#4 The Long Long Road to Nowhere

#4 The Long, Long Road to Nowhere


Patty Wilkinson

(Some violence, strong language and adult themes)

As told by Jess Harper & Slim Sherman

Chapter 1- Jess

It was still very early when Mike and I turned back towards the ranch after our hunting trip. The little boy my business partner and friend Slim Sherman and I had adopted after his parents were killed in an Indian raid was proving to be pretty handy with a hunting rifle and he was real proud of the rabbit he had just bagged.

What with my reputation of being an ex gunslinger and fast gun Mike had pleaded with me to teach him to fast draw, but I had steadfastly refused. However both Slim and I figured, now he had reached 10 he should know how to use a gun, at least to hunt or protect himself and so we had started with a little target practice and the kid was proving a natural.

Of course Mrs Daisy Cooper our wonderful housekeeper and surrogate mother to us all, was not in agreement and hated to see any of us totin’ a gun, but we hoped she would at least enjoy cooking the rabbits we were bringing back to the Sherman Ranch & Relay Station we all called home and Mike an’ I sure knew we’d enjoy eatin’ ‘em.

We decided to stop off at the lake on the way home to wash up a little and take a cool drink.Always when we visited this spot Mike would asked for the story about the first time Slim and I had met, over six years ago. So I wasn’t surprised when he piped up…

“Jess,” he began,” tell me the story again……you know the one……please.”

So we sat in the early morning sunshine and I relived that moment when I was napping by the lake, my back to an old log and hat pulled down over my eyes. Traveler, my horse was tied up to the No Trespassing sign, when a tall, blond man had aimed his shot gun at my belly and ordered me off Sherman land.

Then I told of the shock on Slim’s face when he had gone back to the ranch at the end of the day only to find me teaching his kid brother Andy how to deal from the bottom of the pack!

For some reason I’d never figured, I had ended up working for Slim and my drifting days were over.

“Anyways”, I finished,” guess I didn’t do Andy too much harm as he’s off at Medical School now and I’m a Partner in the Ranch…and as such I’d had better get back there an’ do some work,” I said smiling at Mike and reaching over to ruffle his hair. Mounting up we headed back for the ranch.

I was quiet on the ride back reflecting on the past as the story tellin’ had sparked off memories.

When I’d first landed at the ranch I’d been on the drift for 5 years and had a real reputation as a fast gun. I’d lived by the gun and been prepared to die by it and I figured iffen I hadn’t met up with Slim, that’s what might very well have happened.

Suddenly Mike broke into my thoughts, “Where were you goin’ Jess?” he asked.


“Where were you goin’ when you trespassed on the ranch?”

“Goin’ West, seemed as good a place as any.”

Then quietly almost to myself I said, “just on a long, long road to nowhere really.”

“Same as me then,” he piped up, “I was headin’ West with the Wagon Train, before Ma and Pa were killed,” he finished sadly.

After a pause he continued,” I wonder what would have happened, what our lives would have been like if we hadn’t landed here with Slim and aunt Daisy?” he asked looking enquiringly over at me.

“Don’t reckon I want to dwell on that too much,” I answered, then,” come on Tiger, race you back to the ranch.”

“Two minutes start? “Mike asked.


We arrived back just in time for breakfast and Daisy had made a good spread knowing Mike and I would be real hungry after our early start. She had duly admired Mike’s offering for the pot and promised Rabbit Stew for supper so we were all pretty happy.

“So, it’s a good thing someone can shoot straight around here,” said Slim looking over at Mike’s rabbit.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said giving Slim a hard look.

“Well, if I remember rightly,” he said, a grin beginning to spread across his face,” I was promised deer, an’ well, Jess, this is lookin’ a mite small for deer, even one of the puny ones you tend to shoot.”

“Well, damn it Slim I was teaching the boy I can’t do every darn thing,” I replied angrily.

“See Daisy, calls himself a good shot,” he continued joshing me, and turning to grin at Daisy.

“Why……..you……!” and he took off, with me in hot pursuit.

I caught up with him in the barn and we were goin’ at it having’ a good old wrestle when Daisy called us in for breakfast.

” We’ll finish this later,” I gasped,

“Sure Hot Shot, anytime,” he said, and we walked back over to the ranch, his arm slung around my shoulders, both of us laughing.

We sat down and Daisy poured the coffee and we relaxed into silence as we enjoyed the meal.

“After breakfast I need to go to town to the bank, and I’ll take Mike and Daisy in to fetch in some supplies, will you be around for the Stage?” asked Slim, swigging down the dregs of his coffee.

“Sure thing”, I replied, “Mose can give me a hand changing the team”

I was busy mucking out the barn when I heard the Stage rattling in later that morning, and ran out to greet Mose. I did my usual trick of running out in front of the Stage and putting my hand up for him to stop, and he pulled up the team within a few inches of me.

“One of these days I’ll mow you down Jess, I swear,” yelled the old man grinning down at me.

“Well it’ll make a change from all the chickens you mange to dispatch for us Mose,” I replied,” the amount you run over, well, were getting’ a mite tired of chicken pie every day,” I said laughing up at him.

We had a bit more of our usual banter as we changed the team and then as he had no passengers he decided to forgo coffee when he learnt it was my evil brew and not Miss Daisy’s more palatable version.

He was just about to leave when he said,” Oh almost forgot Jess, letter here for you”, and passed a battered looking envelope down to me.” A rough lookin’ hombre stopped me down the road a ways, said it was important you read this right away.”

Waving him off I walked back towards the barn and stopped leaning against the corral fence to open it.

I read the message two or three times and still couldn’t make much sense of it, but it sure wasn’t good news. It read:


We have some business and I will meet you on the hill out back of the Relay Station, Friday 23rd at 11 am. Be there if you know what’s good for you. Come alone and do not tell anyone else or someone real close to you will be hurt.

Be there or you’ll live to regret it Harper.

Walt McCrea, guess you’ll remember me just as The Bounty Hunter.

The Bounty Hunter, Gee, we went back a long way, seems like he’d always been somewhere in the background, an evil sinister presence.

Originally from the pan handle like me, he had some link with the Banister Gang, who had burned my family out killing my parents and most of my siblings. I could never prove the connection, but had kept a wary eye on him ever since. He was later responsible for injuring me badly while trying to get the bounty on me, even though I had been pardoned. He didn’t seem to care whether there was a legitimate warrant or not and had gone on to kill a friend who again did not have a bounty on his head and this time I was able to finally get him banged up for a long, long time. In fact if it hadn’t been for the fancy lawyer he’d been able to afford he would have hung, instead of the six year stretch he had finally done. I figured he had just got out and I was his first port of call, with retribution doubtless laying heavy on his mind.

I realized he was probably waiting for me up on the hill and went into the ranch for my gun belt. I didn’t like the tone of the letter and the threats he had made about those close to me and I figured he had to be stopped right now and if he wanted a stand off, then so be it. I’d get it done with while my adoptive family was out of the way and couldn’t be hurt.

I walked out the back gate and up the steep hill behind the ranch and on turning the final bend at the top saw his Pinto grazing and he was sitting against a log the sites of his rifle aimed at my head. I recognized him at once, dressed in black from hat to boots and an ugly scar along the side of his weather beaten old face.

“Well Jess boy,” he said,” mighty obliged you took me up on my little invitation for a chin wag.”

“Looks like I didn’t have a lot of choice, McCrea”, I growled.” So what do you want?”

“Well, I’ll tell you exactly what I want boy. I want you out of here, first thing tomorrow and I don’t ever want to see your ornery presence in these parts again. You’ll be headin’ out at first light an’ you won’t be sayin’ any goodbyes to your so called ‘family’ down there. You’ll just disappear for good boy, an’ they’ll be left thinking what a no good drifter you were, an’ still are…savvy?”

“What the Hell makes you think I’d do a damn fool thing like that McCrea?” I snarled.

“I’ll tell you why son,” he said menacingly, because iffen you don’t I’m goin’ to sit up here and do a little target shootin’, startin’ with that cute little lad you seem to set so much store by, Mike is it?”

I launched my self towards him but was brought to a stop by the rifle being pushed in my face, “Oh, no Harper,” he spat,” I ain’t goin’ to make it easy for you by killing you, so don’t push it. I reckon a bullet in the knee would slow you up some though.”

“You can’t stay up here forever McCrea I said, what are you gonna do pitch a tent?”

“Oh I’ve got better than that” he responded.

“Know the ol’ Benson shack just over the ridge? Well I’ve bought it, so me an’ Slim and Daisy and the boy are all gonna be neighbours, ain’t that gonna be real cosy Jess boy?”

“Got me a mess o’ friends stayin’ too, so guess there will always be someone around to check the place over, in case you’re a thinkin’ of popping back to visit. Oh, an’ another thing, if your best friend Slim should think to come lookin’ for you, well he’d better not find you, because iffen he does, you’ll be digging’ his grave pretty shortly after.So, you see Jess, there just ain’t any way out boy. That goes for anyone you’re thinkin’ of asking for help too, like your friend the Sheriff”, he finished coldly.

“Why you filthy, no good….”

“Save it Harper, time you was makin’ tracks, got to do some packin,’ but make it light boy, don’t forget, they’re not to know your heading off for good, that’ll just be a little surprise for them when you don’t turn up for your supper.”

“Shame really”, he continued, don’t know who’ll be more upset, the little kid, that idolizes you, the ol’ housekeeper, who looks on you as her boy or your best friend. Figure they’ll all be kinda hurt when you just ride off without a backwards glance.”

I must have looked shocked because he continued,” Oh, yes boy, I’ve done all my research, had my friends out in the town an’ they filled me in real well about all the folk at the Sherman ranch. How you an’ Slim adopted the kid an’ how much you care about him. The housekeeper woman, how she’s always nursin’ you when your sick an’ treats you like her own. Oh yeah an’ lets not forget your best buddy Slim. Put his life on the line for you more an’ once so I hear tell. Helped turn your life around didn’t he Jess boy. Got alot of faith an’ trust invested in you, shame you’re gonna let him down so bad, by runnin’ out on him and the partnership, why he might even lose the business,” he finished chuckling to him self.

I stood there in total despair, “Why, McCrea, why this way?” I asked.

“Because I want to see you back on the drift boy. I figure the most important thing to you right now is that family of yours so I aim to take it from you, or iffen you don’t oblige me by goin’, Ill kill them all, simple as that…....sweet revenge boy, sweet revenge.”

“How do I know you won’t kill them anyway?” I asked.

“Well, guess you’ll just have to trust me on that one boy, but let’s put it this way. Just wouldn’t be any fun without you there watching, so if you want to be sure, just don’t come back.”

Suddenly I heard the sound of the buckboard entering the yard below, it drew to a halt and Slim jumped down reaching up to help Daisy down and then Mike.

McCrea called out to someone called Jake concealed behind the bushes and a huge ugly looking man came out and cocked his colt .45 holding it against my temple.

“Now then Jess boy watch an’ learn,” drawled McCrea. Removing the focus of the rifle from me to the people below us, he quickly attached a telescopic lens and trained it on Mike.

” Yup, as I thought, can get him right between the eyes from all the way up here,” he said, turning his evil grin on me.

“Well then Jess, what you are waitin’ for?” he continued,” go……..and one word, one look….. an’ the kid gets it first,” he finished.

“I’ll see you in Hell for this McCrea,” I growled,” so help me one day I’ll finish it,” and turning on heel I strode back down the hill.

The rage was exploding inside me, my heart beatin’ fit to bust and my stomach churning. Half way down I had to stop and take some deep breaths fearing I was about to lose my breakfast. The nausea passed and I stood there shaking, my mind in complete turmoil. I considered trying to back track and circle around his back and call him out, but I didn’t know how many of his trained apes he’d got strung around the hillside and I guessed he’d have covered his back well.

I stood there considering my options and I figured I had no choice other than to follow his instructions to the letter if I was to keep the family I loved safe, no matter how much I would hurt them in the process.

With a heavy heart I continued down the track and back in through the gate.

I didn’t see Slim carrying the supplies in towards the side door until he greeted me,

“Hey where have you been pard…always missin’ when the buckboard needs unloading,” he continued grinning across at me.

I scowled in return,” Can’t a man go for a walk in peace,” I replied, marching off to the buckboard for another load.

“Hey what’s gotten into you?” asked Slim looking surprised.

“Nothin’“, I growled pushing past him into the kitchen with my load.

Slim came in behind me and I saw him exchange a puzzled look with Daisy, but he said no more and we finished unloading the supplies in silence.

I suddenly realized Mike was playing with his dog Buttons out in the yard and I yelled “Get in here now Mike!” My voice was angry and sounded harsh even to my own ears and Mike was obviously upset as he ran over to me.

” What did I do Jess?” he asked his little face frowning up at me.

I looked down, my stomach churning in fear for him. I glanced up at the hill and saw a flash as the sunlight caught the rifle lens and grabbing hold of his arm I pulled him roughly into the safety of the kitchen,” Ow, you’re hurtin’ Jess,” he whimpered.

I knelt down in front of him and pulled him to me in a hug and then releasing him said, “Sorry, sorry Mike, its just that, well I thought I saw a rattler out there an’ I was a bit worried about you that’s all”, I finished quietly and looking up I saw Slim gazing at me with a confused look in his eyes and knew he didn’t believe my explanation.

Mike pulled back from me and grinning said” that’s OK Jess. Guess its lunchtime now anyway, so I’ll just stay in here with you where it’s safe.”

We all sat down to lunch but I was feeling sick to my stomach and just pushed my food around the plate. I noticed Daisy and Slim exchanged a couple of worried looks, but they said nothing.

It was when I refused Daisy’s apple pie that she leaned across and brushing my untidy hair back, felt my forehead with a worried look and said” are you sick Jess?”

My brain was desperately trying to think of an excuse, act normal I kept thinking they must not suspect anything.Pasting a smile on my face I said, “No I’m fine Daisy, just had too much of my strong coffee this morning I guess, filled myself up.”

She relaxed and smiled back, “What have I told you about that awful strong coffee, turns the pot black, goodness knows what it must do to your insides!” she said laughing and turning to Mike served him with an extra large helping of pie.

I quickly made my excuses and rode out before Slim could say anything and spent the afternoon checking the fences out on the north pasture and didn’t arrive back until after supper. Daisy fussed around as usual and having saved me some food I was soon sitting back down at the table with Slim who was sipping a coffee.

Luckily she was just off to bed and as she leaned over and gave me a gentle kiss on the cheek and said her goodnights I felt the pain wrenching my heart, knowing it might be the last time I ever saw her.

As she turned away I caught her arm and looking deep into her eyes said,” Thank you Daisy,”

She looked surprised and then assuming I meant for the meal said” That’s Ok dear, sleep well,” and retired for the night.

Once she’d gone I took my untouched meal and put it in the trash can and returning with an empty cup, reached over and filled it from the pot on the table, topping up Slim’s at the same time and sat back down opposite him.

He gave me a long hard look and then said,” What’s up Jess?”

“I told you before nothin’.”

“Come on,” he said sounding exasperated,” I didn’t buy that rubbish you told Daisy about filling up on coffee, darn it Jess you’ve been over dosing on that stuff for years an’ it never stopped you eating before. You’ve just chucked out a perfectly good plate of rabbit stew an’ you’ve been up mending fences, your most hated job, for hours without me even askin’ ya to…… and you say there’s nothing wrong?”

I sat there considering what I should do, could I tell my best buddy? Then McCrea’s word came back to me,’ an’ iffen you don’t go I’ll just do some target shootin’ starting with Mike.’ I knew I just couldn’t risk it. I had to go and to cover my tracks so Slim would never find me, or he would be dead too.

I suddenly jumped up, “Leave it Slim I said menacingly, just leave it OK?” and went out to the barn to tend to Traveler.

When I came back an hour or so later Slim had retired to bed, but there was still a dim light shining under our door so I guessed he’d left a nightlight on for me.

Before I turned in, I quietly opened Mike’s door and went softly in sitting down on the edge of the bed very gently so as not to disturb him.

He was lying with all the covers pushed off , spread eagled on the bed, his arms thrown out above his head, I leaned over and gently pushed his blond fringe back and kissed himon the forehead, and pulled the covers up before standing up and moving to the door. I felt a lump in my throat and whispered,” I’m sorry Tiger”, before silently leaving the room.

I went into our room and I could tell by the tense way Slim was laying that he was not really asleep. I took off my clothes and slipped quietly into my bed and then said,

“I’m sorry about that Slim”.

He open one eye and looked over at me.

” Want to talk?”he asked.

“No.” I said quickly, “Can’t Slim”.

“Just tell me when you can then buddy,” he said in a resigned voice.

We were silent for a while and then I said, “Saw some strays when I was out at the North pasture, guess I’ll go an’ round ‘em up first thing.”

“OK,” he replied sleepily,” need any help? “

“Nah, you’re OK,” I said,” I can manage.”

“Well, you know I’m here if you need me,” he said with a big yawn, turning over.

“Yeah I know that pard,” I replied,” I know that,” but he was already asleep.

I was up before first light and put a few supplies in a gunny sack and hitching my saddle bags across my shoulder went to let my self out through the front door, Then I stopped in my tracks and turning back went over to the fireplace and carefully removing the loose brick reached inside and took out my old gun fighter weapon.

It had been put there some years before and placing it there had been symbolic of me giving up my old gunslinger ways. It had been the start of my new life and had stayed there as a reminder of my promise to Slim to start afresh. I placed the gun in my saddle bag and then looked around for some paper.

Going to Slim’s desk I found a scrap of paper and pencil and wrote two words,

Sorry Slim and put it in the place where the gun had been.

I just couldn’t bear the thought of Slim looking for me and hoping every day I would return. I knew what I had done, by taking the gun, was as clear a message to him as anything I could have said. If the gun was missing he would know I had turned my back on my life at the ranch and gone back on the drift. I knew the message would hurt him terribly. But maybe not as much as not knowing, I thought, as I sadly looked around the place I called home for the last time and walked out through the front door closing it quietly behind me.

There was one final thing I needed to do before I left the area for ever, visit my fiancées grave one last time. It had been almost two years since Maria had been gunned down before my eyes by that bastard Marcus O’Leary. I knelt before the graveside and read the inscription on the headstone I had composed the night she had died.

In Loving Memory


Maria Bernadette O’Donnell

Formerly of County Cork Ireland

Aged 23 Years

Dearly Beloved Fiancées of

Jess Harper

I won’t forget

In my heart, always and forever.

“I’m sorry sweetheart, guess I won’t be visitin’ again,” I whispered,” but I won’t forget you, not ever,” and I sank my head into my hands as the old familiar pain of her loss hit me once again. I sat that way for a while and then took a deep shuddering breath and looked at her resting place for the last time.

Standing up slowly I brushed my denims down with my hat, replaced it firmly on my head and strode away, anger at McCrea once more flooding my body.

Hopping up on Traveler I pointed him due west and with the rising sun to my back rode away from Laramie for the last time.

I made slow progress as I constantly stopped to remove my tracks or doubled back to lay false ones so that if Slim did try to follow me he would lose my trail very quickly.

I was still nervous of him finding me though and decided not to pause for rest and rode on through the heat of the late summer day and only stopped to make camp late that night fearing I had pushed Traveler too hard, and the last thing I needed was him coming up lame. Had it not been for that I would have ridden through the night too, so great was my need to get away. McCrea’s words forever in my mind, “If Slim comes lookin’ for you he’d better not find you, or you’ll be diggin’ his grave pretty soon after” I figured McCrea would be keeping a sharp eye on Slim for a while and just hoped I had managed to leave no clues as to my whereabouts.

I saw to my horse’s needs first, then lit a fire and made a pot of my gut rot coffee, but couldn’t face any food. The night struck chilly after the heat of the day and so I collected my bedroll and stretching out in front of the fire and using my saddle as a pillow I settled down for the night. I was drained , but I couldn’t sleep and lay there listening to the familiar night time sounds and tried to imagine what had happened at the ranch, when I didn’t show up for supper. I couldn’t bear the thought that they would be mad at me or worse, hurt and worried.

” Oh Hell”, I whispered and lay looking up at the stars, feeling totally dejected.

Chapter 2- Slim

When I awoke the day after Jess’s strange behavior, he had already gone out to round up the stays he said he had seen in the north pasture. I lay there for a few minutes wondering what was eating him. Maybe he was sick I thought and didn’t want to worry us, or to have Daisy fussin’ him I thought smiling, knowing what a bad patient Jess was.

I slowly stretched, got up, washed and dressed and went and took my place at the breakfast table, just as Daisy placed a large plate of bacon and eggs in front of me.

“Where’s Jess?” she asked.

“Lit off first thing,” I said with a mouth full of bacon.

“What without anything to eat….is he alright Slim?” she asked looking worriedly at me.

“Not sure,” I said,” if he’d not back soon I’ll go and check he’s OK.”

Swigging the last of my coffee I thanked Daisy and went off to do my chores and Jess’s too.

I was just finishing off when the early Stage came by with a surprise passenger, Mr Peterson from the Overland Stage Company, and my employer of the Stage stop side of the business.

“Morning Slim,” he said alighting and shaking hands,” sorry to spring a business meeting on you like this but some important new changes are going to be happening soon and I need to discuss them with you. Could mean a bit more business”, he continued looking excited.” Thought we could discuss it today and I’ll get the late afternoon stage back if that’s OK? And maybe sample some of Miss Daisy’s cooking,” he finished with a grin.

What could I say, he is my boss and this was business and so although I felt a little uneasy at leaving Jess, I figured he would be back when he was hungry as usual and slapping old man Peterson warmly on the back, led him into the ranch house.

When Jess still hadn’t returned at supper time I started to get real worried and as soon as I had seen Mr Peterson off I went to saddle Alamo. Peterson had finally stayed for supper as well as lunch and borrowed our small buggy for his trip back to town, enthusing about Daisy’s cooking as he left a happy man.

Mike had been very quiet during the meal and afterwards sat by the window looking out for Jess. Daisy too was looking very worried by now and I guess we were all glad when our boss finally left.

It was only a half hour ride over to the north pasture area and the land was very flat there with a view of miles and as I approached, it was obvious Jess was not around. Then I suddenly realized there were no fresh tracks and I figured he had never been up that way at all. Feeling very puzzled I back tracked but there was still no sign of him.

I stayed out until it was dark and I still hadn’t picked up any tracks at all. Sadly I turned Alamo for home, hoping that maybe he had returned in my absence.

One look at Daisy’s worried face answered my question.

“Oh Slim, where do you think he could have got to?” she asked imploringly.

“Search me Daisy,” I said trying to make light of the situation,” you know Jess he can look after himself, maybe he’s gone off to find that deer I was teasing him about yesterday,” I finished smiling at her.

“Slim be serious,” she replied, “You’re just as worried as I am.”

“I know,” I said, putting an arm around her shoulders,” I’ll go out again at first light, try and get some sleep now,” I said turning for my room.

Then,” Mike OK?”

“No, cried himself to sleep, poor little mite,” she said looking tearful and shaking her head sadly retired to her room.

The next morning I was out and on the road by first light and made it into Laramie in good time. I called in on my good friend Mort Corey, our Sheriff, and was offered coffee and a listening ear. I quickly explained the situation and on asking Mort if he had seen Jess recently was surprised when he answered in the affirmative.

“Sure, saw him real early yesterday morning,” he said,” I’d been out looking for a rabbit for the pot and as I rode into town I saw Traveler tethered by the cemetery gate and Jess was up by Maria’s grave.”

I guess I looked sort of surprised, “go on I said.”

“Well, he was kneeling by the grave and I figured I shouldn’t disturb him so I rode on by. Came in here and fixed some coffee expecting him to pay a call and when he didn’t arrive, I thought that was kinda odd. So anyways I mentioned it to Lon the deputy, when he came by a little later, an’ he reckons he saw Jess high tailing it out on the road West, Traveler galloping away at a real pace. That was odd too, not like Jess to push his horse like that.”

“No,” I said” it’s not. Look Mort thanks for the coffee, guess I’d better take off after him.”

“Hope he’s not in trouble,” said Mort kindly,” you know that boy, seems like a magnet to it sometimes,” he said grinning at me. Then more gently,” you know him Slim, one of his crazy friends is probably in trouble an’ he’s hared off without a thought.”

I was suddenly real angry,” Well he should give a thought,” I snarled,” he’s got a family back here who care about him, a kid cryin’ himself to sleep, I’ll damn well remindhim of his responsibilities when I catch up with him,” I finished angrily.

“Take it easy Slim, and let me know if I can be of any help”.

“Thanks Mort, see ya,” and I walked out of the office, jumped on Alamo and headed West.

I finally picked up his trail heading overland a few miles outside the town. I recognized Traveler’s hoof marks easily as the front nearside had a bent nail. I had fitted the shoe myself and would know it anywhere.

After about half a mile I lost the trail and on dismounting I saw the marks had been wiped away with some brushwood. Why the Hell would he do that I thought. If Jess thought someone was following then he’d simply turn and have it out with them.

After I had picked up a trail and lost it for the fifth time I realized I was on a wild goose chase and tired and frustrated I finally headed for home, dreading having to tell Mike and Daisy there was no good news.

Tired and dispirited I entered the house and they could see from my expression that there was no news. I threw my hat down on the couch and walked over to the table and helped myself to coffee from the pot before turning to face Daisy and Mike.

“I’m sorry,” I shrugged.

Mike ran over to me and looking earnestly up at me with his big blue eyes and said,” is it my fault, has Jess left ‘cos he’s mad at me?”

“Heck no,” I answered, “why do you think that?”

“I dunno, I thought he seemed mad yesterday, when I was in the yard,” he finished sadly.

“Don’t you ever think that,” I said reaching down and giving him a big hug. Then squatting down beside him I said quietly, “Jess loves you very much, you know that Mike and he’ll be back just as soon as he sorts out some business he has, you’ll see.”

The little boy seemed satisfied and ran off with Buttons as I turned to Daisy.

“I just don’t know.” I said flatly,” Mort saw him up at Maria’s grave and Lon saw him galloping Traveler out of town heading West, and I found his tracks Daisy,” I said looking anguished,” but he’d covered them all up, like he didn’t want to be followed.” Suddenly it dawned on me,” like he didn’t want me to follow him, I finished.”

She walked over and rubbed my arm gently.

” If so, there will be a very good reason; you’ll see she said softly.”

Then I had a thought and walking over to the fireplace I removed the loose brick and looked inside.

The gun was gone.

I was so shocked my pulses were racing and I felt faint, I looked again and saw a small piece of paper and picking it up read,

Sorry Slim, in Jess’s distinct hand.

“Oh God no,” I groaned, and turned to Daisy.

” He’s gone for good this time Daisy; he won’t be coming back,” and saw my despair mirrored in her eyes, as she understood the significance of the missing gun.

Chapter 3 – Jess

After that first night on the road I forced myself not to think about the family.

I continued to head west avoiding any small towns just in case Mort had put the word out that I was missing, by wiring other Sheriffs to keep an eye open for me.

I saw nobody on the trail with the exception of the big ugly Jake, sent to check I was on my way, no doubt. It was so obvious that he was tracking me it was almost funny, as he dodged behind rocks every time I looked his way. Eventually I could stand it no more and so after I’d set up camp one night I back tracked and spent an interesting time with him lookin’ down my gun barrel while I told him a few home truths. The main one bein’ as I didn’t appreciate bein’ spied on . The upshot was that I put down the gun and vented some of my pent up anger into knocking him into next week and wasn’t too surprised when I didn’t see him again.

Apart from that nothing much happened and one day just led into the next as dark and miserable as the previous one.

I had been riding across a mountain range for what seemed like forever and although the countryside was majestic and teaming with wildlife waiting to be hunted, I couldn’t lose my black mood.

Traveler had been ridden hard and I started dismounting and leading him over the most mountainous stretches. Now, we were finally headed towards the foothills on the other side, where eventually I would be able to pick up the Oregon Trail and maybe even find some work scouting for a Wagon Train.

It was early evening and I was exhausted as I had been leading Trav for several hours and now we were negotiating a steep shale bank, with a stream and pasture below where I hoped to spend the night. Suddenly I lost my footing and letting go of the reins so as to not bring Traveler down with me I fell headlong down the slope, coming to rest in a crumpled heap at the bottom. I was completely winded, but as I looked up I was relieved to see my horse still upright and gingerly making his way down to me.

Once I’d got my breath back I tried to stand, but fell back as an excruciating pain shot from my ankle up my leg. Sweating and nauseous I lay there and as Traveler came and stood beside me I tried again to heave myself up by grabbing his reins. Again I fell back and the severe pain must have made me pass out as when I came to the sun had shifted and Traveler had moved away and was grazing quietly a few yards away.

Suddenly I was aware of someone looking at me and pulling myself upright saw a small boy of about five or six standing a few feet away staring intently at me, his eyes huge with shock.

I smiled at him and said encouragingly,” Hey it’s OK, I won’t harm you, just had a fall and I could use some help, is your Ma or Pa about?”

He didn’t reply, but turned and ran away, and I was just considering having another go at standing when he returned with a pretty dark haired woman of about thirty. She was carrying a shot gun and looked like she could use it, but as soon as she saw my predicament she put it to one side and came over smiling shyly at me.

“You’ve got yourself in some trouble here, so you have mister,” she said in a beautiful Irish lilt.

I was instantly transported back to that day in Laramie over 2 years ago when I’d first heard Maria’s voice and looking over had fallen instantly in love with her.

The look of utter shock on my face must have worried her as the woman squatted down beside me and reaching out to pat my arm said,” Are you alright there, you’ve gone awful pale.”

“Yeah, I reassured her, I’m fine, just my ankle,” then “Where did you get that beautiful accent from?”

“Ah, I can tell you’ve kissed the Blarney stone,” she said laughing, “well it’s a County Kildare accent so it is. And you are Mister?”

“Harper Ma’am, Jess Harper.”

“My name is Cara,” she said,” Cara Fitzgerald and the little man over there is Sean.

Cara means friend in the Irish tongue,” she continued.

“Cara, that’s lovely,” I said, “and I guess I could use a friend right now.”

“Oh, dear of course now what am I thinking, lets be getting you over to the house and I’ll take a little look at your ankle, and don’t you be a worrying Mr Harper, as I was a nurse before I was married and dragged off to this Godforsaken country, away from God’s own acre,” she finished smiling down at me.

“You sure have a way with the words Ma’am,” I said smiling back.

“Oh hush,” she chided,” its just nerves, I always talk too much when I meet new people, I’m so shy you see,” she finished.

“Coulda fooled me,” I said quietly, and reaching down she pulled me to me feet and supporting my weight helped me through a patch of dense woodland and into the front room of a small log cabin.

Staggering a little under my weight she deposited me on a large couch in front of a log fire and proceeded to pull my boots off.

Removing my sock she frowned down at my now swollen black and blue ankle.

Sucking in her breath and said,” Oh, you poor thing,” then in a more business like way,” just a bad sprain I think, not a break, but you must keep completely off it for a week or so until we are sure.”

She disappeared, returning shortly with a bowl of cold water and bandages and after soaking the material in the cold water bandaged up my ankle, before finally sitting back on her haunches and looking up at me giving me a friendly grin said, “I think you’ll live to fight another day.”

“What makes you think I’m a fighter I?” said, smiling down at her.

“Oh, you just look the type”, she said,” lean and mean and sort of scary”, she finished with another grin.

I put my hand to my stubbly chin and figured after so long on the trail I must look pretty rough.

“You don’t look particularly scared,” I said, enjoying the easy banter between us.

“Yes well, I don’t think you are the type to hurt a woman,” she said suddenly looking serious;” I think I can trust you and I’m usually a good judge of character,” she finished looking thoughtfully at me.

Then, “so tell me Jess, you seem very fond of the Irish brogue.”


“My accent, Jess do you have Irish friends maybe?”

“Did have……” I said quietly, “my fiancée.”


“Yeah, she died.”

She took a deep breath and said,” Oh, I’m so sorry Jess I didn’t mean to pry. I do understand really I do.”

“Do you?” I asked abruptly.

“Yes, you see my dear husband, Liam, passed away last year,” she said, turning away from me.

I reached out and took her hand,” I’m sorry,” I said sincerely, then,” How do you manage out here alone?”

“One gets used to managing,” she said smiling sadly. “But yes, last winter was tough, so Sean and I are moving on in a few weeks, meeting up with my Brother and sister in Law and heading west on the Oregon Trail. If I can get the wagon fixed up in time that is,” she finished.

“Maybe I could give you a hand with it once my legs better?” I offered.

“Oh I wasn’t hinting…I mean I don’t expect you to do that,” she said blushing.

“I know you don’t expect it,” I said quietly,” but I’d like to help, really”.

I looked into her beautiful face, she had the same coloring as Maria, milky skin and black hair, but instead of the vivid blue of Maria’s eyes hers were a warm brown. She was also very womanly, her figure fuller than Maria’s slight frame. But then she had had a child I remembered and looked round for little Sean

“Where’s the boy?” I asked suddenly,” is he alright out there alone?”

“He’s fine,” she said smiling at me,” he wanted to sit and keep you horse company, he loves animals.”

At the thought of my precious horse I sat up, “Trav,” I said urgently “I must……...

She pushed me gently back, “it’s OK,” she said, “he’s fine, Sean has fed him and I’ll go and rub him down and settle him in the stable in a moment, there is nothing to worry about,” she said firmly.

After she had gone I glanced around the cabin.

There were a couple of bed rooms off the main room and a small kitchen. Then there was this large main room with the fire place, couch, a couple of rockers and a small table and chairs.

The couch was covered in a bright red blanket and there was a matching rug in front of the fire.

The whole effect was warm and homely and I suddenly had a vision of the room back at the ranch and I was hit by a wave of homesickness so strong it threatened to overwhelm me.

I took a deep breath to try and steady myself and closed my eyes tightly and I didn’t hear or see Cara return. Then I felt her hand on my arm and opening my eyes I looked deep into her concerned ones.

” Jess you look terrible, what is it?” she asked softly.

“I’m OK,” I said.

“No you’re not, tell me,” she said gently,” you can trust me you know”.

I wasn’t ready to discuss the whole sorry mess with anyone right then and I sure as Hell didn’t want to break down and make a complete fool of myself, so I just smiled up at her and said,” Just a bit homesick I guess, it’ll pass,” and I changed the subject before she could ask more.

Later we ate and Sean who had been very shy at first opened up and was a real charming little fellah; reminding me a lot of Mike a few years back.

He sure was one for the critters and I figured Mike and Sean would get on real good.

As we were chatting I let my guard down and when he said he had a pet ‘coon, I said,

“Yeah, so has Mike.”

“Is he your little boy?” asked Sean innocently.

“Yeah, sorta “I said smiling down at the boy,” I adopted him”.

“Where is he now?” asked Sean curiously.

“Back home,” I said very quietly.

“You must miss him a lot,” said the lad, looking at me sadly.

It was almost too much, and I just stared at him not knowing what to say, and then Cara was there bustling about and telling Sean it was time for bed, and casting me an understanding look she whisked him off.

When she came back from telling him a bed time story she said,” sorry about that he just doesn’t see too many people and he gets curious.”

“It’s OK”, I said smiling sadly at her, then I said” I will tell you all about it Cara, I promise, just not yet awhile, I’m finding it all kinda difficult to cope with at the moment”.

“I understand,” she said solemnly,” Just tell me when you can,” she finished.

I remembered Slim saying the exact same words the night before I’d ridden out.

“You sound just like Slim, my best friend,” I said smiling at her.

She smiled back, “Will you be OK here on the couch Jess?” she asked.

“Yeah, fine thank you”.

“Goodnight then,” and she leaned over giving me the gentlest of kisses on my cheek before entering her bedroom and closing the door quietly behind her.

I lay there in the light of the fire for a long time, the gentle kiss still burning on my cheek and it was a long time before sleep eventually overtook me.

Chapter 4- Jess

I awoke the following morning to the smell of bacon cooking and I realized I was really hungry for the first time since my goddamn trip up the hill and confrontation with McCrea.

Cara brought the breakfast through on a tray for me and she and Sean sat at the table and we chatted warmly to each other. Then I rested my leg while they went about their morning chores and then after lunch they sat and talked to me and I amused Sean by witling a small toy and playing checkers.

So the days flew happily by and I was a much better patient than usual. I even allowed her to shave off my growth of stubble and she admitted that I was a lot less scary looking without it. In fact quite handsome she pronounced, holding my look a little longer than necessary and then looking down and blushing prettily.

I learned from day one that you didn’t mess with Cara when she had her nurse’s hat on though and so I behaved myself and did as I was told, so consequently my ankle healed well and I was able to hobble about on a stick at the end of the first week.

One day I was sitting outside on the porch resting my leg and Cara was inside preparing the evening meal, when Sean came running over to me in tears.

He had fallen and grazed his knees badly and he scrambled up on my lap for a cuddle.

Holding his little body close I stroked his hair and spoke quietly to him comforting him the way I would have done Mike, until the tears stopped .Holding him close the longing to see Mike and the others was again overwhelming and when Cara came out to see what was wrong both Sean and I had tears in our eyes.

I blinked quickly and looked away.

”I think this little fellah needs his Ma,” I said passing him over to her.

Our gaze met, a look of deep understanding passing between us, before she carried him off to treat his injuries.

Later that night when he was tucked up in bed Cara and I sat on the couch before the fire sipping our coffee.

Looking over at me she said, “You were thinking of your boy weren’t you today when you were caring for Sean.”

“I guess so,” I said looking down.

“It’s really hard for you isn’t it Jess?” she asked looking deeply into my eyes,“ so are you ready to tell me now?”

Suddenly it was like the dam had burst and all the fear pain and regrets of the past weeks came pouring out, my desolation at losing my family, everything about my gunfighter past and how Slim had been my redemption and how utterly defeated I felt at having to give in to McCrea.

When I got to the part about removing my old fighting weapon and the significance, the fact that Slim would think I had turned my back on him and betrayed his trust, I finally broke down, closing my eyes tightly to stop the flow of tears that were threatening.

Cara put her coffee cup down and leaning towards me gently stroked my face.

” Jess it’s OK to be upset,” she said softly in that wonderful Irish lilt that reminded me so much of Maria.

I gazed deeply into her lovely brown eyes and bending my head I looked at her lips, then back into he eyes before very slowly leaning down and gently kissing her.

She responded and I kissed her more firmly before breaking off and saying” Cara”, my voice breaking with emotion.

“Jess let me comfort you,” she said, and then more quietly,” stay with me tonight, I’m so lonely too,” she finished

“Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“I’m sure.”

I leaned forwards and kissed her more firmly and then breaking off I stood up and led her through to the bed room and she closed the door quietly behind us.


The following morning when I awoke the bed was empty, but I could hear Cara fixing breakfast in the kitchen next door. I stretched out and putting my hands behind my neck, lay back and reflected on the night before.

Our love making had been passionate and very emotional for us both. Afterwards Cara lay in my arms and wept.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered eventually,” it was the first time since Liam died, I just feel so unfaithful”.

“It OK”, I said softly,” he would understand, he loved you and so I guess he would want you to be happy again, not expect you to live without anyone for the rest of your life.”

“Yes”, she replied sorrowfully,” I know your right Jess, it’s just so difficult for me,” she said softly.

I too had felt extremely moved , although Cara wasn’t the first since I had lost Maria, the experience was very emotional as she reminded me so much of her, the voice whispering in my ear could have been Maria’s and at the finish I had to stop myself from calling out her name.

Now, lying here in Cara’s bed I felt a spasm of guilt, had I been making love to Maria or Cara?

I decided not to dwell on the problem for the present and leaping out of bed, pulled on my denims and walked barefoot into the kitchen.

Cara had her back to me working at the stove and I entered the room quietly, walked up behind her, and snaking my arms around her waist kissed gently on the nape of her neck.

She spun around and smiling up at me leaned forwards and kissed me lightly on the lips, before turning back to the stove and resuming her work,

” Breakfast is ready cowboy” she said in her beautiful accent,” could you be calling Sean for me please?”

I went and scooped up Sean and brought him giggling to the table and we sat and enjoyed our meal, chatting about the plans for the day to come.

Everything was different from before, Cara and I kept stealing secret looks and seemed to be touching at every opportunity, but little Sean was unaware as he chatted on about his animals and me teaching him to fish.

After breakfast I helped her tidy up and then reluctantly went off to do some chores although I really just wanted to stay and talk to her. I began work on the wagon and figured it would be ready by the end of the day, if I kept at it.

By supper time I was done in, but everything was ready, so we could start packing up the following day. After supper I sat down on the couch in front of the fire while Cara put Sean to bed and when she came back I must have fallen asleep.

I was awoken by her soft lips caressing my forehead and smiling down at me she said,” I think it’s time you were in bed.”

Smiling lazily up at her I said, “Is that an invitation Ma’am?”

“Do you need one?” she replied giving me a cheeky look.

That night when we lay together there were no other ghosts present and we gave of our selves completely and I wondered for the first time since Maria, that just maybe I could fall in love again.

Cara had arranged to hook up with her kin at a Fort about a weeks drive away and so we needed to set off in a few days. My ankle was completely healed now and I had promised to drive them to the Fort where her family would meet her and a nephew was to drive them all along the Oregon Trail.

I’d worked hard all day before and at the end the Wagon was in real good shape and ready to roll. We decided to spend the morning packing up and then take off for the Fort the next day.

The following day as we finally packed the last belongings into the wagon I could see the distress on Cara’s pretty face and trying to help I took Sean off with me to help hitch up the team while she said her last goodbye’s to the house that had been her marital home.

We made good progress over the first few days, the weather was still warm and pleasant and the going, on an old miners trail not too difficult.

One afternoon we camped by a fast running river and Sean once more asked me to show him how to fish.

“OK,” I agreed,” I need to tend to the team and Traveler first then I’ll show you Tiger,” I said.

“I ain’t a Tiger I’m a boy,” he said laughing and then running off to get the fishing rods.

I stood staring after him, my mind in turmoil. How could I have used Mike’s special pet name? I felt absolutely appalled, how could I have done that. What was I thinking of. I felt a twist of pain as I thought of Mike, did he still miss me or did he now hate me?

Cara had seen my discomfort and coming over put her hand on my arm and looking up at me said,” Jess, that’s Mike’s pet name isn’t it?”

I nodded bleakly

She looked deep into my eyes; “you need to go back don’t you?” she said a look of deep concern on her face.

I looked back with despair in my eyes,” how can I?” I said, shaking my head sadly.

“You’ll find a way”, she replied quietly turning away, so that I wouldn’t see the sadness in her eyes.

I went over to the river where Sean was waiting for me with the rods, jumping up and down in his excitement and began to teach him the joys of fishin’.

After an hour or so we had quite a good catch and I took them back to the wagon to gut for Cara to cook later. As I was working she went down to the river and sat with Sean as he showed her his new skill with the rod.

I had just finished cleaning the fish when I heard a splash and Cara scream and running down, saw Sean splashing in the river and Cara near hysterical at the edge,

“Jess, Jess, please I can’t swim do something.”

By this time the boy was being carried away by the fast flowing current and pausing only to remove my boots I dived in.

I fought the current but it was incredibly strong and by the time I reached the place I’d last seen the boy’s head bobbing about, he had disappeared below the surface. Taking a deep breath I dived under into the dark depths desperately feeling for him, but there was no sign of him, I could see nothing in the inky blackness below.

Shooting up to the surface I dived again and this time I thought I felt his hand and tried to grab it. I stayed down until I thought my lungs would burst trying to get a grip on him, but again had to come up for air.

The third time I dived down I finally made contact with him and managed to get a firm grip around his waist and dragged him up to the surface swam with my last strength to the edge of the river.

Cara ran up stream to meet us and grabbing hold of my shoulders helped to pull us onto the bank. I lay there panting, coughing and heaving out all the river water I’d swallowed.

I was wheezing and desperately trying to get my breath when suddenly an ear splitting scream, penetrated my brain and looking over at Cara I could see she was in terrible distress andwith a frantic effort, I got to my feet and staggered over to where she was cradling Sean’s limp body.

” Oh God,” she screamed,” he’s dead, Jess he’s dead!”

Pulling him roughly from her grip I put him across my knees face down and banged his back hard several times and some of the water drained out, but he was still deathly white and not breathing. Gently turning him over and laying him on the ground I leaned over and placing my mouth over his mouth and nose breathed deeply into him, I continued to do this until after a few minutes his eyes fluttered open and he started coughing and spluttering, getting rid of all the water.

Leaning back on my haunches exhausted I let Cara take over and she held him until the rasping heaves and coughs died down and we finally made our way back to the wagon.

I quickly built a fire and I stripped off my soaking clothes while Cara dealt with Sean and put him to bed in the wagon. I dried myself off, found some dry clothes and then sat down by the fire and poured some coffee, my hand trebling so much I spilled some of it. I had to sit and breathe hard to get myself in control again after the recent shocking events, not daring to dwell on what the outcome might have been.

When he was asleep she came back out and sat down beside me looking terrible. She too was shaking and her eyes were red from crying.

“Come here sweetheart”, I said reaching out to her and she came and sat down beside me leaning with her back against the wagon wheel and I wrapped my arms around her, holding her tight until the trembling lessened.

After a while, when the shaking stopped she pulled away to look me in the face,” Jess, however did you know to do that?” she asked.

“Old Indian trick they taught me”, I said smiling at her,” saw a Chief use it on his son once and figured it would work again.”

“Thank God,” she said closing her eyes, then opening them and looking at me,” Jess I will never be able to thank you for what you did today,” and leaned back into my embrace again with a deep sigh.

Then suddenly turning to look at me closely said, “Hey are you OK, Jess I’m so sorry I’ve been so concerned with Sean, I never thought to ask. You look dreadfully pale, are you warm enough?”

I closed my eyes taking a deep shuddering breath,” Yeah, I’m OK it’s just…………….”

“Just, what Jess?”

I took another breath and looked at her in anguish,” what if that had happened to Mike, an’ I wasn’t there to save him?” I said.

“He needs me Cara, Daisy and Slim too, though Slim wouldn’t admit it the great galoot. You’re right Cara I have to go back, an’ I have to figure out how I can get rid of that bastard McCrae first,” I finished.

“Oh, Jess,” she said, her eyes filling with tears,” do be careful, I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.”

Standing up I fetched the bedrolls and put them down by the fire, I took her hand and drew her down beside me so that we lay close together and covering us both over with a warm blanket , I held her tightly in my arms.

“Nothin’ is goin’ to happen to me. I can look after myself; you should know that by now,” I said smiling at her. “But I need you to know, I’m finding this real difficult Cara, I figured…well I figured maybe I’d go to Oregon with you an’ Sean, iffen you’d have me. …..But, well after today, I know I have to go back.” I concluded sadly.

Looking deep into her eyes I said, “You do understand don’t you?”

She nodded and then said, “I want to thank you Jess, for everything, you’ve made me feel like a woman again and I’ll always cherish the time we’ve had together, and yes I do understand.”

“Oh sweetheart’” I said huskily and reaching down kissed her passionately and we lay together making love under the stars for one last time.

The following morning we were up early for the final leg of the journey to the Fort where we were meeting up with some of Cara’s kin and I figured we’d arrive before sundown. Sean seemed none the worse for his dip in the river and actually wanted to go fishing again, but one look from his Ma silenced him.

Cara and I spent those last few hours together talking and sharing things we had never told a living soul before. We were incredibly close and I knew we could probably have made a go of things if we had stuck together. But there was always the thought of Maria in the background, how much of my feelings for Cara were to do with the fact that she was so much like Maria? She deserved more than that and I really hoped she would be happy in her new life and would find a man more worthy of her.

On arriving at the Fort we were made welcome by her Brother, sister in law and their two fine sons aged about 16 and 18. The older boy was to drive Cara’s wagon and I was pleased to see he had the easy relationship of a big brother with little Sean and I was glad and hoped that would ease the loss of my departure. The little boy had gotten real close to me after the last few weeks we had spent together and he even called me Pa sometimes, though I discouraged it and along with Cara told him stories about his real Pa so he wouldn’t forget him .None the less there was a real strong bond between us and he cried something awful when we told him I’d be leaving when we got to the Fort and the sound of his sobs near broke my heart.

Now it was the last night and we joined in a social evening meeting the Wagon Master, several other families and the local Sheriff, a very friendly guy named Dave Hudson.

Later after a good evening chatting around the campfire with Cara’s kin folk we all went off to bed. For the sake of propriety I slept out by the fire and Cara retired to bed with Sean in the wagon after we exchanged a look of deep longing.

However we had decided it would be easier for her to just describe me as an old friend helping her out rather than try and explain our relationship to her rather straight laced brother. Anyways I figured, being a very private person, what we had together was ours and none of anyone else’s business.

The next morning the camp was up at first light and preparations for their journey made and everyone was ready to depart soon after breakfast.

Just before they drove out I had disappeared on a mission I had discussed the previous night with Cara and I returned a little later with a bundle of wriggling fur held firmly under my arm.

A man at the Fort had a litter of puppies for sale and was more than happy to give me one of them and with Cara’s consent I had got one for Sean.As soon as he saw the pretty brown pup his whole face lit up and he ran to me hands out stretched.

“Wow Jess you got yourself a dog,” he said in excitement.

Squatting down by the boy I placed the pup carefully in his outstretched arms.

“That I did Sean”, I replied.” Problems is ,well he’s a mite too small yet to run along side Traveler, so I was wondering if you could look after him for me, keep him in the

Wagon with you?”

“Sure”, the boy said his face glowing with excitement.

“I figured maybe you could use a friend to look out for you,” I continued,” an’ this little fellah', he’ll be a real big, brave huntin’ dog for you when he’s full grown,” I finished.

“Don’t ya want him back Jess?” asked the little boy in astonishment.

Smiling, I said, ”no I guess not.”

Then glancing up at Cara said,”maybe I’ll come an’ visit him one day though if it’s Ok with you Ma.”

“Gee thanks Jess,” the boy said happily, then,” think I’ll call him Jess, and then I’ll never forget you,” he said grinning at me.

Unshed tears sprang to Cara’s eyes and she said quietly so that only I could hear,

“I guess we’ll never forget Jess anyway.”

Then there was one last rush as everyone climbed on board their Wagons. Goodbyes were said and Sean and the pup sat in the back of the wagon and Cara made her way to the front and was about to be helped on board by her nephew when she ran back to me.

She had already said goodbye quietly with a brief hand shake as her family looked on.

Now she threw herself in my arms and we kissed long and slow neither of us giving a damn what anyone thought.

Finally we broke apart and looking deep into my eyes, she said in that beautiful Irish lilt,

“Take care Jess and be happy”, and turning she ran back to the wagon and was helped aloft and at the call from the Wagon Master’s Forward Ho! the train moved off at a brisk pace.

I stood and watched and waved to Sean until the wagons were a mere dot on the horizon, emotion welling up in me.

Then I felt someone at my side and lookin’ over saw the friendly Sheriff, Dave Hudson who I had met the night before.

“Not tempted to go along too Jess?” he asked grinning over at me.

Looking off to the horizon and blinking back the threatening tears I swallowed hard before replying.

” Oh sure, I’m tempted alright.”

“So where are you headin’ friend?” he asked.

Turning to look into his warm honest face I replied,” I’mgoin’ to Laramie Sheriff, I’m goin’ home, and tipping my hat to him turned, hopped up on Traveler and turning him due east, spurred him onto the long, long road home.

Chapter 5 –Slim

After the revelation that Jess had taken his old gunslinger weapon I was thrown into a storm of mixed emotions.

At first I couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t accept it. When people asked after him I just said he was off on a business trip. After a few weeks I couldn’t bear the sight of his belongings scattered around our shared room and packed everything up and placed them in an old chest in the barn, refusing to accept the fact that he would never return for them.

I also hated to see Traveler’s empty stall a reminder of my loss every time I went in the barn. But I also didn’t want to use it for another horse as it was Traveler’s stall and I really bawled out old Mose, the stage driver and a real old friend, one day when he put one of the team that had thrown up lame in there, and felt guilt stricken at the look of shock on the old mans face as I ranted on.

Like all my close friends he wasn’t convinced by my saying Jess was away on business for so long and now looking at me and shaking his head sadly and he said,

“I figure it’s time to be honest with your self ……about Jess,” before cracking the whip to urge the team out of the yard at a fast pace.

Standing watching him disappear in a haze of dust, tears sprang to my eyes and for the first time I really believed Jess was gone for ever.

I felt deeply saddened, but also incredibly angry with him in equal measures. How could he betray my trust like that? Didn’t our deep friendship mean anything to him? God, I’d put my life on the line for him more than once and he had done the same for me, surely he couldn’t throw all that away so easily.

Then at other times I tried to think rationally about why he had gone. Maybe he had been ill. I remembered a few years ago when he was sick and convinced he might die, he had told me he would just ride out to spare us all the grief of seeing him die in front of our eyes. But then again he had seemed perfectly healthy on the morning before he left and I remembered the banter before breakfast when I had been teasing him about his hunting ability. He had chased me all the way to the barn, vaulting the corral fence effortlessly on the way and laid into me hard, wrestling me to the ground and giving me a good pounding as we messed about before Daisy called us in for breakfast, which he has wolfed down in typical Harper style. He sure seemed healthy enough then I thought, with the ghost of a smile.

No, it had been later in the day, after Daisy and I returned from town that things changed and he became morose and withdrawn and had stopped eating. Something must have happened then, when we were in town I thought, but what?

Maybe one of his old gunslinger friends had come to the ranch in our absence asking for his help and he had ridden out without telling me to protect me from getting involved in trouble. But why take his gun and leave that obvious message,’ Sorry Slim,’ knowing I would understand what he meant by it, he was riding out for good and going back on the drift, back to his old gunslinger ways, why… oh Jess, why?

The following day when Mose drove the early Stage in he had no passengers and so I invited him into the ranch for coffee and some of Daisy’s apple pie. I wanted to apologise to my old friend and referred to the offering as humble pie, but the humor was lost on Mose so I carried on with what I wanted to say.

“I’m real sorry about bawling you out yesterday Mose and I guess you’re right, I admit it, Jess has left.”

He took a deep breath;” well I’m real sorry to hear that Slim,” he said.

“I miss his ornery presence around here somethin’ fierce myself,” he continued quietly.

“ Not the same not havin’ that good for nuthin’ saddle bum jumpin’ out in front of the horses every time I land here, near scarin’ me to death,” he said giving me a sad smile.

“Did he do it that last day?” I asked,

“Yeah, sure, you know Jess always a kiddin’ around.”

“Can you think of anything, Mose anything different, something he said?”

“Nah….Oh wait a minute there was the letter.”


“Yeah, a real rough lookin’ dude gave me a letter for Jess said he should read it at once, sorry Slim guess I’d forgotten all about it”.

“Did you know him?”

“Well, funny as you should ask that ‘cos I’d never clapped eyes on him afore, then I seen him a mess o’ times since. Turns out he’s bought the ol’ Benson shack over the ridge. Real mean lookin’ he is, wears all black and has a cruel scar down his cheek, can’t miss him,” he said shuddering slightly.

“Thanks Mose,” I said,” guess I’ll be riding out to visit our new neighbour.”

“Well you take care Slim, he looks mean to me, real mean.”

That afternoon I saddled up Alamo and rode over the ridge and as I went in through the old broken down gate of the former Benson ranch a real rough, ugly man sprang out pointing a rifle at my belly and sneered, “What do you want friend, this is private property.”

Ignoring the gun I dismounted and giving him a hard look said, “I’m Slim Sherman, ranch just over the rise an’ I’d like to see the owner of this place friend,” I said, stressing the last word and glaring at him.

Just then the ranch house door opened and a tall man dressed in black appeared and looking over at his rifle totin’ buddy said,” OK Jake, back off.”

Coming towards me he offered his hand in greeting and said,” Sherman it’s just great to meet you at last, Walt McCrea at your service.”

I took his hand reluctantly and gave a brief nod, “McCrea.”

“Come in,” he offered, “sit a spell.”

“No thanks,” I replied,” this won’t take long. I believe you know my partner Jess Harper?”

He nodded in affirmation;” sure ol’ Jess an’ I go way back.”

“Why did you write him?” I asked getting right to the point.

“Wanted to see him I guess. “


“We had business, Sherman, private business,” and he turned to go back in doors.

I leaned forward and grabbed his arm and he wrenched free giving me a hard look.

“Oh no, McCrea it isn’t that easy,” I spat,” I want to know why and I want to know right now. This is my best buddy were talking about an’ if he’s in trouble then I want to know.”

“OK if ya want it that way Sherman, I just suggested Jess might like to head out West like he was a goin’ before he met up with you all.”

“And why should he want to do that?” I snarled

“Couldn’t rightly say, maybe he got the notion you good folk over at the Relay would have an unfortunate accident,” he drawled,” awful dangerous places those Relay Stations, specially for a young boy, like …...err Mike is it?”

“You threatened to harm…kill the boy….all of us?” I asked incredulously

“Now, now Sherman, you’re a putting; words in my mouth there. Ol’ Jess boy, well he gets a bit emotional about kin, family ties and all, after losing one family, guess he’s kinda protective of you people. Well I guess maybe he misunderstood me sayin’ that about accidents and all.”

“Oh, no, oh no he didn’t,” I growled,” you threatened to kill us unless he headed out and didn’t come back didn’t you, you bastard?”

“You watch your language boy, yes I did do that thing, but there ain’t no law about talkin’ to folk, you just can’t do a thing about it and ol’ Jess is long gone now, probably sizing up a bank job as we speak,” he chuckled.

“Why you,”………. I launched myself at him but was stopped in my tracks by Jake shoving the shot gun in my ribs.

Glaring at them both I turned and mounted my horse, you haven’t heard the last of this McCrea, I vowed and spurring Alamo on, left the ranch at a gallop, heading for Laramie and my friend Mort Corey.


I was striding up and down Mort’s office and he was sitting at his desk regarding me with an irritated look on his face.” Slim will you quit yer pacing”, he said, “ I can’t think straight and yer makin’ me nervous.”

I sat down on the chair opposite,” what do you mean your hands are tied?” I asked again.

“Just like I said Slim, McCrea hasn’t broken any laws, just by threatening to do something and if I spoke to him he’d doubtless lie about the whole conversation with you. He’s a slimy one Slim, he should have hung for what he did to Jess’s friend, if anyone had cause for revenge it’s Jess not McCrea”, he finished ruefully.

“So McCrea gets his sweet revenge on Jess for the time he spent in prison after Jess’s evidence .There must be something you can do Mort,” I said angrily

“Sure I can wire a friend of mine, Sheriff over at a Fort on the Wagon Train trail for Oregon. If Jess is heading west shouldn’t be surprised if he tried to get a scouting job with the Wagon Train, if he passes through there Dave Hudson will wire me.

I’ll also wire several other lawmen at towns on the way west, if anyone sees him……..well it’s a long shot I know, but best I can do Slim,” he finished sadly.

When I returned to the ranch Daisy came running out to meet me a troubled look on her face.

” Oh Slim, thank goodness you are back, Mike is just home from school and he’s been fighting again, please have a word with him, he just won’t listen to anything I say.”

Mike was in his room and I went in and gave him a furious glare, I just didn’t need this on top of everything else.

”What’s this about you fighting again?” I asked severely.

The boy looked mutinous. Since Jess had left he had become increasingly difficult. At first he had cried every night and then gradually become more and more withdrawn, running out of the room if Jess’s name was even mentioned. I knew he felt a great sense of loss and betrayal, but I was feeling the same way myself and didn’t know how to deal with it either.

“How many times do I have to tell you fighting doesn’t help things?” I asked angrily.

“Jess used to fight,” he said sullenly, ”all the time.”

“No he didn’t,” I replied, “only when it was necessary or he was sticking up for someone.”

“Well that’s what I was doing,” said the boy flatly.” Billy Jackson said Jess had gone off to be a gunslinger again and he was a no good drifter, who’d end up with a noose around his neck, said his Pa had said it, so it was true, and it ain’t true, it ain’t, I had to fight him Slim I just had to,” he finished huge tears running down his cheeks.

I reached over and took the boy in my arms, close to tears myself and said quietly, “guess maybe you did this time Tiger.”

Just then Daisy tapped at the door, “Everything alright?” she inquired popping her head round.

“Sure Daisy,” I replied, “come on in, there is something I need to tell you both.”

I then repeated the conversation I had had with McCrea and also with Mort.

Daisy’s eyes opened wide in shock, “you mean the poor boy was forced to leave home because that dreadful man had threatened to kill us?” she said, her voice trembling,” oh my, oh poor Jess,” and she started to cry quietly. Then,” I knew it, I knew there would be a good reason,” she whispered.

“You mean Jess left ‘cos he was trying to keep us safe?” asked Mike,” not because he was tired of living here with us and he didn’t want to leave an be a gunslinger again?”

“That’s right Mike,” I said,” he did it for us,” I agreed, lapsing into silence, my heart so full of sadness and I felt a pang of guilt, how could I ever have doubted his friendship?

As the weeks dragged on it became obvious that I couldn’t manage the ranch on my own for much longer. I kept putting off replacing Jess in the hope that he would return, but as the summer ended and Fall began I had to face facts.

It was this time of year when Jess and I were fully pushed bringing all the stock down to the low pasture for the winter. I knew I couldn’t do it alone so eventually hired in a neighbor's two sons to help me short term. But I knew come the Spring I would have to look for a permanent replacement and the thought made me heart sick. I told myself he would just be a hired hand, sleep in the bunk house and not become a friend, but even so I felt terrible at considering this final step, and a great sense of betrayal.

The two boys worked very well together and they had the sort of banter and sense of fun you often see in young men with a close friendship. But every time they laughed, fooling about play fighting or sharing a joke it was like a knife in my guts as it was all so much like the way Jess and I used to carry on. I missed him something fierce and these two lads antics were like salt in the wound, although of course I tried not to show it.

Early one morning I was in the yard when the Stage came rampaging in as usual threatening the life and limb of the chickens and Mose beamed down at me.

“Hey Slim, Mort says can you ride in later, says he might have some news of Jess for you,” he said cheerfully.

No sooner was the team changed than I was up on Alamo and heading for town.

Leaping down on my arrival and hardly stopping to tether my horse I crashed into Mort’s office. He was standing with the coffee pot in his hand and motioning me to a seat handed me over a cup.

“Hey calm down there Slim,” he said a big beam spreading across his face.

“ I said it was a long shot…but well it worked, I got a wire from Dave Hudson, Sheriff over on the Oregon trail and he saw Jess just a couple of days ago.”

I leapt up, “He’s OK?”

“Sure, seems Dave really took to him and they had a good chat. Apparently Jess had hooked up with an Irish lady and her son, bit of a good looker, Dave said.

He thought they were a family at first, looked like Jess was Pa to the boy, but no, the lady and boy headed off to Oregon without Jess. It seems they were real close though, Dave said.”

He smiled up at me,” sounds like Jess doesn’t it”, he grinned,” had to be a woman involved”.

I grinned back, “Yeah sounds about right,” I agreed.

“Anyways after he’d given her a real good kissin’ and she and the boy had headed off, Dave asked where he was heading and apparently Jess just said, Laramie, I’m going home to Laramie, Sheriff.”

I jumped up again and headed for the door, but Mort raised his hand and said,” Hold hard there boy where do ya think your heading?”

“West,” I said quickly.

“No you ain’t, sit down Slim and hear me out.”

Reluctantly I retuned and sat back down.

“Now first off, that’s a crazy notion, you know dang well it’ll take him a good long while to get back across that mountain range. If snows down it could even be next Spring.

Then secondly, as soon as he gets back he’s goin’ to be seeking out that low life McCrea to finish a little business with him and I want to be around when that happens to see fair play. So this is going to be how it is Slim. Soon as we reckon he should be a few days ride away we’ll head out together and see him home safely OK?”

I looked down, and I knew what he said was sensible and after a few minutes I said, “Yeah OK Mort you win, makes sense.”

I stood up and shook his hand warmly,” thanks Mort I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what you’ve done,”I said.

“Forget it son,” he drawled, “I’ve kinda missed the ornery trouble maker myself,” he said laughing.

Little did I know then that a very hung over Jake was sitting in the cell listening to our every word.

He had got very drunk the night before and had trashed the saloon and had been hauled in by Mort until McCrea came to bail him out later. Mort assumed he was still out cold during our chat, but we didn’t discover the truth until much later.

When McCrea finally arrived Jake left no time before he filled his boss in with the fact that Jess was about to defy him and return to Laramie.

“So the good Sheriff and Sherman will be riding out to meet him and keep him safe will they?” he smirked, “then guess you an’ me will be ridin’ out a bit sooner than them an give him a real good welcome home, from the business end of a 12 bore,” he finished grinning evilly at Jake.

“Oh yes, think we’ll just send ol’ Jess to his Maker an’ then leave him out for the buzzards and Sherman to find,” he finished.

“Nice touch don’t ya think Jake, Sherman, so lookin’ forward to seein’ his long lost buddy and then arrives too late and finds him dead…real nice touch that.”

Chapter 6 – Jess

As I headed out, back home that morning after waving Cara and Sean off I had mixed feelings. Part of me was missing them like Hell as we’d become so close after the weeks we had spent together isolated at the remote cabin. We had shared things about our past and hopes for the future and I guess I knew her as well as a man could know a woman and so it was real difficult for me when they drove off on the Wagon Train without me.

In my heart though I knew I had done the right thing.

I remembered a conversation we had one night not long after we had become lovers, she had said,” I’m not Maria, Jess and you’re not Liam we need to remember that.”

The fact that she needed to say it made me realise it would always be a problem, for me anyway. Her soft gentle voice with that wonderful accent, her manner, even to some extent her looks were so much like my fiancées that it was so hard for me to be sure it was Cara I was falling for and not the ghost of Maria and for that reason I knew I couldn’t go on with her to Oregon.

Another part of me was incredibly excited though, I was going home, and just the word filled me with such warmth and joy that it made me look to the horizon kicking old Trav on, unable to resist riding that extra mile or two before night fall and then setting off again at dawn.

I knew I was pushing the old fellah too hard and so I started walking a lot more, especially as we reached the top of the mountain range as I desperately wanted to get through, without any accidents, before the first snow.

As I travelled I had plenty of time to review the situation and decide what I was going to do when I reached Laramie. I thought I should lie low for a week or so and establish a camp near the old Benson shack where I could keep a watch on McCrea. Once I’d established a routine and found a time when I could catch him alone I planned to visit and call him out. I figured in a shoot out we would be pretty evenly matched, but reckoned I had the edge on him. Anyways it didn’t matter I’d rather go home and die in the process than stay away any longer.

I pushed myself real hard and made very good progress cutting the time I’d figured it would take me down by about a third. I should arrive a good couple of weeks before the time I had estimated, even allowing for any hold ups and I was real pleased.

Well, there was a hold up, but not the sort I had expected. I thought Traveler might throw a shoe, or the weather would close in, but what I didn’t expect was to get sick, real sick and when I was so near home too. I must have been about a days ride away from the edge of Sherman land when it happened.

I’d shot a rabbit for supper, he was easy pickings, hardly bothering to run when he heard me approach, so I shot him with no problem and cooked him up for my supper. I wondered later if he was sick and infected me or if I just didn’t cook him too well. Either way the outcome was the same, one Hell of a belly ache followed by me chucking up my guts; just about none stop for three days. I smiled wryly to myself at one stage when I really felt like I was dying, sure wanted to anyways, and thought how funny Slim would find it, Harper poisoned by his own cooking. He always said it would happen one day and I guessed he was right. Shame I wouldn’t be around to tell him I thought.

On the third night I was lying out in the open without any sort of tree cover as I’d been so sick I’d just had to stop in the middle of open range and lay down. I heard the wind getting up, then the thunder in the distance and finally the heavens opened and the rain came down in torrents. I’d felt too ill to even build a fire, but I guess if I had done it would have been extinguished in minutes. Poor old Traveler just stood and took it all, turning his rump to the weather, and I felt mighty sorry for him and real bad I was putting him through this. As for me I was past caring, I was sick to the stomach, soaking through and through and I figured things couldn’t get much worse.

The following morning somehow I managed to drag myself up on Traveler’s back again and we made it to the far side of the lake and the small cave we often visited when on fishing trips. I knew the ranch was only about an hours ride away and it sure was tempting to ride on and have Daisy make a big fuss of mealthough I wasn’t really sure what sort of reception I would get from my family to be honest. I guessed they would all be really hacked off with me, but maybe after I’d explained, I thought drowsily….. Anyway, it wasn’t going to happen I intended to hole up at the cave until I was fit again and then carry on with my original plan of taking out McCrea, before he could do the same to me or my family.

The rain had finally stopped so the first thing I did was to rub down ol’ Trav and then I left him near the lake where there was some good grazing. Finally I made my way up to the cave lit a fire and stripped off all my soaking clothes, putting them to dry by the fire I considered eating but just the thought made me heave so I took a couple of sips of water from my canteen, but even that wouldn’t stay down, so exhausted I lay on my bedroll by the fire and fell into an uneasy sleep.

I awoke very early the following morning feeling even worse, my head ached and I had chills and fever, I was also incredibly thirsty and again tried to drink something, but after a few sips I felt real sick again so stopped.

I felt guilty at leaving Traveler alone for so long, so I slowly made my way back down to the lake and was relieved to see him quietly grazing where I had left him. He blew through his nostrils in welcome and I went over and made a fuss of him, leaning heavily on his shoulder for support as I scratched behind his ear the way he liked. After a while I saddled him up and packed up my bedroll and gear, ready to head off.

Before I left I walked down to the edge of the lake and knelt down to drink a little more and wash my burning face. Getting up and stretching I looked over to the other side, again thinking how near home was and wondered what they were doing at the ranch.

It was then that I heard the distinct sound of a twig snapping and spinning around drew my gun, but found myself looking down the sights of The Bounty Hunter’s rifle.

“Holster the gun boy, he drawled,” if I don’t kill you ol’ Jake over there will,” he said tipping his head towards the huge ugly man, just emerging from the tree line to my left.

Reluctantly I returned my gun to the holster.

“So you came back Jess”

“Yes I came back, Came back to settle things once and for all McCrea, with a fair gun fight…if you’ve got the stomach for it.”

“Oh there’s nothin’ wrong with my stomach boy, unlike yours. See Jake an me been watchin’ you for a couple of days and looks to me like your sick boy, real sick. I reckon you were a mite slower than usual when you drew just then, I guess you’re havin’ trouble lifting that gun never mind shootin’ in the right direction”, he finished chuckling.

“Try me,” I growled.

“Well the way I see it Jess, I’d be doin’ you a favour just gunning you down now, reckon it would be a bit like puttin’ a sick dog outta its misery.”

Just then I saw a movement to my left and instinctively I drew and fired at Jake. He had drawn on me, but the shot went wide, mine hit him in the chest and he fell to the ground like a log, dead.

I holstered my gun and turning to look back at McCrea, said, “Guess that evens the odds up some, care to have a fair fight now or are you still insisting on puttin’ me down like a sick dog?” I asked raising a quizzical eyebrow at him.

I could see the light of anger ignite in his eyes as he threw down the rifle, and backed up a pace or two his hand hovering over his gun.

“If that’s the way you want it Harper I’ll see you in Hell,” he snarled.

I waited watching his eyes for that tell tale look that would indicate he was about to draw.

I saw him go for his gun and I drew a split second later and we fired at the same time, my bullet shot him through the heart killing him instantly, his hit me in the shoulder and I fell to my knees, the pain ripping through me. Guess you’ll be in Hell before me McCrea was my last thought before I passed out.

When I came to it was still early with the sun up, warm on my face and Trav was grazing a few feet away. Slowly I managed to pull my self up and removing my bandana I pushed it under my shirt to help stem the bleeding.

I staggered over to my horse and after several attempts managed to mount and point him in the direction of the ranch and giving him his head I just concentrated on staying on.

I was on the high ridge overlooking the ranch when I saw Slim come out of the door, about to go about his usual morning chores and then he looked up and saw me. I was still quite far off and I saw him shade his eyes straining to see who the solitary rider was. Then I heard him yell and run back into the ranch to tell the others and grinning I spurred Trav on, down the track to home at last.

Chapter 7 –Slim

After my chat with Mort I had felt much better, knowing that Jess was on the way home and we both figured it would be at least three weeks before we could think of riding out to meet him.

In the meantime I tried keeping myself busy with all the work that had to be done at the ranch.

Since our little talk on the night of his fight with Billy Jackson Mike had been much more his old self and had been a real big help to me with the chores, even taking on some of Jess’s jobs with the horses. However, he was so excited about Jess coming back that I started to worry in case things didn’t work out as we’d hoped.

What if something happened to him on the way back, it was a long journey through some very treacherous land. What if he was just returning to complete the unfinished business with McCrea and then he was heading back to Oregon to be with the mystery Irish woman and her son?

The more I thought about it the more I worried until barely able to contain her impatience anymore Daisy took me to one side and gave me a good talking to.

“Slim, you must know how highly Jess thinks of you, of us all. If he is coming back, then it’s because he wants to and if there is something between him and this lady, then doubtless we will find out. The main thing is he is coming home, so lets just rejoice in that and not worry until there really is something to worry about.”

I smiled at her and gave her a big hug, “You’re right, as usual Daisy,” I said, “its just, well…….”

“I know dear,” she said, “we all feel the same, but he’ll be home soon and then we can relax.”

I smiled at her again, “I sure hope so,” I said,” I sure hope so.”

The following morning I was making my way across the yard to start the chores, when glancing up I saw a solitary rider up on the ridge above the ranch.

He was sitting just looking down at the ranch and with the sun to his back I couldn’t see who it was. Something about the way he sat the horse seemed familiar, and the horse a tough looking little bay…Traveler? It couldn’t be Jess and Traveler, they weren’t due back anytime soon……but, yes…yes it was!

I turned on heel and ran back into the ranch.

” Daisy, Mike…….it’s Jess, he’s back,” I yelled before running out front again just as Jess and ol’ Traveler trotted into the yard.

He reined in beside me looking down, a tired grin on his face,” Hi Pard”, he said quietly…”miss me?”

I just stood staring up at him in absolute shock. He looked terrible.

God knows I’ve seen Jess in some bad times before, but never like this.

His eyes where sunken, his face deathly pale in contrast with the blue black shadows around his eyes and the black stubble on his chin. His clothes were filthy, covered in mud and then I saw the blood oozing from a wound in his shoulder and he was shaking uncontrollably.

“Oh buddy, what’s happened to you?” I gasped.

By this time Daisy and Mike had joined us and Mike just gaped in horror, hardly able to recognise his beloved friend.

It was Daisy who started organizing us and said,” Oh Jess!

Then she turned to me, ”Slim help him in the house; I must tend that wound at once.”

Jess’s hands were holding onto the saddle horn so tightly it took a few minutes before he could let go and I figured he’d just been holding on for dear life to try and stop himself from falling, while Traveler negotiated the way home.

Finally he let go and slid down from the saddle, holding on for a few minutes and then losing his battle at last he passed out. I managed to catch him before he hit the ground and carried him into the ranch laying him gently on the couch. He felt so light, almost like carrying Mike and on looking more closely I saw his usually lean frame was almost emaciated.

Daisy gently removed his shirt and gave a little cry of shock when she saw his ribs sticking out and the gaping wound in his shoulder.

Turning her worried expression on me she said quietly,” I think you should ride for Doc. Baker Slim, he needs to see Jess as soon as possible.”

When I returned with our good friend Doc Sam Baker, Daisy had cleaned the wound and washed Jess but he still looked real ill.

Greeting the Doc, Daisy proceeded to express her concerns and valuing her opinion as an ex nurse he listened carefully.

Apparently the bullet wound wasn’t too bad, but it was his general look that seemed to be disturbing them both. By now he appeared worse than when I left and was trembling uncontrollably and also seemed to be having trouble with his vision, saying he felt dizzy and everything was kinda fuzzy and blurred and his head and stomach ached real bad.

Exchanging a worried look with Daisy Sam said,” have you been eating and drinking OK these last few days Jess? “

“Nah”, he whispered,” been sick to my stomach for three maybe four days, I ate a rabbit and guess he had his revenge on me,” he said with a faint smile.

“What about water?” asked Sam, looking very concerned now.

“No, can’t keep it down” he said weakly.

Wiping his brow with a damp cloth, Sam said,” try and rest a while Jess,” and turned away and walked to the kitchen to wash his hands.

Daisy and I followed.

“Well?” I asked.

“It’s serious, Slim, very. Looks like he’s had a nasty dose of food poisoning and he can’t keep any fluids down. He just hasn’t got enough water in his body, its called dehydration, and unless we can get some fluids in him pretty quickly then……”

“What, this could kill him?” I asked my voice rising in panic.

He frowned at me,” worst possible case, yes it could….but, well Jess is a fighter so he has a chance.”

I turned away stricken, and then blazing with anger I turned back to the Doc, “a chance, after all he’s been through, losing his home, his family, thanks to that bastard McCrea! Then he finally makes it back home and your telling me he only has a chance of living?” I said the pain and anguish making my voice harsh.

I stood glaring at him my hands balled into fists and I just wished I had something to hit to release the emotion coursing through my body.

Sam came over and put a hand gently on my shoulder, “Easy Slim,” he said,” I know how you feel and I promise I will do my very best,” and turning away went back to sit with his patient.”

Daisy came and put her arms around me, and looking up at me, her sweet face full of concern said, “Slim, don’t cave in now, he needs you, needs us all to pull him through this. Go on now, go and sit with him,” she said pushing me gently towards the main room.

I went in, and over to the couch and Jess looked up.

“What are ya carrying on about Slim?” he asked looking sleepily up at me,” can’t a man get a bit peace around here?” he said with a faint smile.

Looking down at him I felt a lump in my throat and I couldn’t answer so just stared at him, then after a few minutes said “Sorry Jess,” and walked out to the yard.

As I left I heard him say to Sam,” He OK?” and Sam’s reply.

“Sure, just worried about you.”

Then Jess returning with an ironic laugh, “he’s worried about me…I’m worried about me,” and heard Sam’s answering chuckle.

He can always make light of things, no matter how grim I thought, typical Jess and

I went over to the barn to settle the horses for the night, shaking my head sadly.

A little while later Sam joined me.

” I need to get over to the Patterson’s place,” he said,” the new baby is due, but just ride round anytime during the night if you need me, and Daisy knows what to do for Jess, I’ll be back tomorrow,” he finished before turning to mount his horse.

Putting a hand on his arm to stop him I said, “Sorry Sam, don’t know what got into me, back there.”

He gave me his kind smile,” forget it he said,” I’ll be over tomorrow and before, if you need me,” and kicking his mount on left the yard at a brisk trot.

I finished up in the barn and went back to the house and found Daisy sitting with Jess painstakingly giving him sips of water from a spoon.

He looked terrible his skin gone from white to grey and he was obviously in a lot of pain, holding his stomach, but he wasn’t complaining and he looked over and said,

“ Are you OK Slim?”

I nodded and turning to Daisy said,”you go to bed Daisy; I’ll sit up with him. “

She looked like she would argue then saw the determined look in my eye and thinking better of it leant forwards and kissing Jess on the forehead, said,” he needs to have this water constantly through the night and if he sleeps wake him up every hour for more water, call me if you need me Slim, or if there is any change.

She cast him her gentle smile, “goodnight Jess, now behave!” she finished giving him a little pat on the arm.

After she had gone I took up the cup of water, “So are you keeping this down now?” I asked

“Nope, probably not, he said casually.”

“Jess, do ya realize how sick you are?” I said, giving him an exasperated look.

“I guess so, can’t help it though Slim,” he said throwing me a frustrated glance.

“Yeah, I know, I know buddy I’m sorry.”

He closed his eyes and then after a long pause,” I’m sorry Slim , so sorry for all I put you through, just couldn’t see any way out,” he said quietly, opening his deep blue eyes and looking sadly at me.

“Hush,” I said,” its OK, don’t try to talk now, save your strength; we’ll talk about it later.”

His breathing seemed to have got quicker and his eyes looked bright with the fever.

“No,” he whispered, “need to tell ya now, in case there isn’t a later.”

“Jess,” I growled,” don’t talk that way, don’t you dare up and die on me!”

I grabbed his shoulders hard and gave him a rough shake, then looking deep into his eyes, repeated, ” don’t you dare, goddamn it!”

He closed his eyes again and then after a few minutes opened them and looked up at me,” OK,”he said with a weak grin, “guess we’ll try some more water then buddy, huh?”

I spent the night giving him small sips of water and by dawn we were both whacked, but I knew I had to persevere.

He had fallen into an exhausted sleep and I needed to wake him up again to get some more of the life saving fluids into him.

I tried to wake him but he refused to take anymore water saying,” Aww Slim will ya leave me alone I wanna sleep”

“Come on, you’ve got to do this, will you wake up and behave?” I said crossly feeling pretty much done in myself.

“Nah,” he said sleepily” leave me be.”

“Jess if you don’t take this drink so help me I’ll”…………..I exploded.

His blue eyes snapped open and cutting in said “do what…… kill me?

“Yeah if that’s what it takes,” I yelled

We looked at each other angrily for a few seconds and then we suddenly burst into hysterical laughter, eventually tears streaming down our faces with mirth.

Eventually I managed to speak again,” Guess you’re on the mend pard.”


When Sam called by later he was pleased to see the progress Jess had made and said the crisis was over, but we must still continue giving him lots of fluids and rest for a week or so.

Mike was overjoyed and spent every spare moment cuddled up at the end of the couch looking after his hero. Daisy fussed around him like a mother hen with her chick too and so it was later that day before we managed to sit quietly and talk properly, Mike and Daisy off doing their chores.

“There is something Mort should know,” Jess said looking uncertainly across at me,

” guess I should have said something before, but well I was feelin’ so sick ………….”

“What Jess?”

“McCrea, I killed him yesterday, Jake too.”

Phew, I gave a low whistle,” gun fight?”

“Yeah, Jake tried to down me when I wasn’t lookin’ so he got a bullet in the chest for his trouble. Then McCrea, figured he’d just gun me down as an act of mercy, put me outta my pain,” he said with a grim laugh.

“Anyways I kinda talked him outta that one, so we had a fair fight, I weren’t no faster than him, just more accurate, got him through the heart… they’re both back by the lake,” he finished.”I didn’t have the strength to bury ‘em. Can’t see as they deserved a decent burial anyway,” he concluded, bitterly.

“I’ll get a message to Mort when the Stage comes by later,” I said.” Thank God it’s over Jess, that hombre was pure evil.”

“That he was”, he replied,” you’ve no idea how evil”, he finished giving me a hard look.

Chapter 8 – Jess

As I looked down into Slim’s eyes I saw a look of total shock in them and guessed I was looking pretty rough, I sure was feeling that way anyway.

That good old horse of mine had seen me home and over the last hour I had been drifting in and out of consciousness and left everything to him. It wasn’t the first time he’d found his way home with me on board the worse for wear and I guessed it wouldn’t be the last. Old Trav has a natural homin’ instinct when it comes to his stable and dinner and he didn’t let me down.

I guessed he would have been racing in at a gallop if he hadn’t been aware that I was sitting up there feelin’ pretty much more dead than alive, so he walked real slow and steady and I managed to just about keep my seat by holding onto the saddle horn for dear life.

Then Iwas home with my family looking up at me in varying degrees of shock, little Mike looked horror stricken, like he’d seen a bogey man and Daisy just looked real worried and called for Slim to get me inside pronto.

When I swung down from the saddle everything began to spin and then I felt the old familiar blackness descend on me again and the last thing I remembered was Slim’s strong arms catching me as I fell.

Then I was alone with Daisy and she said Slim had gone to fetch Doc Sam and I guessed I must be in a pretty bad way. I kept apologizing to her for my filthy state, weeks on the road, plus a night lying in the mud had done nothing for my appearance, but she just hushed me gently and pulled my dirty clothes off and started to wash me. I didn’t even have the energy to make my usual objections and just lay quietly as she took care of me.

I was so dry and kept asking for a drink of water and then throwing up again and she was looking more and more concerned. Then Sam arrived and he looked pretty worried too. But it was Slim’s attitude that bothered me most, he was yelling about something, in the kitchen and then went off to the barn with hardly a word for me and I figured he was real sore at me for takin’ off the way I did. Sam said he was just worried about me, but I wasn’t so sure.

It was much later, after Daisy had gone to bed that I realized that was the truth of it, he was just worried sick. When I said I needed to talk, explain it all, in case I didn’t make it through the night that was when he got real upset

When he grabbed my shoulders and shook me it was kinda painful, but I knew he was doin’ it to try and knock some sense into me, an’ I guess he did, some. I figure I was pretty near to giving up at that stage, but he wasn’t about to let me, that’s for sure.

He spent the whole night encouraging me to drink, holding me when it came back again, and persevering hour after hour, being kind and gentle and funny.

It wasn’t until morning when I just wanted to sleep, that he got mad and then after a minute or so, we just suddenly saw the funny side, started laughing and couldn’t stop it for a while, laughing and laughing and my belly was hurtin’ something awful but we just couldn’t stop. It was just like the old times together, that I’d missed so dang much and thought I’d never get back again, and it sure felt good.

It must have been a good week later that I was really on the mend and starting to do a bit of light work around the ranch again.

Mort had been over and we sat alone out on the porch to chat and he said all the paperwork around the death of Jake and McCrea had been sorted and there was actually a large price on Jake’s head as he was wanted for murder back in Texas.

“Should amount to a considerable sum,” Mort said grinning at me. “Most important though you’ve got rid of that evil bastard McCrea,” he finished.

We sat in silence looking out to the horizon and then Mort continued.

” I reckon he’s about the most corrupt person I ever met,” he said quietly looking over at me.

“When I think of what he did to you, well…….”

“To us all Mort,” I replied,” guess it was just as bad for Slim, Mike and Daisy as it was for me, if not worse in a way”…I mused.

“Yeah he said quietly it was real bad for them. Miss Daisy there, looked like she’d aged ten years, but she never gave up on you, you know Jess. And young Mike was forever getting into trouble and started fighting and as for Slim……well,” he shook his head sadly….” But Hell I shouldn’t be telling you all this, its over that’s the main thing.”

“No, please I need to know,” I said urgently.

“Well ol’ Slim there he got angry, real angry, wouldn’t talk about it either which didn’t help.”

“With me, Mort?” I said quietly……”was he mad at me.”

He paused for a few minutes and then looked over at me.

“Yeah I guess so, at first when he saw the gun had gone I guess he felt you’d let him down. But then I reckon he got even madder…..but at himself, when he found out the truth, mad at him self for ever doubting you. Anyways I’ve said enough, this is a conversation you should be having with Slim.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, looking ruefully over at my friend,” but he just doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.”

“Give it time Jess,” he said reaching over and patting my arm,” guess it’s still pretty raw for you all.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said looking out to the horizon,” guess your right Mort”.

After my chat with Mort I had talked to Daisy and Mike about everything.

One evening when Slim had gone to bed early, Daisy and I had sat in front of the fire with a last cup of coffee and she looked over at me and said gently,” are you alright Jess?”

Smiling back I said,” well I managed to polish off a couple of helpings of your apple pie tonight so guess I’m on the right road.”

She smiled back at me.

” I didn’t mean that Jess, and you know it. I mean everything that has happened to you since you left, are you happy here,now, or do you want something else, maybe out West?”

“Heck no,” I said quickly, of course I’m happy here, its all I ever wanted, that bas… that McCrea sure got one thing right, he knew the way to hurt me was by takingme away from you all.”

Looking over I saw she had tears in her eyes,” I don’t think you will ever realize how much it hurt us too,” she said quietly.

I leapt out of my rocker and knelt down beside her chair taking both her hands in mine and looking up into her sweet tear stained face said,” I think I’m beginning to Daisy, and I’m so, so sorry for what I put you all through.”

“Jess it’s not your fault, there was nothing you could have done, we all know that now.”

“Yeah”, I said quietly, but I bet you never gave up on me, throughout this whole sorry business you believed in me didn’t you Daisy?”

She just smiled across at me and gently brushing my hair off my forehead looked deeply into my eyes and said,” Yes, I always believed in you and I always will.”

I swallowed hard to keep my own tears at bay and then after a minute said, “Thank you Daisy.”


The following morning I was in the barn grooming Traveler when Mike came and sat with me.

“Hi Tiger I said, you OK?”

“Sure I’m fine now you’re back,” he said his big blue eyes beaming up at me,

“Things weren’t too good after I took off then?” I said casually, turning my back to him as I continued brushing my horse.

He was quiet for moment before replying thoughtfully.

“Things were bad Jess, real bad. I got real naughty and real mean at school fallin’ out with everyone an’ fightin’ “

“Why Mike?” I asked spinning round to face him.

“Don’t know really,” he said looking puzzled I was just so angry fit to bust, just wanted to hurt people the way I was hurtin’, “he finished quietly.

I turned round and squatted down beside him.” I reckon I can understand that,” I said quietly. “But maybe it would have been better to talk to someone, Aunt Daisy or Slim, it might have helped?” I suggested.

“Yes, I talked to Slim after my fight with Billy,” he said,” an’ he said maybe I was right to whop him,” he said cheerfully,grinning at me now.

“Really, I can’t believe ol’ Slim would say that.”

“Oh yeah, when I told him Billy had said you were a no good gunslinger gone back on the drift, that would end up with a noose around his neck, we’ll he said I should have whopped him good,” he finished triumphantly.

“Oh Mike,” I said pulling him close in a hug, so that he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.


It was a few days later before I got a chance to talk to Slim and I really felt we needed to clear the air.

He’d spent the last few days since I’d been up and about again working out on the range, getting the last of the stock down for the winter helped by the two young brothers he’d hired in for a few weeks.

He didn’t seem to want me around and said they could manage fine so I kept busy doing chores around the ranch and changing the teams when the Stage rolled in. Ol’ Mose was really pleased to see me back and we exchanged insults as usual.

By the time Slim got back for supper he was pretty wore out and had been goin’ off to bed soon after. I’d seen him lookin’ over at me with a kinda funny look on his face a few times and figured there was something on his mind, but he didn’t seem to want to discuss it .In fact he didn’t seem to want to talk to me at all.

Finally one evening after supper I suggested we take our coffee out to the porch as had always been our custom before I lit out, and instead of saying he was bushed, this time he reluctantly agreed.

We sat as dusk was falling and looked out to the horizon, relaxing in our chairs, feet up on the porch rail, drinking our coffee in silence, then looking over I said quietly,

”Want to talk about it Slim?”

After a long pause he said,” Guess I need to know why you went off like that Jess, why didn’t you tell me, we could have figured something out.”

I turned to glare at him.

”No we dang well couldn’t,” I replied angrily, “guess you just don’t realize what a devious bastard he was, do you Slim? When we were up on the hill we saw you arrive in the buckboard; he had Mike in the sights of his rifle, with that telescopic lens he said he could get him between the eyes easy, from way up there on the hill. He said if I didn’t ship out the following day he’d pick you off one by one, he said, if you followed me and found me you’d be dead meat an’ I’d be diggin’ your grave…..do you get the picture or do you want me to go on?” I finished fiercely.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly,” I didn’t realize…I mean…………”

“It’s OK,” I said gruffly. “That’s not it though is it Slim, it’s not just about that.”

He was silent.

“Do you want me to go Slim?”

“What?.......…No of course not, why would you think that?”

“Well you sure haven’t seemed to want me around, helping bring the stock down an’ all. Ain’t had no time for me since I got back. Hell Slim you’ve been avoiding me like I got the plague or something.”

“Jess I’m sorry it’s just……………”

“Just that you’re still mad at me,” I broke in,” Slim I knew takin’ the gun would hurt you, make you think I’d turned my back on our friendship…everything I had here. But… I figured……. well it would be easier for you to hate me, be real mad at me than to be hurtin’, hopin’ Id come back, lookin’ out for me all the time. Because the way things were then, I sure as hell wasn’t coming back. When I went out that door it was for good and I needed you to accept that and move on with your life.”

“I couldn’t do that, couldn’t accept it at first, I kept makin’ excuses for you.

Then I got mad Jess, so mad with you, throwin’ everything away. Not carin’ what it did to me. To us all. Mike cryin’ himself to sleep, Daisy lookin’ like a ghost.” He sighed deeply before continuing.

“But Daisy there, well she said there would be a good reason why you’d high tailed it the way you did. She had faith in you all along. But me, well I was just so dadgum furious….. Then when I found out the truth of why you’d gone and how damn hard that must have been for you, well I just felt so almighty guilty Jess.” He shook his head and closed his eyes tightly and then looked over at me.

“Truth be told, still do, I feel so bad I can hardly look you in the eye. I should have known better and I’m just so sorry pard,” he finished looking over at me in anguish.

I looked up in surprise at that.

“Hell Slim”, I said turning to grin at him,” it’s OK; I guess I’d have felt that way, if you’d pulled the same stunt. But Daisy there, well you know her, none of us can do any wrong and after all I am her favourite” I finished, chuckling.

Slim leaned over in an attempt to punch me but I was too quick for him and dodged.

“Oh really, since when?“ he said laughing, now, the atmosphere thankfully having lightened a little.

After a few minutes he said,” What made you change your mind about coming home?”

“Cara, she figured I would be able to deal with things, sort McCrea out before he could get to you. That and Sean’s accident, I just thought what if that had been Mike and I wasn’t around to help him.”

“Nothing to do with your fear of a decent woman then buddy?” said Slim grinning at me again.

“Well….” I said smiling,” there was that.”

Then more seriously.

”Truth is Slim, when a man is makin’ love to a woman and thinkin’ of another, then that’s just not right and I figure Cara is worth more than that.”

“Maria? “Slim asked,

“Yeah,” I replied sadly. “Guess it will always be Maria.”

We sat looking out to the sun setting over the mountains and sipped our coffee in silence, thinking our own private thoughts.

After a while Slim reflected,” you needn’t worry about Mike you know, his swimming is pretty good now”.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I agreed,” guess he could use a bit of help with his fighting though”.

“Oh no Jess, no,” he replied firmly

“Why not?” I asked angrily

“Because you fight dirty Jess,” he said,” and the boy doesn’t need to learn that”.

“Sure he does, I always win don’t I?” I asked.

“Jess that’s not the point” he yelled.

“Sure it’s the point.” I yelled back.

Just then Daisy popped her head around the door,” Hush you two, Mike’s in bed and you’ll wake him,” she said.

“Sorry,” we replied in guilty unison.

“That’s alright,” she said beaming at us,” at least things are back to normal around here.”

“How do ya mean?”asked Slim

“Well you two fighting like cat and dog,” she smiled,” I’ve really missed that,”

We looked over at each other grinning.

“Yeah, guess I have too, Daisy,” I replied,” guess I have too!”

The End

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