wagon after his adversary and dragging him up by his shirt front threw another couple of blows to the face and chest, before finishing off with a brutal chop to the back of the neck leaving his opponent out cold on the deck.

He stood over him panting a little and rubbing his hand that was feeling slightly bruised, fighting without his gloves on, and then Lola was beside him, a shawl thrown around her shoulders.

He put a protective arm around her as they stood surveying their would be robber.

“You OK, that was sure brave of you honey.”

Then he realized she was shaking.


“Estoy OK she said softly, ”tenia miedo.”

“Well, I’m sure you were frightened sweetheart, considering what that bastardo was threatening to do.”

She shuddered, “Thank goodness I am with you, if I had been travelling alone…… “

“Hush”, he said quickly, ”don’t think that way.”

Then turning his serious gaze on her he said quietly, ”I guess this is my wake up call though, I’ve been so darned wrapped up in you…. in us…..that I figure I’ve not been watchin’ out for danger the way I should have been.”

Then she smiled, “It takes two and I think maybe this was my fault tonight mi amore.”

He ran a tender finger down her cheek, “Yeah well, I guess I find you kinda irresistible.”

Then the attacker stirred and Jess lost no time in tying him securely to the wagon wheel.

“I figure we’ll deal with you in the morning,” he spat and then he threw some more wood on the fire and went into the wagon to collect his bedroll.

“I’d better sleep out,” he said softly as Lola sank back down on the bed looking done in.

She nodded and he bent and kissed her tenderly on the forehead before leaving to guard the prisoner.

The following morning Jess was awake at first light and not in the best of moods.

He kicked the still sleeping man’s leg hard and he awoke with a jerk turning red rimmed, troubled eyes on Jess.

“Wake up you lowlife,” spat Jess staring stonily down at his adversary of the previous night.

“I…. I’m real sorry,” he managed at last.

“Oh you’re sorry are you,” yelled Jess, “sorry for tryin’ to rob us blind, or for tryin’ it on with my woman?”

The man swallowed deeply, and looked down ashamed, ”I didn’t mean any of it, was out of my head on hill whiskey. Saw your wagon and thought I’d try and get some cash, I’m skint see mister….”

Jess just stared down at him, his face unforgiving, ”That don’t give you the right to hit on innocent folk…. And what would you have done iffen I hadn’t stopped you….. eh?”

“I don’t know mister, I wouldn’t have hurt the lady, that’s fer sure, it was all talk…”and he sighed deeply, and rubbed his jaw which was sporting an angry dark bruise, courtesy of Jess.

Then the dark haired cowboy heard a sound behind him and looking around he saw Lola approaching and she looked over at the swarthy stranger sadly.

“He doesn’t look quite so frightening in the cold light of day does he?” she said quietly.

“Nah, I guess not,” said Jess.

Then turning back to him, ”So what are we gonna do with you?”

The man suddenly had the light of hope in his eyes, “Look mister, you let me go I won’t bother you again, I promise, in fact I’ll never do anything like this again, I reckon I’ve learnt my lesson, ”and then looking down with the ghost of a smile, ”figure I’ll sign the pledge too.”

“Um,” said Jess gruffly, ”Well you make sure you do.”

Then shaking his head said quietly,” I must be gettin’ dang soft in my old age,” and with that he bent down and untied the man, who tried to rub the feeling back into his hands and stood up shakily.

“Thank you mister,” he said softly, ”I really don’t deserve a break.”

“No you don’t,” spat Jess.

“Now here’s the deal you get on your horse and you head that a way,” he said gesturing to the distant horizon to the East of them, and you keep on riding until I can’t see you no more………. and I’ll tell you now, iffen I ever catch you anywhere near my woman again…… I’ll kill yer…. you understand me?“

“Yes… oh yes sir, I understand…. thank you….” and with that he ran to his mount and hightailed it in the direction Jess had specified without a backwards glance.

Lola sidled over and put an arm round his waist and her head on his shoulder as they watched the man disappear into the distance, then she looked up at him and said very softly, ”So am I?”


“Am I your woman?“

He looked deeply into her eyes for a long minute and then said almost in surprise, ”Yeah, I guess you are.”

Then she took him by the hand and led him back towards the wagon, ”Come on cowboy,” she said gently, ”I think we have some unfinished business, no?”

“Si,” said Jess grinning down, before pulling her into his warm embrace.

And so it was some time later they continued their journey.

They were well into Texas by this time and the weather was much warmer making it pleasant for both of them to sleep under the stars until a few days after their encounter with the would be thief, when there was the sound of distant thunder as they were thinking of bedding down for the night.

I figure we’ll sleep in the wagon tonight said Jess casting a glance at the advancing storm clouds that were dashing across the full moon.

That night they huddled under the canvas listening to the severe storm raging over head, the lightning illuminating the confined space within the wagon. The thunder at first rumbling and then crashing angrily over head as the storm advanced, closer and closer.

They pulled the blankets over and Lola cuddled up close, flinching as the storm vented its anger directly overhead.

“Hey, it’s OK,” said Jess softly; holding her close, “it’s only an old storm can’t harm us.”

“I know estoy siendo tonta.”

“Heck Lola, no you’re not being silly, it’s a real bad storm, but we’ll be OK don’t worry sweetheart.”

They clung together listening to the rain pouring down on the hard ground around them and Jess gave a grim laugh, “I thought we’d left the floods behind us in Wyoming, but looks like they’ve sure caught up with us.”

The following morning the evidence of the severe storm was all around them, the ground around the wagon waterlogged, and further along the trail they could see evidence of flash floods.

“Looks like there hasn’t been any rain in these parts for a while,” said Jess, ”and the ground down on the track where it’s packed down is gonna flood something fierce.”

“We’ll be alright though?”

“Sure, we’ll be fine, don’t you worry honey.”

But later in the day he thought he had spoken too soon as they had to pull up for awhile, the trail running in torrential flood water, and the wagon making slow progress in the dire conditions.

The horses were so spooked by the fast running water that Jess had to jump down from the wagon and lead them through the deep flood waters. It coming up to his waist in places, plus the temperature had dropped and a nasty spiteful little wind had got up, chilling him to the bone.

“Garl darn weather is as bad as Wyoming,” he muttered as he trudged onwards leading the horses up towards higher ground away from the flash flood water which seemed to have come from nowhere.

Then as they moved onwards he realized that the flood had been caused by a stream running parallel to the road that had burst its banks and he sighed thinking this didn’t auger well for the river crossing they had to make at some stage, to get across the border to Mexico.

Just when Jess thought he couldn’t get any colder or wetter, the heavens opened and the rain that had been falling solidly all day suddenly turned into a torrential downfall, the wind howling and practically flattening him and he had to hold onto the horses to keep himself upright.

Lola was calling from the wagon seat where she still held the reins and he looked up and saw her pointing to a rocky outcrop several hundred yards to their left and Jess nodded. He led the now exhausted horses off the track and made for the shelter of the rocks. The ground was quite rough and he worried about damaging a wheel, but then he thought if he didn’t get the horses out of the horrendous conditions, well then they would have no means of pulling the wagon anyway.

They finally got into the lee of the rocks and were out of the prevailing wind and Jess brought the team to a halt as close to the rocks as he could, the rockface forming a much needed barrier to the worst of the weather.

When he heaved to he almost fell against one of the horses, holding on for a moment and panting he wiped his sleeve across his soaking face and stood there shivering and miserable.

Then Lola was beside him a comforting arm around his waist.

“Jess are you alright?” she cried in alarm.

At that he immediately pulled himself together and yanking his hat down hard, she saw he had a determined glint in his eyes when he turned to her.

“Sure, I’m fine sweetheart, just a little beat… err.. …exhausto.”

“Si, si, she said sympathetically, you come rest si?”

“No, I’ve gotta tend to the beasts first, figure they’re in a worse state than I am,” he said with a tired smile.


“No I’m fine, look there is some dry wood in the back of the wagon, I reckon you could probably get a fire goin’ iffen you try over yonder,” he said pointing to an area a few yards away where the cliff was indented forming a small cave with an open mouth.

“Set it to the front and then I reckon they’ll be just about room for our bedrolls behind it, will be dry and warmer with a fire than in the wagon, OK?”

She just nodded, seeing how exhausted he was, but knowing it was useless to argue with him where the horses were concerned.

Jess worked hard rubbing the horses down and then he fed and watered them and tethered them between the wagon and the overhanging rock, and was pleased to see they were in a reasonably dry place and feeling reassured as to their safety and comfort he made his way along to the cave.

Lola had a good fire burning and had a meal in the pot and the bedrolls laid out and as he entered the cave she gave him a welcoming smile and passed him a coffee.

He slumped down on the bedroll beside her and accepted the offered cup and took a small sip, before turning twinkling eyes on her, ”You sure have a good way with coffee,” he smiled.

She grinned back.

“It’s got a drop of the medicinal Red Eye Daisy packed for you,” she said, and then the smile fell from her face as she saw that he was shaking so much he could hardly hold the cup to his lips.

She reached out a hand and placed it on his thigh, Jess you’re soaking wet and freezing, go and change at once.

He took another quick swig of his drink and getting up wandered over to the wagon and returned five minutes later in clean dry clothes and hunkered down beside her.

“Thanks,” he said softly, dropping a kiss on her cheek.

“Para lo… for what?”

“Fer lookin’ out for me,” he smiled, and then chuckling, ”I figure you could get as clucky as Daisy iffen I let yer.”

“What is this clucky?”

He just smiled and shook his head, ”Nuthin’ … nuthin’ at all…..”

Later that night it became obvious to Lola that Jess was unwell. She awoke in the small hours of the morning to him shaking and groaning in his sleep and when she put a tentative hand to his chest he was icy cold and then awhile later he was sweating and restless.

“Jess, Jess,” she whispered as he became more and more agitated.

Then he was suddenly awake staring at her in the dim light from the fire.

“Are you OK, you’re sweating one minute and freezing the next,” she said softly, as she pulled the blanket across his naked chest.

“Feel kinda rough,” he admitted, ”figure I’ve caught me a chill messin’ about in all that water earlier.”

“Well you were hardly messing about Jess, more like trying to keep us all safe.”

“Yeah, well,” he sighed, “figure I’ll be OK tomorrow…but…. “

“What my love?”

“I’m kinda chilly right now can yer cuddle up some?”

She gave him her playful smile, ”I reckon I can do that for you cowboy,” and she held him in her warm embrace, but her smile slowly faded as she felt just how cold he was and she was suddenly fearful…..

The following morning he was much worse and when she woke him to say there was coffee and breakfast on the go he just groaned and turned over and went back to a fitful sleep.

This was so unlike him the alarm bells really started ringing for Lola, and she was right to be worried, because a little later he was lashing about with a high fever and when he finally opened his eyes he looked like he hardly recognised her at first.

She quickly rang out a rag in some cold water and started swabbing his sweating writhing body and then he was shivering again, looking pale and ill and she covered him back up and held him close and that was the pattern for most of the day.

By dusk she was exhausted and very worried, knowing that there was no civilisation for miles, even less a doctor and her low spirits made her start to think the worst, what would happen if he was really ill…. What could she do?

As if reading her mind his eyes suddenly flickered and opened and he regarded her with concern.

Then he put out a hand and took hers and said very quietly, ”It’s OK sweetheart, don’t fret, I ain’t about to up an die on you, you know.”

She clasped his hand firmly, ”I’ve been so worried, you were really ….desmayado unconscious err… out of it, si?“

“Yeah, I guess I ain’t been too good, but I’ll be fine real soon, don’t fret sweetheart…..”

Then he turned his cheeky grin on her, “So any coffee on the go?” and she knew then that he really was on the mend.

And so they continued on their journey, this last trauma making Lola feel even closer to Jess. She had been so very upset at his recent sickness and now she cherished him and valued his reassuring strong presence even more than before.

They continued their journey and a few days later they finally arrived at the Rio Grande, but Jess’s fears were realized when they reachedthe ford and looked down at the river hurtling along and knew there was no way they could cross it right then.

Jess jumped down from the wagon and wandered over to the crossing place watching the angry foaming white water and knew they must wait, but for how long?

He was still in turmoil about his future, loving Lola and yet committed to his friends and partnership back in Wyoming. As he stood back and took in the scene, still on his old home land of Texas and with the bright prospect of Mexico and Lola in front of him, Wyoming seemed almost like a life time away…..andyet, it still pulled him back.

He turned and watched as Lola jumped down from the wagon and wandered over to join him, snaking an arm around his waist and smiling up at him and he suddenly felt his heart being torn in two…. How could he leave Lola…. but also how could he leave Slim, Mike and Daisy?

They decided they must strike up a camp there and just wait for the river to subside.

And so it was they settled down near the ford and although they were impatient to get across, they also both felt a need to consolidate their relationship, Jess feeling very mixed up and Lola sensing this.

Did Lola expect an offer of marriage and indeed, is that what Jess wanted from the relationship? He really didn’t know. Sure he loved her, well he thought he did… but lifelong commitment, well that was something different all together and one he had successfully managed to dodge for many years…… But there again, maybe the time was right now, maybe he could put Maria and his past firmly behind him.

Then something happened to make him reassess the situation yet again.

Chapter 6

It was mid-morning on the second day of their enforced camp out and they had moved back from the river a little, the noise keeping them awake at night, and they were now in a secluded spot several hundred feet from the river. They had parked beneath some tall pines, had fresh water from a small stream meandering past on its way to join the mighty waterway and it was an idyllic spot. Now the weather had changed again and it was very warm, the sun beating down relentlessly from a deep blue sky, and Jess reckoned it was only a matter of days before the river was passable again.

He had wandered off over the hill to shoot a couple of rabbits for supper and so Lola was alone when the men rode in.

She saw them coming from quite far off, a group of three men riding hard, galloping hell for leather down along the edge of the river, but then when they spied the wagon they reined in, talked for a minute and then turned their mounts in her direction.

She turned to look up the small hill, seeking out a glimpse of Jess returning and then when she saw no sign of him she quickly moved to the back of the wagon returning with a shotgun.

They reined in their mounts and sat there grinning down at her, all of them looking dirty and dangerous she thought fleetingly. The tallest of the three men tipped his Stetson back and regarded her with twinkling eyes.

“Well what have we got here, a mighty feisty lookin’ young lady,” he said turning to snigger at his companions.

One of his friends turned his amused gaze on Lola and drawled, ”You be real careful Ma’am, those things have a way of goin’ off yer know.”

“Si, I am well aware,” she spat, ”and if you come any closer, that is what with happen, Cochino!“

“A little Mexican wench,” smiled the first man, ”and she’s sure got you right Jake, you are somethin’ of a pig,” and the third man joined in the raucous laughter, while the butt of the joke slid down from his mount and advanced on Lola.

“Well, that’s not right friendly,” said Jake, ”so how’s about a little kiss to show there’s no hard feelin’ s hey honey?”

“That’s far enough, back off… now!” came a gruff voice from behind them and all three men turned to see Jess standing there his hunting rifle pointed at them, and a deadly glint in his eyes.

The tall man was the first to recover and jumping down from his horse ran over, ”Why Jess you old son of a gun, don’t you remember your old buddies eh?” he said giving a broad grin.

Jess lowered the gun, but looked less than pleased to see the man or his brothers.

“Leave her alone Jake,” he said menacingly before acknowledging the other two men with a curt nod.

“Randy, Pete,” he said quietly.

“Well it sure is good to see you,” said the tall man, who answered to Randy,” been awhile Jess…. a real long time,” he said nodding and smiling.

“Yeah, not long enough,” muttered Jess.

Then Jake came over and slapped him on the back,” Sorry about that Jess, I didn’t realize the lady was with you, just havin’ a little fun you know?”

“Sure I know all about your fun,” said Jess bitterly.

Jake looked down embarrassed, “Yeah, that was all a long time ago. I figure we’ve all grown up some. So you aiming to cross the border too then?” he asked, quickly changing the subject.

Jess merely nodded.

Then Pete said, ”I guess we should be movin’ casting an anxious glance behind him, looks like we ain’t gonna cross here, we need to move down stream some.”

Jess regarded him with a jaundiced eye, ”So you on the run then?” he asked.

Randy nodded, “Yeah kinda, had a little disagreement with a Sheriff over Albuquerque way, seems he took offense at us makin’ an unscheduled withdrawal from the town bank.

Jess cast his eyes to heaven, ”Might have known it.”

“Well Jess boy aren’t you runnin’ from the law too?” asked Jake now looking surprised.

“No I ain’t,” said Jess firmly.

Then Randy beamed at him again, ”Heck Jess boy why don’t we ride along together, join up again, just like in the old days … eh, what do yer say?”

Jess shook his head sadly, ”You just don’t get it do you Randy? I ain’t sellin’ my gun anymore, gave all that up long since, I’m on the right side of the law now and it’s staying that way.”

Randy gave a big belly laugh, ”Hell no you ain’t boy. As soon as you’re over in Mexico you’ll be in demand. Yes siree, I can think of several outfits as would like you on side. Yup I guess you’ll soon change yer mind and sell out to the highest bidder.”

“Well that’s where you’re wrong Randy, like I say, I’m on the other side now and that’s where I aim to stay.”

The older man just shook his head, ”Not iffen yer thinkin’ on settling down anywhere near here,” he said firmly. “See boy you’re either with us or agin us…. And I reckon most of the folks holed up in the border lands won’t be any too pleased if they hear the great Jess Harper has sold out to the quiet life. Oh no… guess it’s make yer mind up time.”

All this time Pete had been quietly peering over at Lola and now he snapped his fingers, ”I know you, its Lola Capello ain’t it, well I’ll be!”

Then he shook his head and beamed at her.

“So going home to Nuevo Laredo are you honey?”

Lola didn’t answer but just glanced at Jess for reassurance.

“Well, I guess we know where to find you then Jess,” smiled Randy, walking away and jumping back up on his mount, “as soon as the heats off we’ll be a callin’ and maybe we’ll be able to convince you to ride with us, huh?”

Jess just stood by giving him a stony look and ignoring the comment, as they made to move off.

“Be seein’ ya,” and then they were off back riding at speed along the river bank, seeking another crossing place before the posse caught up with them.

Lola looked after them a shocked expression in her eyes. Sure they had discussed Jess’s chequered history and she had accepted it, knowing he had moved on, but now being confronted with this evidence of his past misdemeanors she was shaken to the core.


She turned frightened eyes on him.

“Lola, are you OK?“

She just nodded and turning went and placed the shotgun back in the wagon and then returned and sank down beside the fire.

He went over and hunkered down beside her, ”What is it?”

“Nothing,” she said refusing to look him in the eye.

“Lola, you don’t think I’d really ride out with that scum do you?”

She finally tore her gaze away from the fire and looked him in the eyes, ”No, no of course not,” she whispered, “but the way they were talking… well you might not have any choice.”

He shook his head, ”There’s always a choice.”

“But it wouldn’t be easy for you settling in Nuevo Laredo would it?” she persisted.

He knew the truth of it and not merely because of the unlawful element that resided there, but also the small matter of him being a partner in a ranch in Wyoming.

He sighed deeply, “We ain’t really made any plans yet have we?”

Her head shot up, ”I ….well I just assumed after….”she gestured to the wagon that housed the big comfy bed. That one gesture encompassing all that they had come to mean to each other over the last few weeks, since that turning point when she had taken him as her lover.

Then he took her in his arms and held her, before reaching down and finding her mouth and kissing her soundly. But all the while his heart was pounding and his thoughts crashing around in his brain with the sudden awareness of the danger he could be putting her in. How could be lay her open to the kind of hazards his past looked likely to throw at them, with the advent of Randy, Jake and Pete, the notorious Jackson Gang.

Hell how he regretted the day he had met up with them he thought later as he sat looking deeply into the fire as Lola strummed lightly on her guitar after supper……..

It was after the war and he was wild and dangerous, drinking too much and more often than not keeping bad company, trying desperately to blot out the images of a brutal war and traumatic time in the prisoner of war camp and later hospital.

Jess would have said that was no excuse for his behaviour, but even so he had to admit that he had been way out of control at one stage and that was when he fell in with the Jackson brothers. Or more accurately fell over them he thought, with the ghost of a smile. They had just been ejected from the saloon for being drunk and disorderly and although Jess was far less inebriated than they were, the barkeep had seen him chatting to them and threw him out too.

He had collapsed in a heap falling over Randy’s long legs, where he had fallen on the sidewalk after the barkeep’s manhandling. And then Pete had hauled him up and they had all roared with laughter before going off to seek sustenance elsewhere.

It was over a plate of sobering ham and eggs that the introductions were made and it soon became obvious that his new friends had suffered in the war, having fought for the Confederacy too and it was that bond that led Jess to ride out of town with them later that day.

What had followed had been an excess of hell raising, fighting and drinking, albeit harmless enough at that stage.

But then things started to get out of hand, the drinking leading to longer and longer spells in jail and their reputation went before them. Often they would ride into yet another Texas town and find the Sheriff waiting, saying they weren’t welcome.

By this time Jess was getting sick of shooting up towns just for the hell of it and waking up every day with a hangover and covered in cuts and bruises from brawling. He wanted some stability in his life, a job and some money, maybe even a steady girl and he sure figured that wasn’t gonna happen with Jake in tow. He seemed to be forever lusting after unobtainable women and would make a nuisance of himself. Trying to push his unwanted attention on them, much to Jess’s embarrassment and he seemed to spend half his time apologising for his friend and making him back down and this was another prime reason why Jess had decided to ride out.

But the gang were loath to let him go and Randy especially had plans for Jess or for his fast gun anyway. He too was getting bored with hell raising and wanted some income, but in Randy’s case he wasn’t prepared to work for it and had the idea of a Stage robbery, rather than the ranch work Jess was thinking of doing.

As soon as Randy disclosed his plan Jess backed off.

“Hell are you crazy Randy, I don’t want any part of that,” he said firmly.

“Well Jess boy, you’re either with us or agin us and I figure none of us will be too happy iffen you don’t join us in this.”

“I guess that’s just too bad then,” said Jess menacingly, ”because I don’t want no part of it,” and he rose to go, from the saloon where they had been drinking most of the evening.

Then he stopped in his tracks and looked around him before turning back to Randy.

“Where did Jake go?” he asked looking concerned.

“Dunno he was chatting up that cute little saloon girl last I saw,” said Randy, disinterestedly.

“That’s what I was afraid of,” said Jess quietly and going over to the barkeep said, “Where’s young Suzy, I’d just like to say goodnight.”

The barman looked up at the young cowboy who he liked as he was always polite and kind to his girls and said, “She finished for the night ten minutes since, gone up to bed son.”

Jess nodded, “So she was alone when she left?“

“Sure, there was some no hoper trying to hit on her, but I chucked him out awhile back.”

Jess sighed with relief and was just turning to go when he heard it, a bloodcurdling scream coming from a room above the bar.

Jess and the barkeep locked eyes for a split second both registering shock before tearing up the stairs and on throwing open a door at the end of the corridor the barkeep cussed at what he saw.

Jake was forcing himself on the girl, who was fighting valiantly back and screaming for all she was worth.

“The bastard must have sneaked in by the back way,” snarled the bar man.

Jess pushed him to one side and strode across the room reaching the bed in seconds and he yanked Jake up off the girl and threw a punch that sent him flying across the room, before marching over and pulling him up and then he started raining blows to the man’s head and body.

It was reported later that it took four men to pull him off and if they had not have done, the dark haired cowboy would surely have killed Jake with his bare hands.

Randy saw the whole episode and never having witnessed the full fury of the Harper temper was truly terrified and decided there and then that this was not a dude to be messed with.

Hell iffen Jess didn’t want to do the Stage job, well that was OK with him and he really didn’t think he would risk throwing his lot in with such a volatile hombre anyway, no siree.

Jess had left town the following day and hadn’t clapped eyes on the gang again until that morning. He had heard reports of them though. All having a Bounty on their heads for robbery and in Jake’s case rape and he sure as hell didn’t want anything to do with them.

Then he glanced over at where Lola sat , innocently strumming the guitar, her dark hair falling around her shoulders, the low cut dress moulded to her hourglass figure and her deep brown eyes dreamy and gentle.

Jess remembered the way Jake had looked at her that morning and his blood ran cold. He couldn’t put her at risk, and he knew that if the Jacksons insisted on trying to claim him back into the gang he would have to put them straight, in no uncertain terms, as to his position. If Jake so much as laid a finger on Lola he would definitely be signing his death warrant Jess thought furiously.


The following morning the river water levels had dropped significantly and whereas it was still far fuller and running faster than Jess would have liked he decided to risk it.

They had battened down everything securely in the wagon and as Lola took the reins Jess rode one of the team feeling that his solid presence on the animals back would give it some confidence.

They entered the wild water slowly, the horses nodding their heads and snorting in fear and displeasure, but as they proceeded forwards Jess’s kindly words of encouragement seemed to sooth them, and hewas relieved to see that the water only rose halfway up the wagon wheels as they made their way carefully across.

Then it happened, part of the track beneath their feet must have been swept away by the force of the flood water and they suddenly found themselves in much deeper water, the horses floundering and having to swim a little as they desperately tried to find a foot hold. Then the spooked animals lost their way and started heading downstream away from the opposite bank.

Jess did the only thing he could, threw himself off the horse and grabbing hold of the animals harness started to lead it across the angry foaming water. He too was out of his depth and at one stage he stumbled and sank below the water, the horses crashing around beside him pulling him under again and again.

As he surfaced for the third time he was vaguely aware of Lola screaming in panic and that was enough to give him that final spurt of energy he needed to right himself and grab hold of the horse’s reins again. And he was finally able to firmly lead them across to the other side. It was just good luck, Jess was to say later, that the track was suddenly solid beneath their feet again the water level lowered and they made it safely to the far bank.

Once the horses had dry land in their sites they moved forwards a pace and Jess was able to let go and watched them as they scrabbled up the bank and then stood heads drooping, totally spent as they heaved and panted, shaking their heads, the harness jingling.

Lola threw herself down from the wagon and tore back towards the river, to where Jess was just emerging and he dragged himself up the bank and all but fell into her arms.

She held him tightly whispering endearments in her native tongue, ignoring the fact that she too was becoming soaked through.

Then after a few minutes Jess regained his breath and looking down at her with a twinkle in his blue eyes said, ”I figure, we’d both better get some dry clothes on,” and she finally noticed her soaking clothes and grinning up at him they made their way back to the wagon, hand in hand, to seek out a change of garments.


They finally arrived in the town of Nuevo Laredo and Jess and Lola made straight for the Sheriff’s office having parked the wagon in the livery yard and booked the horses into the stable for a well-earned rest.

They entered the Sheriff’s office and were greeted by a dark haired personable young Mexican, who stood up immediately and grinned across at them, offering Jess his hand.

“Mister Harper I assume.”

Jess smiled back and shook his hand,” pleased to meet you Sheriff.. err… “

“Sheriff Alberto, Antonio Augusto Rodriguez,” he said grinning,” but you can call me Al.”

Jess beamed back and then was suddenly aware of Lola, standing quietly by his side and was just about to introduce her when she came forward and reaching up kissed the Sheriff lightly on the cheek.

“Hi Al,” she said softly, her eyes registering delight at the sight of him.

Jess’s head swivelled from Lola to the Sheriff and saw a look of equal pleasure on the Sheriff’s handsome face.

“You two know each other then?” asked Jess, feeling slightly side-lined.

Lola’s gaze never left the Sheriff’s face as she replied, ”Oh yes Al and I are old friends, we were at school together before he moved down to Texas.”

Then the Sheriff tore his eyes away and remembering his manners offered them seats and coffee and asked how he might help them.

Lola explained how she and Carlos had fled after Chiquita’s death and her life was threatened by Fernandez, but how she had never sold out and was still in possession of the deeds to the family homestead.

Al looked very serious at this, “I had heard of Chiquita’s untimely death,” he said sighing at the memory.

Then he turned to Jess, ”You will be very distressed to hear of this I think?”

Jess nodded, ”I only heard a little while ago, but yeah…. so you know of my history with Chiquita then?”

“Si, I know much of what happened in the town after I left. I made it my business to know you see. And I heard all about the so called ‘accident’ to Chiquita, but it has been impossible to prove Fernandez guilt, although God knows I have tried.”

Then he looked down at his linked hands resting on the desk before deciding to tell them his full story.

“My father was one of the few in town who, like your dear padre (father),” he said nodding to Lola, ”stood up to Fernandez, but then when he threatened to kill my Madre (mother) and sister, well that was when father moved us all down to Texas…. But I never forgot my life here.”

He cast another glance over to Lola, “I never forgot my friends here either, and I vowed when I was full grown I would come back as a law man and clean the town up once and for all.”

“According to Mort Corey you’re doin’ a pretty good job of it too,” said Jess sincerely.

The Sheriff nodded in acknowledgement, ”I run a real tight town, as well as I am able within the law. But if folk won’t speak up and report bullying and injustice, well then I can’t enforce the law. Fernandez still holds sway here to some extent. Although he now hides behind the cover of being a legit businessman, but he is still as corrupt as ever, just hides it better.”

“Hum,” said Jess, “so how has he gotten away with taking Lola’s house and land?”

“First thing I asked when I came into office and he assures me he just has two staff living there to care for the place in her absence and said that he was granted the right to use the water hole there in return for caring for the property…. Well that didn’t seem right to me.”

Then he turned to Lola, ”But you were long gone to California and I’d no way of reaching you to check it out. I figured it better that the place was looked after, than left to fall apart,” he said sadly, ”but now I guess we can go over and see what is really going on, si?“

They hired horses from the livery and rode out later that day and as Jess neared the Capello spread he felt his heart beating faster and was totally unprepared for the effect going back there would have on him.

It was a big spread with a fenced driveway up to the main house with outbuildings surrounding it and a large lake to the rear of the property.

They reined in, in front of the house and glancing over at Lola he saw that she was as overwhelmed as he was at returning to the place neither of them thought they would ever never see again.

Lola slid down from her mount and ran lightly up the steps to the porch and then suddenly the front door was thrown open and her dear friend and old nursemaid stood in front of her beaming down.

“Rosa,” she whispered, in her own tongue, ”is that really you?”

The buxom elderly woman ran forwards and took her in her arms, “Welcome home my child,” she replied.

Then her husband Juan, was there welcoming them all inside.

Once they were sitting with a cup of coffee and some of Rosa’s chocolate cake, the story unfolded and Rosa explained how Fernandez had taken over the spread once Lola had fled. But then once the new Sheriff was in place he had decided to try and make it look like his take-over was all above board. That was when he said he would pay Rosa and Juan a small retainer if they would stay to give the whole scam a look of respectability, for the sake of the law.

“So we moved back in again,” said Rosa looking deeply into Lola’s eyes, ”we thought, no….. hoped and prayed that you would return one day and at least the place would be cared for and loved in you absence… we did right si?”

“Si, si,” said Lola now moved to tears, ”you did right, and now I am home you must have your old jobs back, at the proper rate, if you wish them?” she said suddenly shy.

“Si,” said Rosa and Juan in unison, “but of course, we will care for you just as in the past.”

“And anyone else who resides here,” said, Rosa casting a speculative glance towards Jess.

However her inquisitiveness was to be curtailed as there was the sound of horses galloping in. Juan jumped up and peered out of the window, before turning,” Fernandez, and his men,” he said fearfully.

There was a hammering at the door and the Sheriff nodded to Juan to let them in and then a second later Fernandez stood there amongst them.

Everyone was profoundly affected by his sudden appearance, Juan and Rosa anxious, the Sheriff wary and alert as usual, but Lola and Jess were by far the most disturbed by his presence.

Jess looked over at his old adversary and was struck by the changes in the man. He seemed smaller than he remembered, his black hair now equally thick, but snowy white as was his carefully trimmed beard. But the deep set, dark, killer’s eyes were the same. As was the low slung, greased holster he was wearing housing, Jess knew, a lethal gunslinger’s weapon, with a filed down firing pin and a hair trigger.

Jess had to really rein in his emotions as all he wanted to do was leap up from his seat and shoot him, there and then in cold blood after the atrocities to his beloved Chiquita. But he used all his inner resources to restrain himself, for the time being at least, and glancing over at Lola he could see that she too was pretty near the edge.

Fernandez walked over to Lola and taking her hand smiled with all the friendliness of a coiled rattler and said ”My dear how lovely to have you back,” and glancing over to the Sheriff smiled and nodded with sickening insincerity.

Then he turned to Jess and said, ”Harper, so we meet again, an unexpected pleasure,” the words dripping with spite and menace.

“Yeah, ain’t it,” said Jess gruffly, ”and the pleasure is gonna be all mine Fernandez.”

He looked up sharply at that.

“Yes, I think we do have some catching up to do Harper, some old issues to sort out… .err discuss that is,” he said languidly, ”but I guess we don’t have to bore the Sheriff with our little meeting. I imagine we will be able to get together on our own won’t we?” he said casting a meaningful eye towards the Sheriff.

“Anytime, anyplace,” said Jess menacingly quietly.

Fernandez’s head shot up and he really looked at Jess properly for the first time and seemed to be somewhat taken a back at what he saw, but recovered quickly and said, ”Si, senor Harper, very soon I hope.”

Then he turned and beamed back at Lola, ”All to your satisfaction my dear, I hope?” he said.

Lola pulled herself up to her full five foot, and looking her adversary in the eye said, ”Oh quite, and I do so hope you won’t mind if I withdraw that err…….. agreement about the water hole, I’m afraid it will be no longer convenient.”

Fernandez turned scarlet and looked like his temper would explode, but he took a deep breath and said, ”As you wish my dear,” and turned to take his leave.

“I will see you sometime soon, Mr Harper,” he said before giving a curt nod and leaving as abruptly as he had arrived.

“Can’t be soon enough fer me,” muttered Jess as the door closed behind Fernandez and his men.

When the door banged shut behind him, the amassed company gave a huge sigh of relief.

“I had forgotten what a total bastard he was,” said Jess softly as they sat back down at the table to finish their repast.

He sat next to Lola and seeing she was shaking put a gentle hand out covering hers where it lay on the table, ”Are you OK?” he asked softly.

She nodded looking down to where his large hand covered hers before looking up at him tears in her eyes, offering a weak smile.

This little gesture did not go unobserved by Rosa and after awhile she got up and said gently, ”I’ll go and prepare your room Lola, you look exhausted.”

Then turning to smile at Jess, ”And a room for Mister Harper si?”

Jess and Lola replied at once, ”Si, gracias,” said Lola quickly.

“No,” said Jess loudly a second later, ”that is no thank you Rosa.”

Then he turned to Lola,” I figure I’ll ride back into town with the Sheriff, return the hire horses and then bring your wagon back, in a day or so.”

“Oh Jess no,” she said quickly,” You are tired too, can’t that wait?”

“I guess not,” he said quietly, but she recognised the stubborn glint in his eye and knew there would be no reasoning with him.

The Sheriff rose to go and touching his hat said, ”I’ll see you soon I hope Lola.”

Then, ”I’ll see you outside when you’re ready Jess,” and left quickly.

Rosa and Juan made themselves scarce too, instinctively knowing the young people needed a few minutes of privacy.

Once they were on their own Jess got up and picking up his hat made ready to leave.

But Lola came and stood close, ”You’re going to fight him aren’t you, that’s why your leaving isn’t it?”

Jess’s head shot up and he gave her a hard look, ”Well that’s what yer wanted all along isn’t it?”

“Yes… no, oh I don’t know, I did, but I don’t want you hurt Jess.”

“But it’s what you’ve wanted me for, isn’t it?” he insisted.

“You think all the special time we’ve had together, all we have done… What we have come to mean to each other, I did all that because I wanted you to stay with me and kill Fernandez?” she asked in bewilderment.

He looked down into her shocked face.

“I dunno,” he wavered, “I think…. Well maybe, partly.”

Her head dipped and then she looked him in the eye.

“Alright I admit it……… at first, when I told you that Chiquita was dead and then got Carlos to tell you about what Fernandez did to her, yes I admit it. I wanted to get you so mad that you’d have your revenge on him…. But then something happened between us and the more I saw of you the more…….. the more I loved you…….. love you Jess,” she said her eyes wide with sincerity.

He gave her the ghost of a smile and tentatively ran a gentle finger down her cheek, but said nothing.

“And now,” she continued swallowing hard, ”now I don’t care about that. I just want you to keep safe, oh Jess please don’t go to town.”

He shook his head and then said softly, ”I have to go Lola, not just for you…. but for me and for Chiquita’s memory. I have to make things right, he can’t get away with what he’s done you must see that?” he said sighing deeply.

Then he looked at her, concern in his troubled blue eyes, ”And I have to go to town, or else he’ll come lookin’ for me here and you, Rosa or Juan might get hurt…. Worse even and I just can’t risk that.”

He put his hat on and pulled it down hard turning to go, but she grabbed his hand and pulled him back towards her, before reaching up and kissing him passionately.

“Keep safe mi amour,” she whispered.

He pulled her into a close embrace and kissed her long and hard, before finally pulling away.

He nodded and left the room quickly without looking back and a few minutes later she heard him and the Sheriff riding out of the yard.


They made it back to town in good time and when they reached the Sheriff’s office Jess was invited in for a coffee.

Al sank down into his chair behind the desk indicating Jess should sit opposite. After pouring him a coffee he took up his own cup and taking a sip he regarded Jess over the rim for a few minutes before saying quietly.

“You came home with Lola to kill Fernandez didn’t you Jess?”

He put his cup down and looked the Sheriff firmly in the eye.

“Yeah, I did,” he said softly. ”But I have to tell you Al, I never have shot a man in cold blood, and I’ve never fired on a man that hasn’t drawn first, and it ain’t gonna be no different with Fernandez.”

The Sheriff nodded the light of admiration in his eyes.

“Yes, I believe you. Mort Corey speaks real highly of you and that’s good enough for me.”

“I guess Fernandez wants me dead as much as I want to see him rot in Hell, so I figure he’ll try and take me pretty soon,” said Jess almost matter of factly.

“Well you should be safe enough tonight anyway. Why don’t you book into the hotel over the road and then we could have supper and a few drinks, you look like a man that could use one,” said Al grinning across at his new buddy.

“You’re not wrong there,” said Jess standing to leave, ”Catch you in about half an hour?”

“Si, I’ll wander down to the livery, need to talk to old Davy there,” and so the two men parted company.

Jess went over the road and booked a room and then went down to the livery, leading the hired horses, but when he arrived there was no sign of old Davy, just a note on the door saying back in 10, so Jess settled down to wait, needing to pay for the horses.

To pass the time he went into the stall of one of the team that had pulled the wagon so faithfully and after giving him some sugar and talking softly to him, he started to groom the beast.

After a while he heard the door open and spun around expecting to see the old timer who owned the stables, but instead his heart missed a beat as he saw Fernandez standing in the open doorway regarding him with a look of deep loathing.

He advanced on the cowboy, the contemptuous look on his face at odds with his fake pretence of affability, played out at the Capello ranch earlier that day.

“So still a big pushover as regards the horses then Harper?” he sneered.

“Yeah, I find some of ‘em one hell of a lot more appealin’ than their owners,” he replied sarcastically.

“Is that so Harper? I presume you are alluding to that little Palomino being more noteworthy than my son then?”

“Well you said it,” replied Jess with a hard look.

Fernandez flushed with anger.

“Shall we take this out the back then boy; I should hate any of your precious horses to be hurt in the crossfire.”

Jess nodded.

“Suits me,” and he left the stall and led the way out of a back door to some waste ground behind the stable and backing off from Fernandez took the gunfighter stance.

The older man fixed him with a steely gaze, ”So I get to kill the bastard that murdered my son at last!” he spat.

Jess’s head shot up, ”Whoa there,” he said, ”What are you talkin’ about Fernandez? I whopped your son for beating a horse, in a fair fight,” and he pushed his hat back a puzzled expression on his face. “Why are you saying I killed him? He sure wasn’t dead the following day when you got four of your men to hold me down while you put the boot in. As far as I remember he was laughing his head off.”

“What you don’t know is that a week or so later he started having fits. I eventually took him to a specialist back east, and he said my boy had bleeding in the brain, due to a severe blow to the head, the blow issued by you! Said it was a 1000 to 1 chance against it happening, but it did happen, it happened to my boy…. And it was all down to you Harper!”

Jess’s eyes narrowed and he shook his head.

“Oh no…… no you don’t Fernandez, you can’t lay that at my door, it was a fair fight and I had no way of knowing that would happen, sure I didn’t want him dead, iffen he died it was an accident pure and simple.”

“It doesn’t matter what you wanted, the results the same my son is dead.”

Then Jess suddenly felt furious, “Yeah, but I didn’t mean to kill him! So what about you Fernandez, you beat up an innocent young girl and had her killed deliberately didn’t you?“

When he didn’t answer Jess yelled again, “Didn’t you!”

“Si, yes I did and I’d do it again. It was me Harper, me that shot the horse from under her, me that watched her die in agony and I’m glad…..” he spat.

Jess had to stop himself from just gunning the man down there and then, at that revelation. He felt the blood pounding in his ears and thought fleetingly that he might chuck up. He swore under his breath and took several deep breaths to calm himself before replying.

“That’s it then,” he said menacingly quietly, his eyes blazing with fury, ”I guess there ain’t no more to say is there you bastard, let’s get this over with, just draw iffen yer gonna.”

The older man was starting to sweat profusely, but his eyes never left Jess’s, and his hand hovered above his gun for another minute or so, nothing to be heard but his breath coming in harsh gasps, and then he finally went for his gun.

Jess had drawn and shot him through the heart before Fernandez’s gun had barely cleared its holster and a look of astonishment flickered across his face for a spit second before he crashed to the ground, dead.

Then Jess saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and recognised the Sheriff and his Deputy standing in the shadows close by watching the events unfold.

The deputy gave a low whistle, ”Jeez did you ever see anyone so dadgum fast?” he said turning to his boss in awe.

However the Sheriff ignored the comment.

“Check on him Sam,” he merely said before going over to Jess.

“You OK?”

Jess nodded, tipping his hat back and running a hand across his perspiring face.

“Is he dead Sam?”

“Sure is Sheriff, very.”

“I heard it all,” said Al turning back to Jess, ”his confession to murdering Chiquita and so if you hadn’t shot him , mi amigo, I would have had him at the end of a rope…the end is the same, he is dead and now maybe the town will be a better place for us all.”

“Yeah, well he got his comeuppance,” said Jess quietly, never one to gloat over a death, no matter what the circumstances.

Al could see Jess was shaken and slapped him lightly on the back,” Come my friend, let’s get you that drink,” he said softly, and leaving his deputy to take care of the body, he walked Jess over to the Saloon.

Chapter 7

News sure travelled fast thought Jess as they entered the saloon and were greeted with a round of applause and several whistles and people stamping their feet all signifying thetown folk’s delight at the demise of Luca Fernandez. Jess accepted a couple of drinks on the house before retiring to a quiet table with the Sheriff.

Al took a sip of his whiskey and giving Jess a questioning look said, ”So what are your plans now amigo?“

It was the question Jess had been dreading from Lola and indeed he still didn’t have an answer.

He looked over at the kindly, interested face of the Sheriff and said, ”I dunno really. I guess I’ll stay awhile, help Lola settle in. Do some work on the place, looks like it could use it, there are some fences down and stuff,” he finished lamely.

“Si, a lot of work for one, I think Juan would be glad of your help with that,” replied the Sheriff.

Then more quietly, ”Lola too I imagine.”

Jess just nodded and sank his whiskey in one, grimacing as the fiery liquid hit the back of his throat, ”Another?“

The Sheriff nodded thanks.

When Jess returned to the table, with a bottle Al said, ”So you and Lola, you’ve known each other awhile then?”

“Yeah, since she was a little girl,” Jess replied with a smile. ”She was Chiquita’s funny little sister, a cute kid,” he said reflectively, ”but I didn’t see that much of her; spent all my time with her sister. I hadn’t seen her for years, until she landed at the ranch a few weeks back. But you were at school together you said?”

“Si, I was a couple of years older, we were childhood sweethearts when she was about thirteen and I was fifteen, then my father moved us away,” he said sadly.

Jess smiled inwardly figuring it hadn’t taken the twelve year old Lola long to get over her crush on him.

The time wore on and they became increasingly mellow, and as the evening drew to a close and the barkeep looked like shutting, Jess said he thought he’d go to his room and turn in.

“So you are still staying at the hotel my friend?” asked Al, giving him an enquiring look. “You are not going back to the Capello ranch tonight, now Fernandez can be of no threat?”

Jess shook his head, ”No guess I’m kinda beat, I’ll go back tomorrow.”

“Lola will be worrying, no?”

“I guess, women always worry,” he said dryly, ”but I reckon she figures I can look out for myself she won’t be frettin’ that much, besides none of us thought he’d strike this dang soon.”

The Sheriff agreed, then he ducked his head and said, ”I guess it’s none of my business… but you and Lola are you…. well are you together, I mean are you lovers Jess?”

Jess threw back his drink and gave the Sheriff a hard look, ”No you’re right it ain’t any of your business,” he said quietly.

Al immediately gave him an apologetic look.

“Hell, I’m sorry amigo, that was tactless of me, you are right it is not my business.”

Then flushing a little, ”I guess it’s the drink talking.”

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile, “That’s OK, I just don’t discuss my women, it’s kinda private, yer know?”

“Sure, si, I understand, come we have one for the road and then I walk you back to your hotel, si?“

“Si, gracias Al,” Jess said with a genuine smile, feeling amused that both he and Al had suddenly reverted to the Sheriff’s native tongue and wondered if that was drink related too.

“De nada,” Al said with a cheeky grin, glad his new friend had not taken offense.

The following morning Jess woke up with a thick head and after several cups of coffee in the hotel dining room he made his way slowly over to the Sheriff’s office. As he still needed to fill in the paper work regarding the shoot-out with Fernandez.

When he entered the Sheriff looked in a similar condition and the couple exchanged a rueful smile before getting down to the business of the paperwork surrounding the Mexican’s demise.

Once that was all finished Jess rose to go, and tipping his hat back he reached out a hand and said, ”Thanks fer all your help Al, I appreciate it, not to mention the drinks,” he said with a grim smile.

“You are welcome, Jess and…..err I am sorry about last night. I guess I was out of order asking about you and Lola, but she was very important to me once ……….. and still is I think.”

Jess just nodded, feeling a sudden stab of jealousy, ”Yeah, I understand, to me too buddy and I won’t do anything to harm her you know that don’t ya?“

The Sheriff nodded, “Si I do.”

As he drove the wagon back towards the Capello ranch the Sheriff’s words echoed in his brain and he wondered exactly what his intentions were.

Then as he continued his journey, he felt an almost overpowering need to see her, realizing that last night had been the first time in weeks that he had not fallen asleep with her in his arms.

He looked down and closed his eyes, “Garl darn it I can’t leave her,” he whispered to himself.

If it meant leaving his family and everything he loved in Laramie, then so be it. He couldn’t help himself, he had to stay, passion had taken over all rational thinking.

Then considering it, he knew he had already made the decision when he had wired Slim earlier that morning saying he had arrived safely, Fernandez had been dispatched and.....…. he would be writing. Why hadn’t he just said, and he would be on his way home shortly?

Now as he urged the team on towards the ranch he knew exactly why, because he couldn’t bear to leave her, he was totally obsessed and knew he couldn’t leave Lola if he wanted to.

He reined the team in, parking the wagon in the ranch yard before jumping down, expecting Lola to run out to meet him, but there was no sign of her, Rosa or Juan either.

He walked briskly towards the door and that was when he heard it.

A spine chilling scream, followed by another and another, and Jess tore inside the ranch house and looked desperately around him.

Then the sound came again, along with a sudden crash and then a man cussing long and loud.

Jess followed the sounds and running lightly up the stairs burst into Lola’s room and the sight that met his eyes stunned him.

Lola was lying on the floor in a pool of blood and Jake, from the Jackson gang, was standing over her a look of lust mixed with anger on his cruel face.

“What in Hell are yer playin’ at?” yelled Jess marching in. Without waiting for an answer he threw a punch that sent Jake flying across the room to slump down against the wall out cold, such was the force of the single blow.

Jess would normally have continued laying into him, but Lola moaned and stirred and so she took his full attention.

He knelt beside her gathering her in his arms, and holding her close for a moment feeling her heart pounding against his, her breath coming in painful gasps and then he pulled back and surveyed the damage.

She had multiple cuts and bruises to her face and arms and Jake had ripped the front of her dress and now it hung in tatters exposing more bleeding and bruising to her chest.

He just stared in shock, and swallowed deeply trying to prevent the rising nausea and dizziness.

“Lola, sweetheart,” he whispered, ”I’m so sorry.”

Then he felt the anger rising in his chest like bile, and was just about to jump up and deal with Jake when he saw a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. As he turned to look he saw Jake begin to draw his gun, but Jess’s lightning reactions beat him by seconds and he fired one single shot which entered Jake’s chest dead centre, dispatching him to his Maker, instantly.

Jess took a shaky breath and then holstered his gun, before helping Lola up.

“Come on, let’s get you away from here,” he said softly as he took her hand and led her past Jake’s prone body and back downstairs.

He helped her downstairs and then laid her on the couch before moving quickly to the kitchen to fetch some water to clean up the wounds and then he got yet another huge shock.

Rosa and Juan were tied to chairs and gagged, Juan bleeding from a gash to the head, where Jake had overpowered him before trussing the couple up, then going on to his attempted assault on Lola.

Jess quickly cut them free and Rosa was practically hysterical. Then while Juan held her close he was able to say how Jake had arrived saying he was a friend of Jess’s. While Juan and Rosa had been fixing him some coffee in the kitchen he had taken them unawares, knocked Juan out, and then tied them both up before Lola came upon the scene. At the mention of her name Rosa pulled herself together.

“The poor child, I must go to her,” she said quickly, but Jess intervened.

“It’s OK,” he said quickly, ”I’ve got it, why don’t you and Juan make us some coffee with a drop of whiskey while I see to Lola, huh?”

She reluctantly agreed and Juan smiled and nodded at Jess as he left, with a bowl of water and clean rags, instinctively knowing that he wanted to spare Rosa’s feelings at seeing her dear friend in such a state.

When he returned to the living room Lola was lying back on the cushions, stretched out on the couch in front of the fire. Her eyes were closed and she looked deathly pale, the blood and bruising showing starkly against her delicate skin.

However she opened her eyes when Jess came and sat down on the edge of the couch beside her and gave a weak smile.

He gently started cleaning all the cuts and abrasions his eyes bright with unshed tears as he saw the depth of her injuries and the pain she was obviously suffering.

She tried not to flinch as he tended her, but every now and then she gave a little moan of pain and it was like a knife through his heart.

“Lola,” he whispered, “just take it easy I’ll be done soon and then we’ll send for the doctor to check you out properly. He didn’t….. ?“

“No,” she whispered, ”I fought him off, kicked him, and yelled altissimo.”

“I’ll say it sure was loud,” he said with a faint smile, ”could hear yer half way to town.”

Then he could bear it no longer, the way she was being so brave and steadfast and he pulled her into his arms holding her tightly, ”I’m so Goddamn sorry,” he whispered into her hair, ”this was all my fault.”

After a while she pulled back and threw him a puzzled look, ”How can that be? No mi amore, it is not… “

“Sure it is, I knew him didn’t I, knew he was gonna seek me out at some point too, you heard how they said they’d be looking me up, pesterin’ me to ride with them again……… I should never have left you.”

“I know why you had to though,” she said gently, ”you were afraid Fernandez would come here, so did you see him?”

“Oh yeah, I saw him alright,” said Jess bitterly.

“He is mureto?“

“Oh sure,” said Jess,” he’s dead OK.”

Then he saw that she was shaking and covered her tenderly with a blanket before leaving the room quietly.

He went in search of Juan then and asked him if he was well enough to ride for the doctor?

“I can ride out iffen you’re feelin’ too sick,” Jess offered.

“No, no senor Harper, it was but a little knock. I will fetch the doctor and the Sheriff too I think, seeing as there has been a death, si?“

“Si, Juan, thanks.”

After Juan had left, Jess moved the body outside and then Rosa insisted in Lola going to bed until the doctor arrived.

Jess picked her up and carried her upstairs before laying her gently on her bed, but she kept her arms around his neck and gave him a beseeching look, ”Don’t leave me my love,” she whispered.

Then Rosa came in and on taking the scene in, was just about to leave them together when she heard riders approaching.

“That cannot be Juan back already,” she said moving to the window.

Jess followed her and was just in time to see Randy and Pete examining Jake’s body which Jess had slung across the outlaw’s horse, ready to go back to town.

He cussed softly under his breath and then grabbing Rosa by the shoulders looked deeply into her eyes, “When I go out lock the bedroom door behind me and don’t come out until I tell yer, or the Sheriff arrives, understand?” he said.

“Si, senor, but will you be alright who are they?” she gasped.

“Oh just some old friends,” said Jess with bitter irony and then he made for the door, but turned back as he left, ”Lock it, Si?”

She nodded, but when Lola called out to protest, he ignored her and ran through the door closing it firmly behind him.

When he went out to the porch, Randy’s head shot up from where he’d been looking in horror at his dead brother and as soon as he saw Jess his countenance hardened, his eyes narrowing.

“So what’s been goin’ on here then Harper,” he spat, ”I thought we were buddies did you play any part in this boy, because iffen you did….”and he glared at Jess his fists balled.

When Jess didn’t answer immediately he shouted, ”Well tell me then, how’d my kid brother end up dead?”

Jess had about as much as he could take, first his set to with Fernandez and then coming home to this, his woman beaten and bloody, yes the Harper temper had been sorely tried and now he finally let rip.

“Well sure I’ll tell yer how he ended up dead!” he spat.

“See he upped and attacked an innocent young woman; beat her black and blue Randy. Then he tried to force her and iffen I hadn’t happened along when I did, I guess he’d have had his way. So I flung the bastard off of her and knocked him out cold and then as soon as he came around he tried to draw on me……… back shoot me.”

All the time he’d been speaking his eyes had been flashing with anger, and now he advanced on Randy, his fists balled and his manner hostile, ”So call me kinda picky, but I don’t like the notion of being gunned down in cold blood. So I drew on him…..… and I was a mite faster, and that’s how he ended up dead. So now Randy do yer want to make something of it or are you gonna ride out nice and peaceful?”

Before Randy could answer they heard riders approaching at speed and Jess recognised the Sheriff and Juan and the doctor riding towards them, off in the distance.

As soon as Randy saw it was the Sheriff with the group, he and Pete leapt back up on their mounts and started to move off in the opposite direction at speed.

“You’ll keep Harper,” he spat, ”just watch yer back,” and with that the two men shot off in a whirl of dust.

“Sure I will,” muttered Jess laconically, and then turned to welcome the riders coming in fast.

By the time they reined in, both Pete and Randy were just a dust cloud on the horizon, but Jess didn’t give a damn, all he wanted to do was get back to his girl.

The young doctor hastened to see his patient while the Sheriff turned a questioning gaze at the corpse and the men disappearing off into the distance.

“So you got something to tell me then Jess?” he asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.

Then he took another look at the dead man.

“Well I’ll be, this is one of the Jackson gang my friend. And them, the others?” he asked nodding towards the horizon.

Jess just nodded and went on to explain exactly what had happened.

“What are you, a one man crusade to clean up the borders?” Al asked grinning.

Then when Jess didn’t reply he continued, “There’s a Bounty on this hombre Jess and more on the others,” he said thoughtfully, as the men had disappeared from view now.

Almost as if Jess had read his mind he too looked off into the distance, “Oh don’t worry about them,” he said quietly, “they’ll be back, they’re gunning for me see.”

“So,” said Al, “ever considered a career in the law then Jess, I’m always looking for good deputies.”

Jess just grinned at him and went off to see how Juan and Rosa were after the recent trauma, not to mention Lola.

As it happened Rosa was in a very bad way, and Jess found her and Juan in the kitchen, Rosa weeping and Juan trying to comfort her.

Jess came across and said gently, ”Maybe you should take Rosa home to your quarters,” referring to their Casita (small house) at the back of the ranch.

“Si senor, the doctor has given me some medicine to help calm her, but she is refusing, says her place is here with her mistress.”

Jess shook his head and then taking the elderly woman’s hand said softly, ”Listen Rosa, you must do as the doctor says, go and rest and take Juan with you. I will stay and look after Miss Lola, she’ll come to no harm with me to look out for her, you know that don’t you?”

“Si senor,” she said quickly, ”but….. “

“No buts,” he said firmly, ”see I need you feeling strong and fit to look after her for me…. I may need to take off, sort out some business in the next day or two. So you see I’m kinda relying on you to look out for her……….. but not right now, you need to rest Rosa.”

She nodded and finally capitulated,” Si, you are right senor, I will do as you say,” and she allowed Juan to lead her away.

Shortly afterwards the young doctor entered and after shaking hands and introducing himself, he took the chair Jess had offered him and sat down to talk.

“So how is she doc?” Jess asked, his concern plainly obvious.

“Well, I don’t usually disclose patient’s details to anyone other than kin, but in your case Senor Harper she has said she is happy for you to be included.”

Then he looked serious, ”Her injuries are not life threatening, but she has received a very severe beating, multiple abrasions over the whole body, severe bruising to the chest and abdomen and….. cracked ribs from where he kicked her.”

At this Jess shot out of his chair and thrusting his hands in his pockets went and stood looking out of the window and from his stance, the doctor could see he was struggling with his emotions and gave him some time.

After a few minutes Jess turned back, his eyes glittering and his breathing erratic.

“Sorry about that,” he gulped, ”I’m just kinda…….” and he threw himself down in his chair again and stared at the floor unable to finish.

“Si, si senor of course, and were it my girl I would be equally troubled, it is only natural…. But she will be alright. She is strong, a fighter no?” he said with a small smile.

“Oh sure she’s feisty enough,” agreed Jess, taking a liking to this approachable young man.

“I will leave her some medicine for the pain,” he said getting up and offering Jess a bottle before turning to go.

Then he turned back, “What she needs right now is the loving care of a good man, and I think she has that senor, no?”

Jess grinned at him now, ”You bet.”

As they left the ranch Al came over, ”I’ll take the body back, do the paper work and let you have the Bounty in due course,” he said.

Jess’s head shot up at that, ”Hell I don’t want the goddamn bounty Al,” he said angrily.

The Sheriff took this outburst in his stride, knowing how upset the dark haired young cowboy was feeling.

“How is she?” he asked anxiously.

“Well, I guess she’ll be OK,” Jess said gruffly, then nodding to the corpse, ”no thanks to that bastard.”

“Um, so what about the others mi amigo, they will be back for you, you think, you say they are gunning for you?”

Jess considered that.

“No I guess not for a few days, I figure it put the wind up ‘em seeing you ride in. I figure they’ll lie low for awhile and as soon as I’m sure Lola’s OK I’ll ride out after them.”

“I would call up a posse, but we have no jurisdiction over them here. They are wanted over the border, here they are free men. That man being different,” he said glaring at Jake’s body, ”as he has perpetrated a crime here in Mexico, by attacking Lola.”

Jess saw how angry the Sheriff was at Lola’s attack and remembered how he said they had been teenage sweethearts.

“Yeah, I know,” said Jess gruffly, ”but iffen I take ‘em on the other side of the border I figure the law will back me…. and anyways they’re gunning for me, I can protect myself I reckon, no matter what your ‘jurisdiction’ has to say about it.”

“Si, of course Jess, but I don’t think you should invite trouble, you stay here where you are safe, no?“

“Sorry no can do Al, see they’re bound to get me fer shooting old Jake there,” he said tipping his hat towards the corpse, ”and I figure if I don’t go after them, they’ll fetch back up here sooner or later and I can’t put Lola in danger again.”

The Sherriff couldn’t argue with that and the last thing he wanted was for Lola to be hurt again.

“Si, well you know where I am,” he said as he mounted up, “and please give Lola my….. my love, and I hope she will soon be well,” and with that he rode off, leaving Jess staring after him, an unfathomable expression in his deep blue eyes.


The house was empty now with Juan and Rosa back at their own place, in the grounds, and so Jess made his way quietly upstairs and pausing by Lola’s door he tapped lightly before entering.

She gave him a loving smile as he walked in.

“You are alright mi amor,” she whispered, ”the men have gone Rosa said?”

“Si, long gone, don’t worry about them,” he said sinking down on the edge of the bed and leaning over, fondly placing a lock of hair behind her ear.

“So how are you feeling?” he asked softly.

She reached up and took his hand and held it, ”Better for you being here,” she said softly, “don’t leave me…. don’t leave me tonight will you Jess?”

“Sure of course I won’t leave you,” he said smiling, ”it’s gettin’ kinda late though I’d better turn in, you need anything?“

“Just you,” she whispered.


“I mean stay in here with me,” she said simply.

Jess looked surprised, “What about your reputation with Rosa?” he said with a faint smile.

Then, he sobered, “I kinda figured you wouldn’t want male company after what you’ve just been through anyway,” he said softly.

“I don’t,” she whispered, ”just you Jess, you saved my life, I feel safe with you and I can’t be alone tonight…….I just can’t and Rosa will understand, she knows how I feel about you.”

Jess looked down, thoughts chasing around in his brain like rats in a barrel. He had decided, albeit maybe unconsciously, that as soon as he’d finished off his business with the Jacksons’ he’d be riding out. Now thinking on it he realized that his decision had been made the moment he cast his eyes on Lola’s poor battered body that day.

He couldn’t risk anything else happening to her, hell the Jacksons were just the tip of the iceberg, there’ d be others after a piece of him, wanting him to ride with them, wanting to hire his fast gun, or even worse wanting to settle a score with him.

This was the last place he should be he thought suddenly, with every outlaw he had ever known probably frequenting the area at some time or another. Seeking sanctuary over the border and most of them unaware that he had changed, moved on… was no longer one of them.

How long would it take for the word to get around, that Jess Harper gunslinger, had sold out and was now a respectable citizen? Way too long he figured and who would get hurt, killed maybe, in the meantime? He didn’t dare imagine as he looked back into Lola’s questioning beautiful brown eyes.


How could he lie with her, when he knew he was going to break her heart by leaving, and then looking down into her beautiful expectant face his heart melted, how could he not?

In the end he decided to compromise and later that night he joined her in her big comfortable bed and held her close whispering words of love and comfort, but made no attempt to make love to her.

He was awake at first light and looked down at Lola’s sleeping face, the bruising to her cheek now a livid purple and one eye blacked, but she still looked beautiful to him and it took all his willpower not to wake her with a kiss and make sweet love to her.

Instead he slipped out of bed, pulling the blanket tenderly around her before dressing and leaving the room quietly.

When he entered the kitchen he was surprised to see Rosa already lighting the cook stove.

She turned and threw Jess a welcoming smile, ”How is she this morning?” she asked softly.

Jess flushed a little at the acceptance that he had spent the night with Lola, and would therefore know, but then when he looked into the kindly eyes of the housekeeper he saw no judgement there, and so relaxing he collapsed down into a kitchen chair and answered honestly.

“Not too sure, she’s still asleep.”

Then he sighed deeply, ”The bruising looks worse, but she slept OK, I figure she’ll bounce back in a day or two, and then she’ll be able to get on with her life here,” he said casting the elderly woman a hopeful look.

“And you Senor Harper?”


“Will you be getting on with your life…. And if so………. here or back at your home in Wyoming?”

He stared at her in shock, but just ducked his head declining to answer.

Then she came forwards and touched his arm gently so he felt forced to look her in the eyes.

“I apologise Senor Harper, I am not normally so forward, but I care about Lola. I love her, I don’t wish to see her hurt, you understand?”

He nodded after a moment and gave her his slow smile, and said gently, ”So do I Rosa, and believe me, when we have come to a decision you will be the first to know, but me and Lola have some talkin’ to do first, you see?”

She nodded, ”Si I understand, Senor Harper.”

He leaned across and squeezed her old hand, ”And it’s Jess, Ma’am.”

“Si, Jess,” she said, totally enchanted by the handsome young man and hoping dearly that he would be staying around to care for her beloved Lola.

When Lola awoke later that morning she initially panicked when she found her bed was empty and then she heard Jess laughing with Juan out in the yard and she relaxed back, just knowing he was in shouting distance giving her immense comfort.

She lay there thinking about him and wondering why he hadn’t made love to her the previous night, and then thought he was probably just being kind, knowing that she was in pain after the severe beating she had received. Just having him holding her in his warm embrace and whispering softly to her had been enough. Now though she longed for him and for a moment wished they were back on the trail together, with nobody to answer to but themselves and she sighed deeply before falling back to sleep.

When she awoke again he was sitting on the edge of the bed looking down at her. The sun had shifted and she figured it was late afternoon.

“Hey sleepy head,” he said softly, ”how are yer feelin’?“

“OK, I thought I’d get up maybe?”

“Uh uh, I don’t think so, I reckon Miss Rosa would read me the riot act iffen I was to let you up yet.”

She sighed and then taking his hand looked deeply into his twinkling blue eyes, ”We are alright aren’t we querido?”

He merely nodded, refusing to meet her eye.

“Look Lola, I’m gonna have to ride out tomorrow, first thing, I’ve got some business I need to attend to.”

She sat up in bed suddenly looking anxious, ”It is those men is it not, the friends of the one who attacked me, no?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” hesaid finally, knowing that he couldn’t lie to her.

“Jess, please… no, let it go.”

“I would if I could,” he said earnestly, ”but they want their revenge on me fer killin’ Jake and they won’t be happy until they get it.”

“Oh Jess, why go chasing them, just leave it, anything could happen, they may get caught by the law.”

He shook his head, ”Not them, too darn smart, and I have to go Lola; else they’ll be comin’ back here. I can’t let that happen, you must see, you, Rosa and Juan, you’d all be in danger, just the way it was with Fernandez.”

Then she finally broke down crying and Jess put a comforting arm around her, but this only made his resolve to leave firmer. He couldn’t put her through this on a regular basis and he knew that. At some stage he must tell her that, but not yet, no not just yet he thought as he caressed her hair and whispered softly to her.

Later that evening she was in a lot of pain from her cracked ribs and the medicine Jess administered made her sleep deeply throughout the night, so he slept in his own room, waking at dawn ready to ride out and find the remains of the Jackson Gang.

Before he rode out he looked in on her but she was still sleeping deeply so he didn’t disturb her, just walked softly over to the bed and leaning down kissed her tenderly on the forehead. Then he looked down at her for a long time, before finally turning on his heel and leaving the room riding out a little later.

Chapter 8

He rode hard all morning heading for the border knowing the places they would be likely to hole up. There were two main areas he remembered. Either the dense woodlands on the Mexican side of the border or the caves just across the Rio Grande on the American side. Knowing the way Randy’s mind worked he figured he’d be on the American side right now, keeping the Mexican Sheriff at arm’s length.

He rode along until he reached the river and was gratified to see that the levels had dropped considerably since he and Lola had crossed it just a few days earlier.

He made it across with no trouble and then figured the best way to find Randy and Pete was to merely advertise his presence so he rode up to the rocky cliffs where the secret caves were and set up camp. He made sure he lit a fire with lots of green foliage, so the smoke could be seen far and wide and figured the men would see it shortly and come and investigate. All he had to do was settle down and wait.

He hunkered down by the fire and sipping his coffee waited and thought about Lola. He remembered her as she was as a little girl, how she was always cheeking him and running off giggling.

Then how she had admitted who she was, and revealed Chiquita’s sad demise when they were alone together back at the ranch, and the deceitful way she had schemed to get him to join her on her crusade to get her revenge on Fernandez, by feigned affection. That love song he remembered, but then he also remembered the look in her eyes too and maybe it wasn’t quite as false as he had first thought, maybe she was beginning to have feelings for him even then.

And then how she had finally really fallen for him on their their journey to Mexico, when they had become inseparable lovers. He remembered every passionate second they had spent together and the thought that it now had to finally end, filled him with pain and anguish. But he knew he had no choice, he couldn’t go on putting her at risk like this he thought sadly as he looked deep into the fire.

He was so busy brooding that it was a few minutes before he was aware of a rider approaching and he leapt up, his rifle in his hand within seconds of him hearing the horse advancing. The rider reined in, his arms raised in mock surrender and a cheeky grin splitting his face.

Jess looked up into the face of the sandy haired cheerful Deputy, Sam Buckle.

He lowered the rifle and grinned back, ”What in Hell are you doin’ here Sam?” he said in welcome, ”I nearly blasted yer thinkin’ you were one of those low life Jacksons.”

The deputy slid down from the saddle and went over and shook Jess’s hand.

“Well I’ll tell you friend, the Sheriff and I rode over to Capello’s place to check on Miss Lola and she was in a bad way. Real upset about you ridin’ out after the Jacksons, so the boss asked if I’d ride over and even up the odds some, if that’s OK with you.“

“More than OK,” said Jess beaming at him, ”glad to have you aboard.”

But then he sobered, ”Lola, she’s OK ain’t she, not any sicker?”

“Heck no, just real worried about you ‘tis all. You know women mi amigo; they’re forever frettin’ about something.”

“Ain’t they just,” agreed Jess.

“Anyway, the boss is looking out for her,” Sam said, and being ignorant of Jess and Lola’s close relationship, continued, ”I reckon ol’ Al is kinda sweet on her you know.”

Jess felt that familiar stab of jealousy, ”You do, do you?” he said quietly.

“Sure,” said the younger man, ”can always tell when the boss has gotten a pretty girl on his mind.”

Then he grew bored with the subject, ”So any sign of them yet Jess?“

“Nah, been holed up here a few hours now. I figure iffen they’d seen the smoke they’d have come over to take a look-see. I reckon we need to go through the canyon to the caves over the other side, must have spooked them more than we thought,” he said grinning at the deputy.

“Ok so let’s go look,” said Sam cheerfully, ”I reckon a nice ride through the country beats sitting at a desk looking at wanted posters all the day long!”

Jess chuckled, ”I figure there should be somethin’ a bit more to bein’ a deputy than that?”

“Aw not the way old Al has got the town sewn up. Folks are real law abiding and now Fernandez has gone, well it will be a positive pleasure working there,” he said clapping Jess warmly on the back.

“What about all the outlaw element that’s about ?”asked Jess, knowing he had been recognised by a couple of renegades last time he was in town and just waiting for them to call on him.

“Well they tend to keep to themselves, cause no trouble and are usually just passing through. It’s real frustrating but they are free this side of the border. I guess they’re learning real quick that Sheriff Rodriguez don’t take to them cluttering up his town though, no siree, he’s real different to the last Sheriff.”

“Oh yeah,” said Jess bitterly, ”I had dealings with the last Sheriff.”

“Um, well word is gradually getting around he is dead and Al runs a very different town.”

All the time they had been talking they had been riding towards the deep canyon and now as the trail narrowed they rode on in single file, urging their mounts up the steep rocky trail.

And then it happened. A barrage of shots were fired at them in quick succession and both men threw themselves from their mounts and dived for cover behind some rocks. However the fire continued from above and they were like sitting ducks.

Jess got Sam’s attention, ”You keep ‘em busy Sam and I’ll make a dash for the rocks yonder and hope one of ‘em breaks cover to get a good shot, as soon as they show themselves try and get a shot in OK?”

But before Sam could say ‘wasn’t that kinda risky’ Jess had broken cover and was sprinting for the refuge of some more rocks, several yards away.

Just as he predicted as soon as he was out in the open, ducking and diving Randy stood up straight aiming his rifle at Jess forgetting about the other marksman still behind the rocky outcrop.

As soon as Randy showed himself Sam aimed and his shot was straight and true, hitting him just to the right of his chest and he fell several feet down from the ledge, to sprawl in the dirt below, lying completely still.

“One down one to go,” said Sam softly to himself.

Then as he looked back up he was just in time to see the other man, Pete pop his head up and peer down at where his brother had fallen and Jess took the opportunity to fire and caught him square in the chest and like his brother he teetered for a moment before falling headlong down to the bottom of the rocks.

That was when Jess made his fatal mistake he broke cover and started walking over to where both men lay, assuming them to be dead, but still keeping a wary eye on them as he approached and then for a split second he looked away and over to where Sam was advancing. In that moment Randy managed to drag himself up from his prone position and using his last ounce of energy he pulled the trigger before collapsing down dead.

Sam looked up in shock at the gunshot and then in horror as he saw Jess fall from the bullet as it slammed through his shoulder, sending him reeling backwards before he fell lying deathly still.

He ran over and gently felt for a pulse and although Jess was intensely pale and looked to be hardly breathing he did have a faint pulse.

The young deputy breathed a sigh of relief and went and checked on the two dead men before returning with his canteen and a clean rag and wiped Jess’s face with the cool water.

After a few minutes Jess groaned and his eyes flickered open, ”What happened ?”he whispered.

“The tall lanky bastard wasn’t done for, managed to shoot you just before he croaked.”

Jess gave a grim smile and sat up to survey the corpses, ”I guess Randy got his revenge in the end,” and then he started coughing and gasping in pain fell back down again.

Sam gently unbuttoned Jess’s shirt and surveyed the damage and then carefully hauled him to a sitting position to check his back, before giving his friend a weak smile.

“At least the bullet went straight through,” he said gently, ”guess you’ll live, mi amigo.”

Jess nodded, ”Had worse, can you clean it up and then we’d better get these bodies over to the Sheriff in Laredo iffen you want your Bounty that is?” he asked squinting up at the deputy.

Sam had been present when Jess made his angry outburst saying he didn’t want any part of the Bounty on Jake, so the young deputy wasn’t sure what to say at first.

Jess put his head on one side and threw him a quizzical look, “Well you want it don’t yer?”

Sam sighed and then said, “I could sure use it Jess, it’s a powerful lotta money and I’m fixing to get me hitched next year, could sure do with it, should be fifty, fifty anyways as we shot one apiece.”

“Sure,” drawled Jess , then thoughtfully, ”I guess Lola could do with a stake to get goin’ again, so yeah we’ll collect the bounty.”

However once the wound was cleaned and bandaged it was obvious Jess was not fit to go on the long ride over to the American town of Laredo where they would have to go to claim the bounty, then ride all the way back to Mexico.

He was pale and shaking and had suffered quite severe blood loss, making him feel weak and dizzy.

“Look Jess I figure I’d better take you back to town,” said Sam.

“No,” said Jess firmly a stubborn look in his eyes, ”you take ‘em in Sam, keep the bounty, I really don’t mind and I’ll take my time and ride back to Mexico.”

“You’ll be OK?“

“Sure, sure I will, told yer didn’t I, had worse, just need ter take it kinda slow is all.”

The deputy nodded and then grinned at his new friend, ”OK, but on one condition, you get half the bounty like we said, OK?”

Jess was feeling too beat to argue, ”OK,” he said weakly and shortly afterwards the couple parted company, with Sam agreeing to call in on the Capello ranch once the business was completed.

Jess made it back to the river crossing by late afternoon, but then he ran out of energy and looking up at the sky he saw storm clouds gathering too. The distant rumble of thunder made him decide to camp for the night in the lee of some standing pines that would afford him some shelter.

He looked up at the storm clouds as they rushed towards him and he was instantly back in Wyoming with Slim, watching a storm advance and he suddenly felt so bereft. He was missing his family so dang much it was like a blow to the belly and he winced. He had to get home, no matter how much he cared for Lola, he knew in his heart the affair had to be over for her sake. Now that decision was made he couldn’t wait to leave, but first he had to survive these next difficult few days.

He just managed to light a fire and get the coffee on before the heavens opened and there was a deluge, with thunder crashing above him and sheet lightning illuminating the surrounding area. After he had drunk his coffee, he lay down and covering himself with his rain slicker fell into a restless sleep, the storm crashing away overhead, the pines affording him some cover at least.

He awoke at dawn shivering and feeling sick, and then he put a hand to his chest and felt the whole of his shirt drenched in sticky blood from the deep shoulder wound.

He cussed and pulled himself upright and eventually managed to peel off his shirt and survey the damage. The thick bandage Sam had applied was completely sodden and it was plain to see that the wound had bled copiously throughout the night.

Jess painstakingly removed the soiled dressings and applied clean ones, binding it as tightly as he was able before getting shakily to his feet , where he stood swaying for a while before making for his mount.

She was a sturdy little bay and reminded him of Traveler a little and he fondled her nose and fed her a sugar lump before finally steeling himself to throw the saddle in place.

Just that effort nearly floored him and he leaned heavily against the animal before attempting to mount.

He finally managed to gain his seat and then leaning down he caressed the horse’s neck.

“I sure hope you know your way home,” he whispered, ”because I dunno iffen I’m gonna stay with you all the way.”

The tough little horse seemed to understand his dilemma and took off walking carefully and giving him a smooth , easy ride.

They crossed the river safely enough and Jess was just rejoicing at having made it over without getting a soaking, when the heavens opened yet again and he was soon wet through and started shivering uncontrollably.

It was several hours later that he finally reached the turn off for the Capello ranch, and he had been slipping in and out of consciousness for the latter part of the journey, but as he had hoped the strong little bay knew her way home.

It was late afternoon when she finally trotted into the yard and almost immediately the ranch house door flew open and Lola ran out closely followed by Juan.

She stood stock still and gasped in horror at what she saw. Jess semi-conscious leaning across the horse’s neck, the blood again staining his shirt and even as she watched, he finally relinquished his hold on the saddle horn and slid slowly and gracefully from the horse in a dead faint.

However Juan was suddenly there and caught him before he hit the ground and he and Lola managed to half carry him into the house and lay him on the couch.

Once he was lying down, his injuries were clear and Juan immediately set off for the doctor. Meanwhile Lola and Rosa stripped him of his shirt and the bloody bandages and re dressed the wound as well as they could.

Then Rosa went to prepare a bed, leaving Lola watching over him.

She tenderly washed his brow with cold water and she continued doing so for quite some time before eventually his eyes flickered open and he tried hard to focus.

He was burning up with fever and looked around the room in fear, not recognizing where he was, and finally called out for Slim and Daisy.

Lola felt terrible, ”Jess, Jess…….. it’s me Lola, you are in Mexico with me… you remember?” but he just stared at her with unseeing eyes , before passing out again.

Then the young doctor burst in through the door and took in the situation as once.

“He has lost way too much blood,” he said, once he had examined his patient.

“I need to sew up that wound and then you must get some fluids into him to replace all that he has lost.”

Then he looked at Lola, ”I have to be honest, he’s not in a good place right now, it will take careful nursing and patience to see him through, can you manage that?”

Lola and Rosa answered in unison, ”Si,” and then Juan was there too.

“Whatever it takes doctor,“ he said with spirit.

So the good doctor administered anesthetic and sewed him up very neatly before applying a clean dressing and then finally instructed the women folk as to his patient’s immediate care.

“I’ll be back in a day or so,” he said cheerfully ,as he finally left late that night, ”just keep him warm, in bed and give plenty of fluids.”

Of course that was easier said than done as Rosa and Lola were shortly to find out, never having run the gauntlet of nursing Jess before.

Had they been able to ask Slim or Daisy they would have been immediately acquainted with Jess’s challenging behaviour as far as injury and bed rest were concerned, but as it was they had to learn the hard way.

The following morning he was a little better and refused the milk and egg Rosa offered him and said he was in need of a good strong coffee. That was just the beginning of the battles that were to follow over the next few days with Jess gravitating from downright awkwardness to making light of his frailty and insisting in getting up and starting work.

However when he got as far as the bedroom door before collapsing he finally saw sense and started behaving himself.

Lola sat at his bedside doing some mending and keeping him company.

“I’d no idea you were such a handful, ”she said with a little giggle.

“Oh yeah,” said Jess with a wink, ”you just have to ask Daisy.”

”I’m going to have to try and tame you then senor,” she said with mock severity.

Jess grinned back, ”Yeah well, I guess more than a few have tried that, but nobody’s managed it yet.”

“We’ll see about that,” she said before going off to get him his medicine.

Jess sighed deeply, knowing this scene of domestic bliss couldn’t go on. He had to break it to her that he was riding out as soon as he was well enough and sooner rather than later he thought miserably.

It was a couple of days later before he found the right time to speak to her and now he knew that the discussion was long overdue.

Juan and Rosa had got it into their heads to throw a party for Lola’s return, so that she could reacquaint herself with all her friends and neighbours.

To Juan’s mind that was a good thing that would foster a spirit of cooperation amongst her fellow ranchers as it had been in the old days. From Rosa’s perspective it would give Lola a chance to relax into her old home, and what she desperately hoped would be Jess’s too, it being the perfect time to announce their engagement she secretly thought.

If Lola was sharing those same thoughts she said nothing, but simply told Jess how much she was looking forward to the event.

He was feeling better now and they were sitting by the fire in the large sitting room. They had found themselves on their own in the house for the first time since he had returned from the shoot-out with the Jacksons a couple of days earlier.

He had his arm in a sling to protect the stitches in his shoulder and was also still in some pain, but that was nothing to his mental state as he wondered how to broach the subject of his leaving.

He was staring deeply into the fire a muscle in his cheek twitching the only sign of the stress he was currently feeling.

“So we’ll be having it in the big barn, like in the old days,” she said smiling across at Jess. ”There will be music and dancing, I will sing with my old friends from the band and Rosa and Juan will make wonderful food, you will enjoy yes?”

“Sure,” he said softly,” I’ll enjoy.”

Then she looked more closely at him, ”Jess what’s the matter? I know you have been sick, but you have been treating me like your sister lately and you look so, so worried, what’s wrong mi amore, (my darling), what is it?” she asked looking anxious.

He looked down and finally forced himself to look into her beautiful eyes that were so full of concern.

“I’m sorry,” he said finally, “there is no easy way to say this……. Lola, I have to go home….. I can’t stay here with you,” then looking at her and seeing the pain in her eyes, whispered, ”I’m truly sorry, sweetheart.”

Her eyes widened in shock and she gave a little gasp ,”No…. oh mi amor….. please no!“

She seemed deeply shocked and sat there rocking slightly a hand to her mouth, and then after the initial shock came the anger.

She jumped up from where she had been sitting next to him on the couch and was suddenly blazing mad and turning on him she cussed long and loud in her own language ,before covering her face with her hands and weeping frantically.

He leapt up and put his good arm around her, now all her anger was spent and she clung to him, before turning her tear stained face up to him.

“Why?” she whispered.

He just shook his head, “I’m sorry,” he said again, ”I just can’t do it sweetheart.”

“Do what I don’t understand,” she cried, searching his face.

He sighed deeply, ”What happened to you…. with Jake…. “

“Yes? “

“It was my fault, all my fault and it could happen again …. Anytime, when I’m off working on the ranch someplace, you just ain’t safe as long as I’m around.”

Then he went on to explain about the men who would be seeking him out to rent his fast gun, or worse still to have revenge on him for some past deed.

“It’ll be just the same way as it was with Chiquita and Fernandez, don’t you see?” he cried, ”They’ll try and get their own back on me through you. Have you forgotten what Fernandez did to your sister?”

“It will be alright, you’ll keep me safe,” she replied desperately.

“Like I did Chiquita?” he asked bitterly.

She looked down and didn’t answer.

He just shook his head sadly, “No, I can’t risk it, I’m going as soon as I can sit a horse and that’s an end to it,” he said firmly.

“It’s this place you see,” he said gently seeing how forlorn she looked, ”all the lowlife in creation seem to gather at the border crossing. I just never thought about it until we ran into the Jacksons, no it just ain’t safe here for us, to be together that is.”

Then he looked deeply into her eyes, ”The only way would be for you to come back to Laramie with me.”

Lola just shook her head and fled from the room crying and Jess swore softly under his breath, knowing there was nothing he could say or do to comfort her. Maybe it would be easier for her if she ended up hating him, anger being less painful than a broken heart he thought morosely.

But Lola just couldn’t do that and the following day she forgave him.

“I don’t want you to go,” she whispered, ”but if that is what you feel you must do…. Well, I can’t spend our last days together mad at you and I can’t leave my home land again either Jess. I just can’t leave so please don’t ask me” and then she held him close, crying once more, but slowly beginning to accept the situation.

The party in the barn was set for that Friday and Lola begged him to stay for that at least and he agreed, knowing he couldn’t deny her that last request.

The day of the party dawned warm and bright and everyone worked hard to transform the barn into a fairy-tale venue. There were long tables covered with snowy white cloths bearing all Lola and Rosa’s home cooking along with beer and cider to wash it all down with.

The men folk had cleaned the barn and set straw bales around as seats and cleared the central area for dancing, with a small raised stage knocked up out of planks and orange boxes at the rear for the band and singers. Finally lanterns had been scattered around hanging from the beams and casting a romantic glow over the proceedings.

Jess had finally been able to remove his sling and despite Lola’s nagging helped Juan with the preparations saying he was absolutely fine now.

In fact Lola knew he was pretty much healed and had accepted he would commence his return journey the following day, but she refused to think of that and put all her energy into the preparations for the party.

Shortly after dusk the first guests started arriving and before too long the old barn was heaving with good natured friends and neighbours enjoying the repast and company. Then the band struck up and there was dancing and laughter. As the evening progressed so the atmosphere became more and more high-spirited with the band playing lively music and then the singers were much in demand as the exhausted revellers took a rest.

Jess was surprised and pleased to see how popular Lola’s singing was. Then he remembered that not too long ago she had made her living by singing and wondered vaguely if she would ever do so again, knowing that she had been disinclined to perform since Carlos’s untimely demise.

It was towards the end of the evening when she again took centre stage and accompanying herself on the guitar said that this last song was for a very special friend of hers and looked over to where Jess stood chatting to Sheriff Rodriguez and his deputy Sam.

Al slapped Jess on the back and there was plenty of good humored teasing from the amassed company, until Lola struck the first haunting notes of her song and the audience were hushed immediately looking on in anticipation.

“This is called Adios mi Amante Adios mi Amigo.” (Goodbye my Lover Goodbye my Friend), she said softly.

Then she strummed the guitar and her beautiful sweet voice rose and everyone was transfixed as the melodic notes rose and fell and the words resonated around the barn.

Goodbye my Lover, Goodbye my Friend

“You touched my heart, you touched my soul,

You changed my life and all my dreams,

I’ve kissed your lips and held you close,

Shared your time and shared your thoughts,

Goodbye my lover,

Goodbye my friend,

You have been the one,

You have been the only one for me.

I’ve seen you cry and seen you smile,

Even watched you sleeping for awhile,

I’d be the mother of your child, if you would have me,

I’d spend my lifetime with you, if you would trust me,

Goodbye my lover,

Goodbye my friend,

You have been the one,

You have been the only one for me.

I am a dreamer and when I awake,

I see that it’s my dreams you take,

And as you move on…… remember me,

Remember us and all we used to be……

Throughout the whole song she had locked eyes with Jess and as she sang the last line a single tear ran down her face and she bowed her head.

There was a split second of amazed silence and then tumultuous applause.

After a moment she ran from the stage, leaving by a side door, as the band struck up once more and everyone took their places back on the dance floor.

Jess fought his way through the crowds and out into the blessedly cool outdoors and looked around him. As the moonlight suddenly came from behind a cloud and illuminated the yard he saw her leaning against the corral fence and looking out to the distant hills.

Jess strode over and stood beside her, looking out to the horizon and then after a while he said softly, ”Did you mean all that…… what you sang, about bein’ the mother of my child an’ all?”

She turned to look at him then, ”I wrote it for you,” she said quietly.

He nodded, ”And about me takin’ your dreams?”

She nodded, “It feels that way right now si.”

He shook his head in sorrow, “Is there no way we can make this work Lola?” he asked softly.

She was silent for a long time and when she turned to him the tears were again streaming down her face.

“No, I think not. We are both proud independent people, and both too stubborn, maybe it would not work anyway no matter how much we love each other.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he whispered.

Then he gave her the ghost of a smile, “Come and have the last dance with me?“

She nodded and they wandered back to the barn hand in hand. Then he held her close as the soft romantic music enveloped them. He inhaled her heady perfume, her heart beating next to his own and felt like he never wanted to let her go.

Finally the evening was over and the ‘goodbyes’ and ‘thanks’, said as all the guests left. Eventually Juan and Rosa retired leaving Jess and Lola sitting by the fire having a final nightcap.

Jess had been staring deeply into the embers and after a while he turned to look at Lola who was curled up beside him and thought she had never looked lovelier. Her low cut scarlet gown making her so desirable and he felt an ache of longing, wanting her so darn much he felt almost dizzy with desire. However he swallowed hard and tried to compose his thoughts, knowing he needed to talk about her future.

“You know that song,” he said after a minute, ”the line about changing life and dreams and such, well sometimes maybe it’s kinda good to have a fresh start, like new goals you know?”

She looked puzzled, “No I don’t, what are you talking about Jess?”

“Well, it’s just an idea that Al gave me tonight.”

She hid a little smile at the Sheriff’s name, ”So what does Al think I should do?” she asked, her eyes teasing.

He smiled back, ”Well we were both sayin’ as how really talented you are, with your singing and guitar playin’ and all…”

“Go on,” she said a hint of interest in her eyes now.

“Well he was sayin’ that the café next door to his office is up fer grabs. He reckoned what with Miss Rosa’s cookin’ and your singing, well you could make a real go of the place.”

Her head shot up at that, ”Oh, he did, did he?”

“Yeah, he did… and he’s a good man Lola, if you moved into town he’d look out for you.”

She just nodded at that, but made no comment.

“So what do you think?”

She was silent for a long time.

Then she gave him her slow smile, ”It’s a good idea. I think I like it, but I could never afford it. These places change hands really quickly, by the time I’d got the ranch on the market, the café would be sold.”

He shook his head, ”That’s where you’re wrong, because you’ve got the cash already.”

“I have,” she said chuckling now, ”so how do you make that out?“

“Because I gave the cost price, and then some, to Juan earlier tonight to keep safe for you.”

“What,” she gasped in shock, “where did you get that sort of money from Jess? Have you been robbing a bank when I wasn’t looking?” she asked with a twinkle.

“No I ain’t,” said Jess hotly, before registering the joke, ”if you must know old Al gave it me tonight, the Bounty off, of the Jacksons.”

Her mouth dropped open in shock, but then she rallied, ”Jess I can’t take your money.”

“Sure you can, I don’t like Bounty money, you know that. I’ve taken some out for gifts for the folk back home and my Stage and Railroad fare and the rest is yours….…. Iffen you want it?” he said suddenly shy.

She beamed at him then, ”It’s perfect, of course I want it… my very own business,” she gasped in delight.

Then turning mischievous eyes to him, ”I reckon if I can’t have you cowboy, that’s the next best thing!”

He grinned at her pleased to see her spirits were lifted again and all he wanted, he decided, was for her to be safe and happy. So maybe this was the solution, but he was also aware that she was just being brave for him and her apparent light-hearted banter was really hiding much deeper feelings.

“You’re bein’ real brave about all this,” he said softly.

She sighed, looking back into the fire before turning and taking his hand in hers, ”I don’t have any choice do I?…. And I want you to remember me as a strong woman…… not as, how you say a clucky little woman, who is always fussing and worrying, no I can go on without you Jess, I will survive by myself…….”

”I’m sure you will,” he said gently.

“But not tonight my love, tonight you stay with me one last time si?”

He gave her a slow smile and reaching over kissed her very tenderly, “Si,” he whispered, ”I was kinda hoping you’d say that.”


He rode out early the following morning and never had anything been so difficult. Every fiber of his being wanting to stay with her, just as Lola had hoped; thinking the night of passion they had just shared must surely make him change his mind.

When she awoke he was still asleep and she propped herself up on her elbow and watched him sleeping, looking incredibly young and innocent, although he was far from that she thought with a knowing little smile. She watched the gentle rise and fall of his naked chest and then looked up at the unbelievably long dark lashes, the gentle curve of his cheek and then down to the firm, but sensual mouth and couldn’t resist leaning over and waking him with a kiss.

He returned the gentle pressure and gave a soft groan of pleasure and his arms seemed to wrap around her even before he was fully awake. But then his lashes finally fluttered and she could see a hint of deep blue as his eyes opened a little and he squinted up at her, ”Lola?” he whispered.

She smiled down at him and then the smile faded and she said, ”Don’t go Jess, after last night you can’t leave me…. you love me, I know you do…. You couldn’t be that way and not love me…….”

Jess pushed her very gently back and sitting up looked at her with deeply troubled eyes.

“You have to understand,” he said very softly, ”it’s because I love you that I have to go Lola, you know that.”

“I don’t care,” she cried, ”I don’t care what happens to me, just stay……”

“I can’t…. I can’t do that…., I’m sorry.”

She refused to dress and see him off and so he had to leave her, lying with her back to him refusing to even say goodbye.

And so he prepared to ride out, borrowing the little bay that Juan had saddled for him

“Just leave her at the livery in town, when you catch the Stage, and I will collect her tomorrow Senor Harper,” he said kindly.

Jess nodded in thanks, and shook the elderly man’s hand, ”Look after her for me will yer Juan,” he said softly.

“Everything will be OK once I go she’ll be in no danger. When she moves to town the Sheriff will keep an eye on her, be real close by once she starts the business….. she’ll be fine,” he finished, desperately trying to convince himself as he spoke.

“Si Senor, I understand why you must go, and yes Sheriff Al is a good man and a good friend to this family. I think also, he will look out for us, never fear,” and he nodded in farewell before turning sadly back into the stable.

Jess sighed deeply and turned his mount towards town and he was nearly out of the ranch gate when he heard her call and reining in, he twisted in the saddle and looked back.

Lola was tearing across the yard, barefooted and still in her nightgown and seeing her Jess flung himself down from his horse and running back opened his arms and she ran to him, throwing herself into his warm embrace.

“My love,” she whispered in her own tongue, ”I am so sorry, I wish you a safe journey. I am a silly emotional woman, it is right that you go, we agreed did we not?”

Jess gave her the ghost of a smile, “You ain’t silly, ‘tis hard for us both, real hard, but I figure it is the right thing.”

Then he looked into her beautiful brown eyes one last time.

“Come here,” he whispered and drawing her close, kissed her very deeply before finally pulling back and running a finger lightly down her cheek.

“Adios,” he whispered and with one last look, jumped back on his horse and rode away, stopping just as he crested the hill, to give her one last little salute before kicking his mount off at a brisk trot.


He arrived back at the ranch one afternoon feeling exhausted and desperately in need of some of Daisy’s tender loving care and he really didn’t mind how clucky she was. He realized he had missed his family dreadfully and although all thoughts of Lola made him desperately sad, so badly was he missing her, he knew in his heart he had done the right thing.

He had to keep her safe he knew that, and also knew that there had been a grain of truth in what she had said about them both being fiercely independent and stubborn people. He now thought that it may have been a passionate and loving union, but it would doubtless have been a very volatile one too. Might have been kinda fun all the same though, he thought forlornly, as he watched the countryside rushing past.

However the closer he got to home the more his spirits rose and he couldn’t wait to see everyone, put the last few weeks behind him and move on with his life.

Even the dire weather conditions couldn’t dampen his spirits as the Stage made its way down the muddy track towards home. Jess had opted to sit inside, instead of up on the box with Mose blaming the inclement weather, although in reality he didn’t want to be quizzed about his recent adventures by the old timer.

“Hell, Mose don’t it ever stop rainin’ in these parts, almost summer and it’s still dang well flooding,” he had muttered.

The old coach driver just shook his head, ”River’s up again,” he’d replied morosely, before clicking the team off at a steady trot towards the Ranch and Relay.

As Mose reined the horses in Slim tore out of the ranch house closely followed by Daisy and young Mike. The moment Jess swung down from the Stage he was enveloped by his surrogate family, with Slim grinning at him and pumping his hand, “Welcome home pard,” he said warmly.

Then he made way for Daisy, who kissed his cheek and lovingly pushed the wayward lock of black hair from his forehead in a reassuringly familiar gesture and giving him her sweet smile.

And then Mike was there jumping up and down in his excitement and Jess picked him up and held him in a tight bear hug , before placing him back down, and looking around the yard.

“Jeez, it’s good to be home,” he whispered, suddenly feeling a huge lump in his throat.

Then Mose came over asking iffen he was expected to change the team on his own or what, and the emotional moment passed.

However Slim noticed his buddy’s reaction and figured that he might be in need of a listening ear. But then Jess dived off to see Traveler and seemed happy enough and so it wasn’t until much later that Slim decided to have a chat sensing Jess was troubled about something.

That evening after supper Jess had given out his presents, a large bottle of locally made Mexican tequila for Slim.

“That’s the proper deal ya know buddy,” he laughed as he passed the large bottle over, “its anejo!”


“Vintage Slim, blow your head off,” he whispered aside, away from Daisy and Mike’s hearing, and grinned as Slim’s face lit up and he put the bottle quickly down by his chair away from Daisy’s eagle eye.

“Thanks Jess,” he said sincerely, ”but gee you shouldn’t have spent your cash, it doesn’t come cheap, that stuff.”

“That’s OK,” said Jess softly, ”kinda had a little windfall.”


“Tell you later,” he said as he passed Daisy’s present over.

She opened the carefully packaged, soft squidgy parcel and as she drew the paper aside her eyes opened wide in surprise and pleasure, as a beautifully handmade black lace Spanish shawl fell out into her hands.

“Oh my,” she whispered in awe, then turning to the young cowboy, “Oh Jess it is exquisite, thank you so much dear,” and jumping up from her chair by the fire threw her arms around him and kissed his cheek.

“Well I just had a notion to spoil you all a bit,” he said softly and then turning to the youngest member of the family who was happily hunkered down by the fire watching the lively events with sparkling eyes, he threw him another brightly wrapped parcel.

The boy tore it open in delight and then sat transfixed as he stared at the contents, a beautifully tooled Spanish leather belt with a sheath for his hunting knife.

He looked up in wonder at his hero, ”Gosh thanks Jess,” he whispered before whooping with joy and running off to fetch his knife.

“Oh my dear, you have been so generous,” said Daisy softly as she went to turn in later that night.” But the very best present is having you home. We were beginning to think you’d been tempted to stay back down south,” she said with a twinkle in her eye as she disappeared off to her room.

Once she had gone Slim picked up the bottle and gestured to Jess with raised eyebrows.

“I guess we could try a small glass,” his buddy agreed, grinning across and going to fetch a couple of shot glasses.

Once they were comfortably seated by the fire with their drinks Slim glanced across and said, ”So were you?”


“Tempted to stay, with the lovely Lola?” he asked with a questioning eyebrow.

Jess stared deeply into the fire for awhile and then after sipping his drink looked back at Slim and said softly, ”You know…… I guess I was.”

Slim’s head shot up, all thought of teasing banter forgotten.

“For real, you really meant to give up the ranch and move down there?”

“Um… yeah I guess for awhile,” then he turned anguished eyes on Slim.

“Hell pard it wasn’t something I took lightly, but me and Lola we got…. Well we got real close,” his head dipped and then he turned to look his friend in the eyes, ”I’m in love with her Slim, was thinkin’ of making a go of it.”

Slim sighed deeply, ”But you’re not going to?”

“No, I’m not.”

There was a long pause before Slim said softly, ”So why not, if you love her?”

“Because I was scared”

“Huh… you scared, Hell Jess what of, the commitment?”

“Nah… well a bit I guess, but that wasn’t it,” and then he went on to explain all about his run in with the Jacksons and how they wanted Jess to ride with them again.

“And it wasn’t just them either Slim. The whole goddamn area is a magnet for outlaws, and most of ‘em wantin’ a part of me. As soon as word got around that I was back in Mexico, folk wanted to hire my gun, wanted me to ride with them or worse had a score to settle.”

Slim just shook his head sadly, ”Well that’s the life you left behind back there, you can’t expect folk to know you’ve changed.”

“I know Slim, but I was worried that Lola would be hurt before I had time to convince folks,” and then he explained what had happened about Jake attacking her.

Slim gave a low whistle, “Hell Jess what did you do?”

“What do you think?”

Slim shook his head, ”Killed him? So are you in trouble back there?“

“No, no. it was all legit, he drew on me tried to back shoot me…”

“So, in the end you were scared for Lola, that’s why you rode out?”

Jess nodded…”And something else too, if I’m really honest.”


“Well……. those guys they can be very persuasive. I was real scared I’d get drawn in again it’s so easy to make a fast buck… I dunno Slim I was just so shit scared I’d turn bad again.”

Slim took this on board and then shook his head, “Absolutely no way pard. You’ve suffered too much, tried too hard, to ever go back to that again and you know it …..don’t you?”

Jess considered this for a moment and then a broad grin split his face, ”Yeah, now you say it like that I guess you’re right…. Maybe I just had to hear you say it though Slim……..thanks.”

Slim smiled back at him and after recharging their glasses, said softly, ”Jeez it’s good to have you back home pard,” and raising his glass said, “To homecoming.”

“Homecoming!” said Jess sincerely and they knocked back their drinks both men now completely at peace with the world.

The End

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