#47 The Interloper

The Interloper


Patty Wilkinson

(Some violence and strong language)

Chapter 1



  • A person who becomes involved in a place or situation where they are not wanted or are considered not to belong.

The hot Wyoming sun beat down on Jess Harper and he narrowed his deep blue eyes and squinted up into a perfect July sky. Or it would have been perfect he mused if he didn’t have to spend the whole day mending the dang fence in the East pasture.

After a moment he removed his Stetson and reaching across to where his canteen hung on the fence post, took a long draft and then poured some over his dark wavy hair to cool down some. Then he leaned on the fence and looked at the surrounding view, nothing but open pasture land on three sides and a small rocky out crop off in the distance behind him.

He cast a glance back up to the sky and saw that the sun was nearly at its zenith, noon and time for a break he thought. Then he wondered if it was worth riding the short distance to the rocks for some much needed shade, or indeed riding the couple of miles back to the ranch for a break and a more interesting repast than jerky and water.

His partner in the Ranch and Relay and best friend, the lanky Slim Sherman had already ridden back to the ranch to change the team on the noontide Stage and he wondered vaguely if he would perhaps bring some vittles back with him.

He sighed and putting his hat back on he stretched and then started hammering in the last fence post before he took a rest.

Up on the hill a tall grey haired man eased his position from where he had been lying for some time and then looked down the sights of the telescopic lens of his state of the art rifle, “perfect”he whispered to himself.

Then taking a deep breath and with a malicious glint in his eye he squeezed the trigger.

Jess never knew what hit him.

One minute he had been hammering inthe post and wandering idly how long it would be before Slim got his butt back to help him,with our without food, and the next he felt a searing pain in his right thigh. He was thrown backwards where he lay stunned for a brief second before drawing his gun and peering over to the distant hillocks, realizing as he did so that the range was too great for a handgun and his rifle was back the trail a way with Traveler his horse.

Then he saw it, the flash of a telescopic lens and the distant sound of rock fall as the marksman beat a hasty retreat and a few minutes later the sound of a horse galloping off at speed.

He grabbed his leg and looked in dismay at the fast growing dark red stain on his faded denims and cussed long and low before pulling off his bandana and fashioning a make do bandage.

Then he looking around for Traveler, finally remembering that he’d left him tethered a way back in the shade of a solitary pine thinking there was no point in them both suffering the sweltering summer heat and cursed once more.

After a few deep breaths he gingerly pulled himself up by the fence post, but as soon as he put any weight on the damaged limb an agonizing pain shot through his body and he fell to the ground, rolling over onto his front, the last thing he remembered was his hat falling off and the hot sun beating down on the back of his neck, before he lost consciousness.

When he awoke it was an hour or so later and as Slim’s anxious face came into view he sighed with relief.

“So what kept yer?” he muttered.

“Never mind that, what in Hell happened to you pard…. I leave you alone for five minutes and you get all shot up,” he exclaimed worry for his friend making him sound churlish.

“Well garldarn it Slim, it weren’t nuthin’ I’ve done… one minute I’m workin fence, next thing I’m on my back with a bullet through my leg.”

“You were bushwhacked then…. but how…. out in the open here, didn’t you see anything?”

Jess sighed,” Nope, because he was way off in the rocks… had a telescoping lens on a real powerful rifle.”

Slim took his hat off and scratched his blond mop.

“I just don’t get it with one of those jobs he could have killed you easy…….and even if he’s a rotten shot he could have taken another crack at you seeing as he’d only hit your leg.”

“Well it might be only a leg to you…. but I’m garldarn bleedin’ like a stuck pig here Slim and hurtin’ some too… so iffen you could save your theories for later and go fetch my horse I’d be real obliged,” he said his deep blue eyes flashing with anger and pain.

Slim patted his shoulder absently.

“Sure… sure Jess I’m sorry, I’ll fetch Trav and then once you’re settled back at the ranch I’ll go ride for Doc Sam.”


Doc Sam Baker, their physician and good family friend sat back from where he’d been tending Jess’s leg and gave a low whistle….

“Nasty, very nasty,” he said lugubriously.

“Well don’t pull any punches doc, just tell it like it is,” said Jess sarcastically.

The handsome middle aged doctor raised a quizzical eyebrow and studied his friend where he lay on the old leather couch in the ranch living room.

“Since when do I have to wrap things up for you Jess…. besides I want you to know how serious this is, you’ve got to stay off it for three , maybe four weeks…..and I mean it,” he said prodding the young cowboy in the chest with his forefinger to make his point.

Then he turned to Slim who had just come in.

“It’s just too bad Miss Daisy isn’t here to ride shot gun on him Slim, when’s she and young Mike due home?”

The doctor was referring to Mrs Daisy Cooper the rancher’s kindly housekeeper, surrogate Ma to all and excellent nurse, albeit retired and to young Mike Williams their ward.

Slim shook his head sadly,” not for four or five weeks,she and Mike are staying at her sister’s place in Cheyenne for her niece’s wedding, then they’re staying on for a long visit……it’s school holidays see Sam, they could be gone until school starts again. Besides we’ve had a tough old winter they both deserved a break.”

“Sure, sure but we still need a nurse for this boy,” he said glancing down at where Jess was laying back looking pale and sick after the doctor had thoroughly cleaned and bound the ragged wound.

“I’m not joshing you,” he said looking worried, “this is a serious wound Jess, any infection well…. you could lose the leg, it needs cleaning out and redressing properly every day,maybe twice a day… I’ll look around for a temporary nurse, maybe one of the ladies from Daisy’s woman’s group,” he said thoughtfully.

Jess looked horror stricken at the notion….

“Hell Sam, I can’t have one of those women tendin’ me…. I’ve gotter take my pants off to have the bandage changed and I sure ain’t havin’ any of them ol’ women seeing me that way!”

“So you want an infection do you?” replied the good doctor with spirit, knowing his stubborn friend of old.

Jess looked like he was weighing up the question in his mind and it was a darn close run thing, but then Sam took pity on him.

“OK, I’ll send my Carrie out for a couple of days, but just until I can find someone suitable mind you,” he said referring to his young daughter and nurse, a good friend of Jess and Slim.

“Umm…. well I suppose she’s seen me this way before….nursed me that is,” he said grudgingly, thinking she was a lesser evil than one of Daisy’s do gooder crowd. Hell he’d be the talk of the women’s coffee meetings for weeks to come if he succumbed to Sam’s wishes he thought shuddering.

Carrie arrived bright and early the following morning just as Slim was setting about cooking breakfast and breezed in taking over from him in her usual bright, forthright manner.

“Why don’t you go and do the yard chores while I cook up a storm,” she said grinning at her friend,” and I’ll even make some of Jess’s gut rot coffee to get him going,” she laughed.

“You sure know us well Carrie,” Slim said grinning down at the pretty dark haired young woman,” but I have to warn you Jess is real ornery right now, that leg wound is bothering him some…. “

She just smiled at that, “You just leave Jess to me,” and went off happily to make breakfast.

When she entered the bedroom, to say breakfast was up a little later, Jess was lying on his back staring at the ceiling with a mutinous look on his face, but he thawed a little at the sight of the pretty girl.

“Hey sweetheart, so you’ve come out to nurse a miserable ol’ cowpoke then?”

She grinned at him, “Miserable you…I don’t believe it,” and after a moment they both laughed, Jess feeling better already.

They had been good friends for several years now, but their relationship had not always run smoothly and at the tender age of just fifteen Carrie had suffered a terrible case of puppy love where Jess was concerned. She nearly drove him plumb loco, as he told Slim, with all her sheep’s eyes and sighing and carryin’ on. However eventually the matter was resolved and now they had a very close, but platonic, friendship.

In fact Carrie was one of the few people who could get Jess to behave himself when he was sick and now she cast him a critical look.

“Now I hope you’re not going to give me a hard time Jess Harper,” she said firmly.

“Pa said it was a really nasty wound and so I need you to cooperate………understand?”

“Yes Ma’am,” he said with a twinkle in his blue eyes, “in fact I’m gonna be so darned good you ain’t gonna recognise me.”

She raised a disbelieving eyebrow at that news,” How so?”

He sighed deeply.

“Well the alternative is one of Daisy’s old cronies carin’ fer me….” and he cast her an agonised glance.

“Umm… I can see as how that would be a problem,” she said thoughtfully, knowing how bashful Jess could be, also what a lot of gossips the good wives of Laramie were too, and how they would doubtless tease him mercilessly.

“Oh well,” she said cheerfully,” maybe it won’t come to that,” and she pulled the bedding swiftly back.

“So let’s have a look, I might as well make a start and change the dressing,” she continued with a friendly grin.

Half an hour later Jess was pale and sweating, his face contorted in pain, although he bore it bravely, never making a sound as she cleaned and re bandaged the raw wound.

Once she had finished she leaned back and regarded him soberly.

“Pa was right, that’s a mess Jess…. how on earth did it happen and what was the weapon?”

“Long range high velocity rifle, telescopic lens so the bast……err the guy bushwhacked me, I just never saw it comin’…….”

Slim had come in quietly as Jess was talking and sank down on his own bed casting a worried look over to Carrie.

“How’s he doing?”

“He’ll live,” she said smiling at her patient and reaching over to brush his dark unruly hair from his forehead in an affectionate gesture.

Then turning to Slim, looking puzzled she said,” I don’t understand it, those rifles are very accurate aren’t they, so why just wound Jess if he wanted to kill him?”

Slim shook his head,” I really don’t know, that’s what I was saying…. unless…”

“Unless what?” asked Jess looking irritated at the conversation going on over his head.

Slim cast him a concerned look,” Well unless whoever it was just wanted to cause you the maximum pain and suffering without actually killing you.”

“Umm… he sure got that one right then,” Jess muttered.

Carrie looked shocked,” but that’s terrible, who on earth would want to do that?”

Jess gave her a weak smile, “I guess you can’t have led the life I have without makin’ a few enemies along the way.”

“Well you’re safe now that’s the main thing.”

Then she turned anxious eyes on Slim,” He won’t come back… try again? “

“Nope, I shouldn’t think so, like we said he had the chance to finish him out on the range…..”

Jess threw them both a pained look.

“So iffen you’ve both finished discussin’ my miserable goddamn life…..any chance of some breakfast?”

“I think he’s feeling better,” giggled Carrie and went off to find him some sustenance and strong coffee.

“Yup,” Slim agreed smiling down at his pard,”Your ornery side’s showing pard, sure sign you’re on the mend.”

Jess just cast him a hard look and lay back down on his pillow.

“Ain’t you got any work to do?” he said gruffly and after a minute Slim wandered off chuckling, telling Jess he was lucky to be resting up.

It wasn’t until later that evening when Carrie asked Slim to give her a hand changing the dressing that he saw the full extent of the wound and felt really bad about his flippant comments earlier.

Sure he’d seen his fair share of gunshot wounds over the years, but nothing as bad as this one. The exit wound was raw and ragged and Carrie explained that some of the femur bone of the upper leg had been splintered and various nerves and blood vessels damaged too.

Carrie had gently turned Jess on his side and asked Slim to hold the leg still while she thoroughly cleaned out the back of the wound where the bullet had left and as he did so he could feel his pard tense and he closed his eyes tightly against the pain, but made no sound, save the odd cuss under his breath.

Slim and Carrie exchanged a glance over his head, both shocked by the angry looking wound, before getting on with the difficult job as quickly as possible.

Once it was finally over Jess lay on his back, his breath coming in ragged gasps and a slick of sweat on his pale face.

“I’ll go fetch you the pain medicine Pa left for you,” said Carrie.

Once she had gone Slim sank down on his bed and cast Jess a concerned glance.

“Gee, Jess I’d know idea it was that bad, the bastard sure knew what he was doing.”

Jess ran a hand down his face and peered over at his friend.

“Yeah, I guess so unless it was just a lucky shot.”

“Umm… well it certainly wasn’t very lucky for you,” said Slim sincerely.

He sighed deeply his eyes full of sympathy.

“Hell Jess I’m sorry I was baiting you this morning……. I ……. well I just didn’t realize.”

“That’s OK, but Slim we’re gonna have to do something. I really am going to be laid up with this for a while just like the doc said, you’re gonna have to buy some help in, can’t do everything yourself.”

“Oh, I’ll be OK…”

“No, no you won’t……look I know money’s a bit tight, so I won’t draw any wages while I’m sick…..It’s not like I’ve gotten anywhere to spend ‘em anyway, ”he finished miserably.

“Umm… well I’ll think on it, I guess I could do with someone to run the Relay while I’m out fencing that new pasture land we bought. We’ve got to get that done before the Fall…..but I’m not using your wages Jess, we’ll manage OK……Anyways we haven’t got young Mike eating us out of house and home, that’s got to make a difference.”

Jess threw him a genuine smile then.

“Heck I’m sure missin’ the little fellah, Daisy too.”

“Yeah, so am I,” said Slim reflectively.

Then after a moment he said,” Never mind pard , don’t forget Sam’s fixing for one of Daisy’s friends to come out and look after you…. could be that nice Widow Green and you know what store she sets by you…..yeah, she’ll spoil you some thing rotten.”

“Aww Slim,” groaned Jess waving a hand at him, “git outer here!”

However as it happened Jess’s worst nightmare did not come to fruition.


It was just two days later when old Mose rattled the noon Stage into the yard and pulled it up near the porch, grinning down at Slim as he ran out of the house.

“Come on then son,” he teased, “I ain’t got all day yer know…tsk…. As though it ain’t bad enough Miss Daisy’s away fer the duration, now you’re all behind makin’ me late!”

“OK keep your hair on,” said a somewhat distracted Slim,“you know I’ve got Jess laid up right now and it’s not easy running this place single handed, Hell I’ve been out on the range since first light…only just got back.”

Mose immediately took pity on his old friend.

“Yes I had heard tell Jess was shot up real bad and I’m sure sorry about that…. “

Then raising a quizzical eyebrow,” So I reckon there ain’t no coffee on the go then?”

“Well that’s just where you’re wrong,” said Slim, recovering his good humour and smiling back at the old timer.

“Got Miss Carrie ridin’ shotgun on Jess right now and she’s just brewed up and made a pie too.”

“Well Lord above why didn’t yer say so,” said Mose looking animated and marching off towards the door.

Then he stopped in mid stride and slapped his forehead, “ I’ll be forgettin’ my head next,” and turning back to the Stage said,” almost forgot… we’ve gotten a passenger on board.”

However, as Mose turned back the stranger was already emerging from the Stage and looking around him.

He was rangy, grey haired and looked to be in his mid-forties Slim thought as he turned back to welcome the newcomer.

“Welcome to the Sherman Ranch and Relay,” he said, “would you like a coffee and some pie Sir, stop over for ten minutes while we change the team.”

The man tore his gaze away from the distant hills and grinned at Slim, shaking his offered hand.

“Pleased to meet you Mister Sherman, Charlie Salt…. Chas to my friends, yes real pleased to meet you…..nice spread you’ve got here, real nice,” he said, casting another glance around the place before finally following Mose into the house for coffee.

A while later Slim joined Carrie, Mose and Charlie Salt around the table.

Charlie beamed up from where he was working his way through a second piece of Carrie’s pie.

“Seems like you’re a mite hard pressed here Mister Sherman,” he said after Slim was settled at the table.

Slim cast him a surprized glance and then looking down said, “Well I guess so yeah, but don’t worry any Mister Salt, the Stage is fine and ready to go.”

Charlie threw him a look of consternation at once.

“Hell Sherman I ain’t worried about the state of that there Stage Coach…. It was more about the state of you good folk here that are left a running the place on your own with your partner really sick. “

“You know about that?” asked Slim looking surprized.

“Sorry,” burst in Carrie,” Mister Salt asked and I did sort of say that you were looking for help.”

“Um… and I might have mentioned as to how sick Jess is,” added Mose looking a mite embarrassed.

Slim was never one to like his personal business banded about , particularly to strangers but he rallied quickly and looked into Charlie Salts rather strange pale blue eyes and said,” Well yes Mister Salt I am looking for some help, just until Jess is back on his feet, why? Do you think you may know of someone?”

“Well, sure and call me Chas please, see I’d be happy to help you out Mister Sherman and in more ways than one I reckon.”


“Yup, Miss Baker here informs me that she’s got to be getting back to town to help her Pa out shortly…..well you see the thing is I’m qualified to take care of your partner……if you’d like me to. I made Sergeant Orderly in the war, fought with the Confederacy so I reckon I’ve nursed more than a few men through gunshot wounds and the like.”

Slim still looked a little undecided wondering how Jess would take to being nursed by a complete stranger.

Chas seemed to acknowledge Slim’s reluctance and said,” I could do all the household chores for you too and change the teams, freeing you up to do all the other work?” he said with a speculative look.

Slim scratched his blond head and gave the older man a challenging look,” So why would you want to do all that for me Mister…….err Chas?”

“Well you see it would suit my plans young man, I’m due to take up a foreman job up in Montana, but they don’t need me until the Fall so I figured I’d just take my time and stop off at places along the way, see a bit of the country and well, if I can turn an honest buck or two then so much the better.”

So it was that Chas was introduced to Jess and as ever it took the dark haired young cowboy a while to accept the situation and as Slim had surmised he was far from happy at having a complete stranger care for him.

However the fact that Chas had fought for the Confederacy, as Jess had done, and originally hailed from Texas, went a long way to convincing him to give the man a trial. Plus he was beginning to feel really guilty that Slim was working his butt off while he lounged around in bed all day. Sure it wasn’t his fault, but the least he could do was accept the help offered he thought, knowing that it would ease the burden on his buddy some.

After the stage had left sans Chas, Slim showed him to the bunkhouse while Carrie sought out Jess.

She sat on the edge of the bed and smiled across at her friend, “Don’t worry Jess I’m sure he’ll be just fine and he certainly has the experience of treating patients with similar wounds that has to be a bonus.”

“Yeah, I guess so; figure he’s gotten the edge on Widow Green as far as that goes,” he said with a grin.

Then he sobered and sighing reached out and took her hand, “We’ll sure miss you though sweetheart.”

“I’ll pop in and see you every now and then and Pa will be calling regularly too…. he’s quite worried about you, you know Jess.”

“There’s no need, I’m just so dang mad at bein’ caught out that way. I’d sure like to know who it was and why he was gunnin’ fer me….. and why ain’t Mort done something?” he continued looking frustrated.

“Pa’s fetching me home this afternoon, I’ll pop in and see Sheriff Corey, ask him to call shall I? “

Jess smiled his thanks and then Chas stuck his head around the door and asked Carrie if he could help her prepare dinner and she beamed at him.

“I’ve got a feeling you and Slim have struck lucky here,” she whispered to Jess, “looks like your new ‘nurse’ can cook as well!”

The following afternoon Slim had just ridden into the yard after a hard day out in the relentless sun,when he turned at the sound of hoof beats and was just in time to see his old friend Mort Corey riding in down the rise.

He tethered his old buckskin and strode over to where Slim had been washing up at the outdoor pump.

“Jeez it’s a hot one ain’t it,” grinned the grey haired wiry man, taking his hat off and wiping a sleeve across his face.

“Good to see you Mort, so what can I do for you; here on business I take it?”

“I stopped by because Miss Carrie said Jess was a mite miffed that he hadn’t heard anything about the shooting.”

Slim tipped his Stetson back and smiled at his friend.

“ I guess Jess is a mite miffed about pretty much everything right now. He’s been laid up for nigh on a week and it’s kind of beginning to get to him… you know?”

“Umm, oh yeah, I know what he’s like and Doc Sam said he was in a real bad way, gonna have to sit tight fer another few weeks?”

“Yup……iffen we all survive it…. So any news Mort?” he asked as the two men made their way in to see Jess.

Jess sat up looking pleased to have a visitor.

“Howdy Mort, it’s good to see ya”.

“Thought I’d better come and give you a report,” said the Sheriff with a rueful look…”such as it is…. “

He sat down on the edge of Slim’s bed and took his hat off and stared in to it for a few moments as though seeking inspiration and then looked Jess in the eye.

“I’m sorry Jess, but it looks like the guy that ambushed you got clear away.”

Jess looked more than a little annoyed at that but said nothing, waiting for the sheriff to continue.

“As you know Slim tipped me off when he came into town to fetch Sam to you and I rode out at once, took a small posse and all….”

“Go on,” said Jess deadpan.

“We found the spot alright, your blood all over the place by the new fence post and then picked up his tracks….But Hell Jess they were everywhere and just as we started tracking him, then dang me he’d wiped them…. must have followed near on a dozen false trails before we had to give up as it was near dark. Truth is I guess he just had too greater start on us and well… with you not bein’ able to identify him….. I’m afraid there really is no more I can do,” he said casting Jess and Slim an apologetic look.

Slim was the first to rally.

“ I guess you’ve done all you can Mort and we appreciate it don’t we pard?” he said flicking a glance at Jess.

He sighed deeply,” Yeah, thanks Mort…. I guess you’ve done all you can like Slim says.”

“So you’ve no idea who it could be… someone you’ve riled recently maybe?”

Jess scratched his head, “Nope can’t think……..been a few folk when I was deputizing’ fer you… and riding shotgun on the Stage, but I figure they’re all either dead or in jail.”

Then Chas brought them all some coffee in and was introduced to the Sheriff and the conversation moved to lighter subjects.

It was later when the Sheriff was taking his leave and was up in the saddle that he glanced down at Slim with a thoughtful look in his eyes.

“Funny thing, that new man of yours seems vaguely familiar……something about those real pale blue eyes, has he been in these parts before?”

“No, least ways I think not, said he was passing through on the way to a job in Montana, wanted to take a look at Wyoming on the way.”

“Umm…..oh well it’ll come to me, never forget a face…..see ya Slim,” and he rode off at a pace.

Chapter 2

Chas fitted in well and turned out to be a dab hand at cooking and generally took on all Daisy’s duties along with running the Relay side of the business.

He also took Jess in hand and dealt with his ornery side with diplomacy and humour and before too long they seemed to be getting along reasonably well.

However Slim noticed a slight reticence in Jess, when Chas was around, and addressed it one night shortly after the newcomer had arrived.

He had washed up and was sitting on his bed, about to retire for the night, when he cast an anxious glance over at his buddy.

“So, are you and Chas hitting it off OK?”

“I guess so,” said Jess with a guarded look.

“Well Hell Jess he’s got to be better than old Ma Green, and he’s a fair to middling cook, doing a fine job with the relay teams too…so what’s there not to like?”

He shrugged, “I dunno….just got a feelin’. “

Slim sighed loudly, “You and your feelings.’”

“Yeah, well I’m never wrong am I?”

“Umm…. well I guess not, so what is it about ol’ Chas that’s bothering you?”

“Like I say, I dunno…….he just seems kinda familiar, like I’ve seen him someplace and he got kind of spooked when I said it too.”

“That’s funny Mort said something similar.”

“Well there you go….”

“Look, right now he’s doing a real good job, so don’t you go rocking the boat OK?Because I figure we can’t cope without him at the moment.”

“OK… OK keep yer hair on, “and shortly afterwards they turned in.

The following day Chas had arranged to take the buckboard into town for the marketing and he stopped by in Jess’s room to ask if he wanted anything.

He just shook his head and then his face lit up.

“You could take my girl a message… iffen yer thnkin’ on havin’ a cold one in the Saloon that is?” he said with a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.

“You know I thought I might have just the one,” said Chas grinning back.

“Just tell her how I’m laid up real bad and won’t be able ter take her to the dance next week like I promised,” he said unhappily.

“Tell her I’ll make it up to her just as soon as I can, huh?”

“Sure I will no problem.”

“Her name’s Millie she’s dark haired, about so high,” he said gesturing, “real pretty, you can’t miss her… just…..well just give her my love will ya?” he said looking bashful.

When Chas returned later he went straight to Jess’s room.

“Sorry pal, I’ve got some bad news for you, looks like your girl’s lit out.”

Jess who had just woken up and was in some pain, his leg aching something fierce, stared uncomprehendingly at Chas…

“Huh… what’d you say? “

“That girl you wanted me to give a message to…. err Millie, well she’s left town Jess… sorry.”

Jess looked deeply shocked and then said, “Oh you mean she’s stayin’ with her Ma over in Cheyenne, she goes there to help out in the Boarding House sometimes.”

“Nope, left her job moved …. some place out East the barkeep said…. Boston I think he said, been gone a week or two. “

Jess looked completely thrown…..

“No,” he whispered, “she wouldn’t do that, not my Mill…. she wouldn’t just up and leave without tellin’ me…..”

“Sorry…. so rabbit stew OK for your dinner?”

“What?” he said looking incredulous….


“No I don’t want anything”…..and he turned on his side away from Chas and closed his eyes, the conversation clearly over.

When Slim came back at noon Chas dished out his dinner and the two men settled down to eat in the kitchen.

“Jess not having anything?”

“Nope, I figure he’s sulking, some girl he knew has left town and not told him, he seems to have taken it kind of badly,” said Chas lightly with a little chuckle.

Slim grinned back,” Umm, well Jess sure knows a few girls in town, so who’s left then?”

“Err… what’s her name, Millie that’s it, taken off for Boston, starting a new life out there according to the barkeep.”

Slim’s knife and fork clattered as he dropped them to his plate

“What…. are you sure?” he gasped.

“Yup, Jess asked me to say he couldn’t make the dance…..and well Tom, he said she’d left town and had no plans to return.”

“I don’t believe it,” muttered Slim looking shocked to the core.

“Why all the fuss?” asked Chas, chewing on his stew, an eyebrow raised in question.

“She’s not just any old girl,” Slim replied quietly,” she’s not only Jess’s best friend, but they’re together, hell they’ve got an understanding…. she wouldn’t just leave that way and certainly not without talking it through,” and he stood up and went to seek Jess out at once.

He sank down on the edge of his buddy’s bed and after a moment Jess stirred and stared up at him, his eyes full of pain.

“Why’d she do that to me Slim…. we ain’t had a fall out or anythin’ hell we were ……are so much in love, I thought we were anyway,” he finished bitterly.

“Beats me Jess…. I figure I’ll ride in at the weekend find out for you. I’m sorry pard, real sorry.”

It was later that afternoon when Chas heard the sound of a loud crash coming from Jess’s room and tearing in saw the cowboy lying on the floor, clutching his thigh in agony and cussing long and loud.

“What the Hell are you playing at Jess?”Chas shouted in dismay as he leaned down and grabbed him under the arms and finally managed to get him back into bed.

He lay there pale and shaking, the sweat pouring down his face, groaning softly.

“Hey what is it Jess, you know the Doc told you not to put any weight on that leg are you plumb crazy?”

“I need to…. “

“Need to what, come on just tell me, I’ll sort it out for you.”

“Need to get to town, check on Millie, it ain’t right Chas, there’s something real wrong about this, she wouldn’t leave me this way….. “

Chas’s face was suddenly a hard mask.

“She’s a woman ain’t she….can’t trust any of ‘em not to walk out on you…. time you knew that boy,” he said harshly.

Then suddenly remembering his place said more kindly,” I figure Slim will ride in and find out what’s happened, but you’re going nowhere, unless you want to be laid up for another few weeks?”

Jess just collapsed back on his pillows and closed his eyes.

“I guess not,” he whispered.

As it was, it was a further three days before Slim was able to make it into town and three days of pure Hell for Jess as he refused to eat and just lay in his bed looking up at the ceiling, the picture of misery.

Just saying he refused to believe it of Millie unless Slim came back with proof.

Chas tried to humour him by telling jokes and larking about, all to no avail.

Slim however treated the situation much more seriously, knowing how his buddy was hurting, but a sick heifer, followed by a visit from the Stage line inspector and then a fence down and several steers escaping all delayed his trip.

He finally made it into town early on the Friday and was back before noon, his face wreathed in smiles as he entered the bedroom and threw his hat down on his bed before advancing on Jess and grinning down at him.

“Relax Jess,” he said cheerfully,” it was like you first thought, Millie was over at her Ma’s place for a couple of weeks, she didn’t even know you were sick.”

Jess breathed a sigh of relief,” Thank God,” he whispered.

Then he looked suddenly mutinous,” So why did Chas lie about it?”

“Well he didn’t mean to mislead you Jess, seems he just got confused mixed the names up, it turns out its young Maisie that’s hightailed it off to Boston with her folks, seems her Pa got a job there.”

Jess still looked angry.

“Hey, cheer up, I’ve got a letter for you from Mill and she says she’s coming out on the Stage to visit the very next day she gets off… OK?”

Jess took the letter,” Thanks Slim,” he said softly.

Slim peered at his friend his eyebrows raised in an anxious frown.

“Are you feeling OK Jess, you’re looking kind of hot.”

He shrugged, “Umm… the legs not feelin’ too good, guess it’s my own fault fer gettin’ up,” he said ruefully.

“Yeah, well you take it easy and I’ll get Chas to fix you some chow, you hungry now?”

Jess grinned at him,” I guess I could manage something,” and he tore open the letter and lay there reading it a soppy grin on his face as Slim went off to get him some food.

However just a few hours later when Slim turned in for the night he was distressed to see Jess looked far from well and he was clearly running a fever and was in a lot of pain from the gunshot wound too.

Chas was called in to re-dress the leg and offered to stay and nurse Jess throughout the night, but Slim declined his offer saying he could cope with his buddy, and the two men left the room leaving Jess sleeping fitfully.

“It’s OK,” Slim said quietly,” I know what to do, keep him cool, swab him down with cold water and offer him cool drinks, done it before Chas…more than once,” he said smiling at the older man.

“I just feel so dang bad about this,” said Chas,” I reckon worrying about his girl has brought this on, not eating and then that fall, pulling the stitches, well… it really hasn’t done him any good,” he said sadly.

“Hey don’t worry Chas, it’s easy enough to make a mistake like that, I guess,” although he was slightly puzzled at how Tom could have made that sort of error. But then he didn’t know Chas and maybe he was just busy in the bar and not paying attention.

Jess was sick for a couple of days with a high fever and then on the third day when the noon Stage rattled in Millie jumped down and giving Slim an anxious look said, “How is he…. I came as soon as I could.”

He took her arm and led her into the ranch house, leaving Chas to attend to the team.

“He’s not been too good Millie that’s for sure. It’s a really nasty injury and then with all this business of him thinking you’d left town… well he got real upset, tried to make it into see what was happening and that’s when he fell…I guess that kicked off a few more problems with the wound. He’s had a fever the last few days, but I reckon he’ll be better for seeing you.”

She frowned at that news,” Poor Jess and I just don’t understand how this Chas could make such a silly mistake. According to Tom he told this guy that Jess’s girl, me that is, was out of town and then later Lily was telling him all about Maisie moving to Boston…..”

“Oh well, maybe he’d had one beer too many,” said Slim jovially,” anyways you’re here now and I guess ol’ Hotshot will be real pleased to see you.”

Jess was indeed ecstatic to see his girl and she spent the whole of the afternoon with him, just holding hands and chatting quietly and Slim could see a difference in his buddy after just an hour or so of Millie’s company.

Finally the time came for him to go in and tell her the Stage was here and he was touched to see Jess lying fast asleep with Millie still clasping his hand as she looked adoringly down at him.

However as Slim entered Jess stirred.

“Gee I’m sorry sweetheart,” he whispered,” I guess I’m not myself… didn’t mean to fall asleep on you.”

“Don’t be silly,” she replied, “it’s OK, it’s good for you to rest and anyway I’ll try and get back over next week alright?”

“Stage is here Millie,” said Slim who was still hovering by the bedroom door.

“Just coming Slim,” and she rose to go, but Jess grabbed hold of her hand and pulled her back down, before flicking a glance over to his friend.

“Give us a minute huh Slim…”

Slim looked puzzled and then came to his senses,” Err… yeah, sure sorry,” and withdrew quickly.

Millie leaned down and kissed him softly and then more intensely as he tangled a hand in her hair pulling her closer.

Eventually she drew back,” I have to go Mose will be fretting,” she giggled.

“OK, but you’ll come back, yeah?

“Sure I will honey and you behave huh, I need you fit and healthy again,” she said with her warm smile.

He nodded and watched as she finally left, stopping at the door to blow him a kiss before running out to the waiting Stage.


It was another couple of weeks before Sam finally allowed Jess up and even then he was limited to hobbling around the house and yard with a walking stick.

“Hell Sam do I have to, I feel like I’m about ninety.”

“Yes well if you still want to be walking around on two good legs at ninety you’ll do as I say young man,” he said with a wink.

Jess was finally able to do a few light duties and found a way of grooming the horses by leaning back on the stall wall and taking all his weight on his good leg and balanced thus was able to tend them. It took longer and made his good leg ache almost as much as the damaged one but at least he felt he was finally pulling his weight some.

It was during this time that Slim was asked to pay the Superintendent of the line a visit on important Stage business over in Cheyenne.

“I’ll just have to stay the one night, will you and Chas be OK?” he asked anxiously.

“Sure,” said Jess casting his friend a grin,” I can just about manage to care for the horses and feed the hens and with Chas changing the team and cooking I guess we’ll be fine.”

“Umm, well no horse riding, you know what Sam told you…. just take it easy huh?”

The following evening Jess wandered into the kitchen and sniffed the air before grinning over to where Chas was busy at the stove.

“Hey you doin’ Mexican tonight?” he asked looking surprized, but pleased.

“Sure I thought us two Texas boys might have a treat. I sounded out Slim and he said he was none too keen so I figured ‘while the cat’s away…..”

“Smells great, practically lived on Mexican when I was down in Texas.”

The meal was a great success but then about an hour later Jess was violently ill and spent the next couple of hours chucking up in the outhouse.

“What in Hell did you put in that?” he asked as he staggered in through the kitchen door sometime later looking pale and drawn.

“Well, just the usual Jess, maybe I made it a bit too spicy… you having been sick and all…. I’m real sorry. I’m OK though,” he said, “so can’t have been anything too bad.”

“Bad enough,” muttered Jess as he staggered off to bed.

By the time Slim arrived home at mid-morning the following day Jess was rolling in agony clutching his stomach and groaning.

“What in hell’s the matter with him?” asked Slim turning alarmed eyes on Chas.

“I really don’t know. he’s been in pain like this since the small hours,” said an equally concerned Chas.

“It looks like food poisoning, but I don’t see how it can be as I had exactly the same meal. I reckon it’s just a stomach upset because he’s been none too well of late. My fault for giving him rich food, anyways….. I was just thinking on riding for the doc before you landed, but didn’t want to leave him alone feeling so bad.”

Slim had slumped down on the edge of the bed and was resting a comforting hand on Jess’s chest, but he glanced up at that.

“No need, I met Sam in town on my way home he’s coming over for a spot of fishing this afternoon seeing as it’s Saturday, he’ll check him out then”.

Then Jess groaned again and leant over the bucket and Slim shook his head, thinking how poorly he seemed.

“Look you get off Chas, it’s your half day and I know you like to ride to town, I’ll look after ol’ Hotshot now.”

Once he’d left, Slim offered his buddy some water and then asked,” Was he telling the truth, you both had the same meal?”

“Sure… what’ re yer sayin’ Chas poisoned the meal?” he said with a shocked glance.

“No of course not, just seems kind of odd, he should be fine and you’re so sick.”

Jess just shook his head.

“I dunno, but he’s been great Slim, looked after me real well….and all the other stuff he’s done for us too….why would he wanna do that?”

“Yes, of course you’re right, but I just can’t figure it, you were practically weaned on Mex food weren’t you?”

But then his partner convulsed with another spasm of agony in his guts and all speculation was curtailed until Sam arrived later.

After a thorough examination he agreed with Chas’ s diagnosis acute digestive upset.

“I just figure it’s disagreed with you, let’s face it Jess you haven’t been eating much of anything since you’ve been laid up and then a pretty bland diet and you haven’t had a good strong Mexican dish since you moved out here because Slim isn’t too keen….. I guess it’s just bad luck is all.”

However Jess’s bad luck continued for another 48 hours and Slim cared for him giving Chas the ranch chores to take care of, while he looked after his friend.

It was shortly after that that Chas asked for some time off.

“I’m real sorry boss, but some business has come up and I really need to ride out for a day or two if that’s OK?”

“Well sure it is,” beamed Slim, “you’ve sure earned your wages these last few weeks and it’s not been easy what with Jess being sick and all”… then he grinned,”and I guess I know how darned difficult he can be… So sure Chas take some time and we’ll expect you back in a couple of days yeah?”

“Sure boss, I promise.”

“Good, only Jess still isn’t up to much yet and certainly can’t sit a horse, so I’ll need you back for next week.”

Then smiling at this older man who he had really come to rely on, said,” And if you need a good horse take Jess’s spare work horse, Buck, he’s a good steady mount and he’ll be happy to loan him to you.”

“Thanks boss and I’ll be back when I say, you can rely on me.”

“Yeah, I know that,” said Slim grinning at the older man.

It was the day Chas was due back when the bomb shell struck.

Mose drove the early morning Stage into the yard even more recklessly than usual and pulling the team up to a head shaking, sweating halt peered down at the two young cowboys as they came to change the team.

“Hey Mose how’re you doin’?” asked Jess.

The young cowboy was looking pretty tired and pale so Mose thought.

“Well a darn sight better than you boy by the looks of things,” the old timer replied as he jumped down from the box.

“Yeah, well he’s had a real bad belly ache,” said Slim with a grim shake of the head as he unhitched the team, “been sick as a dog these last few days.”

“Well I’m sorry to hear that son,” replied Mose casting the dark haired cowboy a compassionate glance…”so how’s the leg?”

Jess grinned,” Doc Sam reckons I’ll be back in the saddle in another couple of weeks iffen I behave.”

“Umm… fat chance of that,” muttered Slim.

When the fresh team were ready to go Mose suddenly remembered something…

“I pure forgot… gotten a wire here for you folks…reckon it’s from Miss Daisy saying as how she’s a comin’ home maybe?” he said, his features relaxing into a soppy grin, his devotion to Daisy always a cause for amusement at the ranch.

“Thanks Mose, be seein’ yer,” said Jess with a cheeky grin and finally he took the hint and slapped the reins ushering the team off out of the yard, looking hard done by.

Slim and Jess exchanged a grin before Slim finally ripped open the envelope and read the message,

his expression changing from one of happy expectation to one of deep shock.

“Hey Slim, what’s up?”

“This is from Daisy alright, but she says Mike is sick……real sick pard.”

Jess tore the message from Slim’s hands and read it for himself.

‘Mike dangerously ill stop. Come at once stop. May not last the week stop Sorry to distress you. stop Daisy.’

Jess stared at the message his face a study of horror before letting it drop from his hands as he turned abruptly for the barn.

Slim ran after him and grabbing hold of his arm pulled him back,

” So where in hell do you think you’re going?” he asked.

“Where do ya damn well think……Cheyenne of course, same as you are.”

They were just saddling their mounts up, Slim still remonstrating with his friend saying as he was far too weak to ride all that way and who in hell was gonna look after the ranch and relay, when Chas rode in at the double jumping down from the saddle and entering the barn, a welcoming grin on his face.

“Hey where are you guys off to,” he asked,” heard I was on my way and decided to take off for the saloon and leave me all the chores then?”

When his little joke was met by pained looks from both men he took off his hat and scratched his head,” Am I missing something here only you two don’t look too pleased to see me?”

“Well that’s where you’re completely wrong,” said Jess giving the cinch a final tug and climbing up into the saddle. His usual athletic little hop sadly missing as he grimaced in pain before settling gingerly on Traveler’s back.

Once he was feeling reasonably steady he kneed him off at a fast trot, calling,” Tell him Slim,” over his shoulder.

Chas looked profoundly shocked at the news.

“Gee the poor little fellah, I’m truly sorry Slim and don’t worry I’ll man the fort for you while you’re gone.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

“Will he be alright?” asked Chas nodding to the cloud of dust that was all that remained of Jess’s presence.

Slim shook his head,” Nope, probably not……..but there was no stopping him…. that kid’s real special to him…. to us both,” he finished and pulling his hat down hard turned Alamo for the Laramie road and galloped after his partner.

He caught up with him about half a mile down the track.

“Hey slow up pard, you can’t gallop that poor old horse of yours all the way to Cheyenne.”

“You saw what Daisy said, he’s real sick Slim… might not last the week,” his expression one of utter misery.

“I know pard, but just calm down some and let’s try and get there in one piece, huh? “

Jess just nodded and slowed his pace a little and they rode on in grim silence.

Slim insisted they stop for a break at noon and rest and water the horses, knowing that would be the only reason his buddy would be prepared to stop.

They left the horses to graze beside a small stream, the sun beating down, and Slim cast his friend an anxious glance as he hunkered down by the water to fill his canteen.

He had seen him stagger as he dismounted, grabbing hold of the saddle to steady himself, his face contorted in pain, but Slim knew better than to say anything.

They both knew there was nothing to be done.Jess had decided to ride, against doctor’s orders, and now he was suffering the consequences, but for once Slim had every sympathy with him… how could he not dash to Mike’s side under the circumstances?

He watched as his buddy walked back to where Slim was sitting under the shade of a tall pine, his limp very pronounced.

“Should have brought your stick,” he said as Jess threw himself down beside him.

“Yeah sure,” he drawled, “and packed a valise while I was at it huh?”

“OK I guess we did come away in a bit of a rush,” admitted Slim,” so how are you feeling?”

Jess wasn’t sure if his friend was referring to his health in general or the situation, but either way the answer was the same, about as bad as he could remember.

However Jess, being Jess he just shrugged,” Felt better I guess.”

It was when they came to remount that Slim really thought his buddy wouldn’t make it, and saw the amount of pain he was suffering.

Slim knew better than to offer help without being asked so he just stood back and watched as Jess took up the reins and then tried to mount, but after a moment he saw him lurch forwards and lean his head on Traveler’s shoulder, swaying slightly.

After a minute he took a deep breath and turning to his friend with an apologetic look said,” I figure I may need a hand here Slim.”

He was there in a moment and gave him a leg up without making any comment, bar a quick… “OK now?”

Jess nodded,” Thanks pard,” he whispered before kneeing Traveler on to a brisk pace once more.

It was almost dusk when they finally made it to the outskirts of Cheyenne.

Daisy’s sister Violet and her husband Frederick used to run a very high class Boarding House just outside Cheyenne and they still kept a couple of letting rooms even though they were pretty much retired.

Mike always referred to Aunt Violet as Daisy’s nice sister as opposed to her other one, Lily, back in St Louis,’ less said soonest mended’, as Slim always said.

As the two cowboys rode up to the big, smart looking house they reined in their mounts and exchanged an anxious look……what lay ahead of them?

The business was quite extensive with several letting rooms, a stable and a few acres of grazing at the back.

They decided to just tether their mounts first and check on Mike before seeing to stabling them for the night, so they hurried over to the big front door and rapped loudly, waiting in trepidation for news of the child that they both now regarded as kin.

They stood waiting for a few minutes more, their hearts beating fit to burst…. dreading possible tragic news of their ward.

Then there came the sound of someone tearing down the hall, running fast, and then the door was thrown open to reveal Mike looking as fit and healthy as he ever had done.

He stared in shock for a full minute before grinning from ear to ear.

“Hey Jess, Slim… wow… you’ve come to visit that’s just swell!“

Then turning yelled, “Aunt Daisy…. guess what Slim and Jess are here!”

Then Daisy was suddenly at their side.

“What a lovely surprise boys ,”she said as she bustled forth, then casting an experienced eye on Jess , turned quickly to Slim and said softly,” Bring him into the parlour.”

Whether it was the relief of seeing young Mike fit and well, or the demands of the journey on his weak frame, Jess was never to know.

But what he did know, to his consternation, was that as soon as he entered the comfortable parlour he all but passed out.

He remembered kneeling down and grabbing hold of Mike in a bear hug and holding him close like he’d never let go, the tears pricking at the back of his eyes, and Slim squeezing his shoulder and looking equally moved, and then it was all a blur of Daisy fussing around him, as only she could and the next thing he remembered was waking up in the big comfortable bed in Violet’s guest wing.

As he stirred he became aware of Daisy sitting patiently on a chair by the bed and she leaned over and brushed his untidy black hair from his forehead in a gesture so familiar and comforting Jess felt tears threaten again.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“Why, whatever for dear?”

“Carryin’ on and then passin’ out that way, what must Violet think?” he asked looking anxious.

“She thinks you’re a very sick and also a very caring young man, just as I do. I’m just so sorry you’ve been duped this way. You and Slim must have been tormented by that message, who on earth could be so cruel as to do that to you both?”

Jess shook his head,” I dunno.”

Then he closed his eyes and groaned.

Daisy took his hand and cast a concerned glance up at Slim who had just entered the room.

Jess opened his eyes after a moment and then said thoughtfully, ”Maybe it’s someone as wants me and Slim out of the way, we’ve got all them heifers fattening up for market down in the home pasture.”

Slim moved forwards and sank down on the edge of the bed.

“Exactly what I was thinking Jess and just Chas home to protect the place.”

“Umm… and he ain’t no shakes with a gun either, in fact he hardly ever wears one.”

Slim nodded.

“I’ll rest Alamo overnight then head back at first light, take Trav with me and you can come back on the Stage later in the week with Mike and Daisy. They’re coming home early,” he finished with a happy grin.

Jess shook his head and tried to sit up, ”I can’t let you go back alone Slim,” and he tried to push the blankets off.

Slim was amazed at how easy it was to push him gently back on the bed, as though he had no strength left in him.

“Well that’s where you’re wrong; you’re staying right here until Miss Daisy says different.”

Jess opened his mouth to protest, but Slim raised a hand to silence him……

”And I’ll wire Mort Corey and get him and his deputy, Lon, to ride in with me and that way any would be rustlers will get more than they bargained for… OK?”

“I guess.”

“Umm…..well you get some shut eye and I’ll see you tomorrow, OK?”

“OK Slim.”

Chapter 3

It appeared that their surmise of the situation was wrong as there was no attempt to rustle their cattle or to create any havoc at the ranch at all and everything was calm and peaceful when Slim returned.

Jess came home on the Stage and stopped off in Laramie fora consultation with Doc Sam, at Daisy’s behest, and although he had probably set his healing back by a couple of weeks there was no lasting damage and he went back to light duties, with Chas again taking his share of the work load about the place.

Shortly after Daisy and Mike landed home Chas sought out Slim and Jess in the barn.

“So I guess you won’t be needing me around any longer,” he said sadly.“Now you’ve gotten your housekeeper back, to care for Jess and do the cooking and all.”

“Well that’s where you’re wrong,” said Slim beaming at this older man, he had come to regard as a mainstay of the ranch.

“Jess isn’t up to range riding for another few weeks and even then he’ll have to take it easy, so I reckon you’ll be really useful here until the end of the summer like we agreed.”

Chas’s face lit up at that piece of news and he shook Slim’s hand and then turned to Jess.

“You OK with this too pal?”

Jess seemed to weigh him up for a moment and then grinned, “Sure I am…. even iffen you have tried to poison me,” he chuckled,” I’m real glad to have you aboard,” and he shook hands and clapped him on the back, “come on, let’s go see what Daisy’s dishin’ up tonight.”

It was a couple of weeks later when Daisy was again called away from the ranch.

Her friend, Mildred from the women’s group, known to Slim and Jess as Widow Edwards, was taken seriously ill and of course it was Daisy who was called for by Sam to help nurse her.

However Daisy felt really guilty at leaving her ‘boys’ again so soon.

“Heck Daisy, I’m nearly fit again and we’ve gotten Chas ‘till the end of the month, well sure you must go,” said Jess when the news came through.

So it was that Daisy took herself off to Widow Edward’s house just a few miles down the Laramie road from the Relay Station, leaving all at the ranch to their own devices.

Jess and Mike took advantage of Jess’s free time, as insisted on by doc Sam, and spent some afternoons down at the creek. Fishing and just enjoying being kids together, as Slim called it.

One evening Jess and Mike were coming back from the creek, both of them soaking wet after a play fight that kinda got out of hand in the shallows. Chas stopped in his tracks as he saw the two walking over. Jess had an affectionate arm slung around the youngsters shoulders grinned over at the ranch hand,” You OK Chas?”

The older man nodded,” Sure… just seein’ you two together that way … well it kinda reminded me of when my boy was a young ‘un…. Fun we used to get up to ….just like you two, long time ago now,” he sighed.

“I didn’t know you had a family,” said Jess looking surprized, “so you’ve got a boy?”

“Like I say it was a long time ago,” replied Chas stalking off towards the barn a grim expression on his face.

It was obvious that Chas didn’t want to talk about it, so Jess said no more and the following day he seemed to have regained his good humour, so no more was said on the subject.

It was the following Saturday that Chas decided to make a special meal.

Daisy was still away, and as he too would be gone soon, being due to leave the following week, he said he would cook up a farewell dinner for Sunday lunchtime.

Jess and Mike had scared up a young deer the previous week and Chas had promised roast venison with tatters and gravy.

Once the meal was nearly ready Mike rushed into the kitchen to see if there was anything he could do to help and stood observing Chas putting the finishing touches to the meal.

“Need some help?” he asked with a huge grin as he stood watching the preparations.

“Nope, I guess I’m OK young ‘un thank you.”

The meal was a great success, until about an hour afterwards and then Jess had a terrible feeling of déjà vu, when he felt his stomach revolt and had to head for the outhouse at speed.

Chas had taken himself off for a drink in town after the effort of all the cooking and Slim was busy checking on a very pregnant mare and so it was Mike who finally alerted him to Jess’s malaise.

He headed into their shared room to see Jess lying pale and shaking on his bed looking as bad as Slim had ever seen him.

He sank down on the edge of the bed, put a comforting hand on his friend’s chest and felt his heart beating incredibly fast.

“Hey Jess what’s up pard? “

“Dunno, I’ve been puking’ up this last hour or more… are you feelin’ OK?”

“Yup, fine and so is Mike…. we had the same meal didn’t we, I can’t figure it.”

Mike had followed Slim into the bedroom and stood staring at his hero who was now convulsed in pain, his hands clutching his stomach which felt like it was on fire.

“No he didn’t Slim… well not exactly,” said Mike quickly.

“Huh? “

“Jess, he had a special ingred… ingrid….? “

“Ingredient, you mean?” asked Slim.

“Yup, that’s it a special ingredient, I was watchin’ Chas serve the meal and he put this special wild parsnip mixed up with Jess’s taters, said as how there weren’t enough to go around for us all and Jess should have it as it would help build him up…. him havin’ been sick and all, said it was a special ingredient meant just for Jess.”

“The hell he did,” muttered Slim as he watched his buddy writhe in pain, this was one coincidence too many, to get sick once from Chas’ s cooking ……. maybe, but again, well something wasn’t right and he shook his head.

“I guess I’ll be askin’ Chas all about this special ingredient when he lands home,” he said softly, flicking a glance at Mike, before turning worried eyes on his pard once more.

Then something truly awful happened as Mike described it to Aunt Daisy later.

Jess was lying on his back chatting to Slim one minute and the next he said he felt real strange and then his eyes rolled up in his head and his whole body started jerking and twitching as he went into a full blown fit.

Slim and Mike looked on in horror, until it was finally over and Jess lay there pale and very still a blue tinge to his lips.

Mike turned anguished eyes on Slim,” Is he dead?” he whispered.

Slim sank down on the bed and felt for a pulse in his neck and finally locating a faint beat shook his head.

“No, he’s OK Tiger, just out of it. You go fetch a bowl of cold water from the kitchen and some clean rags will you, I figure he’ll feel better if we swab him down some.”

Doc Sam Baker drove his buggy into the yard and tethering his old grey mare to the corral fence made his way towards the ranch, smiling to himself.

He came bearing the good news that Mildred Edwards was on the mend and Daisy should be home again within a couple of days.

He tapped on the door and receiving no answer opened it hesitantly and calling out went in, before almost cannoning into Mike as he pelted out of the bedroom.

“Gee doc how did you know to come?” asked the youngster staring at the doctor in amazement.

“Well I didn’t Mike I was just passing and thought I’d let you know aunt Daisy would be home soon…. Why whatever’ s the matter?” he asked as he suddenly realized how upset the boy was.

He was trembling and had tears welling up in his big blue eyes.

“It’s Jess,” he whispered,” he’s sick Doc real sick…it…… it scared me the way he was.”

Sam leaned over and patted the boy’s arm kindly.

“It’s OK son, I’m here now, don’t you fret,” and he marched into Slim and Jess’s room.

When he entered he took one look at Jess and then glanced over at Slim who was looking just as shocked and upset as young Mike had done.

Jess was staring around the room like he’s never seen it before and he was pale and shaking.

Slim moved out of the way acknowledging the doctor’s presence with a sigh of relief, “Sam I guess I’ve never been so pleased to see you.”

Sam sat down on the edge of the bed recently vacated by Slim and put a gentle hand on Jess’s chest feeling his heart pounding way too fast.

“Hey Jess what’s up?” he questioned softly.

Jess finally turned his head on the pillow to focus on the doctor, but had no recognition in his dazed eyes.

Sam flicked a glance up to the tall rancher.


“He fitted…..been poisoned I guess… just like that belly ache he had before. After Chas cooked that special Mex meal, he’s been real sick and then a few minutes ago he was talking normally, then he just lost it, went into a convulsion…..”

“How long was it for?”

“I dunno a few minutes, is all I think… seemed like forever, then he passed out, he’s just come around but he surely isn’t himself Sam, doesn’t seem to recognise me.”

“Do you know what the poison is?” the doc asked looking grave.

“Chas told Mike it was a special ingredient just for Jess, said it was parsnip I think.”

Sam stood up looking even more concerned,” Are there any left overs?”

“I doubt it… maybe some scraps in the chicken bin in the kitchen.”

Sam dived off for the kitchen and returned a minute later holding what looked like a small yellowy root.

“Water Hemlock, the roots are highly poisonous…. Well the whole plant really.”

“Hemlock… my God,” whistled Slim….” that grows down by the creek, I thought we’d rooted it all out, had a couple of steers poisoned when they ate the leaves a few years back.”

Then he stared at his buddy his face suddenly drained of colour as the full implication hit him.

“That’s a killer Sam……”

Sam cast him an anguished look,” It can be yes, it really depends how much he’s ingested.”

Then he looked down to where Jess was rolling his head restlessly on the pillow and put a firm hand on his shoulder to gain his attention.

“Jess it’s me Sam…..”

He flicked him an irritated glance,” I know that, I’m, sick not stupid, “he growled.

“Umm… yeah sorry, it’s just that you’ve been kind of out of it Jess…..you took a fit do you remember?”

“Umm…. yeah, I reckon I do,” he said vaguely,” like that time I got a real bad concussion when I was stayin’ with the Mountain folk out Rawlins way?”

“Yes you’ve got it Jess, except this time it’s because you’ve been poisoned… did that meal not taste odd?”

He shook his head,” With all that real strong onion gravy Chas served, I guess that’s about all I could taste.”

Slim nodded verifying that.

Then he suddenly lifted his head from the pillow,” Hell are you tellin’ me Chas tried to poison me?”

“It looks like it Jess, so you’ve been chucking up yeah? “

“Yup, near brought my guts up… “

“Good, that’s very good. “

“It is?”

“Umm, you need to lose the poison.”

Then he looked down at his buddy, shaking and sweating and felt a spasm of fear for him.

“Look you just rest up, huh, I’m going to get my bag,” and he gestured for Slim to join him outside.

They walked out to the porch and were at once joined by an anxious Mike.

Sam bent down and smiled at the youngster.

“Jess is quite sick so I’m going to be staying a while, do you think you could unhitch my mare and give her a drink and loose her in the paddock for me Mike?”

“Sure,” said the youngster happy to be of some help and ran off to do as he was bid.

As soon as the child had gone Sam turned his solemn gaze on Slim.

“I won’t insult you by pretending this isn’t really serious Slim….. About as serious as it gets I’m afraid ……. Hemlock is a deadly poison……”

“How,” whispered Slim, “how does it kill?”

“Well he’ll take some more fits another two three…. maybe more… .who knows, each one putting a greater strain on the heart…. It’s already thumping away like a steam engine……”

Slim closed his eyes and swallowed hard….”Go on.”

“So he may not make it through a fit…… his heart could just give up…. or the other thing is restriction of the airways….. The patient can’t get enough air in as the trachea swells up…… either way it’s not good news Slim.”

“So what are his chances?” Slim asked his voice quaking.

Sam sighed deeply,” Not good…..depends how much is left in his system…. He’s as strong as an ox usually, but after that last attempt a few weeks ago, well that will already have put a strain on his system….”

“So you think that Mexican meal Chas cooked up for him was poisoned too?” asked Slim wanting verification of his own thoughts.

“I imagine so yes… kind of a coincidence isn’t it… I guess he just got the amounts wrong…. Or maybe he just wanted to make him real sick…but survive.”

“But why… why would he do that I just don’t get it,” asked Slim looking completely bewildered.

Then they heard an almighty crash from inside the house and all speculation was halted as they tore back inside.

Jess was suffering another seizure and had fallen out of bed, knocking over the nightstand and cutting his head badly on the corner and both men could only watch in consternation as the fit ran its course.

Finally his slender frame stopped juddering and he fell deeply unconscious again, he head lolling to one side, for all the world looking like a dead man to Slim, who gasped and turned anxious eyes on the doctor.

Sam was at once on the floor beside him and on unbuttoning his shirt placed his stethoscope on his chest and listened intently, before shaking his head hopelessly.

“He can’t stand too many more of these,” he said softly, glancing up at Slim.

Both men carried him back to bed and Slim fetched some cool water for the doctor to clean the abrasion to his head and a few minutes later he came round looking groggy.

He put a hand up to his head and Sam gently batted it away.

“Don’t touch, you had another bit of a turn, hit your head.”

Jess’s eyes opened wide, “This ain’t looking good is it doc?”

The doctor looked thoughtful.

“Hang on,” and he delved into his bag before bringing out a small tin that contained what looked like charred biscuits.

“These might help,” said the doctor, pulling Jess up in the bed to a sitting position and offering him the tin.


“Eat one Jess they’re not as bad as they look.”

Jess cast the doctor a scandalized look and then said,” Let me get this straight Sam, I’ve been puking my guts up for the last couple of hours and now yer wantin’ me to eat burnt cookies…. are you crazy?”

The doctor threw him a stern look.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying and these are charcoal biscuits, should mop up the rest of the poison left in your gut Jess…… and we need to act real fast, so will you quit your arguing and just eat ‘em!”

Jess cast him a baleful look, but finally did as he was told, moaning and cussing all the while,but finally keeping the biscuits down and he lay back exhausted, the sweat once more pouring down his chalky white complexion.

Slim just looked on helplessly, then muttered,” Just you wait until that bastard lands home tonight; he’ll wander what’s hit him!”

Sam just shook his head,” Let’s get Jess through this first, time for recriminations later I guess.”

It was Mike who revealed the bomb shell that Chas had lit out for good.

Slim was taking a break, sipping a coffee out on the porch at Sam’s insistence.

“I’ll sit with him Slim, he’s sleeping peacefully, go take five you look fit to drop yourself”……and then he realised what he’d said and both men exchanged a weary smile.

Suppertime had come and gone with nobody feeling hungry and Mike had pleaded to be allowed to settle his pony down for the night before going off to bed.

Now he came charging across the yard to Slim, bursting with news.

“Hey Slim that Chas had gone… left…… packed all his gear up, clothes saddle bags everything and what’s more he’s taken Jess’s second best horse Buck too,” he said his eyes large with shock and anger.

“The hell he has,” said Slim equally angry,” Jess’s will be so mad……”

Then he stopped, would he even know… would his pard survive the night?

Having looked into doc Sam’s kind caring eyes earlier he had seen the light of defeat there…. he really didn’t think he would make it Slim knew……but how was he going to explain that to Mike?

“Time for bed Tiger,” he said quickly,” I’ll need your help tomorrow, what with Jess being so sick and Chas gone,” instinctively knowing that the child thrived on responsibility and that would maybe see them through the next few trying days.

“Sure I won’t let yer down, say ‘night to Jess when he wakes up won’t ya,” and giving him a quick hug he ran off to bed.

“You’re a good kid,” Slim said softly to himself and then turned back into his shared room to see how his buddy was baring up.

Chapter 4

Jess lay there in the dark, feeling his heart beating like it would leap right out of his chest and listened to the gentle rhythm of his friend’s breathing as he slept.

He was aware that the doc was in the room with him too as he remembered the two men pulling a spare cot in earlier on and so he knew he was real sick…..well about as sick as one got without actually being dead he figured.

He heard the wind get up in the yard and then moonlight flooded in through the window and he was able to make out Sam’s still form sitting in a chair pulled up to the bedside, watching him intently.

As soon as he saw Jess was awake he turned the night light up a little and rested a gentle hand on his arm.

“How are you feeling Jess?”

Jess peered at him and ignoring the question said softly,” You don’t think I’m gonna make it do you Sam?”

“What makes you say that?” he asked playing for time.

“Because yer sittin’ up with me in the middle of the darn night……and anyway I can see it in your eyes.”

“There never was a time when I could get anything past you was there Jess?”

He shrugged,” I guess not…… so how’s it gonna end then?”


“Just tell me doc…. please.”

“I guess it’s possible your old ticker might give out Jess, it’s had one hell of a strain put on it…. if we could just contain the fits……”

“Yeah, well I ain’t ready to go yet…..I figure I’ve some unfinished business with that bastard Chas Salt,before the good Lord takes me,” he muttered, the stubborn look Sam knew so well in his eyes.

He smiled across at the younger man he valued so much as a friend,” In that case I reckon you’d better get some sleep then Jess, get your strength up if you’re intent on a mission of retribution.”

Jess gave him a weak smile and closing his eyes drifted off to sleep again.

When Jess awoke the first light of dawn was filtering into the room and he stirred and then his whole body tensed and he gave a little cry of alarm.

Slim and the doctor were instantly awake and at his side.

“What’s up Jess?” asked Slim noting how his friend’s eyes were open wide in terror as he shrank back in the bed, seeming to be brushing something unseen away from him.

“Get ‘em off,” he yelled turning fearful eyes on his friend,” Slim, fer God’s sake do somethin’!”

Slim went and sat on the bed one strong arm protectively slung around his pard’ s shoulders.

“It’s OK Jess I guess you’ve been dreaming there’s nothing in here.”

“Snakes…!” Jess screamed again, flinching and pulling back…” God there’s hundreds of the goddamn things, hell Slim will yer do somethin’!”

Slim instinctively pulled him closer, one hand resting on his head, turning it away from the vision Jess seemed to be seeing and then gently rubbing his back, treating him as he would have done Mike, seeing how very scared and vulnerable he was clearly feeling.

“It’s Ok,” he whispered, feeling Jess’s heart beating ten to the dozen against his own chest.

“He’s hallucinating,” said Sam,” it’s a side effect of the poison, we need to calm him down and fast,” then turning to his bag he produced a small blue bottle of laudanum .

Slim’s head shot up when he saw it.

“No…. no, Sam not that, you know he won’t touch it.”

“I’m sorry Slim, I have to use this, it’s all we have and the way his heart is racing right now we really don’t have time to argue.”

“Sam… for God’s sake have you forgotten how he got dependent on it that time…the cravings, the addiction and then the terrible pain when he came off it?”

“No, I haven’t forgotten,” said the good doctor quietly, “ but have you forgotten how sick he is… .if we don’t slow that heart rate down now…..well……”

Jess was still struggling to get away, from what he saw as a nest of rattlers on the bed, and was almost incoherent with terror.

Slim finally nodded.

“Hold him down while I administer it,” said the doctor firmly.

Once the drug was finally given Jess started to relax and then fell into a restless sleep, one arm across his face as if to still protect himself from his internal fears.

Slim looked down at him and then over at the doc.

“He’ll never forgive me for this.”

Sam threw him a weary look,” The way he is I doubt if he’ll even remember and I had to do it Slim, or we really would have lost him…. “

“And now, will we lose him now? “

“I reckon things are looking a mite better. The first forty eight hours are crucial so if he can make it through to noon, I guess he’s in with a fighting chance.”

Later that day when noon came and went and there was no sign of Jess fitting again the doctor breathed a cautious sigh of relief.

“I do believe he’s going to make it,” he whispered to Slim as they stood watching Jess’s sleeping form, looking peaceful and very young in repose, his hair mussed up and falling across his forehead and one protective arm lying across his naked chest.

When he awoke an hour or so later and started cussing, he was anything but young and peaceful, looking furious in fact, as Slim immediately ran into the room on hearing him looking anxious.

“You want me to fetch Sam? He’s just taking a walk in the yard with Mike getting a bit of fresh air.”

He shook his head.

“Nope I don’t want Sam I’m fine now,” and he struggled to sit up, throwing the blanket off and attempting to get out of bed.

“Hey whoa there, you’re going no place Jess…. have you any idea how sick you’ve been?”

“Sure I have,” came the angry reply,” and that’s why I aim to track down that no good excuse for a human being Chas Salt and knock nine bells outer him!”

Slim pushed him effortlessly back down onto the pillows.

“Not yet a while you’re not,” he said grinning and then he threw his head back and laughed long and loud.

“Well what’s so doggone funny, I’ve been real sick yer know,” said Jess with an offended glance at his friend.

Slim just shook his head, “Yup and it was your stubborn streak as got you through it all too pard. Sam said as how you wanted to part Chas’ s head from his body some. How all fired mad you were when you thought you might not make it through the night and wouldn’t be able to get your revenge on him.”

Jess smiled back and then he began to laugh too.

“Yup I guess my ornery side kicked in again and saved the day,” he laughed.

And that was how Mike and Sam found them a few minutes later, laughing until they were practically crying.

“Hey Slim, you’re supposed to be keeping the patient calm and relaxed not getting him hysterical with laughter,” he said, grinning in spite of his words.

“Maybe now would be a good time to tell Jess about Buck bein’ taken,” said Mike innocently and very quietly, for Slim’s ears only,” seein’ as how he’s in such a good mood.”

“Umm… well,” said Slim, unable to meet his friend’s eye.

However Jess picked up the name Buck and put two and two together….

“Don’t tell me,” he rasped,” that bastard done took my horse too ain’t he!”


However for all his fine words Jess wasn’t out of the woods yet awhile and he had several more days of stomach pains. Also the odd, funny turn as Slim dubbed his slight ‘absences’ as Sam termed them. He would get a faraway look in his eye, and seem to switch off…and then would have no recollection of the conversation he was having, or indeed where he was for a few minutes afterwards. However blessedly these passed off after a few days. But did at least have the effect that he was persuaded to stay around the ranch and take things easy instead of galloping off the take his vengeance on Chas as he had originally wanted.

It was a few days later that Daisy landed home and then they had a visit from Sheriff Corey.

Jess was sitting out on the porch relaxing after having just changed the noon day Stage when the Sheriff rode in leading Jess’s old buckskin stallion, Buck.

He leapt up from his chair and limped over to where Mort was tethering the big horse to the corral rail.

“Hey Mort where did yer find my horse?” he asked, patting the critters shoulder fondly.

“In the livery, Burt said as how his bed and board was paid up to today and were you and Slim gonna pay another week ….. Well I guessed not, so thought I’d bring him out with me…..I’ve got some business to discuss too, Slim about?”

Once they were all seated at the kitchen table with Daisy dispensing coffee and good cheer in equal quantities the Sheriff began his tale.

“Well I’ve heard from Doc Sam as how you’ve had a real bad time out here, seemingly down to that character Chas or Charlie Salt… right?”

Slim nodded, “It looks that way,” he said.

“Umm, well like I said I felt I knew him from someplace and it was only when Sam said what he did, about him fixin’ to poison Jess, I checked my records and garl darn it… Well it turns out that he’s the Pa of that boy as robbed the Laramie Stage a year back.”

“Jess looked surprized you mean that kid Lonnie Beck? “

“Yup, that’s the one. It turns out Charlie’s real name is Chas or Charlie Beck and he runs a spread some ten miles north of Cheyenne.”

“You’re kidding,” said Slim, “so that’s what this vendetta with Jess was all about?”

“Sure looks that way,” said the Sheriff.

“I figured he was the one that shot Jess in the first place. It seems he had a saddle and a real powerful rifle left at the livery along with a mount. Then he got his feet under the table here to really try and finish Jess off.”

“But why?” asked Daisy looking deeply upset.

Jess ducked his head and then looked Daisy in the eyes.

“Because I guess he felt I had something to do with the death of his son… iffen you remember I was riding shotgun that day, when the kid held up the Stage.”

“But Jess… it wasn’t you that killed him,” said Slim.

“Umm…that ain’t the way the Laramie Sentinel reported it,” said Mort,” They had a Head line that said as Jess had killed the boy outright for trying to rob that bullion from the Stage.”

“Well who pays any heed to what the Laramie Sentinel has to say,” said Jess.

“Well I guess Chas Salt aka Beck did,” replied Mort soberly.

“Umm, he certainly is a strange man,” Daisy mused.

Then she looked thoughtful.

“You know I think I kept that article in my scrap book,” and she went over to a kitchen draw and pulled out a large leather bound book.

“What’s all this?” asked the Sheriff looking intrigued.

“It’s where I keep all the really important things, all the press cutting for when the boys are in the paper, along with Mike’s school reports and one or two recipes,” she said beaming at the Sheriff.

“Yup…. all the important stuff,” said Jess, looking over her shoulder, with a grin and raised eyebrow,

” Here’s an article on me an’ Snow Bird wining the Laramie quarter miler right next to a recipe for ginger bread.”

“Now Jess don’t tease,” she admonished before turning a few pages over and then placing the book on the table for the Sheriff to see.

“There you are and the picture of the boy too…..such a tragedy to die so young, just seventeen.”

Jess looked at the picture and shook his head sadly.

“Yeah, he’s the image of his Pa I guess that’s why he seemed kinda familiar to me…… Why I had my bad feelin’ about him at first too,” he said casting Slim a baleful look….. “I said I was never wrong didn’t I?”

Slim nodded, “Yeah I should have listened to you, but you know he had us all fooled at the end even you kind of liked the guy didn’t you?”

Jess just nodded,” I guess.”

“Umm……I remembered those eyes too,” said the Sheriff, “I knew I’d seen him before… but well it weren’t Chas it was his son Lonnie, had the same real pale blue eyes… I remembered him from when you brought him into town Jess…. and God knows you did all you could to save the boy.”

“It weren’t enough though,” said Jess sadly.

“So all this had been about Chas getting back at Jess for the alleged death of his son?” said Slim looking askance.

“It seems that way,” replied Mort.

“So do you want to press charges Jess, I reckon he should be up for attempted murder the way the doc tells it, said you darned near died from the last lot of poison.”

Jess looked down for a long time as though trying to think everything through and when he eventually looked up at the Sheriff he just shook his head.

Then he sighed deeply, “You’re wrong Slim, that weren’t no alleged death of his son…he was killed alright…I had no choice but to shoot…. But yeah, you’re right…it weren’t me as killed him and yes I did do all I could to save him afterwards, but I guess the Sentinel conveniently forgot that small point.”

Then turning sad eyes on the Sheriff said, “No, I’ll deal with it Mort.”

Slim and the Sheriff exchanged a concerned glance at that news.

“I dunno Jess feeling how you do…. Well I sure wouldn’t want things to get out of hand,” said the Sheriff looking anxious.

He sighed deeply, “don’t fret on that account Mort, I ain’t about to kill the man iffen that’s what’s worryin’ you…. won’t even call him out…. he wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Umm… so you’re just going to have a nice friendly chat are you?” asked the Sheriff sarcastically.

Jess’s blue eyes flashed in anger then.

“Well I never said that.” he replied honestly.

“I figure he needs to know the whole truth about what happened that day………And how much pain he’s caused us all too…..and I ain’t just talkin’ about my belly ache either,” he said casting his partner a compassionate look.

“I figure he’s done shortened my pard’ s life by a good couple of years too…. all he’s been put through, not to mention Daisy and the little guy,” he whispered remembering how upset Mike and Daisy had been when he was so ill.

“Nope I’m gonna leave him in no doubt as to that,” he finished flexing his hand into a fist.

“Well I can’t see as how I blame you,” said Mort suddenly understanding all the things Chas Beck had done to the family and it went way beyond poisoning Jess, maybe a bit of revengewas surely deserved, he pondered.

“Umm…. well I don’t wanna know anything about your ’little chat’,” he said quickly, and winking at Jess left shortly afterwards.

“So when are we going?”Asked Slim once the Sheriff had ridden out.

“Me…. it’s me as is going Slim I ain’t dragging you into this sorry business.”

“No….. Jess I don’t want you going alone.”

“Why, don’t you trust me?”

“Sure I do but…… “

“Maybe Jess needs to handle this in his own way dear,” suggested Daisy, looking across at the two young cowboys, her wise old eyes full of compassion.

Chapter 5

Jess rode into Chas Beck’s spread a week later and tethering Traveler to the broken down corral fence looked around him.

The whole place spoke of decay and ruin from the peeling paint on the barn door to the broken down fences and miserable looking straggly chickens pecking apathetically around the yard.

Jess pulled his hat down hard and walked purposefully over to the front door and rapped loudly and after a moment the door was hauled open and he stood staring into the horror stricken pale blue eyes of one Chas Beck.

“Jess!” he yelped in horror.

“Yeah, I’m still alive…. No thanks to you,” he spat.

The tall grey haired man shrank back, looking like he was living through his own worst nightmare.

“Aw….come on Chas… you didn’t really think you’d get away with it did you?”

“Away with….?” he faltered.

“Come on don’t play the innocent,” said Jess getting really angry now,” so you didn’t shoot me in the leg and then go on to try and poison me…err let’s see yup, not once but twice……ring any bells yet?” he asked sarcastically.

When the older man just stood gaping Jess finally lost his patience and pushing him hard in the chest Chas staggered backwards and Jess moved inside closing the door behind him.

“So by my reckoning we’ve got some talkin’ to do , but first”……and he slammed a fist into Chas’ s face throwing him halfway across the room, where he fell, one hand up to the bleeding split lip, his eyes full of pain and fear.

“Come on you lowlife, fight me,” he spat,” or are you only good for bushwhacking and poisoning… .huh?”

At that he seemed to rally and pulling himself up threw a punch at Jess who neatly ducked before decking his adversary again with a hay maker to the chin.

Then he strode over and dragging him up by his shirt front threw another couple of punches that sent the older man reeling.

However Chas suddenly seemed to feel he was fighting for his life and from the look in Jess’s eyes he had every reason to think as much. Although when thinking on it later Jess knew he was never near to killing the man with his bare hands at that point….. That was until he admitted something…..but that happened much later….

So Chas started fighting like a mad man throwing punch after punch at Jess, a few lucky ones actually finding their mark, but after a while Jess, bored with the onslaught, finished it quickly with a well-aimed punch to the belly followed through with a viscous chop to the back of the neck which rendered Chas unconscious before he even hit the floor.

He stood back to survey the damage. Furniture over turned, crockery from the table smashed and Chas splayed out amongst it all.

Jess made his way through the detritus to a jug of water on a side table and picking it up unceremoniously tipped the contents over Chas’ s unconscious form.

He came to a few minutes later coughing and spluttering and Jess grabbed hold of him and threw him down in a fireside chair before taking the other one himself.

“Right, that’s the fightin’ done, time for talkin’ now,” he said…..

When Chas just surveyed him with a dazed expression Jess sighed deeply.

“Well come on, why did you do it to me?” he growled.

The man suddenly seemed to come to his senses.

“I might well ask you why you saw fit to gun down a seventeen year old boy,” he spat.

“When you’ve gotten a jittery kid with a loaded rifle stuck in your face you kinda react real quick,” Jess said,” so I did what I had to do. I drew on him and shot him before he shot me and the driver.”

“But hell you didn’t have to kill him,” Chas said almost pleadingly.

Jess shook his head……” I didn’t,” he said softly and he cast his mind back to that morning just last summer.

Tex the guy who usually rode shotgun had turned in sick and been sent home and the relay Superintendent was up in arms saying that the bullion destined for the Cheyenne bank would have to betaken off if a guard couldn’t be found.

That was the way Mose had told it anyway when he drove into the yard that warm July morning.

“So any chance one of you could ride shot gun fer me, because that ol’ Cheyenne Bank Manager’s gonna be real mad iffen the delivery ain’t made.”

Slim and Jess had tossed for it and Jess had won, least ways that’s the way he saw it at the time,thinking he was in for an easy ride while Slim stayed home mending fence.

They arrived in town and were greeted by an officious looking little man who introduced himself as Walter Briggs the Deputy Manager of the Cheyenne bank, “I’ve come to keep an eye on our investment Mister Harper,” he had said with a hard look.

Once Jess was back up on the box with Mose and they were on the way he muttered,” Pompous little ass, so does he think he’s guarding the damn money then, only he’s not even wearing a gun?”

Mose grinned at that,” Oh no Mister Briggs is here ‘purely in a supervisory capacity,’” he said quoting what the little man had said earlier.

“Well what in Hell’s that supposed to mean?” asked Jess tipping his hat back and throwing the old driver a quizzical glance.

“Means he’s here to supervise you guardin’ the damn money,” he said with his toothless grin.

“Oh well that’s alright then,” said Jess,” I guess we’ll have a real safe trip then with him doin’ all his supervisin’ huh?”

They were just a couple of miles outside Laramie when Jess wished he could eat his words as he saw the road blocked by a pile of brushwood.

“Don’t like the look of this”, he said looking warily around as Mose brought the Stage to a standstill.

Then suddenly a youngster galloped out of the bushes and holding a gun on Mose snarled,” Drop the rifle guard or the old man gets the first shot …”

Jess weighed up the odds for a moment and saw how the kid was shaking,sweat pouring down his face and figured the gun could go off at any moment, meant or not, if he made a wrong move.

He threw the rifle down and that was when young Lonnie Beck made his fatal mistake as he failed to notice Jess was wearing a hand gun.

Lonnie immediately turned his attention on Mose, “Throw the strong box down old man.”

Then when Mose made no move to do as requested Lonnie cocked his gun and was on the point of shooting him when Jess drew in the blink of an eye and shot the youngster in the arm, the shock and sting making him fall from his horse, yelping in pain.

Jess jumped down from the box and went over to help the young man up.

“You really didn’t wanna do that did yer?” he said cheerfully.

Lonnie blushed looking down sorrowfully.

“I guess I don’t make too good a robber,” he said holding his arm tightly and grimacing in pain.

Jess sighed;” I reckon you don’t,” and he began to take off his bandanna to use as a makeshift bandage.

It was then that a single shot rang out and clutching his chest the boy fell to his knees, a look of total shock in his pale blue eyes.

Jess spun around and confronted Walter Briggs holding a smoking derringer in his plump little hand, the light of battle in his eyes.

Jess went over and took the gun off him throwing it aside.

“What in hell do ya think ya doing!” he shouted.

“Why protecting the banks interests of course, what you are paid to do my good man,” he said furiously.

Jess was incensed and back swiped the man, hard across the face, his eyes black with fury.

“Git up on the box with Mose,” he spat,” we’re takin’ the kid back to town to the docs and he’d better make it or you’re on a murder charge,” and with that he helped the youngster to stretch out inside the Stage before joining him and telling Mose to get a move on.

Sam removed the bullet and then joined Jess in his office where he was drinking coffee with Carrie.

“How is he?”

The doctor shook his head,” I’m sorry Jess, he isn’t going to last, but he’s asking for you.”

Jess went into the hospital room at the back and sat down by the bed.

“You wanted to see me?”

“Yes sir… to apologise I guess and explain.”

“You don’t need to boy, you just rest up, huh,” he said eyeing the pale very sick looking youth.

He sighed and then said, “No I have to… have to make it right.”

Then he explained how he’d got his young girlfriend in the family way and he needed the money for a fresh start in California.

“But hell boy, there’s easier ways of getting money,” said Jess pity in his eyes.

“What about yer Ma and Pa wouldn’t they have helped you?”

He shook his head, “No I couldn’t tell them, they’d have been so darned ashamed of me, same with Vicky’s folks, we just wanted to get away, have the baby and thenwrite them……once we were settled.”

Then he coughed and Jess offered him a drink and said he’d fetch the doctor, but the boy put a restraining hand on Jess’s arm pulling him back.

“Tell her…. Vicky, tell her I’m real sorry… she knew nothing of this…..” and he gave an address in Cheyenne….. “Please Mister will yer… tell her I’m real sorry and I love her.”

Jess nodded,”Sure, sure I will boy.”

The youngster fixed him with his pale blue eyes and smiled heartrendingly, looking so young and innocent, “Thanks mister…. I appreciate it,” and his head rolled to one side, the final spark of life extinguished.

All the time he’d been talking Chas was looking more and more shocked…… “Vicky, his Vicky was expecting you say?” he finally gasped.

Jess nodded.

He shook his head,” They went not long after all that business, Vicky and her Ma and Pa, left for the west…. Never knew how they afforded it, didn’t ever have much money.”

“The reward money from the bank for saving their cash,” Jess said quietly.

Chas looked bewildered, “What you gave up all the reward money to a girl you’d never even met….why?”

“Because she needed it and because……”

“Go on….. “

“Because I felt so dang sorry your boy had been killed, there was no need, that bastard didn’t have to gun him down that way….. it was such a damn waste of a young life,” he finished sadly.

Chas threw his head in his hands rocking slightly before looking Jess in the eye.

“ I’m so…so sorry,” he whispered all this time I’ve been hating the wrong man…… it was that, who did you say….. Walter Briggs I should have shot.”

“Yeah, but iffen yer thinking of killing him off too, I guess you’re too late,” Jess said with a grim smile, “he died of a heart attack just a week after the robbery…..guess the excitement was just too much for him,” he said bitterly.

They sat quietly for a little while; Chas trying to come to terms with all this fresh information, before Jess finally broke the silence.

“So did you mean to kill me out on the range or are you just a lousy shot?”

Chas threw him a grim look,” A lousy shot I guess, I was aiming for your knee.”

Jess raised an eyebrow at that information, “How so?”

“It’s the worst injury a horse man can have, a shattered knee and you never mount a horse again and I know how much you care for your horses, make a living at breaking them too…..figured that would be a good way to hurt you.”

“I see,” said Jess quietly,” you seem to know a lot about me?”

“Made it my business, you remember that old timer that used to sit in the corner of the Laramie saloon, with the white beard and pebble glasses?”

“I believe so yeah, old Charlie…….what that was you?” he asked in astonishment.

“Yup, I grew a beard, hid my eyes with the glasses, just lucky I went grey early in life, made a good disguise and I wanted to know all about you Jess, so I could figure my revenge,” he said chillingly quietly.

“Go on…..”

“I saw how close you and Millie were. I remember one night watching you, holding her hand across the bar, looking into those pretty eyes with such love and her lovin’ you back…… had me a wife used to be like that,” he spat…. “She done left me after the boy died, blamed me… said as how he was troubled, but too feared to talk it out with me….I guess she was right,” he said sadly…”after what you’ve told me about the baby and all,” then he looked into space with unseeing eyes before returning to his narrative.

“So I watched you and young Millie and then one night she asked the barkeep if she could finish early, said she had a bad head and he agreed, then a few minutes later you said your goodnights and left…..that’s when I followed you.”

Jess looked bewildered,” You did?”

“Yeah, down the alley at the back of the saloon, it was real dark, you never saw me…. then Millie ran out and you held her close and kissed her…..”

Jess looked down embarrassed, but said nothing.

“Then after a while she took your hand and led you up the fire escape and a few minutes later the light went on in her room and I just stood there in the dark looking up…… until the light went out …. And then I was sure.”

Jess just raised a questioning eyebrow, but said nothing.

“I was sure you were lovers, that she meant the world to you…..and that’s why I fed you that story about her having lit out….. I wanted to see you suffer the way I did when my Mary left.”

“Well you sure got your wish,” said Jess bitterly.

Chas looked down a broken man.

“Where is she………your wife?” asked Jess.

“Up in Denver with her Ma.”

“Well go and see her man, patch it up.”

“Can’t and anyways, I’m making a full confession to you aren’t I…. enough to land me in jail for a real long spell I guess.”

“Well go on,” said Jess, “let’s hear the rest of it.”

“It was me as sent that false wire too saying as how the boy was sick……. “

Jess took a deep breath to steady himself knowing that if he lashed out now he might not be able to stop…..hell he wasn’t worth hanging for he told himself.

Chas was pale and visibly shaking now…… and I poisoned both the meals too.

“Yeah well I knew that,” said Jess dryly ,”so tell me are you as lousy at poisoning as you are a shot or did you just not add enough…err parsnip,in the first meal?”

He looked shocked at that,” No the first one I deliberately put a low dose in just to make you real sick….and then the second time…”and he lapsed into silence looking decidedly uncomfortable.

“Well go on,” said Jess sarcastically…..

”The second time you darned near did for me…. I was this far from callin’ time for good,” he said gesturing with his finger and thumb held slightly apart.

“I took fits and the doc said my heart was set to give out on me… guess it was only my stubborn streak and the need to get even with you as kept me alive.”

“I…. I didn’t realize, I thought you’d just be sick again, it was too small a dose to kill you… or so I thought.”

Jess’s head shot up at that having picked up on the emphasis on the word you.

“What do ya mean not enough to kill me…. who was it meant for then?” he asked his eyes flashing in anger.

Chas looked down unable to meet Jess’s furious stare.

“Go on….tell me,” he shouted, clenching his fists and jumping from his seat to glare down at the older man.

“It was that day I saw you and Mike coming back from fishing down at the creek,” he whispered.

“Go on,” said Jess again, something in his tone sending shivers of fear down Chas’ s spine.

“It reminded me so dang much of me and my boy… the way we were when he was little…….and God help me, I wanted you to suffer the loss just like I had…… I could see the boy was a son to you in all but name and so……”

Time seemed to stand still as Jess watched the man, the look of horror dawning in his eyes…..the silence in the room between them deafening, before Chas continued hesitantly.

“So that last meal, I put enough poison on the plate to kill the boy…..but not enough for an adult….or so I thought.”

Now he had started he sounded almost matter of fact, but the case was that he was completely numb…knowing that once he confessed Jess would surely kill him…..and why not, it was what he deserved.

Jess just stood very still hardly breathing as he leaned forwards slightly to hear the words Chas was now almost whispering.

“It was when he came into the kitchen asking if there was anything he could do to help that I knew I just couldn’t do it……. he looked so young and innocent….he’s such a great kid……I just couldn’t do it to him… Hell none of this was his fault….so……so I put it on your plate instead,” he finished, before finally daring to glance up at Jess.

What he saw made his blood run cold.

There was an icy fury in Jess’s eyes such as he had never seen before, even in men’s eyes during the war…..and it made him tremble with dread.

This was it…..he was dead meat and he closed his eyes and swallowed hard.

He’d done his research alright, he knew of Jess’s past as a gunslinger and although he knew he was a reformed character and also a fair and honest man, he had no doubt that if pushed too far he would kill…..and he figured he’d just pushed him way too far.

He drew his gun with lightning speed, without even acknowledging to himself that, that was what he was going to do. It was suddenly just there in his hand, the barrel pushed hard under Chas’ s chin…..

Jess swallowed hard waiting for the dizziness and racing heart to settle then he pushed the gun harder into the soft tissue under the older man’s chin, sweat pouring down his lean face, his deep blue eyes flashing almost black with fury.

Then he sighed deeply and finally holstered the gun before grabbing Chas by the shirt and pulled him close, ”Don’t you ever…..ever go near that kid again…. you hear me?” he snarled.

Chas could only nod vigorously,which he did, the power of speech having completely left him and he just stared in amazement as Jess threw him back on the chair and turning on his heel marched outof the house slamming to door behind him.

He walked over to where he had tethered Traveler and stood for a minute resting his head against the big horse’s neck, one hand on the butt of his gun, before finally jumping into the saddle and heading out of the yard at a brisk trot.

He just knew he had to get away, to put some ground between himself and Chas Beck……because he really didn’t trust himself in his company right then. Knowing how close the man had been to killing Mike…. hell even admitting it… was he crazy, or what Jess wondered.

But then he was a broken man.

Jess had seen how he had sunk his head into his hands, how the death of his beloved son had led him on this crazy vendetta. Because crazy was what it was Jess could see that. Nobody in their right mind would have acted that way…… but then grief was a powerful thing…could have a strange effect on a man as Jess well knew.

He rode into Cheyenne an hour or so later and tethering Traveler outside the first saloon he came to, he entered and ordered a whiskey which he knocked back in one and then ordering a bottle took it over to a dark corner and started working his way down it.

He was half way down when he realised it really wasn’t helping any. Instead of calming him down…well for two cents he’d have got back up on his horse and ridden out and blown Chas Beck’s brains out……. that was how mad he was feeling.

He just sat there for a while staring into his glass as if the answer to the meaning of life was there , when he suddenly felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and glancing around looked straight into Millie’s soft brown eyes.

He gasped in surprise and pleasure before standing up, somewhat clumsily, and pulling out a chair for her.

“What are you doing here sweetheart?” he asked once she was seated and he had clasped her hand across the table.

“I’ve got the weekend off so decided to get an early ride with Mose and spend some time with Ma,” she replied.

“So what are you doin’ in this dive?”

“Looking for you….. Mort said as how you were on a mission to sort out Chas Beck, so I thought maybe you could use some company?”

He gave her a faint smile at that, “You know I think I could…..so did you have trouble finding me?”

“Nope, this is the first bar I’ve been in…. it’s the first one in from Beck’s place… so I figured……” and she left the sentence in the air just grinning at him.

“That I’d come into the first bar I saw and get drunk as a skunk huh?” he asked throwing her a quizzical look.

She surveyed the half empty bottle and said, “Yeah, something like that, you want me to leave you to it?”

“Hell no…. I was done anyways…..seemed like a good idea, but I guess it weren’t.”

“You’re real mad aren’t you honey?”

He just looked down and nodded.

“Let’s go back to Ma’s… have you eaten?”

He shook his head.

“Well come on then, Ma and Auntie are out at a sewing bee, won’t be home for hours, we’ve got the place to ourselves and you can tell me all about it.”

His face lit up,” Now you’re talking,” and he got unsteadily to his feet and the two made their way slowly off to Millie’s Ma’s Boarding House.

It was at breakfast the following morning that Jess found out more about the Beck family.

“Yes Mary was in my women’s group,” said Millie’s Ma, Mrs Peggy Johnson.” I didn’t know her too well, but she was a nice enough lady, raised young Lonnie well, the apple of their eye he was, brought up real strict but kindly you know?” she asked casting a glance at where Jess was now well into his third coffee and gradually beginning to function again after the excesses of the previous night.

“Yeah, he was a nice kid,” he agreed,” just desperate I imagine…seeing as what happened.”

She nodded knowing he was referring to the news her daughter had just imparted regarding young Vicky being in the family way.

“Well these things happen in the best of families,” Mrs Johnson continued philosophically,” but I reckon that was why her Ma and Pa moved and took her away, didn’t want folks to know.”

“I can’t believe they didn’t tell Lonnie’s parents,” said Jess looking thoughtful,” Chas had no idea until I told him yesterday and Mary neither I guess…. surely they’d wanna see a grandchild?”

“Well yes dear of course, I know I would,” she said staring speculatively from her daughter to Jess and back.

Jess suddenly aware of the implication almost choked on his coffee before swiftly getting to his feet and throwing Millie a helpless glance.

“Well I really gotta be on my way Ma… and thanks fer everything,” he said gesturing vaguely to the breakfast table.

Mrs Johnson hid a smile.

“You’re welcome my dear and be sure to give Daisy my love….and tell her to feed you up some you’re looking mighty skinny since you’ve been sick……You rest that leg too…. you hear young man?”

“Yes Ma’am,” he said with a grin and gave her a bear hug and kiss on the cheek before taking his leave.

At the front door he turned and took Millie in his arms and kissed her deeply.

“Thanks for last night,” he whispered, with a loving look as he gently caressed her cheek,” for listenin’ to me…..an’ everythin’ too.”

“Well you’re welcome cowboy, you know that…..and Jess please don’t let it get to you…about Chas and Mike and all…… in the end he didn’t do it…. wouldn’t be capable of poisoning a kid I’m sure, so just try and forget it all huh?”

He nodded, “Yup, you’re right and I’ll try…… I’ll see you Saturday? “

“You bet.”

He kissed her one last time and turning made for the livery to collect Traveler and head for home.

He decided to call in at Laramie on his way back and put Mort Corey’s mind at rest as to the way he had dealt with the situation with Chas Beck. The very fact that he’d probably asked Millie to check on him said it all he thought with irritation, ‘It looks like ol’ Mort don’t trust me none too much’ he muttered to himself.

He burst into the Sheriff’s office and Mort’s grey head shot up from where he was busy completing some paperwork.

“Oh, so you’re back,” he said throwing him a quizzical glance, his head on one side as he noted Jess’s somewhat fragile appearance.

“You look likea man who tied one on last night, help yerself,” he said gesturing to the coffee pot, by tipping his head.

Jess was slightly appeased by the Sheriff’s offer and turning poured himself a cup before taking it and the pot over to the desk and topping up Mort’s cup. Then he returned the pot to the stove and kicking a chair out straddled it before taking a sip of the dark evil brew that passed for coffee in the Sheriff’s office.

After a moment Mort signed the report he was writing and taking up his own cup grinned across at his friend, “So to what do I owe the pleasure then?” he asked.

“You know dang well,” said Jess his anger surfacing again,” and I’d kinda appreciate it iffen you wouldn’t go upsettin’ Millie in future. Askin’ her to check on me that way…she was real worried about me.”

“Hey simmer down Jess…. in the first place I didn’t ask her to check on you, she offered when we just happened to get chatting about the situation in the saloon one night……and secondly she just thought you might need a friendly ear, not a case of checking up on you.”

“Umm, well…anyways I’m reportin’ I’ve dealt with it like I said I would and Chas is still walkin’ and breathin’, all in one piece…mostly,” he said with a wicked grin,” just thought as how you should know.”

“Well thank you Jess…..and I have to say I’m impressed… real impressed.”


“As to how you handled yourself…especially after he admitted to considering hurting young Mike….. Well……” and he shook his head.

“How in hell do ya know all about that?”

“I know because he’s been in to see me, only missed him by a couple of hours. He came to check out your story, about how it was Briggs as killed his son and not you.”

“So he didn’t believe me?”

“Oh yes he did, just needed the facts and also I was able to furnish him with all the other details like as how you insisted in turning the Stage back to take the boy to see the doc and paid for his treatment there too .Then how you even sat with him when he passed over…not to mention giving all the reward money to that young Vicky for a fresh start with the baby.”

Mort shook his head, “if ever I’ve seen a man look contrite…. So goddamn sorry as to what he’d done, confessed to the whole lot, the poisoning, shooting, almost begged me to bang him up in jail, he was feeling so bad about it all.”

“Yeah well so he should,” muttered Jess,” especially that stunt he was thinkin’ of trying on Mike.”

“That’s what I meant when I said I was impressed,” the Sheriff said softly, now throwing Jess a compassionate glance. “The old Jess might well have completely lost it…. I might be looking at a jail sentence for you instead of Chas Beck….. You’ve changed Jess, got a grip on things son and I’m real proud of you.”

Jess threw him a grim smile at that.

“Well don’t get too excited Mort… there was a moment there…….it was kind of a close run thing… but yeah I walked away. And as for pressing charges, ain’t no point, I reckon the man’s sufferin’ enough as it is… banging him in jail ain’t gonna make him feel any worse. Hell he’s lost his son and his wife and looks like his business is in ruins too…..so let’s just leave it huh? Tell him I won’t be pressin’ no charges.”

“Well you can tell him yourself Jess, he’s on his way to the ranch right now, said he wanted to try and pay back for everything by helping you out some more, bring the stock down in the fall I think he was offering to do.”

Jess’s head shot up at that news.

“The Hell he is….. I told him not to go anywhere near Mike,” he said as he jumped up from his seat, making for the door looking furious.

“Steady son….you young bucks always sounding off…..”

“He goes anywhere near that kid so help me I won’t be held responsible Mort…. all this pretending he’s real sorry, I guess he’s taken us for a pair of fools,” and with that he charged through the door without a backwards glance.

Mort tipped his hat back and grinned to himself….”Just when I thought the boy was getting civilized too,” he muttered shaking his head and going back to his paperwork, knowing that Slim would sort things out back at the ranch.

Chapter 6

As soon as Jess got outside he looked down the street and up at the sky anxiously, the wind had suddenly got up and it looked like they were in for a bad storm, the sooner I’m home the better he thought grimly as he made for his mount.

Jess rode hell for leather for the ranch and riding in at a gallop tore into the house yelling furiously, “where is that no good son of a…..”

Then he stopped as Daisy came out of the kitchen looking pale and anxious and ignoring his angry outburst said, “Oh Jess dear it’s Mike, he’s missing.”

“What…when …..Err I mean how long…what do ya mean missing Daisy….?” he jabbered.

“Oh dear, come along and sit down a moment Jess let me explain.”

He did as he was bid, barely able to contain his anxiety.

“Mike went to play with young Billy Webster at his ranch for the morning and he was supposed to wait for Slim to fetch him back at dinnertime…but when he arrived both Mike and Billy were missing, Slim’s out now with Billy’s Pa searching, he came back here to see if he was home and then when there was no sign he went off again.”

“Where Daisy,” asked Jess looking desperate,” there must have been some tracks, where are they looking?”

“Well it appears that somehow or other Mr Webster’s prime quarter horse escaped and he thinks the boys went off after it, they followed the tracks a way but then this dreadful wind got up and they lost them so they are just having to spread out and cover as much ground as they can.”

Jess looked anxiously out at the ever darkening sky.

“It’ll be too dark to track ‘em soon anyway,” he whispered,” I’d better get out there, so where was Slim heading?”

“The East pasture land, Jack Webster went to the West I believe.”

“OK, I’ll head for the lake, he might have struck out for the cave when he saw the weather closing in, try not to worry,” he said softly, squeezing her arm gently before making for the door.

Then he stopped in his tracks and turning back said,” Daisy you ain’t seen Chas Salt… err Beck have you?”

“Well no dear, I haven’t seen him at all why? “

“Oh no matter, he comes anywhere near here you tell him to get lost or he’ll be looking down the wrong end of my gun again and this time I won’t be so accomodatin’,” and with that he charged out into the dim late afternoon light.

She looked slightly concerned at that, but knowing Jess just agreed, her greatest worry being young Mike right then.

The wind was blowing something powerful now sending dust and leaves skittering about the open countryside and Jess pulled his hat down hard and narrowed his eyes against the suddenly cold squall as he squinted off across the range for some sign of Mike’s little Palomino pony Sunny.

It was about an hour later when the lake came into view and then he saw him, a lone rider heading in the same direction as himself, heading for the hills and caves on the far side.

As he got slightly closer he recognised Slim’s mount Alamo and after putting his fingers in his mouth gave an ear splitting whistle and was rewarded by a wave as Slim turned and then galloped towards him.

“Any news?” he asked urgently and Jess just shook his head.

“I thought he might make for the cave seein’ as how the weather’s closing in, we always told him to do that if he was nearer there than home.”

“Um… but he shouldn’t have been out on his own anyway should he Jess, he knows better than to ride off like that. But it seems Jack’s best quarter miler took off, he reckons young Billy left the gate open and then the kid felt so dang guilty he took off to try and catch it before his Pa noticed, they had a good hour’s head start on us.”

“Umm… and Mike being the way he is would have thought he had to help his buddy out I guess,” said Jess with a weak grin.

“Yes, well wait until I catch up with him,” said Slim threateningly,” although his anger was really born of fear for the child they both adored.

“Hey you can’t quote the importance of loyalty to friends at him one minute and then get to frettin’ when he helps a pal out.”

“Well maybe you’re right, but Hell Jess let’s just find the kid before we decide whether to punish him or not.”

Then Jess suddenly remembered something.

“Hey Slim, you seen Chas Beck on yer travels?”

“Nope… why should I have done?”

Jess filled him in as to how the last lot of poison had really been meant for Mike and then that he had told Mort he was riding over to the Sherman spread as he felt so guilty about everything and wanted to make amends by working for them.

“I told him Slim… what would happen iffen he came anywhere near Mike again…..then I ride into the ranch and the next thing I know the kids missing.”

Slim shook his head trying to absorb all this new information…. “He actually told you he nearly poisoned the boy,” he gasped in amazement……“and walked away from it?”

Jess just nodded,” I guess that was a mistake.”

“So you really think Chas has abducted him?”

“Maybe, might have just seen him ridin’ out and took the opportunity of grabbing him. After all he can’t get his own back on that lowlife deputy bank manager that really killed his boy, what with him bein’ already dead…. So maybe I’m the next best target…… said he wanted to really hurt me Slim…..and maybe , I dunno, maybe he feels I could have done more to protect his boy….but I never saw it coming I didn’t even know Briggs was carryin’ a gun.”

“Look Jess there’s no point in feeling bad about it, our main priority has to be Mike, we’ll worry about Chas later so come on, let’s make for the caves and just hope he’s holed up there.”

They had been riding all the time they had been talking and made it to the far side of the lake just as dusk was falling and then Jess spotted something that made him cry out joyfully to his pard…..There tethered near the lakeside was Sunny, Billy’s pony was there too……and a tough looking buckskin…..the one Jess had noticed in the corral at Chas Beck’s place.

His wide grin of pleasure froze on his face as he saw Chas’ s horse and he let fly an expletive under his breath as he tore up the hillside towards the cave, with Slim in hot pursuit.

They were half way up the steep path when they smelt the wood smoke before they actually saw the camp fire set in the mouth of the cave.

As they advanced they could just make out the figures of young Mike and the tall grey haired form of Chas Beck sitting by the fire.

Jess stared in horror as he saw the older man had just filled a plate with food for the youngster and was about to pass it across to the blond haired child.

Jess gave a cry of rage and leaping forwards grabbed hold of Chas by the shirt front and hauled him up and away from the boy before landing a punch to the chin that sent him flying out of the cave and down the path some. But Jess wasn’t content with that and he ran after him and dragged him up again and continued raining punches on Chas’s head and chest, unaware that Mike was crying for him to stop and desperately trying to pull him off.

It took all Slim’s strength to finally pull his friend away.

“Enough Jess, you’ll kill him!”

Jess turned on his friend then.

“Hell killing’s too good fer this bastard… you saw what he was doin’ tryin’ to poison Mike!”

“No Jess he wasn’t really…. he’s helped us, been real kind,” the boy said tearfully.

“Oh, he has huh?” remarked Jess sarcastically.

“Well let’s see you eat that plate of rabbit stew you just gave the boy then,” he said addressing the recumbent form of Chas Beck.

The older man wiped a hand across his blooded face and slowly getting to his feet staggered over to the cave entrance and hunkering down by the fire slowly started to do as he was bid.

Jess threw him a hard look and the turned all his attentions on the youngster.

“Heck are you OK Tiger me and Slim have been real worried.”

Mike cast a glance from the tall blond rancher to Jess and back.

“Gee I’m real sorry, but when Mister Webster’s horse, Ranger escaped Billy was so worried his Pa would go ape that we kinda lit off after him.”

“You did huh,” said Slim looking very solemn…”and do you think that was right?”

“I guess not sir…. but I couldn’t let Billy down could I?” he asked turning his gaze to Jess, who he knew would be more sympathetic on the subject of loyalty to friends, no matter what trouble it landed one in.

Then Slim’s head shot up, “So where is Billy?”

“In the back of the cave sleeping, he had a tumble from his horse just by the lake and hit his head…. well I wasn’t sure what to do and then Mister Beck came along and helped me. The storm was just brewing and so I told him about the cave and he fixed up Billy’s head and then made me some supper….. He’s been real kind…..really Jess…”he finally finished pausing for breath.

“Umm… well I’ll reserve judgement on that iffen he manages to keep that stew down,” said Jess bitterly.

The boy looked puzzled, but allowed himself to be bedded down in the back of the cave with a now peacefully sleeping Billy. He didn’t even protest too much at having to be satisfied with some jerky from Jess’s saddle bag for his supper, knowing that he really deserved a trip to the woodshed for his disobedience.

The adults were just thinking of settling down too, the raging storm making any thought of returning home that night impossible when they heard a footfall outside the cave.

Jess was first up, gun in hand, and went out into the dark windy night and returned a moment later followed by Billy’s Pa.

“Thought as how I’d try up here, Miss Daisy said you’d come this way and then I saw the fire,” and he looked desperately around for the youngsters.

“In the back Jack,” said Slim patting his neighbour kindly on the arm,” Billy took a tumble and hit his head, but both boys are just fine now go check.”

He returned a few minutes later looking relieved,” Thanks guys……gee he’ll get a good telling off tomorrow,” he said sighing with relief.

Then he finally focused on Chas’ s bruised and bloodied countenance,” Hey, what happened to you?”

“Jess happened to him….” Slim replied dryly.

Jack looked surprised at that…”oh?”

But nobody seemed to want to enlighten him.

“Let’s just say things are going to get a mite worse for him before they get better, by my reckoning,” said Jess throwing Beck a challenging look.

“It weren’t poisoned I swear it Jess,” said the older man throwing him a beseeching look.

“Time will tell,” said Jess quietly before spreading his bedroll out and settling down for the night.


As it happened all four men slept soundly throughout the night and so the following morning Jess had to revise his ideas.

He was the first to wake and soon had some coffee going and after a moment saw Chas stir and sit up.

The two men eyed each other for a moment before Jess said quietly,” I guess I owe you an apology, that food weren’t tainted was it?”

The older man just shook his head sadly,” Nope….but I shouldn’t have ridden this way after what you said about not seeing the boy again.”

“So why did you?”

“Because I needed some answers from Mort Corey as to exactly what had happened and then when he told me everything…….about how dang good you were to my boy at the end…. Well I just had to risk it, see you again and try and make my peace….I thought iffen I came on a school day the boy wouldn’t be around.”

“It’s the summer holidays,” said Jess laconically.

“Yup,” Chas said…” you forget when you ain’t got young ‘uns underfoot.”

“So what were you doing with the boys then?” Jess persisted.

“I’d ridden over and needed time to think…..after everything Corey had told me and I did a spot of fishing for a couple of hours…always helps me see things clearer.

Jess just nodded, being able to identify with that.

“Anyway I was making my way down the lakeside towards the Laramie road and I saw the youngsters, Billy down on the ground and Mike lookin’ around real scared….then he saw me and waved…..well what could I do, the kid was out cold… I couldn’t just leave him and then the storm broke and Mike suggested this here cave.”

There was a long silence between them and finally Jess poured their coffee and passed one across to where Chas was still hunkered down by the fire.

“I’m sorry,” Jess said again, gesturing to Chas’ s face which now sported a bust lip and black eye.

“It’s just that…. well I still thought you were out for revenge… you know?”

“But why would you think that…. I was on my way to thank you…..to say I believed you and to try and work off the debt I owe you for all you did for my boy too.”

“You don’t owe me nuthin’,” said Jess suddenly angry.

Chas looked up his eyes narrowing trying to make out this complex and volatile young man.

Jess looked down struggling with his anger and emotion and then when he finally looked Chas in the eye again he had a soft vulnerability about him that the older man had never seen before.

“Truth is Chas…I ain’t mad at you…. I’m mad at me….. I felt…..no still feel real guilty about what happened….. I just didn’t figure that cocky little bank manager was carrying a gun…turns out he had a derringer in his briefcase. I should have stopped it though…..”

“No,” said Chas quickly,” I’ve seen the records the statements from you, the driver even the other passenger, they all say you were tending my boy’s wound with your back to that fool man, there was absolutely nothing you could have done,”….. he sighed deeply and both men lapsed into silence.

Then Chas threw him a friendly smile,” The offers still there though, you’re still limping Jess and I figure you could use a hand bringing your stock down come fall…. Huh?”

Jess was very still for a moment and then he grinned at the older man.

“Maybe your right… thanks. I figure we should run it passed my partner though… what do yer think Hardrock?”

Chas looked over to where by all intents and purposes Slim seemed to be fast asleep, but he stirred at once and sitting up grinned at the pair.

“Sounds a real good idea to me too,” he said accepting the coffee Jess had just poured for him.

Chas looked surprised, ”I thought you were still asleep.”

Jess grinned at Chas and then at his friend.

“Nah, he’s been lyin’ doggo for the last five minutes…never sleeps through the smell of coffee brewing do ya pard?”

Slim merely shrugged and then all three men laughed together, the joyful noise waking the other sleepers and it was coffee all round.

….. Jess would never completely forget the interloper, as he had thought of Chas Beck and what he had done to him and all at the ranch and relay… … but he was on the road to forgiveness he figured and that was a start……

The End

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