#45 Ghost Horse

Ghost Horse


Patty Wilkinson

Chapter 1

(Some violence, strong language and adult themes)

Slim Sherman, the tall blond owner, of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station and his business partner and friend Jess Harper were leaning over the corral fence. Happily admiring the group of wild mustangs they had captured in the foothills on the edge of Sherman land, just the day before.

“Well they sure look a lively bunch, I reckon you’re going to have your work cut out breaking this lot in for the military Jess,” Slim said turning to his buddy who seemed lost in thought.


“Huh……. oh yeah……… that grey….. Slim does he look kinda familiar to you?” asked Jess his deep blue eyes narrowing as he peered out across the corral.

Slim looked over to where a big grey stallion was galloping around the corral whinnying shrilly and making his displeasure at being confined evident to one and all.

Slim looked closely, “Well now you mention it he does have a look of that beast Mike named The Ghost…. But that can’t be so buddy you broke him and sold him to the army last year and there is no way that critter has been broke.”

Just then Mike their ten year old ward ran out of the ranch house and joined the men, climbing up on the bottom fence rail, his young face alight with excitement, then after a moment he turned bewildered eyes to Jess, “hey ain’t that The Ghost?” he asked.

“Isn’t that the Ghost,” Slim corrected automatically.

“Well that’s what I said,” exclaimed the youngster sighing… “so is it?”

“Jess thought he recognised him,” Slim replied.

“One way to find out,” said Jess and fetching his lanyard he roped the beast and after a short tussle finally got him close enough to take a good look.

Once the animal stopped rearing and playing up he shortened the rope and put a tentative hand out to caress the magnificent creatures arched neck, talking softly all the time and after a few minutes he seemed quite relaxed and even accepted a sugar lump from Jess’s hand, whilst the young cowboy checked him over thoroughly.

The he gave a little cry of shock and turned to where Mike and Slim were watching him intently.

“Well, I’ll be… yer right Tiger,” he said turning to the blond younger,” it is that ornery old critter, looky here see this nick inhis ear… and that scar on his shoulder, that was where that buckskin nipped him…. yup it sure does look like your Ghost Mike.”

He took his hat off and ran a hand through his unruly dark locks, before jamming it back in place.

“ I just can’t figure what he was doin’ runnin’ wild with the herd again though. I broke him and Major Adams came by with some troopers and took all the horses off, you remember Slim?”

“Sure I do, he came early didn’t he, said they were in need of them sooner than they’d said. But he still paid us top dollar even though they weren’t all broke, sure is a fair man that Major.”

Jess shook his head,” So I don’t understand it, why would they loose him off that way, back into the wild?”

Slim shook his head, “Maybe he just escaped, wasn’t there something kind of strange with this one, I remember he was a complete nightmare, tipped you off at every opportunity and I wanted to get rid… “

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Jess animatedly,” I was struck down with that dang tick fever, feeling real bad but carried on working….. Well that day I got up feelin’ like death just waiting fer him to throw me, and probably stomp on me fer good measure but nothin’ happened……. and dang me, he was gentle as a lamb and I broke him that day.”

“And then the troopers came early and fetched him… I was kinda sad at that,” piped up young Mike.

“Yeah, you and me both Tiger,” said Jess grinning down at the child,” he was a real ornery critter, but I guess I liked his spirit, got kinda used to him.”

“Well Major Adams is due by in a week or so to check this bunch out and decide which ones he wants, so I figure we can ask him then,” said Slim, and the matter was dropped. And the more pressing problem of finding help on the ranch, while Jess started work on breaking the latest bunch of mustangs, was discussed.

“I figure we’re going to have to try and find some spare cash to buy help in,” said Slim looking serious,” we’re going to be real hard pressed getting this lot broke and doing all the jobs as need doing around the place before the Fall.”

“Umm, not to mention bringing all the stock down for the winter,” agreed Jess looking equally worried.

“ If I hadn’t been shot up so bad riding posse for the Sheriff we’d have got us some mustangs in the Spring, wrong time of year to start workin’ ‘em now,” Jess continued looking exasperated.

“Well that can’t be helped, maybe one of the neighbour’ s boys can give us a hand, and they wouldn’t need too much in wages.”

“Hey how about me,” said Mike jumping around in his enthusiasm,” I can help fix the place up for winter and bring the stock down too, can I Slim… Jess, can I huh?”

The two ranchers exchanged an amused glance before Slim squeezed the youngsters shoulder affectionately, “Well sure you can help some at the weekends Mike, but you’ve got school remember and we need someone full time.”

“Aww Slim, I can skip school just for a few weeks can’t I…please?”

“Nope you ain’t doin’ that Tiger,” Jess said immediately,” you need yer education boy.”

“Well you didn’t get too much Jess and you turned out real good,” said the youngster beaming up at his hero.

Jess shook his head, a wry smile on his face, “That’s just where you’re wrong Mike, I get by sure and I make a reasonable rancher, well it sure beats my earlier career,” he said throwing Slim his cheeky grin, alluding to his less that salubrious past as a gun slinger and drifter,” but you need to do more than just get by.”

“What do ya mean Jess?”

“Well looky here,” he said kindly,hunkering down by the child so that he could look him in the eyes,“one day you’ll inherit this spread, all the land and stock as well as the Relay business and you’re gonna have to have a good business head on your shoulders. Be able to tally up the figures every month, work out good deals as well as all the ranchin’ work, so you need book learnin’ for that.”

The boy opened his mouth to argue, but Jess put a hand up.

“No listen, I get by ‘cos me and Slim are partners. He does most of the business side, we both do the day to day chores and I’m not a bad horse whisperer… Well we can teacher you ranchin’ sure, but book learnin’”…… .he sucked in a deep breath,” well I reckon that’s down to yer teacher Mr Smith down at the school house, so that’s the way it’s gotta be Tiger, you understand?”

The boy nodded,” I guess,” and ran off to play with his dog, Buttons.

Jess and Slim exchanged a grim smile,” Well done buddy,” said Slim,” that should keep him on track, for a while at least.”

“Umm…. but he’s a spirited kid,I reckon we’ll have more than a few fights over this as he gets older, remember what your Andy was like,” he said referring to Slim’s kid brother, now happily at college back East.

“Yup, he sure was a handful.”

“Remember that time he wanted to stay home from school and you fed him that speech about needing to get all educated up… and he said he didn’t wanna be clever he just wanted to be like you an’ me!”

“Don’t I just,” said Slim with a grin, “guess we’ve got all those difficult years still to come with young Mike.”


It was the following week when Major Adams arrived at the ranch to inspect the latest input of wild mustangs that Slim and Jess had caught to break and sell on to the local fort.

Mrs Daisy Cooper the rancher’s sprightly housekeeper and surrogate Ma to all at the ranch was there to welcome him with freshly baked pie and coffee.

After he had finished the unexpected repast the Major smiled over at Daisy.

“ Well thank you so much my dear that was excellent, I’m sure you spoil these young men ,” he said with a twinkle in his old eyes.

“Oh I think they can stand a bit of that Major,” she said as she smiled back,” they both work so hard.”

“Umm, and a darn good job they do too,” he said as an aside,” especially that young Harper, best darned horse whisperer I’ve ever met,but don’t you go a telling him that or he’ll put the prices up and fleece me something rotten! “ he said with a chuckle.

Then turning to where Jess and Slim were waiting for him by the door, said, ”Come on then gentlemen lead me to these wonderful beasts of yours,” and after thanking Daisy again for her hospitality he followed the others out to the yard.

He duly admired all the animals and sought out a dozen of the best and then his eyes roamed over to the smaller corral where Jess had penned the grey as he had been stomping about and upsetting the other animals.

“Well, darn me if that isn’t Spirit,” said the old Major wandering over and admiring the restless prancing stallion.

“So I was right, this is the grey we sold you last summer?”

“Oh yes, the boys changed his name for Ghost to Spirit……..figured he was so damn spirited it suited him better, and did we have fun with him!”

“You did?” asked Jess his mobile eyebrows working overtime, “he was sweet as a nut when I sent him off with you.”

“Oh yes, I can vouch for that,” replied the Major with a twinkle. I had one of my best troopers up schooling him and he was fine and then… well I don’t know what happened but all hell broke loose. The critter bucking and rearing kicking up the dust, threw poor Barnes and hightailed it off, “ he said with a sigh.

“ Well we caught him and started breaking him all over, seemed fine and then he just exploded again, when we were branding him,kicked out and broke a troopers leg intwo places… well we just had to cut our losses and let him go back to the wild.”

“WellI sure am sorry Major, I’d no idea,” said a concerned looking Jess.

“Oh don’t fret Harper,” said the Major patting his arm kindly, “not your fault, he had all of us fooled too. Only ever seen it once before in a horse. An old buckskin my Pappy had, gee he was a good horse man………... Anyway just the same thing,got him gentled and then blow me he’s take off and act like a mad creature a few weeks later… Pappy reckoned it was a sign of a real clever beast.”

“Oh, how so?” asked Slim looking surprized.

“Well the horse tries to outsmart you, you see, lets you think he’s all broke and quiet and then just when you relax, well he kicks off… works everytime, in the end the poor sucker just gives up and lets the horse go free… which is what the beast wanted all along. Either that or he was just an ornery cuss that was never broken the first time around, who can say,but I guess some horses just can’t be domesticated.”

Jess looked thoughtfully across at the horse the Major had called Spirit.

“ I can see in your eyes you aren’t going to let him outsmart you,” said Major Adams chuckling now.

“Well you ain’t wrong there,” said Jess, the stubborn look Slim knew so well on his face now, “I don’t like to be beaten yer know Major.”

“Umm, well as long as you don’t send him back my way, those others I’ve selected will be just fine and you’re OK with that deadline?”

Slim and Jess exchanged an anxious look, before Slim smiled and offered his hand,” Sure you’ve got a deal Major, Jess will come up with the goods don’t you worry.”

As they waved the soldier off a few minutes later Jess turned to his partner.

“So Jess will come up with the goods will he ….…..so what about the rest of the work Slim, we can’t do it all.”

“Don’t worry buddy, I’ll sort something out. I’ll ask around town, sure to be someone looking for a bit of extra work,” Slim said looking more confident than he felt as they turned back to the corral.

Then Jess’s face was suddenly wreathed in smiles,” Well I’ll be……Slim, look at that,”he said pointing to where Mike’s little Palomino filly was tethered to the corral fence and the big grey was standing on the other side, nose to nose and now completely placid.

“There you are,” said Slim grinning,” love of a good female, that’s all he needed to get rid of his wild streak and I figure you’d know all about that then buddy!”

“Umm, well there ain’t one has tamed me yet,”Jess said with a grin,” and I guess this ol’ fellah is the same deep down, just lookin’ for some romancin’ and then he’ll be off.”

“Oh so you reckon your Millie hasn’t tamed you then pard…………well just wait ‘til I see her,” said the tall rancher, with a smirk,before turning to go back into the ranch house and find the coffee pot.

“Hey Slim… wait up, I didn’t mean it that way……….. don’t you go mixin’ it with Millie…….”

The truth was that Jess was completely smitten and Slim knew it.

Jess and Millie had been best friends since their childhood days on the Texas Panhandle.They had met up over the years and then when she moved to Laramie just a few years back they had picked up their relationship as friends and sometimes lovers, and if Millie was happy to share her bed occasionally, well Jess figured it was their business.

However just last year, their relationship had moved onto a new level with both of them finally admitting that they couldn’t imagine sharing their future with anyone else.

Jess had told Slim and Daisy that he and Millie had a’ kinda understanding,’ but would not be more forthcoming. However in his own mind he knew that he and Millie would get hitched at some stage….but not just yet a while and he figured that Millie felt the same. Heck they were both still young and time enough for marriage and kids someway along the line in the future, they were happy weren’t they and that was the main thing.

Chapter 2

As Slim and Jess were sitting drinking another coffee later that evening Millie and her friend Lily were at work in the Laramie saloon as usual.

Millie glanced over to the batwing doors that had just admitted a blond haired young man dressed in smart clothes and with a silly grin on his face. It was still quite early and the bar almost empty as the young cowboy made a bee line for Millie.

“Oh no, not again,” she whispered to her friend you serve him will you Lily.

However before Lily could move young Johnnie was square in front of Millie and casting a glance at her boss, old Tom the barkeep,she realised all she could do was serve the boy with the polite and welcoming demeanour which Tom expected from all his staff.

She sighed deeply and turning away rolled her eyes at Lily before turning back to the customer and pinning a welcoming smile on her face.

“Good evening Johnnie, so what can I get you tonight?”

The youngster leaned on the bar and assumed the stance of a man of the world, in his eyes at least, and giving her his best smile said, “Your company is all I want, you know that Miss Millie.”

Millie kept the smile in place although now slightly forced and said” Yes, but what would you like to drink?”

“Beer if you please.”

She drew him a glass, took the money and went to turn away, but quick as a flash he grabbed her arm.

She looked down, to where his hand was gripping her tightly, and then up at his face her dark eyes suddenly annoyed, “What is it?” she asked with some asperity.

“Don’t be in such a hurry sweetie, so how about that date I keep asking you on, huh?”

She sighed deeply and pulled her arm away,” And like I keep saying I’m seeing someone Johnnie so just leave it,” and she marched back down the bar to where Lily was watching the proceedings with a twinkle in her eye.

Millie saw the look and whispered, “Heck Lilly, it ain’t funny, if Jess gets wind of this he’ll give the kid a real hard time.”

“Well maybe that’s just what he needs Mill, he’s been pestering you for weeks, just won’t take no for an answer.”

“Umm, well he’s been back East at school these last few years maybe the girls are different there, say no when they mean maybe?”

“Well I reckon it’s because he’s been away he doesn’t know about you and Jess and like you say he won’t like it,” said Lily again.

“Yes, I know that but Tom won’t like it if I’m rude to him either, the amount of money he spends in here of a night,” Millie said ruefully.

“Yeah I guess, but he’s never here on a Saturday night when Slim and Jess are in, I guess that’s why he’s gotten away with it for so long.”

“Um, it seems like his Pa insists the family eat together at the weekend, or so he told me. He’s the only child now since his brother was killed and the apple of his Ma’s eye so I hear,” Millie replied.

“And spoilt rotten, so I hear,” said Lily casting the young man a dismissive look as he took his place at one of the tables where he could watch Millie’s every move, as per usual.

Finally Millie had enough and after considering Lily’s words she waited until the bar was reasonably quiet towards the end of the evening and went and sat over at Johnnie’s table.

His face lit up as she arrived and he offered to buy her a drink.

She just shook her head,” No thank you, but we need to talk.”

He looked up expectantly,” I knew it, you’ve changed your mind, so where would you like to go, dinner, dancing, you name it, I can afford the best sweetie.”

“Johnnie, will you hush a moment and listen to me,” she said more firmly than she had intended.

He just stared,” OK.”

“Look I’m sure you’re a nice boy, how old are you seventeen, eighteen? “

“Nearly nineteen,” he said proudly.

She hid a smile at that response.

“Umm, well you see Johnnie I’m quite a bit older and more importantly I am seeing someone… more than that really, I’m kind of promised. So will you please just stop all this nonsense, coming in every night and sweet talking me and staring, because I really have had enough.”

He just stared down into his beer as she stood up to go.

“Look I’m sorry Johnnie OK, but just do us both a favour and go find yourself a nice girl of your own age and leave me alone.”

He suddenly jumped up and raising his glass smashed it down on the table, chards of glass flying around and making Millie jump back, a look of fear in her beautiful brown eyes.

“No!” he shouted angrily and throwing her a furious look marched out of the saloon without a backwards glance.

Tom strode over surveying the mess darkly.

“What in tarnation was that all about?”

Then seeing how distressed Millie looked his expression softened, “Hey girl, are you OK?”

She just nodded, but looked pale and shaken.

“You go out the back Millie, take five,I clean up,” he said kindly and then the matter was forgotten, until Johnnie arrived in the saloon again the following night.

Tom eyed him warily,” I hope you ain’t going to give me any trouble young man.”

He merely shook his head.

“Umm, well make sure you don’t, and leave Miss Millie alone too, she’s spoken for boy and you sure don’t wanna mess with her man… understand?”

He nodded again and ordered a bottle of Red Eye.

“Huh… you sure, that’s mighty strong liquor for…..” he was about to say a youngster , but seeing the look in the boy’s eyes just muttered, “mighty strong,” and pushed the bottle and glass over accepting the payment.

Then he as he turned away to put it in the till said quietly to Lily, “Any trouble and you tell me, I’ve a feeling that young man is up to no good.”

And that was how it had been every night since, although he tended to just drink a couple of whisky’s stare at Millie and then lurch out….. until that fateful Saturday night.

Lily went to serve him and said brightly, “Evening Johnnie we don’t often see you in at a weekend.”

“Free country ain’t it?”he said gruffly and ordering a bottle lurched off to a table in the dim recesses at the back of the saloon and after a while the bar filled up and Lily forgot all about him.

But although he wasn’t noticed young Johnnie was noting everything that went on in the bar, his expression one of suppressed anger. A friend had told him he’d seen Millie with a man in the saloon a few weeks back on a Saturday night .If that was the day he was usually in, thought Johnnie, then I’ll be there too….. He decided the time had come to make a play for the woman he thought of as ‘his’ girl and call this boyfriend of hers out…. That would really show Millie he was no kid he thought as he sipped his whiskey and waited, one hand occasionally resting on his gun butt.

It was about an hour later when he saw some neighbours walking in, Slim Sherman and his buddy Jess Harper and Johnnie unconsciously sank lower in his chair not wanting Slim to see himthere. The tall rancher was a good friend of his Pa’s and if word got back that he’d been knocking back whiskey in the saloon instead of visiting a buddy’s house, as he’d told his folks, well he reckoned he’d beinfor some nagging.

But then he tipped his drink back and poured another one, what the hell he didn’t give a damn and so what was his Pa going to do anyway, he thought as he peered morosely into his glass.

The suddenly his introspection was cut short as he heard Millie give a little squeal of delight and running around from behind the bar threw herself into Jess’s waiting arms, before giving him a passionate kiss.

Johnnie just stared horror stricken, Harper…. Jess Harper was her boyfriend?

He couldn’t believe it, but as he watched in grim fascination he saw the dark haired cowboy sneak an intimate arm around her waist and whisper something in her ear which made her cast him a look of such devotion that Johnnie felt quite sick with jealously.

He sat there all evening just watching them talking and laughing, in the spare moments Millie had between serving customers, and it became increasingly obvious that she and Jess were indeed together and also that Slim was dating Lily.

Towards the end of the evening Tom let the girls finish early and they both went and sat at a table with their boyfriends laughing and chatting happily.

Johnnie had been sipping Red Eye all evening and now he was quite drunk and it was when Jess threw a possessive arm around Millie’s shoulders that he could bear it no longer and getting up he staggered over to the table and stood there swaying and glaring down at them,his gun in his hand.

“Ger off her!” he slurred.

“Johnnie no!” yelled Millie looking terrified.

Then Jess spied the gun and stood up quickly, getting between Johnny and Millie.

“Back off Bradly,” he said gruffly,” and put that iron away.”

“Well you get away from my girl then,” slurred Johnnie, his eyes narrowed with anger.

Jess did a double take staring from Millie to Johnnie Bradly and back, and she just shook her head almost imperceptibly, “He’s crazy,” she muttered.

Then Slim stood up and gently pushing Lily out of harm’s way said,” Come on Johnnie do as Jess says, put your gun away before someone gets hurt.”

“Oh someone’s gonna get hurt alright iffen he don’t back down and get the hell out of here,” said Jess darkly.

That was the final straw as far as Johnnie was concerned and he discharged his gun aiming at Jess’s feet…. “Come on Harper, let’s settle this for once and all.”

Jess cast a quick glance behind him and said urgently,” Get out of here Millie,” and after a moment hesitation she and Lily fled to relative safety behind the bar.

Then Jess just stared at him,” You really are crazy ain’t you son, now I’ll tell you one last time put the gun away and get off home.”

“OK, I’ll put it away alright,” he said holstering his colt, but then he backed off taking the gunfighter stance and there was the sound of chairs scraping back as everyone within range moved hastily away.

Jess just shook his head,” Don’t do this kid.”

“Come on,” yelled Johnnie now on a high and so drunk his befuddled brain didn’t seem to register the danger he was in,” fight for your girl or don’t you care enough…..?”

Jess said nothing but his eyes narrowed and his hand hovered above his gun.

“Jess!” yelled Slim, but he just flicked a glance at his buddy and then back to his adversary.

Then Johnnie went to draw , but Jess’s gun was out and pointing at the youngsters head before he had even slapped leather.

Jess took a couple of paces forwards and removed the gun from the youngsters holster and shook his head as he looked into the now profoundly shocked face of his neighbour’s son.

“You really didn’t wanna do that , “ he said,” and I figure the best place fer you right now is Mort Corey’s jail where yer can’t get into any more trouble.”

Just then the Sheriff himself strode over from where he had been watching proceedings from the saloon door,waiting for the matter to be resolved lest he marched in spooking the obviously drunk youngster and scaring him into letting off a shot by accident.

Now he smiled at Jess, “Yup I agree with you, thanks Jess I’ll take care of this young man now.”

Then turning to Johnnie said gruffly, “I guess you really don’t know how lucky you are son. Jess here would have been within his rights to gun you down. I sure don’t know what’s got into you boy, but whatever it is I figure we need to sort you out before you end up dead, “ and with that he took his prisoner away, helped my Slim.

Jess immediately sought out Millie holding her close and tenderly kissing the top of her head before pushing her gently away so that he could look into her troubled eyes.

“You OK sweetheart?”

“I’m so sorry Jess,” she whispered.

“Hell you ain’t got nuthin’ to be sorry for, the kids just gotten a crush on you is all, that ain’t your fault.”

Then Lily was there,” He’s been a nightmare Jess wouldn’t leave her alone kept on pestering an’ pestering her.”

Jess looked at Millie, “Heck why didn’t you say something sooner Honey?”

“I….. I thought I could handle it, didn’t want you going off half cocked, you know the way you can be, that temper of yours Jess.”

“Yeah, well maybe iffen I’d knocked some sense into him earlier he wouldn’t have put you at risk that way.”

“I was OK , he wouldn’t have hurt me.”

“Millie you were in the line of fire,way he was he couldn’t have hit a barn door, the shot could have gone wide iffen I hadn’t stopped him!”

She just looked down and said nothing.

“Hell Millie have you forgotten my fiancée was gunned down in front of me at this very spot by some crazy gun man?”

Her hand shot up to her mouth in horror,” Oh God no… of course not, Jess I’m so sorry!”

“Hush, it’s OK ,” he said quickly taking her hand and squeezing ii gently.

Then Slim was back after having helped Mort half carry the inebriated young man to the jail.

“You OK Jess?”

He nodded,“ Real mad,but yeah,I guess.”

Then Tom was there,” Take Millie off upstairs son,” he said throwing Jess a concerned look,” I guess Lily can help me tidy up and I reckon I’ll close up, that’s enough excitement for one night.”

Millie had gone and changed into her nightdress once they were safely up in her cosy room, while Jess threw some logs on the fire and made them both a good strong coffee, liberally laced with whiskey.

She emerged from behind the screen, a pretty lace shawl around her shoulders and wearing a pale blue, low cut nightdress, her dark hair framing her beautiful heart shaped face and Jess thought how lovely she looked, as he patted the place next to him on the old couch now pulled close to the fire.

Once she was settled he passed her a cup,” Here drink this sweetheart should help you sleep.”

She nodded her thanks and took a sip before studying him over the rim of her cup and after a moment she said hesitantly,” Do you still think of her?”

Jess instinctively knew she was referring to Maria, the beautiful Irish girl he had been engaged to a number of years ago and who had met a tragic death, gunned down in front of him by an ex-lover.* See Loved, Lost Survived. #1

He took a sip of his coffee and then placed the cup down on the little table beside the couch and Millie noticed his hand was shaking.

After what seemed an age he finally turned to face her and nodded,” Sometimes yeah.”

She gavea little sigh and looked deeply into the fire and eventually said,” And do you still love her?”

“She’s dead Millie,” he said gruffly.

“Do you?”

He was again silent for a long time before he finally whispered, “Yeah, I guess I do.”

She said nothing and when he finally turned to look at her he saw a single tear running down her cheek.

“Millie,” he gasped, “oh Mill…… I love you too, Hell of course I do… it’s just different with us, ‘tis all.”

“How… how different?”

He sighed,” I dunno, I guess when I think of Maria I’ve kinda turned her into some kinda Saint… her dyin’ that way so young and so goddamn lovely…. But she weren’t you know….. a saint that is, hell we used to fight like cat and dog sometimes….”

“But you still loved her… love her……?”

“I guess, I always will….……..but it’s not the same as I feel about you.”

“Go on,” she whispered.

He took her hand and looked deeply into her eyes.

“We’re so, so special together,” he whispered,” because I guess we’ve got somethin’ me and Maria never had… we’ve got history. Hell Mill you knew me when I was a skinny little kid with the seat out of my britches, a snotty nose an’ no shoes.”

She gave him the ghost of a smile at that memory,” And I was in my big sister’s hand me down dresses and had my hair in braids.”

He nodded,” And we sure suffered some livin’ in poverty. Me with that huge brood of Harpers and you with your big sister and kid brother, young Tad always taggin’ along with us everyplace we went.”

She genuinely smiled then,” Fishin’…… hunting rabbits.”

He nodded,” You an’ that ol’ sling shot, best darn shot of all us kids you were.”

She just nodded at that knowing the truth of it.

“Then you were there for me when the Bannisters burnt my family out killing most of my kin,” he gave her a grim smile, “me fifteen and you just turned fourteen….. hell Mill, I guess I loved you even way back then….. an’ I don’t mean like a brother either,” he said with his cheeky grin.

“But you rode away………”

“Had to didn’t I,” he said bitterly,” had to go gunning for those bastards.”

“Then we caught up after the war… hell Jess I hardly recognised you…….. so thin, so sick looking and yet….”

“Umm, what?”

“And yet you’d changed you were a man… so hard, so bitter…. It took me a long time to find you again after that.”

“Find me? “

“Yes… the old Jess from the Panhandle, he was deep inside somewhere, but all that suffering all that pain… it changed that old Jess and I guess I lost sight of him for a while.”

He nodded and squeezed her hand,” Yeah me too…. and I guess I lost my way for a while too…. Riding with those gangs, turning a buck by using my gun……all that killin’,” he shook his head and sighed deeply,……” then takin’ off into the Big Open… just me and my horse…..”

“You sure were a wild one back then,” she agreed.

He smiled down at her…”So you think you’ve tamed me now do you?”

She shrugged,” Nope I guess no woman will ever completely get rid of your wild side…….and you know what cowboy?”


“I guess I really don’t want you too darned domesticated anyways, because that wouldn’t be the Jess Harper I know and love. “

“So… you still love me then?”

“Always have,”she whispered.

“And me you too I guess,” he said softly,” so we’re OK you ain’t upset?”

“No,” she said softly, “I guess I understand now, and I can share you….. with her memory anyways.”

He nodded and then running a finger down her cheek he looked adoringly into her eyes….

”Just as long as you don’t expect me to share you with anyone else……especially not that Johnnie Bradly. “

She giggled at that and leaning in kissed him passionately……..

Chapter 3

The following morning found Slim, Mort and Nick Bradly, Johnnie’s Pa, sitting in Mort’s office.

“I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am about my boy’s behaviour,” said Nick glancing from Mort to Slim and back,” I just don’t know what’s got into him lately…. God knows he’s always been difficult…. I thought school back East might have straightened him out,” he said almost to himself.

Then looking at Mort again, “But this drinking and shooting his gun in a crowded saloon… well I just don’t understand him.”

Mort cast him a serious look.

“He was just lucky it was Jess he came up against, he’s so darn fast on the draw he was able to keep his nerve, outdraw your boy and take his gun…. Someone else, well I guess you’d be having this conversation down at the undertakers.”

Nick nodded, looking very shocked,” Yes of course….. where is Jess I must thank him.”

“Over at the saloon, stayed with Millie, seems this is what it’s all about Nick, your Johnnie has got the hots for Jess’s girl,” said Mort briskly.

Nick bent his handsome old grey head,” So that’s it, why he’s been spending so much time in the saloon, might know there was a woman involved.”

“Yes and Jess’s woman,” said Slim stoutly, “ Hell Nick you know those two have been together for ever and there isn’t a man in this town who would have been foolish enough to try and come between them.”

Nick sighed deeply, “Umm, I know that but obviously my son didn’t.”

Then he turned pleading eyes to his friend and neighbour.

“Slim I heard you were desperate for some help over at the Relay with Jess having to fulfill this contract with the Military….. could you…. well could you take Johnnie on? Knock some sense into him, educate him up in ranching…. God knows I’ve tried but he doesn’t listen to a dang thing I tell him.”

Slim and Mort exchanged a glance.

“Sure would see the boy out of a hole if you took him on for a while,” said Mort hopefully,” and ol’ Jess there…….. well iffen he can’t knock some sense into the lad well nobody can.”

“Umm,” said Slim,” but will he ….. he was real upset last night Mort…. especially after what happened in the past…. someone shooting so close to his Millie well he was real angry.”

“Can’t blame him for that,” said Mort.

Nick was silent for a while and then threw Slim a searching look,” I figure Johnnie’s big brother would have appreciated it too, don’t you Slim?”

Slim’s head shot up and he looked suddenly terribly vulnerable.

The he whispered,” Yeah… I guess he would at that.”

He turned to Mort, “OK we’ll take him on for the summer, get him all trained up in ranching and keep him out of trouble.”

“You’re sure,” asked Mort looking surprized, “what about Jess he certainly isn’t gonna like this?”

“You leave Jess to me,” said Slim with a grim smile.

Then turning to Nick said,” I guess I owe you anyways don’t I?”

“Yeah well that was all a long time ago Slim…. “

“But we both know I still owe you……. your family….“

“Umm, but still Jess?”

“Like I say you just leave my buddy to me.”


Later that day, back at the ranch,Slim decided to sound Jess out as they stood in the yard checking out the mustangs.

“Are you dang crazy, do ya know what that kid did…. pestered Millie fer weeks, then tried ter take me on…. Hell Slim, Millie could have been killed in the crossfire and you’re askin’ me to take him under my wing… teach him ranchin’ fer goodness sake… like I say are yer crazy!”

“Listen Jess this is really important to me… old man Bradly came out here with my Pa, we’ve been neighbours for as long as I can remember and I owe him….. please help me out here will you?” pleaded Slim.

Jess looked exasperated,” OK you figure you owe him for some goddamn reason, so you straighten the kid out…. just leave me out of it,”and he marched off into the barn.


Johnnie and his Pa rode in that afternoon, the boy looking pale and sulky and his Pa anxious as he slipped down from the saddle and went to meet Slim emerging from the barn.

The two men shook hands and then Nick Bradly beckoned his son over.

“Come and thank Slim for taking you on boy,” he said gruffly.

Johnnie looked anything but thankful, and said in a bored voice,” thanks Slim.”

“Umm, well as long as you pull your weight and do as you’re told I guess we’ll all get along,” said Slim with a welcoming smile.

“There’s something else as well,” said Nick, “he needs to apologise to Jess for what he did the other night.”

Slim looked slightly nervous at that…...”Well, there’s no need…. you see….”

Just then Jess strode out of the house and paused as he saw who it was.

“Jess can we have a word?” called Nick throwing him a friendly look.

Jess walked slowly over his expression wary.

“Mornin’ Nick,” he said,throwing Johnnie a guarded look.

“My boy here has something he wants to say,” said Nick, pushing him forwards.

Johnnie looked down at Jess’s feet and muttered, ”Sorry.”

Jess just stared at him and then at Nick, before sighing deeply.

“That it?”

“Said I’m real sorry didn’t I,” said the youngster belligerently,” what more do ya want?”

“Johnnie!” exploded his Pa looking deeply embarrassed.

Jess just shook his head,” So are you… really sorry, or is that just what yer Pa told you to say?”

The boy just shrugged and looked down again.

“You wanna say it like you really mean it, come find me,” he spat angrily,” and in the meantime keep the hell outer my way,” and with that he marched off to the corral to start work on the mustangs.

Slim turned sad eyes on his friend and neighbour, “Sorry Nick, I guess he’s still kinda wound up,he was worried for Millie what with Johnnie waving that gun around….. kind of got to thinking history might repeat itself,” he finished ruefully.

Nick looked puzzled for a minute and then comprehension dawned… “Oh Maria, my dear boy…. I must go and apologise, I see know why he would be so darned mad.”

Slim put out a restraining hand,” No, just leave him Nick, he’ll be OK, but least said……. you know?”

“Yes… of course.”

Then he turned to Johnnie.

“You behave and do exactly as Slim and Jess tell you and none of your backchat son. You’re dang lucky to get this chance. If it wasn’t for these two good men taking you on I guess you’d be in Mort Corey’s jail and don’t you forget it,” and with that he rode out without a backwards glance.

Slim clapped him on the back, come on Johnnie, I’ll show you where you can bed down and he walked him over to the bunkhouse.

Johnnie walked over the threshold and paused looking around him, the first glimmer of interest in his eyes that morning.

“Hey this isn’t half bad,” he said, giving Slim a faint smile.

“Yes well we did the place up a while back, had a lady staying and so we made it real nice for her…..”he finished quietly before changing the subject quickly.

Slim thought back to Flora, Daisy’s beautiful young Goddaughter who had spent her last months of life here in the converted bunkhouse on the ranch as she slowly faded away dying of Consumption. And how Jess had finally agreed to her final request, to end her days on the mountain and how he had tenderly nursed her to the end. * Daisy’s Dilemma #19

Every time either of them entered the converted bunkhouse it brought her sad demise back to then sharply and now he sighed deeply and turned to Johnnie, “Anyway, you dump your stuff and then come over to the house for coffee and I’ll tell you what’s to be done.”

Jess studious ignored the boy for the rest of the day, busy as he was working on the mustangs, but come suppertime he had no choice but to sit down at the table with the rest of the family and Johnnie.

However the usual suppertime banter was absent and even young Mike who was always full of the day’s happenings was unusually silent, picking up on the charged atmosphere and seemed almost relieved when he was sent off to bed.

It was later that evening after Daisy had said she needed an early night and Johnnie had skulked off to the bunkhouse that the two friends had a chance to talk properly.

They were sitting by the fire over a final coffee when Jess turned hard eyes on his buddy.

“Well how did he do today? “

Slim avoided his friend’s eye, but eventually said,” Not so good.”

“Huh…. so what did he do..……if anything?”

“Managed to break the pitchfork when I asked him to clean out the barn, disappeared for about an hour when I sent out to the home pasture to fetch the cow in for milking and then came back without her…. said she wasn’t there.”

Jess’s head shot up… “And weren’t she?”

“Sure she was, Mike went out and was back with her in ten minutes.”

Jess just shook his head,” What else?”

“Well then I set him to chopping some kindling and he couldn’t even do that,had to show him from scratch how to use the axe, heck Mike would have made a better job of it easy…”

“Hell Slim I thought the whole point of us buyin’ help in was to take over my chores so as I could get the mustangs broke while you and the hired hand worked the ranch? This sounds like he’s gonna be more trouble than he’s worth, let’s cut our losses and dump him now.”

Slim looked stubborn, “Sorry buddy I can’t do that.”

Jess looked incensed,” Why the Hell not… what is this huge debt you owe Nick anyways, he must have done something real important for you to want to take the useless kid on?”

Slim sighed deeply looking down….” Well I guess he did, he saved this place you see Jess.”

“He did?”


“You wanna tell me about it then?”

Slim turned and gave his buddy a tired smile,” I guess I have to if I want to get any peace. See me and Johnnie’s big brother were best friends, as close as you and me are…..”

“I didn’t know he had a brother, sure acts like a spoilt only child….”

“You want to hear this or not?”

“Yeah, sure … sorry Slim.”

“Well me and Kenny were brought up together, his spread being just over the hill, went hunting, fishing………got up to all the mischief young boys do.”

Jess grinned at that notion, “Go on.”

“Well Nick and Amy… Mrs Bradly that is, came here from back East and Ma Bradly was never too keen on the ‘wild ways’ of Wyoming as she called ‘em, so when young Kenny was just eleven he was sent back East to get all educated up same as Johnnie has been.”

“Much good it’s done him,” said Jess morosely.

“Umm… well anyways I missed my buddy something fierce, but he came home for the holidays and I’d keep him on track with all the ‘wild ways’ his Ma was always a fretting about,” Slim said with a chuckle.

“Anyways then we grew up, the war came and we both enlisted, went off to fight together…… only Kenny never came home.”

Jess’s head shot up and he saw the pain in his buddy’s eyes,” Gee Slim, that’s hard.”

He nodded,” Hard on me… but even worse for his Ma and Pa… heck it nearly killed his Ma Jess.”

Both men sat staring into the fire for a while remembering the Hell of their own wars.

“Anyway, Johnnie was just a young kid back then and I figure both his Ma and Pa kinda wrapped him in cotton wool, he was never allowed to play out with the rough boys, like our Andy,” he said referring to his kid brother and receiving a smile from his buddy.

“Never was expected to do a hands turn around the ranch in those days either in case he got hurt.”

“Well that sure shows” said Jess belligerently,” but hell Slim he’s all grown up now, he should be able to pull his weight.”

“Apparently not, Nick sent him back East to school and when he came back in the holidays he had this attitude like the world owed him a living. Plumb refused to learn anything about ranching and just messed around all the time always been the same and that’s the way he is now.”

“Well why don’t his Pa do somethin’ then?” said Jess angrily.

“He says he’s tried but the kid just won’t behave and do as he’s told.”

“Well I could sure get him to behave and do as he’s told,” said Jess darkly, “you just give me five minutes with him behind the barn and he’ll be the most well behaved and doin’ as he’s told kid you ever met.”

Slim gave his partner a small smile, “Oh I don’t doubt it Jess, but that’s not the way.”

“Why the Hell not, it sure didn’t do me any harm… Jeez, if I’d cheeked my Pa that way I wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a week.”

Slim threw him a sympathetic smile,” I guess you didn’t have the easiest of childhoods, huh?”

“Umm, you could say that, so anyway you never said why you owe Nick big time, you say he saved the ranch somehow? “

“Yeah, that’s right. When I came back after the war Pa was dead and the place going to wrack and ruin, we owed the bank and the stock were all sickly or dead. Heck it wasn’t Ma’s fault, Andy was just a little kid and all the help off fighting a war.”

“So what did you do?”

“Oh I tried to get it all back on track, worked my butt off… But it was obvious I couldn’t do it alone….. and that’s when Nick stepped in, paid off the bank loan and sent his hands over to help me get the place back in shape.”

“Jeez, so why should he do that? “

“He said it was because he and Pa were such good friends…… and in memory of Kenny. He said it was what he would have wanted…… Hell Jess that made me feel so dang bad…. so guilty you know, that I’d made it back and Kenny didn’t, “ said Slim turning anguished eyes on his buddy.

“Umm, I can see as how you’d think that. I guess a lot of us that survived the war and left good friends rotting on the battlefields felt the same…..but it don’t make no sense you know Slim, all that guilt won’t bring ‘em back.”

“I know…. I know that, but I felt that way….. No still feel that way. Sure I paid the debt back once I got the place ticking over again, but like you say I could never bring Kenny back…… and so maybe that’s why I feel I have to try and help his Pa out with Johnnie now. “

Jess was silent for a long time and then turned and gave his friends the ghost of a smile.

“Yeah I reckon I can understand that… and I can see as how you wouldn’t want me knocking nine bells out of the boy too,” he said with a grim chuckle.

Slim nodded,” You’ve got it ……. so will you help me?”

Jess sighed,” Well as long as he steers clear of Millie I guess I will.”

Slim leaned over and clapped him on the shoulder,” Gee thanks buddy….it’ll be fine you’ll see.”

“Sure, sure it will,” said Jess sarcastically and they made to turn in……

“So you want me to go out to the bunk house and read him a bedtime story and tuck him in then?” and both men roared with laughter as they went off to bed.

Johnnie crossing the yard, from a trip to the outhouse, heard it and stopped in his tracks. What must it be like to have a real good friend like that, he wondered sadly as he stood in the cold yard and watched as the living room light was extinguished. Then all that was to be heard was a lonesome wolf high up in the hills.

He shivered and made his way back quickly to the sanctuary of the bunkhouse, feeling lonely and more than a little afraid.

Chapter 4

The following morning Slim tapped on the bunkhouse door and told Johnnie breakfast was on the table, having let him off early morning chores with it being his first full day and secretly thinking by the time he’d got the boy working he could have done it himself.

Jess muttered something about spoilt brats, but considering he himself was hell to rouse in the morning, and prone to dark mumblings before he was outside his first coffee of the day, Slim chose to ignore it.

However by the time breakfast was nearly finished and Johnnie still hadn’t made an appearance young Mike was dispatched to go and fetch him.

The youngster arrived back several minutes later looking flushed and upset.

Jess who was still sitting at the table enjoying his third cup of strong coffee pulled him close, a protective arm flung around the boy.

“Hey Tiger what’s up?”

Mike gave a tremulous sigh before saying,” I reckon Johnnie is real mad at me.”

Jess looked surprized, “Why’s that?”

“Well I just told him what you said, as to how breakfast was on the table and he was real mad and started cussing real bad…. you know Jess, yard talk,” he said in a loud whisper casting Daisy a wary look.

Jess’s eyebrows shot up, “What he swore at you?”

“Oh yes sir,” the boy confirmed,” he told me I was a little bas…. “

“Mike,” said Slim quickly, throwing Daisy an anxious glance, “that’s OK buddy you needn’t repeat it all.”

“Oh I don’t mind,” said the youngster,” now getting into his stride,” he told me to go to He…. “

“OK Mike,” said Jess quickly, “I’ll sort him out, you go get ready for school or that ol’ Stage will be goin’ without you… OK?”

“OK Jess,” and the youngster ran off happily enough.

Jess rose from the table and marched towards the door snagging his hat from the hook and pulling it down hard, a look of grim determination in his eyes.

“Oops,” said Daisy turning twinkling eyes on Slim,” I don’t think I’d want to be in that young man’s boots right now.”

“Me neither Daisy,” said Slim with an answering smile.

Jess strode over to the bunkhouse and barged in without knocking and advanced on the bed where Johnnie was blissfully unaware of his presence, snoring lightly.

Jess looked down at the sleeping boy for a moment before leaning over and plucking a jug full of icy water from the nightstand.

Then with a grim smile he poured the contents onto the sleeping youngster’s head.

He jerked awake and sat bolt upright spluttering and swearing before he finally became aware of Jess’s presence.

“What the….Why did you do that?” he gasped.

Jess ignored the question.

“Where the Hell do you get off cussin’ at a little kid like Mike?” he spat angrily.

“Well he shouldn’t have come in here wakin’ me at the crack of dawn,” the boy returned sulkily.

“Why you little…..” and Jess grabbed hold of the boy’s under shirt and hauled him up, one fist balled and threatening.

“Maybe Slim’s wrong and the only way to get any sense into you is to beat it in.”

He suddenly looked terrified.

“No, please Jess I’m sorry… really I am.”

Jess threw him back down on the bed.

“Right,so iffen I ever hear you so much as raise your voice to that child again you and me are gonna fall out, you understand?”

He just nodded, his mouth so dry with fear he couldn’t speak.

“OK, well get up and go and start muckin’ out the barn….. and you break anymore tools you pay for ‘em… understand?”

The boy just nodded, then croaked, “Breakfast?”

Jess gave him a wicked smile, “Oh no sunshine, the folk that get breakfast around here have to work for it….. now git, before I change my mind and give you a good thrashing.”

If Slim and Jess were to think this was to be an end to their problems with young Johnnie then they were to be sorely mistaken.

Sure Johnnie was pretty much scared of Jess and what he could do to him, but he was also aware that Slim wouldn’t stand by and let him suffer at his partner’s hands. He wasn’t stupid and had heard his parents discussing the past, the war, how Slim had survived it and Kenny had not, and was aware of the sense of duty that had been instilled into Slim and he figured as long as he didn’t push things too much and stayed around the tall blond rancher, giving his partner a wide berth, then all would be well.

The following morning he dragged himself up as soon as he heard Jess banging about in the yard and collected the eggs and brought in the kindling as requested and if he broke several eggs and the kindling was damp,then so be it, he’d done as he was asked hadn’t he?

Luckily for him Jess was far too distracted working all the hours God sent breaking the mustangs for the army contract to notice what the boy was up to, but Slim and Daisy were getting more and more frustrated with the Johnnie’s shoddy ways and poor time keeping.

Daisy was also rather worried about the effect the young man was having on Mike too. Only that morning he had argued with her about his chores saying it wasn’t man’s work to set the table.

“Man’s work or not,it has to be done by someone Mike and I only have one pair of hands, so set to it young man or none of us will get any breakfast.”

He did as he was bid, but copied the sulky demeanour so often displayed by Johnnie and she sighed deeply at the bad influence he was having onthe impressionable youngster.

However it was at supper that night when things really came to a head as far as Mike was concerned.

Mike had been feeding his dog under the table which was strictly forbidden and Jess told him to stop it at once.

“Why?” asked the youngster throwing Jess a challenging look.

“Because it’s a waste of Miss Daisy’s good cookin’ and it ain’t good to feed a dog too much anyways, he’ll get fat and sick iffen he has too many potatoes.”

“Well I wanna feed him and he’s my dog,”said the child sulkily.

Jess threw him a hard look and leaning down he scooped up the animal and put him out of the room.

Then to everyone’s surprise Mike really kicked off, he glared at Jess,” Why did you do that?”

Jess looked equally angry,” I told you why now simmer down and eat yer supper Mike.”

“No!” shouted the boy,” and you can’t make me,” he yelled looking flushed and defiant.

There was suddenly a pregnant silence in the room all eyes on Jess.

“Go to your room boy,” he said frighteningly quietly.

Mike opened his mouth to object and then saw the look in his guardian’s dark blue eyes and thinking better of it and rose to go.

“And you’d better sort yourself out Mike, else you want a trip to the woodshed?” was Jess’s parting shot as the now tearful boy ran from the room.

“What the heck was all that about,” asked Slim once Mike’s door closed behind him,” I’ve never seen him that way before… heck he adores you Jess… why would he act that way?”

Then Jess looked over to where Johnnie was sitting with a huge smirk on his face enjoying the drama.

“I dunno,” said Jess darkly, “ maybe Johnnie knows.”

“Huh… me how should I know anything,” he said belligerently chancing his arm in Slim’s safe presence.

Jess stood up, his chair making a grating noise as he pushed it back and he towered over the youngster, “Well he sure wasn’t this way before you landed,” he spat.

“Now simmer down Jess, we don’t know this is anything to do with Johnnie.”

Jess turned blazing eyes on his partner,” The hell we don’t he’s been nothing but trouble since he landed and every chance he gets he’s been filling the kid’s head with nonsense.”

Slim turned troubled eyes on Johnnie, “Is this true?”

“No sir, he’s lying,” he said casting Jess a challenging look.

“Why you!” yelled Jess lunging at the boy

However Slim pushed him back down, “ Jess you’re really not helping.”

“Well ask him about filling the kids head about ‘women’s work,’ how real men don’t do housework, or collect eggs or milk cows….. not to mention as to how ranching is a mugs game for folk who can’t do nuthin’ else……” said Jess quoting what Mike had said earlier in the day to Daisy.

Slim turned hard eyes on the boy,” You said all this?”

“I may have done… anyway I’m right, it’s women who should do all the menial work as they’re way more stupid than us men….”

Both Jess and Slim were incensed at that and Slim did nothing as Jess grabbed hold of the boy and manhandled him out of the room, pushing him unceremoniously out through the door.

“Well iffen you think woman are so stupid I guess you won’t wanna be eating anymore food cooked by one! Now git out an’ don’t come back until you’ve got a civil tongue in your head and you’re ready to apologise to Mrs Cooper,” he said slamming the door and then coming over and slumping back down at the table.

“Jeez, I’m sorry Daisy ,”he said casting sad eyes at their elderly housekeeper cum surrogate Ma.

“It’s alright dear, it’s his poor parents I feel sorry for.”

Jess sniffed sat that,” I dunno why, I reckon they can take the blame for some of it.”

“Umm, maybe you’re right dear, he does seem very spoilt and has a terrible view of women. “

Slim put his head in his hands and sighed deeply before looking up and regarding his partner, “You were right Jess we should never have take nhim on, the kids a hopeless case. “

“Yeah, well iffen you’d let me take him out behind the barn maybe he’d be halfway respectful by now,” said Jess angrily.

Slim just shrugged, “I don’t know… maybe. “

Then Daisy turned anguished eyes on the dark haired cowboy.

“Oh Jess you’re not really going to give Mike a spanking are you? I know he was terribly rude but maybe there is a reason?”

Jess just nodded and reaching over patted her arm gently.

“Nope I guess I was just angry, I’ll go talk to him,” and he got up wearily and tapping  on the door entered the boy’s room.

Mike was laying under the covers still sniffing and as soon as Jess came in he sat up and threw him a miserable look, “ Jess, I’m so,so sorry, I should never have talked to you that way….. “

Jess sat down on the edge of the bed and the boy threw himself into his arms sobbing loudly.

Jess held him close, gently rubbing his back and calming him until finally the sobs subsided the nhe pushed the child back and smiled down at him, “It’s OK,” he said softly,”I forgive you… but what’s all this about Tiger, this ain’t like you. “

The boy swallowed hard…

“It was what Johnnie said….. the way he talks well it’s so real……..and I kinda believe everything he says even though in my heart I don’t want to.”

“He’s real convincing is that it?”

The boy gave him a watery smile, “That’s it…… real convincing… what he said about me just bein’ a slave around here, a no account orphan, and as how you bought me to do all the work that you don’t wanna do. Like feed the chickens and stuff… said you got me just to do the work and you don’t really care about me…. “

“Heck Mike you don’t believe that do you?”

“No… well I didn’t but then I overheard you and Slim talking in the barn and you said well at least Mike’s good for all the basic stuff around here, while I’m doing the breaking and you can get the rest of the man’s work done.”

Jess scratched his head and thought back to that conversation.

“Well sure I said that and we really rely on you to do all that stuff, because otherwise Slim would have to take it on as well as everything else…. We’re real hard pushed right now with all these dang mustangs to be broke, you know that Mike, that’s why we took that useless boy on board.”

“Yes… but I offered to help I wanted to stay off school and help you out.”

“I know and we explained about that, as to how you need yer schoolin’.”

“I know and I told Johnnie that and he said why do I need schoolin’ just to be a dumb rancher and I tried to explain the way you did about the business side and all but he wouldn’t listen.”

Jess just nodded ,” Well I guess I can see your point and we have relied on you to do all the boring stuff lately and I promise as soon as I’m done with those ornery critters we’ll make some time to do some interesting stuff with you, like helping to bring the stock down in the fall maybe ? “

The boy grinned, “That would be real swell Jess thanks.”

Jess smiled down and then looked suddenly saddened.

“What’s really botherin’ me is that you’d believe him when he said we don’t care about you… You know that ain’t true don’s ya Tiger?”

“Sure I do…. It’s just you’ve both been so busy you ain’t had time for me and I know I should be all grown up about it… but I miss the fun times, fishin’ and you tellin’ me a bedtime story and all….”

Jess suddenly felt terrible, sure he’d been neglecting the child and it was real hard for a young ‘un he could see that.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered,” I’ll try and make more time for you Tiger and you promise not to listen to any of that rubbish Johnnie’s been tellin’ yer… deal?”

“Deal,” said the now heavy eyed youngster,” thanks Jess, you’re the best,” and he yawned broadly.

“You too Tiger,” and he tucked the boy in and quietly left the room.

Chapter 5

Jess closed the bedroom door quietly behind him, his face like thunder.


He ignored Slim and made for the front door throwing it open and marching across the yard before barging into the bunkhouse practically bringing the door off its hinges.

“Come here you lowlife,” he growled.

Johnnie leapt up from the bed and backed off, his eyes open wide with fear, ”Wh…. What is it?” he stuttered.

“You know damn well what it is, you’ve been fillin’ that young kid’s head up with lies and he’s real upset…… Have you any idea what life has been like fer him over the last few years? Seeing his folk massacred by hostiles. Then havin’ to make a new life here, adapt to a hard life on a workin’ ranch….. of course you wouldn’t know about that would you,” he sneered,” havin’ been spoilt rotten all your goddamn life.”

“Please I’m sorry alright,I didn’t mean to upset the kid….”

“I should knock you into next week….”

Then Slim was suddenly there beside him…..

“Leave it Jess, just calm down and we’ll discuss it in the morning huh?”

“Discuss it,” he spat,” Hell Slim we’ve been discussin’ it since this bastard arrived and he ain’t gettin’ any better.”

“Look I said I’m sorry,I’m young OK, maybe I’ve got some lessons to learn…”

“Young,”spat Jess…” hell I was fighting a war at you’re age….”

“And so was my brother and he never came back!” yelled Johnnie now flushing with anger.

“Yep, I know ,” said Jess quietly,” and you ain’t never gonna let Slim forget it are you,” and with that he turned and left… knowing in his heart it was what Slim needed him to do.. But how much longer before he lost all patience with the spoilt brat he wondered, as he made his way back across the yard.

He threw himself down on his bunk and breathed deeply trying to calm down…. Hell this was crazy, why was he letting the kid get to him this way…. what was it about him that made him so dang mad?

Slim came in and closed the door quietly behind him before walking over and sitting down on his own bed….” Are you OK? “

“I guess, just mad… those stories he’s been feeding Mike, the kids real upset.”

“Should I check on him?”

“Nope reckon he’ll be asleep by now.”


“Aww Slim it ain’t just that, I feel real bad, seems Mike’s feelin’ kinda neglected I guess neither of us have had much time for him lately with all theextra work and that.”

“He said that?”


“Don’t worry, we’ll make it up to him,he’s a good kid he knows were having a tough time right now.”

“Yeah… I guess…. So what about Bradly then?”

“I don’t know, I guess were stuck with him a while longer, we did promise Mort.”

“Well just keep him away from me or I won’t be responsible and I mean that Slim!”

Slim sighed deeply and cast his buddy a questioning glance.

“What’s this all about buddy, I know the kid’s a mess but you’re kind of over reacting aren’t you?”

Jess shrugged, ”Maybe…..”

Slim sighed deeply and looked over at his best friend,” Do you think maybe a tiny bit of you is jealous?”

“What!” exploded Jess looking shocked to the core…. ….

“Of him,” he said his voice incredulous….. “yer kidding me.”

“Oh not of him as such… but all the advantages he’s had….. that you never had and he’s just wasted it….. thrown all his chances away,is that why you’re so goddamn mad Jess?”

He stood up,thrusting his hands deep into his denims and paced angrily around the room and then turned back to his partner, his eyes wide with surprise, his expressive eyebrows arched……

“ I really don’t know,” he said after a moment all his anger suddenly evaporating….

“Maybe iffen I’d had his chances I would have been able to make more of my life…… guess we’ll never know.”

“Umm…. and I guess we don’t get to choose who were born to… or where,so you can’t really blame him Jess.”

“Maybe not, but I can sure blame him fer not appreciating all he has, and fer making your life a misery not to mention upsetting Mike and Daisy.”

“Yes well maybe he’ll change…….. being here with us,seeing how folk work together to make a go of things. Maybe that will change him?”

“I doubt it,” said Jess darkly and started getting ready for bed.

He went over to the basin to wash up and then paused turning back to his buddy.

“Maybe I should teach him horse breakin’, those old mustangs might just knock a bit of sense into that thick skull of his where we’ve failed,” he said with a chuckle.

Slim grinned back at that, “Good idea you should put him up on Spirit aka Ghost, he’s sure got plenty of energy to spare.”

“Oh no… he’s all mine and I’m savin’ him ‘til last, been sweetening him up for weeks now and I sure aim to get him broke if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

“Way he is, it probably will be,” replied Slim laconically. “Anyway I thought you said you didn’t want the kid anywhere near you?”

Jess gave him a wicked grin, “Ah but this way I get to see him eat dirt when the critters throw him and I don’t even have to throw a punch.”

Slim smiled shaking his head, “Anyone ever tell you you’re pure evil?”

“Oh yes,” said Jess happily as he climbed into bed and after a minute fell into a deep peaceful sleep.


The following morning Jess broached the subject with a very surprized looking Johnnie.

“So you ever done any horse breaking back at yer Pa’s place?” asked Jess trying hard to be patient.

The youngster just shook his head, “Nah, Pa always buys in horses already broke…… and anyway…..”


“Oh nuthin’,” he said sulkily.

Jess sighed, “You got somethin’ to say, just say it Johnnie. “

“Well anyway my Ma would never have allowed it, she’d say it was too darned dangerous,” he said bitterly.

“Umm… I’d heard yer Ma was a mite clucky.”

Johnnie rolled his eyes,” And then some.”

Jess threw him a grin….” So anyways she won’t know will she… so you up for it?”

Johnnie gave him his first genuine smile since he arrived,” You bet!”

It was a long hard day for both men, Jess trying to remain patient and help his prodigy. Johnnie feeling a mixture of pure terror having to try and ride the great bucking beasts mixed with a feeling of pride and achievement as he gradually made some progress.

However as Jess had predicted he did indeed spend one heck of a lot of time eating dirt and after that first baptism of fire he gave the youngster a specific horse to work with and explained to him all about horse whispering. How to gentle the creature by spending time getting to know it and only when the beast was used to a human being around would he start to be saddle broke.

Jess chose an easy looking buckskin and said it was Johnnie’s special project that he could work on along with doing all the chores that were so necessary around the place and the boy was surprized and pleased at being given the responsibility. Heck, he was even beginning to tolerate Jess, in fact to secretly almost admire him, the way he was around the horses, so damn good at what he did.

However there was one thing still bugging the boy and it was getting worse and worse as the days drew on….…the deep infatuation he had for Millie.

He hadn’t seen her since that dreadful night in the saloon when he had attempted to take Jess on, but the longer her absence from his life the greater his feelings for her. She was in his dreams every night and she was the first thing he thought of when he awoke in the morning and he felt almost sick with desire and half-crazy with jealousy when he thought of her and Jess together.

Jess hadn’t been to town since Johnnie landed as he had been far too busy with the mustangs but the following Saturday he told Slim he was going to visit his girl.

“Hell Slim, I’ll go plumb loco iffen I don’t see her soon,” he said quietly that morning as he was grooming his horse.

“Yeah, I know what you mean, I’d hoped to ride in and see Lily too, but I promised Daisy and Mike I’d take him over to visit with the Dawson family, and Ma Dawson has invited us to supper. So can you give Lily my love and say I’ll see her sure and definite next week? “

“Sure I will….. I’ll give her a kiss for you too if yer like,” he said with a cheeky grin.

“No thanks,” said Slim smiling, “you keep your hands off my girl… anyway I reckon you’ll have enough on your plate keeping Miss Millie happy,” he laughed,” I guess she’ll have been missing you something fierce too.”

Johnnie turned away from the barn door where he had overheard the banter, a pain twisting in his guts as he suffered an agony of jealousy and felt he just wanted to find a gun and blast Jess off the face of the earth, such was the depth of his feeling.

As it was, he just sloped off and kept out of everyone’s way for the rest of the day saying he was going to ride fence, and it was after the late afternoon Stage had gone through that Jess caught up with him.

“Looks like yer home alone tonight Johnnie, Slim’s taken the others out for the evening and I’m just off to town, you’ll be OK?”

The boy nodded looking totally crestfallen, and Jess felt a monetary stab of pity for him.

“Look you done good today kid. I’d let you ride in with me but Mort Corey don’t want you back in town for at least another month, sorry. “

Johnnie just nodded,” Yeah, I know,” and wandered off to the bunkhouse.

Jess watched him for a moment and then hopped up on Traveler and kneed him off at a steady trot bound for town and his best girl.

As soon as he saw her he instinctively knew something was wrong.

Oh she was pleased enough to see him, running around the bar and kissing his lips lightly before smiling up at him.

“I so hoped you’d make it,” she said softly,” it’s been a while.”

“I know I’m sorry sweetheart, been so dang busy…….but I’ve missed yer something fierce,” and then leaning in and kissing her cheek whispered,” I’ll make it up to yer later huh?”

She flushed a little at and nodded before being called off to attend to a customer.

He watched her go and had a sudden feeling of unease, she was flushed with pleasure at seeing sure, but there had been a faint slick of sweat on her forehead too and her eyes were glittering… almost too brightly.

A short while later Lily came and relieved her at the bar as Millie had arranged to take the later part of the evening off anyway, and she went and sat at a quiet table in the corner with Jess.

He nodded over to where Lily was still serving and said,” So you figured I’d turn up tonight did you… arranging for Lily to cover?”

She smiled and took his hand across the table, “No not really, I wasn’t feeling too good earlier, it was Tom that insisted Lily stand in for me.”

“Oh sweetheart, you should have said iffen you were feelin’ sick… what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know, just a headache, feel kind of hot…it’ll pass.”

“Umm, I was gonna take you dancin’ but maybe a quiet night in would be better? “

She nodded looking relieved,” You don’t mind?”

He shook his head and squeezed her hand affectionately, “Why would I, I’m still with you ain’t I?”

A little while later they made their way up to Millie’s cosy room and Jess insisted she lie on the couch by the fire while he made some coffee.

After a while he collapsed down beside her lifting her legs up onto his lap gently massaging her bare feet.

“So how are you feeling now?” he asked anxiously.

“A little better, I guess it’s my own silly fault I was out in that storm yesterday, got soaked and then I was late on duty and didn’t dry my hair properly,just coming down with a cold I guess.”

They chatted quietly for an hour or so and Jess noticed she was getting progressively worse, now perspiring freely and looking flushed and feverish. Then she started shivering and he was even more concerned.

“Look you go get ready for bed and I’ll settle you down with plenty of blankets,” he said throwing another log on the fire.

It was when she rose to do as he suggested that she staggered and all but fainted, Jess catching her just in time.

“Heck Mill, this ain’t no cold, I’m going for Doc Sam.”

“Don’t fuss Jess I’m OK,” she whispered.

Jess lay her gently back down on the couch and went and fetch a blanket from the bed before excusing himself.

He ran lightly down the stairs to the now quiet bar and marched over to Sam.

“Can you or Lily go fetch Doc Sam,” he said urgently,” I’m kinda worried about Millie, she just near passed out.”

“I’ll go,” said Lily at once throwing her shawl around her shoulders and dashing across the road to Doctor Sam Baker’s office.

The good doctor was a great friend of all at the Sherman Ranch and shared a passion for fishing with Jess, spending many a happy hour out at the lake with his friend.

Now he bustled into Millie’s room in his usual cheery manner.

“I hear we’ve got a young lady who isn’t feeling too well,” he said rubbing his hands together and beaming at Jess and then down at Millie.

“I’m OK doc,” Millie replied faintly,” it’s this old fuss pot of a boyfriend of mine,” she said throwing Jess a fond look.

“Yes,well he was quite right to call me so let’s take a good look at you young lady.”

Jess took himself off to Millie’s little kitchen and brewed some more coffee while Sam went about the business of checking his patient, but he called him back shortly afterwards.

“Well I don’t think there is too much to fret about,” he said throwing Jess a kindly look.

“I reckon Millie here has got a severe chill after that dousing she had, but she should be on the mend after a good night’s sleep.”

Jess looked relieved.

“I’ll leave you some medicine to help you sleep my dear and I’ll pop back tomorrow, and I should send this young man packing,”he said with a grin in Jess’s direction,” you need your rest.”

Jess went to show him out and stood in the corridor for a moment with his buddy.

“ Are you sure she’s OK Sam, she looks really bad?”

“She’ll be fine,” said Sam patting Jess’s arm reassuringly.

“You did right to call me, these things can develop into lung fever,” he said softly, causing Jess’s eyebrows to shoot up in anxiety.

“But not in this case my dear chap, she’s young and healthy and a good sleep should see her much improved by the morning,” Sam reassured him.

Jess just nodded, “You’re sure?”

“Sure as I can be yes, now you get off to the ranch and call back , say tomorrow afternoon and I’m pretty sure she’ll be fine by then, or at least much more herself.”

“Thanks Sam,” he said shaking his good friend’s hand.

He turned back into Millie’s room and saw she was nearly asleep, cuddled down in her big comfy bed, the coverlet pulled up and the fire crackling brightly.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and gently brushed her fringe off her still hot forehead, “You’ll be OK?” he asked.

She gave him a drowsy smile,” Sure Lily will pop in and check on me.”

“I don’t like to leave you….. “

“Go on…. I’ll be fine and I’ll only keep you awake if you stay over, being so darn hot……..you need your rest honey,” she said giving him a little push……..go home I’m fine,” and she closed her eyes.

He stayed another ten minutes and once he was sure she was asleep, kissed her tenderly on the forehead and as he reluctantly left the room, bumped into Lily in the corridor.

“Is she OK?” she asked looking worried.

“Yup,I guess, sleeping anyways.”

“That’s good, I’ll keep checking on her don’t worry Jess,” and she gave him her warm, friendly smile.

“”Thanks Lily…. Oh I forgot Slim sends his best, says he’ll see you next week , fer definite, OK?”

She beamed at that nodding, and he went off to find Traveler, asleep in the Livery, not expecting a journey back home at this late hour.

He rode quietly into the yard and went and put his horse up imagining all the family were abed as it was now after midnight as he started to rub Traveler down.

A few minutes later he heard the barn door open and he swung around expecting to see Slim asking if his message had been delivered to Lily.

Then in the dim light from the overhead lantern he saw Johnnie standing on the threshold just staring.

He gave him a questioning look, saw him stagger and then noted a glint of light on the bottle he was holding.

“Johnnie…are you OK?” he asked turning from his horse and walking out of the loose box.

Theyoung man staggered again and Jess realised he was clearly very, very drunk.

“Hey kid what you been up to?” he asked.

Johnnie fixed him with a furious look,” More to the point what have you been doing with my girl?”

“Huh?”asked Jess looking dazed.

“Millie, you’ve been with her tonight haven’t you?”

Jess was suddenly angry,” Well I guess that’s none of your Goddamn business.”

“Well that’s where you’re wrong Mr God’s gift to women, Harper,” he slurred.

Jess just raised an eyebrow and said nothing.

“Oh come on, don’t be so darn modest, all the women go for you Harper so I’ve been told…..so why can’t you just leave my Millie alone?”

“She ain’t your Millie,” Jess said gruffly,” and you’re drunk.”

Then he saw Slim enter the barn and said, “The kids gotten himself a bottle from somewhere.”

Slim wandered over,” It’s late Johnnie why don’t you turn in,” he said, trying to defuse the situation, seeing Jess was beginning to look far from calm.

“Can’t do that,”slurred Johnnie, “ see I have to talk to this womanizer………convince him to leave the lovely Millie alone……”

“Womanizer!” spat Jess looking furious now.

“Sure the kid, young Mike that is, told me all about the women that have been real special to this family… well to you in particular……..what did he say? Oh yeah, there was a Maria…. …and someone called Flora… hell you did the bunkhouse up for that one, must have been real cosy……. and goodness knows how many others along the way…. so I guess that Millie is just one of the many and you’ll be ditching her sometime soon as well….. and then I’ll claim her,” he finished , swaying and looking triumphant.

He never saw the blow coming, Jess just took one pace forwards and threw a haymaker that knocked the youngster clear across the barn.

Then he went over and stood looking down at the semi-conscious boy and his glance flicked up to where Slim had joined him.

“Just get him out of here,” he said frighteningly quietly, “or I might just finish the job.”


Slim entered their shared room a good half hour later and saw his buddy was in bed but still awake.

“So what was all that about?” he asked sitting down on his own bed and peering across at where Jess had now hauled himself up on his pillows.

“Dunno, you tell me, I landed home and he was just there drunk as a skunk and bawling me out about Millie bein’ his girl… hell you saw it Slim!”

“OK simmer down, sure buddy of course I did , just can’t figure it,that’s all.”

“Well, Slim I can, it’s obvious he’s still got the hots for Millie and he’s hell bound to try and get her.”

“He surely will be bound for hell if he tries to cross you…. so why are you back tonight, anyway?” asked Slim.

“Millie’s sick…..she needed to rest, I’ll ride back in tomorrow I guess, see how she is.”

“She’ll be OK? “

“Oh yeah, I figure,she’s seen Sam, he don’t seem too bothered, says it’s just a bad chill.”

Slim gave a sigh of relief,” Well that’s good. “

“So what about Johnnie then and where did he get that bottle from?”

Slim looked down and then back up at his buddy .

“I hate to tell you but it was that last half bottle of moonshine you got from those Mountain Folk you met a while back.”

“Hell Slim we were saving that for Christmas!”

“Well I’m sorry Jess I guess you just didn’t hide it well enough in the barn,” said Slim looking slightly amused.

“Hey this ain’t no laughing matter, have you forgotten he’s disrespected the memories of not only Maria , but also Flora… not to mention my goddamn reputation!” Jess spat angrily.

“Hey, steady there buddy, he was really smashed and I don’t think he meant any of those things he said.”

“Meant them or not…. I sure heard them…. and so did you, and I figure it’s time that kid sat up and took some notice….. or I reckon he’s out of here Slim, I’ve just about taken as much as I’m gonna. “

Chapter 6

The following morning Jess didn’t see Johnnie as he was still languishing in the bunkhouse nursing his hangover when Jess rode out to see Millie.

He tapped lightly on her door and minute later he heard her calling for him to come in.

She was once more laid on the couch in front of a roaring fire, wrapped warmly in a pale blue woolly dressing gown, her dark hair framing her beautiful, if pale, face and her eyes now bright and healthy and Jess’s heart skipped a beat, thinking how lovely she looked.

She held out a hand to him and he strode over and sat down beside her,” how are you sweetheart? “he asked lovingly.

“Oh, just fine, still a mite tired, but otherwise just fine,” she said with a warm smile.

He held her hand, gently caressing it with his thumb, and they chatted quietly for a while and then she glanced down at where his hand was still clasping hers.

“Hey cowboy, have you been fighting?” she asked as she noted the bruising to his knuckles.

He withdrew his hand and rubbing it, cast her a rueful look,” not fighting really, just laid one on that bastard Johnnie Bradly last night.”

“Oh Jess, he’s not that bad, just an impressionable kid and I guess he can’t help having a crush, I think he took all the usual bar room chat and banter too seriously,” she said looking sad.

“Umm, well you didn’t hear what he was saying,” said Jess bitterly.

“Well was it about me again?”

“Some of it yeah,”he replied.

“And he was drunk too, I imagine?”

“Yup…….so how did you know?”

“Oh I figure it’s the only way he’d dare to rile you,” she said with a small smile.

“Well I’ve just about had enough of him, life at the ranch is tough enough right now without his upsettin’ folk right left and centre.”

She sighed,” Well I still reckon he isn’t all that bad.”

“You do?”he asked looking surprized.

“Umm… it can’t have been easy for him losing his brother that way.”

Jess gave her a meaningful look,” It never is easy losing kin,”he said in a voice loaded with irony.

She squeezed his hand at that knowing he was alluding to his own past.

“I know honey, but well, I guess Kenny was a hard act to follow.”

Jess raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“Have you ever heard old man Bradly go on about his first born?”

He just shook his head.

“Well I have, in the bar here to anyone as will listen, you’d think he was a darn Saint, the best rancher, best soldier, best son as ever lived. I reckon Johnnie couldn’t begin to compete with him so he just gave up and that’s why he shows no interest in the ranch, just setting himself up to fail I guess.”

Jess thought back to his conversation earlier that month when he’d said he’d kinda turned Maria into some sort of Saint in his own mind and so now could understand the way Nick Bradly was thinking.

“Yeah, well just as long as he don’t pull another stunt like he did last night…..” he said darkly.

“He’s just young,” she said placatingly,” and as for thinking he could make it with me that’s crazy and apart from anything else, he’s way too young and not my type,” she said with a little wink,” you do know that?”

“Sure I do,” he said, squeezing her hand gently.

“The mustanging, how’s it going?” she asked subtly changing the subject.

“OK going well, and at least the kid seems to have some ability at workin’ the mustangs, if nuthin’ else.”

Then he grinned,” and that ol’ Spirit seems to be seein’ sense now too, I’m thinkin’ of putting a saddle on him come next week,”he said his face shining with enthusiasm.

“What the one Mike called the Ghost, I thought he couldn’t be broke?”

“Well you know what they say, ‘ain’t a horse that can’t be broke…’”.

“’Ain’t a man as can’t be throwed’…….. I know, just make sure you don’t get ‘throwed’ too darned hard, I want you all in one piece for the dance next Saturday!”


When Jess rode back into the ranch that Sunday afternoon the place looked deserted, save for Johnnie who made his way out of the barn as soon as he heard Jess ride in and tether Traveler to the corral fence.

Jess threw him a wary look as he approached, “Where is everyone?” he asked.

“Miss Daisy and Mike went to Church and then visiting and Slim’s out, a fence was down on the East pasture.”

“Well why ain’t you helping him?” asked Jess irritably.

“I was going to but he said I was to stay here and wait for you, besides……”


“I need to talk to you.”

“Oh, you do? “

“Yes… to apologise, Jeez I’m so sorry for what I said Jess I was way out of order.”

The dark haired cowboy took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve before replacing it and casting the boy a quizzical look.

“Is that you apologising’ because yer mean it, or because Slim told yer to?” he asked.

“Oh I mean it right enough, but Slim did speak to me, explained about Maria and Flora…. Hell I never would have said what I did if I’d known they’d passed over…. Mike never said, just that they were real special to you.”

“Yeah, well he was mighty upset when they died…. He lost his Ma and then when I was engaged to Maria he got to start thinkin’ of her as his Ma….. and as for young Flora,well she was like a big sister to him…. he gets real troubled when he remembers how we lost them, that’s why he never said they were dead…… you ain’t the only person as has ever lost someone close yer know Johnnie.”

As they talked they had been walking towards the house and now they sat down in the shade of the porch and the youngster looked down at his boots.

“I guess,” he said sulkily.

“So this brother of yours, our Pa speaks real highly of him, seems he was a good rancher? “

“Oh yes,” said Johnnie bitterly,” not just good Jess, the best, best roper, best at doing the chores,best at herding the stock… you name it…“

“How about mustanging?” asked Jess throwing him a questioning look.

The boy’s head shot up, ”Nope, never did it, like I said Pa always buys ready broke.”

“Well iffen I get yer all trained up in mustang breaking guess he won’t have to any more will he, and I figure that would be something you’re better at than your Kenny too. “

The boy’s face lit up,” You’d do that Jess, you’d really help me?”

Jess just nodded, “Well we’ve already made a start and you show promise, so I don’t see why not.”

“Why…….. after all I’ve done to you?”

“Because yer need it,” said Jess softly,” and folk have given me a hand in the past when I’ve needed it.”

He took this on board and nodded,” Thanks Jess,” he said sincerely.

Then softly,” I’m real sorry about Miss Millie, how is she?”

Jess gave him a speculative look,” She’s better today,” he said quietly, “she’ll be fine.”

“Good… and Jess, I’m sorry real sorry for the way I’ve been with her, pestering her that way and everything….. it’s just that I love her so much,” he whispered.

Jess gazed over at him and took a deep breath steadying himself.

“No,” he said gently,” no you don’t boy….”

Johnnie opened his mouth to protest, but Jess put a hand up to silence him,” Listen, let me finish.”

The youngster just nodded.

“I know you think you do, you have all these strong feelings for her…. but you don’t know her Johnnie, not really, I figure you’ve just got yourself a case of good old fashioned lust.”

“No….. Well maybe ….. But she’s so sweet and funny and kind…..and….she made time for me, listened to me, talked to me like no other girl ever has…”

“Johnnie, it’s her job, it’s what she’s paid for kid, to talk to the customers, laugh at their jokes she’s a saloon hostess that’s what she does fer a living.”

Johnnie looked deeply shocked at this, although deep down he knew the truth of it, but had denied it, just wanting to think that she thought of him as being special.

“Look,if she’s made you think there was more to it than that, then she’s sorry real sorry, she says you’re a nice kid and I figure she wouldn’t like to think she’d hurt you. But well even if I wasn’t around she wouldn’t date you…. yer a mite young for her you see Johnnie and that’s a fact.”

“Honestly… she said that?”

“Yup….. I know that seems kinda hard right now, but iffen you just accept it, well…….. I guess you never know who else is out there till you’ve gone looked… huh? “

Johnnie gave him the ghost of a smile, yeah,” I guess you’re right… if there is no chance.”

Then he turned agonized eyes on his mentor, “Hell Jess I’ve made such a fool of myself haven’t I?”

“No more than any of us where women are concerned,” Jess said with a grin… “welcome to the club buddy.”


The following morning Jess kept his promise to Johnnie.

“I figure I’m comin’ to the end of the horse breaking contract for the army, so you can help me with the last couple and I’ll help you out with your chores.”

“Really?” asked the youngster, looking pleased.

“Yup, an’ you know Johnnie, every one of those chores is important, sure they may be kinda boring. Like feedin’ the chicks and splittin’ the kindling, but they all need doin’ and we work as a team around here and it don’t really matter who does things as long as they’re done and done well.”

He nodded,” I guess I never thought of it that way, see Pa has hired help to do all that stuff and I guess I just take it for granted.”

Jess tipped his hat back and looked the boy firmly in the eye, “Well I guess our spread ain’t as big as yer Pa’s and everyone has to pull their weight around here and take a pride in what they do.”

“I see that now Jess and you know I reckon I feel real good when I do stuff right, the way you and Slim have shown me, I guess I’m not as useless as I thought I was.”

Jess grinned over at him and punched his arm lightly.

“OK go see iffen you can bring all the eggs in without smashing any and I’ll chop the firewood for you and then I’ll go get the first ride of the day ready.”

Slim wandered over to where Jess was splitting the kindling. “It really doesn’t matter who does the chores as long as they’re done well’,” he mimicked Jess…. “Err just remind me who was it that went ape when they were asked to feed and lock up the chicks the other night….?” he asked with a smirk.

“Well, Hell Slim I was all duded up for town wasn’t I!“

“Umm…. and who got all ornery when , sweet Miss Daisy asked him to peg the washing out…huh…huh, all working as a team are we eh pard?”

“Look I’m just tryin’ to encourage the kid; Millie reckons he’s had a crap deal since Kenny died, tryin’ to live up to his brother’s memory.”

Slim sobered then,” Yeah, I’ve heard Nick talk about him. I sometimes think he’s got the wrong boy”, he said with a faint grin.

“ Sure Kenny was a good rancher, but he had his faults too, just like the rest of us, but the way his old man talks well….. “

“Exactly,” said Jess,” and that’s why I’m givin’ the kid another chance to try and prove himself,maybe even impress his Pa if he makes a halfway good horse breaker.”

Slim patted his arm, “I’m impressed, especially after the way he’s been with you, you’re a good man Jess Harper… no matter what folk say!“

Jess grinned at him and then it sunk home as to what he’d actually said and a scuffle ensued and a chase round the yard culminating with Jess wrestling Slim to the ground and making sure he was liberally coated in dust and debris before releasing him, both men laughing uproariously.

Daisy, who, having the back door open, had also heard Jess’s little homily to Johnnie, came to the door and called out,” Err… if you boys have finished ‘working together as a team’….… breakfast’s ready.

Jess worked hard with Johnnie all that day teaching him some more of the intricacies of horse whispering and the boy was an attentive learner and worked hard with excellent results.

At the end of the day Jess slapped him on the back and said I guess we’ll make a cowboy of you yet, and the young man glowed with pleasure a completely different boy to the one who had arrived just a few short weeks ago.

Later that evening as Slim and Jess were getting ready for bed, Slim looked over to where his buddy was already stretched out on his bed, hands laced behind his head looking tired but relaxed.

“Well you sure did a good job with the kid today,” said Slim coming over and sitting down on the edge of his own bed, a towel still around his shoulders from his recent ablutions,” so whydo think he’s changed?”

Jess looked thoughtful,” I dunno, my approach to him I guess, deciding to give him another go… we talked things through, about his Pa’s attitude and all, I reckon he just needed someone to believe in him.”

Slim nodded,” Yeah, that’s good Jess, real good.”

“Then of course there was that haymaker I landed on him, reckon that helped focus his mind some too,” said Jess with his cheeky grin….” In fact iffen you’d have let me beat some sense into him when he’d first arrived we’d have saved ourselves one heck of a lot of trouble you know Slim.”

Slim’s eyebrows shot up and he shook his head,” And here was me thinking you’d got all caring and understanding in your old age,” he said chuckling.

Chapter 7

The following morning Jess decided to start working on Spirit, aka The Ghost and as he went out to the corral the early morning mist was still drifting around and the big grey stallion suddenly emerged from the haze. He was looking just as ghostly as Mike had once described him when they had first caught the animal. Jess chuckled to himself as he truly looked like a ghost horse as he merged back into the mist,seeming to disappear like some phantom.

Jess smiled, “Well you may be good at the disappearin’ act and look like a ghost, but I figure Spirit suits you better, because you sure ain’t short of that boy.”

At the sound of Jess’s voice the big horse came forward out of the now slowly rising mist and blew through his nostrils in welcome anticipation of the sugar he knew was to come, the desire for the sweet treat greater than his wanderlust, for a few short moments at least.

Jess offered the sugar lump, and caressed the horse’s nose for a few minutes before the great creature galloped off tossing his mane as he clattered around the corral.

“Guess we’ll make a half decent mount of you yet,” he whispered,” and as soon as yer broke I’ll ride yer over to the fort and show Major Adams,” he finished with a determined smile.

Ain’t no ol’ mustang goin’ to get the better of me he thought privately before turning back to the house and breakfast.

He spent the rest of the day working on the recalcitrant animal with Johnnie, Slim and Mike cheering from the side-lines and wincing in dismay when he took yet another fall and that was the pattern for the rest of the week, in between doing all the other chores necessary to keep the ranch and relay ticking over.

However by the Saturday afternoon things were looking good and Jess was in complete control as the big grey made his way around the corral acting like the perfect gentleman.

It was just Slim in attendance and Jess slipped down from the saddle and caressed the critter’s velvety nose, “see Slim, gentle as a kitten.”

“Umm, I seem to remember you saying that once before and then Major Adams said he bolted and then kicked out and broke a trooper’s leg, that’s why they loosed him back into the wild if you remember rightly Jess.”

Jess’s head swung round,” Yeah and if you remember rightly I’d only just broken him when the army collected the mustangs early, this way I can keep aneye on him, be sure he’s completely gentled and that takes time, you know that Slim.”

Slim just shook his head eyeing the beautiful horse warily.


“I don’t know Jess there is something about that critter that reminds me of you when you first landed here.”

“Huh?” exclaimed Jess is surprise.

“Yeah, that look in his eye, seen it in yours many a time too. See look at him now, way he’s looking out at the hills, kind of sad and yearning to be off out there.”

“You’re crazy,” said Jess grinning at his buddy,” it’s a horse, he’s probably thinkin’ on his dinner, or that pretty little Palomino filly of Mikes,” and he shook his head chuckling.

“Yup, just the same as you,” insisted Slim,” kinda likes the idea of being domesticated and then the big open calls and he’ll be off. Sort of edgy and ornery just the same as you were too….still are sometimes,” he said laughing and avoiding the swipe Jess threw at his head.

Just then their banter was rudely interrupted by a neighbour riding hard into the yard.

Pete Baxter was looking real worried as he dismounted and walked quickly over.

“Hey Pete,” said Slim, “you’re looking in a hurry,where’s the fire?”

“Isn’t any fire Slim,” said the tall rancher nodding to Jess and then looking back to Slim.

“I’ve got one of my prime heifers stuck in my waterhole,been trying to pull her free this last couple of hours and I’m fair tuckered out,could you two give me a hand, figure  the three of us should be able to do it.”

Traveler, Alamo , Johnnie’s mount Lee and Mike’s Sunny were all tethered near the corral and it didn’t take the men a moment to jump to their neighbour’ s rescue.

“Johnnie, Mike,” yelled Slim and the two ran out of the barn which they had been cleaning out.

“We’re going to help Pete out,we won’t be long and once the barns done put up your mounts for the night OK?”

“Sure,” nodded Johnnie and Mike in unison.

“Oh and can yer take off Spirit’s saddle and lose him in the big corral for me Johnnie, I’ve tied the reins, just lead him over OK?” added Jess.

Then grinning, “reckon it’s early days but I figure I’ve just about broke him.”

“Gee that’s swell Jess, yup, I’ll look after him,see you later,” and with that the ranchers rode out at speed.

Once they had gone Johnnie wandered over to the corral and watched the big grey moodily stomping about obviously highly displeased that Jess had taken off leaving the saddle and bridle in place and he wanted rid and a good roll.

Then Johnnie suddenly made a snap decision and vaulting the corral fence he made his way slowly over towards the big horse and after a moment of gentling him he leapt lightly into the saddle and at first was amazed that the big horse seemed to take it in his stride and walked slowly on as Johnnie hesitantly kneed him forwards.

Meanwhile Mike had climbed up on the fence and was watching in dismay.

“You really shouldn’t be riding him Johnnie,” he called out, “Jess has tied the reins he just meant for you to lead him out.”

“He’s fine kid stop your fretting,” said Johnnie now proudly sitting the big animal,” I’ll ride him over to the holding corral, just open the gate.”

Mike sighed deeply,” Jess won’t like it.”

Johnnie threw him a disparaging glance,” Well he won’t know will he,now just get the gate kid, come on hurry up.”

Mike ran over and opened the gate of the large corral a few yards away making it easy for Johnnie to ride straight in and then reluctantly came and opened the gate of the working corral, pulling it wide to let horse and rider through.

All the time Johnnie had been in the saddle Spirit had been getting more and more restless. At first he thought it was the dark haired cowboy with the firm , but kind, hands that brooked no arguments. He was getting used to the feel of him on his back, the strong confident way he sat,the odd gentle caress to his arched neck and whispered endearment.

But this person felt hesitant and nervous, there was no confidence in his behaviour and no reassuring pat or whispered comments and Spirit felt at first uneasy and then irritated….And suddenly feeling that the rider was not in control he seized his moment and reared and then bucked throwing Johnnie hard before bolting out of the corral across the yard and up the rise towards the Laramie road.

Mike ran over and helped the hapless boy up,” Are you OK?”

“Sure, just winded I guess,” then as he saw the big grey disappearing in a cloud of dust he cussed and ran to his horse which was still tethered alongside Mike’s Palomino pony by the corral.

“Where are you going?” gasped Mike running after him.

“To catch that darn critter of course or Jess will flay me alive,” he yelled leaping into the saddle and galloping out of the yard .

Mike mounted his pony, Sunny and followed, just as Daisy came out of the house to see what all the shouting was about and was just in time to see both boys ride off up the rise at speed.

She called after them, but they were too far away to hear and in a minute disappeared from view.

She looked anxiously towards the empty corral which had contained that dreadful big white horse Jess seemed so taken with, and then she looked out to the rise again hoping upon hope that Jess and Slim would be home soon to sort the matter out.

She even considered hitching up the buckboard and following them, but doubted the runaway would stick to the main road and so she reluctantly returned to the house to await the young cowboys return. Then just as she was about to enter there was the ominous rumble of thunder which had been rolling around the sky all afternoon. She looked up and saw the dark advancing thunderheads and then a flash of lightening and her old heart became even more troubled as she went inside to await the young cowboys’ arrival.

Both Slim and Jess were cold wet and muddy on their return an hour or so later and as if being soaked pulling the terrified heifer out of the waterhole wasn’t bad enough,then low and behold the heavens opened on their ride back making them even more wet and irritable.

“Garl darn it,” muttered Jess, “darned Wyoming weather and what’s more we’ll be late fer the dance in town tonight by the time we’ve cleaned up and dried off.”

“Well can’t be helped pard, we couldn’t leave old Pete in a spot.”

“No I guess not,” agreed Jess, “but I think….. “

Then his mouth snapped shut and Slim was never to hear what else Jess thought on the subject, as they entered the yard to see both corral gates wide open and no sign of Mike, Johnnie , their mounts….. or Spirit.

“Check the barn,” said Slim urgently, and Jess emerged a moment later and shook his head.

“No sign of Sunny or Lee. I guess Spirit broke free and they’ve hightailed after him,” he said gruffly.

Then Daisy was at the door wringing her hands in distress.

“Oh thank goodness your back,the boys are chasing that awful big horse of yours Jess…. and in this terrible weather too,”she said casting her eyes to the heavens where the storm was still raging with thunder clashing above and the dark sky constantly being illuminated with slashes of lightening.

“How long?” asked Jess looking apprehensive.

“At least an hour, oh dear I just didn’t know what to do, they were gone so quickly, I called but they were up the rise and never heard me.”

“It’s alright Daisy,” said Slim reassuringly patting her arm, “there was nothing you could do, now don’t fret, we’ll bring them back in one piece, just try not to worry, they’ll be fine.”

“Oh no they won’t,” muttered Jess as they made their way back to their horses,” that Johnnie will be far from fine when I get hold of him.”

“Oh come on Jess, you don’t know it was his fault.”

Jess said nothing, just pulled his hat down hard and narrowed his eyes against the driving rain, but Slim knew that look of old and just hoped Johnnie had a good excuse.

They had been riding for over an hour, but the terrible weather had fast destroyed any tracks they could follow and they were just continuing in the general direction where the first tracks had led.

Finally the storm passed over and then the late sun broke through and after a while the whole of the hill they were riding over was shrouded in mist.

Jess reined Traveler in and cast his buddy an anguished glance, “Just great, first we lose the tracks and now we can barely see a few yards ahead.”

“Well we have to carry on ,”said Slim , “ it’ll be dark in a few hours and it gets mighty chilly out here, they’ll be cold wet and Mike kinda scared too I guess.”

“Do ya think I don’t know that!” spat Jess angrily.

Slim cast him a wary look but said nothing.

After a moment Jess apologised, “Gee I’m sorry Slim,I guess I’m feeling kinda guilty, I should have tended to Spirit before we lit out not left it to that greenhorn.”

“Well Pete was real distressed and anyway the kid should have been able to simply put him in the corral for goodness sake.”

Then Jess’s head suddenly shot up, “Hell Slim what’s that?”

Slim peered through the mist, “I can’t see anything.”

“Look, over there by those pines………. it’s Spirit Slim, come on….“

“Jess….. wait,” he said urgently,” just take it real easy, you spook him you’ll never find him in this fog.”

“OK,OK… come on…..”

The big grey seemed to be aware of their presence, but just kept tantalizingly out of roping distance and Jess knew that if he took off in these conditions they would lose him.

After half an hour or so Jess turned to his buddy and whispered,” this is really weird Slim, it’s almost as though he’s leading us somewhere.”

Slim gave him a small smile,” Yeah on a merry dance.”

Then Jess looked suddenly serious, “Hang on if we’ve found him and we’re an hour behind Johnnie and Mike , well how come they haven’t already spotted him?”

Slim looked equally serious, “Maybe they’re in trouble?”

“Well that don’t surprise me none,” said Jess darkly,” a little kid and a tenderfoot taking off in these conditions, it would be kinda strange iffen they weren’t in trouble of some sort, let’s just hope it ain’t too serious.”

As it turned out things could have been worse, as Jess said later anyway.

They continued following the big grey mustang and then after another ten minutes he whinnied loudly and after a moment the cry was returned.

“Hell Slim that sounds like Sunny,” and Jess spurred his mount on, closely followed by Slim.

They had crested the hill and were halfway down the other side when they saw Sunny and Lee ground hitched beneath some huge pines and at their approach Johnnie ran forwards to greet them.

“Thank God you’ve found us, it’s Mike….. “

Jess was off his horse and had sprinted the few feet to where Mike was lying beneath the pines in a split second, with Slim hard on his heels.

He crouched down by the unconscious youngster his eyes wide with fear and then he glanced up at Johnnie.

“What in hell happened to him?”

The young man flushed up looking uncomfortable.

“We were trying to catch Spirit and as we came down this side of the hill there was a flash flood…. The whole hill seemed to be moving and Sunny there lost his footing and Mike was thrown….hit his head real bad……. gee I’m so darn sorry,” he whispered, ducking his head.

“You will be,” muttered Jess darkly.

Then turning to an anxious Slim,” Can yer get a canteen?”

Both men then hunkered down by the child bathing his face with the cool water as Johnnie slunk off feeling he was just in the way.

After a moment the child came around and groaned.

“Mike…. hey Tiger you OK?” asked Jess anxiously.

The youngster’s eyes tried to focus on Slim and Jess and after a moment he whispered,” You’ve come I knew you would.”

“So how are you feeling?” asked Slim again.

“Kind of sick and dizzy and my head hurts something powerful.”

The men exchanged an anxious glance,” I figure we’d better let him rest tonight, how far are we from that old shack by the river?” asked Jess looking around him.

“Good idea, about ten minutes I guess, across county, at least it’ll be dry and we can light a fire get him warmed up some.”

Jess picked the youngster up tenderly and placed him on Traveler’s back before jumping up behind him, wrapping a protective arm around the child and he lay back feeling safe in his hero’s firm grip.

Jess flicked a glance over to where Johnnie stood looking on, a mixture of fear and shock on his young face.

“You bring Mike’s pony,” Jess said gruffly before kneeing his mount on to a steady walk.

They arrived at the shack shortly and Johnnie went to tend to the horses whilst Jess looked after a very tired and sore Mike. Slim made up a fire and managed to throw together a scratch meal from the supplies they kept there. For the odd occasion they used the place when fishing that stretch of the river, or just resting over after working on that far flung corner of the ranch.

It was once Mike had at last fallen into a fitful sleep, snuggled down in a blanket in front of the blazing fire, that Jess finally turned his stony gaze on Johnnie.

“Well?” he said gruffly,” and this better be good.”

The young man ducked his head before finally managing to meet Jess’s angry gaze.

“I guess it was all my fault, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”

“Do what?” asked Slim gently.

Johnnie’s eyes swivelled to the tall rancher and threw him a look of gratitude.

“That I could ride Spirit without being throwed…. Jess said he was about broke and I just wanted to try him out, so I rode him across to the other corral, well tried to anyways………..instead of leading him like you said,” he finished in a whisper.

“Why you stupid garl darn fool……..haven’t yer listened to a thing I’ve taught you!”

Jess sighed in exasperation.

“I explained how as you have to get the critter’s confidence, sure he was gentle with me, but I said… told you it was early days yet. It takes weeks for an animal like that to accept just any rider!” he spat angrily.

“Jess… simmer down,” said Slim, nodding to where Mike was sleeping, “you’ll wake him up sounding off that way.”

“Well what do you want me to say,” asked Jess turning on his partner, albeit in a slightly moderated tone………”the boy done wrong and he has to be told.”

“OK well you’ve told him so let’s all get some shut eye, huh?”

The following morning they were mighty relieved to see Mike back to his usual cheerful self, with little to show for the adventure but a small bump to the back of his head.

Jess took Johnnie on one side, “You’re sure lucky, because iffen the boy had been hurt bad I’d have had your hide, you know that don’t ya?”

The young man nodded vigorously,” Sure and I’m real sorry Jess. I’ll make it up to you I promise…. I’ll get him back for you….“

“Oh no…. oh no you don’t, you fetch after him and we’ll never see him again and have you forgotten that poor critter is still wearing a saddle?He’ll be real sore and uncomfortable by now and I’ve got to catch him real quick.”

Johnnie sighed, looking wretched, “Well can I help at least?”

Jess looked over to where Slim and Mike were saddling up.

“What do you think pard, you OK to take Mike home if me and Johnnie go after Spirit?”

Slim nodded giving his friend a warm smile, glad that his attitude towards Johnnie had thawed a little.

“Sure and you’ll probably be glad of the help, took the two of us to hold him when we caught him if you remember?”

Jess pulled his hat down hard, “Take care Tiger, be back soon, see yer Slim.”

Then turning to Johnnie with a deep sigh,” OK, come on then kid,” and he spurred Traveler off in the direction they had last seen the big grey.

The morning was again misty, the strong sun not yet having burnt through and it was about an hour later when Jess saw the ethereal form of Spirit drifting in and out of the mist several yards ahead of them, then the big horse caught their scent and galloped off at speed, with Jess chasing him, followed by Johnnie hard on his heels.

It was a long hard ride and Jess almost felt like he wanted to give up hounding the magnificent creature, but they had come this far and had to carry on and finally their persistence paid off and the big horse slowed his pace some, obviously exhausted, allowing Jess to get a rope on him.

Then everything seemed to happen at once as far as Johnnie was concerned. Jess was pulled from the saddle, but hung on to the rope like grim death, his typical Harper stubborn streak kicking in, and then Johnnie managed to get a rope on the stallion too and eventually the men had him, kicking and screaming in anger, but once more confined.

Jess stood up from where he’s been dragged unceremoniously along in the dirt for several yards and after brushing himself down with his hat he cast Johnnie a triumphant grin, “Well done kid.”

He eventually made his way over to the big horse talking softly to him and after a few minutes he was calm enough for Jess to fondle his nose and he accepted a sugar lump, blowing down his nostrils and to all the world looking to be tame once more.

Johnnie stood back scratching his head,” I just don’t get it Jess, he was half crazy a few minutes ago and now he looks as gentle as a lamb.”

Jess just shook his head,” I dunno, figure he’s a kinda mixed up critter, don’t know iffen he wants to be domesticated or keep his freedom, pulled in both directions I reckon,”he said softly.

“So what do we do?”

“Take him back of course, this old fellah is worth a lot of money to us Johnnie, and the amount of work I’ve put in on him, well I guess I ain’t givin’ up on him now,” and with that they started to make their way back to the ranch.

Chapter 8

The incident regarding Mike’s accident and the part Johnnie had played was forgiven by the ranchers, but not completely forgotten, certainly not by Jess anyway and he kept a sharp eye on the young man, especially around Mike. However there was no repeat of his thoughtless behaviour. In fact he was becoming a valuable member of the team and his horse whispering skills were slowly improving, the two mustangs he had been given to work on green broke and ready for schooling on.

His Pa had visited once or twice and was highly impressed by his son’s progress he told Slim,but didn’t share his sentiments with the boy, just told him to keep his head down and work hard.

Jess who had been sitting the corral fence, during Nick Bradly’s latest visit, watching the youngster work one of the horses, saw the look on his face at his father’s brusque words and suddenly felt a stab of pity for the boy.

He swung down from his seat on the fence and walked over to where Nick Bradly was now preparing to mount up and go home.

“Can I have a minute?” asked Jess gruffly.

Nick raised an eyebrow at Jess’s somewhat abrupt tone.

“Well, sure Jess, so what’s the boy done now?” he asked with a hefty sigh.

Jess knitted his expressive eyebrows,” Nuthin’, least ways nuthin’ wrong, in fact he’s doin’ real well, really taken to the horse whispering’…. …you can see that for yourself can’t you Nick?”

“Why sure he’s handling that nag like a professional, you’ve done a real good job teaching him Jess and I appreciate it.”

Jess just shook his head and threw him a hard look,” That ain’t it Nick, I don’t want your thanks, but don’t yer think you should tell him… iffen you think he’s done well?”

The older man looked troubled, and then embarrassed, “I guess he knows how I feel I said he’d done a good job didn’t I?”

Jess sighed deeply,” Sure you told me… but not Johnnie and I figure he’d like to hear it from you.”

Nick nodded and then slowly dismounted, “If you think so”.

Jess nodded, “And I figure you can tell me it’s none of my goddamn business, but I reckon the kid don’t think he can hold a candle to your Kenny….. I guess that’s what the problem with the boy is… Just setting himself up to fail all the time in your eyes……I guess you’ve made the bar kinda high for him…huh Nick?”

Nick Bradly flushed up an angry colour and Jess wondered if he’d over stepped the mark and Nick was about to punch him, but then he just clenched his fists and took several deep breaths before glaring at Jess.

However after a minute or so the glare softened and he gave the young cowboy the ghost of a smile.

“You know what son, nobody has ever had the courage to stand up to me and say that before. The times I’ve bragged about young Kenny………. Hell, I’ve turned him into a darn Saint I guess…….”

He sighed deeply and looked down before fixing Jess with his weary gaze again, “The truth is he was just an ordinary man like the rest of us, some good points … some not so good…… and I guess I’d kinda forgotten that……… thanks Jess,” and he patted his arm before walking over to speak to his second… and only surviving son.

After he’d gone Johnnie wandered over to where Jess was getting the replacement team ready for the noon Stage and beamed at him.

“I don’t know what you said to Pa…..but he was real nice to me! Really treated me like an equal and even wants me to do some horse breaking back at our place for him,” the youngster said his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.

Jess grinned across at the lad,” I figure maybe we’d better let you get off home soon then, once those last two critters are ready to go, the military will be picking them up and I can get back to ranch work and that means you’re out of a job.”

Johnnie beamed at him and then sobered, “You know what….. I guess I’m just about getting used to it around here, figure I might even miss you all,” and he wandered cheerfully back to work, Jessshaking his head and grinning at his retreating back.


Once Johnnie had returned home, life at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station returned to normal, with Slim and Jess busy bringing the stock down for the winter.

Jess also continued working with Ghost aka Spirit and was finding it hard going.

“I just don’t understand that critter Slim,” he said one evening as they were leaning on the corral fence watching the big stallion mooching about looking decidedly moody.

“Sometimes I think I’ve cracked him and he’s as kind and gentle as you could ask a mount to be …. and then he just kicks off and seems like he gets the old Devil in his soul and he just wants out…. I don’t reckon we dare sell him on again.”

“So what are you saying we keep him here on the ranch as a working horse?”

“Umm, I reckon that’s all we can do, he’ll be useful as an extra mount I guess.”

Slim turned to his buddy, “Why do I get the feeling your heart isn’t in this Jess?”

He sighed deeply looking at the horse,” I dunno… I guess a big part of me don’t wanna be beat, Hell you know we’ve never had a mustang that’s gotten the better of me…. and yet Slim….. “

“And yet….?”

“And yet, well I guess it sounds kinda stupid……... but well….. What you were saying about him, way back, about him looking out and yearning for the Big Open……….you said he was kinda like me?”

“Yup, I did and you said he was thinking on his dinner and Mike’s cute little filly, was all?”

Jess nodded, and gave his buddy a sad smile ,” I guess that’s par tof what’s keeping him here, that and regular feeds, sugar lumps and a whole lotta sweet talkin’…… but I reckon that’s maybe not enough…….” and he turned sadly away.

It was the following week that Spirit was to prove his true worth.

It was again a stormy afternoon and the men were tired and wet when they returned early from bringing the cattle down to the lower pastures.

It was a Sunday and as Jess had promised he had allowed Mike to help and it was as they were nearly home that the incident happened.

They were just rounding up some strays and getting them safely in the North pasture when a deafening clap of thunder overhead upset all the mounts. Unfortunately Mike had dismounted and was just latching the field gate and didn’t have a good hold on his reins and Sunny reared at the sudden clamor overhead and took off at speed leaving the youngster afoot.

It was a good five minutes before Jess and Slim were alerted to the problem as they were way over the other side of the pasture dealing with some more ornery steers.

“Hey Tiger, you OK, where’s Sunny?” asked Jess as they rode up sometime later.

The youngster was near to tears, but rallied well,” She took off, that thunder was right over us and she just spooked and took off that way,” the boy said pointing to the horizon and holding back the tears.

“OK buddy, don’t fret,” said Jess kindly,” you hop up on Alamo with Slim and me and Spirit will go find her. “

“You sure you can find her Jess, it’s getting awful dark out there?”

“Sure I can Tiger, it’s just good luck as I was ridin’ ol’ Spirit here, you know how fond of her he is, he’ll find her before you know it,” he said grinning at the youngster.

Then turning to Slim he said softly,” I guess it is getting kinda murky, may have to stay out Slim, tell Daisy I’ll be back as soon as I can huh….. maybe tomorrow?”

“Jess, you really don’t want to be out in this weather,” said Slim anxiously.

“Don’t wanna be, but I guess I need to be… you know how he feels about that little pony Slim, I’ve gotta find her,” and with that he rode off at speed, the lightening sending slashes through the ever darkening sky.

Jess and Spirit had been riding for a good half hour before they finally saw the little Palomino in the distance, skittering about looking terrified of the still raging storm.

Jess reined Spirit in , not wanting to startle the other horse, but then the big stallion whinnied shrilly calling out to Sunny and a moment later she answered and started walking hesitantly towards the man and horse.

Then it took Jess no time at all to rope the pony and lead her quietly home through the raging storm.

As soon as the two horses clattered into the yard an hour or so later the ranch house door was thrown open and Slim, Mike and Daisy came pouring out to meet them.

Mike was ecstatic at having his pony safely back and didn’t know who to cuddle first, Jess or Sunny.

In the end Daisy insisted that Mike must come in the warm as must Jess who was now soaking wet and so Slim was dispatched to deal with the mounts, much to Jess’s chagrin.

“Heck Daisy I need to see to my own horse you know.”

“Well I’m sure you think you do dear, but Slim is quite capable and you young man are soaked to the skin, now go and strip off and get dry clothes on and there will be chicken broth waiting for you.”

Then she turned her attentions to Mike, ”And you young man have already been put to bed once, shoo now off you go, time enough to see your pony tomorrow.”

Jess and Mike exchanged a sympathetic glance, ”Go on Tiger,” said Jess softly,” I guess aunt Daisy’s right; we’ll check ‘em out tomorrow OK buddy?”

The child nodded and yawned hugely before disappearing back into his room.

The following day all were up early and Jess and Mike’s first port of call was the barn and their beloved mounts and that’s where Slim caught up with them a little later.

Jess had groomed Traveler and had started on Spirit when Slim marched in proclaiming breakfast was ready.

“I’ll be right there,” called Jess as he continued the rhythmical brushing of the big horse.

Slim came and leaned on the stall door and threw his buddy an indulgent look, “you’ve got real fond of that ornery old fellah haven’t you Jess?”

He turned and gave his partner a small smile, “yeah, guess I have, figure you’re right we are kinda alike.”

“Umm, well come on pard, grubs up,” and both men retreated to the house and Daisy’s awaiting largess.

Once Daisy was making a start on the dishes and Mike had been dispatched to school on the early morning Stage, the two friends lingered at the breakfast table over a final cup of coffee.

“So what are you going to do, use him as a spare mount for when Traveler’s resting?” asked Slim, once more returning to the subject of the big grey stallion.

“Yup, I guess old Trav there deserves the odd day off and I don’t like to work him too hard, especially in this weather,” he said tipping his head towards the window where the heavens had opened once more.

Slim sighed deeply, “ I don’t like working in this weather either, but I guess we don’t have any choice iffen we’re to get the rest of those steers down this side of Thanksgiving,” he said with a tired grin,” come on pard let’s get to it.”

By the time they’d saddled up the rain had decreased to a thin drizzly mist and as Jess rode on ahead of Slim on Spirit he did his usual trick of disappearing into the misty morning air, and Slim chuckled to himself,the grey looking more ghost than horse once more.

Shortly afterwards they split up heading in opposite directions hunting down stray steers and arranging to meet up for a break at noon, down by the river.

As Slim approached the river he was pleased to see a plume of smoke rising through the now clear sky and a few minutes later he reined Alamo in beside the fire Jess had lit,the coffee pot already in place.

“Well you didn’t hang around,” said Slim dryly as he dismounted, “I thought we weren’t breaking ‘til noon, looks like you’ve been here a while pard, you working part-time then?”

“No I ain’t workin’ part-time,” came the gruff reply,” was just in need of a restorative, that’s all”.

“Oh dear have those old steers been giving you a hard time,” said Slim in mock sympathy, leaning down and ruffling his buddy’s hair.

“Gerroff,” said Jess irritably,” it was that dang horse if you must know, got wind of something……..A dang female mustang most likely, and just took off and it was darned hard to turn him I’ll tell you Slim.”

Slim threw him a look of genuine concern then, “Hey are you OK? “

“Oh sure, found me a whole bunch of strays down in the gully too, parked ‘em up back with their buddies in the North pasture, how about you?”

“Yup, found a few,” then he went over and patted Spirit,” he looks OK now.”

“Well I’m glad he is,” said Jess sarcastically,” but I sure ain’t got my breath back yet….. “


The following morning Slim was awoken at first light by Jess moving about their shared room.

“Hey what’s up Jess, you sick or something?”

“Huh… no why? “

“Well it must have taken something for you to get up so early buddy, what’ re you doing?”

“Something I should have done a long time ago, got some business,see yer later,” he said gruffly and with that marched out of the room a grim look on his face.

After a few minutes Slim’s curiosity got the better of him and he quickly dressed and marched over to the barn where his buddy was saddling up Spirit.

“Where in Hell are you off too?” asked Slim scratching his head and looking bleary eyed.

“Told you got some business.”


He sighed deeply and turned from his task,” I’m gonna loose out Spirit, it’s what you wanted isn’t it?”

Slim looked astounded,” Sure it is…well it was, but heck Jess you’re real fond of him … I guess he’s a bit of a liability, but you can handle him, I reckon you proved that yesterday.”

Jess just ignored him and after putting his rope around Traveler he jumped up on Spirit and rode slowly out of the barn, leading the bay.

Slim sighed again and shook his head, “I’ll come with you then, maybe pick up a rabbit or two if you’re so darned set on going out early.”

“Free country,” replied Jess laconically as he kneed the big grey on to a steady trot.

They rode on through the early morning light heading to where they had been the day before and where Spirit had got wind of the small herd of wild mustangs that were passing through the area, moving to their winter grazing place.

After a while the two men crested a hill overlooking the plain and the river snaking its way through the open countryside down below them, and shortly afterwards they were rewarded by a sighting of the group of mustangs as they made their way down to the river to drink.

“I thought they’d be here,” said Jess turning his deep blue eyes on his buddy, “just a small group mainly females and a few young ‘uns….”

“Shouldn’t be too much completion for you down there fellah, looks like you’ve got yourself a harem,” he said with a faint smile, absently patting the big horse’s neck.

At first sight of the herd Spirit’s ears had pricked forwards and now he let out a loud trumpeting whinny and several of the horses below looked up in his general direction.

After a moment Jess patted his neck again and then slid down from the saddle and started stripping him of his tack.

Finally he unbuckled the bridle and the horse stood for a moment looking back at Jess as though he couldn’t believe his luck, shaking his mane at the wonderful feeling of freedom he suddenly experienced.

“Well go on fellah, what are yer waiting for,” said Jess softly.

The horse turned back one last time and looked the cowboy in the eye,then he shook his head again and let out another shrill cry before charging down the hill towards the waiting herd.


It was much later that night before they discussed the day’s events.

Jess had been very quiet on the way back and even taking a few pot shots at some unsuspecting rabbits did little to lighten his mood and later he had gone off chasing strays again.

Now he was seated out on the porch, just looking out to the spectacular sunset, where he had been ensconced since supper.

Slim wandered out with a couple of coffee cups and said softly, “Want some company?”

Jess just nodded and accepted the cup absently, “Thanks.”

They sat in companionable silence for a while sipping their drinks before Slim turned to his friend and said softly, “So why did you do it Jess?”

He instinctively knew his buddy was talking about him liberating Spirit and after a moment he turned and said , “ I just kinda thought it was the right thing to do.”

“Go on.”

“Well I guess I’ve got to thinking about a lot of stuff lately, well since Johnnie joined us anyways.”

Slim just nodded for him to continue.

“His problems all stemmed from old man Brady and the way he’d turned Kenny into something he wasn’t………. he had to let go of that idea , see him the way he really was and then he was able to give young Johnnie a chance.”

Slim smiled at that, ”Yeah,he said you’d done some straight talking.”

“Well, it needed saying and anyways I could kinda see where he was coming from. I guess I’d been the same about Maria… turned her into some sorta Saint… and she weren’t we both know that,” he said turning sad eyes on his buddy.

He swallowed and looked out to the horizon again.

“She was just a wonderful, beautiful girl…. But jeez she could she be trouble too,” he said nowhis eyes twinkling for a moment, at the memory of the way the sparks would fly between them…… and then the joys of making up, and he sighed deeply.

Slim said nothing just patted his arm.

“Well, I got to thinking about how folk are….. sometimes you have to change…….. no matter how hard that is… change your ideas… things you’ve always held as true……… you know what I’m saying?”

Slim just raised a questioning eyebrow.

“See, I had to re think the way I thought about Maria and I guess I’ve had to re think the way I am with the horses too……. with Spirit anyways….See it was all about me Slim…... I was so dang arrogant, thinking I wouldn’t be beat by any old mustang…. I worked so hard just so I could ride him over and show the Major I’d won… no ol’ horse was getting the better of Jess Harper.”

“And you did that Jess, you won, you broke him, well pretty much as well as anyone could anyway….”

“No……. no I didn’t win….. He’s gotten his own way hasn’t he…. he’s running free which is what he wanted.”

“But that was your choice Jess… so why did you really do it, loose him out?”

Jess threw him a grim smile.

“I guess he got to me. All that stuff you were sayin’ about him and me being similar… being a free spirits and wantin’…… no needing, the big Open…. Well I guess you were right, only difference being I had the choice…. And I guess I chose here……… I figured I just wanted to give the big fellah the freedom to choose as well.”

“Well I’m glad you did, it was the right thing to do, even though I guess it was kind of hard for you.”

“Yeah, but there was something else anyway you know Slim.”


“Umm, you remember when we lit out lookin’ for Mike and Johnnie and the weather closed in and we lost the tracks, were working pretty much blind?”

“That we were.”

“Then we saw old Spirit through the mist and I said it seemed like he was leading us somewhere….?”

“Yup, a merry old dance like I said,” chuckled Slim.

“But he was you know Slim… was leading us that is…… to Mike…. well maybe he was actually more interested with catchin’ up with that cute little Palomino of his….Sunny. But either way the ending was the same….. he led us to Mike and I reckon we’d have been real hard pressed to find him so quickly otherwise.”

“Hell, I guess you’re right Jess, well I never………so like I said it was hard for you to let him go, especially after that?”

Jess smiled grimly,” It ain’t ever easy letting go…. of anything…..”

“Nope, but I guess you’ve laid a few ghosts, for Nick with Kenny and you and Maria…… and liberated one,” he said with a grin,” liberated old Ghost aka Spirit…… wonder if we’ll ever see him again….?”

And the men sipped their coffee looking out to the distant hills as darkness finally fell, both alone with their own thoughts……...


Johnnie Bradly excelled at ranching after his experience at the Sherman Ranch and Relay had given him the confidence in himself that he so desperately needed.

He heeded Jess’s advice of looking around for a more suitable girl, nearer his own age, and fell head over heels in love with a neighbour’ s young daughter.

He married a few years later producing a son who was the apple of his grandfather’s eye and a dead ringer for Kenny. Johnnie went on to take over the ranch after his parents finally retired back East. He was always a staunch friend and neighbour to his mentors back at the Sherman Ranch and told folk that good old Jess Harper had taught him everything he knew about horse whispering.

As for Ghost, aka Spirit, he was seen a couple of times a year when the herd were moving through the area. He appeared often on a misty early morning in springtime or fall, when the men were out at first light on a hunting trip. Then his ghostly presence would suddenly loom out of the haze and he would give a soft whinny of recognition, shake his mane and a then turn and gallop off back to his mares.

”Almost as though he was stopping by to say howdy,” Jess would chuckle.

Slim used to laugh and say the big critter was just hedging his bets and making sure there was still a home for him, if his life in the Big Open didn’t pan out right. However Jess reckoned he was just catching up with Sunny, Mike’s cute little Palomino filly. But whatever the reason he visited regularly for many years much to the delight of all at the ranch and relay.

The End

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