# 5 Return of The Bounty Hunter

#5 Return of the Bounty Hunter

(A Sequel to the Long, Long Road to Nowhere)


Patty Wilkinson

(Some violence, strong language and adult themes)

As told by Slim Sherman and Jess Harper

Chapter 1 -Slim

There was a tremendous crash as my best friend and business partner Jess Harper flew through the air in a perfect arc and crashed into the corral fence where he unceremoniously slid to the ground face first in the dust.

It was the third time the mustang, that young Mike had named Lucifer, had thrown him in as many minutes and I guessed my friend’s notoriously short fuse was about to blow.

Walking over I leaned down and hauled him up and he grabbed hold of the corral fence gasping for breath as the fall seemed to have pretty much winded him.

His black hair and blue shirt and jeans were coated in the grey dust that covered the ranch after the long dry summer and his handsome features were marred by a livid cut across his cheek bone where he had just made contact with the rough fence.

Bending to pick up his hat from where it had fallen he used it to brush himself down before replacing it and pulling it down firmly with an air of determination.

His deep blue eyes flashed in anger as he said,” damn it Slim, if this ain’t the most ornery darn critter on God’s earth!”

He pulled his hat down again obscuring his eyes from me, but I knew the determined expression that would be in them as he purposefully strode towards the prancing, head tossing, killing machine, that he refused to let win the battle of wills.

I smiled to myself as I watched him gentle the horse until it stood quietly and he lightly jumped back on board, all the while talking softly to the spooked animal.

The wild creature reminded me a lot of Jess when I first met him, full of anger and fire in his belly, ready to fight at the first opportunity.

Having left home at 15 after most of his family had burnt to death in a fire deliberately started by the Banister gang; he had been a boy soldier during the war and spent time in a prisoner of war camp.

Then he went on the drift and with a reputation as a fast gun he had got into trouble, on the wrong side of the Law and ended up in prison for a while.

After that he was on the drift for five years, slowly moving West from his homeland of Texas and one day he ended up trespassing on Sherman land.

My name is Slim Sherman and Andy my kid brother and I inherited the Ranch and Relay Station after our parents died. When I found Jess trespassing I sent him on his way, but somehow he kept coming back and he struck up a real good friendship with young Andy and next thing I knew he was on the pay role.

We kinda had an uneasy truce at first,that is until he upped and saved my bacon one day, using his fast gun to get me out of trouble. That was the beginning of our friendship and not long after that he put up his old gunslingers weapon and promised to start a new life at the ranch, living on the right side of the law.

I’m real tall, long legs, blond hair, blue eyes and good looking I’m told and Jess is shorter, real lean and has black hair and real vivid deep blue eyes, guess he’s kinda handsome too, certainly has no problem getting the girls on a Saturday night, that’s for sure.

Anyways in looks and temperament I guess we couldn’t be more different. Jess, well he can be a real wild child, got a temper almost as fast as his gun and gets kinda nervous if he’s tied down to the ranch work for too long, needs the wind in his face and sun to his back and so, every so often he takes off. But ol’ Jess knows where his home is now and he always comes back.

Time was I used to worry myself sick about him when he took off on one of his missions usually helping an old friend out of trouble and then ended up knee deep in it himself. One foot in trouble and the other in a barrel of axle grease that’s Jess. But he’s probably the best friend I’ve ever had and if he drives me crazy occasionally with his wild ways, well I guess he’s worth it in the end.

To be fair, over the 6 years he’s been at the ranch he’s changed a lot, less likely to go off stampeding about the place , blazing mad and getting into hot water, he thinks things through and has really settled down especially since I made him a partner in the business.

Another thing that’s had a kinda settling effect on us both was the arrival of little Mike, who lost his parents in an Indian raid. He fetched up at the ranch and I guess he just found his way into our hearts and so we ended up adopting him.

Along with Mike we found Daisy Cooper, a wonderful, motherly soul who agreed to be our housekeeper to help us care for Mike. Truth be known she mothers us all and if she fusses Jess and I a bit too much at times, then I guess we just put up with it because she’s family now and that’s what your Ma does.

I guess I’ve changed a lot since Jess arrived, and in a good way too. I used to be so darned serious about everything, mostly because of my folks up an dying when I was only in my 20’s and Andy just a boy. So I had the responsibility of the Ranch and bringing up a kid on my own and that sure weighed heavy on my shoulder at times.

Then when Jess came along, larking about with Andy and acting like a kid himself, well I guess some of that fun sorta rubbed off on me. We started going to town on a Saturday night, enjoying a few beers and some female company and Jess sure taught me a thing or two about women, guess he’s as good at sweet talking the ladies as he is horses!

Thinking of horses my attention was once more drawn to the scene in the corral as old Lucifer continued his ducking and diving, but still with Jess firmly in place on his back.

I figured that he’d just about won the battle if not the war when that old horse seemed to get an evil glint in his eye and rearing up he bucked and shot Jess off again and he hit the ground with a sickening thud, rolling into a protective ball as the horses lethal hooves slammed down within inches of his head. I leapt over the corral fence and ran up waving my arms at the furious mustang and he backed off enough for Jess to roll and duck under the fence away from the danger.

“Thanks Pard,” he said grinning at me, and then turning to the wild eyed horse let go a string of expletives that would make a sailor blush, casting aspersions on the horses’ parentage amongst a few other things.

We were both surprised when a little voice piped up from behind us.

” Gee Jess, I guess those are real bad words, I figure Aunt Daisy wouldn’t like to knowyou weretalkin’ like that, “said Mike grinning from ear to ear.

“That she wouldn’t,” grinned Jess in return,” but I guess see ain’t gonna know either is she Mike?” he said giving him a meaningful look.

“Oh no Jess,” agreed the little boy,” guess that’s just between us men folk.”

Jess and I exchanged a smile over his head and let the moment go.

All three of us were leaning on the corral fence watching the mustang gallop about like the very Devil was in him and I reflected again at how good Mike was at naming the wild mustangs it was Jess’s job to break and sell on.

Just then we heard the mid morning Stage rolling into the yard and old Mose, the driver and our good friend, yelled at the team bringing them to a standstill just behind us.

I went off with Mike to fetch the replacement team and Jess started unhitching the tired sweating horses that had just galloped in.

Mose jumped down and grinning at Jess let out a soft whistle.

”Gee Jess you sure are a mess,” he chuckled.

Looking down at himself Jess had to agree, he was covered in grey dust from head to foot and now he had a nasty looking bruise appearing on his forehead as well as a ripped shirt showing a few traces of blood coming through where he had grazed his chest during the last fall.

” Miss Daisy sure is goin’ to have a field day patchin’ you up son,” he said grinning over at my partner.

Having said that, he continued” so where is the dear lady?”

I smiled over at Jess, Moses’ feelings for Daisy were a family joke and we loved teasing her about it.

Coming back with the fresh team I answered his question.

“Sorry Mose she’s over at the Patterson place, helping deliver the latest baby, she will be gone a few days.”

“Dadgum ,” he replied,” Well I’m otta here, not much point in hangin’ around if there’s no Miss Daisy or her coffee and pie,” he finished wistfully.

Climbing back up on his seat he made to rush the team off, before pausing and after patting all his pockets finally pulled a battered looking envelope out of his shirt pocket and leaning down to Jess, said,” Sorry Jess knew there was something else, letter here for you”, and with that slapped the reins and disappeared from the yard in a cloud of dust.

My buddy looked down at the envelope for a moment and then suddenly all the colour drained from his face as he stared at it.

“What’s up Jess?” I asked coming over and peering over his shoulder.

He glanced over at where Mike was playing with Buttons, his dog, and then he moved quickly away and went and stood by the corral fence, looking out to where the stage was fast disappearing down the track.

Then he looked down at the letter again and up at me.

His eyes held a haunted look as he said, “Slim, this handwriting, it’s his….the Bounty Hunters.”

I looked at him with disbelief,” Jess your crazy,” I replied, “you killed him last year, can’t be.”

“I tell you it is,” he yelled, looking over at me fear and anguish now flooding his features,” it is,” he whispered, looking down at the letter again.

I stared at him mirroring his look, then, “are you going to open it then Jess?” I asked.

Looking down again he took a deep breath and ripping the envelope open started to read the content.

After a minute he looked back up at me, his expression even more tortured and passing the letter over to me walked away and stood quietly looking out to the horizon.

I looked down at the battered crumpled letter and began to read,


Thought I was done for? Well I ain’t. The same holds true as before, you and all those you care for are dead meat. This time it will happen though and as soon as I am ready, next day, next month….…guess I’ll just surprise you.

This ain’t a hoax Harper; I’ll write again and let you know who’s going first,

You’re long lost friend,

Walt McCrea, the Bounty Hunter.

I read and re read the short note several times, but it still made no sense at all, the man who had threatened to kill us all last year, as an act of vengeance for Jess’s role in his conviction for murder, was dead. Jess had killed him and his accomplice, so how could he be writing letters?

I went over to my partner and reaching out squeezed his shoulder,” take it easy buddy,” I said,” this has to be some sort of mistake, it can’t be true can it?”

“I don’t know, but I sure aim to find out,” he replied and made for the barn.

I followed him and grabbing his shoulder turned him round to face me. He looked terrible his face pale and drawn and his eyes flashing almost black with anger.

“Hold it Jess,” I said, “don’t go riding off like this, calm down some first. Where are you planning on going anyway?” I finished.

“Town, Mort, he should know what’s happening”.

I knew our good friend the Sheriff, Mort Corey, would be a useful ally, but I didn’t want Jess riding in spitting fire and brimstone this way.

I figured anyone unlucky enough to cross his path would get the full force of the Harper temper and the last thing he needed right now was a spell in Mort’s cell for fighting.

“Come on buddy,” I said calmly, “You can’t go to town in that state anyways.”Looking down at his filthy clothes and blood stained face and chest, ”you’ll frighten the horses,” I finished trying to lighten the atmosphere.

“It was a damn horse as got me in this state,” he said glaring over at Lucifer, but finally turned back towards the ranch and said,” might as well wash up and have somethin’ to eat before I go,” and strode off.

I followed him in and put the coffee pot on and then collecting a bowl of water and clean rag and the small bottle of whiskey entered the room we shared.

Jess had his shirt off and was washing his face and I heard him suck in a breath as he touched the livid cut on his cheek bone.

“Come over here and sit down, I said quietly,” and I’ll fix up those scratches.”

“Aw Slim,” he replied.

I grinned over at him; “you didn’t really think you’d get away with it just ‘cos Daisy isn’t here did you?”

Shaking his head he came and sat down on the edge of his bed while I cleaned out all the dirt and grit from the painful cut on his face. Then I checked out the injury to his chest and did the same to the nasty red raw graze there. I noticed he’d thrown his shirt in the wash for Daisy’s attention on her return but secretly figured even her nimble fingers wouldn’t be able to mend the ripped material.

Finally I produced the whiskey bottle and poured some on a clean cloth ready to disinfect the wounds.

Jess caught sight of it and yelled,” No, aw Slim”, but finally submitted to my ministrations with just the odd oath under his breath.

Once I was sure all the cuts and bruises where clean and properly tended I stood up and grinned down at my scowling friend.

” I swear you enjoy inflicting agony on me,” he growled, before getting up and heading for the door where he paused and throwing a quick grin over his shoulder”, thanks pard”, he said quietly.

I really wanted to ride into town with him to try and keep a tight rein on that temper, but knew I couldn’t leave Mike alone, plus I needed to be there for the afternoon stage.

Jess mounted his horse, Traveler and leaned down to speak to Mike, “stay near Slim, you hear?” he said firmly.

“Sure Jess, is there gonna be trouble?” asked the little boy looking up with his big blue innocent eyes.

“I sure hope not Tiger,” he said looking over Mike’s head to me and our gaze locked in understanding and I reached out and put a protective arm around Mike’s shoulders, “It’s Ok pard,” I said quietly, “I’ll look out for him”.

He nodded.

”Take it easy OK Jess, don’t go getting into anything right now, your needed here, ”I said quietly.

He gave me a hard look, then looking down he swallowed and growled” yeah, OK Slim, I’ll be back for supper,” and kicking Traveler on he left at a brisk trot.

Chapter 2 Jess

As I rode away from the ranch my thoughts were in turmoil. I was feelin’ madder than a wet hen and troubled, real troubled.

I cast my mind back to that fateful day last summer when Mose had delivered that terrible letter from the Bounty Hunter asking me to meet him up on the hill behind the ranch and how he had said unless I rode out and never returned he would kill all my adopted family starting with Mike.

How we had stood up there as the family returned from town and as they alighted from the buckboard McCrea aka the Bounty Hunter had got Mike in the sights of his telescopic lens on his rifle and said he could get him right between the eyes from way up there.

I knew for sure then I was gonna do what ever it took to keep them safe, so the following morning I lit out without a word and headed West. It had been a long hard journey and I had met a wonderful woman and might have stayed away for good if my home ties and the yearning to be back had not been so great.

So I had returned and just a few miles from home had met up with McCrea and had a shoot out where I figured I had killed him.

I thought back again to that time, I had been sick, real sick, suffering the effects of food poisoning and severe dehydration and was practically out of my head with fever and fatigue. Having killed McCrea I was in no fit state to bury him and had just left him out for buzzard fodder. And I was so sick on my return to the ranch it was the following day before Mort was informed of the bodies where abouts and I just assumed he had gone out to fetch him back and bury him in the town cemetery, this is what I now needed to check out.

It was past noon when I entered Laramie and as I passed the saloon I felt the real need for a whiskey, but figuring it just might not stop at one, the mood I was in, I rode on past and tethered Traveler outside the Sheriff’s office.

Mort greeted me with a friendly smile, which froze when he saw the look on my face.

“Hell Jess what’s gotten into you?” he asked

I slumped down in the chair opposite his desk and he arose and went over to the stove in the corner and poured me a coffee and passing it over said,” here drink this you look like you’ve had a shock boy.”

“Thanks Mort,” I said and then getting right to the point I pulled the letter out of my pocket and pushed it across the desk to Mort,” read that.”

He read it several times and then looking up at me said,” you can’t believe this is genuine Jess? “

I reached into my top pocket and pulled out the original letter I had received the year before, and placed it next to the one I had given Mort and he looked at them hard. Then looking up at me gave a low whistle,” looks the same doesn’t it,” he said a puzzled look on his face.

“So,” I asked,” was he definitely dead when you went out to fetch him back?”

Mort looked thoughtful and then said,” wasn’t me Jess I sent Lon the deputy, he fetched back Jake, Mc Crea’s side kick, the one that tried to down you and you shot, well he was sure real dead according to Lon. But when he arrived, there was no sign of McCrea, wasn’t until he dropped Jake at the undertakers that he saw a woman with a buckboard and McCrea’s body was on board. She was just waiting for me or Lon to identify the body then she said she was taking it off to the family plot for burial.”

“But he was definitely dead?” I asked urgently.

“Guess so, maybe we should check with Lon. You’re lucky to catch him, should be in soon, just off to Cheyenne for a couple of months covering for the sick Sheriff over there.”

About half an hour and several of Mort’s gut rot coffees later, Lon strolled in to say his goodbyes.

“Hi there Jess, you OK?” he asked innocently

“No I aint,” I growled and filled him in on why I was there.

” So he was dead?” I finished.

He pushed his hat back and considered my question.

“Gee I guess he was dead Jess, can’t say I really checked though. He was covered with a blanket I pulled it back, he was real white and didn’t look to be breathing and I just assumed he was dead. I checked his face with the old wanted poster I had and signed the paper work and the woman, his daughter I think she was, just drove off with him,” he finished lamely.

I saw red and leaping out of my seat charged over to him and grabbing his shirt pulled him up,” are you sayin’ you didn’t even check he was dead?” I yelled,

“Easy Jess,”said Mort coming over and pulling me away,” old Lon here obviously assumed he was dead, anyone would.”

I backed off shaking my head to clear it and after a minute looked up, “sorry Lon, I guess all this has got me kinda spooked,” I apologized.

“OK,”he said giving me an anxious look.

”I have to say it Jess there is a possibility he was still alive I suppose.”

Then with a ghost of a smile,” remember that time you were shot real bad when you were riding posse with us, well you were white and looked to be not breathing, Mort and I both thought you were dead then , so I suppose it’s possible,” he finished.

I sank back in my chair head in my hands and groaned.

“Goddamn it Mort,” I said looking over at my friend,” not again I can’t go through all this again.”

Then I had a terrible thought,” hey you don’t think that McCrea gave that note to Mose this morning do you?” I said jumping up again,” Hell he could be over at the ranch now….”

“Hold on there son,” broke in Mort picking up the envelope, ”see there is a post mark on this one, sent from Texas last week, guess who ever sent it is still some ways off, so stop your frettin’ and calm down Jess.”

I nodded an acknowledgement of what he’d said, if not agreement and said quietly,” guess you’re right Mort, I’ll be getting back just in case though, and if you hear anything you’ll let me know? “

“Sure, sure I will and tell Slim I’ll be over in a few days and maybe we can figure what all this is about.”

“ I know what its about,” I said my voice raising again,” its about that bastard McCrea killing my family and it aint goin’ to happen Mort, so help me, no matter what, I’m gonna finish it for good this time!” and with that I strode out of the office, jumped up on my horse and spurred him out of town at a gallop, leaving Mort looking after me shaking his head sadly.

Chapter 3 Slim

I sure was relieved to see Jess riding in later that afternoon as I’d figured the way he was feeling when he set off, well, he was sure to end up in trouble.

He rode in at a fast trot and I was surprised to see that Traveler was sweating really badly. It’s not like Jess to push his horse. Shoot, he puts that old horse before himself every time. I’ve seen him with a lump of lead in his shoulder and still insist on rubbing down his horse before his wound was tended. So I was pretty sure there would be a good reason for him riding Trav so hard.

“Sure got old Traveler in lather here Jess,” I said quietly as he dismounted and led the weary horse to his stable.

“Yeah,” he said softly,” guess I did.”

He scratched the horse behind the ear the way he likes and whispered,” sorry old boy,” before pulling the saddle off and starting to rub him down.

Over his shoulder he called, ”where’s Mike? “

“Inside doing his home work, he’s fine, don’t worry.”

“I am worried,” he replied, “that’s why my poor ol’ horse is so beat up, needed to get home fast Slim, I think that bastard is alive and around here somewhere just waiting to take a pot shot at one of us.”

“Why Jess?”

He filled me in as to what Lon had said and the very real possibility that McCrea was still alive and I gave a low whistle, “Goddamn it Jess, this can’t be true,” I said looking at him in despair.

“It’s true,” he said,” I feel it, and the first thing we need to do is get Mike and Daisy out of here pronto,” he continued firmly glancing over at me.” When is Daisy due home?”

“A couple of days I guess, but Jess lets not go rushing into anything, I……”

“Rushing into anything,” he broke in,” are you mad Slim, there’s a crazy man out there gunning for us an’ your sayin’ don’t rush into anything?” he yelled his blue eyes flashing in anger.

“All I’m saying”, I said patiently,” is that we should consider things first. McCrea knows the way we think, if he expects us to send them away maybe he’ll have a plan…..”

“What sorta plan?”

“I don’t know,” I said crossly,” hold up the Stage and take them prisoner maybe.”

He turned and started rubbing down his horse again and then stopping looked down…… thinking hard.

After a minute he replied, “maybe your right Slim,” and then shaking his head sadly,” I guess I just don’t know any more. I thought this was over, dealt with”…..he finished in a whisper.

“Yeah me too pard, me too I said sadly.”

After our talk, I had ridden over to the Patterson place that afternoon and put Daisy in the picture and as the new baby was thriving Daisy felt able to come home with me .We chatted on the way back and it was obvious she was very concerned even though I had tried to play the situation down.

” Are you sure Mike understands he is to stay safe around the ranch?” she asked for the second time and I assured her he was fine and he did.

“What about Jess?” she said turning anxious grey eyes on me,” he was in such a bad way last time; I can’t think what this will do to him. Please try and stop him getting angry and dashing off Slim, I worry so much, about you two,” she finished with her sweet smile.

“You mustn’t worry,” I replied, “sure Jess is angry right now , but guess he’s listening to reason and we’ll sit down and figure something out,” I said smiling across at her.

“As you know I had intended taking Mike to stay with my sister in St Louis later in the summer and as much as I hate to leave you boys, maybe I should still go for Mike’s sake,” she said turning worried eyes on me.

I agreed, but explained how we were worried about possible problems on the journey.

At that she beamed at me,” oh don’t worry Slim, my nephew, who is a State Marshall, has promised to escort us and I don’t think even that dreadful McCrea man would mess with a State Marshall.”

I grinned back at her,” guess not, Daisy,” I said.

That evening, Jess and I sat out on the porch having a last coffee before turning in.

We had eaten well and Jess broke the silence, “sure is good havin’ Daisy back,”he said, “shame she’ll be off again soon”.

“Yeah,” I agreed,” but not for a couple of weeks. The Marshall can’t visit before then, so guess we’ll just have to be vigilant in case that bastard really is about.”

“Oh he’s about Slim,” he replied looking to the horizon, then quietly, “I’m just so, so sorry I’ve brought this on you all again,” he said turning sad eyes on me.

“Jess,” I said “none of this is your fault, I told you that last time. All you did was get a guilty man put in jail; you couldn’t have done anything else at the time and you sure didn’t know how it would turn out.”

“Guess not,” he replied, then draining his coffee said,” just going over to check on ol’ Trav, figure I owe him an extra apple after the way I near rode him into the ground today….‘night Slim”, and he strolled off to the barn.

I knew this was his way of trying to deal with the situation, Jess always goes and talks to his horse, or grooms him or just sits with him when he’s really down . I knew how bad he felt about the situation and just hoped he wouldn’t dash off and try and handle things on his own like last time.

But that was Jess for you and once he got really mad I guessed there wouldn’t be any stopping him. I just hoped to God that all this was still just a nasty hoax and nothing would happen and with a weary heart I got up and retired for the night.

Chapter 4 Jess

I walked into the stable and picking an apple from the basket I kept in there for the horse’s treats and went over to Traveler’s stall.

He gave a soft whinny in welcome and I leaned over offering the fruit on the palm of my hand which he took and munched with obvious enjoyment. I threw an arm across his back and lay my head on it covering my eyes as a wave of despair ran through me.

I thought back to the day I had headed out of the ranch, as I thought then, for the last time, and the terrible feeling of loss as I rode away. I sincerely believed McCrea would kill them all if I hadn’t gone that day.

Then the weeks of riding West, meeting up with Cara and her small son Sean and almost feeling like a family, until the need for my family in Laramie became too great and I had returned to have a final shoot out with the Bounty Hunter.

I still found it hard to believe I hadn’t killed him, surely I had seen the blood stained chest, the hole straight through his heart. But maybe I was mistaken, I pulled my head up from my arm and shook it trying desperately to clear my mind and think straight, but I kept coming to the same conclusion, the letter was proof, he was alive and a real danger to all those I loved, yet again.

The following morning I had again been having a battle of wills with Lucifer, but finally this time things went my way. I managed, mostly, to stay in the saddle as he bucked and reared to the general whoops of appreciation from Mike and Slim on the sidelines .Gradually he started to slow down, the leaps and dives becoming more half hearted, the wild galloping and turning, slowing to a trot and finally a walk…..until he stood still, head bowed, blowing hard through his nostrils, trembling slightly in defeat.

I patted his neck and spoke to him softly and he responded by giving a low whinny and shaking his head gently. I slid down from his back and patted his neck again before leading him off and removing the saddle, loosed him out in the corral to run free.

I had still had a few spills and again I was pretty much covered in dust and had another nasty cut to my face which was still bleeding some.

” Better get that fixed,” Slim said nodding at me,

“Yeah, yeah in a minute,” I responded as usual.


But his comment was lost as the Stage hustled into the yard. Surprisingly Mose was driving quite sedately and so we figured there must me a female aboard and we sure weren’t far wrong.

As I opened the Stage coach door a vision in a very low cut, tightly fitting,green velvet dress leaned forwards and taking my offered hand stepped out.

I had never seen such a striking woman; she had auburn hair and the most amazing large green eyes that were now looking at me in amusement.

I guessed my eyes had been gradually heading south as her cleavage was practically thrust in my face as she leaned forwards as she alighted.

Then in a soft voice with a southern drawl she said, for my ears only,” the way your lookin’ at me honey, I guess your Ma wouldn’t like to know what you’re a thinkin’,” she grinned nodding over to Daisy who had just emerged from the ranch.

Blushing to the roots of my hair I growled,” she ain’t my Ma,” and was about to say more when Slim came over.

”Excuse my partner,” he said smoothly,” he’s been tussling with a mustang all morning and guess he’s a mite untidy”, and pushing me aside walked the elegant lady into the ranch for coffee.

I looked up at Mose, “untidy?” I said, in astonishment.

“Well guess he couldn’t say down right filthy in front of a lady,” laughed Mose, and we started changing the team, him chuckling softly to himself all the while.

Once the job was done I dusted myself off some with my hat, washed the blood off my face at the outside wash stand and entered the ranch.

Slim stood up as I entered and I guess the ‘wait until I get you later’ look in my eyes made him feel kinda guilty, because he came over and slapping me on the back turned to the lady in green and said, “Mrs Jackson, Id like you to meet my partner in the ranch, Jess Harper, Jess this lady has bought the Benson spread.”

At the name of the Benson place my heart stood still and I stared at Slim. That had been the place the Bounty Hunter had holed up when he was stalking us.


I pulled myself together.

”Pleased to meet you Mrs Jackson,” I said smiling into her perfect green eyes.

”Ruby please,” she said giving me a very forward look.

Feeling another blush coming on I excused myself, saying Mose would be rolling out in a minute.

I was surprised therefore when Slim came out alone and started unloading Mrs Jackson’s belongings and putting then in a large pile in the yard.

“What’s goin’ on?” I asked.

“Well Ruby there thought the Stage stopped right by the ranch, didn’t realise there was a good mile ride in from the Laramie road, so I said you would put her stuff in the buckboard and drive her over”.

“I’d do what! Now wait a minute here Slim, why me?”

“Because as you well know Mort is riding over to talk to me this afternoon, besides pard,” he said grinning,” reckon she’s taken a bit of a shine to you.”

“So where is Mr Jackson, why ain’t he doin’ this?” I complained as I started hauling the first of a huge pile of cases and boxes onto our buckboard.

“Dead, she’s a widow Jess,” he said again giving me a wide grin,” better watch it, know the two things your afraid of, being left afoot and the love of a decent woman, well guess this one’s got you in her sights pard.”

“Aw Slim will you shut up and help me lift this stuff, weighs a ton, “I moaned and he came over and gave me a hand, still chuckling to himself.

We’d just finished loading up when Mrs Jackson came out of the ranch with Daisy, both women chatting animatedly.

She said her goodbyes and then waited for me to help her up onto the buckboard .She leaned very close into me and again flashed an intimate look as I helped her up, which I tried to ignore, and jumping onto the seat myself I clicked to the team leaving the yard at a fast trot.

Once on the road she chatted away about this and that and seemed friendly and pleasant enough so I decided I had misread the signals, she had been sending out since we met, and figured she was just being friendly.

Once we arrived at the ranch I unloaded all her possessions and helped her sort out some of her stuff, laying down some rugs and putting up curtains and by the time I’d finished it was getting late.

As we worked together I had became aware that she was weighing me up, looking over at me with a speculative look in her eyes.

She was constantly teasing me, particularly about the cuts and scrapes I’d picked up thanks to Lucifer.

At one stage she had reached up and run her finger down the cut on my cheek bone asking me if it was painful.

I had just smiled and made a joke of it, but her touch had sent shivers of desire down my spine and my stomach flipped as I looked into those amused all knowing green eyes.

I moved away and continued working but she seemed to be constantly near me brushing past and smiling over at me.

Finally the last box was emptied and I stood up stretching and started to make ready for off. It was quite late and dusk was falling.

She smiled over at me, “thank you for your help cowboy,” she said softly in her southern drawl, “now would you like to stay,” she asked looking seductively up into my eyes and after a pause,” for supper that is?”

“Well thank you Ma’am,” I said,” but I’m expected back for supper at the ranch”.

She reached out and put her hands on my chest and looking up at me she gave me that intimate look again and said softly,” and so do you always do what’s expected Jess?”

She licked her full red lips and gave me another very knowing look, this time her eyes laughing up at me.

“Not always,” I said my voice husky with emotion.

There was no denying what she wanted and as she reached up and kissed me I felt deeply aroused and kissed her firmly back. She melted in my arms her hands in my hair and then at my back pulling me closely towards her so that I could feel her lithe body soft against mine.

Our kisses became more urgent and finally she broke off looking up at me and said softly, “Are you gonna do what you’ve been wantin’ to since you first clapped eyes on me then cowboy?”

I gave her a slow smile in answer and she took my hand and walked towards her bedroom, pulling me through the door and closing it gently behind us.


It was dark when I left much later and I dressed hurriedly and giving her one last kiss, she whispered my name and fell asleep again.

I left the house quietly and jumping up on the buckboard turned for home.

On arrival I saw Slim under the dim porch light having a last coffee before turning in.

”I’ll fetch another cup,” he said as I entered the yard and when I returned from dealing with the horses there was a cup of good strong coffee waiting for me.

“We wondered what had happened to you,” he said looking over at me quizzically.

“Yeah, well took longer than I thought,” I muttered.

He grinned over at me then and said,” You know Jess, if you’re old enough to play grown up games, guess you should be able to dress your self,” and reaching over pointed to where I’d fastened my shirt buttons up in the wrong holes, as I’d dressed hurriedly in the dark.

I gave him an embarrassed look.

“Getting dressed in the dark huh?”

I nodded.

“So I take it the widow Jackson was appreciative of all your help” he smiled

“Slim…. “I said a warning note in my voice.

“And there’s me thinking you were afraid of getting caught by a decent woman,” he continued.

After a long pause…“Well maybe she isn’t,” I said thoughtfully.

“She sure looked like a lady,” he said looking surprised.

“Not in bed she ain’t,” I answered.


“Well let’s put it this way, tricks she knows, guess she’s been professionally employed at some time.”

“You’re saying she’s a Hooker?” he gasped in amazement.

“Well she sure gives a good impression,” I said.

“Go on….”

“Oh no, you know I never discuss details of my ladies”, I said grinning across at him.

“Aw Jess…”

“No way Pard, that’s for me to know and you to guess at,” I said

There was a moments silence as he knew I wouldn’t be saying anything more on the subject.

“Come on then,” he said draining his coffee,” you’d better get some shut eye, seeing as how those mustangs are standing in line waiting to see which one gets to stomp on you tomorrow, that’s if you’ve got any energy left”, he finished laughing and ducking as I made a swipe at him.

Chapter 5 Slim

The following morning at breakfast Jess was looking pretty rough with the cuts on his face looking painful and he now had a couple of nasty dark bruises too and much of his chest and back were covered in bruises as well, I had noticed as he had dressed that morning.

I felt real bad for him having to get up on another mean horse to be honest, but it’s what he does and he’s damn good at it too. Anyway I knew he’d be the last person to back down and he was aware how important the sales of these horses are to our livelihood. Still, he took a while over his last coffee and finally with a resigned look on his face he got up stiffly and went out to the corral.

From the way Daisy had been looking across at him I knew she didn’t want him to work with the horses today either, but thought there was no point in saying anything, knowing how stubborn Jess can be.

The first ride of the day was a pretty little Palomino and she was not too much of a problem, submitting to Jess’s controls without much of a battle and we figured with some schooling she would turn into a nice gentle mount.

The next one up in the pen had evil written right through him though, black as night and a good 16 hands he was muscular and very strong. I had had my reservations when we had caught him, but Jess insisted on bringing him in and had spent a long time trying to sweet talk him and spoil him with sugar lumps, but all these little tricks had failed to make any impression on the big horse and I was dreading Jess getting up on him, wild and vicious as he was.

As it happened I was amazed that he stayed on as long as he did. The horse reared and bucked and even attempted to turn his head and bite Jess’s leg. He hung on in there though and just when it looked like the big fellah was running out of steam he suddenly galloped full pelt at the corral fence and stopped short hurling Jess over his head with great force and he slammed into the top of the fence taking the full weight of the fall across his torso and hung there for a second or two before falling down on the other side away from the prancing iron hooves of Black Heart as Mike had called him.

Jess lay still on the ground and I ran across and gently turning him over was horrified to see blood pumping out of a deep gash piercing his chest. Looking up at the fence I saw the cause of the wound, a large rusty 6 inch nail sticking out of the top rail, as lethal and sharp as a dagger, and cursed myself for not noticing it earlier. Jess had turned deathly pale and was groaning and retching and I pulled him up into a sitting position, supporting his back and putting my hand over the wound to try and stop the blood which was still pumping out. The warm sticky fluid oozed between my fingers and I felt panic rising. Mike had run in for Daisy and she came tearing out, shock on her face as she took in the scene.

“Quickly Slim can you get him in the house we must stop the bleeding,” she said.

Lifting him gently up I all but ran, staggering under his weight, to the ranch and carrying him over to the couch lay him down and he fell back his eyes squeezing closed tight in pain.

Daisy was there at once and unbuttoning his ripped shirt she placed a wad of clean cloth directly over the gapping wound and told me to press down hard. As I did so Jess let out a muffled yell and he closed his eyes muttering an oath under his breath.

“Sorry, sorry buddy,” I said.” Got to stop this bleeding, just take it easy.”

He opened his eyes at that and looked at me like I was crazy but said nothing.

After what seemed like hours Daisy said to check on the bleeding and thank God it had lessened and I figured the immediate danger was over.

Daisy turned to me and breathed a sigh of relief.

” I think he’ll be OK,” she whispered,” but he will need stitches, Slim can you ride for Doc Baker?”

“Sure will you be alright with him?” I asked looking at her troubled grey eyes with concern.

“Oh yes, Mike is here to give me a hand, but if you go now Slim I think you may catch him still at the Patterson place, he was due to check on the new baby today. “

“OK, I’m on my way,” I said, pausing only to pat Jess lightly on the arm, “OK buddy?”

“Sure,” he said with the ghost of a smile.

By the time I got back with the Doc, who I had fortunately caught just as he was leaving our neighbors, Jess had fallen into a restless sleep and he was looking real bad, pale and sweating.

“Thank God you’re here Sam,”Daisy addressed the doctor and our good friend.

“I thought we had stemmed the bleeding, but I think there might be some internal bleeding too, his pulse is very weak and rapid, and he said he felt very dizzy before he fell asleep” she finished, and with that she stood to one side so the Doc could examine Jess.

He awoke as Sam pulled the blood stained dressing away, exposing the livid wound still oozing some blood and looking red and angry, but he just gave a low moan and closed his eyes again.

Sam took a good look and then walked to the kitchen to rinse his hands.

I followed him in.

“It’s not too good Slim,” he said turning his kindly eyes on me,” needs stitching up inside as well as out and I’ll have to administer an anesthetic, Daisy can help, she knows what to do. But, I have to be honest, it’s pretty risky, he’s lost a lot of blood, I need to work on him right away, no time to lose,” and with that he consulted Daisy as to what he needed.

Feeling pretty much in the way I left them for a while and went and sat out on the porch. Mike came and joined me and he looked very near to tears.

“Hey,” I said,” it’ll take more than a bad fall to finish off Jess, he’s made of tough stuff, you know that Mike. “

“Yeah?” he said looking at me with a gleam of hope in his eyes, then” he’ll be fine”, he agreed.

” Take more than that ol’ Black Heart to make Jess give up…why I bet he’s back on him tomorrow,” he finished grinning up at me.

I didn’t quite share Mike’s faith, but smiled back anyway, “well sometime soon Tiger,” I finished and then looked quickly away hiding the despair in my eyes.

Sam wouldn’t have said it was serious if he wasn’t really worried I thought to myself.

I’d sent Mike off to stack some logs to keep him busy when the Doc finally joined me on the porch an hour or so later.

He looked real tired and turning his kind smile on me slapped me gently on the arm.

“He’s sure made of tough stuff your partner,” he said softly”, that was a real bad lesion, managed to fix him up OK with Miss Daisy’s help, now for the hard bit, making him rest” he said breaking into a grin.

“Oh, he’ll rest OK,” I said grinning back,” even if I have to tie him down!”

Which was pretty much always the way it was when Jess was injured, which was often enough, too often really.

He just would not behave and it darned near drove Daisy and I crazy. This time I meant to start the way I was going to carry on and went back into the ranch where Jess was lying on the couch where the operation had taken place.

He still looked pretty much out of it and so Sam and I pulled him up gently and carried him to the room we shared and lay him on his bed. As we lay him down his eyes flickered open and I saw a flash of deep blue as he tried to keep them open and focus on me, then he started struggling to sit up.

I pushed him gently back.

“Oh no you don’t buddy, ” I said firmly, “you aren’t stirring from this bed until I say so.”

He looked up at me like he was about to argue, then saw the look in my eye and thought better of it and lay back quietly, sighed and fell asleep again.

“Round one to me, ”I said smiling over at Sam.

So I was really surprised when he acted completely out of character and did everything he was told and submitted to Daisy’s ministrations without a murmur.

He’d been sick as a dog all night after the operation as he always was after an anesthetic, preferring the old method of pain relief, a few shots of Red Eye whiskey, although I don’t know why, as that had the same inevitable effect on his stomach. Anyway he slept pretty much through the following day and night and so it wasn’t until noon on the day after that we actually talked properly.

“Well I have to admit I’m real impressed pard,” I said grinning down at him where he lay resting on his bed”, it’s not like you to behave,” I laughed.

“Yeah, well there’s a reason, I need to get better real quick.” he growled.


“Have you forgotten about that bastard McCrea that’s out to kill us?” he asked angrily.

“No I haven’t forgotten,” I said,” just been a bit side tracked wandering if my best buddy’s gonna live or die.”

“It was never that bad, Slim,” he said quietly

“Sure was,” I answered.

He looked down for a moment and then shook his head as if to clear it.

“Yeah, well I’m OK now,” he said,” What we need to do is get Daisy and Mike out of here as soon as we can and then maybe McCrea will make his move and we can get this whole sorry business over with.”

Chapter 6 – Jess

The fall from old Black Heart , as Mike had called him, sure shook me up some, but I was pleased when Sam called and said I could do light duties around the ranch but he said that there was to be positively no horse riding..

Even Traveler, who could be more of a nurse maid than Daisy at times, was banned for another two weeks and positively no bronco bustin’ until the end of the month.

Later, I viewed Black Heart from the corral fence and said, ”don’t you worry big fellah, it ain’t over yet.”

Slim came up behind me and slapping me on the shoulder said,” good to see you up and around again pard, but you ain’t considering getting back up there anytime soon are you?”

“No,” I grinned,” don’t worry pard, he’ll keep. “

“Good ,”he replied, “look are you OK to do the afternoon stage only Ruby has asked Daisy to visit, and the way things are, figured I’d go over with her, maybe take Mike, they haven’t been off the ranch since this McCrea business set up again. That is unless you’d like to take em’ Jess?” he asked giving me a big grin.

“Think I’ll pass thanks,” I said, remembering the last time Ruby and I had met, I sure didn’t want her casting any of her intimate looks over at me whenDaisy and Mike were about.

“You’ll be back by supper?” I asked.

“Sure, don’t panic, Daisy will be back to feed you,” he laughed before going off to hitch up old Betsy to our small rig, that Daisy preferred driving to the heavy buckboard.

Things went real fine and Mose gave me a hand changing the team when the afternoon Stage rolled in and I was looking forward to their return as the afternoon wore on.

They were a bit later than I expected so I was sitting out on my rocker, on the porch watching out when I heard the buggy coming down the track. I looked up and was surprised to see Slim driving with Daisy and Mike squeezed up on the seat with him and Alamo, his mount hitched on behind.

I got up quickly and went and helped Daisy down, she looked real tearful and I could feel her trembling as I handed her down from the rig.

“Daisy are you OK?” I asked as I looked into her unhappy eyes.

“I’m alright now,” she replied, “I just had a scare,” and with that retired to the ranch

Mike jumped down and filled me in on the journey home.

”Gee Jess, that was real exciting,” he said as he jumped down,” ol’ Betsy there, she suddenly took off an’ bolted, Aunt Daisy couldn’t hold her an’ Slim had to get on Alamo and chase after us, seemed like a real long time before he came, but he caught ol’ Betsy afore we were on the main road, ”he finished flushed with excitement.

By that time Slim had unhitched the spooked Betsy and was in the barn rubbing her down.

I entered the barn and with a quick glance at the sweating horse said,” what’s up Slim, ain’t like Betsy to bolt, what happened?”

Slim looked up and tipping his hat back, said,” sure can’t figure it Jess, we were coming back from Ruby’s place and she suddenly just bolted.”

I went over and looked at the horse’s back and saw a small lesion.

”See here”, I said, “could be a burr under the harness, or an insect bite.”

He looked, “Yeah, guess so,” he said,” good job I was around as poor ol’ Betsy sure spooked. Took off and the buggy was about to turn over, darn lucky I got there in time, else……..”

“Was it that bad?” I whistled.

“Yeah, they could have both been killed….”

Just then Mike ran in and was full of the news of the litter of kittens at Ruby’s place so further discussion was postponed.

As soon as the horse was rubbed down and fed we returned to the ranch house and I went directly to the kitchen to find Daisy.

”Are you OK?” I asked feeling really concerned.

She looked up with her kind grey eyes, and said, “of course Jess, just a little upset at the time, but I am fine now,” she said smiling bravely at me.

“Sooner you’re off to your sister in St Louis, happier I’ll be,” I said.

“Oh Jess you can’t think that dreadful man had anything to do with this,” she said looking at me in horror

“No, I guess not,” I said,” but once this thing is dealt with and you are back home again then we can relax,” and then I reached over and pulling her close to me gave her a big hug, “Oh Daisy ,please look after your self,” I whispered.

“Don’t worry Jess,” she replied everything will turn out all right you’ll see,”and turned to finish cooking the meal.

The following day Daisy was busy preparing for their visit to St Louis at the end of the week, Slim was off checking the fences over on the north pasture leaving me to deal with all the chores at the ranch.

Mike and I spent the morning caring for the stock and doing all the usual jobs and then after lunch I rested in the rocker on the porch as Doc Sam had said I should. Mike was playing around in the yard practicing his lassoing skills on his long suffering dog.

I figured I had only dropped off for a few minutes, but when I awoke there was no sign of Mike. I called him a couple of times and then went into the ranch and said,” Daisy seen Mike?”

“No dear I thought he was with you”, she replied.

We quickly searched around the ranch calling him and there was no sign.” God damn it,” I swore under my breath, realizing this must be the work of


Striding over to the barn I saddled Traveler and steeling myself hopped up, taking a deep breath against the pain that seared across the wound in my chest and I rode him over to where Daisy was standing on the porch.

” Oh Jess you really shouldn’t be riding”, she said anxiously.

“No choice,” I replied briefly,” when Slim gets back say I’m covering East down the Laramie road, get him to go West,” and with that I spurred Traveler into a gallop, thinking the very worst, the Bounty Hunter had stolen Mike from under my nose and I couldn’t bear the thought of how I had let him down. How could I have fallen asleep, I thought, the pain of losing Mike hitting me hard, as I rode out looking for any trace.

Hours later it was getting dark and I was pretty much done in, my wound hurting like hell. I had covered every possible track and path and seen no sign of Mike or indeed a horse or buggy that might have waylaid him.

I was heading back to the ranch, past the Benson turn off, our nearest neighbors, when I suddenly heard the frenzied barking of a dog. Following the sound I turned into the track to the Benson place and as the sound got louder I realized it was Mike’s dog Buttons.

Turning a bend in the track I came across him barking at the entry to a rabbit hole and digging away for all he was worth.

Picking up the little critter I put him on the saddle in front of me and said, “Where’s Mike then fellah, huh?” and spurred Trav on along the track to the ranch house.

As I arrived I could see the lights were on and then Mike came running out to greet me.

I practically fell from my horse and running to him pulled him into my arms and held him so tight, like I’d never let go.

Finally I released him and my anger took over, “what the hell are you playing at Mike?” I said,” you know damn well you ain’t allowed off the ranch right now! “

He looked upset and said” I’m real sorry for getting you mad Jess, but Miss Ruby said it would be OK.”

“Oh she did, did she,” I replied, looking up as Ruby walked out onto the porch.

She ran down the steps and grabbed hold of my arm,” I’m so sorry Jess ,”she said” I didn’t think, I walked over the hill to visit and saw you were asleep and asked Mike if he wanted to play with the kittens.I guess we didn’t notice the time.”

“Didn’t notice the time,” I exploded, “have you any idea how worried we’ve been?”

“Aren’t you rather over reacting,” she asked giving me a cool look.

Then I realized she knew nothing about McCrea, so figuring I should make her understand the situation, I went in and over coffee explained the whole sorry business. As the truth came out she became more and more upset,” I’m so, so sorry Jess, I had no idea,” she finished sadly.

“It’s OK,” I said at last,” but we must get back, Daisy and Slim will be real worried.

Mike took Buttons off and prepared to mount Traveler and Ruby called me back, her hand on my sleeve.

”Seriously Jess I am sorry and I’d sure like to see you again….. soon,” she said giving me that special look.

I looked back, not knowing what to say, or what I wanted, and so just gave her a curt nod and turning away mounted Traveler, pulling Mike up in front of me and with the dog following on, I spurred Trav for home, without a backward glance.

I met Slim just down the road a piece and his reaction was the same angry one as mine.

” What the Hell did the woman think she was doin’ taking a little kid away like that?” he asked angrily.

“Guess she didn’t think we would be so worried,” I said and explained that I had told her about McCrea.

“Even so, still seems a strange thing to do,” he said shaking his head.

Then he reached over and ruffled Mikes hair,” come on then Tiger lets get you home to Aunt Daisy, she’s havin’ kittens worrying about you,” and Mike grinned over at my blond friend knowing he was forgiven.

The following morning we were all up bright and early with Daisy fussin’ around doing her final packing and Mike practically beside himself with excitement about his first trip to St Louis .

They were due to leave on the mid-morning stage for Cheyenne and Daisy’s nephew, the state Marshall was meeting them there and accompanying them on the remainder of the trip out to St Louis and would be staying there with his mother, Daisy’s sister for the length of their stay so we were not worried about them at all. In fact it was a relief not to be constantly checking they were safe and I guess the tensions of the past few weeks were beginning to tell and I’d been kinda quiet and withdrawn. To make up for my behavior I took Mike off and we did a little lasso practice on real mustangs this time. The boy had a good eye and he managed to rope a couple of the less restless horses.

“Well done Tiger “I said grinning down at him,” guess we’ll make a cowboy of you yet.”

Just then we heard a rider coming in down the track real fast.

“Someone’s in a hurry,” I said looking up and shading my eyes from the sun.

Suddenly Ruby galloped into the yard her big Grey throwing up a cloud of dust as she pulled him up tightly beside Mike and I.

She flung herself off her mount and ran towards me like the very devil was after her and threw herself in my arms sobbing.

I held her close for a few minutes and then gently pushing her back, but still holding her arms I looked down into her troubled eyes,” Hey sweetheart what’s the matter?” I said softly.

Taking a huge breath she pulled herself together and looking at me and then glancing over at Slim and Daisy who had raced out of the ranch on her arrival, she said, “he was here, last night, at my ranch”.

“He……..who?” I asked looking at her in bewilderment.

“That man you told me about yesterday McCrea, the Bounty Hunter he was here.”

Goddamn it,” I swore and looking over to Slim we both moved as one to saddle up.

Ruby reached out and grabbed my arm,” no Jess wait, he’s long gone now. You don’t understand, he left a letter for me to give you and then tied me up and left me, I’ve only just managed to get free,” she finished showing me the raw red marks on her wrists made by the rope.

I pulled her to me again in a gentle embrace and looking deeply into her scared green eyes I said,”Are you OK honey?”

“Sure, but I think you need to read the letter Jess,” she said reaching into her shirt pocket and pulling out a crumpled envelope.

I recognized his handwriting at once and a wave of nausea made me feel weak and dizzy and I closed my eyes for a moment swallowing hard. Then I took the envelope from her and ripped it open as Slim came across to read it over my shoulder.


Just a note to wish Daisy and Mike a good trip, might tell them to be extra careful

though, these Stage coaches are real likely to meet with accidents so I am told.

Once you’ve buried them and that partner of yours I’ll be lookin to finish off our business once and for all.

Watch your back Harper,

Walt McCrea

“Hell,” I whispered my face ashen, turning to look at Slim and we both glanced over at Daisy and Mike.

Just then we heard the Stage approaching and 2 minutes later old Mose brought it to a shuddering standstill beside us beaming down. First thing I noticed was there was nobody riding shotgun.

“Where’s Jed?”I asked Mose referring to Jed Fenton who was a real tough guy and employed as security by the Overland Stage Company.

“Search me,” he replied,” just didn’t turn in for work this morning, could be sick, but it ain't like him not to show.”

“No sure aint ,”I agreed throwing a worried look at Slim.

“That’s it,” he said forcefully, “you change the team Jess and I’ll throw some stuff in a bag, I’ll ride shotgun and stay with Daisy and Mike until the Marshall can pick ‘em up.”

I went to argue I should go, but knowing me so well he raised his hand to stop me.

“No Jess, you’re still ailing from that fall, you aren’t well yet and you know it, Doc says you are to rest, now for once will you do as ya told?”

I gave him a hard look, but I knew he was right and giving him a curt nod, started to unhitch the team.

Before I hitched up the fresh team I went over the whole of the coach and harness checking and double checking all was as it should be. Mose gave me an old fashioned look but said nothing and I guessed he was too preoccupied at having Miss Daisy on board the think of much else.

Then in a flurry of goodbyes they were in the coach, Slim up on the box with Mose and they hustled out of the yard, leaning out to wave a last farewell.

I felt a huge lump in my throat as I waved them off and hoped to God they would all be safe. Suddenly I was aware of Ruby standing close beside me, an arm snaked around my waist and she was looking up at me with a sad expression on her beautiful face.

“It’s OK,” she said,” they’ll be fine.”

“Sure,” I said meeting her gaze which had now changed to that familiar knowing smile she seemed to keep just for me. Standing even closer she leaned forwards and gently undid a couple of my shirt buttons and putting her hand inside stroked the healed wound on my chest, and bending her head kissed the scar softly, before looking up into my eyes. I felt a shiver of desire and leaning down kissed her passionately

“Whoa cowboy,” she said huskily “don’t start anything you can’t finish.”

“Who said I can’t finish it?” I asked giving her a deeply intimate look.

“Thought you were sick, that’s all,” she said,” under Doc’s orders to rest”

“Not that sick,” I said my voice husky with desire and leaning over again I kissed her hard before taking her hand and leading her to my room…..

Much later I lay on my side, one hand resting my head and the other arm flung loosely across her flat belly as I watched her sleeping.

She was so beautiful, but I didn’t love her, hell I hardly knew her. I felt bad, real bad, I’m not the sort of man to have a relationship with a woman without there being love, or at least some real deep feelings for her, but God forgive me what I felt for Ruby was pure old fashioned lust. To be fair I argued to myself she had made all the running, but even so I felt I was somehow using her and no good would come out of the relationship.

As I lay there watching her, she gradually stirred and then opened those incredible green eyes and looked at me sleepily. Yawning and stretching like a cat she smiled and said,” Hi there cowboy, you OK?

“Sure,” I replied.

Then she leaned over and gently ran a finger down my face.

“Jess, would it be alright for me to stay over a while, just a few days while Slim is away, only that McCrea, well….. he spooked me some, I don’t really want to be at my place alone,” she finished looking seductively up at me from beneath her lashes.

“Well I don’t know,” I mused looking real thoughtful…..”all depends on what sorta cook you are,” I said grinning down at her.

“Why you”, she said taking a gentle swipe at my head.” I’m a darn good cook; you won’t starve to death that’s for sure,” she said a cheeky grin spreading across her features.

I figured it would be good to get to know her properly anyway as she had told me practically nothing about herself so far. So that evening after a particularly good supper we sat out on the porch with our coffee and I asked her about her past. She seemed a little reluctant to say anything at first but gradually she opened up and started to talk.

Looking over at me she said, “figure you and I have a few things in common Jess, guess neither of us had much parenting.”

I had told her about the Banister raid killing my family and how I’d been on the drift from the age of 15, on the wrong side of the law at times. Which was kinda out of character for me, to open up that way…but well there was just something about her that made me want to share stuff with her.

Now it was her turn.

Looking thoughtfully at me she continued,” Ma died when I was small and Pa…well he was away a lot, he was a lawman and traveled around. So, soon as I turned 15 I got me a job in the local saloon. I didn’t get much schoolin’ you see Jess with my Pa’s job takin’ him an’ me off so much and the only decent jobs were in shops or dressmakin’ or school teachin’, I wasn’t good enough for anything like that so I ended up inthe saloon.”

I nodded, “well that ain’t so bad.”

“You think not?…anyway my Pa had to go away…..err on business and he was away for six long years, that’s when I had to take the saloon job, to support myself while he was away. I was young and pretty naive but it wasn’t too long before I realized the saloon owner expected a bit more of me than just pouring drink.”

She looked down, took a deep breath and then looked across at me again.

“I guess you figured that already, that first night, that I was a ‘working girl’ didn’t you Jess?”

I opened my mouth to deny it, but the look she shot me stopped me and I nodded and reaching out gently took her hand.

She seemed to be struggling with her emotions and was silent for a while, then looking back at me said,” I worked in that God forsaken hole for over six years Jess, used and abused by filthy stinking trail hands and ranchers bored with their wives and worse some low lives that hurt me, hurt me real bad Jess,” she said her eyes filling with tears.

I held her hand more tightly.

” Oh sweetheart, it’s OK,” I said,” you don’t have to tell me. “

“I do,” she said,” I owe you that at least, I want to tell you how wonderful it has been with you.”

Then leaning over and looking deeply into my eyes she said,” you are the first man who has ever considered my feelings, my pleasure as well as your own, that just never happened to me before Jess,” she said, fresh tears coursing down her face.

“What about your husband I asked he must have….”

“No,” she broke in,” he was a terrible man. He was a friend of my fathers and I guess he thoughthe was rescuing me by taking me on, and away from the saloon, but he was as bad, even worse than the men at the saloon, he beat me Jess and I’m glad he is dead real glad”

“What did you mean you owe me that, at least?” I asked, “you don’t owe me anything.”

She looked uncomfortable for a moment and then said, “oh nothing really, nothing important,” and looking away changed the subject.

I couldn’t make her out, she seemed so honest and open at times and then at others I just couldn’t reach her, couldn’t understand her….

Soon after that we turned in, and later I held her in my arms as she slept, feeling a deep sorrow for the pitiful life she had been forced to lead and something else, the stirring of compassion and maybe even love.

I felt real ashamed for the way I’d been treating her, but sex with her was like a drug, I wanted her and needed her and I was beginning to feel I was completely out of control and I lay there, unable to sleep, wondering where all this would end.

The following morning I was awakened by someone beating on the door. Rousing myself I could tell by the way the sunlight was slanting in that it was real late. There was no sign of Ruby so jumping out of bed and reaching for my denims I quickly pulled them on as the hammering on the door got increasingly louder.

“All right, all right I’m a comin’ keep your hair on,” I yelled and yanking open the door saw Mose standing there, the stage and horses behind him.

” About time too,” he yelled,” just ‘cos ol’ Slims away thought you’d sleep in did you?”

I stared at him mouth agape trying to wake up.

” Come on lad get a wriggle on,” he chuckled, “you sort out the team and I’ll get the coffee on,” he said marching across the living room and into the kitchen.

Following him wearily we both stopped short at the sight that greeted us as we entered the kitchen.

Ruby was making breakfast clad only in one of my blue work shirts, apart from that she was buck naked.

We stood there gazing at her for a full minute before Mose collected his senses and said,” err… forget the coffee Jess, guess we’d better get the team fixed up,” and turning, left.

Ruby sent me a cheerful grin and shaking my head I fetched my boots and went out to help Mose.

He looked over, a broad grin on his face,

”So bein’ neighborly are you Jess?” he beamed,” got the little lady moved in for company while the family are away? “

I gave him a hard look,” if you so much as breath a word of this to anyone Mose, so help me I’ll….”

“Don’t worry son, your secrets safe with me,” he broke in, tapping the side of his nose, before continuing to unhitch the team chuckling all the while.


The rest of the week was spent in each others company with Ruby helping me out in my ranch chores and spending fun loving evenings together. I was really beginning to get to know her well and her me, so I thought.

The last night we spent together at the ranch before Slim was due back was particularly special and we enjoyed a wonderful meal, coked by Ruby, before retiring to bed.

As she lay in the circle of my arms she looked deeply into my eyes and I saw a look of something I couldn’t figure, fear or dread, she said quietly, “ I never thought it would be like this Jess, I never thought I could fall for you.”

I answered quietly,” guess it’s early days yet, but I think I love you too, let’s just take things real easy and see what happens huh”, I finished.

“Oh Jess”, she responded tearfully,” I never meant it to be this way, not like this.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Looking up at the ceiling she finally replied, “nothing Jess, guess I’m just bein’ silly”, and with that pulled me to her into a loving embrace and all rational thoughts was lost in our passion.

The following day, after the morning Stage had gone through I helped her pack up her clothes ready to return home. As we saddled up our mounts she looked really sad.

” Hey, its OK sweetheart,” I said,” I’ll be round to visit often, this ain’t the end you know.”

“Isn’t it?” she asked, then pulling herself together, said” no, of course not”, giving me a bright smile

When we landed back at her place I figured I’d just drop her off and get back home, making ready for Slim’s return. Plus there were a few out standing jobs I had left, wanting to spend all my time with Ruby.

But she had other ideas and no sooner had we entered the ranch house than she snaked her arms around my neck, pulling me close in a passionate kiss. My resolve went instantly as I curved my arms around her, molding my taught body to hers.

That lovemaking was more passionate and fulfilling than any I could remember with Ruby. It was almost as if she was giving her all and afterwards as I lay in her warm embrace, seeing tears coursing down her cheeks I was incredibly moved.

“Hey sweetheart, it’s OK,” I said, before drifting off to sleep in her arms.

When I awoke, some time later, I thought she had gone and I yawned and stretched and then looking up saw her standing at the bottom of the bed fully dressed in the tight green velvet dress she had worn on that first day when I had helped her down from the Stage.

“You look smart I said, goin’ somewhere?”

“No”, she said, a very hard look in her eyes,” but you are.”

Suddenly alert to her change in tone, I sat up, looking over at her, with a feeling of alarm.

“Oh,” I said “where?”

“To meet your Maker Jess Harper,” she spat, and I realized she was holding my cocked colt .45 and as she spoke she leveled it so that it was pointing at my chest.

“What are you doin’?” I asked as a sudden spurt of fear coursed through my veins.

“I’m goin’ to do what my Pa would have wanted,” she replied, “I’m gonna shoot you straight through the heart…”

“Who are you?” I asked quietly with a feeling of deep dread.

“Ruby McCrea, Walt was my father,” she said,” and Jake was my husband.”

I stared at her in disbelief, how could this be, how could she have made love to me all those times, knowing she had planned this all along from day one ?

“I’m sorry Jess,” she said,” yes I think I could love you, if I knew what love was, but I promised on my father’s grave I would kill you ….and that’s what I have to do,” she finished, tears now streaming down her cheeks.

Just then we heard the sound of horses galloping into the yard, she flicked a quick glance towards the window and then back at me, fear in her eyes.

” No”, I yelled “it doesn’t have to be like this Ruby.”

She looked deathly pale, a mixture of emotions flitting across her face, and then with a look of resignation in her eyes,” I’m sorry Jess,”she said and pulled the trigger.

I felt a searing pain in my chest and then watched in horror as she turned the gun on herself, leveling it at her temple and pulling the trigger, she fell like a stone, then blackness engulfed me and I knew no more.

Chapter 7 –Slim

It had been a long hot journey on the Stage from Cheyenne and on our arrival in Laramie I decided to stop off and visit Mort Corey and enjoy a coffee with him, before the last leg of my journey back to the ranch.

As I entered the Sheriff’s office I was met by Mort who seemed somewhat agitated.

“Slim, sure is good to see you he said, I was just going over to your place, need to speak with Jess urgently.

“Oh?” I said

“Yeah, something a tad worrying has happened. Lon, my deputy, just got back from Cheyenne a few days ago and apparently he saw that woman that collected the Bounty Hunter’s body after he’d been shot by Jess. He saw her here in Laramie a few days ago. Turns out she’s the same woman that has bought the old Benson place, Mrs. Jackson is it?”

“Yeah,” I replied, that is kinda strange.

Then I remembered what had happened the day I left on the Stage and Ruby had said the Bounty Hunter had tied her up and left the note for Jess. Something was very wrong; she must be in league with him I thought.

“Anyways,” continued Mort,” Lon thought nuthin’ of it until ol’ Mose let slip that Jess had moved her into the ranch while you’ve been away and they seemed real close according to Mose. Well Lon suddenly realized this was the same woman, the way Mose described her that red hair an’ green eyes, so we were just riding out to check Jess is OK,” he finished.

“I’ll just get a mount from the livery and be right with you,” I said dashing out of the office.

When Mort and I rode into the yard at the ranch I knew at once there was nobody home and a check in the barn proved me right as Traveler was missing. I quickly picked up his tracks on the back trail which was a short cut heading over the hill and directly to the old Benson place and we arrived in less than ten minutes.

As we rode into the yard two gunshots rang out and exchanging a shocked look we both threw ourselves from our mounts and drawing our guns tore into the ranch house.

The main living room was empty, but the door to the bedroom was open and I ran in and stopped dead in my tracks at the scene of carnage that met my eyes.

The smell of cordite hung in the air and Ruby’s body was slumped on the floor at the end of the bed, her brains blown out and the gun still in her hand.

I gagged at the horrific scene and then slowly turned my eyes to the figure lying on the bed. Jess was dead, a bullet wound in his chest.

I felt a tremendous wave of nausea and dizziness and running to the window threw it open taking in deep breaths of air, heaving and gagging, the sweat pouring down my face. I began to feel blackness envelope me and somewhere far off I could hear Mort calling my name. Suddenly he was beside me dragging me round by my shoulder.

“Slim will you listen to me, he ain’t dead. Damn near it, but not yet, I’m going for Doc Baker, you stay with him.”

He peered deep into my eyes and shook me hard by my shoulders,” Slim do you understand?”

I nodded and staggered over to the bed, almost falling down on the bedside by my best buddy and stifling a sob, I leaned over andgently brushing his unruly hair back off his forehead, prayed that he would hang on.

I sat quietly with him for a while and he didn’t stir so I went and found a bowl and some cool water and bandages and did the best I could to dress the wound.

I then wiped his face with the damp cloth and after a few minutes his eyes flickered open and gradually focused on me.

I really thought I would never see those deep blue eyes again and I couldn’t speak for a moment, then finally said,” Hey Jess, you gave me a scare there buddy, just sit tight now the Doc will be here soon.”

“Slim……Slim?” he croaked.

“Don’t try and talk,” I said, “just rest up huh?”

“Gotta,” he whispered,” gotta tell you stuff while there is still time.”

“Hey there ’ll be plenty of time to talk later,” I said lightly.

“No there won’t,”he said,” this is it Slim, this time I’m done for.”

“No don’t talk that way,” I said briskly, “you’ll be fine, soon as Doc Sam arrives”.

“No, listen to me Slim, you look after Daisy and Mike, make sure he keeps at the books, goes to college like Andy, beensavin’ up for it, should be enough in the account”.

“Jess will you stop it,” I pleaded, tears gathering in my eyes.

Ignoring me he went on, his voice fading to a whisper now, so I had to lean in to hear him.

“Slim I just wanna thank you…for being…..the best darn friend a man could ever have,” he said looking deep into my eyes.

I was too moved to say anything and just nodded.

Finally with his last breath he said, “look after ol’ Trav for me Slim…..” and with that his eyes closed and his head slumped sideways.

I grabbed hold of his shoulders shaking him, “No, Jess no….”

At that moment Doc Baker charged into the room closely followed by his daughter and nurse, young Carrie. They are very close family friends of ours and they looked profoundly shocked at the scene that met them.

Mort had thrown a blanket over Ruby so they were spared the full shock of seeing her corpse, but they both looked over at Jess with foreboding.

“He’s gone,” I said, ”you’re just too late.”

Gently pushing past me Sam looked down at Jess’s prone body and deathly white paler.

“Just one thing,” he said quietly turning to glance at me, “the dead don’t bleed,” pointing to the gunshot wound which was oozing blood steadily through my makeshift dressing.

Bending low over his patient he used his stethoscope to listen to Jess’s heart.

“It’s very, very faint, but we still have a heart beat,” and tuning to his daughter he said “come on Carrie, we’ve work to do here,” and with that he shooed me out of the room.

Chapter 8-The Diary of Ruby McCrea.

I took myself off and went and sat out on the porch.

I settled on an old rocker and then feeling something hard under the cushion I reached down and pulled out a thick leather bound volume, which had obviously been hidden down the back of the chair. Intrigued I opened it and turning to the first page I read, Diary of Ruby M McCrea

I knew I really shouldn’t pry into a private diary, but hell my partner was lying in the next room, more dead than alive, so I figured maybe I was justified in trying to find out what had made this young woman commit such an atrocity, shooting my friend and then herself. So opening the book I began to read.

July 5thI arrived at the Sherman Ranch and made a real impression on my quarry, Jess Harper. He is not at all like Pa described him; in fact I thought he was rather sweet and shy when we first met. Not that shy though, as it turned out. Like most men he found it impossible to resist my charms, or my bed. Being lovers isall part of my plan to try and get him to trust me completely, maybe even fall for me, making the killing of him all the easier, and so I started working on him right away. I thought I knew men, God knows I’ve had enough experience, but I have never met anyone like Jess, he is a very private and complex man. He is also a wonderful lover, treating me with a consideration and respect that I have never experienced before. I must be so careful not to fall for him and remember the promise I made by Pa’s grave side. I will have the vengeance Pa so craved; I must stay focused on that at all costs.

July 6th I looked out for Jess all day thinking he would come to me. I knew how hard he’d been working breaking the Mustangs though and thought he was busy working and I remembered the dreadful bruising and abrasions covering much of his body from constantly being thrown and was impressed by his perseverance. Somehow I couldn’t figure that this hardworking conscientious man was the same no good drifting saddle bum my Pa had described. But then people can change and Pa was inside for 6 long years and hadn’t seen or heard of Jess in all that time. Six long years I reminded myself, six long years without my dear Pa; and 6 long years in that Hell hole as a saloon girl and prostitute , the only way I could make a living, yes Jess must pay for that. I had already sowed the seeds of doubt with the letter I sent before my arrival. I knew the undertaker had not certified Pa as being officially dead, so there was an outside chance Jess might think him still alive and all the painstaking effort I had put into forging the letter was well worth it.

July 9th Went to town today and overheard Mrs. Patterson chatting to a neighbor. Apparently the Doc was visiting her new born, when Slim came riding in real worried saying Jess had suffered a real bad fall. “Anyway,” went on Mrs. Patterson, really getting into her stride now and enjoying a good gossip,” I called on Mrs. Cooper just as soon as I could and turns out Mr. Harper had had a real bad fall off of one of those wild mustangs and near bled to death, according to Mrs. Cooper,” she said, nodding at her friend, “blood just about everywhere, in a whisker of losing him,” continued the good lady. Just then the baby started bawling so she made her excuses and left. I feel really upset, I kept telling myself that is what I wanted, after all my entire mission isto kill him so why do I feel this way?

July 10th Sent a message via that old rapscallion Mose to Mrs. Cooper asking her to visit. I have noticed that ever since my ‘Pa’s’ threatening letter Slim and Jess never let the kid or old woman out of their sight so I hope Jess will accompany her. Its crazy but I am missing him so much, what is wrong with me? I must remember the hate Pa felt for him, and why I am here.

July 12th Mrs. Cooper, Mike and Slim came to visit today, I was almost beside myself with misery when I saw Slim riding along behind the buggy and not Jess. They said he was still pretty sick and not able to ride yet. We had a pleasant enough visit though and I decided to carry out my next plan, to get rid of Daisy and Mike and then maybe I can get closer to Jess. The idea of putting the burr under old Betsy’s harness came to me just as they were leaving. I never thought it would work so well and almost as soon as Daisy headed off the horse bolted. Thank God Slim leapt into action before any real damage was done. The buggy rocked so violently I felt sure it would tip over killing the occupants, but he caught up in time and brought them to a stand still. I never meant for them to be killed just scared, so they would head off on their visit to St Louis earlier than planned.

July 13th Today I felt I just couldn’t go another day without seeing Jess. I tell myself it is because we must get closer for my plans to enfold, ending in his death, but am I sure, or do I just long to be near him? As things are, we have only been together the once, what if he is the sort of man who doesn’t want casual sex I thought, how can I get to him, make him mine again? I decided to walk over the hill and just look down at the ranch hoping to even catch a glimpse of him being better than nothing. I went to the top of the ridge and realized what a good vantage point it was , no wonder Pa had chosen to spy on them all from up here I thought. Looking down I saw Mike playing with his dog and Jess had been talking to him and then walked over to the porch and sat down on the rocker, resting his head back and closing his eyes. I decided to go down and say I was just passing on a walk; maybe he would be pleased to see me, ask me to sit a while. As I entered the yard from the back entrance Mike came running over obviously pleased to see me and asked after the kittens. I looked over to Jess and he appeared to be asleep. Mike made an exaggerated shushing noise and said quietly,” better not disturb Jess, he’s been real sick and Doc Sam says he’s to rest every afternoon”. Suddenly a plan formed in my mind, I’d take Mike back over to my place, Jess would be real worried sure, but he’d be OK once he knew the kid was safe and then he’d be real happy, maybe happy enough to pay me another little visit. Plus if the whole family were spooked enough, then maybe they would take the child away to St Louis sooner leaving Jess to me.

Looking down at the little boy I said,” How would you like to visit the kittens again Mike?”

“Oh yes”, he beamed, “but I’d better ask, I ain’t allowed off the ranch right now.”

“Oh that’s OK,” I said quickly, “that’s just with strangers, its fine to go with me “, and trustingly the little boy put his hand in mine and we took off real quick before Jess woke up.

It was dusk before I finally heard Jess and Traveler trotting into the yard and Mike ran out to greet him. My heart stood still as the man jumped from his horse and ran to the boy, leaning down and hugging him, holding him tightly. I saw the expression on his face as he embraced him and realized how much he loved him. My stomach churned as I ran out knowing what his reaction would be and I was right, he really laid into me verbally. Once he realized I didn’t know about the threat though he calmed down some and even accepted my invitation to coffee while he explained the situation. He was obviously really fearful of my Pa, not for himself, but for his adopted family and I envied the closeness and love he had for them. Then he told me something that made me really happy, he said Daisy and Mike were off to St Louis the following day. I had no idea they were going so soon and was delighted.

Once Jess and Mike had left I started to think of a plan. What if I could get rid of Slim as well as the others? I figured Jess still wasn’t up to traveling ,I had seen the pain in his face last night when he mounted his horse.

Old Mose seemed to have taken a shine to me and often chatted when we met in town and had introduced me to Jed, the Stage Coach security guard. What if I wrote another letter from Pa and also got rid of Jed for the day, surely Slim or Jess would offer to ride shotgun and knowing how protective Slim was of his best buddy I figured he would be the one to go. I had no time to spare, firstly I wrote the note and after so much practice it was easy enough to do. Then I got myself dolled up in my best, most seductive clothes and hitching up the buggy and whipped the horse on to a fast trot heading for Laramie. It was easy enough to locate Jed in the Saloon and even easier to seduce him. We went to his house and after several whiskeys and a little added hill whiskey from my special flask he was out for the count. I stayed until morning and once I was sure he was in no fit state for work I high tailed it back to my ranch. Before I set off from town I tied some old rope tightly around my wrists and by the time I got home they were red raw. All that was left for me to do was to change, saddle up my riding pony and get to the ranch before the Stage. My story about being tied up by the Bounty Hunter all night and the letter I produced was enough to convince them, and as I thought, Slim insisted in riding shot gun and it was no time at all before Jess and I were waving his family goodbye.

July 16th This is the first time I have had to write my diary as Jess has been constantly with me. After the family left he looked so sad, just like a lost little boy and my stomach flipped as I looked at him. I unbuttoned his shirt and kissed his scar, finding it so sexy, I didn’t know what he would do, but it was obvious to me right away that he wanted me and the love making was all that I had remembered and more. I asked to stay with him and the last few days have been the happiest I have known. It is almost like we are addicted to each other, he is all I can think about, all I want, and I don’t know how I can carry out the final part of my mission at the end of the week. But carry it out I must. I swore a solemn oath on my father’s grave that I would kill Jess, but the way I feel now if he dies, then so must I, as I don’t think I can live without him.

July 17th Today is the last day and it was with a heavy heart that I packed up my clothes and came back here. Our final lovemaking was so passionate and wonderful I wanted it to last for ever. I think Jess is finally falling in love with me and I bitterly regret the promise I made to my Pa. I think I am really not quite sane now, my feelings for Jess alternate between love and hate. I want him so much and yet I keep remembering all the things Pa said about him, the time of long separation from my Pa and his subsequent death at Jess’s hand. I must focus on that or I will never complete my mission. The time is here, I am dressed in my best, I have his gun in my hand, looking through the bedroom door he is still sleeping, he looks so young, so very handsome, but I must do this one final task and then we will be together for all eternity…………..

Herethe diary entries suddenly stopped and I realized it was today’s date .I couldn’t believe how she had plotted and schemed to get inside my family, inside Jess’s affections and what she had gone on to do. I agreed with the last entry I guess she was insane, surely to do what she had done she must have been out of her mind I thought. I looked out to the horizon shaking my head, how could she have done that? I seemed to have been sitting out on the porch for hours with no news from within and I couldn’t help but think the worst. Closing my eyes I waited for Sam to come and tell me the news I dreaded.

Chapter 9 Jess

I sure figured I was well and truly done for this time. Ruby had promised me a bullet through the heart and how she managed to miss at almost point blank range is a mystery.

As I lay there with pain wracking my whole body, for a while I kinda wished she had been a better shot and it was all over with. Eventually the agony seemed to fade a little and although my eyes were tight closed I sensed there was someone else in the room with me.

With a massive effort I slowly opened my eyes and gradually focused on an angel dressed in pure white, sitting at the end of the bed. So I am dead I thought and if there is an angel, well maybe I made it to Heaven after all. That thought surprised me even more than being dead.

Then the angel stood up and leaning over gently wiped my face with a cool cloth and said,” Hi there sleepy head, how are you feeling now Jess?”

Suddenly the angel changed into Carrie Baker, nurse, and very good friend of mine, dressed in her white nurses uniform.

“Hey Carrie, got your self the job of nursin’ a beat up old cowboy again have you?” I asked in a husky whisper grinning up at her.

“That I have, and you just behave your self this time too Jess Harper,” she said in mock severity.

“Reckon it wasn’t me as was misbehaving last time,” I chuckled with a cheeky grin.

I was referring to the massive crush Carrie had on me a few years earlier when she was just a young 16 year old girl, nursing me after I’d got real sick and needed an operation. Boy, she had near driven me loco, using all her newly found feminine wiles on me, but everything was resolved in the end and we were real good friends now.*see the Doctor’s Daughter.

“Considering you were more dead than alive less than an hour ago I figure you should be resting”, she said neatly changing the subject.” Anyways Pa said I should call him as soon as you woke up”, and turning with a huge smile she said,” don’t go anywhere”, before leaving to fetch the Doc.

I lay there quietly and then I suddenly remembered what had happened after I was shot, that harrowing vision of Ruby placing my gun to her temple and pulling the trigger and I gagged as the full horrific scene flooded back, my hand shot up to my mouth and I started shaking uncontrollably.

Just then Doc Sam and Slim breezed into the room closely followed by Carrie and I saw the expression on her face change from a happy smile to worry as she saw the way I looked.

“Easy there Jess,” said Sam leaning over and taking my pulse,” are you feeling OK, you look real spooked?”

“I’m OK,” I whispered

Slim stood beside him looking down a mixture of relief and concern on his face.

” Welcome back pard,” he said quietly.

I gave him a ghost of a smile, “Hey partner, you OK?”

He smiled and just nodded.

Sam went and brought an extra blanket for me.

Then turning to Slim said, ”I guess he’s suffering a bit of delayed reaction, talk to him Slim.”

With that he patted my arm and leaving said,” I’ll be back in a little while with something to help you sleep Jess,” and was gone.

Slim sat down on the side of the bed and said, “What’s up pard?”

I just couldn’t speak as the terrible scene kept replaying over and over in my mind, I felt sick to my stomach and closing my eyes swallowed hard and took a deep breath

“Do you feel sick pard?”Slim asked.

Forcing my eyes open I whispered, ”some.”

He leaned over and wiped the sweat from my forehead with a cool cloth and helped me sip some water.

After a while I got control again and said,” Did you see her Slim, did you see what she did to herself…how could she do that?” I asked, turning stricken eyes on him.

He shook his head sadly.

“Yeah I saw, turned me real sick,” he said,” I don’t know Jess, reckon she must have been outta her head to do that…to do any of it.”

“You know who she was then?” I asked.

“Yeah, Lon figured it out. He saw her in town and then when ol’ Mose let slip you’d moved in this beautiful woman with the red hair and green eyes, well he made the connection and told Mort and we rode over, just too late to stop her though,” he finished sadly.

“Not your fault Slim,” I said, “I should have realized something wasn’t right…guess I was just so darn besotted with her I didn’t want to see anything wrong.”

“You did move her in then?” Slim asked quietly.

“Yeah, I feel so ashamed at the way I’ve behaved.”

After a long pause I looked over at Slim’s kind understanding face.

“I feel so bad about it, the way I was,” I said, “ I wanted her Slim, so goddamn much, she was like some sorta drug, I couldn’t help myself, guess I was kinda outta control, knew no good would come of it”, I finished sadly.

He was silent for a while and said,” well Jess there are some women will do that to a man, and I guess it was her that made most of the running, to start with anyway.”

“I guess,” I said quietly…”but I still feel real bad, I just didn’t know what was in her head, maybe if I’d spent more time getting to know her, understand her, I could have stopped it.”

I suddenly felt real tired and the shaking began again and I guess I must have looked pretty bad as Slim got up and went for the Doc.

He looked a mite worried too, but in his cheerful way he said, “guess you’ve done enough chin wagging’ for today Jess.”

Pulling me gently up he supported me and putting a cup of sleeping draft to my lips, I drank, happy to have some release from my troubled thoughts for a while.

When I woke up the room was in darkness save for some dim light from the night light on the side table, I was sitting bolt upright and I could hear this terrible screaming and suddenly the door burst open and the Doc and Slim rushed ina look of intense shock on their faces.

Slim rushed to my side and sitting on the bed held me in his arms saying soothingly,” hush Jess, take it easy”, and I realized it was me that was screaming.

The nightmare had been so, so real.

She was standing in front of me again, the tears coursing down her cheeks.A look of fear, indecision, love, despair and finally grim resignation flitting across her face, before she finally pulled the trigger, the shot sending me sprawling.

I watched what I knew was to happen next and I tried so very hard to turn away, but I couldn’t and I saw again every sordid, Hellish second as she raised my gun to her head.

“Oh God, no…” I yelled, closing my eyes and sinking my head into my hands rocking backwards and forwards as Slim held me tightly and the Doc looked on anxiously.

After a while I calmed down and looking over at Doc Sam said,” Please Sam can I move out of this room I can’t stand to be here any longer.”

Because I had been hurt real bad, Sam had refused to move me as he said it would be too dangerous. I guess they had moved Ruby’s body while I was still out of it; but lying here in her bedroom still, it was just terrible, lying on her bed where we had made love just a few short hours ago, the room was thick with emotion and the atmosphere was very heavy.

“Jess, you could still bleed out, these next few hours are vital,” said Sam looking at me with deep concern.

I looked up at Slim for support.

“How about I pull a cot out of the bunk house in here and stay with you,” he said,” if you start yelling I can wake you up before you scare us all half to death again,” he said grinning at me.

“Thanks pard, I‘d appreciate that,” I said softly.

He was soon lying on a bed beside me and I felt a whole lot better, I couldn’t sleep again so we chatted for a while and even when he fell asleep the sound of his rhythmic breathing close by soothed me and somehow I got through the night.

The next morning I was determined to be otta there though and as soon as Sam saw that determined gleam in my eye I guess he knew there was nothing more to say.

“OK Jess,” he said finally,” you win, somehow we’ll get you in the buckboard and home, guess it’s not too far and your looking a lot less peaky today. But……if I do let you home I’ll leave Carrie with you and Slim and you are to do exactly as she says, savvy?”

“Sure Doc, anything you say,” I said grinning up at him.

I have to admit I was in a bit of pain by the time we got back to the ranch and the journey of about 20 minutes took nearly an hour as Slim drove the buckboard so slowly.

Back in my bed at home I gave a sigh of relief, it was strange without Daisy and Mike but we’d had a wire saying they had arrived safely and were enjoying themselves.

I insisted Slim didn’t tell Daisy in case she worried and so we settled down to the next month or so, on our own. Carrie had agreed to stay for a week though to nurse me and take on the housekeeping duties and I was pleased about that as she’s a real good little cook now, good company too.

I should have been OK, home and safe again, the threat of the Bounty Hunter, not to mention his daughter gone for ever. But I wasn’t. I really wasn’t and as the days went on I felt more and more troubled. The nightmares got worse and I felt real bad waking Slim all the time, especially as he was still doing all my work. I didn’t want to eat and I felt so darn upset and anxious and I just couldn’t figure as to why.

A couple of days after I’d got back Carrie had said I could sit up in my rocker in the main room but I was desperate to get back out side. She came over and brought me a coffee which I took with thanks, and then I just stared into space.

Squatting down beside my chair she looked at me in concern.

“What’s the matter Jess?” she asked softly.

I looked into her young worried face and couldn’t reply.

How could I tell her about the guilt I was feeling for the way I had treated Ruby, for our whole relationship. She was far too young and inexperienced to begin to understand.

After a while she said,” it’s about that lady, Ruby isn’t it?”

I said nothing, but she must have seen the despair in my eyes.

“Jess, none of what happened was your fault,” she said quietly.” I understand the deep relationship you had. I guess you still think of me as that naive young girl that fell in love with you. But I’ve grown up Jess, had relationships too, I understand the way things can be between lovers.”

“Maybe”, I said quietly,” but guess it’s not the sort of thing I want to discuss with you Carrie”.

She looked a bit hurt and then took a deep breath and giving me her kind smile replied,

“I guess you’re right Jess, but I sure think you need to talk to someone, as all this guilt is making you ill, you’re not eating or sleeping and I can tell you’re really unhappy.”

It was a week later before I finally decided to take her advice.

Her Pa had been over that day to check me over and on giving me a clean bill of health he and Carrie headed for home on the understanding that they would come and visit and go fishing with us the following week.

I had done my first full day’s work around the ranch and as Slim and I sat out on the porch after supper I could feel my eyes drooping and I knew I should hit the sack.

I needed to talk to Slim though and I guess he picked up on my mood, as he so often does, and after a while looking over at me he said,” What’s eating you Jess?”

I said nothing for a while and then looking at his concerned, kind face I decided to open up.

“I figure it this way Slim,” I started,” things ain’t really changed so much since I started bringing trouble to your door over five years ago, people like Walt McCrea and Ruby are always goin’ to be around gunning for me, gunningfor those I……well ,I ….love, I guess,” I finished gruffly .

“This last business has brought it home to me, I’m just a danger to this family and I figure I need to go .Then there was that business with Ruby, I was way out of order Slim, I shouldn’t have got so damn close and maybe I’d have seen the danger, not just to me, but to us all….”

“Jess, don’t feel so bad about all this,” he started.

“Feel so bad…” I yelled, ”Hell Slim I could have got you all killed, I’ve read that diary you found, she put that burr under old Betsy’s harness, if you hadn’t been around, Daisy and Mike would be dead……sure I feel bad , real bad. “


“No Slim,” I said,” you have to understand……”

“No”, he said, suddenly yelling at me, and looking angrier than I had ever seen him…

You have to understand…. You mean a Hell of a lot to this family Jess and we sure don’t wanna lose you, in fact I won’t allow it! Sure I know you’re feeling real bad about Ruby and all, but that doesn’t mean you have to ship out, so will you just simmer down?”

I was quiet for all of five minutes, figured Slim thought I’d dropped off, before I finally answered,

“I’m sorry Slim, guess you’re right and I am feeling real guilty. About everything that happened to the family that’s for sure and about Ruby too. See, Ruby told me a bit about her life.”


“Yeah, it was really bad Slim, she was a working girl for nigh on 6 years, and the things she suffered…..well, you just wouldn’t wanna dwell on. And her getting that job was down to me havin’ her Pa put away, guess I sure owed her something. She had a bad break just like me; difference was I found you Slim; you helped me turn it all around. Maybe…just maybe, if I’d seen what was happening a little sooner, I could have done the same for her…but I didn’t…too busy just romancing her I guess,” I said sadly. “Then at the end, I figure she loved me some and hated me some too… I guess the hate won out.”

Slim was quiet for a while and then looking over at me said, ”I think there is something you should know Jess. After Sam took the bullet out he said she was way off target, either that girl was boss eyed, or she sure never meant to kill you.”

“What!” I exclaimed.

“It’s true pard she just couldn’t have missed your heart from that distance…..iffen that is where she was aiming. The actual bullet went in a good 3 inches off target, seems she didn’t really want to kill you at all Jess, figure she changed her mind right at the last minute. Only reason you were so bad was because you’d just lost so much blood from when old Black Heart threw you.”

I looked at him in astonishment,” really Slim, she couldn’t carry it out in the end?”

“Sure looks like it.”

I closed my eyes and swallowed hard, why I thought, why did she turn the gun on herself…it could all have been so different.

The following morning I decided it was time I started pulling my weight around the ranch again and as the Mustang bustin’ was my responsibility I figured I should start by getting right back up on ol’ Black Heart. Figured I owed it to Slim to get some work done, but I felt real worn out, even though I’d been lying around the place for the best part of two weeks.

Anyways I finally got myself outta my pit and joined Slim at the breakfast table, he was just finishing eggs and bacon and offered to make mine, but I wasn’t hungry and just helped myself to coffee. He looked worried, but knows me better than to start naggin’ first thing before I was outside of my first coffee of the day, so said nothing.

He was dead against me going back up on that’ vicious critter,’ as he called the big black fellah, but I finally convinced him by telling him what sort of price a prime stallion like old Black Heart would fetch.

As it happened things went quite well, maybe the horse picked up on my bad mood, but for what ever reason, he only put up a token fight, throwing me a couple of times before submitting and finally standing head down, defeated.

I slid from his back and patted his neck gently before loosing him out in the big paddock.

Slim came over and slapped me on the back a few minutes later.

”Well done pard, he was a real tough one.”

Strangely I didn’t feel the usual thrill of victory I get from breaking a tough horse; I felt nothing…… and strode off to saddle up the next in line to stomp on my head.

By the end of the day there was another horse well on the way to being green broke and ready to work with and Slim was real happy.

“Hey Jess, well done”, he enthused; I figure this deserves a celebration, how about hitting town come Saturday?”

It was the last thing I felt like, all I wanted to do come Saturday was nothing. What the Hell is wrong with me I thought. I side stepped the question and other than giving me a puzzled look he said nothing.

Time went on, an’ I just got more an’ more ornery, even for me. I could see I was pushing Slim to the limit, but something inside didn’t mind, didn’t even care.

It all came to a head a few days later.

I had pushed myself to the very limit. I knew that I was exhausted and the working day had long ended, still I forced myself to get on yet another real mean horse. Slim told me to stop, but I couldn’t and refused, the outcome, me falling again. I wasn’t hurt real bad, just winded and bruised some, but ol’ Slim there, well he went mad, yellin’ an’ screamin’ as how I was such a no good saddle bum who couldn’t ride a mustang to save his life…..well that sure riled me, just like he knew it would, and it wasn’t long before we were standing ready to punch each others lights out.

Guess this was the sort of time Daisy would have pitched in and made us see reason, but of course she was in St Louis .We actually faced up to each other before backing off, Slim shaking his head and muttering…”what are we doing buddy?”

I just didn’t know. Somehow I felt it was all my fault, I felt real bad, but I just couldn’t seem to figure what I should do .How I could change the way I was feelin’, almost like nuthin’ mattered anymore. May be I should just be dead too like Ruby?

“I’m real sorry Slim,” I said,” guess I don’t know what’s come over me lately”, and turned away quickly feeling the tears threatening again.

Chapter 10 Slim

When Sam came out to the porch at Ruby’s place, after tending Jess’s gun shot he just stood for a couple of minutes staring out at the horizon and rubbing his back which must have been aching some I guessed.

I couldn’t bring my self to look him in the eye or ask the question.

I had a huge lump in my throat and tears were threatening.

Finally I could bear it no longer, “Well? “ I asked, the one word coming out more aggressively than I meant it to.

Sam looked down at me with tired eyes.

” Sorry Slim, should have told you right away, just that I’m pretty bushed. It was tough, but I think he’ll be OK, the next few hours are critical, he can’t be moved…..”

“Thank you so much Sam,” I broke in leaping up and pumping his hand.

He grinned at me.

“If Jess was a cat guess he’d have used up all his 9 lives and then some,” he said chuckling. Then growing more serious,” we damn near lost him this time Slim, losing so much blood after losing even more when he fell off of that dang mustang, well his body just can’t take anymore shocks like that. You’re going to have to rein him in some Slim.”

“Yeah, like he listens to me,” I said bitterly

“You’re going to have to make him listen Slim, I’m not saying wrap him in cotton wool, just keep him away from those mustangs until I say he’s fit at least.”

“I will,” I promised, “can I see him Sam?”

“Sure”, he grinned and throwing an arm around my shoulders we headed into the ranch house.

I wasn’t prepared for the way he looked, he was very pale and sweating which I kinda expected after going through having the bullet cut out, but it was more than that, he looked real spooked, his eyes were full of dread and he was shaking violently. Sam brought another blanket and I think he figured Jess was going suffering from shock and asked me to try and keep him calm.

After Sam had left us I asked him what was wrong and he told me about the last few minutes of Ruby’s life.

I couldn’t begin to think how he was feeling, having been so intimate with her and then to see her destroy herself in such a horrific manner.

Mort and I had removed her body just before Sam started operating on Jess and I nearly gagged at the memory of the grim task. Mort who has the constitution of an ox and is used to grisly scenes turned a deathly white and I lost my breakfast before the job was finished.

I swallowed hard and tried to reassure him, but the shaking got worse and I called Sam back in who gave Jess something to knock him out.

We had all decided to stay at the ranch as Jess couldn’t be moved and Carrie and Sam settled down in a twin bedded room next to Jess’s and I opted for the couch in the main room.

I must have been asleep for several hours when I was awoken by blood curdling screams coming from Jess’s room.

Sam and I dashed in and he was sitting bolt up right and yelling in absolute terror. I’m used to Jess’s nightmares, we’ve shared a room long enough and I know how to deal with him, but I’d never seen him this bad before and it was a good hour ,with me holding him and talking quietly, before he could relax back on the pillows and try to sleep again.

I moved an old cot from the bunk house in and he seemed better for my company and I drifted off to sleep eventually and I don’t know if he did, but at leastwe didn’t have anymore nightmares. Not that night anyway.

The following day we moved him back home and I figured he would soon be feeling better being away from Ruby’s place, but I was wrong. He seemed to decline before my very eyes.

He wasn’t eating much, even though Carrie is a real good cook and he was hardly sleeping, with the nightmares disturbing us most nights. He offered to move out to the bunk house but I wouldn’t hear of it knowing he really needed my support right now.

We were both exhausted by the time Sam came to check him out and he reluctantly passed Jess fit for light work. I had a quiet word with him out of Jess’s hearing and told him I was real worried about him and he said he would come over the following week to check things out and to do a bit of fishing too.

“Try and get him interested in work again Slim” he said,” physically he’s mended pretty good, but mentally, he shook his head sadly. “Seeing what Jess witnessed, well that’s enough to seriously damage the mind; I guess that’s what all the nightmares are about. Maybe a bit of tough physical work may help, I don’t know, but I am pretty worried Slim, keep a close eye on him.”

As soon as Sam professed Jess fit for duty he wanted to get back up on that black widow maker right away. We had our usual argument, but he completely disregarded my opinion and did it anyway. In a way I was kinda glad as he tamed ol’ Black Heart and then went on to green break another before the end of the day and I figured it would give him his usual buzz, but he seemed real low and even a proposed trip to town didn’t seem to excite him. There again town on a Saturday night usually meant entertaining a lady and I guess Jess felt he’d had enough of the ladies for a while, and I couldn’t really blame him.

From that first day onward he just kept pushing and pushing himself, he was still hardly eating, although Carrie had left us and he was having to suffer my cooking so that was kinda understandable.

He was still having the horrific nightmare too, waking in a pool of sweat, his eyes wide in terror. Then he had started trying to stop himself from sleeping at all by over dosing on his gut rot coffee and sitting up until all hours.

But the worst thing was the way he was working himself into the ground, literally the number of times the mustangs threw him. He was losing his touch, his timing and judgement were way off because he was so exhausted, but he just wouldn’t see it.

One night he was still working a mean ol’ mustang and it was nearly dark. I was so worried remembering what Sam had said, he couldn’t afford another really bad fall, I yelled at him to stop and we ended up nearly fighting.

He was so angry I swear if he’d been wearing his iron he would have drawn on me. I defused the situation and at once he was completely contrite. He tried to turn away quickly but I saw the tears in his eyes, I was really shocked and knew then that my partner was in a real bad way and we needed some help from Sam.

Chapter 11 Jess

The day after Slim and I had nearly come to blows I sat down and had a good think about things.

I knew I was in a real bad place and I was slipping in deeper and deeper.

The less I slept the more strange things were beginning to happen to me.I thought I heard Ruby’s voice calling me a couple of times and once I felt sure I could feel her arm snaking around my waist the way she used to do.

The worst had been the previous evening though, Slim had taken himself off to bed and I had gone into the kitchen to make myself some more coffee, when I stopped dead in my tracks.

In the dim light from the oil lamp I could just make out Ruby standing by the stove, dressed only in my blue work shirt, exactly the same as Mose and I had seen her on that morning a few weeks back when I had slept in.

She seemed completely unaware of my presence, continuing to work at the stove and after a few minutes the vision faded and the kitchen was empty again. I knew I was hallucinating, it was all in my mind, but it was all so real too. That’s it I thought I’m finally going loco, this is gonna push me way over the edge.

I was shakin’ so much I could barely walk, but I made it back to my rocker and falling down into it, I buried my head in my hands and wept, goddamn it I thought, is this living nightmare never going to end and for the second time I had very black thoughts, would I be better off dead?

Now I was standing over by the corral fence looking at the mustangs, my black thoughts for company, when Slim came over to join me.

“I hope you’re not thinking what I think your thinking,” he said looking over at me.”

I was so shocked I couldn’t speak for a full minute. Had he picked up on howdang bad I was feelin’ and my thoughts of ending it all?

“What would that be pard?” I asked lightly.

“Getting up on that evil lookin’ excuse for a horse,” he answered grinning at me.

“Haven’t forgotten we’re goin’ fishin’ with Sam and Carrie today had you?”

“No course not,” I lied,” just goin’ to find my line,” and marched over to the barn, before he could get the truth out of me.

I sure didn’t feel like socializing, but hell I had no choice so when the Doc’s buggy rattled into the yard a few minutes later I stuck a welcoming smile on my face and went off to greet them. Carrie was with him and she’d packed a picnic lunch and was all smiles, obviously pleased to be going along with us.

Later that afternoon Slim and Sam had disappeared down the lake edge a way saying they figured the fish were biting better there, but I couldn’t be bothered to move and Carrie opted to stay with me.

She had grown into a lovely young woman and she was real good company and we had a close friendly relationship now she was over her youthful crush on me.

She had told me all about the college boy she had been seeing over the summer and I was real pleased for her. It was a beautiful warm summer afternoon and we settled down at the lake edge leaning back on a big rock and chatted softly. Somewhere along the way I guess I fell asleep, what with the good lunch we had enjoyed and the warmth of the afternoon sunshine.

When I awoke instead of Carrie sitting close up next to me it was Ruby.

I opened my eyes wide in amazement, all my logic told me this was just my imagination again, but she was so close, close enough to reach out and touch, to reach out and kiss.

She had that special look in her eye that she always got when she wanted me, and all rational thought left my head as I leaned over and kissed her. She responded and I kissed her harder, pulling her to me in a passionate embrace, one hand sliding down her back molding her body to mine. I started to push her down, my hand sweeping down over her body, my kisses getting deeper.

Suddenly she slapped my face hard and I pulled back as the sharp pain stung my cheek. My hand shot up to my face and I looked down at her in surprise and the surprise turned to shock and horror as I looked into Carrie’s bewildered, frightened eyes,” No, no Jess.” she screamed,” don’t, please stop”

At that Slim and Sam tore over and Slim dragged me up by my shirt front and landed a blow to my jaw which sent me flying. He came after me and would have hit me again if Sam hadn’t got between us.

“Stop it Slim,” he yelled “you’re just making things worse,” and with that he went over to his daughter.

“Are you OK darling?” he asked tenderly.

“Yes,” she said,” I’m fine now”. Then a thought struck her,” I didn’t start it Pa,” she said,” you must believe me.”

He nodded gently,” its all right, I know you’re over all that business now”, he said.

I stood up from where I had landed when Slim punched me and walking over fell to my knees beside her.

” I’m so, so sorry sweetheart,” I said softly,” I wouldn’t hurt you for the world you must know that.”

She turned troubled eyes on to me,” I thought I knew you Jess…but, well I’ve never seen you act like that. Even when I was chasing you, when I had that childish crush, you were always such a gentleman.”

I cast my eyes down in embarrassment, how could I explain.

“Guess you owe us an explanation Jess,” said Sam quietly seeming to pick up on my thoughts, turning to me, his expression wary.

“I don’t know,” I muttered.

After a few minutes I looked him in the eyes,” this is goin’ to sound crazy,” I whispered,” but I fell asleep for a few minutes and when I woke up I …well I thought it was Ruby sitting there.

Slim gave a snort of derision, but Sam raised his hand to quiet him.

“Go on,” he said quietly,

“I thought I was seeing things again, but this time she looked so goddamn real, I reached over and kissed her and then…..well, things just kinda got outta control,” I finished lamely.

Sam looked at me really seriously,” you’ve seen her before Jess?”

“Seen her, heard her calling to me even felt her arms around me,” I whispered.

Then to my enormous embarrassment the tears started coursing down my cheeks and I couldn’t stop them. I brushed them angrily away with my shirt sleeve and looking over at Carrie, repeated” I’m so sorry.”

She leaned forwards and put her arms around me and held me close,” its OK she said soothingly, it’s OK.”

A while later, I managed to get myself under control and I apologized profusely for my embarrassing behavior.

Sam patted me gently on the arm.

”It’s alright Jess,” he said,” I think I understand what’s been going on, you’re sick boy real sick and I need to talk things through with you.”

Turning to Slim he said, ”I’ll come over tomorrow and in the meantime I’ll leave a sedative for you to give Jess tonight, to make him sleep.”

Looking back at me, a kindly look in his eyes, he said,” that will help you to sleep without the nightmares, and I’ll come and talk to you both tomorrow”, and with that he and Carrie left.

Before she climbed up in the buggy with her Pa she ran back though and gave me a big hug and kissed me gently on the cheek, and said,” don’t worry Jess everything will be alright”, before running back and driving off with Sam.

I stood there looking at the ground feeling totally dejected.

Slim came up and said softly,” Jess…”

I couldn’t look him in the eyes and continued to stare at the ground.

He leaned over and put his hands on my shoulders and said,” Jess please look at me.”

Gradually I raised my eyes to look into his deeply concerned blue ones.

” I am so sorry buddy he said; I should never have laid into you that way.”

“It’s OK,” I whispered.

“No it isn’t,” he said more firmly,” I could see how sick you were Jess, I should have said something to you before, tried to help instead of bawling you out and nagging you”.

“It’s Ok,” I said again,” forget it.”

He shook his head sadly,” I can’t, Jess, what you’ve been through, the way Ruby killed herself, well, if it had been me, I guess I’d have caved in long ago, but you, well you’ve just been trying to fight it all. To blot it out by near working yourself half to death and I’ve just stood by and let you, guess I’ll never forgive myself for that,” he finished sadly.

Then after a pause he punched me gently on the arm,” lets go home pard,”he said quietly.

I gave him the ghost of a smile and nodded.

When we got back to the ranch I said I would look after the horses and Slim went off to start supper.I rubbed down and fed and watered Alamo and Traveler and then started grooming Traveler, talking to him quietly and gradually I began to calm a little.

We had ridden back in silence and I had felt real bad, my heart pounding, and sweat pouring down my face, feeling sick to my stomach. When we got in I went straight to the outside washstand and put my head under the pump to try and cool off some.

“Jess you look terrible,” said Slim peering at me in concern.

“Yeah, well that’s probably because I feel terrible,” I growled and taking Alamo’s reins from him walked off to the stable, calling over my shoulder that I would look after them.

He stood watching me shaking his head, before turning and entering the ranch.

It was a long time later that he came out to fetch me in to supper and it was almost dark in the barn.

He came over and stood watching me groom my horse for a while before saying quietly,” supper’s ready Jess.”

I turned from my task, “Sorry I can’t eat Slim, I just ain’t hungry, I” replied gruffly.

“Jess, you got to eat,” he said frustration in his voice.

I was suddenly beside myself with anger and turning I let rip with the full force of the Harper temper, and turning on him I yelled, “Goddamn it Slim will you leave me alone!”

I leaned my aching head on Travelers back and closed my eyes tightly and took a deep breath, regretting my outburst the moment I’d finished. After a few minutes I heard him walk away, closing the barn door behind him.

The evening had turned real chilly and about an hour later I went back to the house and found Slim sitting with his coffee by the fire. Looking up he said,

” coffee in the pot.”

I went and poured a cup and then slumped down in my rocker next to him and we sat in silence looking into the flames for a while before I spoke.

“Guess I was out of order there Slim, I’m sorry,” I said looking over at him.

“Its OK, how are you feeling?” he replied quietly.

“Like I’m goin’ crazy,” I replied

“Oh pard, take it easy…….. guess Sam will know what to do tomorrow. Let’s get that sleeping draft down you, things will look better after a good night’s shut eye.”

So, a little later we turned in and I figured things couldn’t get a whole lot worse anyway; turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The sleeping draft acted real quick and I fell asleep almost immediately. I slept deeply for hours and when I finally awokeI felt pretty bad, like I was trying to walk through a thick fog, I couldn’t think straight and I felt real sick and my head ached something fierce.

I finally dragged myself up out of bed and went to find Slim, frying up bacon and eggs in the kitchen, but even the smell made me feel nauseous, so I just poured a coffee and sat down at the table feeling like death. I had looked in the mirror as I shaved earlier and knew my face was ashen and I still had blue, black shadows under my eyes from the lack of sleep over the last few weeks.

“Hey buddy, you’re supposed to be lookin’ better not worse,” he said with a weak grin.

“Well at least you got some sleep without me wailin’ and moanin’ and wakin’ you with my bad dreams,” I said trying to make light of the situation.

It was just after the early morning Stage had left that Sam arrived and he hopped down from his buggy and walked purposely over to Slim and I, as we finished putting the change over team in the corral.

“Just in time for coffee am I?” he asked a twinkle in his eye.

“Sure,” I said and led the way into the house.

It looked like he had got over the shock of my behavior with his daughter from the day before and I was so relieved. Sam and Carrie are real good friends and I would hate to do anything to upset them and I guess Sam knew that.

We went and sat around the table together with our coffee as we had done so many times before. But this time it was different as Sam was here in his professional capacity and he thought I was real sick, so he had said, and I was feelin’ kinda anxious as to what he would say next.

“So Jess how are you feeling today?” he asked giving me his usual kindly smile. “And before you answer that, I don’t want your usual I’m fine Sam….I want the truth Jess.”

I said nothing for a while looking down into my coffee, then I looked him in the eye and said”, truth is Sam I feel bad, real bad. I don’t know; guess I feel like I’m going crazy. All that stuff yesterday and before that seeing, hearing things that aren’t happening, plus I feel sick, my heads aching fit to burst, can’t keep food down and well…I’m just so dadgum angry all the time”.

Nodding over to Slim I said,” I guess ol’ Slim there is getting pretty fed up with me apologizing all the time, ‘cos all I do around here is either wake him with my nightmares or cuss him,” I finished quietly, looking over at Slim and then back down to my coffee.

Sam looked over to Slim,” would you say that’s the way it is Slim?”

He gave me a concerned glance and then looking over to Sam said,” pretty much. I know Jess hasn’t been eating or sleeping right since…well since Ruby died. He’s real short tempered; well more than usual,” he said looking over and giving me a small cheeky smile.

Then he looked real serious again and looking me in the eye he said,” to be honest Jess I’m real worried about you. I figure you’re feelin’ so bad right now you might be thinkin’ of doing something real silly and I guess Sam should know that.

Sam turned to me a new look in his eye”, is that right Jess do you feel that bad, bad enough to end it all?”

I sat for a while before answering in a husky whisper,” I guess, maybe……….I do.”

Slim and Sam exchanged shocked looks and Slim gave a low whistle before looking over at me.

“Oh Jess how did it come to this?” he said softly.

I shrugged and looked down.” Dunno.”

Sam spoke up.

”Look Jess, you’ve been through a real rough time lately, all the worry about McCrea turning up again, bringing back the trauma you went through last time. Then the really intense relationship with Ruby and it ending the way it did, well it’s all taken its toll on you, mentally. Figure the way you’ve tried to cope is to blot it all out by working too hard. Then as a result of all this stress you’ve had the nightmares, so you’ve tried to stop sleeping altogether, that’s what’s caused the hallucinations, seeing, hearing stuff ,that isn’t there,” he finished.

Slim looked at me,” I thought you’d be better once we moved back from Ruby’s place,” he said, “but you’ve got worse, much worse.”

“I know,” I whispered shaking my head sorrowfully.

“Tell me Jess is it true you moved Ruby in here for a while?” asked the Doc gently.

I gave a brief nod.

“She stayed here…… in your bed………….?”

“Yeah,” I said angrily, “what do you want me to do paint a picture?”

I regretted my outburst at once,” sorry, sorry Sam,” I said.

“What I’m getting at,” he said patiently,” is that the emotional attachment you had to Ruby is all linked to this house…and if I’m not mistaken the lakeside picnic spot too?”

“Yeah,” I whispered.

“See, thing is Jess, that is why you are seeing her in these familiar places”.

“So what are you saying I should do, move away?”

“Well. That’s a bit extreme, but a break maybe. The alternative is for us to dose you up on that sedative, try and get you sleeping properly again, that should help.”

“Oh no,” I replied quickly, I ain’t havin’ anymore of that drug, makes me feel plumb sick Doc.”

Sam looked over to Slim,” I guess if you can spare him then Jess needs to get away from here for a while.”

Slim looked over at me, concern etched into his features,” whatever it takes Jess, well manage,” he said gently.

Sam rode out soon after that, leaving some of the sleeping draft in case I changed my mind and said for us to keep in touch as to what I decided to do.

What I decided to do right then was to get back up on the latest mustang that was trying to shorten my life some and that kinda blanked out all the problems for a while.

But they were still waiting for me at the end of the day and so when Slim and I were sitting having our last coffee out on the porch that night I figured I had to make a decision.

“I guess we can get the Smith boys to help out here, as they’re home from college for the summer, and I’ve just about finished breaking most of the horses for our contract, so guess that we can relax some until we need to start bringing the stock down in the fall,” I said quickly, before I could change my mind.

“So you’re thinking of taking off?” he said quietly.

“Tomorrow I guess,” I said

“Where are ya thinking of going?”

“Figured I’d take a trip over the to the edge of the mountain range , make for the far line cabin, stay there a while, see if I can find a few more mustangs before they move on for the winter.”

“OK,” he said,” if that’s what you want Jess; I sure don’t want you to be on your own just now, but if that’s what you want?”

“It ain’t what I want,” I replied quickly,” it’s what I figure I need, and maybe it would be easier for you if I left for a while Slim, guess I’ve not been too easy to be around lately”.

“That’s for sure,” he said grinning at me and trying to lighten the tense atmosphere.

Then his expression changed to one of deep concern.

“The way you said you were feeling, you wouldn’t be thinking of taking the same way out as Ruby, would you Jess?” he asked.” I sure don’t want to come up to that old line cabin and find you that way,” he finished, his eyes anguished.

“If I decided to do that you’d never find me Slim,” I said quietly.

“Jess”….he gasped.

“It ain’t going to come to that,” I said gruffly, “that’s why I’m going……. to get better, remember?”

“Sure”, he said, looking over at me.” Guess Daisy and Mike will be back soon, we’ll all be waiting for you pard, just as soon as you’re feeling better.”

I knew what he was doing, reminding me of my responsibility to the family, the devastation I would cause if I didn’t come back.

I looked over at him, a faint smile on my face.”

“I figure a week or two of the Big Open should see me right,” I said, “reckon I’ll be ready for some of Miss Daisy’s cookin’ by then.”

“Sure,” he said again, but the look in his eye said he was unconvinced.

Chapter 12 Jess

I figured it would be easier on us both if I headed out at first light and so I packed up my saddlebags and got everything ready and said my goodbyes the night before. I could tell Slim wasn’t happy with me going, was worried for me, but it was what I had to do.

The next morning I was up real early and dressed quietly so as not to disturb Slim and the first light of dawn was just filtering in as I made for the bedroom door. Looking back at my friend’s bed I realized he had woken up and he was looking over at me, an expression of deep concern on his face.

“You be sure to get your ornery butt back in a week or two or I’ll come looking for you”, he said gruffly.

“Sure I will, look after yourself pard,” I said softly and went out closing the door quietly behind me.

I saddled up Traveler and left the yard at a brisk trot and made good time, stopping for the night almost half way to the foothills I was heading for .It sure felt good to be out sleeping under the stars again and the night time sounds were like a lullaby, so used was I to sleeping on the trail all those years I was on the drift. I slept real well, better than I had since the tragic day of Ruby’s death, and I awoke feeling refreshed and ready for the long ride ahead.

I reached the line cabin set on the mountain come sundown the following day and once I’d settled Traveler down for the night in the lean to stable adjoining the little cabin I lit the fire and fixed up supper. It had turned kinda chilly even though it was still late summer and I was glad of the extra blanket I’d packed as I settled down on the cot pulled up close to the fire

I settled into a routine of setting off early in the morning and checking out the deep canyons further along the old miner’s track that led to the small community of trapper’s cabins up the mountain a way. I was looking for the herd of wild mustangs where Slim and I had found old Black Heart and his cohorts earlier in the year .On the third day I finally found them and was able to cut 3 real fine looking fillies away from the main herd and run them down to our makeshift corral near the line cabin. There was a huge strong looking bay stallion I really wanted though and I figured I’d make a play for him the following day.

The next morning the warm weather had broken and there was a chill wind blowing and the rumble of thunder in the distance, but I’d set my heart on catching the big bay, so Traveler and I set off after breakfast.

As the day wore on the weather got increasingly cold and windy.

” What the hell are we doin’ in this God forsaken State of Wyoming? “I asked Traveler. Back in Texas the summers were hot and the winters not too chilly, but here up north well I could have been in the middle of a Texas winter.

I was determined to seek out my quarry though so I persevered and it was late afternoon by the time we searched one last area, and there was the herd, grazing quietly in a small pasture. I approached down wind and then suddenly there he was the magnificent stallion. He raised his head taking the air and then saw me and took off like the Devil was chasing him. Spurring Traveler on we gave chase and as I got nearer I got my rope out and lassoed him. I got him first time and leaning back took the strain of the rope. He was way too strong for me though and I was pulled unceremoniously from the saddle and hit the ground hard. My stubborn streak won out as usual and I refused to let go and was dragged along the ground, desperately trying to pull him to a stand still. The next thing I knew he stopped suddenly and turning reared up his iron like hooves raining down on me, I rolled and tried to get away under the protection of a rocky out crop, but I wasn’t fast enough and the last thing I remembered was his hooves coming down by my head and then everything went black.

When I came around some time later it was pitch black and lashing down with rain, the crash of thunder over head. I felt nauseous and my left leg was really painful. I managed to move it OK so I knew it wasn’t broke, and I guessed it had just been stomped on some.

The worst thing was the pain in my head and reaching up a tentative hand felt sticky blood at my temple and running down my face. I felt pretty lucky knowing that the stallion could have well have stove in my head with those lethal hooves and guessed he had just warned me off before galloping back to join his herd.

I wondered what had happened to Traveler and peering through the gloom, I could see no sign of him, but could hear a horse cropping the grass some distance away and figured that must be him. I tried to stand, but the pain in my leg was agonizing and I fell down and passed out again.

The next time I awoke it was to the gloomy light of dawn and the rain was still lashing down on me. I was soaked to the skin and lay there shivering and retching as the nausea took over.

After a while I managed to sit up and called to my horse. A few minutes later he appeared and walking over to me leaned his head down and gently nuzzled my hair. Reaching up I grabbed the reins and managed to pull myself up. Looking down I saw the blood staining my denims at the thigh where the bay had stomped on me, but I was able to put some weight on it, this time, and somehow managed to haul my self up onto Trav’s back and we headed towards the cabin.

When we arrived I slid from Traveler’s back and set about rubbing him down and feeding him. It took a very long time as I had to keep stopping, the pain in my leg and head making me retch and at one stage nearly black out once again.

Finally the task was completed and I dragged myself back to the cabin and staggered to the cot before collapsing in a dead faint. When I came to I was shivering uncontrollably and sweat was pouring down my face and back and I figured I’d picked up a chill from lying around in wet clothes for so long.

Dragging myself up from the cot I lit the fire and stripped off all my wet things and huddled in a blanket inspected the wound on my thigh. The vicious blow from the mustang’s hoof had made a deep gash, almost to the bone, and it was still hurtin’ like hell.

Staggering up I fetched the bottle of Red Eye from my saddle bag and poured some into the wound to clean it, the pain making me retch again. Then I pulled out some clean rags I had packed to use as dressings if I should get busted up and tied it tight round my leg. Next I went over to the wash bowl and jug in the corner and washed the blood from my face. There was a nasty gash on my temple, so I cleaned this up too and applied another clean bandage. This done I was exhausted and not bothering even to fix some coffee, collapsed back on the cot and wrapping another blanket around me settled down for the night.

All night I was slipping in and out of consciousness and by dawn I had a raging fever .Then it happened…. the hallucinations started again. I was practically out of my mind with the fever, but logic should have told me things I was seeing weren’t real.

Ruby was leaning over me, that special look in her eye and she was tending me, wiping down my hot face with a cool damp cloth and it sure felt good. I got worse though, tossing and turning with the fever and my body wracked with shivers. She was there with me all the time whispering, to me in that special way she had. Then her tone changed and she seemed to be asking me something……. wanting me to do something urgently.

Next thing I knew my colt.45 was in my hand and Ruby said it again real clear this time

”Come on Jess, put it to your head and just pull the trigger, it’s easy, so easy. Come on Jess, do it for me, do it now and we will be together again,” then softly, ya want me don’t ya Jess, go on pull the trigger…now Jess…NOW!” she yelled.

I put the gun to my head and cocked it, my finger on the trigger.

Then there was a tremendous crash….it was the thunder storm and lightening lit up the room and I saw at once it was empty.

I was suddenly completely lucid; I felt the gun in my hand pointed at my temple and hurled it across the room in horror shouting,” NO!!!”

I couldn’t believe what I had nearly done. Pale and trembling with emotion I stood staring at where I had thrown the gun.I figured if it hadn’t been for the crash of thunder suddenly gaining my attention I would have pulled the trigger. I was absolutely terrified that I was losing my mind now, after everything that had happened.

Taking my gun I wrapped it up in a piece of the remaining rag and placing it in my saddle bag took it out to the stable. I just didn’t trust myself in the same room with it, the way my mind was playing tricks on me.

The fever seemed to have broken at last though, and I made a coffee and something to eat, although I wasn’t really hungry I figured I should start lookin’ after myself and I still hadn’t ruled out havin’ another bash at catching the stallion.

The next couple of days I took it real easy, resting my damaged leg and the only time I went out of the shack was to see to Traveler’s needs and the three wild mustangs I’d brought back.

There was no re occurrence of my hallucinating and I figured it was all to do with the real bad fever I had been running. The weather was no better, cold and gloomy with the rain still lashing down. By the third day after my fever, I was feeling a little better and both my wounds seemed to be healing OK, but I still didn’t feel too much like headin’ out in the wet weather that day.

I figured I’d turn in early and get up at first light and have one more go at the stallion before heading back for the ranch.

Mentally I was still all over the place, sometimes feeling real down again and after the terror I had experienced, realizing I was holding my gun to my temple, I figured maybe I’d be better off at home with Slim to keep an eye on me.

I banked up the fire and was just thinking of pouring a last cup of coffee before turning in when I was shocked to hear a wild hammering at the door.

I cursed myself, for leaving my iron in with Traveler and pulling my hunting knife from my boot I cautiously moved towards the door.

The hammering continued with added vigor and was accompanied by a woman screaming, “Please, oh please let me in!”

I dragged the door open and she all but fell into my arms and looking up at me with huge terrified eyes, her long blonde hair hanging wetly around her face, said;” please can you help me?” before collapsing.

I caught her up and carried her to the cot by the fire and as I lay her down, the shawl that had been wrapped around her fell away exposing her swollen belly and looking at her in shock I realized she was very, very pregnant.

After a few minutes she came round again and focused her terrified eyes on me.

” I’m so sorry she apologized, my husband rode to Laramie for the Doctor yesterday and he’s not returned, when the pains started I tried to get to my neighbour, but …….”

She stopped talking and took a deep breath, her eyes closing in pain her hands gripping her stomach and then she let out a strangled scream as the pain took over everything. I was completely at a loss and just stood looking on in horror as she continued to scream and writhe on the cot.

After a while the pain seemed to ease and she continued.

“I got as far as this and the pains got real bad and I saw the smoke from your chimney and figured I couldn’t get any further. I left the buckboard down on the track, Pete will see it and come here looking for me,” she finished, before taking another deep breath and closing her eyes as the pain hit her hard again.

I knelt down beside her and took her hand and she squeezed it real hard as the worst of the pain hit her again.

After it stopped she turned to me,” thanks,” she said, letting go of my hand,” I’m Annie, by the way, Annie Foster. “

“Jess Harper,” I said, smiling down at her. “These neighbours, should I go fetch them, guess this is women’s work,” I finished, trying not to look as spooked as I was feeling.

“No!” she yelled, then more quietly, “no please don’t leave me Jess I’m so scared, this is my first, please, please don’t leave me alone.”

“OK,” I said soothingly,” it’s OK I won’t go anywhere.”

I could see she was fixing to squeeze my hand again real tight and realized the pains were coming pretty often know. After this next one I escaped and came back with some of my clean bandages and a bowl of cool water and wiped her face as she was sweating real bad and had gone very pale. I put some more logs on the fire and some water on to boil, wasn’t too sure why, but it kinda seemed the right thing to do.

I suddenly realized that helping her deliver the child was solely down to me and felt sick at the prospect.

She seemed to pick up on my thoughts,” Oh Jess, what will happen I’m so scared, where is that is blessed Doctor?”

“Hey calm down,” I said, sounding more confident than I felt,” I’m an expert at birthin’”

“You are….really?”

“Sure, guess I’ve seen at least a dozen foals into this world, more calves, figure there ain’t too much difference the way things happen,” I said giving her a cheery wink.

“Oh God!” she cried, and whether from my comment or the pain I wasn’t sure, but she started screaming in earnest now and I felt real sorry for her and held her hand again talking real gentle to her and offering encouragement.

“Jess I need to push, I think the baby is coming,” she said, panting after the last bout of pain.

“Look Annie,” I said blushing furiously,” I’m goin’ to have to go down to the …err the business end of things, may need to help the little fellah out some, is that OK? “

She screamed in agony again and I could see she was starting to bear down, her face red with the effort and sweat, pouring down her face, which I gently wiped. As soon as the pain stopped she answered my question,” yes of course, just do what you must Jess, I want my baby born safely, what ever it takes.”

I could see she was in a lot of pain again and as she started pushing I went and checked out what was happening and was just in time to see the head appear.

“He’s coming,” I yelled at her,” keep pushing, come on Annie you can do it”.

She had been in labour for well over three hours to my knowledge and probably longer before she arrived and she seemed really exhausted, shaking and pale she started to cry.

“I can’t Jess,” she said,” it’s too painful I can’t go on.”

“You can, you have to, come on girl one more push.”

I could see the pain was taking her again and I encouraged her to give it one more go.

”Come on Annie, ”I said,” push real hard now.”

As she did so the baby emerged and grabbing hold I gently guided it out, onto Annie’s shawl and used my knife to cut the cord.

The baby lay there blue and unmoving, lifeless.

Annie’s head came up from the pillow.

” Why isn’t he crying?” she said and sitting up properly and looking down at the lifeless form she let out an ear splitting scream.

” Oh dear God, please no.”

Grabbing hold of a clean rag I vigorously rubbed the baby’s body and with a finger cleaned out the tiny mouth. I put it over on its chest on my lap and again vigorously rubbed the tiny back as Annie looked on her eyes wide in horror a hand to her mouth.

Suddenly there was a weak cry followed by another louder one and then the baby’s face turned from blue to a healthy pink, as she cranked up to a full blown wail.

She, it was a girl a beautiful little girl!

I held her close to me, gently rubbing her back and gradually she stopped crying and opening her astonishing deep blue eyes she peered up at me, it was love at first sight, for me anyway.

Wrapping her more firmly in the shawl I passed her to Annie, whose face was now transformed, with an expression of pure joy,” there you are, meet your daughter,” I said.

“My daughter, Jessica ,”she said holding the tiny scrap close, looking lovingly into her face, and then up into mine,” thank you so much Jess, I will never, ever forget what you have done for us.”

Then I heard the sound of horses approaching and a minute later there was a furious knocking and I got up from the bed where I had been sitting next to Annie and limped across to open the door.

Before I could get there it burst open admitting an anxious looking young man followed by Doc Baker. Sam looked from me to Annie and Jessica.

” Looks like we arrived a little late here Pete, but guess your wife has been in good hands,” he said grinning across at me.

Annie beamed up at her husband,” Jess delivered little Jessica,” she said and then the emotions of the last few hours caught up with her and she said,” Pete she wasn’t breathing, she was blue and Jess knew just what to do…if it hadn’t been for him……”and she started crying in earnest.

Pete ran to his wife’s side and took her in his arms, holding her close and looked up at me,” thank you so much, we’re truly indebted to you Jess“he said.

Sam had noticed I was limping and also saw the raw scar on my temple.

”Looks like you’ve been up to your usual tricks Jess,” he said smiling over at me, “what did you tangle with this time?”

“A big brute of a bay stallion,” I said grinning across at him,” thinking I might have another go at him tomorrow.”

“Oh no your not,” he said grinning back,” guess I’ll be riding back to Laramie with you, Miss Daisy landed home last week and she’s been driving Slim and me mad worrying about you, guess its worth more than my life’s worth to go back without you.”

“I figure I can see your point there Sam,” I said, smiling back,” guess if you’ve got Miss Daisy on your case ain’t nothin’ you can do.”


Gradually we settled down for the night, Pete and Annie and little Jessica, cuddled up together around the small cot and Sam and I spread out on our bedrolls by the fire. Annie had fallen into an exhausted sleep almost at once and Pete lay close by proudly cradling his new daughter.

Sam and I sat up by the fire sipping a coffee and quietly chatting.

” So how are you feeling now?” he asked a look of concern in his eyes.

I looked down into my coffee for a long while and then I suddenly felt I needed to share everything with Sam, talking real low so we wouldn’t disturb the others I told him all about my journey to the cabin and how great it felt being in the Big Open again, the long search for the wild mustang herd, how the bay had turned on me and how sick I got after the injuries and finally about the fever and hallucinating again.

When I got to the part where I was seeing Ruby and what she wanted me to do I found it really difficult, I had a huge lump in my throat and I started shaking and sweating again at the memory.

I finally managed to relate the whole story.

I told him about her swabbing my burning face and then talking to me in a loving whisper, then the urgency in her voice, when she told me to place the gun to my temple.

“It was all so real,” I whispered .Closing my eyes and swallowing as a wave of nausea hit me at the memory.

“It was so Goddamn close Sam,” I said looking deep into his eyes, if that thunder clap hadn’t happened when it did…….”

He gave a low whistle, “I noticed you weren’t packing your iron.”

“In the stable,” I said,” didn’t trust myself with it, in here with me.”

He looked over at me and there was a long pause.

”It was just the fever Jess; I figure you’re over the worst now. “

Then he shook his head looking grim.

”Thank God you didn’t do it,” he said,” it wouldn’t just have been you that died it would have been little Jessica too, maybe even her mum………. I guess it was down to you that she got through all this safely, it’s never easy giving birth for the first time.”

“You’re not kidding,” I said grinning over at him, and with that we finally settled for the night.

The following morning Sam wanted to examine Annie and talk to Pete about her care and so I made for the door looking to make myself scarce when Annie called me back and thrusting the little bundle that was Jessica in my arms said, “will you mind the baby for a few minutes Jess, show her the great outdoors for the first time.”

“Sure,” I said grinning and taking the baby gently from her I went outside.

Her big blue eyes took everything in as I showed her the mountains, pastureland and finally we visited Traveler in his stall. Throughout the tour she was alert and happy in my company.

Finally I went and sat on a bench outside the cabin, she gave a huge yawn and I settled her comfortably with her head on my shoulder and she fell asleep almost at once.

I felt incredibly peaceful and at ease with her and just for a moment I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like if she was mine.

I had Mike in my life now and he was like a son to me and I loved him dearly, but a daughter, well that was something entirely different. Even though I had only known Jessica a few short hours I felt an incredible bond with her, and I could see the strength of a father daughter relationship and suddenly a lot of things began to make sense.

Was the hatred McCrea felt for me partly fuelled by the work his daughter was forced to do after he went to prison I wondered.

Also the bond between Ruby and her father was so strong it even continued after his death making it impossible for her to go back on the promise she had made to him at the graveside to kill me.

Looking at the situation with fresh eyes I could see how the conflict between the loyalty to her father and her feelings for me could have well affected the balance of her mind the result being that she took her own life.

Just then the door opened and Sam strolled out and took a seat next to me.

“Annie’s having a wash, thought I’d give them a bit of privacy,” he said.

Then looking over at Jessica peacefully sleeping, her little head resting on my shoulder, smiled across at me.

”It seems as though she’s taken a real liking to her uncle Jess.”

I smiled down at the little one,” guess its mutual,” I said softly.

Suddenly his face broke into a huge grin.

“What? “

“Oh nothing”, he replied, ”well, it’s just the image of the famous Jess Harper, fast gun, sitting cooing over a tiny baby!”

“Yeah, well guess that’s an image nobody else will get to hear about, ain’t it Sam?” I said firmly giving him a hard look.

He just shook his head and chuckled and I was saved from further embarrassment as Pete came out to reclaim his new daughter.

Shortly afterwards Sam and I prepared to head off back to Laramie, leaving the new family at the cabin until Annie regained her strength and was able to travel home, back up the mountain to the trapper’s cabin they owned.

I went into the cabin to say my goodbyes and Annie was sitting up in bed, the baby asleep in her arms. She put up a hand and pulling me gently down kissed my cheek and looking deep into my eyes said,” I will never forget what you did for us Jess and as soon as Jessica is old enough I’ll tell her all about last night, thank you so, so much.”

Leaning down I kissed the baby gently on her forehead.

“Be good for you Ma little one,” I said softly and smiling at Annie, I walked to the door before turning and looking back one last time.

I tipped my hat, “take care sweetheart,” I said softly and left closing the door quietly behind me.

Pete was waiting outside and I shook his hand and Sam and I mounted and took off for the road to Laramie and home.


I never forgot that time at the line cabin, or how close I'd come to ending my life and I guess I learnt one hell of a lot while I was there. The power of the human mind, how it can fool you into thinking and doing stuff …... that you…… well, you really wouldn't do if your mind was fit and healthy.

Anyways the scars from the run in with the big bay stallion healed at about the same time as the sickness in my mind I guess. It took a while on both accounts and thinkin' on it later well, I figured I could cope with a whole mess of physical wounds… but I sure as hell never wanted to go through that mental sickness again.

I felt so darn sorry for Ruby trapped in a living hell as she loved me, but knew she should hate me. She had made that promise to kill me… but in the end couldn't do it and that shot went a fraction off target saving my life, before she used the gun on herself…ending hers. She was sick mentally, that's for sure, but it didn't stop me feeling awful.

Well I felt so damn bad about that, the guilt that I could, no…. should have tried to understand her more and help her, well it stayed with me a long time… and I guess a bit of that feeling will stay with me forever…

But at least one good thing came out of the sorry business, the safe delivery of little Jessica.

I guess if I hadn't been in such a bad way and needed time out by myself, well I'd never have been up there in the right place at the right time to help Annie with the birth. And that was somethin' else I'd got oh so wrong… helping a baby being born is absolutely completely different to birthin' a foal or a calf… trust me!

Anyways when I told Slim all about it later, and how I was there to help he said it was serendipity.

And I said "Huh?"

And he said it was a happy accident… like when you find something real good when not looking for it… and I guess that just about hit the nail on the head as far as little Jessica was concerned…..

Ever since that day her Ma has contacted me on her Birthday and it's been real good to know she's growing up fit and healthy. And you see, kinda knowing the part I played in that makes me think on the positive side of life… And I figure that's the way a man has to think iffen he's to stay sane…try and think of the good things in life……

The End

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