#26 Acts of Faith

Acts of Faith


Patty Wilkinson

Chapter 1

(Some strong language, violence and adult themes)

Jess Harper lay looking up at the starry sky, his head resting on his upturned saddle and his thoughts of those at home back at the ranch as he settled down for the night beside his campfire.

It seemed a long time since he had seen his best friend and business partner Slim Sherman. He had been over to Boulder delivering a batch of lively mustangs and now almost two weeks later he was finally within a day’s ride of the ranch and relay station he couldn’t wait to get home.

He hated leaving, old ‘Hardrock’, as he affectionately called Slim, with all the work. However Mike Williams their young Ward was growing up fast and was a real good help on the ranch now. He was currently home for the long summer school holiday and Jess knew he would have been pitching in and doing his share.

Jess smiled to himself as he remembered how Mike had landed at the ranch one cold stormy night after he had been picked up from the road side by a troupe of Japanese performers. Once it was established that his parents had died in an Indian massacre, and he had no surviving kin, the two ranchers had decided to adopt him.

Now as Jess stretched out breathing in the cool night air, he thought back to those early days and figured it was a smart move taking the boy on as he had turned out real well and now he held a very special place in all their hearts.

Hell iffen it hadn’t been for the fact that they needed a housekeeper to help tend the child, they would never have hooked up with Mrs Daisy Cooper, housekeeper extraordinaire and surrogate Ma to them all.

Daisy might be past the first bloom of youth he thought well to be honest she was probably pushin’ sixty he reckoned, although he would never dare ask. But heck she could sure run rings around her three ‘adopted sons’! She kept them all on their toes that was fer sure. But there again, iffen you were beat up, shot, sick… or just plain troubled, well it was Daisy you wanted on side and she was always there for them. He remembered all the times she had looked after him, Hell practically brought him back from the dead, and more than once, bless her.

Then his thoughts ran to his best girl, Millie from the Saloon, and his face clouded a little at the remembrance of their last meeting, when he had felt in his heart that there was something very wrong, but she had denied it.

Jess and Millie went way back to their childhood on the Texas panhandle and they had been best friends since those early days. They had met up every few years until she had landed in Laramie just a few months after Jess joined the Sherman ranch and relay. Since then they had seen a lot of each other. In fact if they were not dating anyone else then they could usually be found together and had enjoyed a very open, but strong relationship.

Over the years they had become very close, but always agreed not to get too serious because they both felt that if something went wrong, if they broke up… .well then their friendship would end too and neither of them could countenance the idea of that.

However just last Thanksgiving their relationship had moved on to another level at Jess’s instigation and now Millie had agreed to definitely consider that one day they would make a life together. Both of them had been incredibly happy and were now seeing each other exclusively.

But then something had happened and over the last couple of weeks, before he rode out with the mustangs, she had somehow changed and become quite aloof.

He thought about their last meeting a frown on his handsome features as he recalled that evening in the Saloon.

He had wandered over to where she was serving behind the bar and grinning said, ”Hi gorgeous, how are you doin?”

“Oh Jess, I err… I wasn’t expecting you tonight, “she said with a faint frown.

His head shot up at the less than welcoming response, ”Well sorry, didn’t think I had to make an appointment.”

She just threw him a cool glance at that, ”Beer?”

He nodded and accepting the drink took a long pull and then casting her a questioning look said, “Someone ruffled your feathers then honey?”

“No, why do you ask?”

“Oh nuthin’,” he replied, and she had marched off down the bar to attend to another customer.

Then much later as the bar had begun to clear she had come back to him and he had bought her a drink and said softly, “So…..would you like some company later?” he asked, throwing her his cheeky grin.

Then, to his complete surprise she shook her head, ”I guess not Jess, I’m kinda tired tonight.”

He just stared at her for a moment, totally stunned, never having been knocked back by her before.

“Are you OK?”

“Sure… just tired like I said.”

“Millie, have I done somethin’, you’ve been kinda funny for awhile now… .and I……”

“Jess will you just leave it!”

“OK,” he said quietly after a moment, “you get an early night then sweetheart, see you Saturday?”

“I guess so…“

He had leaned over the bar and given her a gentle kiss on the lips, but she had drawn back after a moment and only briefly met his puzzled gaze.

“Night then,” and he’d taken himself off to sleep in the livery hay loft, feeling deeply hurt.

The following Saturday when he had ridden into town for their usual date he entered the bar to find Lily and old Tom the barkeep on duty and no sign of Millie.

He ordered a beer and took a drink before turning to smile at Tom and said, “Millie makin’ herself beautiful then?”


“For our date Tom, I’m takin’ Millie dancin’ she said you’d okayed the time off, said so a couple of weeks back,” he said his expressive eyebrows raised in question.

Then Tom looked down embarrassed, “I’m sorry son, she ain’t here.”

Jess looked shocked, ”Ain’t here, well where in Hell is she then Tom?”

“She’s gone to Cheyenne to visit her Ma.”

Jess knew her Ma ran a boarding house over there and that Millie visited occasionally to help out, but if that was so why hadn’t she told him when he’d been in a few days earlier?

“Well, she might have told me!”

“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger Jess.”

“I’m sorry,” he said after a moment, ”but Tom is she OK? She’s seemed… .well a bit funny with me of late, kinda distant you know?”

“OK as far as I know son, just said she was goin’ to see her Ma, kind of a last minute decision I guess.”

“Um, so will yer tell her goodbye from me? Say I‘ll be seeing her in a couple of weeks, I’ll be away sellin’ those green broke mustangs….”

Now thinking back to that miserable night he just couldn’t wait to see her and try to make everything alright between them again.

He racked his brains to try and think of something he might have done to upset her, but could think of nothing and eventually muttering, “women!” under his breath, he finally fell into a restless sleep.


He was up at first light and arrived in town by ten o’clock and made his way straight to the Laramie bank to deposit the Mustanging money that had been burning a hole in his pocket, always feeling uncomfortable when carrying such a large amount. He had held some cash back however as he decided to shout Millie lunch at the café.

So a little later he swung into the Laramie saloon and found the place empty as it was still quite early. After a moment Tom came out of the back room and stopped in his tracks when he saw Jess, but recovered quickly and pinning a friendly smile on his face said, ”Welcome home Jess, good trip?”

“Sure, went real well thanks Tom, made a good profit on the critters. I was wondering iffen you could spare Millie for an hour or so at lunchtime, I’d kinda like to treat her to a slap up meal, celebrate ya know.”

“Oh… err … “

Jess ignored his hesitation and simply grinning across said, ”So can I see her for a minute?“

There was an embarrassed silence and then he said quietly, “Sorry son she ain’t here.”

Jess’s heart sank.

“What, well where is she now, not still in Cheyenne?” he said with an outraged look.

“Err… yes, yes that’s it with her Ma, helping out you know…” he finished refusing to meet Jess’s irritated gaze.

“Well when will she be back for goodness sake?”

“I couldn’t really say Jess.”

“What’s goin’ on Tom?” he asked now beginning to sound annoyed.

“Nuthin’ son, she’s just helpin’ her Ma like I said, now I’ve got work to do,” and he scuttled into the back room leaving Jess fuming. He strode out and leaping up onto Traveler he high tailed it out of town at an angry gallop.

Tom came back into the bar followed by Millie and he turned reproachful eyes on her.

“I don’t know what this is all about girl, but I sure don’t like havin’ to lie to a good friend like Jess Harper. He’s goin’ to be real mad when he finds out… and trust me Millie he will.”

She just looked down and flushed, but said nothing, before turning away and making her way slowly up to her room.

When Jess landed home later that morning Slim marched out of the barn to meet him and shook his hand as he slipped down from his mount.

“Gee, it’s good to have you back Jess, good trip?“

“Sure and made a killin’ on those ornery beasts too, got top dollar on ‘em Slim!”

“Good man, well they were sure worth it pard considering the amount of time you spent breaking them, not to mention all those spills you took,” he said chuckling.

“Yeah, I reckon it works out at about a dollar a bruise,” Jess said grinning ruefully across at his partner, all his hurt and anger over Millie forgotten for a moment at the pleasure of being home again.

Then as he led Traveler to the barn he cast a glance over to the ranch house, “So where’s the reception committee then?”

“Well I’ll tell you. Mike’s over at Bobby’s house for the weekend,” he said referring to Mike’s best friend, ”and I guess Daisy’s caught up with her visitor.”

“Oh right she’s got one of her old friends stayin’ has she,” he asked smiling indulgently, ”sort of Ma’s meetin’?”

“Um, well not really Jess, see this friend is real young, about our age I guess and a real stunner.”

“Really?” asked Jess his face brightening

“Yeah, and I saw her first…. and anyways you’re spoken for,” he said laughing and Jess felt a stab of pain in his heart at the thought of Millie. What the hell was the girl playin’ at he thought?

However, the following events were about to put Millie completely from his mind, for a little while at least.

The two men entered the ranch, laughing at a shared joke and Jess threw his hat on the hook by the door and turning to greet their guest, stopped in his tracks, a look of deep shock on his handsome features.

The young woman had been standing by the fireplace chatting animatedly to Daisy, but she turned as the two men entered and then Slim came forwards to introduce her.

“Tessa, this is my business partner and best friend Jess Harper.” But as Slim looked from his friend to the beautiful woman he was surprised at the expression on her face. One of shock, hell no almost astonishment, and then he dashed forwards to catch her as she fell in a dead faint.

Slim carried her to the old leather couch under the window and laid her gently down while Daisy dashed off to get some water and Jess still stood as if rooted to the spot staring at the woman as though he had seen a ghost.

When Daisy came back and started bathing the girl’s pale perspiring face Slim turned to look at Jess and noted he was looking pretty similar.

“Well pard,” he whispered with a faint smile, ”I’ve seen you have a pretty profound effect on the ladies, but never anything quite like this…. so you know each other?“

Jess stared at Slim as if seeing him for the first time and then shaking his head to clear it, said softly, ”Yeah, I guess we’ve met.”

Jess came forwards and peered down at the still unconscious woman. He noted the dark, almost black, short curly hair, cropped close to her head, enhancing her delicate elfin features. Her pale skin, almost translucent giving her a look of vulnerability, her frame so slender, looking almost fragile. Then finally her eyes flickered open and she turned those huge dark blue, beautiful eyes on Jess and said, “But you’re dead Jess…….”

He gave her a faint smile and hunkering down beside the couch he took her hand and said softly, “Well I guess I ain’t Tessa,” and he squeezed her hand gently to prove it, all the while gazing into those deep blue eyes he remembered so well……….


It had been so long since he had seen Tessa Martin, Nurse Tessa Martin, but it seemed like just yesterday.

It was the end of the war and he’d been rotting in prison camp for several months watching his brothers in arms die all around him. Through starvation, through neglect and through deliberate acts of violence, as he lay in a hospital bed, more dead than alive, lying in filth, his wounds left to fester in dirty maggot infested dressings.

He was finally liberated, after the war ended and was sent to a civilian hospital. The Matron took one look at him and had sighed deeply. Turning to the young rookie nurse, at her side she had said, “I think the best you can do for this one is to clean him up and make him comfortable nurse Martin, I doubt he’ll last the night,” and she had marched off to deal with a more hopeful case.

Then Nurse Tessa Martin had looked down at her patient and their eyes had locked and for her, at least, it had been love at first sight.

However as far as Jess was concerned, he just didn’t care anymore. He’d finally decided to give in. If the Good Lord don’t want me the Devil will he thought to himself, but anyway, I’ve sure had enough of living.

Then he looked up at the tiny fragile looking youngster wearing a nurse’s uniform that seemed far too big for her. Like a little girl playing at dressing up, and croaked, ”Don’t bother sweetheart, guess it ain’t worth the trouble, just let me go, huh?”

But she had shaken her head a look of determination in those beautiful eyes.

“Oh no soldier you’re not getting off that easily. You’re not going to die while I’m looking after you, so you’d better just get used to the idea,”

Then very gently she’d begun to cut away the filthy stinking rags he was wearing and the putrid dressings on his chest wound and started the long painful job of cleaning him up.

It wasn’t an easy road, getting Jess back to the land of the living and then nursing him to full health. In fact it was probably the hardest road either of them had ever travelled. But Jess’s stubbornness was equalled only by Nurse Martin’s or Tessa as he came to know her. Eventually the tide turned and he gradually began to recover, until that tremendous day when he was signed off as fit………

Then his reverie came to an abrupt halt as Daisy fussed around with a sweet cup of coffee and Tessa tried to laugh off her embarrassing episode. But Jess could tell she was still really dazed and he noticed how her hand shook as she took her drink. Also how she kept continually flicking a surreptitious glance in his direction, as though she could barely believe her eyes.

Daisy bustled Tessa off to lie down for awhile and then the usual ranch work took up the rest of the day and it wasn’t until much later, after supper, that Jess spoke to her properly again.

She was looking better and Jess said softly, ”So what are you doing out here Tessa?”

“Well dear Daisy and I are old friends. She trained me when I entered nursing and we’ve kept in touch by letter ever since. Now she has been kindness itself as I am in need of her support,” she said smiling fondly at the older lady.

But then the conversation finished as Daisy said she was going to turn in and raised her eyebrows to Tessa, ”Are you coming dear, you still look rather shaken.”

“I’m fine now Daisy but I’ll be with you in a minute,” she said softly.

Daisy gave Jess a quick glance and then smiling sweetly said, “Of course I’ll see you later,” and went off to the room they were sharing, after giving Slim a little jerk of her head, gesturing that maybe he should leave the couple alone.

Once Slim had retired for the night Jess went over and sat down on the couch beside Tessa. He took her hand and said softly, “I’m sure sorry you had such a shock, but why did you think I was dead?”

Her head shot up ”The newspaper report of course, I read how you’d been shot down just weeks after you rode out, Jess I grieved for you … I thought I might go mad I missed you so much.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, ”so… so sorry, I’d no idea. I didn’t even know that had been written until years later.”

He remembered back to that terrible situation he had been in, shortly after he had left Tessa.

“Leaving you it was… well real hard you know,” he said softly…………

Once he had been signed off from the hospital the couple couldn’t bear to be parted as they had fallen deeply in love. So Jess had moved into her rooms in a house near to the hospital and found work nearby at a livery stable. But then their idyllic romance had come to an abrupt end. One of Tessa’s alleged friends came to Jess and told him unless he moved on then she would inform the Matron that he and Tessa were co habiting and that would mean instant dismissal.

Back in those days even married women were not allowed to work as nurses and one who was living in ‘sin’ as it was then thought of, would lose her job instantly. Jess tried long and hard to negotiate with this Lizzie, but she was adamant, saying that she was only acting in her friend’s best interest. He even thought of telling Tessa, but he knew she would throw in the work she so loved, for him and he just couldn’t let her do that. Not until he had a decent job and could provide for her and then he would ask for her hand.

He explained this to Tessa, with no mention of the blackmail and they made their tearful farewells. Jess promised to return as soon as he could offer her a good life and home, saying he would return within the year to take her away with him.

It was shortly after he left that he became embroiled in helping the Sheriff of Denver catch a gang of Texas outlaws who Jess knew slightly from his days on the panhandle. He had been able to infiltrate the group and killed one and two others were captured. However Jess was badly injured and the doc thought he wouldn’t make it. It was while he was so sick that the two remaining members of the gang, who had escaped, swore retribution on the young cowboy. That was when the Sheriff gave out the news that Jess had died, to put his potential killers off the scent, but he never mentioned what he had done to Jess. He just made sure it was headline news…but by the time Jess had recovered it was old news and he never found out about it.

It had been several weeks later that a colleague of Tessa’s saw the newspaper when she was visiting her parents who lived near Denver and recognised the picture as Jess, saying he had perished in a shoot-out whilst riding posse with the Sheriff. Then when she returned to the hospital down in Texas she had the difficult task of breaking the sad news to Tessa.

Jess and Tessa sat on the couch exchanging their stories, both of them amazed at the way things had occurred.

“I still don’t understand why that Lizzie was so doggone mean,” he said now staring into her beautiful eyes, ”She really would have gotten you fired if I hadn’t ridden out when I did and I just couldn’t tell you, would have been the end of your career and I know how much you loved nursing.”

Tessa shook her head sadly, ”Good old fashioned jealousy Jess,” she said sadly, “she wanted you for herself.”

“What,” he said in amazement, “you’re kiddin’ me!”

She shook her head, ”Didn’t you notice the way she flirted with you outrageously?”

He just shook his head looking bewildered.

Then after a while she looked down and said quietly, ”So…. so why did you never come back for me, if you weren’t dead Jess,” then with a catch in her voice, ”Why?”

He squeezed her hand, “Oh sweetheart I did.”

“You did?”

He nodded, ”I didn’t make out too good, everywhere I tried to settle down get a decent job, my reputation as a fast gun seemed to follow me around, get me in trouble. Then I was really stupid, figured that I could make some money for a stake for us by …. … .well by using my gun, selling out to the highest bidder.”

“Oh Jess…..”

“Yeah, yeah I know pretty dumb eh, but I wasn’t thinkin’ straight. I just needed some hard cash so you could give up work and I could set us up, buy a small spread, just liked we’d talked about.”


“And then I just got myself in deeper and deeper……in trouble with the law. Seemed like everything was going wrong, I even had a spell in prison… well that sure made me think… helped straighten me out some. That’s when I decided I had to come back, explain everything. Tell you I was gonna try again, ask you to wait for me.”

“But Jess I never saw you, what happened?”

“I got as far as the hospital, that little café just over the road and figured I’d wait for you there watch out for you coming off duty.”

“Go on…”

“Well all the staff, used to go there and it was pretty full and so I shared a table with a couple of young nurses. Rookies I guess, didn’t know them anyways nor them me, so it was kinda funny when they started talkin’ about you.”


“Yeah, I figured I’d enjoy teasin’ you about it later. Tellin’ you what the youngsters thought of you, you know?”

Tessa just nodded.

“Well they were sayin’ as how you’d just been promoted to Sister. Youngest in the hospital one said……”

“She’s so good at her job I sure hope I can be as good a nurse as Sister Martin,” the other girl said.

“Yes me too, and I reckon she’ll make Matron one day, everyone does.”

“Well she’s the sort of Matron I’d work under any day,” the nurse said sincerely.

“Um, and you know what she told me just yesterday when I got so upset about that young boy dying?”


“She said that there was no better job in the world. It was her life and she loved every second, even the bad times. ‘Always remember nurse, you save more lives than you lose, and even when you lose a patient, your being there has made that passing easier, never forget that….’”

Then the nurses had started gossiping about their boyfriends and Jess had got up abruptly and left.

Now he looked deeply into her eyes.

“I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t see you because I knew you might have been tempted to give it all up for me. I just couldn’t let you, I wasn’t worth it Tessa…… so I rode out without seeing you.”

She was silent for a long time and then he saw a tear rolling down her cheek, “Oh Jess,” was all she could say.

“Look honey it was all a long time ago, don’t go gettin’ upset, come on, why don’t you turn in?” he said quickly hating to see her cry.

She nodded, remembering what he was like.

“Yes, you’re right, Daisy will be wondering where I am,” and she stood up and walked over to the bedroom door.

“Goodnight,” she whispered, “Oh and Jess………”


“I would have given it all up if I’d seen you that day………no question about that,” and she turned and went sadly into her room leaving Jess staring after her.

Shortly afterwards he entered his shared room with Slim and was surprised to see the tall blond rancher lying on his bed, hands laced behind his head, still wide awake and looking none too pleased.

He sighed deeply and then cast Jess something of an irritated look,” So you and Tessa have history then?”

“Sort of…..”

“Well what’s that supposed to mean?” he said sitting up and now openly glaring at Jess.

The dark haired cowboy collapsed down on his own bed and said gruffly, ”Just leave it will yer Slim, I’m kinda beat, had a long ride yer know?”

Slim looked over and immediately felt guilty, “Sorry pard, it’s just me and Tessa have hit it off real well…. and then you land back…. “

Jess just shook his head, ”Sorry didn’t mean ter cramp your style.”

“That’s Ok you haven’t anyway you’ve got Millie. So did you call in and see her when you paid the money in?”

Jess looked over, the anguish now clearly visible in his expressive deep blue eyes.

“Nope, she weren’t there … still in Cheyenne Tom said. “

“That’s crazy of course she’s there why I…..” and then he stopped wondering what Millie was playing at.

“Go on,” said Jess suddenly alert and staring hard at his buddy….” You….? “

Slim sighed, ”I saw her yesterday, last night, she sure didn’t say anything about Cheyenne.”

Jess just gaped at him for a full minute and then whispered almost to himself, “What in hell’s gotten into the girl?”

Then he looked at his buddy with pleading eyes, “Did she mention me, say anything?”

“Nope not really, was real quiet, I said you’d be landing home sometime soon…. “

Jess sighed, ”I’m going into town first thing, gotta get this sorted Slim, I’ve got a bad feelin’…..real bad.”


True to his word Jess was up at first light and rode out before breakfast.

It was still quite early when he landed in Laramie, but he banged on the saloon door until a sleepy Tom finally opened up.

“What the…… oh it’s you Jess,” he said looking sheepish.

“Yeah, it’s me Tom and I ain’t goin’ anywhere until I’ve seen Millie.”

Tom just gestured with his head, ”Go on up son.”

Jess knocked loudly on her door and after a few minutes she pulled it open, dressed only in a thin nightgown, with a dressing gown thrown hastily over it.

When she saw who it was she flushed and pulling the cord of the gown more tightly around her waist she then opened the door wider and he walked in closing it quietly behind him.

He thought she looked real sick and he was sure she’d lost weight since he saw her last.

“Millie are you sick?” he said suddenly feeling fearful.

But she shook her head giving him a hard stare, ”No I’m absolutely fine, just been woken up, it is Sunday morning you know Jess.”

He ignored her comment and just looked bleakly back.

“Well?” he asked after a minute, his expression cold.

“Well what?”

“Why did you get Tom to lie for you yesterday, and why don’t yer want to see me? Hell Millie, you’re the oldest friend I’ve got …talk to me, what’s goin’ on here?”

Then she looked up at him her eyes wide and dark with anger.

“I’ll tell you what’s going on cowboy I’m dumping you because I’m sick and tired of being treated like a convenience….”


“You come and go as you please, riding off for weeks on end mustanging or trail driving… Or worse still riding posse and you come back beat up or shot!”

“Well Hell Millie, that’s my life it ain’t ever bothered you before…“

“Well maybe it does now. Maybe I want some stability in my life a man who just works set hours and then is home in the evening, to tuck the kids up.”

“So that’s it…… you want kids? Well we’ve talked about that before and I’m fine with it. Like I told you as soon as you’re ready we can get Wed… build up on the East pasture a real nice house like I promised you.”

“No… that’s not it… “

“So you don’t want a family yet?”

“Yes I do……. but not with you!”

Jess’s heart had been pounding before, but now he thought it might jump clear out of his chest. A sweat broke out and he could feel it running down his back. He felt so choked he could hardly speak and they just stared at each other.

After a couple of minutes he croaked, “So you’re finishing it…. you don’t want me no more?”

She just nodded and then went and looked out of the window, ”Just go Jess,” she whispered.

But he couldn’t move, he stood rooted to the spot and then he strode over and pulled her gently round to face him, “Mill…..you don’t mean it?”

She nodded, ”Please Jess just go, you’re only making this harder for us both…..”

He sighed deeply and turned to go, before glancing back, ”But we can still………you know, still be friends can’t we?”

She shook her head, ”No I don’t think so…… and anyway….. “


“I’m going to be staying in Cheyenne with Ma for awhile, maybe for good…… and no I don’t want you to visit either, just go Jess… go and get on with your life and forget me.”

He hesitated again and opened his mouth to remonstrate with her, but then closed it and pulling his hat down hard he marched to the door and left, closing it quietly behind him.

Once he had left Millie threw herself down on the bed and cried as though her heart was breaking……

Chapter 2

When he arrived back at the ranch he found Slim and Mort Corey, the Sheriff of Laramie and good friend, sitting around the table drinking coffee, but no sign of Daisy or Tessa, who were off visiting a neighbour. Jess went and fetched another cup and joined them, but ignored their lively banter and just sat staring down morosely into his cup. After awhile Slim mouthed, ‘women trouble’, over to Mort and he nodded sagely and rose to leave.

“So I’ll see you Monday then Slim?”

“Yeah, sure I just hope this trial doesn’t take too long I had plans,” he said sorrowfully, “but like you say I’m the key witness, so guess I’ll have to be there.”

“Yes, sorry Slim , but you’re right, you don’t attend then we’ve no case and those hoodlums will get off scot free.”

Then he turned to Jess, ”So long then Jess…. err nice talkin’ to you,” he said with a grin.


He shook his head and rolled his eyes to Slim, “Be seein’ you,” and he marched off.

Then he paused on the porch and Slim explained as to why he was less than enthusiastic about going off to the trial.

“So if you can’t escort the young lady will Jess be going?”

“Well I hope so yeah, I’m going to ask him in a minute.”

“And Rawlins you say?”

“Yeah the Martin spread is about ten miles south of the town I think… so why all the interest Mort?“

“Oh, may be somethin’ and nothin’ but I had a wire from Sheriff Red Smith yesterday. It seems Wes Lane has busted out of the jail, duped the deputy into thinking he was sick and hightailed it off on the Sheriff’s best horse, old Red is none too pleased I can tell you.”

Slim gave a low whistle, ”And Wes promised to deal with me and Jess for catching him and slinging him in jail too didn’t he?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m worrying about, you might want to tell Jess to watch his back iffen he’s heading up into those hills, good place to hide out I guess.”

“Will do Mort,” and he waved the older man off.

Slim sat down again once he had seen the Sheriff off and poured himself another coffee before casting Jess a speculative look.

“So what’s up buddy?”

He sighed and swallowed hard.

“She’s dumped me Slim,” he finally managed, still looking deeply into his coffee as though seeking the answer to all his problems there.

“She’s what… yer kidding?“

Then his gaze flicked up to Slim, “Do I look like I’m kidding.”

“Hell, I’m so sorry, I really can’t believe it,” and he reached across and squeezed Jess’s shoulder affectionately.

“Me neither but it’s true… and she seems , I dunno, real mad at me, says I’m always away and getting shot up and the like.”

“Well she does have a point Jess.”

“Yeah, I know, but it ain’t ever bothered her before.”

“Maybe she just wants to settle down start a family….?”

“Oh yeah, she wants that alright………but not with me Slim,” and at that he could stand it no longer and marched off to the barn to tend to Traveler and grieve in private.

Awhile later Slim came in and sat down on a nearby straw bale and watched his friend grooming his mount for awhile before saying softly, ”Are you OK buddy?”

Jess turned and cast him a hard look ,”Well what do you think?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry… but Jess we need to talk…. Err about Tessa.“

Jess sighed deeply, ”All that was a long time ago Slim, and we’ve both moved on. I ain’t gonna get in your way iffen you want to date her.”

“No… it’s not that Jess you misunderstand me, I need you to help her out some.”


“Oh of course you don’t know why she’s here do you?“

“Just visitin’ Daisy ain’t she?”

“No it’s more than that. She’s on her way to see her Ma. See her Ma’s real sick Jess. Dying I think and as she lives out between here and Rawlins Daisy arranged for her to stay here a few days and then said I’d ride over there. Escort her seeing as her folks place isn’t on the Stage route, we were just waiting for you to land back.”


“So I can’t go now buddy, Mort wants me to testify at this big trial over in Cheyenne. I guess I can’t be in two places at once can I?“

Jess sighed deeply, ”I really don’t need this right now Slim.”

“Sure you do, company of a beautiful woman like Tessa, it’ll take your mind off things.”

Jess threw him a look of such misery, he retracted his comment at once.

“Hell Jess I’m sorry that was real crass of me… but I guess I can’t believe that you and Millie are through. I figure she’ll come around buddy, just give her time, huh?“

“Won’t make no difference, you didn’t see her,” and he turned back to grooming his horse, hiding his deeply troubled face from his buddy.

“So, will you do it then Jess?”

Jess sank his head onto his arm that was thrown over his horse’s back and took a deep breath, ”OK, Ok - now will you just cut me some slack here Slim, I’d really like to be alone for awhile.”

“Sure, sure buddy, sorry”……..and he left quietly.

Later that night Daisy and Tessa sat up long after everyone else was abed, the ranchers having to be up early the next day.

They were sitting by the fire with a cup of Daisy’s special cocoa apiece and after awhile she turned her kindly gaze on the younger woman and said softly, ”So are you alright with Jess accompanying you instead of Slim?”

“Well yes of course, I know I can trust him to look out for me,” she said with her gentle smile.

“Oh that goes without saying dear, but you seemed so shocked when you saw him. He really must have meant a lot to you, at one time, didn’t he?”

She just nodded shyly, ”He meant everything to me Daisy. We were to be married,” and then she explained everything from Jess riding out to make some money for them, then her belief that he was dead.

“But the worst of it was he just told me that he did come back for me, but didn’t think himself worthy. He knew I’d give up my work for him and he couldn’t let me do that, so he rode out without even seeing me…… and I didn’t see him again until the other night,” she said her expression desolate.

“And then it was an incredible shock……… and there will be an even bigger one for him when you tell him how things are now, about your life and plans…. you are going to tell him, aren’t you Tessa?”

She nodded, “Yes of course I have to…. but not quite yet Daisy, I’ll tell him on the trail, explain everything I promise.”

Daisy nodded, ”I know you will my dear, so tell me how did you two meet, you never told me?”

Tessa gazed sadly into the fire for a moment and then looked over at her good friend, ”We met after the war Daisy when he was liberated to our hospital. It was just after you left to stay with your sister in St Lois and were transferred to the hospital there.”

“That’s incredible, to think that we might have met back then,” said Daisy, looking astonished, “and such a coincidence that you should visit me here the very place that Jess settled down.”

“I agree Daisy, you often talked of a Jess and Slim in your letters, but I just never made the connection and you never mentioned his second name.”

“If I was a superstitious woman I’d think it was meant,” said Daisy, ”What do they call it destiny…. Anyway so what was he like back then dear?”

The girl turned anguished eyes on her good friend, ”Oh Daisy he was in a terrible state when he landed. He looked half starved, his clothes filthy, and the dressings over his wound not changed for days, weeks maybe, the wound was septic Daisy and running with maggots……. “

“Oh my dear,” said Daisy quailing at the thought, ”I know he suffered badly; he still has nightmares about that time you know.”

“I’m not surprised he was so very ill Daisy I think he really just wanted to die………until…..”

“Until what dear?”

“Until we fell in love Daisy, I loved him the moment I first laid eyes on him. This dirty half-starved boy, and then he turned those deep blue eyes on me and I was completely lost,“ she said flushing at the memory

“Go on,” whispered Daisy spellbound.

“Well, he gradually started to recover and then the stronger he got the more trouble he became. He was such a difficult patient Daisy, always wanting to run before he could walk,” she said with a little giggle.

“Don’t I know it,” said Daisy her eyes sparkling.

“Um, of course… so anyway, we were very much in love. I’d have married him tomorrow, but Jess being Jess had to go off and try and provide for us…… and then you know the rest of it,” she finished softly.

There was a long pause before Daisy finally spoke.

“And would you still marry him tomorrow?”

Tessa was silent for a very long time, ”I’m not free anymore am I…. and neither is Jess, I saw his face when Slim mentioned…. Millie is it?”

Daisy nodded, ”They were very much in love. I just can’t understand what has got into Millie. There must be a reason for her behaving this way, I just can’t see her throwing Jess over,” she said thoughtfully, almost to herself. “Well it really doesn’t matter whether she had finished with him or not, it’s obvious he’s still in love with her anyway.”

Daisy sighed, ”You’re right my dear, I just wish I could help him,” and shortly afterwards they retired to bed. Tessa tossed and turned long into the night, thinking back to that battered, exhausted young soldier who had stolen her heart all those years ago. She could hardly believe that he was sleeping on just the other side of the wall to her and soon they would be out under the stars together, and she finally prayed for the strength to be true to herself and her life as it was now, no matter how difficult that might be.


And so it was that Jess and Tessa rode out heading for Rawlins early the following morning, with provisions for camping out. Jess was pleased to see that at least she was a proficient horse woman, but he had his doubts as to how she would fare camping out in the Big Open.

“So you ever camped out on the trail before?” he asked conversationally as they jogged along across the East pasture heading for the hills.

“No I never got to do a lot of that back at the hospital, or…. Err or since,” she finished avoiding his eye.

However Jess didn’t pick up on her uneasiness as his thoughts kept coming back to Millie and after awhile he lapsed into silence and they rode on without speaking for the next twenty miles or so.

Finally Tessa turned to him and said softly, ”Are you OK Jess?”

He turned and stared at her as if seeing her for the first time and shaking his head to clear it said, ”Yeah, sure why wouldn’t I be?” and threw her a questioning look.

She just shrugged and it wasn’t until they were sitting by the campfire drinking a coffee after their supper that she tried again.

Jess was sitting leaning back on his upturned saddle and staring sadly into the fire. Tessa was beside him, her back to a log and after awhile she said gently, ”Is it Millie you’re thinking of Jess?”

His head shot up at her name and he stared at her in shock, ”What do you know of Millie?” he asked taciturnly.

“Just that you love her and she’s thrown you over…. And I’m really sorry for you.”

“Well don’t be,” he spat, suddenly angry, ”and how do you know about that anyway?”

She looked somewhat taken aback, but said, ”Well Daisy mentioned it and then later Slim told me, he thought maybe I could help?”

He shook his head, ”Nope, the situations way beyond help, so just leave it will you?” and on saying that he made to turn in.

“I figure we’d best get some sleep, early start tomorrow,” and he pulled his blanket over and closed his eyes avoiding any further conversation.


The following morning he threw another log on the fire and then noticed Tessa was awake and looking over at him and he went over and hunkered down beside her offering a coffee he’d just poured out.

“Peace offerin’,” he said with a shy smile, ”and I’m real sorry I spoke to you that way. You were just tryin’ to help I know.”

She smiled back and accepted the drink.

“No I’m sorry Jess and you were quite right, it was none of my business it’s just…… “

He made himself comfortable beside her and after taking a sip of his drink he surveyed her over the brim of his cup, “Just what?”

“Well, I know it’s crazy, but I feel so close to you. It’s like you just popped out of the room and have come back in…… without all those years in between.”

He gave her a searching look and said, ”Yeah, but there were… all those years I mean. I guess we’ve both changed.”

She nodded, ”Oh yes, that’s for sure. I know I have and I can see you have too…. but it’s still there, the way I seem to know you so well……the way I’m unhappy if you are….”

Their eyes locked until Jess dragged his gaze away, ”Yeah well I guess I’ll go get washed up,” he said, abruptly changing the subject and gesturing to a small stream several yards away. ”We can get breakfast on the go when I land back,” and he jumped up and wandered off. But Tessa watched him walk away and wondered what he was thinking of….Was it how they used to be? Did he still have feelings for her too?

Jess had washed in the stream. Then he’d lathered up and started shaving, squinting into a piece of broken mirror he carried, set on a rock.

Then he cast his mind back to the last time he’d stayed with Millie, a few weeks before he rode out with the Mustangs.

They had been making love in her big comfortable bed and she suddenly flinched as though in pain.

“What is it sweetheart, you want me to stop,” he said quickly pulling away from her and looking down with concerned blue eyes.

“No, I’m fine now,” she had whispered, ”just a stomach cramp, it’s gone now……... come here cowboy,” and she’d pulled him back down, kissing him deeply.

He groaned at the memory of it now, and then he remembered the following morning when he had lain looking down at her sleeping face, thinking how much he loved her. Then he had run his hand gently across the curve of her naked belly and she had uttered a little cry of pain in her sleep and he had quickly withdrawn his hand frowning anxiously down at her.

When she finally awoke, he said softly, ”Are you OK sweetheart, your tummy botherin’ you?”

“Yes some. It’s just women’s troubles nothing to worry about,” and she’d got up to make some coffee while he retired to her little kitchen to shave.

Now as he stared into the glass, he thought his heart would break as he remembered their sweet love making. “Women’s troubles,” he said softly to himself, maybe she was sick. But then he remembered back to that fateful day when he had visited for the last time and he had asked her if she was ill and she had vehemently denied it.

“Oh Mill,” he whispered to himself, “why are you doin’ this to me?”

They travelled on through another hot and weary day, talking little, but Jess seemed more agreeable Tessa thought, more like his old self. He had grinned at her after supper and told her she was still a real good cook, even with only trail grub to work with and she held the compliment closely to her feeling ridiculously pleased.

Then they had chatted idly after the meal about this and that until he suggested they should turn in.

“One more day should do it,” he said quietly,” we should be there by then late afternoon by my reckoning.”

Then glancing over he noticed that she looked less than happy with that news, and realized that she must be frettin’ about her Ma.

“I’m real sorry about your Ma,” he said now,” throwing her a concerned look, there’s no hope then?”

She just shook her head and then he heard a small sob as a hand flew to her mouth to try and stifle it.

“Tessa, sweetheart, don’t,” he whispered taking her other hand…… ”I’m real sorry.”

“It’s not just that, you see the thing is……. well my folks and I have had a bit of a fall out. I don’t think she’ll want to see me, that’s what’s breaking my heart Jess.”


“Um it’s about……” then she seemed to change her mind, ”Well it doesn’t matter what about, but I have to make Ma and Pa understand, I have to make things right with Ma before she….…” and then she sobbed again.

They were both sitting in front of the campfire leaning against a rock and as soon as Tessa started crying properly Jess took her in his arms, talking softly to her, and gently rubbing her back, trying to calm her.

Ever since Tessa had first seen Jess back at the ranch she had imagined what it would be like for him to hold her again, although she had tried so hard not to think that way.

But now she felt his warmth through her thin dress, his strong arms holding her close, feeling his heart beating close to her, she was totally lost and all her resolves were as dust.

Jess too was deeply moved, remembering how fragile she had always felt as he held her. Remembering the first time they had made love and he had treated her like some fine porcelain. Terrified that he would be too rough and hurt her, and now holding her so close all those old protective feelings flooded back.

She gradually stopped crying and then turned her tear stained face up to his, ”I must look a sight,” she whispered.

He just shook his head very slowly and his glance flicked from her mouth to her eyes and back again, and then very slowly he leaned forwards and brushed her lips with his own before pulling back and searching her eyes. But he couldn’t read what he saw there. A mixture of desire… of need, but something else too, fear? Was she afraid of him… or of what this might lead to he thought fleetingly?

But then she leaned in and kissed him back, so tenderly. Then he was holding her closer, raking a hand through her hair, groaning as the embracing became more and more passionate and then ….he stopped. Pulled back and shook his head sadly.

“No,” he croaked, ”This ain’t right Tessa. It don’t feel right, I’m sorry,” and he stood up and moved away, his hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his denims and he looked off to the distant moonlit hills.

He breathed deeply trying to get his body to catch up with what his mind was telling it, his heart pounding and he was physically shaking, but eventually he felt calmer and returned to the fireside where Tessa still sat her eyes wide with shock at the recent encounter.

He hunkered down beside her and taking her hand said, ”I’m real sorry Tessa. I don’t know what got into me.”

“No, it was me and what I did was oh so wrong Jess. Terrible… wicked, I’m so…. so ashamed!”

“Huh? You’ve no need to take on so honey, ‘twas only a little kiss, no harm done ‘eh?” he said giving her an encouraging smile.

She still looked totally stricken though and Jess was beginning to think she was over reacting.

“Look, nuthin’ happened and anyways we’re both free agents ain’t we, you said you’d never married, and as for me…. well, I guess I’m free now too.”

She cast him a sorrowful look.

Then he continued, looking deeply into her concerned eyes.

“Thing is though Tessa, it don’t feel like it…. I don’t feel like I’m single. See I still love Millie no matter what she’s said to me. I just can’t help it and that’s why nuthin’ is gonna happen. You’re quite safe with me I promise.”

Then her head shot up and she stared at him, ”Oh I know that Jess. I know you’d never do anything I didn’t want you to, it’s not you I’m afraid of its…… me.”

“Huh, I don’t understand?”

“It doesn’t matter really, I’m just being silly, let’s turn in and forget all about it tomorrow… yes?”

“Sure, ‘night sweetheart,” and he went over to the other side of the fire and settled himself down for the night.

But neither of them slept for a very long time.

Jess was stretched out with his hands laced behind his head looking up into the clear star sprinkled sky, wondering what Millie was doing. Where she was? Then he knew, he just knew that as soon as he landed home he had to ride out to Cheyenne to see her. He wasn’t going to give up on them yet, and with that he finally fell into a restless sleep.

But Tessa tossed and turned long into the night, reliving every second of Jess’s warm embrace. His passionate kisses, the feel of his hand in her hair and his taught firm body hard against her own and she felt that she would just die of wanting him. Knowing she could never, ever have him again, no matter what.

The next morning after a little initial embarrassment they finally settled down into a reasonably easy rapport as Jess decided that he would put the night before behind him. He made a real effort to be pleasant and casual, then eventually Tessa relaxed and things were back to normal, or so he thought.

They rode out early and as he had predicted made it to the Martin spread by late afternoon.

As they rode into the neat yard her Pa came out to meet them, but his welcome was far from friendly.

“So you decided to come then girl, even though I wrote you, saying she didn’t want to see you?”

She looked down from where she still sat the grey mare she’d been riding and said, ”Pa, you wrote saying Ma was real sick, what did you expect me to do?“

“I expect you to act like a real woman! Instead of hiding yourself away in that… that place,” he spat angrily.

“Pa,” she jumped in quickly, ”this is neither the time nor the place to discuss our private business!”

Then turning in the saddle to look at Jess, who was sitting patiently, she said, ”This is an old friend who kindly escorted me here, Jess Harper. Jess my Pa, Ben Martin.”

Jess tipped his hat, “Mr Martin, pleased to meet you.”

The old rancher looked a little sheepish now and strode over to shake Jess’s offered hand, ”Pleased to meet you Mr Harper, and thank you for looking after for my girl, much appreciated I’m sure. “

Then turning a slightly kinder eye on Tessa said, ”Well you’d better both come in seeing as you’re here,” and he marched off leaving Tessa and Jess exchanging an amused glance.

They entered the house and Tessa showed him into a pleasant large sitting room and offered to make him a coffee, before showing him up to a large bedroom, overlooking the yard.

“Will you be OK in here Jess?”

“Sure I will,” he said smiling at her, secretly wondering how long the stay would be, but knowing that was a completely insensitive question to ask.

As if reading his thoughts she came over and gave him a sad smile, “I must go and try and make my peace with Ma now, coffee will be in the sitting room when you’re ready… and Jess… “


“I don’t think we’ll be here too long, once Ma….” she sighed, “Once Ma passes over I reckon Pa will want me gone,” she said sadly.

He looked shocked at that, ”But why Tessa, I just don’t get it why are they so all fired mad at you?”

She looked down and flushed a little,” I will tell you Jess, but later, not right now, OK?”

“Ok sweetheart,” he said returning her smile and she drifted off to see her Ma.

Over the next few days Jess tried to make himself unobtrusive, not wanting to intrude on the family’s grief and distress as Mrs Martin’s life slowly ebbed away. And so most days he took himself off hunting. He also found a good fishing hole, and so he was happy enough to while away the hours.However he made himself available during the evenings when both Tessa and Mr Martin seemed to be glad of his company and Jess secretly thought they were using him as a safety valve, not wanting to argue in front of him.

Then one evening Tessa came in and said her Ma wanted a word with Jess.

“Are yer sure, I don’t want her to go bein’ polite, just because I’m a visitor, not if she’s feelin’ real ill,” he said quickly.

“No, it’s nothing like that Jess. She’s just heard all about you and wants to see you, and to thank you for bringing me out here, but Jess, just a few minutes,” she finished, “she’s very weak now.”

He nodded and headed off for the elderly woman’s room. As he entered he had quite a surprise. Instead of the aged grey haired woman he expected he saw a fragile, but still beautiful woman lying so quietly. Her hair still quite dark and her eyes seeming huge in her emaciated face…. Tessa’s eyes.

She gave the ghost of a smile when he entered, and patted the bedside, “Hello Jess dear,” she whispered, ”come and sit with me for awhile.”

He did as he was asked and then she said, ”Turn the night light up a little so I can see you properly.”

He did as he was asked and then smiled down at her, his heart missing a beat as he saw how wasted her body was. Her breathing was shallow and laboured and he knew she was quite near the end.

She took his hand and peered up into his face, ”You have a good strong face Jess, and I feel you are a kind man… a good man.”

He said nothing, just continued to smile gently down at her.

“You know Tessa well?” she asked.

“Yeah, I guess so, we go back a long way.”

“And she thinks a lot of you…. I know my girl, I’ll be honest with you Jess. I think she loves you.”

He really didn’t know what to say to this, “We’ll I dunno about that Ma’am, we’re real old friends that’s all.”

“Maybe for you dear… but I know my Tessa. I think maybe you are the only one that can save her now…..”

Then she started coughing violently and Jess shot up to fetch Tessa, but the older woman restrained him with a weak hand to his arm and gestured to the tumbler of water on the nightstand.

He gently raised her head and helped her to sip it.

“Don’t go, not yet,” she gasped, ”I have to talk to you Jess.”

He sat down again and said, “You should really rest now Ma’am.”

“In a minute, but first… has she told you, told you of this silliness that she is mixed up in?“

He just shook his head, “No?”

“Jess, it will ruin her life, please my dear try and convince her against it…” and then she coughed again, and this time he saw she was in a real bad way.

“I’m gonna fetch yer daughter Mrs Martin.”

She finally nodded.

“But Jess one last thing, promise me you’ll talk to her about it…… .about her life and the mistakes she’s made, because I really believe she loves you and if anyone can change her mind it will be you……... please?”

He didn’t have a clue as to what she was talking about. As far as he knew Tessa was still a nursing sister and so what could be so wrong with that?

But then he saw the pleading look in her eyes and he squeezed her hand gently and said, ”Sure Ma’am, I’ll talk to her,” and with that he left her to fetch Tessa and her Pa.

Mrs Martin died later that night.

With all the preparations for the funeral, people visiting and then the service itself it was several days later before Tessa and Jess finally talked and the truth came out.

Chapter 3

During her Ma’s last illness and the run up to the funeral Tessa had been a power of strength, nursing her Ma and then caring for her Pa, but once it was all over she seemed to collapse.

Her Pa was out in the yard getting on with some much neglected chores, leaving the young couple alone. Jess and Tessa were having a coffee in the pleasant sitting room. Jess had offered to help her Pa, but he had said he just wanted to be alone for awhile and Jess understood that completely. He was feeling real sorry for the older man, hardly daring to imagine the grief that would be suffered when a loving marriage spanning over forty years finally ended this way.

Jess was standing leaning against the mantelpiece when Tessa finally broke down. They’d been chatting quite inconsequentially about when they could leave her Pa and the journey home. Then she had said she must sort through her Ma’s things before they left and that was the catalyst that finally set her off crying uncontrollably.

She had leapt up and almost fell into Jess’s arms and he had held her close for several minutes. Then she had calmed down and he was just about to release her and offer to make some fresh coffee, when again, she looked up into his beloved face and couldn’t resist kissing him.

At first she had just wanted the comfort of feeling his strong arms encircling her, but then it was not enough. Every fibre of her being was crying out for him and although a voice in her head was screaming ‘Stop…… Stop this is wrong, this is against everything you now believe in,’ she ignored it.

She leaned in and kissed him and felt him respond. The pressure of his lips sending a thousand butterflies hurtling around her stomach and she felt dizzy with desire.

Then suddenly there was a loud cough, and her Pa was standing in the open doorway.

The young couple leapt guiltily apart. Jess looking down embarrassed, while Tessa threw her Pa a challenging look.

“Well that is what you and Ma wanted isn’t it,” she spat angrily, ”for me to me normal… love a man properly… well, isn’t it!”

He just shook his head sadly, ”I don’t like to see you use a good man like Jess and don’t you think it’s time you told him the truth?”

Jess’s head shot up, he was getting pretty sick of all this innuendo, her Ma and Pa alluding to some secret surrounding their daughter and even Tessa admitting there was something she had to share with him.

He looked from her Pa to Tessa and back again, ”Well, is someone gonna tell me what’s goin’ on here?“

Tessa just flushed and looked down, now feeling totally overcome.

Then Mr Martin looked from her to Jess and back, ”Tell him then girl, tell him how you’re a Nun!”

Jess almost staggered back in amazement… “You’re a Nun,” he whispered…. “But we’ve just been……” and he couldn’t go on.

“No,” she said quickly, ”I’m not really, not yet…. I decide whether to take my vows when I go back to the Convent… I was having a crisis of faith and I’ve been away on retreat. Then I got Pa’s letter on my return…. I’m just so mixed up right now,” and then she fled from the room crying.

Jess made to follow her, but Mr Martin intervened, ”Leave her boy, let her cool off some.”

Then he wandered over to a glass decanter on the sideboard and returned with two large whiskies, ”I guess we could both use something a mite stronger than coffee,” he said with a weary smile.

They relaxed back sipping their drinks and then after awhile Mr Martin said, “I don’t know as to how well you know my daughter Jess… “and then without waiting for an answer he continued, ”but you see the thing is she’s…… well she’s real passionate.”

Jess’s head shot up at that, wondering what he was going to say next, but the old man just grinned at him, ”Oh I don’t just mean about the romancing, but about life in general you see, passionate as in zealous…. Well bordering on obsessive sometimes I reckon.”

Jess just cocked his head on one side and nodded, trying to look intelligent and wondering what the hell the old timer was alluding to, as he continued.

“I reckon it all stems back to something that happened after the war, you see she was a young nurse and she met a soldier, well she nursed him, used to write to her Ma every week in those days,” he said with a sad smile.

Then he shook his head a little to bring him back to the present and glancing over at Jess continued.

“Well she met this young soldier and fell head over heels in love with him, never really had a proper boyfriend and she just seemed completely lost in him, made him her whole life.”

Now thinking back on it Jess knew that was the truth of it, heck even then the way she made him so central to everything in her life, well it was kinda scary sometimes he had to admit. And jealous, jeez, he so much as glanced at another girl she’d go crazy, yeah she had been kinda obsessed alright, he thought… but then Mr Martin was still rambling on.

Jess just sat there listening wondering if he should say that he was that boy, but somehow he just sat there mesmerized as the old man carried on with his tale.

“Well she was absolutely besotted with the boy, and by all accounts he was as real nice lad, said he wanted to provide for her, get wed… yes, her Ma and me would have been really happy with that. We’d have had that brood of grandchildren that her Ma wanted so much…” he sighed. “But it wasn’t to be…. the lad died, was killed. I went and visited our Tessa soon after she heard,” he shook his head sadly. “It near darn well killed her that Jess, ”and he sighed again.

“Anyways, like I say she’s real passionate about life, and I guess her job took the place of that there boy. She threw herself into her work, just lived for it, youngest darn Sister in the hospital, and even made it to Deputy Matron. Before she decided to…. err what is it she said, oh yes,’ give her life to God,’ and boy has she had a passion for that. Been locked up in that nunnery for nigh on six months now Jess as a postulant and when she goes back, if she does, she decides if it is the life for her and whether to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.”

He shook his head angrily then, “Chastity huh?” he said giving Jess a hard look.

“We… we ain’t done nuthin’ to be ashamed of,” Jess said quickly, “she was just real upset, I was comforting her ‘tis all.”

The older man had a twinkle in his eye at that, “So that’s what you youngsters are calling it now.”

Jess opened his mouth to reply, but what could he say? It was actually your daughter kissing me, and what red blooded male wouldn’t have kissed her back? But it would have ended there…. No it wasn’t worth it he just kept his mouth shut.

But Mr Martin was off ranting again, “Anyway, and as for a vow of obedience, well she’s hardly been obedient to our wishes, what me and her Ma wanted for her! Hell Jess we just wanted her to be settled in a normal marriage, kids, she’s our only one, a couple of grandchildren is all we wanted! Now… well it’s too late for my June….but maybe you can talk some sense into the girl?”

Then he looked sadly into space, ”If only that young man hadn’t been killed that way, he said to himself, what was the boy’s name now….so long ago….”


“What son?”

“The boy’s name it was Jess…… it was me Mr Martin.”

There was a stunned silence as the older man took this in and then peering over at the dark haired cowboy he’d become to really like he whispered, ”But he were killed…”

Then Jess went on to tell him that it had all been a misunderstanding and told him the full story, even to returning, but having nothing to offer his daughter had ridden off again.

The old man just sat there shaking his head as he tried to assimilate all this new information. Then he went and poured them two more drinks and sitting down heavily he surveyed Jess with new eyes. Never had he seen such perfect son in law material. By all accounts the man was solvent with a good partnership and what’s more he really liked him, this was just too good to be true.

He beamed over at him and then said, ”But why didn’t Tessa tell us, tell her Ma and she’d have died happy.”

“Tell you what sir?” asked Jess suddenly wondering what he’d missed.

“Why that you’re back together again of course! That’s why she had this here…….. what did she say, ’crisis of faith’, it was down to seeing you again and she’s going to give it all up for you… am I right boy?” he asked eagerly.

Jess’s jaw dropped open and he just stared at the older man in dismay.

“No,” he said faintly and then with more conviction, ”No Mr Martin, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m just here helpin’ your daughter out. I’m….” he was going to say he was spoken for, but that was no longer true. ”I’m in love with someone else,” he finished quietly.

He was unprepared for the look of deep disappointment in the other’s eyes, ”Is it serious boy?“

“Yeah, on my behalf anyways, I just figure the little lady needs some convincing though,” he said with a bitter laugh.

The older man, sighed, ”Well that’s too bad and I hope it all turns out OK for you boy. I’m sorry I jumped the gun there, just wishful thinking I guess…..”

Then they sat in companionable silence in front of the fire sipping their whiskey.

But Jess was thinking on what Mr Martin had said about his daughter being passionate. About things bordering on obsessive and then as he thought back to their relationship he remembered suddenly how she had sometimes completely overwhelmed him with her need, constantly having to be reassured that he loved her and her alone.

And then he remembered as to how she had almost smothered him with her love. Wanting to do everything for him, needing to be with him every second she could and getting incredibly upset if he wanted to go off drinking with friends or just fishing alone sometimes. Jeez the relationship had been almost stifling at times he remembered. But then he also remembered the steamy nights they had spent together, how she could never get enough of him and the relationship had really been the stuff of all young men’s dreams, so he had put up with her demands and never really thought about it until now.

Then he thought about his relationship with Millie. They had spent years as best friends and also as lovers, but it was all so light hearted and easy. Sure he loved her back then, but in an easy gentle way and if she wanted to go off with some young buck for awhile it didn’t overly bother him. And likewise he had had so many girls, some serious and others not, but he knew at the end of the day Millie would always be there for him.

Then they’d suddenly got serious, when she nearly took off west with her lover, but suddenly realized she couldn’t do it, she couldn’t leave Jess. Likewise it had been just after he and Slim had been nearly swindled out of the *ranch and his future was uncertain, that he realized how important Millie was to him. Had always been to him, but he had just never seen it before and that was when she had promised to consider settling down with him, at some stage. * See The Inheritance

Maybe that was it, he thought now. Maybe his intensity had scared her some, was he obsessive about her? He thought not. But he had become a lot more protective of late and hated seeing her flirting with customers in the Saloon, although he knew it was part of her job. Could that be it, the reason she had cooled towards him? She just needed him to cut her some slack, get back to their easy light hearted relationship. Well if that’s what its gonna take I’ll do it, I just have to see her and soon, before I go plumb crazy he thought and then Mr Martin interrupted his reverie…. But he vowed to himself he would see Millie, and as soon as he could.

It was the following day before Tessa showed her face again and Mr Martin and Jess had prepared a scratch meal for supper, somewhat impeded by their alcohol intake and then had an early night.

The following morning when she came down for breakfast she seemed more herself though, and suggested to Jess that they should travel back the following day.

“I really should be getting back.” she said firmly, ”the Sisters will have been missing me.”

“Good of them to spare you,” said her Pa bitterly, “After all it was just your Ma dying, and I’m sure that’s of no consequence to them.”

“Pa please don’t be that way. The Sisters aren’t like that, they were very sorry to hear about Ma… but I have to go back you know that.”

“Do I now, I’d have thought this was the ideal time for you to decide where your allegiance lies my girl, here with your Pa or off in that glorified prison.”

“Pa don’t say that, it isn’t a prison, how can you say that?”

“Well they never let you out do they?”

“I agreed to their rules when I went Pa, agreed to take my vows eventually too…. no matter how hard that might be.”

Then her Pa had excused himself from the table leaving Tessa staring bleakly after him.

Jess turned to her, ”And so is it?“


“Is it going to be real hard for you to take those vows?”

She looked down at her plate and then up at him and he saw she was flushed and her eyes unnaturally bright.

“Yes,” she whispered, ”very hard.”

He reached out his hand and took hers resting on the table, ”Because of me?” he asked.

She just nodded and a single tear slid down her face.

He was silent for awhile and then he squeezed her hand gently, ”I never gave you any hope that it could be alright between us again…..did I?”

She shook her head, “I was OK until we …… well we got so close and then it brought it all back, the way we were together,” she said sniffing and throwing him an apologetic smile, ”I’m sorry to be such a cry baby lately.”

He just squeezed her hand again and gently withdrew his, ”I figure it’s a big step anyways and if you’re still undecided maybe they’ll give you some more time to think on it?”

She nodded at this, “Maybe… and tomorrow Jess, we’ll go home tomorrow yes.“

Jess heart leapt with joy, home… and next stop Millie and he could begin to get things back on track.

He beamed at her, ”Yeah, we’ll go tomorrow.”

The following day Tessa made an emotional farewell to her father.

Once they were both mounted Mr Martin called Jess back and said softly, out of his daughters hearing, ”Please boy, try and make her see sense before it’s too late. I really don’t think she’s cut out for a life of devotion, she needs to be nursing, that’s her real love always has been ever since she was tiny… .please?”

Then Jess thought back to that day when he saw her for the first time. Looking so petite like a little kid playing nurse, but then how she had spoken to him, insisting she wasn’t going to let him die….. Hell he owed this woman his life and if her Pa really thought that she wasn’t suited to that vocation, then yeah, sure he’d talk to her.

He nodded now, “Sure Mr Martin, I’ll do what I can I promise,” and with that he gave a little farewell salute and the couple rode out.


It was the second day of their journey when tragedy struck, and Slim thought he would never forgive himself for what happened that day.

They had been riding through the magnificent Medicine Bow Forest and the place was teeming with wildlife. Jess would really have liked to stop over for a day or so and bag him an Elk, but on the other hand he really needed to get home, so he satisfied his sporting appetite by shooting a brace of rabbits for their supper that night.

They camped in a beautiful spot amongst huge pines, with a stream running nearby and magnificent view across the mountains.

Tessa excelled herself and cooked up a storm and afterwards they sat quietly by the fire with their coffee and Jess opened up the conversation about her return to the Monastery.

“Gee I thought that was where Monks lived,” he said with a grin, “Don’t Nuns live in Convents?”

“No, not my order we are what they call Cloistered Nuns and we live in the inner sanctions of the Monastery.”

“Inner sanctions eh? Your Pa’s right it does sound sorta prison like, so what do you do for work…. still do your nursin’?“

She shook her head,” No Cloistered Nuns spend most of their time in devotions, praying in our cells, or in the chapel.”

“There you go again, cells, sound pretty much like a prison to me.”

“Oh Jess really you don’t understand. We spend all our days praying for the world, but completely removed from the world so that we are not diverted from our prayer by distractions.”

“Um… well I’m real sorry if I’ve been a distraction,” he said quietly, ”I really didn’t mean to be you know.”

She just nodded, ”I know, but it was such a shock seeing you that way again and then feeling so close to you. We were such close friends…. We still are friends aren’t we Jess?”

“Sure, sure we are. And as a friend, well I reckon there should be some straight talkin’ between us.”

“Go on,” she said hesitantly.

“Well your Pa is real worried about you. He thinks you’re makin’ a big mistake, and I have to say I think he could be right.”

“But why, what gives you the right to judge my life there, you know nothing about it!” she said hotly.

“Maybe not, but I know you… knew you anyways, and I know how much you loved the nursing. You were darned good at it too, so why chuck all that away? Why just sit around prayin’ for folk when you can actually go out there and make a difference, help save lives Tessa? That must be worth something.”

“Oh you don’t understand,” she said jumping up and pacing up and down.

“Sure I don’t so explain it to me then.”

She sighed deeply and then came and slumped back down beside him, “OK if you want the truth I lost my nerve.”


“I lost my nerve. I had several patients die under my care, and then I started making silly mistakes. Eventually it turned out that I was sick, nervous exhaustion the doctors said, I’d just burnt myself out I guess, working all hours. My doctor said I was fanatical, worked too hard and that was when I made the mistakes. One of those mistakes cost a woman her life. Oh yes they said afterwards she would have died anyway, but I didn’t help her…. and that was it. I just couldn’t forgive myself, so I left the very next day.”

“Oh Tessa, I’m sorry,” he said softly.

“Anyway my doctor said I was close to a complete breakdown. That was when I went to stay with the Nuns. Oh Jess they were so kind, so good to me and afterwards, well, I just didn’t want to leave. Mother Superior said maybe I could help people by praying for them…….”

“Yeah, and that way there’s no come back on you if it don’t work out. You can just say well he died because it was the Lord’s Will,” he said bitterly.


“I’m sorry Tessa, but I reckon you just sold out. You’re dang scared of going back to work so you’re takin’ the easy road out.You’re all nice and cosy in your cloistered ‘prison,’ away from the real world, away ……… from people who need you and your skills.”

“Jess, why are you being so horrible?”

“I ain’t I’m just tryin’ to make you see sense. You’re a damn good nurse Tessa, you saved my life, that’s for sure and I think it’s a dang waste shutting yourself away like that.”

“I can’t help it, I can’t go back I just can’t….. “

“And there’s something else,” he said quietly, ignoring her outburst.

“What?” she asked, gazing across at him, her eyes brimming with tears yet again.

“You and me…. I don’t reckon you’re ready to lock yourself away from men for the rest of your life. Be honest Tessa, the feelings you have for me right now, they ain’t the sort of feelings a Nun should have are they?”

She just looked down blushing furiously, but said nothing and he took pity on her then.

“Come on, let’s bed down, I guess that’s enough straight talkin’ for one night, even between friends.”

She just nodded and lay down on her bed roll, whilst he settled on his across the fire from her….. but just before she fell asleep he played his trump card.

“You know what I do when I’ve been throwed real bad off a mustang?”

“No,” she replied in a small voice, ”what Jess?”

“I get right back up there in the saddle……‘night Tessa.”

“‘Night,” she whispered.

It must have been a couple of hours later when someone moved stealthily through the abundant undergrowth surrounding the camp. One Wes Lane, the man Mort Corey had warned Slim about. The man who was seeking revenge on Slim and Jess……. the man Slim had completely forgotten to warn Jess about as he rode out early that morning over two weeks ago.

Wes had been alerted by the shots Jess had fired earlier in the evening when he had bagged the rabbits. Then on seeing the smoke from their fire had been lying in wait for several hours until they were asleep. Now he planned to shoot Jess in cold blood and steal off into the night.

However he hadn’t allowed for Jess’s supreme alertness when sleeping out and the smallest sound could awaken him in an instant, and that was just what happened.

Wes was creeping slowly forwards able to see his quarry easily as not only was there a full moon, but the blazing camp fire also illuminated the sleeping couple. Wes stopped in his tracks for a moment, he hadn’t planned for a companion and even he was averse to shooting a woman. But then she looked to tiny and frail he didn’t figure she’d put up much of a fight and left to her own devices she would probably perish on the trail anyway he thought fleetingly.

Then he made a fatal mistake.

Moving forwards, gun already drawn he trod on a twig and at the sound Jess was up on one knee, his gun in his hand and peering out into the darkness in one breathtakingly fast, fluid movement.

However Wes had the advantage because as Jess kneeled up he was perfectly silhouetted by the light from the fire and without pausing Wes raised his gun and blasted Jess, hitting him in the chest and he fell back with a cry of agony and slumped to the ground……… to all appearances dead.

Tessa sat up at the sound of the shot, screamed and looked around her in terror. Then ran to his side, throwing herself down beside him, her eyes open wide in horror as she saw the bullet hole in his chest and the blood seeping out, forming an almost black stain across the front of his pale blue shirt.

Then her head snapped up as Wes strode over, still holding the smoking gun on her, the big ugly man with the shock of red hair striking dread into her heart.

He came and stood a few feet away and peered down at them, “He dead then?” he finally rasped.

Tessa thought quickly, from her nurse’s training she knew he was not, as his heart was still pumping his blood out. But she didn’t know if this desperate killer would know that and so she threw herself across Jess’s body, concealing the bleeding and screamed,” Yes, yes you’ve killed him!“

The man nodded and still just stared down at them and that was when she started screaming and crying hysterically.

He stood for a moment longer as though wondering what to do and then said harshly,” Will yer stop yer wailin’ I can’t think.”

Then she turned angry eyes on him, ”Just go,” and then she had a thought and unbuttoning her blouse at the neck she revealed the carved wooden crucifix she always wore.

“Just go,” she repeated, ”or are you going to kill a woman of God too? I’m a Nun, so are you to have me on your conscience as well?” she asked bitterly.

He looked profoundly shocked at that, ”No… no of course not Sister!”

And then he rallied a little and said, ”Just tell Sherman he’s gonna get the same. If yer make it back, tell him Wes Lane is gunning for him,” and with that he marched off through the bushes and moments later she heard his horse galloping away.

As soon as he had gone she applied herself to looking after her patient.

Suddenly she was back into her nurse’s role and without a second thought she ripped up her petticoat for bandages before she gently started to remove Jess’s blood soaked shirt and investigate the damage.

The bullet was still lodged in his chest, thankfully several inches wide of his heart, but none the less it was a very serious wound and she knew that she couldn’t attempt to remove the bullet until it was daylight and she just hoped to God he would make it through the night.

After a moment his long eyelashes flickered open and then he squinted up at her, ”What happened?” he gasped.

She shook her head, ”Hush Jess don’t try to talk, it’ll be OK, just rest awhile.”

He shook his head, ”Are you OK?”

She nodded and gave him her gentle smile, ”Yes, he’s gone, and he thinks you’re dead, he won’t be back.”


“A man called Wes Lane, said he was after Slim too?”

He just nodded, ”Figures.”

Then she checked the wound where she had been applying pressure for some time and was relieved to see that at least the bleeding had almost stopped.

“Just relax,” she said softly, ”I’ll try and make you as comfortable as I can and then when it’s light I’ll get that old bullet out, OK?”

He just nodded and closed his eyes, the pain exhausting him and she pulled the blanket over and holding him close she prepared for a long vigil throughout the night.

As soon as the first light of dawn was brightening the sky in the East, she started her preparations to remove the bullet. It had been a long and distressing night for them both, with Jess in considerable pain, groaning and cussing softly under his breath. Tessa had tried to ease his discomfort by wiping down his sweating face and chest with cool water and talking softly to him.

But now she was the complete professional, with all her thoughts on the surgical procedure before her. If that’s what you could call it she thought bitterly, knowing she had no proper instruments or anesthesia and the possibility of infection more than likely.

She had taken Jess’s hunting knife from his boot and sterilized it with some of the hill whiskey she knew he carried in his saddle bag and now she offered him the small bottle, holding it to his lips and supporting his head.

“Here,” she said softly, ”this will help take the edge off a little,” and then she had finally started the painful lengthy procedure of digging for the bullet.

He tried his best to keep still, but as she probed deeper and deeper for the allusive slug he began to move restlessly, his head jerking from side to side and his face contorted in agony.

“You have to keep still,” she said firmly, holding his face between her hands so he was forced to look up at her, ”I know this is really bad, but just a little longer, I have to do this Jess no matter how much it hurts you.”

“I know,” he whispered, ”go on…. I’m OK, “and by pure strength of spirit he managed to hold still until she had finally finished the job and held the bullet aloft triumphantly. But he never saw it as he was deeply unconscious by that stage and remained so for several hours.

She sat quietly beside him, her eyes never leaving his face, one hand resting gently on his naked torso feeling the shallow rise and fall of his chest, his breathing sometimes coming in shuddering gasps and then relaxing into an even rhythm, and all the time she prayed silently for him.

He drifted in and out of consciousness for several hours and then he finally awoke and was able to take some water before falling into a restless sleep. Tessa actually dozed off herself for a little while later in the afternoon, but was awoken abruptly by Jess yelling and lashing about, obviously suffering one his terrible nightmares. She went to him immediately and held him close, talking softly as he was sweating and staring around him in terror.

“It’s alright,” she whispered gently, ”he’s gone he won’t be coming back,” referring to Wes Lane.

He just stared at her shaking uncontrollably, “The camp…. I’ve been liberated right?” he whispered, searching her face, before looking wildly around him again.

Then she realized that he thought they were back on the way to the hospital after he had been released all those years ago. He must have been having one of his nightmares about the camp and then seeing her had triggered off his memories of her caring for him, even the chest wound was in a similar position.

Then she did something quite wrong, instead of reassuring him that he’d been dreaming and that the war was long over she merely nodded and just said, ”It’s OK, you’re quite safe now soldier,” and she was rewarded with such a look of heartfelt relief….And, yes deep affection, that the lie was worth it, although she suffered a pang of guilt.

Then she helped him drink some more water and settle down to sleep again, imagining that their conversation would be forgotten when he awoke.

Later she tried to get him to take some broth, but he said he felt sick and so she just made him comfortable and as darkness fell she banked up the fire and stretched out close by, where she could check on him throughout the night.

She was awakened in the early hours of the morning by his tossing and turning and her worst fears were realized when she ran a hand over his forehead and felt that he was burning up with fever.

Then he was calling out for her “Nurse…. Nurse!”

“I’m here,” she said gently wiping a cool cloth across his perspiring brow.

“Tessa,” he whispered, “you still on duty?”

She just nodded, “Try and sleep Jess,” she said softly, again not correcting him, he was just confused with the fever, he’d remember the real situation in the morning she told herself as she continued to minister to him, cooling him down and offering sips of water.

However by morning he had slipped into delirium and was calling out for Slim or Daisy and then for Millie. Later he got worse, lashing about and soaking the bedding with his perspiration, calling for his nurse, for nurse Tessa. She knew that mentally at least he was back in the hospital and back in love with his nurse and although she was desperately worried about him, part of her was secretly gratified and she craved his need for her.

She too felt she was reliving those days so long ago when he was totally dependent on her and she felt a great contentment, at once more being back in that role of protector. She was looking to meet his every need as she spent the long hours swabbing him down with icy water from the stream and in his odd moments of wakefulness helping him to sip water to ease his parched throat.

During these brief interludes, when he was awake it was obvious that he was seeing Tessa as he had done all those years ago, as his ‘guardian angel’, and she thought she could see the light of love in his eyes….or was it just deep gratitude for all she was doing for him, she wasn’t sure.


Jess was in limbo, somewhere between waking and sleeping, life and death. His whole world, one sliding kaleidoscope of light and shade, pain and fear and then relief, in his wakeful moments, as he saw his ‘angel’ watching over him. After the neglect and horror of the prison camp he was beginning to feel he had died and gone to heaven with Tessa nursing him so compassionately.

He couldn’t make out where he was, everything around him a grey fog, as all his senses where dimmed by the fever. All he was aware of was the thudding of his heart, the sweat pouring down his face and the constant presence of those concerned eyes gazing down, almost willing each labored breath he took.

Then their eyes locked and after a moment she leaned down and tenderly kissed his forehead, before pulling back and saying, intently, ”Jess, you must fight this, you have to fight……… .for your life, for us… .please.”

Then he remembered of course, she wasn’t just his nurse, they were in love, had been almost from the start……

He lifted an arm that felt like lead, and gently pulled her towards him and then kissed her, brushing her lips at first tentatively and then more firmly, before falling back, ”Love you,” he whispered very softly.

Then he was floating off into unconsciousness again, his gentle dreams of love, changing into horrific gut wrenching nightmares where death haunted his every step. He saw visions of maimed bloodied comrades, sensed again the decay and filth of the battlefield, and then felt that pain of the fateful bullet that had finished his war, as far as combat was concerned. Then he had been unceremoniously dragged bleeding and yelling to the prisoner of war camp. They sure didn’t take him easy, he had thought later, at least he could hold his head up high and say he fought with his last ounce of strength.

When he awoke from the nightmare Tessa was kneeling beside him, her head bowed and she was praying softly, and he listened to the hypnotic rhythm of her words and remembered his Ma reciting them to him as a child, the words of the23rd Psalm,

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Then after a moment she looked at him and her anguished expression was transformed into one of unimaginable joy as she saw he was restored. The jaws of death had relinquished their hold and returned him to her, the fever had broken at last and his eyes looked bright and alert.

All she could do was clasp his hand and then closing her eyes she gave a prayer of fervent thanks….. that her supplications had indeed been answered at last.

Then Jess smiled lazily up at her, ”Hey Tessa so what’s up with all the prayin’ anyone would think I was dyin’ or somethin’.“

She just looked down and shook her head wearily, ”Jess Harper,” she sighed, near to tears.

He held his hands up in surrender at that, ”Sorry, I have been kinda out of it… Gee I had some weird dreams,” he said reflectively. ”I guess I thought I was back in the war at one time… sure is good to wake up from it all, didn’t wanna be back there, that’s fer sure.”

She smiled sadly at that, remembering how he had kissed her and told her he loved her, but it had all been a dream an allusion as far as he was concerned and although she knew that, she still felt a stab of pain at his less than serious attitude.

Then he saw her expression, ”Tessa…. I’m sorry, I should be thankin’ you not makin’ light of it all…. But I guess you know me, things get kinda worrin’ and I start crackin’ jokes.....but it’s just my way of dealin’ with it you know?”

“Yes, I remember that’s the way you used to be, back then…..” she said softly taking his hand and squeezing it gently.

He looked down at their linked hands and then up into her eyes and was suddenly totally sincere, ”You know I guess I’ve just walked through that ol’ valley of death and you’ve brought me out the other side, again.”

She shook her head, ”Not just me Jess, I had a lot of help…. The Good Lord had a hand in it too you know.”

“Oh yeah, all that prayin’ you were doin’,“ he said with the ghost of a smile.

“Jess, I know you think it’s a waste of time, me spending my life as a Nun, but prayer can be very powerful, the Mother Superior, well she’s right when she says that we can perform miracles with prayer.

“Heck, I ain’t got no problem with prayin’… been known to do it myself on occasion,” he said giving her his charming grin.

“But see thing is Tessa, I just don’t think that life is right for you. Not when you’ve got this talent for healin’ folk. You’re a real good nurse and ‘twas you as saved me, with a little help from the Lord, I guess,” he finished, his eyes twinkling now.

“Jess Harper, you are incorrigible,” she laughed, “now, do you think you could manage some broth?”

“Sure and maybe some bacon and beans on the side?”

Chapter 4

It would be nice to say Jess made a speedy recovery and rode out the next day, but things weren’t that simple. He really had been at death’s door and it took awhile for him to bounce back and it was several days before he could even manage solid food, never mind sit a horse. But Jess, being Jess wanted to ride out within a couple of days. But of course that caused ructions with Tessa who insisted he rest and regain his strength before they moved on.

On the evening of the fourth day he fixed her with his stubborn look and said firmly, “Well I dunno what you’re doin’ tomorrow Tessa, but I’m ridin’ out, with you or without….. I’ve gotta get home.”

“Jess please see sense, you’re still as weak as a kitten; I doubt you could mount a horse, much less stay on.”

“Well you’ll just have to give me a leg up then won’t ya?” he said with his charming grin.

She knew when she was beaten and sighing said, ”I don’t know what your rush is………but if you must….. “

“Well I’ll tell you,” he said somewhat heatedly, ”that bastard…er excuse me that Wes Lane is still at large in case you’d forgotten and doubtless headed for the ranch and Slim. I need to warn him…… and it ain’t just my buddy that’s in danger it’s Mike and Daisy too…. now do ya see?”

She nodded, “Why yes, of course, we’ll go tomorrow, but at a slow pace, huh?”

He grinned across at her, ”Like I’ve got my old granny on board I promise,” and she had to smile at that, in spite of her reservations.

The chest wound was tightly bandaged and she had also put the arm on that side in a sling to stop him using the arm and pulling the wound open. She was amazed at his agility even after his recent trauma, as he managed to jump up into the saddle and set off at a pace far removed from any a granny would have been happy with, but she just swallowed her opinion and rode close by in case he got into difficulties.

It was late afternoon when they finally landed at the ranch and Slim followed by Daisy and Mike ran out to greet them, stopping in their tracks when they saw Jess looking pale and weary after the long ride and Tessa following him into the yard looking decidedly worried.

She jumped down from her mount and ran forwards to help Jess down, but Slim was there before her and grabbed hold of Jess’s good arm to steady him as he slipped from the saddle exhausted.

“Jeez buddy, what have you been up to now?” he asked looking concerned and then with the ghost of a smile, ”I kinda thought you’d manage to stay out of trouble seein’ as how you had Miss Tessa here to look out for.”

Jess flicked him a quick glance ignoring the usual banter and then threw an anxious scan around the yard.

“Have you been OK, no strangers around?”

“No, why what’s up pard, and what happened to you?” he asked serious now as he saw the full extent of Jess’s injuries, as he staggered a little looking completely done in.

“Come along inside,” said Daisy quickly, ”you both look dead on your feet, Mike dear can you put up the horses?”

“Sure aunt Daisy,” he said happily, pausing only to hug his hero before leading the mounts off.

Jess ruffled his hair, ”Thanks Tiger, rub ‘em down real good.”

“Yes sir!” came the cheerful reply.

Once they were sitting around the table with a coffee a piece and Daisy had satisfied herself that Tessa had done an excellent job binding the wound; Slim turned to his best buddy and said,” Well, what’ve you been up to now pard?” beaming at him, relieved to see that whatever had happened, Jess seemed to be on the mend.

Wes Lane happened to me,” said Jess, his voice gruff with anxiety.” You’re gonna have to be real careful Slim, he thinks I’m a goner and now he’s after you, wants us dead for the role we played ridin’ posse I guess.”

Then he scratched his head, ”Must have busted out of the Rawlins jail I guess.”

As he had been talking Slim’s eyes had opened wider and wider, his face a mask of shock, then he groaned, ”Oh no…. Jess, I’m so, so sorry, this is all my fault.”

Jess threw him a puzzled look, and then grinned at his friend, ”How so, you didn’t spring him did you Slim?” he quipped.

“Worse than that,” he said ignoring the humour, “Mort came around to warn us, said to tell you before you rode for Rawlins, and I forgot pard. It was when you came back from town real upset about Millie and we were talking it through, but that’s no excuse,” he said hanging his head.

Jess looked momentarily shocked, but recovered quickly,” Hell Hardrock quit yer frettin’ I’m OK ain’t I?” he said giving him a friendly punch on his arm.

However Tessa was incensed.

“Do you realize he nearly died on the trail,” she said angrily, “and even now he’s too sick to be riding, I had to dig a slug out of his chest and he was in agony and then he had a dreadful infection, I nearly lost him!” she cried loudly before jumping up from the table and running sobbing to the sanctuary of Daisy’s room, and slamming the door behind her.

There was a shocked silence and then Jess gave his buddy a kind smile, “Don’t pay no heed to her Slim; I guess she’s kinda tired after nursin’ me and all.”

Slim just couldn’t take Jess’s forgiving attitude and he swallowed hard, ”I’m real sorry,” he said again before excusing himself saying he’d check on how Mike was doing with the horses.

“Do you think we should check on her?” he asked Daisy, once Slim had left.

She shook her wise old head, ”No dear we’ll give her a moment to compose herself.”

Then she reached out and took his hand, ”Are you really alright Jess, you look exhausted?”

He just nodded and then said thoughtfully, ”Why didn’t you tell me she was trainin’ to be a Nun?”

She sighed, ”I really wanted to dear, especially once I knew of your… well your past together, but she was insistent she should tell you herself.”

“Um, so what do you think about it?”

“Well it’s none of my business…. But, oh Jess dear I don’t think it’s right for her, she’s such a talented nurse and I think it would be such a sad loss if she gave it all up.”

“Yeah, that’s what I told her.”

She gave him her sweet smile, ”You never cease to amaze me you know Jess.” she said softly.

“Oh? How so?”

“I don’t know, it’s just that you let folk think you’re such a tough cookie, but deep down you’re a very caring and understanding young man aren’t you?”

He just grinned at her, ”Maybe,” he said quietly, but then his blue eyes flashed in true Harper style, ”but don’t you dare tell anyone Daisy!”

Later on Daisy had gone and calmed Tessa down and she had apologized to Slim for her outburst blaming it on tiredness and worry. Jess had retired for an early night at Daisy’s insistence, thinking he still looked far from well.

Daisy was just tidying the kitchen for the night when Slim strolled in and slumped down at the kitchen table throwing her a tortured look, ”I feel so bad Daisy, how could I have forgotten to tell him, this is all my fault, and he looks real sick too doesn’t he?“

“Oh Slim dear, there is no point in fretting, and the reason you forgot was because the boy was so upset about Millie, I imagine that’s what put it out of your head. Anyway he’ll be more himself in the morning, after a good rest.”

Then Slim looked even more concerned, ”And that’s another thing I still have to tell him about Millie and I guess he’s going to take that really badly.”

The elderly woman ducked her head, ”Oh the poor boy, I nearly told him tonight, but then he looked so peaky, well I thought we’d tell him after a good night’s sleep.”

Slim sighed deeply, ”How am I going to do it Daisy, how am I going to tell him?”

Then they both turned as they heard a slight sound and turning stared transfixed at Jess, who was standing in the kitchen doorway gazing at them, “Tell me what buddy,” he said frighteningly quietly.

Slim looked from Daisy to Jess and back and raked a hand through his hair in an agitated gesture, but said nothing, his gaze dropping from Jess’s intense stare to the floor.

Daisy came quickly forwards and taking Jess by the arm led him to a kitchen chair and sat him down at the table before gesturing with her head for Slim to fetch a drink from the bottle in her store cupboard and then she sat down opposite him and looked deep into his eyes.

“Don’t be mad at Slim dear, we were worried about you, thought that the… the news could wait until you were feeling better.”

Jess who was shirtless and barefooted, just wearing his denims, absently rubbed a hand over his bandaged chest but didn’t reply.

Then Slim came over and put some glasses on the table and poured a couple of drinks, but Daisy shook her head when he went to pour a third.

Jess looked up at his partner again, ”Just tell me,” he said gruffly.

Slim sank down next to Daisy and then said quietly ,”I guess there is no easy way to tell you this Jess, but you know I had to attend that trial in Cheyenne while you were out of town?”

He just nodded,” Go on.”

“Well, while I was there I thought I’d pop into Millie’s Ma’s place to see if she was there… have a word maybe.”

“And was she?”

“Yeah….. “

“So what did yer say,” Jess spat, suddenly angry, ”poor ol’ Jess is breakin’ his heart over you so please take him back!”

“No, no pard it wasn’t like that, I just thought if I talked to her. Thought she’d maybe open up and tell me what the problem was.”

“And so did she?” he growled.

Slim shook his head, ”No, at least not at first, but her Ma did.”

“Oh? “

“Yeah…. Jess, I…….. “

“For God’s sake just spit it out will you. She’s tired of me, always goin’ off for days on end getting into trouble, I know,” and then he looked down at the bandage, “Well I guess the girl’s got a point, maybe she is better off without me,” he finished bitterly.

Slim’s head shot up at that, ”No pard you’ve got it wrong, she loves you something fierce, really she does.”

“She does?” He said looking dazed, “then how come……”

Slim looked down and then back into his friend’s bewildered face, but he suddenly had a huge lump in his throat and he couldn’t speak and threw Daisy a pleading look.

“She’s sick Jess, really sick dear, but she didn’t want you to know, she realized how upset you’d be….. if… if she didn’t make it. So she thought it would be easier all round for her to take off and let you forget her, ”said Daisy gently.

Jess just stared at her with incredulity; his eyes open wide in shock and he clapped a hand over his mouth, turning deathly pale like he was going to faint or chuck up.

Then he glared at his friends, “Easier for who? For me……thinkin’ she hated me, or for her goin’ off and leavin’ me…. not havin’ me there to comfort her… care for her,” and suddenly his anger evaporated and his voice broke as he said, ”I should be there to care for her……” and he stood up swaying a little as a wave of dizziness and nausea struck him.

Slim was immediately on his feet and pushed Jess back down in his seat, ”Steady Jess, you’re going nowhere tonight, here,” and he put the whiskey glass in his hand.

Jess stared at it for a moment, his hand shaking, and then he knocked it back in one and shuddered as the strong spirit hit his throat and he looked back at Slim, ”Tomorrow, I’ll go tomorrow,” and both Daisy and Slim knew there would be no arguing with him now, and he turned tail and went back to bed.


Slim heard him moving about packing a case at first light and he sat up and surveyed his buddy for awhile before saying, “So you really are going then?”

“Have to,” he replied taciturnly, “you know that Slim.”

“Please tell me you’re not riding all that way, you really aren’t well enough Jess. Tessa’s filled me in on your injuries and it would be crazy to get back in the saddle again right now.”

Jess just nodded, ”I know that, gettin’ the Stage and anyways my old horse is pretty beat too, look out for him while I’m away will yer Slim?”

“I thought I might come along for the ride, keep you company you know?”

He shook his head.

“Nope, this is something I have ter do alone and anyways we can’t both be away again, we’ve already paid out for help once this month.”

“Um, I guess you’re right, but … well I just want to try and make it up to you buddy, Hell, it’s my fault you were all shot up in the first place.”

“Slim, will you forget about that. I have got more important things to worry about right now.”

Then he slumped down on his bed,” So do you know what’s exactly wrong with her?”

“Some sort of women’s problem,” he said vaguely,” Millie’s Ma, Peggy, told me a little and then when I told Daisy she seemed to know all about it, I guess you need to talk to her.”


“But do you remember when her Ma was really sick a few years back and you gave Millie all your savings, to help her?”

“Sure I do.”

“Well, it looks like Millie may have the same kinda thing.”

Jess took this in and then turned pale, ”But that cash I gave to Millie, it was for nursing care to the end, and funeral expenses, Hell Slim, Ma Johnson was dying.”

Slim looked shocked and then rallied, “Yeah, but she didn’t did she? She’s alive and well and running that busy Boarding House…. And Millie will be fine too, you’ll see.”

Jess had needed to be alone and before breakfast he went out and started grooming his horse, the age old rhythm of the task calming his taught nerves.

After awhile though he heard a slight sound behind him and swinging around he saw Tessa standing there watching him.

He gave her a small smile of welcome, although he craved his solitude just then, and she seemed to pick up on that and half turned to go.


“It’s Ok I don’t want to disturb you; I just thought you might want to talk?”

He sighed softly, but rallied and walking out of the stall went over to her and they sat down on a straw bale.

“Not much to say, you know Millie’s real sick?”

She nodded and took his hand, ”Yes I’m sorry, you were real good friends I know… “

His head shot up at that, “No… we’re a heck of a lot more than that Tessa….”

“Oh…. Well yes,” she said feeling puzzled, they had split up surely.

Then he glanced over at her and said gently, ”You know how we were on the trail. You kinda implied you still had feelings for me. Well that was just because you were remembering how it was… how we were in the war. Especially after I was shot up that way and you were nursin’ me again, that was all it was….. wasn’t it Tessa?”

She sighed, but she suddenly couldn’t embarrass herself, or him, with the truth.

“Yes, of course,” she said quickly, ”I just had a moment when I felt really close, but we’ve both moved on from that time I know that Jess,” she lied.

He nodded, ”Sure we have, I just wouldn’t wanna hurt you, you know?” he asked his blue eyes concerned.

“Oh, no of course not,” she said smiling, even though her heart was breaking, ”I know that.”

Then the moment was broken as Mike called them in for breakfast.

But when she was to remember this conversation later she knew that she was lying and she still had hopes that they would get back together, although he had given her not the slightest promise of that.

After breakfast Slim took Mike off to prepare the team for the early morning Stage and Tessa stayed diplomatically in her room while Jess and Daisy sat around the breakfast table having a final cup of coffee.

Jess was feeling extremely uncomfortable about the conversation he was about to have with Daisy regarding Millie’s medical condition, but he just had to know what he was facing.

Daisy picked up on the charged atmosphere at once and tried to make the situation easier for him.

“I believe Slim has mentioned Millie is suffering a similar complaint to the one her mother had?”

He just nodded, ”Is it as serious Daisy?”

She took his hand and said softly, ”It could be, I believe it is too early to tell. You see she is suffering from a cyst or a small growth in her… well her abdomen, and it has to be removed to determine if it could be life threatening.”

“And her Ma had the same?”

“Yes but in Peggy Johnson’s case the growth was dangerous and so she needed extensive surgery, but thanks to you paying for the operation it was caught in time and so she can lead a normal healthy life.”

He smiled with relief then, ”So it will be OK with Mill then, it was found soon enough, she can have the surgery if it’s needed like her Ma yeah?“

At this Daisy looked deeply troubled.

“Daisy, she can can’t she?”

“If it was to come to that, but this growth may be benign…harmless that is…. “

“But if it ain’t, she can get the surgery right?”

Daisy nodded, ”Except, well…… in Millie’s case it would have a serious impact on her life…… you see Jess, if she had major surgery like her Ma…. well it would mean she would be rendered sterile, she wouldn’t be able to give you children.”

Jess recoiled in shock, his eyes staring at her, reflecting the pain in her own old eyes and then he jumped up and thrusting his hands into his pockets he strode over to the window and stood looking out over the yard for several minutes.

Then he took a deep shuddering sigh and turned back to Daisy.

“That why she chucked me over, didn’t want me to stay with her out of pity…. And because she thought she couldn’t give me the family we wanted?”

She nodded, “I imagine so, yes dear.”

He shook his head sadly ”Crazy woman,” then he looked Daisy in the eyes, ”does she really think that would make any difference? Hell I love her Daisy… no matter what, this don’t make no difference to me, to the way I feel about her.”

“I know dear, and I imagine that deep down Millie does too, but she’s not thinking straight at the moment, maybe a visit from you is just what she needs.”

He nodded, ”Thanks Daisy,” and he kissed her gently on the forehead.

Then Slim burst in, ”Stage will be here in a minute, you got everything you need buddy?

“I guess, everything but a good education,” he said with a faint grin.

Daisy and Slim exchanged a quick glance, knowing that this was Jess’s way, joking to hide his real feelings.

Then Slim said, ”Are you going to check on Traveler before you go?” knowing full well that he would.

“Sure,” said Jess making to leave and winking at Daisy.

“I’ll walk across with you,” said Slim, again casting Daisy a concerned glance.

Once in the barn Jess marched over to his horse’s stall and started making a fuss of him and talking softly, but after a couple of minutes he turned to look at his buddy.



“You wanted to talk to me in private didn’t you?”

Slim’s open honest face relaxed into a smile, “Yeah, I guess so,” but then he sobered.

“I just wanted to warn you. Millie, well you’ll see a change in her Jess she’s lost weight, looks real poorly. It might be a bit of a shock.”

He just nodded, “Yeah, OK.”

“Jess and there’s something else….”


“I figure she’ll be real mad when you turn up. She really didn’t want you to know…..wanted me to promise I’d say nothing to you.”

Jess threw him a faint grin, “So did you?”

He shook his head, ”Nah, I said as how I wouldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t guarantee that you wouldn’t find out.”

Then he smiled at his friend, ”And in the end it wasn’t me that told you it was Daisy.”

“Well so it was, guess that leaves you in the clear, I just hope she doesn’t refuse to see me.”

“Don’t worry Jess her Ma is on side asked me to fetch you over as soon as possible. She reckons you’re the only one as will make Millie see sense. It seems she’s real depressed, won’t eat and the like and her Ma thinks that’s all down to her kicking you out.”

Jess smiled at that, ”Her Ma always did have a lot of sense.”

Then they heard the rattle of old Mose driving the Stage into the yard, the chickens squawking and running for their lives as he brought the team to a puffing, head jerking standstill. He grinned down from the box as the two cowboys emerged from the barn, pleased to have Jess’s company on the trip.

Once the team was changed there was a flurry of goodbyes from all, and just before Jess climbed aboard Tessa leaned up and kissed his cheek, ”I’ll pray for Millie,” she said softly, ”for you both.”

He smiled down at her. ”Thanks,” he said, ”that means a lot,” and then he gave a little salute to the others and jumped on board. A minute later the members of the Sherman ranch were staring sadly at the flurry of settling dust as the Stage disappeared over the rise.


The first thing he did when he alighted from the Stage was to visit the Cheyenne doctor and old friend Doc Tom Lloyd.

He was shown into the doctor’s office right away and as soon as the Doctor saw who it was he got up from his desk, offering his hand and smiling in welcome.

“Sit you down Jess,” he said kindly, ”I was expecting you. Here to see Miss Millie are you?”

“That’s right Tom, Slim told me that you’d been treating her, I just want to know how she is…. What I can do to help her?”

“Well, like I told Slim, I can’t really say too much as I’m bound by confidentiality to my patient as you know, but off the record I can tell you she’s really quite poorly Jess.”

He just nodded, ”I guess she’s told you she’s knocked me back?“

He nodded, ”And as to why as well. She couldn’t bear to see you suffering if, well……. if she doesn’t get better, and then there is the matter of a family…. If things don’t go too well….”

Jess just dipped his head at this and the older man threw him a compassionate look.

“Now listen son, we don’t even know what we’re dealing with yet. She’s scheduled to go into the local hospital here for some exploratory surgery in a few days and then depending on what we find ………will determine our treatment.

“But you say she’s real sick now?”

“Yes and I think that’s where you come in young man. She’s pining, for you I reckon, stopped eating and looks to have just given up, so maybe seeing you will get her back on track.”

“Or make her hopping mad. According to Slim she really don’t wanna see me,” he said with a sheepish grin.

“Well that may be what she’s saying, but I don’t believe a word of it,” said the Doc grinning broadly now.

“I know young Millie pretty well and I can tell you she’s one very scared, unhappy young lady right now and you are exactly what she needs,” he said more seriously.

Jess got up and shook the doctor’s hand, ”Thanks Tom, I’ll get to it then,” and he left at once, heading for the Johnson Boarding House.

He knocked on the brightly painted front door and after a minute, Millie’s Ma, Mrs Peggy Johnson opened it, wiping her hands on her apron. But she stood back in surprise when she saw who it was and the anxious frown was replaced by a look of delight and then relief.

“Oh, Jess,” she said, taking his hand and almost pulling him across the threshold, “thank goodness, Slim said you’d come.”

“Hello Mrs Johnson,” he said with a smile,” it sure is good to see you,” then quietly,” How is she?”

Her face clouded, ”Not good dear, she goes for her operation in a few days and the doctor wanted to build her up, but she just won’t eat, I’m so worried.”

“Can I go up?“

“Of course, please do dear……..and Jess…”

“Yes Ma’am?”

“Pay no heed to anything she says, you know how she really feels about you……”

“Yeah, sure I do, I understand.”

He ran lightly up the stairs and tapped on Millie’s door and when there was no reply he opened it slowly and went in.

The room was dimly lit with just the light from the lamp by the bed. The curtains were drawn against the bright sunlight and it took him a moment for his eyes to adjust, and then he made his way to the bedside and peered down.

What he saw shocked him to the core. His beautiful girl looked pale and ill, she had lost weight and her usually glossy hair lay lankly framing her ashen, pinched little face.

She looked up at him when he came in, her eyes huge and troubled.

She hardly seemed to recognise him however, her gaze lacklustre and almost vacant.

He tried to hide his growing feelings of alarm at her appearance and sitting down on the edge of the bed, he gently took her hand.

“I’ve come to see you Millie; your Ma said it was OK to come up.”

Then she looked at him properly and pulled her hand away quickly, ”What are you doing here!” she gasped.

“Like I said, come to see you, sweetheart.”

“I’m not your sweetheart and Ma had no right to let you in! I told you back in Laramie, we’re through, now just go I don’t want you here, I don’t love you anymore Jess….!”

He dipped his head at that, feeling as hurt as he could ever remember, but he wasn’t going anywhere, and then the Harper temper kicked in to save the day.

He threw her a furious look, ”Well I don’t believe you and if you think I’m gonna just take off and leave you here to die you’ve got another think comin’ because I ain’t goin’ nowhere until you’re well again. So you’d better get used to the idea!”

She sat up and took notice at that, ”How can you say that, how can you care about me, after what I’ve said?”

“Because I love you, you crazy woman!” he shouted ….. “And what’s more you love me too…… dontcha?”

She shook her head and buried her face in her hands, ”Don’t, don’t do this to me Jess, I’m trying to do the right thing.”

Then she sat bolt upright and stared at him, her face flushed, “Just go,” she yelled, ”I don’t want you anymore, go away Jess, please,” …… her voice finally breaking on that last word.

“Can’t do that, you love me and right now you need me and I ain’t goin’…..”

She stared at him in astonishment and then her brown eyes filled with tears, ”You win,” she whispered after a few minutes.

Then she opened her beautiful eyes wide and said sincerely, “Yes of course I love you…. I always have,” and that was when he took her in his arms and held her as she cried as if her heart was breaking.

“It’s OK,” he said softly, “we’ll get through this…….”

When she finally stopped crying she pulled back and looked him in the eyes properly.

“Jess you don’t understand, I might die when I have this operation and even if I survive it, well I may not……” and then she stifled a sob and couldn’t go on.

“Hush,” he said gently, ”I know Millie, you might not be able to have kids, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, yeah? And if….….no when, we finally decide to get Wed…..well I reckon we could always adopt, I guess young Mike didn’t turn out too bad huh?”

She gave him the ghost of a smile at that, ”I love Mike, you know that…. but would you really not mind?”

“Said so didn’t I?” and then it was suddenly all too much for him and he held her close so she wouldn’t see the tears in his eyes, ”All I want is you,” he whispered.

When Peggy Johnson tapped lightly on the door sometime later she was delighted to see the change in her daughter. She still looked pale and fragile, put there was a new light in her eyes. She was sitting on the old couch pulled close to a blazing fire that Jess had lit and her Ma saw she had brushed her hair and was generally looking much better.

Jess jumped up, from where he had been sitting close to Millie, holding her hand, and helped Mrs Johnson with the tray she was bearing, bearing some broth for her daughter and a good strong cup of coffee for Jess.

The older woman sat with them for a few minutes and was delighted to see Millie tuck into the first meal she had eaten in a week.

Then she turned her attention to Jess.

“Slim told us all about your trip over to Rawlins. Did your friend see her mother alright?” she asked kindly.

“Yeah, she passed over while we were there, but I guess Tessa was real glad to have seen her, before it was too late.”

“Well that was something and the young lady is a nurse Slim was saying?”

Jess nodded smiling now, ”Yeah, well she was, and a good job too. We kinda ran into some trouble coming home and I got shot up some, so it was real lucky Tessa was there to look out for me.”

“Oh my dear boy, I thought you looked peaky, are you alright?”

He turned to Millie at that and beamed, ”Yeah, I guess I am now.”

Mrs Johnson smiled and gave Jess a little wink before leaving the young couple together.

“Jess are you really OK, you do look kind of pale and tired?”

“I’m fine really, let’s just concentrate on you, huh?”

After her mother had gone Millie threw Jess a speculative look, “So this Tessa, an old friend is she?”

He nodded sipping his coffee, ”Could say so, we had an understanding………. once.”

She glanced up, giving him a quizzical look at that, ”Oh really?”

“Yeah, ‘twas a long time ago… didn’t work out.”

“Oh?” she said again, with interest.

Then he chuckled, ”Hell Millie, iffen I didn’t know you better I’d say you were jealous.”

She flushed a little at that, ”Well I couldn’t really blame you if you had gone off with her, the way I’ve been treating you of late.”

He took her hand again and squeezed it gently, “I understand really I do, and as for Tessa, yeah we did have something, real special once but that’s over, for me……..anyways.”

“Over for you, but not for her?”

He thought about that for awhile and then said honestly, ”It’s kinda a long story, but she thought I was dead, until she upped and visited Daisy at the ranch and then suddenly discovered I lived there and was alive and kicking. Well I guess that was a shock, sparked off a few memories is all.”

“So she wanted to continue where you left off?“

He smiled then, ”No I guess not, she’s gonna take her Holy vows as a Nun sometime soon.”

“She’s going to be Nun? Gee Jess, so she doesn’t nurse anymore then?”

“No I guess not. Anyways that’s enough of Tessa, what about you, how are you feelin’ now?”

She thought for a moment and then gave him a warm smile, “You know I do believe I’m feeling a little better.”

Chapter 5

Over the next few days Mrs Johnson saw a whole new side to Jess that she never knew existed.

Now she sat thinking back to her memories of Jess and also all he had done for her daughter so recently.

Oh she had known him as a young ragamuffin hell raising around the small Texas town where he and Millie had grown up together, the grinding poverty and deprivation having little effect on their high spirits and camaraderie.

She knew of that fateful day when the Banister gang had fired the family homestead and the fact that the fifteen year old Jess had left shortly afterwards seeking revenge.

She also knew about his somewhat chequered history as a gunslinger after he left Texas; about his reputation as a lightning fast gun and a temper almost as sudden. Yes he sure was a tough cookie, she thought as she prepared breakfast for him and her dear daughter.

He had a kind heart though as she well knew, having been helped out financially by him when she herself was sick a few years earlier. Yes his heart was in the right place she thought as she brewed the coffee.

But nothing had prepared her for the tenderness he had shown in caring for Millie. From the very first moment he arrived he had nurtured her, by encouraging her to eat properly and start to think positively about the future and he would hear no word of defeat from her lips.

He had spent all his time sitting with her hour after hour. Talking softly, teasing and cajoling her to do what was necessary for her recovery. Sometimes just sitting holding her, his warm embrace better medicine than anything the doctor had to offer.

“It’s gonna be Ok sweetheart,” he had said to her only the night before, when she had been worrying about going to the hospital, that very day.

“Me and your Ma will be there and I’ve spoken to ol’ Doc Tom. He says this new guy who’s transferred from the Massachusetts Hospital over in Boston, err Doc Ben Phillips, is a real hot shot. He’s the best surgeon there is in these parts, so you’re in real good hands.”

They had been sitting around the fire in the back parlour of the Boarding House and Mrs Johnson had seen her daughter stifle a yawn and said quickly, ”Time you were in bed my girl.”

“Aw Ma, I don’t want to go up yet,” she said from where she was sitting on the couch, Jess’s protective arm around her.

“Do as your Ma says sweetheart. You need yer beauty sleep, busy day tomorrow……… go on, and I’ll come and tuck you up just now,” he said with a wicked wink.

Mrs Johnson hid a smile and was pleased when Millie got up reluctantly and made for her room.

When she had gone Jess looked into the fire, his expression bleak, and after a moment he turned to Mrs Johnson and said very softly, “She will be OK won’t she Ma?”

Peggy Johnson suddenly realized it was the first time he had ever called her that, and it gave her a lovely warm feeling, but then she looked over at the personable young man and said, “I hope so dear.”

(Then she sighed deeply, “There is no point in pretending that it isn’t a very dangerous operation, what op, isn’t? But at least she is well prepared, thanks to you.”

He looked surprised, ”I ain’t done much.”

“Oh you have my dear,” she said sincerely, impulsively taking his hand, ”more than you will ever know…..”

Now, the following morning she was shaken out of her reverie as she heard Jess and Millie coming down for breakfast chatting softly, and then her daughter’s pretty laugh as Jess joked with her and she smiled to herself.

He had let his guard down last night and she knew how much he was hurting and how extremely worried he was. But Millie would never have guessed, she thought as he continued with the light hearted banter, keeping her daughter’s spirits up.

Jess had hired a buggy to take them to the small hospital on the outskirts of the town. They arrived in good time and Millie was hustled off to see the doctor with her Ma, whilst Jess said he’d get some fresh air and visit once Millie was settled in bed.

Just the very smell of the place knocked him sick. His stomach was churning in fear and anticipation of what was to happen to Millie, but he knew he mustn’t dwell on it or he would be lost. He had to keep the light hearted facade up for Millie’s sake.

He wandered outside and leaned on the hitching rail in front of the large imposing building and stared with unseeing eyes down the busy street.

Then after a few minutes his attention was taken by the Stage bowling along from Laramie and he wondered idly if Mose was driving, and if so, if he would have news of his friends back at the ranch.

The all of a sudden he saw Mose was indeed up on the box and what’s more he was pulling the Stage in for an unscheduled stop. The horses were trembling from the onerous journey taken at some speed, Jess surmised, from the way the beasts were sweating.

“Hey Mose, so where’s the fire?” he asked grinning up at the old timer.

“Ain’t no laughing matter son! I’ve got a mighty important cargo, mighty important and the sooner I get rid of it, the happier I’ll be,” and with that he jumped down and threw the door open.

“Cheyenne hospital folks,” he said standing back for the passengers to alight.

Jess just stared in amazement as first Wes Lane lurched down from the Stage, looking more dead than alive, supported by Slim and followed by Tessa.

“What the…. What in Hell are you all doin’ here?”

“Long story pard,” said Slim smiling anxiously in Jess’s direction, ”I’ll just get this guy sorted out and be right with you, as soon as I can.”

Tessa stopped however and said gently, ”How is Millie?”

“Dunno, just checked her in… say Tessa what’s Slim doin’ with Wes Lane?”

“He attacked him at the ranch; it was awful Jess……”

“Daisy and Mike, they’re OK?”

“Oh yes, look I must go to check on the patient… err prisoner. I need to report to the staff on his condition.”

Then she gave him her gentle smile, “The thing is though Jess, I was travelling this way home and then Sheriff Corey asked if I would help Slim look after the prisoner on the journey, and I thought I could say goodbye to you properly too…. I’ll see you later then?”

“Sure,” he said smiling absently at her, ”later.”

Then, next thing Sheriff Masters, the Cheyenne sheriff and Jess’s good friend strode over.

“Well howdy Sheriff what are you doin’ here?” asked Jess looking surprised and wondering who else was about to turn up at the hospital.

The older man grinned over at Jess, ”Come to help guard the prisoner for a spell, give ol’ Slim a rest. It seems Wes there was after revenge. He tried to shoot your buddy, but got more than he bargained for.”

“Yeah, so I hear. He had a go at me too. He left me for dead, awhile back, bushwhacked me over at Medicine Bow.”

“Uh, yeah I know. That’s not all he’s wanted for, seems new evidence has come to light and we can pin the robbery over at the Knight’s ranch on him, as well as the bank job in Rawlins.”

“Hell, yer don’t say!”

“So, once he’s been fixed up by the hospital we’ll be holding another trial here in Cheyenne. With any luck the rest of the gang will get themselves back from Mexico and try and spring him, then we’ll have the whole darn lot of ‘em under lock and key.“

“Well don’t hold yer breath,” said Jess with a smile, ”that Lane Gang are darned smart, doubt iffen they’ll cross the border again for awhile even for Wes.”

Then Sheriff Masters grinned, ”Whatever, either way, this hombre will be going to jail and the key thrown away as soon as he’s fit to stand trial,” and with that he marched off to find his prisoner.

Then Millie’s Ma came to find Jess, saying Millie wanted to see him before they took her in for her operation.

He entered the room to see Millie already wearing a hospital gown and looking tiny in the large white bed, her eyes fearful.

He came and sank down on the chair beside the bed and took her hand, his heart beating almost out of his chest, and he felt sorely troubled as he absorbed Millie’s fear and tension.

However he took a deep breath and pinned a smile on his face, knowing he had to be brave for them both.

”Ok sweetheart, all ready?“

She shook her head, ”I don’t want to do this Jess, supposing……... well…… I don’t come back.”

“Hey, sure you will, this ain’t like you honey, you ain’t a quitter.”

She just looked down, trying to control her emotions.

Then he tried again.

“Do you remember that time back on the Panhandle when we was tryin’ to ride that mean ol’ mustang of your uncle’s and you fell off and cut yer knee open?Jeez, never seen blood like it.”

She gave a little smile at the memory, “Yeah I remember.”

“Me and Billy Davies bandaged it up and were all for walkin’ you home to your Ma and what did you do…. You got right back up on that ornery beast, said a critter that evil sure wasn’t gonna beat you.”

She nodded.

“So, I guess this ol’ illness ain’t gonna beat yer either…..…. is it?” he asked his deep blue eyes searching her face.

After a moment she gave him the ghost of a smile, “I guess it ain’t, thanks Jess…“

“Come here,” and he held her close and then pulling back a little he kissed her very tenderly on her forehead, ”You go get this sorted and then we can get you back home to Laramie where you belong…. OK?”

She nodded and after a moment the nurse who had been hovering in the side lines, unbeknownst to them both, came forwards. Then after helping Millie into a wheelchair she wheeled her away, throwing Jess a compassionate glance as she left.

As soon as she had gone he sat down on the bed and sank his head into his hands feeling like he could have wept.

After a few minutes he felt a light hand on his shoulder, ”Jess?”

He looked up to see Tessa sitting on the edge of the bed beside him, wearing a nurse’s uniform.

He shook his head and took a double take, ”Heck Tessa, why are you dressed up like a nurse?”

“Well I am one of course,” she said with a small smile.

“Whoa…I thought you’d given all that up for……. what was it…… for a life of devotion huh?”

She ignored his sarcasm and said quickly, “You won’t believe it Jess but Ben is here, Doc Ben Phillips!“

“Yeah, he’s real good according to the Cheyenne doc. He says he was one of the best surgeons they had in Boston, moved out here to care for his elderly folks or somethin’.”

“Yes, that’s right,” she said looking really excited, ”but the thing is we worked together at the Massachusetts Hospital back in Boston. I was his theatre nurse before I was promoted to Deputy Matron, and he’s asked me to help at Millie’s operation.”

“Well that’s good,” he said quietly, ” I figure she couldn’t be in better hands.”

She nodded at that and then rose to go, but then paused for a moment, ”You do realize… well, how serious it is?” she said very gently.

He nodded, ”Yeah…… I know.”

She just nodded again, ”I’ll do my very best and so will Ben…”

“I know,” he said again, ”and ……..thanks,” then she was gone.

He wandered out of the hospital awhile later and just stood looking out at the busy street, not knowing exactly what to do to calm himself for the duration of Millie’s operation.

He turned to look down the street and leaning back on the hospital wall, he took a smoke out of his vest pocket. After striking a match on the seat of his denims he lit the cigarette and took a deep draw before gazing out at the street again, squinting through the exhaled plume of blue grey smoke.

He felt he must have been standing there for hours, although it was actually only ten minutes or so, when Slim came out to find him.

“Jess, are you OK? “

“I guess.”

“Come on buddy there’s a café across the road, let’s go sit down huh?We’re plenty close to get back to the hospital if we’re need.”

“What about Mrs Johnson is she OK?“

“Sure, she met a friend in there with a busted leg, so she’s visiting her, should help to take her mind off things.”

Jess just nodded, glad the older woman had company.

They went across to the café, and Jess slumped down in the window seat while Slim went and ordered, coming back with a couple of coffees a few minutes later.

When he returned, he threw his buddy a sympathetic glance, “Sure you’re OK?”

“Said so didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but you don’t look it, so Millie got off for the op alright?”

“Um, and Tessa’s assisting, she knows the surgeon, Doc Ben Phillips, seems they’re old buddies, so I guess she’s in good hands…. It’s just… “

“What Jess?”

“I dunno, my track record with women ain’t too great is it Slim?Everyone I fall for seems to die or get sick, or go away… “

“Look you can’t think that way Jess, you’ve got to have faith you know?”

“Yeah, I guess….”

“I haven’t seen you do that for awhile,” said Slim, gesturing to the cigarette Jess was drawing on like his life depended on it.

“Yeah…… .well,” and he stubbed it out after a final drag.

They sat on in silence sipping their drinks, Slim racking his brains to think of something he could say to help alleviate the tension, but there were no words that would help, and he knew it.

Once Jess had finished his coffee he stood up, pulling his hat down hard and squinted down at Slim.

“So where are you off to then?”

“Back to the hospital, I can’t stay here Slim, gotta be there for when she comes round. I’ll go crazy sittin’ around here.”

Slim just shook his head in mock despair.

“Ok let’s go and anyway I figure it’s time I relieved the deputy. The Sheriff wants us guarding Wes Lane around the clock while he’s in the hospital. Then once he’s well enough to stay in the jail we can all relax some,” and the two cowboys made their way back across the road.

“The Sheriff doesn’t really think the Lane Gang will strike here does he?”

“I guess not, just being careful, word on the street is that Wes had an accomplice that helped him escape from Rawlins jail and he’s already wired the Lane brothers last week and they’re on their way. But I guess that is only gossip.”

“Uh, well anyways they wouldn’t risk attacking a hospital with armed guards around, even the Lane Gang aren’t that stupid. And iffen Masters was worried he’d put the prisoner somewhere out of harm’s way, off in a backroom somewhere.”

“I guess you’re right. Maybe he thinks if Wes is slap bang amongst all the other patients he’ll be harder to find… the last place they’d think to look. But no he reckons they’ll wait and make a play for him once he’s in jail. Masters reckons he’ll have a chance of getting the rest of the gang, if they try and spring him again.”

“Uh, maybe……… anyway I’ll catch yer later.”

They parted company at the top of the stairs with Slim turning left walking down to the bottom of the long white corridor to take up his position sitting outside the outlaw’s room, and Jess went in the opposite direction and entered Millie’s room several doors down to await her arrival back from the operating theatre.

He knew he probably wasn’t allowed to be in there, but right then he didn’t give a damn and anyone challenging him would sure get the full force of the Harper temper he thought, as he stood moodily staring out of the window at the bustling street below.

After awhile he slumped down in the bedside chair and wearily closed his eyes. He wouldn’t sleep, hell how could he sleep, he was so darned worried about Millie……... But he sure was tired…….

When he awoke he could tell by the slant of the sun coming through the window that it was way past noon and for a moment he forgot where he was. Then he turned his gaze from the window and down to the bed…. And there lay Millie looking pale but sleeping peacefully.

Then he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and Tessa was there smiling down at him.

“Hey sleepyhead, are you OK?” she said softly.

He just nodded, and then gave all his attention to Millie, gazing down at her sleeping face before very tentatively leaning forwards and stroking a finger very gently down her cheek, but she didn’t stir.

“How did it go?” he finally asked his heart pounding, dreading bad news.

“She’s going to be just fine Jess. The cyst was harmless and she didn’t need any major surgery…”

He just stared at her his eyes wide in shock and it was a few minutes before the good news hit home.

“Do you understand what I’m saying,” she said kindly, ”she’s going to be just fine.”

At that he closed his eyes and swallowed hard before looking back up at Tessa.

“Thank you so much,” he whispered, and seeing his raw emotion she leaned over and squeezed his hand gently.

“It’s OK,” she said softly, ”it’s OK to be emotional Jess. God knows you’ve been through a lot lately, you both have.”

“So have you, ”he said, “What with losing your Ma and all and then me givin’ you a hard time about being a Nun…..” he continued throwing her a rueful look.

“No,” she said quickly, ”that’s OK and you were quite right to say what you did. I needed to really think things through. And as for Ma is concerned…… I guess it was a blessed release for her, suffering the way she was. I know she’s with the Lord and is safe now… I truly believe that, so I guess I’m not really grieving too much.”

“I’m glad,” he said, giving her his shy smile, ”I guess it’s a real comfort havin’ that kinda faith.”

“Oh yes, I have no problem with my faith in God. It’s faith in me I was lacking…. But not anymore thanks to you Jess.”

“Me, what did I do?”

“You trusted me to look after you when you were shot, lay there while I dug about for that bullet and showed that you trusted me with your life and today with your girl’s life….. “

“Yeah, and you didn’t let me down did you.”

She beamed at that, ”No and because of that I feel……. well that I could really nurse again. It seems like Ben thinks so too, he’s just asked me to take my old job back as his theatre nurse, here in Cheyenne.”

“Well that’s swell, and you’re gonna take it?”

She nodded excitedly, ”You were right I was just hiding away at the Monastery. I can see that now. Sure I’ll still pray daily, I don’t think I’ll ever lose that, but I’ll help my patients with my nursing skills as well as my spiritual ones,” she said happily.

Then she turned her attention back to her patient, and carefully checked her pulse before looking across the bed to Jess.

“She’s doing just fine, why don’t you go and relax for awhile? Get a meal and I’ll come and find you if there’s any change?”

He was just about to argue the toss when there was the sound of a gun discharging and then screams.

“What in Hell,” and Jess leapt up from his chair and ran to the door wrenching it open and looking down the corridor he saw Slim suddenly jump out of his chair, looking around anxiously, his iron at the ready.

Then Jess heard more gunshots and saw three mean tearing up the stairs, their guns out and as they advanced he recognised Hank Lane, closely followed by his brothers, Pete and Con.

“Hold it right there Hank,” he yelled, drawing his own colt .45. Almost before the words were out Hank turned his gun on Jess and fired and Jess returned the fire almost simultaneously, as he dived and rolled, aware that there was no cover.

His bullet found it’s mark though and Hank fell just as Slim opened fire, engaging the other two brothers, giving Jess the chance to recover and open fire again.

This time the shot was returned swiftly by Pete who just caught him, grazing his temple, but Jess was far more accurate and his bullet found Pete’s heart and he was downed and lay motionless, dead before he hit the ground.

Meanwhile Con and Slim had been exchanging fire and Con managed to wound Slim in the arm, but again Jess and Slim retaliated and Slim blasted Con catching him in the shoulder and he fell slumped to the ground rolling in agony.

Then there was suddenly total silence, the strewn bodies, smell of cordite and blue smoke drifting in the air, the only evidence of the violence that had taken place in just a few short seconds.

Jess leapt forwards, angrily brushing the blood from his face, with his sleeve, where Pete’s shot had caught him. He ran over to Con and kicked his gun out of harm’s way and after checking the others were dead ran to help Slim. He was on his knees, one hand gripping his damaged arm, his expression grim.

Then suddenly the Sheriff and his Deputy were there and the corridor full of hospital staff attending to the dead and the wounded.


Millie’s eyelids flickered and then a moment later her eyes opened and she looked around the room, and saw the first shafts of daylight illuminating a figure slumped in the chair beside the bed.

She opened her eyes properly then and focused on Jess. He was snoring gently; his chin was resting on his chest, his face ashen, a dressing to his left temple and his shirt front looking very much like he’d been rolling around in the dirt.

Then as she watched he stirred and his blue eyes opened and he stared right at her, instantly awake.

As soon as he saw her gazing at him, his face relaxed into a big grin.

“Hey there sweetheart, you finally woken up then, so how are you?” he asked leaning over and taking her hand.

She just smiled sleepily, “I feel fine… guess I’m in better shape than you are Jess….. “

“Oh, yeah,” he said absently putting a hand up to the wound, ”I kinda got into a bit of a scrap with the Lane Gang……”

“Jess,” she sighed, “you are a hopeless case,” and squeezing his hand she drifted off to sleep again.

It was an hour or so later when she finally woke up properly and they were able to have a conversation that made sense.

Jess was holding her hand and talking softly.

“Jeez Mill, I don’t ever wanna go through this again, seein’ you this way…..” he sighed and then, “But you’re gonna be just fine, that’s the main thing.”

She smiled, ”Yes, I feel so much better already, tired and a little sore, but just…. Oh I don’t know, just normal and I can’t wait to get home.”

He nodded, ”I can’t wait to get you home either,” he said with a hint of his cheeky grin.

She smiled and squeezed his hand, ”So what happened to you cowboy? I had this terrible dream that there was a gunfight going on here,” she said her eyes twinkling.

“That weren’t no dream Millie, it’s true,” and went on to explain what had happened.

She looked amazed, “That dressing on your temple, is a gun wound, Jess you were shot!” she said in consternation, making to sit up.

“Hey steady,” he said quickly, pushing her gently back down again.

“It’s only a scratch, poor ol’ Slim took the brunt of it. He’s got a nasty wound to his arm, relaxing up over at your Ma’s place.”

“Oh, where is Ma?” she asked.

“Resting here at the hospital, they’ve a room for visitors, I made her go and lie down. She was worn out, all the worrying I guess.”

“Poor Ma,” she said softly, and then returned her attention to Jess.

“And poor you, you look exhausted honey, you been there all night?”

“I guess I didn’t wanna leave you alone.”

“The nurses let you?“

“Didn’t have much choice,” he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, as he remembered the look of resignation in the Matron’s eye when she realized she had met her match.

“Mr Harper, you really must leave now, my patient needs to rest,” she had said for the third time.

“Sorry, I can’t do that Ma’am,” he had replied politely. “And anyways I figure she’s restin’ just fine with me sittin’ here.”

The Matron had looked down at Millie sleeping peacefully, a little smile on her lips and her hand in Jess’s and her old heart had melted.

“Alright Mr Harper you win,” she had said shaking her head in wonder at the stubbornness of youth. But also of the incredible power of love to heal and she left the young couple together.

Chapter 6

The following morning Tessa stood outside the slightly ajar door looking in at the couple; Jess gazing deeply into Millie’s eyes and holding her hand and Millie giving a little giggle at something he said and Tessa finally admitted to herself that maybe she had lost him for good.

When they had been out on the trail together and she had been nursing him, after he was shot, she had felt so close, almost as though things were back to how they had been in the war, but she had been living a lie and she knew that.

It was just that he had been such a massive part of her life, the reason that she had dedicated her every waking hour to work serving others, because there was such a great void left in her life by Jess’s ‘death’.

Then when she found that he was still alive, there was a tiny part of her deep inside, that hoped and prayed that they would get back to how they had been. That was until she had learned about Millie….Jess and Millie.

And then when he had come back from town that day so devastated that he and Millie were through, that tiny little seed of hope had grown.

Even last night she still had some hope.

After the shooting incident it was Tessa who led Jess away to an anteroom and tenderly cleaned and dressed the graze to his head.

She had stood so close to him, all her senses alert, seeing his deep blue eyes narrowed in pain, although he didn’t complain, as she cleaned the nasty gash. She was standing so near she could hear his breathing, feel the warmth radiating from him and inhale his clean, wholesome smell and she had a frisson of desire, so strong it took her breath away.

“Hey, Tessa, you OK you look kinda peaky.”

She had recovered quickly, “Oh I’m just fine Jess, is that comfortable now?” she asked referring to the dressing.

“Yeah, that’s real good, thanks,” he said, pulling back a little so that he could focus properly on her. ”Thanks for everything sweetheart,” and he had leaned forwards and kissed her gently on the cheek, before turning and leaving.

She had stood there shaking, one hand to her cheek and staring at the closed door for several minutes after he left, her heart pounding and tears in her eyes.

Now as she stood watching them, she felt she was somehow intruding on their intimacy and yet was unable to avert her gaze.

She was suddenly aware of a firm hand on her shoulder and she looked up into the kind brown eyes of Doctor Ben Phillips.

“You OK Tessa?” he asked his eyes registering concern.

She pulled herself together at once and smiled at him, “Yes of course.”

“Come along then nurse,” he said reverting to his professional persona, ”let’s go examine my patient and tell her the good news.”

As they entered Jess looked up and smiled at the pleasant young doctor who had spent so long chatting to him and reassuring him the previous day.

“Hey Doc, you’ve done a real good job on my girl here, I really wanna thank you,” and the two men shook hands, Ben beaming down at where Jess sat as close to Millie as he could get, thinking what a nice young man the cowboy was.

“Well you’re more than welcome Jess, but I’m going to have to kick you out. Just for awhile, as I need to examine my patient, do a few tests, nothing to worry about though,” he said quickly as he saw Jess look anxious.

“Besides, you’re looking kind of strung out yourself Jess, I reckon forty winks would do you no harm you know.”

Jess, stood up to go and was just about to say he was fine, when he swayed dramatically and would have fallen if Ben hadn’t jumped forwards and supported him.

“Whoa, there cowboy, take it easy,” he said kindly, ”You OK, feeling a bit faint Jess?”

“Nah, I’m fine,” he said quickly, “but maybe I will get my head down fer awhile,” and after leaning over and kissing Millie tenderly on the forehead, he left to find a place to crash out.

“Is he alright?” asked Millie anxiously once he had left.

“I think so,” said Tessa, “just tired I guess, but he did have a nasty abrasion to his temple. He could be a bit concussed, maybe I should make sure he rests?” she asked flicking a questioning glance at Ben.

He nodded, ”Yes I think he’s in need of a little care himself nurse, off you go, but don’t be too long you’re needed here,” he said with a shy smile.

Tessa caught up with Jess just down the corridor and quickly guided him to the visitor’s bedroom and showed him in, closing the door behind them.

“It’s pretty basic I’m afraid,” she said with a rueful smile, surveying the simple cot and nightstand, hard chair and precious little else.

“Sure looks good to me,” he said casting her a weary smile as he removed his hat, and gun belt and threw them on the chair.

Then he sat on the bed and started to pull off his boots.

“Here let me,” she said and tugged them off, before he lay back, looking pale and sick.

“Thanks,” he muttered.

“Jess how do you feel really, I’m, worried about your head,” she said softly, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

He rolled his head on the pillow to look at her, ”I’m just beat,” he said softly, “no need to fret.”

She nodded, and then she couldn’t resist asking the question that had been gnawing at her ever since she landed in Cheyenne.

“So Jess,” she said casually, ”you and Millie, you’re together again, or are you just being kind because she’s sick, being a good friend?”

“Huh?” he said drowsily.

“You and Millie, you’re back together?” she asked again, dreading the reply, but none the less needing to hear it.

Then he gave her a lazy smile, ”Oh yeah, I ain’t seen you, to tell you have I? Yes, sure, we’re together again OK, she was real mad at me when I landed here, said we were through, but she was lying, to save me seeing her suffer…..She didn’t want me frettin’ over her bein’ so sick, see?” he said.

“She must really love you very much,” she said quietly.

“Oh, yeah,” he sighed as he closed his eyes, ”and me her, too…… “

She swallowed hard, forcing the tears back, ”I’m …really glad for you both,” she said finally.

But he was already asleep.

“You really don’t know do you,” she whispered to herself, “how I feel….”

Then she thought back to that morning when he had caught the Stage to Cheyenne, and they had talked in the barn before breakfast.

He had said he didn’t want to hurt her and she had denied that she had any feelings for him, simply saying that yes, they had been close on the trail, remembering how they had once been together, but they had both moved on from that. Now she blushed at how she had lied, knowing that even then she had still harboured hopes that they would get back together.

No of course he didn’t know how she felt, how could he?She had lied to him….


It was just a week later when Millie was deemed well enough to return to her Ma’s place to recuperate.

Slim had already gone back to the ranch, his arm on the mend and Tessa had moved into the nurse’s home at the hospital and was enjoying her new role tremendously.

Sure she was still hurting over her unrequited love for Jess, but she bore the loss as bravely as she could and gained strength from the fact that she could at least see him regularly whilst Millie was still a patient. But the day finally came when she was discharged and they had to say goodbye.

She and Ben had come out onto the hospital steps to see them off and watched as Jess tenderly helped Millie up on to the buggy before turning and shaking Ben’s hand.

“Thanks Doc, I’ll never forget this,” he said smiling into his eyes.

“Just doing my job cowboy, and you look after the little lady,” he said beaming at Jess and then up at Millie.

“Sure will.”

Then he turned to Tessa feeling suddenly shy, ”Thanks Tessa,” he said softly, ”fer everything, you know?”

She smiled, ”Keep in touch won’t you?”

“Sure I will, I’ll get Daisy to write too.”

She reached up and kissed him very lightly on the lips, “Bye,” she breathed.

He squinted down at her his expression unfathomable.

“Bye,” he replied, their gaze locking for a brief moment and he turned, pulled his hat down hard and jumped up on to the buggy. Then glancing down one last time he shook the reins and moved off down the street at a good pace, Millie leaning out to wave her goodbyes.

As nurse and doctor watched, the buggy disappeared down the street in a haze of dust and Ben threw an arm casually around Tessa’s shoulders and smiled down lovingly.

“Come on then nurse, work to do,” and as she gazed back she felt a sudden glow of happiness as he took her hand and they walked back inside the hospital together.

Millie sat back in her seat, pulling the rug Jess had caringly placed around her knees a little closer and then she cast him an amused glance.

“What?” he asked turning to look at her.

“It’s Tessa.”

“Huh? So what about her?”

“She’s still a little bit in love with you Jess.”

“What… nah, you’re crazy.”

“Um,” she said giggling, “No I’m not crazy don’t tell me you didn’t notice?”

He just shook his head looking mystified, “No?”

“Oh Jess,” she said shaking her head, in amazement, ”men!”

“Huh what did I do?” he asked looking innocent.

“Nothing,” she said laughing and linking his arm, “nothing at all. Come on cowboy take me home.”

Then he turned and looking down at her, a twinkle in his deep blue eyes he said, ”You know I reckon Tessa got it right, holed up in that ol’ Monastery, a nice peaceful life…..sounds real good to me.”

She raised a quizzical eyebrow at him, “Oh really?”

“Sure, well I never could figure women, maybe I should consider bein’ a Monk?” he said with a grin.

Millie nearly choked with laughter, “Jess you a Monk?” She finally gasped….

“Yeah so what’s so wrong with that? A nice peaceful life, plenty of grub, no guns allowed, I reckon that would suit me just fine.

“Just take me home cowboy, I figure you need to sleep on that decision,” she said with an attractive giggle.

“Huh?” He asked. Then his eyes lit up with understanding…”Yes Ma’am,” and he slapped the reins and chivvied the old horse on to a brisk trot…before throwing an arm around his girl’s shoulders and holding her close……

The End

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