#52 Memories


By Patty Wilkinson

(Some strong language, violence and distressing scenes)

Chapter 1

The black mustang hurtled across the coral before stopping in its tracks at the far side. Then bucking sent its rider, Jess Harper, flying in a perfect arc before landing flat on his face in the dirt for the third time that morning.

He lay there cussing quietly for a minute before dragging himself up and picking up his battered black Stetson dusted himself down. Then turning to his partner in the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, Slim Sherman, he continued to cast aspersions on the stallion’s parentage and ugly disposition amongst a host of other things.

The tall blond rancher grinned down at his buddy from where he sat watching from the safety of the coral fence, pushing his hat back and shaking his head at his friend’s colorful language.

“Well Jess what do you expect, the poor critter’s in need of a rest! You’ve been pounding about the corral nigh on two hours, how about some coffee, huh, give the animal a break?”

“What? Give him a break,” exploded Jess, his deep blue eyes flashing with anger,” why in Hell would I wanna do that, all it’ll do is fire him up for the next round.”

“Come on Jess, just admit when you’re beat and from where I’m standing you sure could do with a breather, besides the noon Stage will be in shortly.”

He finally mooched over and vaulted the corral fence easily, his lean athletic figure sheer poetry in motion, although neither of the young cowboys would have noticed that.

“I figure maybe I could do with five minutes,” he finally admitted throwing his pard a rueful look and rubbing his chest that had recently come into such violent contact with the hard, dusty corral surface.

“You OK?”

“I guess I’ll live, darned well have to iffen I’m gonna git that no good bastard critter domesticated”, he said with a bitter laugh, casting an aggrieved glance in the horse’s direction.

“Come on pard,” Slim replied slinging a comforting arm around his buddy’s shoulders,” let’s get you sat down and some of Miss Daisy’s good coffee and pie in you….guess you’ll be ready to face all comers after that.”

Daisy Cooper their long suffering and motherly housekeeper was always on hand to feed them, tend their wounds and generally sympathize with her ‘boys’ as she thought of Slim, Jess and their young ward Mike Williams.

Jess threw his buddy a grin.

“I sometimes wonder how we managed before Daisy came along.”

However before they could enter the ranch they were alerted to a single rider approaching at speed and within a few minutes they made out the form of their good friend and Sheriff of Laramie, Mort Cory, riding hard into the yard.

The wiry, graying Sheriff slipped down from his old Buckskin and tethered him at the hitching rail in front of the ranch before turning to greet them.

“Hey Mort, you’re just in time for coffee,” said Slim as he went over and shook hands with his good buddy.

“Why thankee kindly,” said the Sheriff grinning at his friends.

Then he seemed to pull himself together.

“I guess I’m here on kind of official business, before I settle down to a visit though.”

“Oh, so what’s up Mort?” asked Jess frowning.“ I sure hope you don’t want us to ride posse, because I’ll tell yer I’ve gotten my work cut out breaking the last of the mustangs,” he said nodding over to where Devil’s Own, as Mike had named him, was now standing looking as innocent and docile as a lamb.

Mort looked over and raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“Nope, it’s nothing like that Jess, its Mrs Cooper I really need to talk to.”

“Oh, you’re not hurt are you Mort?” asked Slim, suddenly solicitous.

“No, it’s not me, but I am after her nursing skills,” and with that the trio made for the warm ranch kitchen and welcome coffee pot.


“So you see Mrs Cooper, Ma Patterson is sorely tried right now,” finished the Sheriff as they sat around the kitchen table sipping her good coffee.

“I can see as how that would be Sheriff,” she agreed,” what with that huge brood of children. Now you’re saying three of them already have the Measles and she’s worried the new twins are coming down with it too? “

“That’s about the size of it Ma’am, the older kids have gone off to relatives in Cheyenne, but these younger ones are too sick to travel and the babies can’t leave their Ma….it was Doc Sam Baker asked if you could help out.”

Daisy cast a worried eye over to where Slim and Jess were sitting quietly drinking their coffee.

“What do you think dears,” she asked,” could you manage without me for a while? “

Slim gave her his broad grin,” I figure we could just about manage Daisy. But what about you, sounds like real hard work nursing that brood of young ‘uns.”

“Oh I can manage easily,” she laughed,” once a nurse always a nurse you know.”

Then she turned to Jess.

“You’re very quiet dear, what do you think?”

Jess’s head shot up and she suddenly realized how upset he was looking, his cheeks flushed and eyes unnaturally bright.

“You should go Daisy definite. If those babies get it you’ll be really needed. Measles is a killer for youngsters, I know that for sure,”and with that he excused himself, saying he had to get on and marched out into the yard.

Once he had gone Daisy turned to Slim.

“What do you make of that, he seems really upset about this? “

“Umm, you know Jess, Daisy. He’s got a powerful lot of history and much of it none too happy. I guess it’s something that happened to him in the past.”

She just nodded and turned back to the Sheriff, “So is Sam worried, is this just an isolated case or two or could it be a full scale epidemic? “

Mort shrugged,” He couldn’t say, but young Peter Patterson has come down with it and he’s in first grade at the school….so I guess it’s a possibility.”

Then Daisy looked alarmed,” What about Mike, with him being adopted we’ve no idea if he’s had it or not….and Jess is right it can kill …..Oh dear maybe I should stay in case he succumbs?”

“Nope Daisy lets cross that bridge when we come to it huh? I know how fond you are of Ma Paterson and her brood of young ‘uns. Heck you helped deliver half of them. No you go. Jess and I can cope if the worst happens,” Slim said.

Daisy nodded,” Alright dear I’ll go and pack a bag,” and she bustled off.

Slim went out with Mort and waved him off before wandering over to the barn to hitch up the buckboard ready to take Daisy over to their neighbor's place. But he stopped when he saw Jess, standing with his back to him, grooming his mount.

“Jess… are you OK?” he asked softly.

He half turned and nodded brusquely before returning to his task, his back ramrod straight and unyielding.

Slim studied his pard’s back view for a few minutes, “Jess? “

He saw every muscle tense, sending out the clear message, ’Just leave me be’, and after a moment, when he got no further response, he went quietly away, knowing better than to push things when Jess was in this mood.


It was when the late afternoon Stage rolled in that they heard more news of the situation in town regarding the Measles.

Mose hauled the team to a sweating head nodding standstill and the moment the stage stopped an excited little blond whirlwind jumped down and threw himself in Jess’s arms, a look of excitement in his wide innocent eyes.

“Hey Jess, guess what there is a Measles eppi….epper? “

“Hey take it easy Mike…… a what?”

Slim strode over and exchanged a concerned glance with Jess before gazing down at the child, now bouncing up and down, partly from excitement and partly frustration at his inability to remember this strange new word.

“Epidemic,” asked Slim, looking worried, “a measles epidemic?”

“Yup, that’s it Measles epidemic and the schools been closed until further notice, isn’t that neat?” and he ran off to share the news with Buttons his dog.

Jess looked up to Mose, ”Is this true?” he growled.

“Yup, I’m ‘fraid so son. Seems like the Scot boy’s got it, not his little sister yet though and a couple of little girls in first grade too,” and he shook his head sadly,” Doc Baker’s real worried. There are new cases popping up every day…some adults and a couple of old folks as well….doc don’t hold out much hope fer them so I hear, seems it’s a killer where the very old and young are concerned.

Jess turned slightly pale but said nothing and went off to change the team.

“Say Slim ain’t that Scott boy, Davy, a good buddy of young Mike?”

“Yes, he is Mose,” and the blond rancher turned to help Jess with the team looking deeply worried.


“Why can’t I go visit Davy, I could take him some candy it might make him feel better.”

“We’ve told you already Tiger, it’s real infectious. That means you could catch it too and you don’t wanna be sick do ya?”

“I guess not, no.”

“Just simmer down then and iffen you’ve finished your supper you can clear the table and I’ll wash up, figure its all hands to the pump with Aunt Daisy away.”

“Are you sure you can’t remember having it?” asked Slim for the third time.

“A red rash, sneezing, a cough?” supplied Jess expectantly.

“Err…yup sure I did,” the child replied looking thoughtful now.” All those itchy spots yeah…I had it last fall didn’t I…this time last year, jeepers you remember don’t you Jess…..you looked after me.”

Jess who had been looking mighty relieved sighed now,”No Tiger that was the Chicken Pox a different thing altogether.”

“How about when you were real young, before you went with the wagon train?” Slim persisted. He was referring to the long, long journey when all the others on the train had been massacred in an Indian attack. leading to the orphaned Mike being taken on by the two ranchers.

“Gee I dunno,” said the boy getting tired of this inquisition, “can you remember way back when you were a tiny little kid Slim?”

Jess grinned at that response, “ I guess he’s gotten a point,” and then gently clipped the youngster around the ear.

“No need to be cheeky though Mike, come on, git a wriggle on and we’ll have time for a game of checkers before bedtime,” and with that the youngster gave a great whoop of joy and after apologizing to Slim, went about his chores cheerfully.

It was later that night when the two men were preparing for sleep that Slim sat down on his bed and threw his buddy an anxious look.

“You know what this means don’t you? With Mike being off school for the foreseeable and Daisy away, one of us is going to have to stay home all day. Do the domestics, mind the boy and change the Stage teams.”

“Mm…while the other one finishes mending the fences out on the east pasture and moves the herd over there….tough work in this Indian summer were havin’ too,” concluded Jess.

“So you want to toss for it then Jess?”

He grinned at that notion,” Sure.”

“Yeah….and sans your double headed coin too pard.”


“We’ll use my dollar OK Jess?”

Chapter 2

It was one morning a few days later when Jess, who had won the call despite the absence of his trick coin, wandered over to the barn to check on Mike who was grooming his pony.

After a leisurely breakfast, followed by several more coffees, once Slim had left for the east pasture, Jess took his time washing the dishes. Then had a smoke and read of the Laramie Sentinel before mooching out into the bright sunny morning.

However his mood of benign good humor was quickly replaced by a spurt of anxiety as he heard loud sneezing coming from the barn.

He ran in and called to the child. After a moment he turned from his task of grooming his pony, Sunny, to look over at his guardian. The boy’s his nose was running and eyes looking red and sore.

“Hey Tiger are you OK?”

“Umm…yeah I guess, just getting a cold maybe, my throats kinda sore,” he said before returning to his task.

Jess’s heart was pounding, ‘no…please no,’ he thought desperately, and then gathered himself together. He mustn’t fuss lest he scare the child…..and they didn’t know…weren’t sure…..Anyway, he was a tough little cookie, he’d be OK ….It wasn’t like he was a tiny baby…like….. No, don’t go there Harper, he told himself…..

“Say Tiger, its kinda cold in here out of the sun, why don’t ya go inside take a break by the fire, huh?”

“Oh, I can’t do that Jess”, the child replied turning huge troubled eyes on his hero,” you always say a man tends his horse no matter what, his mount must come first.”

“Yeah, I know that Tiger, but iffen you’re gettin’ a cold you need to keep in the warm, I’ll tend to old Sunny here, now scoot.”

“I’m not cold, really I ain’t Jess,” said the youngster, standing his ground.

Jess leaned over and brushed the boy’s tousled blond mop away from his forehead and felt the dry heat radiating from it as he had feared.

“Look, iffen you’re gonna argue, maybe you’d better git back to bed…huh?”

“Oh no I’m not arguing honest I’m not Jess! I’m going right now… I’ll go sit in your rocker and read my book…OK?”

Jess’s deep blue eyes smiled down at the boy and he relented,” OK Mike, I’ll be along in when I’ve finished here and we’ll see how you’re doin’ then OK?”

It was about half an hour later, after he had completed grooming Sunny and had made the Relay team ready for the noon Stage that he marched back into the house. But the sight that greeted him did nothing to allay his fears.

Mike’s diminutive figure was lying back in Jess’s rocker, pulled up to the fire, Robinson Crusoe open on his lap, but the child was fast asleep.

Jess peered down at the flushed little face, looking so young and vulnerable in repose, and felt a stab of fear in his guts. Hell he was just a little kid….and sick, real sick, he thought, dread flooding through him.

He removed the book and then picked the child up tenderly and carried him to his room where he laid him gently on his bed, covering him over with a warm blanket and looked down pensively at his sleeping form.

After a moment Jess sank down onto the edge of the bed and smoothed the blond hair back again, feeling the damp stickiness of the child’s skin and he sighed deeply, his worst nightmare was just starting again.

He had left the child only briefly to change the Stage team and ask Mose to request a visit from the Doctor, their good friend Sam Baker.

Mose looked down sadly, “He’ll only tell yer to keep him warm, give him lots to drink and a little broth when he’s able,” said the old timer.

“Since when did you qualify as a dang doctor?” spat Jess feeling sorely tried and more than a little worried, as the child seemed to have gone downhill so quickly.

“Just sayin’,” replied Mose looking mortally offended.

Jess ducked his head,” I’m sorry Mose, I’m just kinda worried yer know? “

“Sure, sure boy, I understand and I’ll tell the doc. But no sayin’ as to when he’ll be able to make it out, run off his feet he is…last count there were over twenty confirmed cases.”

Jess just shook his head,” When he can then, OK Mose?”

“Yup you’ve got it Jess, and give the young ‘un my best huh? “


Slim was bone weary. He had ridden into the deserted yard and put his horse up, before washing some of the trail dust off at the outside pump. That was when he noticed there was no smoke issuing from the cook stove chimney. As he strode into the house feeling tired and irritable he realized there was no smell of supper cooking either and his fears were confirmed.

“If he’s been off fishing all day I swear I’ll….Jess, Jess where in Hell are you?” he yelled.

A second later Jess emerged from Mike’s room looking tired and drawn.

“About time, now where’s my dang supper Jess… I’m starv……”

Then something in his partner’s eyes made him stop in mid-sentence.

“Jess…what is it pard?”

“It’s Mike, Slim…he’s sick….real sick.”


The doctor straightened up from where he’d been leaning over the child listening to his chest with his stethoscope, having already checked his temperature and swollen glands in his neck.

He rubbed the small of his back ruminatively and then looked over to where Jess and Slim stood on the opposite side of the bed looking equally anxious.

“Oh yes, it’s the Measles alright and a particularly virulent case I’m afraid,” said the good doctor knowing his friends would rather have the truth.

Jess cast Slim an inquiring look.

“Real bad Jess…a real powerful dose of the illness,” he supplied softly so the boy wouldn’t hear.

Jess just nodded, looking devastated. Then all three men moved away from the bedside so that they could talk freely.

“He’ll be OK though Sam, we’ll nurse him through it Ok…won’t we …huh?”

The doctor turned weary troubled eyes on Jess.

“I really don’t know buddy….it’s about a fifty percent chance either way…he’s real sick….but he’s got everything to live for. I figure if you can just keep him cheerful and interested…keep his mind occupied, dose him up on pain medicine when the headaches get too severe….The real killer is lung fever…if he gets that well…… But anyway, he’s not too bad just yet, it’ll be a day or so before he starts feeling real sick.”

“Should we tell Daisy?” asked Slim looking defeated.

Sam shook his head,” He’s in no immediate danger and there is little more she can do than what you’re doing already.”

Then he turned to Jess,” You’ve done a sterling job already Jess….just don’t exhaust yourself…or you’ll be of no use to him, let Slim help out too…..huh?”

Jess just nodded, looking the picture of misery and Sam reached over and gave him a little punch on the arm…”Take it easy huh?”

Slim showed him out.

“So how is young Davy Scott?”

“Holding his own so far.”

“And the Patterson kids? “

The doctor shook his head,” not good Slim , I’m on my way now, but I doubt the twins will make it…that’s why I don’t want Daisy involved just yet, I figure she’s really got her hands full right now.”

“Sure…sure, give her our love will you Sam? “And the doctor made his weary way off to his next house call.

Chapter 3

The boy seemed a little better after the doctor’s visit and managed some broth for supper and then pleaded for one of Jess’s stories.

Jess smiled down relieved that the youngster was sitting up and taking notice and apart from his runny nose and slight fever he looked fine.

“Let me see,” he said sitting back he looked up to the ceiling for inspiration.

“Tell me about some of the scrapes you got in when you first landed here Jess….when you had…..what does Slim say…..oh yeah, you had a greased holster and trouble in both pockets.”

“Why you cheeky little….!” and Jess slapped him very gently on the arm, to which the youngster giggled.

Then Jess settled down to one of his tales about when he first landed at the Sherman Ranch and Relay station all those years ago and was befriended by Slim’s younger brother Andy…..and did those two get into some scrapes Slim was to recount fondly years later…..but at the time, yup the drifter sure was trouble…….

So Jess began his Story

“See it was this way Mike. I guess I’d been around the place for a few weeks and was kinda liking it, although heck I wouldn’t have let old Hardrock, Slim that is, know that….I always played my cards real close to my chest in those days see, wanted to keep my options open iffen I decided to move on. I’d already ridden out a couple of times, needing to help old friends out. That kinda thing…but I always seemed to find my way back…..I figure maybe I was just beginning to think of it as home, although like I say, I wouldn’t admit that to Slim….heck wouldn’t even admit it to myself.”

“Why…why was that Jess? “

“Huh….I dunno, sounds kinda crazy now but at the time I felt like….if I really was happy and settled then it would all go wrong, like in had in the past….. Something would happen and Slim would chuck me out……and I’ll tell you what Tiger it very nearly happened too.”

The boy looked shocked,” Go on then Jess tell me, tell me the story.”

“Like I say I was feelin’ real settled and I figure Slim was beginning to trust me too, because he took off for Cheyenne on stage line business for a few days and left me and old Jonsey running the place.”

“Jonsey was the old guy a friend of Slim and Andy’s Pa, that right isn’t it Jess? “

“Yup, he moved in to ride shot gun on them when their Ma and Pa passed on….Gee he was a character Mike, like an old mother hen way he fussed and fretted about stuff….and the Lord help you iffen you got sick.”

“Why? “

“He had this liniment see and he’d slather yer with it, for everything from a gunshot wound to ….this here Measles and it stank something powerful. He drove us all crazy because he couldn’t sit a horse or git on with any of the livestock, could set off a stampede just by lookin’ at the beasts.”

Mike giggled at that notion.

“But he sure could cook up a storm when he’d a mind to……”


Then he cast my mind back to that long ago time…...almost reliving it as the tale unfolded.

“Anyways this particular time me and Andy had been to town doin’ the marketing and saw a poster advertising a prize fighter Leroy Jones…real famous he was….Well had been anyways , but I guess he was beginning to lose his touch some by then because he was touring around taking on all comers. You paid a few bucks to fight him and iffen you won you got $100, so he had a good few takers….But although he’d slowed down some he could sure pack a punch and no one had floored him yet……so me an’ Andy really wanted to go and see the fight that night……”

“I dunno Andy; I figure we should really ask Slim first,” I said back at the ranch as we put the goods away.

“But heck Jess the fight’s tonight and Slim won’t be home for another couple of days…..please take me with you. I’ll be good I promise.”

“Well we should run it past old Jonsey at least.”

“No Jess you can’t you just can’t , he’ll say no for sure! You know what an old woman he can be. Heck he probably don’t agree with fist fighting, he’ll think it’ll turn me into a no good wastrel…or something.”

“Umm, like me,” I said with a grim smile.

“Heck no I didn’t mean that ……it’s just that…. well….. You’ve seen so much of the world Jess…..done so much and I’ve been nowhere and done nuthin’.”

Well I guess I kinda felt sorry for the boy and heck what harm could one night in town do him?

“Anyway Jonesy’s sacroiliac is playing him up something fierce and he said he was off to see that old quack as lives over at Hunter’s Rise for some special medicine. He said he wouldn’t be home until late, so we can’t ask him can we?”

I smiled at that news,”I guess we could leave him a note huh? “

Andy let out an ear splitting Yahoo and did a competent rendering of an Apache war song and dance around the kitchen.

“Gee Jess you sure are a good friend,” he finally managed once he’d calmed down some.

“Yeah, I just hope Slim thinks the same when he finds out,” I said quietly.

Any road, I wrote a note for Jonsey saying as how I was treating the boy to a night in town and we’d stay over at the hotel and be back in time for morning chores and left it on the side table by the back door where he’d see it as soon as he landed home and me and Andy took off in good spirits.

We booked into the hotel and then I shouted him supper at Miss Molly’s café. Then we wandered down the street to old man Baxter’s barn where the fights were to be held.

By the time we arrived the place was heaving and full of all sorts of low life placing bet. Many of them drunk and cussin’ and the alarm bells started ringing. Maybe this wasn’t the place for a young impressionable kid after all. Heck Andy was only fourteen and looked younger and I felt real protective of him. For two pins I’d have turned around and walked out, except the first fight was starting and Andy dragged me over to a ringside seat his eyes sparkling with excitement.

I’ll tell you that Leroy sure could pack a punch and he got through all comers with the ease of a real pro. Then his manager started touting for business. Before long he’d asked me and every man in the room was egging me on, knowing as how I could handle myself pretty good. But I was no fool. This guy had a good forty pounds on me, a head taller and arms and legs like tree trunks, hell I didn’t have a death wish.

But then the crowd were yellin’ for me and Andy said something that made me change my mind.

“Just think Jess when you win you’ll be able to show Slim you’re winnings and he’ll be real pleased we came, won’t be mad at us at all.”

The longer we’d been watching the fights, with all the bad language and drunkenness the more worried I’d become about how old Slim would be when he found out where we’d been….Real mad I guessed. Then I got to thinkin’ what I could do with $100. I could plough some of it into the business, help Slim out some. I knew he had his eyes on some Longhorns and with my input we could secure them….

So…..at the time…well Andy’s idea seemed a real good one and heck what I lacked in weight I sure made up for in speed…..so I finally agreed.

As soon as I entered the ring I knew I’d made a mistake…..a real big mistake.

Leroy lumbered over and fixed me with the evil. Then before I could move, a beefy fist landed full in my face flooring me and I was amazed at the speed of the big guy.

I lay on the canvas looking up to where he was sneering down at me and knew I had to give it my best shot, even if I was about to be slaughtered.

I was up in a moment and dodged his next punch before retaliating with a fast right and left to his jaw and although I didn’t down him, I could tell I’d riled him. He gave a mighty roar and waded over to me, fists flying and lookin’ as mad as a wet hen.

Well I ducked and dived and then landed a lucky punch to his chin which finally sent him flying across the ring and then it was him as was sprawled on the canvas a look of astonishment in his dark eyes.

Well iffen he was mad before he was doggone furious now. He started throwing punches like there was no tomorrow …and at one stage I didn’t think there would be, for me anyway…. I was a mess. I was bleeding from my chin, my nose and a really nasty cut above my eye. My ribs were aching from the pounding and my legs felt like lead… I just knew they wouldn’t hold me up much longer.

Then a miracle happened, he was so dang confident he would win….well he always did didn’t he? So he let his guard drop, just for a second….and that’s when I hit ….hard.

I slammed my fist into his chin and while he was reeling from that followed through with another right and left and was rewarded by the look of deep shock in his eyes, before he fell to his knees and then crumpled falling forwards, out cold.

The referee came and counted him out to ten and by nine I was virtually on my knees and then at ten the only thing holding me up was the ref as he gripped my arm and declared me the winner, before everything turned black.

When I awoke I was lying on old Doc Johnson’s examination couch and the ancient doc was squinting down at me, concern in his pale watery eyes.

Then I rolled my head to the right, regretting it immediately as agony stabbed behind my eyes and I let out a low groan.

“Jess……Jess are you alright?”

I opened my eyes again and was finally able to focus on Andy’s anxious gaze as he peered down at me.

“Sure….sure I am…what time is it?”

“I dunno, real late, after midnight.”

I cussed softly before turning back to the doc.

“The boy should be in bed, can yer take him over to the hotel fer me…please doc? “

“I don’t wanna leave you Jess.”

“Well you’re gonna,” I replied fiercely, one hand shooting up to my head as they pain hit me again.

Then I tried more quietly,” Please Andy just behave will you? You go over to our room and stay there until I come to fetch you…..understand? You’re not to go out… eat all your meals there and I’ll settle up later OK?”

He sighed deeply,” I guess,” and finally wandered off with the doc.

Meanwhile little did I know it, but there were some real mad folks back at the ranch.


Slim arrived home a day early on the late afternoon stage and was surprised and a little annoyed when there was no supper on and no sign of any of his nearest and dearest.

He just assumed that they had all gone out visiting, knowing that this last Stage wouldn’t need the team changing as it was one of the few that went straight back to town for the night.

He huffed and puffed a bit and then started banging pots about in the kitchen .Before marching out the back door to fetch some wood in for the cook stove, failing to notice the note that blew out of the door and across the yard, before coming to lodge in the netting surrounding Andy’s pet racoon’s cage.

It was long after supper when old Jonsey finally limped in cussing gently under his breath and holding his back with one hand.

However his face lit up when he saw Slim stretched out before a blazing fire, coffee cup in hand.

“About time,” said Slim brusquely as he consulted the clock on the mantle, “its way past Andy’s bedtime and where’s Jess? One of you could have stayed home to cook supper couldn’t you?” he finished sulkily.

Jonsey stopped in his tracks,” Heck Slim you’re home a day early and anyway whatever do ya mean, someone did stay home, Andy and that no good drifter…so where are they?”

“Search me,” said Slim now looking concerned,” there was nobody home when I landed back hours ago.”

Then he looked angry,” Garl darn it, you don’t think he’s taken off with the boy do you Jonsey? He’s been a mite quiet lately, had that look about him like he was hatching some trouble.”

“Umm, I reckon maybe the Big Open’s been a callin’ the boy. But heck no Slim, he wouldn’t just take off with young Andy that way, no matter how much the kid pestered him.”

“Well where the hell are they then Jonsey, it’s near midnight!”

Chapter 4

Slim dozed in the chair all night and was up at first light saddling his mount when Jonsey came limping out.

“You’re not riding out on an empty stomach Slim, come on in, I’ve the coffee on already.”

He shook his head,” Sorry Jonsey, can’t risk it, if Jess has taken off with the boy the sooner I get on their trail the better.”

“Well where are you heading, they could be anywhere?”

“Figured I’d hit town have a word with Mort maybe get him to print out some wanted posters? “

“Well hang on a minute there son, Mort Cory may be Sheriff and a real good friend to boot, but even he can’t put out wanted posters on a man who just ain’t turned up for his breakfast…there’s probably a real good reason.”

“Not just a man…a man and a boy and that boy happens to be my kid brother, or had you forgotten that! Hell what would Ma and Pa say, the kid taking off with a no good gunslinger?”

“Hum, I thought that ‘no good gunslinger’ was turning out to be a real good friend to you Slim Sherman?”

“Yeah, well I did too…but seems I was wrong, if he can pull a stunt like this….It’s called abduction Jonsey and that comes with a prison sentence.”

With that Slim mounted and made for the rise and the Laramie road beyond.

“Well just you remember he’s saved your bacon more than once since he landed here, just hear him out before you have him tried and convicted,” he called after his young friend and Slim just waved a vague hand in his direction before spurring Alamo on to a fast gallop.

When he landed in Laramie he went straight to the Sheriff’s office bursting in and looking almost as angry as he was feeling.

“You seen him Mort, has that no hoper been in town….?”

Mort removed his boots from his desk and put down his coffee cup carefully before raising a censorious eyebrow in his friends direction.

“Well good morning to you too Slim…..and what exactly can I do for you on this bright and sunny morning…….and by ‘no hoper’ do I assume you mean Jess?”

Slim looked down embarrassed for a moment.

“Sorry Mort…..good morning….yeah, Jess have you seen him?”

“Umm, no can’t say as I have but I know where he is.”

Slim sighed deeply.

He was usually the most patient of men but right now he was feeling sorely tried….”Well are you going to tell me then Mort? “

“Umm…. oh yeah, sure I’ll tell you…. coffee? “He asked pleasantly.

“Mort just tell me will you!”

“Ok keep your hair on Slim. Lon my deputy was in a while back and full of the fight last night.”

“Fight, what fight, has that no good drifter been fighting …again?”

“Umm…but all legit this time, there was a big fight evening over at Baxter’s barn. Everyone was there, save yours truly, I was out of town visiting….”

“Mort, will you get on with it…please?”

“Ok, so it was that famous fighter Leroy Jones, doing the rounds of all the big towns, taking on all comers and $100 to any man as can knock him out…..”

“And Jess took him on?”

“Said so didn’t I?”

“So did he have Andy with him? “

“Huh…Andy, dunno, Lon never said.”

“So where is he now?”

“Why over at Doc Johnson’s place…..in a bit of a mess by all accounts.”

Slim was up from his chair and through the door in a split second making his way across the street to the doc’s office.

“Hey Slim….. Slim don’t you wanna know if he won or not?” Mort called after him….but it fell on deaf ears.

Mort shook his head, and muttered to himself, “Everyone’s in such a dang hurry these days,” before topping up his coffee cup and returning his feet to his desk top.

Slim hammered on the doctor’s door and after a moment his elderly housekeeper, Mrs Barnes pulled the door cautiously back, but visibly relaxed when she saw it was Matt Sherman’s boy.

“Why Mister Sherman, what can I do for you at this early hour?” she asked.

Slim didn’t wait to be asked in, but simply barged past her before turning back, “Do you have Jess Harper here Ma’am?”

“Well, err yes but he isn’t awake yet, the doctor isn’t down either….”

Slim suddenly realized how boorish he was being.

“Look Ma’am I’m real sorry, but this is urgent. I need to speak to Jess…Mister Harper urgently…please would you mind?”

She sighed,” I don’t know what the doctor will say….but well it’s not as though we don’t know you….Yes you may go in Mister Sherman, but please be quiet, the poor boy is quite sick, he took a terrible beating last night.”

Slim marched into the room the housekeeper showed him to and then closed the door firmly behind him, before turning to the bed. The occupant was looking pale and ill, his eyes shut and his breathing erratic.

Jess’s dark hair fell across his forehead in an untidy tangle, both eyes were blacked and he had lacerations to his chin and a nasty deep cut above his right eye.

Slim stared down at him, for a moment forgetting how dang mad he was and feeling the stirrings of sympathy for this ornery difficult young man he had begun to consider a friend.

Then he remembered his kid brother, where the heck was he?

He leaned down and shook Jess awake, rather more vigorously than was needed and the dark haired young cowboy groaned and opened his eyes, grimacing in pain.

“Jess….Jess wake up goddamn you where’s Andy, what have you done with my brother?”

“Huh…..Slim, that you?” Jess muttered squinting up at his friend.

Slim was incensed at Jess’s drowsy manner and grabbing hold of his undershirt he dragged him up shaking him hard, “Will you wake up and tell me where Andy is!” he yelled,” So help me if you’ve hurt him…..!”

Jess groaned,” Hell Slim…. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t hurt the boy you know that……”

Slim just seemed to be getting more and more angry,” Well where is he then Jess? God help me if you don’t tell me I’ll”….and he balled a fist…….

Slim never knew if he would have punched Jess….he certainly hoped not, later when he came to his senses, but right then he was way beyond being sensible.

Then somebody was tugging at his arm……

“I’m here Slim….leave him alone, I’m here and I’m fine,” and turning Slim looked down into the terrified face of his little brother.

Then the elderly doctor was behind him.

“Mister Sherman I must ask you to leave, my patient is still very sick….please come this way.”

Slim threw Jess down on the bed,” You’ll keep,” he spat before taking his leave.

When Slim and Andy left I felt so bad…Hell I couldn’t remember when I’d felt worse. Sure I probably shouldn’t have taken the boy to town without getting Slim’s permission, but I’d kept him safe hadn’t I? And God knows the kid had little enough fun, what with Slim and Jonsey riding shot gun over him twenty four hours a day. Surely he could kick of the traces occasionally.

Then the doc came back and listened to my chest and started fussin’ and frettin’ sayin’ as how I’d gotten me a couple of busted ribs from where Leroy had splattered me against the corner post of the ring….and then I felt real sick and dizzy, Slim shakin’ me not havin’ helped any I guess.

Well it was a couple of days before I was able to get up as I had real bad concussion ….But layin’ there sure gave me a chance to review my life and I decided I was gonna ride out before Slim had a chance to chuck me off of the ranch.

I thought I could settle down there make real good friends that would last the course…stand by me, but I figured I was wrong. If Slim could judge me, thinking the worst, thinking I wouldn’t look out for Andy like he was my own kin? Well then I figured he wasn’t the man I thought he was. He didn’t trust me…..never would and so as far as I was concerned that was an end to it.

Well I didn’t know it at the time, but it seems that Slim was feeling almost as bad as I was, the way he’d kicked off without giving me a chance to explain and all.


Slim rode back home with Andy later that morning point blank refusing to let the boy go and say goodbye to me.

“He’ll go….ride off without sayin’ goodbye, I just know he will Slim,” the boy said turning a tear stained face towards his big brother.

“Well good riddance,” spat Slim as he spurred Alamo on to a greater pace, fingers of guilt beginning to grip his heart.

Then he turned in the saddle,” Come on Andy keep up…we need to get home old Jonsey will be worrying himself to an early grave.”

Later that day, once Andy was off in the barn tending his horse, Jonsey and Slim had a chance to talk in private.

“So what did he have to say for himself then?” asked Jonsey

“Nothing…just said as he’d never hurt the boy.”

“And you believe him?” asked Jonsey although he knew the answer.

Slim dipped his head,” Yeah, I believe him.”

“So what else did he say? Why did they go off that way without telling us?”

Slim just shook his head, “ I dunno, I didn’t ask.”


“Well I was mad…worried about the boy.”

“So bring him in, maybe he can shed some light on things.”

“Well I reckon Jess has coached him in lying real well. He says they left a note explaining where they were going, when they’d be back…..So that would have been OK I guess….He still should have asked …but….at least we wouldn’t have worried so much.”

“Well I never saw a note.”

“Me neither and if the boy’s going to start lying this way, maybe he’d be better off without Jess around.”

Just then the door burst open and an indignant Andy raced in.

“What are you sayin’ about Jess…he never taught me to lie, never….. He wouldn’t and it’s the truth, he did write a note…here,” and he thrust a wet, dog eared piece of paper towards his brother.

“I found it in Bandit’s pen; it must have blown out the back door. Jess left it on the table just by the door….it’s kinda damp, but you can still make it out here…..read it,” he said belligerently thrusting the paper at his brother once more, his face flushed and angry.

Slim took the proffered note and read it out loud.

Jonsey, me and Andy has gone to town to see the big fight, I hope this is OK. I will keep the boy safe. We’re gonna stay in the hotel, back for early chores…hope yer sarcro..sac (both words scribbled out)…..hope yer back is feeling better. See ya, Jess & Andy.

“See…see I told you, I said Jess would never lie….and he kept me safe like he said even though he was hurt real bad. He got the doc to take me to the hotel. He said I should wait there until he came for me…..then I saw you ridin’ in and went over to the doc’s”, he finished breathlessly……

“Please Slim you’ve gotter forgive him, you’ve just gotter!”

“The boy’s got a point Slim, I know Jess shouldn’t have lit off that way without askin’ first, but his heart’s in the right place and I do believe he’d never see any harm come to Andy,” said Jonsey sincerely.

Slim sighed deeply.

“You’re right of course and I guess I did go off half cocked. But hell Andy it’s only because I care about you….got to look out for you just like our Ma and Pa would have.”

“Yup I know all that Slim, but what about Jess…will you go and bring him home….please….!”

Slim looked from Jonesy’s hopeful gaze to his little brother’s pleading one.

“Aw heck, I know when I’m beaten, sure I’ll go in first thing tomorrow, bring him home.”

“Mm and there’s no need to look so dang ornery about it either Slim, because me and Andy know you want him back here where he belongs too…..dontcha?” Smiled Jonsey.

Slim just shook his head grinning and went off to clean out the barn, knowing the truth of it. Sure Jess was wild, unpredictable and could be as ornery as hell, but he was also kind, loyal, funny and yes…..a good friend and he wanted him home just as much as the others.


Anyways I didn’t know what had been goin’ on at the ranch, but I sure figured I wouldn’t be any too welcome there, so I decided to cut my losses and head off for the Big Open….

The doc was none too happy about signing me off. He said my ribs still had some healing to do, but to be honest I thought Andy might come lookin’ for me and thought a good clean break would be the easiest way.

Before I left town I made my way over to Mort’s office.

“Well if it isn’t the prize fighter,” he said grinning at me as I entered.

I chuckled at that notion, “Well you know Mort I figure there weren’t much in it and I might have won, but I guess he made more of a mess of me than I did of him,” I said, putting a hand up to my still painfully bruised face.

“Hmm, can’t say as how it’s done much for your boyish good looks,” he said with a grin,” so what do they think at home about you winning that pot of money and all?”

I just shrugged at that notion,” I dunno, I ain’t seen them,” I said.


“Yeah, see I’m movin’ on Mort.”

“Well I’m sorry to hear that son, real sorry….and I imagine Slim and the others will be too.”

I just shook my head at that, “I figure you imagine wrong then Sheriff,” I said sadly.

Then before he had a chance to ask more I passed him an envelope over.

“Do ya think you could give that to Slim, next time you see him and tell him……Well just tell him I’m sorry it ended this way,” and with that I got up quickly and marched out of the office and out of Laramie…for good.

Chapter 5

As it turned out it wasn’t until a couple of days later that Slim was finally able to ride out, as the home pasture fence had come down and several head of stock had wandered far and wide, taking a lot of time and effort to retrieve them all.

He wiped the sweat from his brow once the task was finally completed. Gee I never realized how much I missed that ornery buddy of mine, he thought and decided to ride out at first light and bring him back into the fold. Sure they’d probably have a good old set to about the whole business, but then they’d talk it all through and everything would be OK again.

When the doc said he’d signed Jess off a couple of days before he was surprised he hadn’t landed home and wandered over to Mort’s office to see if he knew where his pard was holing up.

“Well he’s gone Slim, didn’t you know?”

“Gone?” he asked looking bewildered.

“Sure left, vamoosed cleared off out,” said Mort impatiently.

“No…. no I didn’t know, so where’s he gone? When’ll he be back, hell the work’s stacking up back at the ranch Mort,” he said fear making him sound suddenly angry.

Mort knew his old friend well and could see he was upset.

“Sit down Slim, I’ll fetch you a coffee.”

Once the tall rancher was sipping the Sheriff’s powerful brew he raised a questioning eyebrow,” Well?”

Mort sighed,” He ain’t coming back Slim. He seemed to think he wouldn’t be any too welcome.”

“Well that’s crazy,” Slim muttered,” sure I was mad at him. Way he lit off to town with Andy, but I figure we can talk it all through, make it right.”

“I’m sorry buddy, but I reckon it’s too late for talking, as far as Jess is concerned anyway.”

Then he reached into his desk draw,” He left this for you and said as I was to tell you he’s sorry…the way things ended.”

Slim sighed deeply, “That sounds kind of final.”

Mort pushed the envelope across the desk and watched as Slim quickly slit it open, revealing a wad of notes and a short letter.

Then the Sheriff watched as his buddy’s expression changed from surprise, through bewilderment and finally remorse. He crumpled in his chair and shook his head sadly, “Crazy fool,” he whispered.

Then he bundled the note and cash back into the envelope and stuffed it in his vest pocket.

“Have you any idea Mort, any idea at all as to where he was heading?”

“Nope, but I know he went and spent some time with old Bert at the livery before he lit out, they’re pretty good friends those two, he might have said something to the old fellah.”

Slim gave his thanks and rushed down the street to the livery but had to wait whilst Bert attended to a customer and then he finally had his full attention.

“Morning’ Slim, so what can I do for you, stall for Alamo there is it boy? “

“Nope, I’m not staying in town Bert, but I just wondered if you’d seen Jess, my ranch hand, lately. He’s lit off after a bit of a fall out and I need to find him, straighten things out.”

“Umm….well he was by here Slim, wanted Traveller shod, new shoes all round, said he was goin’ on a long trip.”

Slim paled at that,” A long trip you say? “

“Yep, California, so he was sayin’, seems he had an urge to see the ocean and said there was nuthin’ here for him so he was taking off.”

Slim looked agitated, “How long ago, when did you see him last Bert?”

“ I saw him yesterday, first thing….took off after we’d shared a coffee or two.”

Slim gave a faint smile, Jess and his coffee habit.

“Know which route he was taking? “

The old timer shook his head, “Nope, just that he was riding, not goin’ with a wagon train……but I don’t know as to which trail he’s takin’……..except…”

“Yes?” asked Slim eagerly turning back from where he had moved to mount up.

“Except he did say as how he was going to lay over someplace for a day or two. Give those ribs of his a chance to heal some, were botherin’ him when he was here, said they were aching something fierce.”

Slim turned his full attention on the old man now,” Where did he say he was lying over Bert…..tell me!”

“OK, simmer down Slim, let me think…..oh yeah, the caves over at the far side of that lake of yours, I think he said….can’t be sure though…..”

“Thanks Bert,” and Slim was mounted and halfway down Main Street as the old man smiled after him.

” Well you’re welcome son.”

Then he shook his head, so what if Jess had told him not to tell a living soul as to where he was headed, Slim was his friend wasn’t he….sure Jess wouldn’t mind him knowing.

Bert knew all about Jess’s less than squeaky clean past and doubtless he was trying to avoid some hoodlum or other. Yep he sure was a wild one, but heck you just couldn’t help liking a boy that cared for his horse that way, and smiling to himself the old timer went off to brew some of his gut rot coffee.


At about the same time I was just finishing my second cup of the morning and rubbing my sore ribs I looked out from the cave mouth down to the stretch of lake below. The grey, early morning mist was rising from it as the sun burnt through with the promise of another perfect Indian summer’s day.

I knew I should be on my way iffen I was going to get over the mountain range before winter set in, but somehow the more I thought about it the less inclined I was to go.

I stared across the lake and wondered what they were up to at the ranch. I imagined Jonsey scolding and nagging gently, trying to get young Andy stuck into the chores and Slim with those long legs of his striding purposefully across the yard to tend the horses…..gee I was missing them all something fierce.

“Stop it Harper, git a grip,” I whispered to myself,” you’ve been on your own before and will be again, just the way it is…. Anyways it just wasn’t meant to be, all domesticated an’ stuck out on a darned ranch in the middle of nowhere…. Nope I’ll rest up today and take off at first light,” and with that I settled down to a nap in the warm morning sunshine.

It was past noon when I was suddenly alerted that someone was around. I guess I’ve gotten a sorta built in instinct and I was up on one knee, my gun in my hand in a split second, before realizing I was looking into the eyes of Slim Sherman, standing just a few feet away.

He stood stock still, eyeing me warily,” So are you going to shoot me then Jess?”

I holstered my gun at once and threw him an embarrassed look.

“I guess not…so are you gonna throw me off Sherman land like you did the first time we met? “

He knew I was talkin’ about the very first time we’d met when I was napping by the lake, like today, old Trav hitched to the ‘No Trespassing’ sign. He’d turned a rifle on me and ordered me off. But it hadn’t taken me long to turn the tables on him and disarm the guy…..and the next time we met up I was sitting at his table and teaching his kid brother to deal from the bottom of the pack.

“Nope, well I guess you’re not trespassing this time are you Jess, you’re on the pay role.”

My head shot up at that information….” I figured as to how you’d fire me seven ways from Sunday for what I’d done so I thought I’d save yer the trouble, I’ve quit.”

He looked real put out at that.

“Just like that, you’re going to walk away from everything? The job…..chance for a fresh start…..friendship…..haven’t you any loyalty at all Jess……Hell if you don’t give two hoots for me and Jonsey, surely you owe the boy something?”

Well that made me real mad……

“Loyalty…..and trust, yeah I guess that’s what true friendship is built on…..But you just didn’t trust me did you Slim…..What was it you said when you were about to punch the lights out of me back in the doc’s office…….’ If you’ve hurt him’”……. I turned anguished eyes on my friend….”How could you think that Slim, how could you think I wouldn’t look out for him like he was my own?”

He hunkered down beside me, suddenly looking completely stricken……

“I’m sorry Jess…. I didn’t mean it. I was just real upset….. I know that, sure I do. I know you would never do anything to hurt him……except for now that is……” he finished softly.

“Don’t Slim, don’t do this. Don’t play the guilt card… I tell you right now, iffen you can’t trust me …then we’re through….ain’t no future in it …..”

“What do you want me to do Jess…..beg you to come home, for Andy’s sake, because the kid means that much to me…..so I will if that’s what it takes…..”

I swallowed hard.

“So what about you and me then…….do you trust me Slim? Because I guess that’s the bottom line….”

He dipped his head and then looked up at me …..

“Sure, sure I do. Hell you may be the most ornery, evil tempered, skiving, darn right difficult man I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across……But hell when it comes down to it Jess…..sure I trust you and……..and….well I figure I’m real proud to call you a friend…..”

“So is that you beggin’ me to stay……. for you too?” I asked with an evil twinkle in my eyes.

“Hey…don’t push it drifter…..”

Our gaze locked and we smiled…then we grinned…..and then garl darn it we laughed until our bellies ached.

“So you coming home then?” he finally asked.

“I guess I can’t refuse can I?” I laughed.

We were walking to our mounts when he stopped and pulled the envelope out of his vest.

“Jess…your winnings I can’t take this.”

“Sure you can, you want those longhorns old man Benson’s got up for sale don’t you?”

“You know I do….but this is your money….”

“Did you read the note? “

He nodded.

“Well then….. “

“Let’s go home Jess,” he said quietly…”let’s go home.”


Mike lay back on the pillow looking keenly at his hero.

“Gee that was a great story Jess and I guess you really took my mind of these darned Measles I’ve got.”

“Well good little buddy, and I reckon it’s time you went to sleep. I’ll bunk down in here with you until you’re feeling better, me and Slim brought a cot in from the bunk house, so just holler if you need anything…OK?”

“OK …..thanks Jess….. But just one thing….what did it say in that letter the one with the money?”

“Huh…..? Oh just as how I really appreciated everything he’d done for me and even iffen I was ridin’ out, how I’d never forget it….”

“That’s nice Jess…..and I’m real glad Slim went and brought you home,” the boy said yawning deeply.

“Me too Tiger, me too…. now go to sleep huh? “


“How is he?” asked Slim some time later when Jess had come out for a coffee before turning in.

“OK, but he ain’t gotten the rash yet, that’s when he’ll feel real bad.”

“So you sound like a bit of an expert then Jess,” Slim said with a grin.

“Yeah well there were a lot of us Harpers weren’t there I figure we got whatever was doin’ the rounds.”

“Mm…it sure is a nasty illness, I remember me and young Andy had it at the same time and it was touch and go with him for a while, him just being a toddler.”

“You want another coffee?” asked Jess briskly changing the subject.

Slim threw him a measured look, but said nothing, just shook his head.

“I’ll turn in then, night Slim.”

Chapter 6

The following morning when Jess finally came to the breakfast table he looked exhausted.

Slim glanced up from where he was pouring the coffee, plates of bacon and biscuits already in place.

“Is everything OK?”

Jess shook his head,” He’s been chucking up all night, just fallen asleep now….”

Then he gestured to his plate,” Thanks for this Slim, it’s me as is supposed to be chief cookie ain’t it,” he apologised raising a quirky eyebrow.

“Umm…well a body could starve to death waiting on you,” said Slim briskly.

Then more kindly,” Anyways I figure you’ve got your hands full with young Mike right now.”

Then they heard the child cry out and Jess immediately left his meal and went to tend the boy, throwing Slim a weak grin, “I figure you’ve got that one right pard.”

“Want me to go?”

Jess merely shook his head and mooched off back to the bedroom and his young charge.

As the doctor had predicted Jess practically wore himself into the ground caring for the boy twenty four hours a day, refusing all offers of help. To be fair Slim acknowledge that, as usual, it was just Jess the boy wanted when he was sick.

So to try and compensate Slim tried to keep most of his work to the confines of the ranch so that he would be on hand to help out with the domestics and yard chores. Thereby freeing Jess up to nurse the boy. By the third day the child’s temperature had shot up, he was coughing and his little body was covered in the bright red angry rash.

Jess patiently washed him down with cold water to try and lower the temperature, changing the bedding regularly and just grabbing the odd hour or two of sleep when the child finally fell into an uneasy slumber. Even Jess’s stories could not comfort him now and he seemed to be getting gradually worse as the days wore on.

The doctor visited on several occasions and insisted that the illness was simply running its course and they could do no more than Jess was already doing.

“He’s in no danger at present and you’re doing a wonderful job Jess….but let Slim do the odd night shift huh?” He said casting his friend’s dishevelled appearance an anxious look.

He seemed to have lost weight, looked pale and edgy with a few days growth of beard making his pallor even more extreme.

Once Sam had left, Slim looked his pard up and down.

“The doc’s right Jess, you’re a mess, go and get cleaned up some and have a shave at least, you’ll feel better.”

Jess reluctantly agreed, but was back at the bedside a little later as soon as the child cried out for him.

It was later that evening when things took a turn for the worse.

Mike had been crying in pain with a severe head ache.

“I’m ridin’ for the doc,” Jess declared as he looked down at the flushed tearful child lashing about on the bed.

“Look let’s just try him with the pain medicine the doc left first huh? It’s all Sam would do and you know he’s crazy busy right now Jess, even if you could locate him it could be hours before he got here.”

“Umm…may be you’re right, “and Jess went off to fetch the medicine.

He gave the child a generous dose and then sat on the edge of the bed talking softly and the youngster finally dozed for a little.

After a while his eyes opened and he gave a faint smile.

“Feelin’ better Tiger?”

“Some, my head don’t hurt so much.”

“Well that’s good, real good.”

“Jess will you tell me another story….like that one when you and Andy got into trouble going to the fight in town,” he pleaded.

Jess grinned down at him,” So you like me gettin’ in bad with old Hardrock do ya?”

“No….it’s not that.” the child said,” it’s just that I like to think of you and Andy bein’ kinda wicked….and Slim and old Jonsey getting mad… It reminds me of the times we sometimes skive off and Slim and Aunt Daisy say we are inco….incurry…you know Jess? “

“Huh…oh yeah incorrigible …means like we’re a hopeless case when it comes to goin’ off fishin’ or swimming when we should be doin’ the chores,” he said with a chuckle, relieved to see the child seemed more himself.

Then he looked thoughtful.

“I guess we were kinda wicked the way we tormented poor ol’ Jonsey always teasin’ him about every darned thing from his riding skills…..well lack of….. to that foul brew of liniment he was always concocting...But he was a pretty good guy to have around if the chips were down and you were really sick…beat up or shot you know?”

“So were you….beat up and shot in the story?” asked Mike.

“Yeah some see it all happened this way…..”

Me and Andy had been down to the creek fishin’ and when we landed back just before supper Slim was all in a lather because one of the steers had gotten its self stuck in a deep ditch and he’d spent all afternoon tryin’ to pull the darn critter out.

Anyways I guess I felt kinda bad about that, but heck I hadn’t had any time off in weeks and the fish were biting, spring was in the air and I guess I just needed to kick off the traces some.

Well old Hadrock hardly spoke to me all evening, sent Andy off to bed early and finally turned in himself.

It was when I turned in that I could see he was still awake and looking madder than a wet hen too.

I bent down and adjusted the light on the night stand some so I could see him clearly and said,” For goodness sake Slim will you stop sulking, iffen you’re mad at me just give me a good hollerin’ and lets git it over with huh? “

He gave a deep sigh.

“Hell I’m not mad at you now Jess…. I was I guess, but you’re right it was Saturday afternoon and you deserve some time off, you’ve worked real hard these last few weeks…. “

“So what is it then? “

He sighed again.

“It’s this garl darn shoulder of mine, the one I fell on last month when I came of that mustang I was breaking. I’ve gone and strained it again hauling that dang critter out and it’s hurting like hell.”

I suddenly felt real bad.

“I’m sorry Slim.”

Then I gave him a sly wink and going over to my chest of draws dug about for a few minutes before returning with a half bottle of moonshine.

“Jess? “ he queried.

“Go on,” I said passing it across, “best pain relief I know, git it down you pard.”

“Hell Jess if old Jonsey get’s wind of moonshine in the house, he’ll go mad.”

“Well he won’t will he because there’s only you and me as know about it and I sure ain’t about to tell him,” I said raising an eyebrow.

He grinned and accepted the proffered bottle, “Me neither,” he said before taking a good pull.

Well the following morning I figure he’d got a bad head as well as a bad shoulder, but at least he’d had a good night’s sleep.

Old Jonsey was fussin’ him as only he could, when I finally dragged myself out of bed and arrived at the breakfast table.

“Well iffen you’re point blank refusing my liniment then you’ll just have to take a trip to town and see old Doc Johnson,” he said firmly.

“Aww Jonsey what’s the dang point, he’ll only tell me to rest it and how am I going to do that with the herd to get back up to the summer grazing?”

“So you want to be an invalid for life? I’ve seen these shoulder injuries stop a man in his tracks, you don’t take care now….then before you know it you won’t be able to use it at all…then what’ll you do…..huh….huh? “

“Anyone ever tell you, you could nag fer Texas Jonsey?” I asked conversationally.

Then I turned to Slim, “He’s got a point though Slim. Why don’t you git Jonsey to drive you in and me and Andy will make a start on moving the herd this morning.”

He looked like he was going to cave in, but then said, “Well that’s fine and dandy for today Jess, but the boy’s got school come Monday, so then what?”

“Well you’ll just have to buy some help in until you’re better,” Jonsey insisted.

Slim rolled his eyes,” And where are we going to find that at this time of year, everyone’s hiring and too few men to go around.”

“Look Slim, you just get over to the doc’s and we’ll talk later,” I said and calling Andy we set off to hustle some of the stock off up to the high meadows.

It was getting on for supper time when we finally landed home, tired and hungry and as we walked back from putting our horses up I noticed a strange horse hitched up in front of the house.

“Visitors Andy,” I said absently patting the big buckskin’s rump as I passed him.

We entered the house and then I stood stock still, as though frozen to the spot, as I saw who our visitor was…..that no good scum Vint Kane.

He was sitting at the dining table with Slim and he jumped up as I came in a big false grin on his face.

“Why Jess boy, talk of the devil, I’ve just been filling Mr Sherman here in on our wild past…..but I figure you’ve put them days behind you, same as yours truly,” he said with a smirk.

“You have?” I said, disbelief in my tone,” so you’re not robbin’ and killing innocent folks anymore then Kane? “

“Now Jess boy you know as that was never proven. A case of mistaken identity wasn’t it….else I’d have hung,” he said turning a cheeky grin on Slim and also encompassing Andy.

“So this here is your little brother then Mister Sherman, a fine looking boy.”

“Yup, this is Andy and I figure you’d better call me Slim, if you’re going to be working for us for a while Vint,” Slim said beaming at the low life.

“What!”I yelled, “You can’t be serious Slim.”

Then he turned a cold glance in my direction,” Never more so, he’s the new hand so you’d better get used to it Jess, you know we need the help and this is it.”

I just stared at him for a full minute before turning on my heel and marching out, slamming the door behind me.

It wasn’t until much later that night, when Vint had gone over to the bunk house that I finally made my way back inside. I found Slim sitting before a roaring fire, coffee in hand and his arm in a sling.

“Jonsey left your supper in the oven before he turned in,” he said casting me a wary glance.

“I ain’t hungry.”

“There’s coffee in the pot.”

I trudged into the kitchen and poured myself a cup before wandering back in and slumping down in my rocker stared miserably into the fire.

“So why did you do it Slim, why did you take that no good outlaw on?”

“Because we need the help Jess and anyway…..”

“Anyway, what Slim?“

“Well I took you on didn’t I? Gave you a chance and seems you’ve got similar history, so why not give him a fresh start too?”

My head shot up at that idea and I was suddenly furious,” What…. I ain’t nuthin’ like that no account two bit hoodlum! Hell he’d sell his granny fer a bent nickel Slim… he just ain’t no good!”

“Umm….. I take it you’re none too fond of the guy?” he said with an amused glint in his eye.

“Hell Slim, this ain’t no laughing matter, I’m telling you, you’ve made a real big mistake.”

He sighed deeply and turned his gaze on me, “So how much of this is about me not consulting you first? You’ve just had your nose put out of joint haven’t you Jess?”

I shook my head, “No it’s not that, but hell I sure wouldn’t have hired him iffen you’d taken the time to ask me!” I exploded.

He seemed to look kind of guilty then.

“Yeah, I know I should have run it past you first pard. After all it’s going to be you working with him, but I was desperate. Then when I was in the saloon I heard him asking about work and well it just seemed perfect….and it’s only for a few weeks, until my shoulder’s better.”

I suddenly felt kinda guilty for not asking.

“So how is it, what did the doc say? “

“That it’s pretty bad Jess, like Jonsey was saying. The doc wants me to go back in next week and stay over to do some tests.”

“As bad as that, gee I’m real sorry Slim.”

“Well he’s hoping rest will do the trick, otherwise could be a trip back east for some surgery and the Lord knows what that’ll cost,” he said anxiously.

“Um…. well maybe it won’t come to that and Slim……”

“Huh? “

“If you take a real break, rest it some huh? And I’m sorry. I’ll try and work with the guy OK….. I figure you’ve gotton enough on your plate right now, without me kickin’ off.”

“Thanks Jess, I really appreciate that….now how about your supper huh? “

“Well you know I do feel kinda peckish now,” I said grinning across at him.

Chapter 7

I was up at first light and after a quick breakfast was ready to go, but there was still no sign of Vint and so Andy was dispatched to find him.

“Still in bed,” he replied on his return, “I tried to get him up but he just told me to…. err…..well he said a real bad word and rolled over…sorry Slim.”

“That’s OK, go get ready for school Andy, the Stage will be in shortly.”

Meanwhile I was quietly fuming, but decided not to make a big deal of it, seeing the pain etched on my buddy’s face.

“I’ll go get him,” I said quietly, “he can have a coffee later on the trail.”

I burst angrily into the bunk house, but even my banging around didn’t wake him and he slumbered on unaware… That was until I poured a jug of cold water off the nightstand over his head…Well he sure woke up and took notice at that.

“Wah….what the Hell do ya think yer doin’?” he yelled sitting up and looking bewildered.

I grabbed hold of his undershirt front and pulled him up before leaning in and glaring at him.

His skinny body was shaking now and his piggy eyes were screwed up in fright, just waiting for the blow he thought was coming, his greasy fair hair hanging limply over a forehead, now beaded with sweat and the smell of fear emanating from him.

“You may have pulled the wool over old Slim’s eyes, but don’t mess with me Vint! I know you of old and don’t forget it….The first time you git outer line and yer out of here…..understand!”

“Yep….sure Jess keep your hair on. I just want to work hard and make me a little stake money so I can get back to the gambling halls, ain’t nuthin’ wrong with turning an honest buck is there?”

“Honest….honest? Don’t make me laugh, you don’t know the meaning of the word…..But you’re sure gonna understand the meaning of hard work before the days over. Now go and get mounted up, we’re heading out now. Oh yeah and you ever cuss at young Andy again and you’ll live to regret it…..Slim don’t take kindly to anyone upsetting his kid brother and that goes fer me too,”…..and I marched off to saddle Traveller.

It was later that day when I’d finally let up, and we were taking a break, that the subject of Andy came up again.

“So Sherman, he’s kinda over protective of his little brother then, don’t like cussin’ around him?”

“I didn’t say that. He hears plenty of cussin’ we just don’t like you cussin’ at him that’s all.”

“Umm, he’s a nice kid and so Sherman thinks a lot of him then?”

I thought about that and the way he’d gone off half cocked when I’d taken the boy to town to the fight that time.

“Sure he does, and so do I. So just back off Vint…Keep your nose clean and do your job and we’ll get along just fine,” I said with a tight smile.

“Sure…sure buddy, no problem.”

“And just remember I ain’t your buddy. I’m puttin’ up with you for Slim’s sake, soon as he’s better you’re gone…understand?”


“Ok let’s get back to it then.”

It was later in the week that I began to notice something odd about Vint’s behavior.

He’d worked reasonably hard, for him anyways. And although I had to bawl him out a few times for his time keeping, or skiving off to town without asking on one occasion, otherwise he’d been OK. What was bothering me however was the way he was with Andy. It seemed to be his life’s mission to make the boy his best buddy.

He hung on the kid’s every word, laughed at his jokes and feigned a great interest in all his pet critters.

Of course Andy was flattered and was soon taking off fishing with Vint and declaring him to be a real good buddy.

“Good buddy my foot ,” I muttered as Andy and Vint went off with their fishing tackle yet again early one Sunday morning.

Slim strode over from where he’d been feeding the chucks and threw me an amused glance.

“What’s up Jess…feeling kind of jealous? “

I felt strangely angry at that idea, “No I ain’t jealous, but I sure don’t trust that hombre Slim, what’s he doin’ befriendin’ Andy that way?”

“Well maybe he just likes the boy.”

“And you don’t mind them going off together all the time….you trust him?”

“Well it’s hardly all the time Jess and they’re only at the creek out the back. That’s practically within hollering distance….and anyway I figure I haven’t got any reason not to trust him.”

“Well I sure have and I wouldn’t trust him any further than I could kick him and that’s a fact Slim,” I said turning concerned eyes on my friend.

“Hey I thought I was the worrier. Just simmer down Jess…..and if you’re so dang concerned why don’t you go along too…they did ask you.”

I just shrugged, maybe I was over reacting….and yes maybe a little bit of me was jealous. After all young Andy and I were real good friends……But no it was more than that. I guess I can’t describe it, but I just had a gut feeling that Vint was up to no good.

Then as the days went on he started trying to look good in front of Slim and Jonsey. Always playing up to them, praising Jonesy’s cooking and hanging on Slim’s words of advice….well I was doggone sure he was up to no good….but nobody would believe me.


It was the following Monday when Slim came out to the barn where I was grooming the relay team and after a few minutes he said, “You haven’t forgotten you’ve got to deliver that little Palomino Mare you broke and brought on, she is ready isn’t she Jess?”

“Huh? Oh sure yup gentle as a lamb, will be a real good ride for old man Smith’s granddaughter.”

“Umm….well you’d better take her over tomorrow, because it’s her Birthday the day after.”

“I can’t do that Slim, you’re going into town for that treatment for your shoulder, I figured I’d take her over next week when you’re back home.”

“Well that’s no good Jess the kid wants it on her Birthday not a week later. According to Smith she just can’t wait, nope we can’t disappoint her….Anyway what’s your problem, stock are all up in the high meadows and so Vint will be around the yard to do the chores, change the team.”

“That’s just what I’m afraid of I don’t wanna leave him here alone.”

“Well he won’t be. Andy’s on the spring school holiday and Jonsey will be around once he’s taken me to the doc’s so stop fretting….honestly Jess!”

I waved Slim and Jonsey off the following morning.

“I sure hope it works out OK pard,” I said as he prepared for the off.

“Me too, apparently the doc has brought a colleague over from Denver who’s a bit of a specialist and they’re going to put me out and kind of manipulate my shoulder. The doc thinks that might do the trick, save me having the operation.”

“Well, that’s just swell,” I said.

Then I shuddered some,” Rather you than me with that old chloroform though Slim,” I said, knowing how ill the stuff made me.

“Umm…well I should be laid low for a few days, but hopefully well enough to get home by next Saturday.”

Once Jonsey had driven off with Slim in the buckboard, I turned to Andy.

“So you wanna ride over to the Smith place and help deliver little Bonnie?” I asked referring to the pretty little Palomino mare, expecting he’d jump at the chance of a trip off the ranch, but he shook his head.

“No thanks Jess, once me and Vint have done the chores he’s going to help me build a new cage for that fledgling I rescued last week,” he said looking excited.

I dipped my head, feeling kinda hurt.

“OK suit yerself, I’ll be back this afternoon.”

I hopped up on Traveller and leading the mare struck out at a fast pace, without a backwards glance.

Andy stared after his best friend a puzzled look in his eyes before turning to Vint.

“I think Jess is mad at me because I didn’t won’t to go to the Smith place with him,” he said sadly.

“Oh don’t pay him no mind son, he always was an ornery one, he’ll git over it…So come on, let’s get this cage made and then how’s about you and me takin’ off to do a bit of huntin’ huh? “

Andy shook his head,” I dunno, I’m not really supposed to go off the ranch unless Jess or Slim and Jonsey say it’s OK.”

“Um…. but they aren’t here are they boy and think how proud ol’ Jess’ll be when he sees as to how you’ve bagged a deer or such…huh? “

Chapter 8

It was past noon when I finally got back and as I rode into the yard Jonsey shot out of the house and peering over asked, “So where’s Andy then? “

“Huh, what do ya mean, he’s here ain’t he?” I asked swinging down from the saddle.

He rolled his eyes, “Nope…wouldn’t be asking would I boy!”

“So where is he….and more to the point where is that low life Vint Kane?” and I ran over to the barn.

“Just as I thought,” I said as I emerged, “Kane’s buckskin has gone and so had Andy’s pony…..the bastards taken him Jonsey.”

“Hush son, calm down we don’t know that. They could be riding fence, or taken off fishing…..”

“Or he could have abducted him and be halfway to the border.”

“Well why would he do that? “

“I dunno…ransom maybe ….he was askin’ as how the boy seemed real important to Slim….He probably figures he’d pay top whack to git him back.”

“There isn’t a note though Jess, nothing….They’ve just lit out having a fun time together, they’ll be back when they’re hungry, stop your fretting.”

Well I got real mad at that.

“Hell Jonsey what does it take for you and Slim to wake up to him! I keep tellin’ you he’s no good. Heck I should never have left Andy, this is all my dang fault,” and I turned back to my horse and mounted up.

I’d only gone a mile or so and completely lost their tracks on the busy Laramie road. Although they looked to be going East, before their horses hoof prints just merged with all the others and I knew they could have turned or headed off in any direction. Then a thought struck me. Iffen he really had taken the boy, then Jonsey was right and they would get a ransom note to us. Then at least I would have a chance….But if I rode off on a wild goose chase now….well I’d just be wasting valuable time, so I reluctantly turned for home.

When I return it seemed that old Jonsey had been thinking things through and he looked real troubled.

“No sign?”

“Nope, lost their tracks a way back, figure it’s better to wait for some news like you said.”

“So do you think we should tell Slim?”

“Well that’s hardly gonna help is it?” I spat.” He’s either out of it on that darned chloroform, or chucking up…. Either way he ain’t gonna to be able to do anything, ‘cept worry himself half to death.”

He nodded knowing the truth of it.

As the afternoon wore on he became more and more anxious and I became more and more resigned to the fact that I’d been right all along….But it weren’t until old Mose drove the late afternoon Stage in that my worst fears were confirmed.

He jumped down from the Stage at once and handed me a grubby envelope.

“Some hoodlum held me up just down the trail a way. A big ugly fellah with a scar on his cheek, threatened to blow my brains out iffen I didn’t give this to you right away,” he said looking real put out.

I snatched it from him and scanned the scrawl before cussing long and loud.

“$500 I said to Jonsey….”if we want to see him alive again.”

As usual Mose was gagging to hear this latest piece of gossip so he could spread it around town, but hell that was all we needed to scupper the plans and send young Andy to an early grave. The note specifically said not to tell a living soul….. especially not the law.

I turned and grabbed the old timer by the shoulders and fixing him with the Harper glare, said,” You know nuthin’ Mose that guy on the trail was never there and you sure as hell never gave me this note, if anyone in town asks you anything…….you got that?”

“I didn’t?” he asked looking bewildered.

“You didn’t,” I said,” or I’ll be standin’ in line behind that scum ready to blow your brains out iffen he misses…got that Mose?”

He gulped and then whispered, ”Seen nobody, know nuthin’.”

“Good, that’s good Mose,” I said releasing my hold on him and giving him a friendly smile.

Once he’d gone I started making plans.

“It says they’ll give me a day to get to the bank,” I said.

“Well there’s no need is there,” said Jonsey looking thoughtful,” that mustang money you brought back from your trip to the army last week is still here isn’t it…. You haven’t banked it yet? “

“Nope I thought Slim said he’d take it today”.

“I guess he forgot worrying about that anesthetic and all, should be still in the hiding place in the chimney breast.”

I went inside, followed by Jonsey and removed the lose bricks from the chimney to reveal our secret hiding place for valuables and removed the money, quickly stuffing it in my vest pocket. Then I went to put the brick back, but paused and after a minute I felt around inside once more. Then I pulled out an object wrapped in an old piece of cloth before shoving the brick back in place and moving over to the table.

Jonsey had followed my movements, his eyes narrowed and he sighed deeply showing his disapproval.

“I thought you’d put that old gunslinger weapon up for good son, made a promise to Slim? “

My head shot up at that, “Not now Jonsey, you’ve gotter fight fire with fire and iffen you don’t wanna see me gunned down I figure yer just gonna have to go with me on this one,” I said as I swung the chamber, feeling the gun smooth and lethal beneath my grip.

“Why boy, that Kane don’t seem like a gun slick to me?”

“He ain’t that’s why he keeps Jud Hicks around. Fastest darned draw I’ve seen in a long while. He may look kinda stupid, but boy he knows his way around a gun,” I said with grudging admiration.

He just gave a low whistle and turned kinda pale.

“They said tomorrow at noon, you’re not going now are you?”

“I guess I’ll go early, take cover and maybe catch them napping, try and git the boy and keep the money too.”

“So how many are there do you reckon? “

“The man with the scar, the fast draw is Jud Hicks, like I said….runs around with Kane and usually gotten his kid brother in tow too, Pete Hicks, no good killers the lot of ‘em….. “

Jonsey turned even paler at that news….. “They….they wouldn’t really hurt the boy would they Jess?”

I just nodded,” Sure they would…..see ya Jonsey,” and I headed off making for Pine Bluff, just hoping’ I wasn’t already too late.

I’d left Traveller back at the ranch, pretty wore out after the long ride we’d had that day. So I was up on Magic a big black mustang not known for his quiet docile ways. He was always a pretty lively ride and today was no exception and he was really champing at the bit and raring to go, so I gave him his head and we made real good time.

I guess I’d only been riding for half an hour or so and reckoned I’d another hour or two of daylight when I suddenly saw a lone figure riding fast towards me. His horse was kicking up a storm of dust as he came hell for leather down the ridge….and then as he came closer I was just able to make out Paint, Andy’s pony…..and Hell….yup it was Andy in the saddle.

I gave a huge sigh of relief and then he was throwing himself from his mount and running towards me cryin’ and yellin’ and I jumped down to meet him and held him tightly….Neither of us able to move for a good few seconds.

Then I drew back and looked at him carefully.

“You OK boy….did they hurts you any?”

He shook his head and then the tears came again, “Why?” he gulped. ”Why did he do it Jess? I thought he was my friend.”

“What happened?” I asked softly.

“He said we were going hunting…Said as how you’d be real proud when you saw I’d bagged a deer. So I went with him… I’m sorry Jess, really I am. I know it was wrong to go, but I just didn’t wanna look like a little baby in front of him.”

“It’s OK Andy,” I said gently ruffling his hair…”So what happened? “

“We were half way up towards Paradise when these real rough hombres stopped us and I thought Vint would send then off…. But they were his friends Jess and when one of them pulled me off my pony and tied me up he just laughed.”

“The hell he did?” I whispered, getting real mad now, “Then what?”

“We turned around and headed for Pine Bluff and then we made a camp by that real big cave just below. They tied me to a tree and then they had all these bottles of whiskey and they were drinking and cussing. Saying horrible things about you and Slim….Then they fell asleep….That’s when I remembered my hunting knife, in my boot where you told me to keep it. I cut the ropes and came on home.”

“Good boy,”I whispered,” and they didn’t see you go? “

“Nope, they’re probably still asleep.”

“Umm…that’s what I’m banking on.”

His eyes looked huge with fear then.

“Jess you’re not going after them…please I’m OK now….don’t go, please.”

“I have to Andy, don’t you see they have to be brought to justice or they’ll just do it again and the next kid might not be as lucky as you.”

“Jess no!”

“You get back off home and wait there with Jonsey until I come back, you hear ,”I said firmly…”and take this with you, ”I said passing over the money…”keep that safe and give it to Jonsey..I’ll be back real soon…OK?”

The youngster gulped and nodded, before he finally mounted up and took off, real slow, looking back until I waved him briskly off and he finally trotted away in the direction of home.

I guess I had been riding another ten minutes or so when disaster struck and I rued the day I’d left Traveller home. We were just passing through a deep ravine when something spooked Magic. Most likely a rattler and he jumped sideways and then reared up throwing me off balance and sending me hurling through space only to crash unceremoniously onto the rocky outcrop to my rear, where I slithered to the ground out cold.

When I came to it was pitch black all around me and I thought for one awful moment that I’d been blinded, until I realised that I must have been out of it for hours and it was simply a moonless night.

I groaned and rubbed the back of my head, my hand coming away sticky with blood, before I staggered to my feet and peered around in the darkness, hoping to see the shape of my horse, once my eyes got used to the dark….but nope the dang critter had took himself off someplace.

I collapsed down again, shivering with the cold and feeling sick to my stomach and lay there all night alternately chucking up and dozing.

As the first light of dawn filtered through the trees above me I heard something or…..someone….walking stealthily along behind the rocky outcrop. Drawing my gun I got to my knees and painfully pulled myself up and made my way silently over to the rocks and peered around them, hoping to catch the interloper off guard…..and found myself head to head with……..Magic!

“Garl darn it you no good excuse for a horse,” I whispered softly, reaching out a hand to caress his velvety nose, “now where in hell have you been all night?”

I jumped up into the saddle, my head was pounding something fierce, but I knew I had to get home, figuring Andy would have been missed by now and Vint and his gang might just have decided to strike anyway knowing Slim was away and it was just me around to protect the old man and the boy.

As soon as I rode into the yard I knew all was not well. It was strangely quiet with no sign of Jonsey or Andy, although the early morning Stage was due soon and they should have been getting the team ready.

Then suddenly everything kicked off as the gang opened fire on me from the house.

Well I sure was in a dilemma, I really didn’t wanna return the fire in case Andy or Jonsey got caught in the cross fire, but then Pete and Vint broke cover coming out onto the porch and I was able to get a couple of clean shots in wounding young Pete Hicks in the shoulder and then it was between me and Vint.

Well the fool seemed to think he’d had enough because he ran across the porch making for the barn and his horse…but he never made it. He stopped halfway and let off a barrage of shots, one of which caught me on the upper left arm….but I continued firing and shot him straight through the heart and he dropped like a stone, dead before he hit the dirt.

That just left my worst nightmare Jud Hicks, the man with more notches on his gun than Jesse James, so folks said, and the personality of a sick grizzly…..but where the hell was he….and Andy and Jonsey too?

Then a thought struck me….oh God no, iffen they’d got the money they’d have killed them fer sure. Jud never believed in leaving any witnesses which was why he’d escaped justice so often…but everyone knew he was dang well guilty of so many atrocities….but proving it…well!

Then I could feel the sweat running down my back, my heart pounding in my ears and all I wanted was revenge….revenge for what I just knew Jud had done to those good folks that ….I ….yup…. I cared about as kin I suddenly realized.

“Jud…. Jud Hicks, git yer sorry ass out here,” I hollered, standing waiting, my gun already holstered….as I anticipated the shootout which was to come.

After seconds, which seemed like hours, he finally strolled out of the barn leading his horse.

“So Harper, want some sport then boy?” he drawled.

“What have you done with them Hicks,” I yelled, “the kid and the old man?”

He just shrugged and threw me an evil look, “They’ve gone boy…..all gone, so you want to do something about that…huh, think your man enough?” he taunted.

“You need to ask?” I growled.

He looked me up and down and then sighed….

“Nope I guess not…..when yer ready Harper, “and he dropped the horses reins and moved away slightly, assuming the position.

I walked forwards a little way and stood before him, just waiting for him to make the first move.

When it finally came it was almost too fast for the human eye to see…..but I was a tad faster and my bullet hit him straight between the eyes….Hell for what he’d done I wanted him real dead…. I never aimed at a man’s head but this was different…this was for Andy and Jonsey.

Then I sank to my knees, my head on my chest…they were dead, I should have been there sooner, should have protected them……..

Then I heard something and looking up was just in time to see the root cellar trap door open and a rather dusty and shocked looking Jonsey and Andy emerged, blinking in the strong sunlight and staring around them at all the death and carnage…The dead bodies of Jud and Vint and the now unconscious form of Pete Hicks, all strewn around the yard until they finally saw me, still on my knees………and came running over….

Chapter 9

“Jess, hey Jess pard wake up……. “

“Jess sat up, wha…..huh….? “

“You were asleep Jess….been telling young Mike here one of your stories and I guess you both fell asleep at the same time,” Slim said with a chuckle.

“I did….oh yeah, tellin’ him about the time Vint Kane went after Andy and I had a shot out with that bastard Jud Hicks.”

“Yup I was listening.”

“You were?”

“Um….that was the time you were shot up some and old Jonsey had to tend you and you sure kicked up a fuss,” Slim said beaming at the memory.

“The heck I did!”

“Uh….Jess….finish the story will you… so Jonsey and Andy were OK in the end?”

“Hey Tiger I thought you were asleep?”

“Nope that was you. I just had my eyes closed ‘cos they were getting a bit tired.”

“Well sure they were Mike, Jess here’s been telling you stories for hours and I figure you should both be asleep now,” said Slim.

“Just the end please Slim, “the child wheedled.

“OK, come on then Jess, what happened next?” Slim asked indulgently.

“Well yeah, that’s it really Tiger. Luckily old Jonsey had been keeping a good look out and when he saw a group of riders up on the rise he hustled Andy into the root store and they stayed put until all the shooting was done.”

“And so did you forgive Jess for taking up his gunslinger weapon again?” the child asked sleepily.

“I guess so,” said Slim with a grin, giving his pard a gentle cuff around the head,” he did save Andy and Jonsey after all….and he promised to put it up for good after that.”

“And did you Jess…huh?” asked the boy trying to hide a yawn, sleep fast approaching.

“Yup….so far anyways,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.

“Aw Jess!”

“So were you OK after you’d had your shoulder manip….manu… you know with the chloroform and all?” the child asked turning to Slim.

“Manipulated, yup sure it was good as new….and you know who the other doc was that came over to help old Doc Johnson?”

The child shook his head “No?”

“Our own Doc Baker! Gee he was a good doctor….still is and he took over from the old doctor when he retired. Speaking of which he’s due to visit tomorrow so you’d better get some shut eye young man.”

“So how are you feeling now?” asked Jess as he pulled the covers over and settled the child down to sleep

“You know I guess I forgot I was ill at all listening to that real exciting story…..I almost feel hungry now too, do ya think I could have some milk and cookies for breakfast?”

Slim and Jess exchanged a relieved glance over the boy’s head.

“I reckon you can have anything you want Tiger,” Jess said ruffling the boy’s hair,” now you go to sleep, I’ll be turning in myself shortly.”

“OK, night Jess, night Slim,” and the child was asleep almost at once.

When they were back in the sitting room, Slim noted how worn out his partner looked, almost haggard, his face grey, the burden of caring for the sick child day and night clearly showing.

“Go sit down Jess, before you fall, I’ll but some put coffee on,” he said not unkindly.

When he returned a little later he stopped as he entered the room and saw his pard leaning against the mantelpiece, his head in the crook of his arm.

“Jess?” he said softly.

After a moment he straightened up and gave a huge shuddering sigh, before wiping his sleeve across his face and turning he slumped down in his rocker.

“You OK?” asked Slim.

He sighed again and then turned exhausted eyes on his friend, “Yup just kinda beat…..and relieved too I guess, I reckon the little fellah’s going to be OK now.”

“Well sure he is,” replied Slim passing the coffee over and then adding a generous splash of whiskey from the bottle he’d brought in with him.

Jess thanked him and took a grateful sip before resting his head back and closing his eyes.

“Jess, do you want to tell me about it?”


“The thing that’s been gnawing at you all this time….the reason you’ve been so dang worried about Mike….”

“Well, he’s been real sick.”

“I know, but not that bad, he was never in any real danger. Sam said so…heck he’d have called Daisy back if he’d been really worried.”

“Yup, I guess you’re right I know that…..it’s just….. “

“Come on pard tell me, you’ll feel better if you get it off your chest.”

He shook his head,” Nope nuthin’ will ever make me feel better after what happened.”

Slim just waited patiently, knowing Jess was never one to be hurried when he was on the verge of revealing something from his past…especially if it was something real bad.

He sighed and looked up at the ceiling, as though trying to make a decision and then turned anguished eyes on Slim, “This is hard, real hard for me….you know Slim? “

“Sure, take your time.”

Jess stared into the fire for a good minute and then taking a deep breath started the story.

“I was about eight years old ……..it was winter and Pa hadn’t kept us kids home from school to work the land like he did a lot of the time…the weather had been too bad to do much.”

Slim merely nodded at this knowing what a hard task master Jess’s Pa had been, living in poverty as the family did on the Panhandle back in Texas making a living share farming.

“It was me as brought the sickness home, the Measles that is,” he continued, his voice raw and emotional,” I started coughing and sneezing one night….it was doin’ the rounds at school….but somehow the older ones, Francie and Johnny seemed fine, so Ma sent them off to relatives the next day, out of town.”

“So they escaped it?”

“Umm, they were lucky ….see it was a real killer Slim, out of the forty kids in the school house, only twenty returned to their desks after the epidemic had torn through the town. It killed kids…..parents…..grandparents …….I guess it struck us so bad because we were all so dang poor. Most of the young kids half starved….well you know the way it is down there.”

Slim nodded. He had accompanied Jess on a trip back down to his old home town a few years back and nothing had prepared him for the abject poverty he had seen there. Young ragamuffins on the street half starved and begging for pennies and Jess had turned to him with a bitter smile and said,” Welcome to my world.”

“Anyway the other kids were way too young to be sent off alone and Ma was nursing me and so they stayed home. I was better in a week or so, and we really thought they’d escaped it, the two little ones…..and Maisie the baby……. But then the two young ‘un’s got it real bad and Ma was so busy looking after them that it was down to me to look after the baby….and thank God she seemed just fine.”

“What about your Pa didn’t he help?”

Jess gave a snort of derision ,” You’re kidding, he just went off to the saloon as usual and then moaned all night long that us kids were keeping him awake with our coughing…..Nope it was down to me to take care of little Maisie.”

“Hell Jess you were only a kid yourself!”

He gave Slim a weary smile….”Oh no I weren’t you had to grow up real fast in our family…I’d been helpin’ Ma with the little ones and Pa on the land since I was knee high to a grasshopper….or so it seemed back then.”

He sighed deeply and stared into the fire for a minute before continuing.

“Maisie was a cute little thing, with black curls and huge dark eyes that sorta weighed you up, like she could see right inside your mind,” he said shaking his head and giving a little chuckle.

Then he sobered…”Then she got sick…..Ma was so busy nursing the others that it was down to me to look after the baby ….Ma just couldn’t do it all, she was practically on her knees and then she got ill too.”

“She did?”

“Um….not the Measles, she’d had that as a kid, no just a real bad fever. I remember seeing her…..draggin’ herself around tryin’ to care for all the little ones and Pa just cleared off to the Saloon,” he said bitterly.

Slim just shook his head in disbelief, how could a father act that way he wondered, comparing him to his own dear Pa.

“So what happened pard?” he asked softly.

Jess looked over at him and back to the fire and was silent for so long Slim thought he wouldn’t answer.

Then he finally whispered…..”She died that’s what happened.”

“Jess,” Slim gasped…..”Hell I’m so dang sorry….. “

“Yeah, well…….she was real sick…..She got the lung fever, like Sam was talkin’ about I guess there was no way back from that….”

“There was nothing the doctor could do?”

Jess gave a bitter laugh,” What doctor, likes of us couldn’t afford the doctor and anyways the poor man was practically dead on his feet fighting an epidemic, tryin’ to save those that had some hope…. Nope there was nuthin’ to be done.”

He shook his head sadly and then continued, his voice halting and thick with emotion.

“Pa was out and Ma in the bedroom with the little ones when it happened,” he sighed deeply. “It was real late and I was sat by the fire nursin’ her…she’d seemed a mite better, drank some milk….but her breathin’….hell Slim it were awful,” he said turning tortured eyes on his friend…

“This terrible raspin’ noise as she tried to get her breath……anyway I must have dropped off for a few minutes and when I woke up there was somethin’ different….couldn’t put my finger on it, but something had changed.”

“Go on,” whispered Slim, not wanting to hear it, but knowing he had to…had to stay with Jess….realizing he needed to face it again and then maybe start to heal….

“ I looked around the room, it was just dimly lit from a lamp on the mantle, the fire sendin’ shadows dancin’ on the wall….nobody there save me and little Maisie….then I suddenly realised it was quiet, too darned quiet…. God Slim the silence was deafening…….and then I saw…she’d stopped breathing…….she just lay there in my arms so quiet….kinda peaceful I guess…. “

Slim just leaned over and squeezed his buddy’s shoulder, too moved to speak.

Jess said nothing for a long while and then finally turned to face Slim.

“I reckon that’s why I’ve been kinda over protective of young Mike when he got sick…… just couldn’t bear the thought of it happenin’ again …”

“I can understand that, but he will be OK, you know that don’t you?”

He just nodded and lay back in the chair again and a few minutes later he was snoring gently, exhaustion finally getting the better of him.

Chapter 10

As Slim had predicted Mike really was on the mend and when Daisy finally arrived back home later the following day she was delighted to see him sitting up in bed reading a book.

“So how are you feeling dear?” she asked.

“Much better aunt Daisy and I figure I could eat a real dinner, now your home that is, I’m suddenly real hungry!”

“That’s good dear and so Slim and Jess have nursed you well?”

“Oh yeah, Slim was real kind and made me broth and stuff and Jess told me these real neat stories. All about shooting bad men and the like, said the yard was covered in dead bodies after he had a shootout with the men as tried to steal Andy once,” he recalled his eyes alight with excitement.

“Umm….oh that was really kind of Jess to entertain you that way,” she said hiding a shudder at the thought of the yard being littered with corpses.

“It sure was,” the boy said thoughtfully,” I figure it was all those stories that helped me get well. They kinda took my mind off of the sickness you know?”

“I’m very pleased dear, now you rest back and I’ll go and rustle you up something tasty for dinner.”


“Oh I’m so relieved he’s alright,” she said later as she enjoyed a post dinner coffee with Slim and Jess.

“I nearly turned around and came straight home when Sam told me he was sick, but he promised to say if things got serious and poor Mary Patterson really needed me.”

“How are they all?” asked Slim, dreading the answer, knowing how sick the baby twins had been.

However Daisy beamed back at him, “All doing just fine, it was touch and go with the babies for a while, but we got through it all with no lung fever thanks goodness , that is the real killer you know?” she said innocently.

Slim and Jess exchanged a covert glance, but said nothing.

“Well I’m real glad,” said Slim,” and I think all we’ve got to worry about is trying to keep young Mike in bed until he’s completely better,” he chuckled.

“Well you certainly did a good job on nursing him,” replied Daisy, “it’s a nasty illness.”

“Umm, well I guess that’s all down to Jess,” said Slim,” he’s been just great, hardly slept a wink have you pard? Not to mention all that story telling you’ve done…really kept the little fellah happy.”

Jess just shrugged,” Were nuthin’…..anyways better git back to the bronc bustin’ now Daisy’s home,” and with that he marched off back to the yard.

Once he’d gone Daisy cast Slim a questioning glance.

“Don’t ask,” he said quietly….”stuff in his past as we thought, I guess he’ll tell you some time Daisy, but it’s been kind of hard on him; I shouldn’t quiz him right now.”

“No… no of course not, poor boy he really does look done in….Anyway I’m home now ready to spoil you all,” she said beaming at the tall blond rancher….”and starting right now, I’m off to bake some apple pies.”

Slim secretly thought it would take more than apple pie to ease the bruised soul of his best buddy, but healing had to start some place and Daisy sure had a kind heart.

“Umm….that sounds real good,” he said grinning over at her…”gee it’s good to have you home Daisy! “


It was a week or so later before Mike was well enough to go back to school and he couldn’t wait to see his friends again after his long absence. The Measles epidemic had finally run its course and the school had reopened, much to the relief of many harassed parents.

Jess went back to the mustang breaking and life at the relay relaxed back into its usual rhythm…… that is until the afternoon Stage rolled in and Mike jumped down as the coach came to a shuddering standstill.

“Hey Mike good first day back?” asked Slim as the child almost cannoned into him in his rush to alight.

The youngster merely shook his head and then charged off towards the barn without a backwards glance.

Jess who was just coming over with the replacement team saw the child’s flushed tearful face and turned to Slim,” what’s the matter with Mike he looks kinda upset?”

Mose jumped down from the box and wandered over, tipping his hat towards Mike’s fast disappearing figure.

“I guess the young ‘un’s taken the news kind of badly,” he said looking gloomy.

“What do ya mean Mose?” asked Jess raising a questioning dark eyebrow.

“Haven’t you heard? Young Davy Scott was one of the kids that didn’t make it. Mike only found out today….he was real good friends with the boy wasn’t he?”

Jess nodded, looking pale and upset, “Hell he was a great kid.”

Slim too looked concerned,” You say one of the kids…there were a few deaths then?”

“You haven’t heard?”

“Nope we’ve been pretty much tied to the ranch what with Daisy away and Mike so sick,” Slim replied.

“They lost about five or six from the school, several babies and a couple of old folk too….The doc said it could have been much worse if folk like your Miss Daisy hadn’t rallied around and helped him, but that don’t help iffen you’ve lost kin…..seems young Davy’s folks are terrible upset.”

Jess turned from where he’d finished harnessing the fresh team.

“I guess they aren’t the only ones that are going to miss young Davy real bad…. I’d better go talk to him,” and he marched off towards the barn.

He stood at the threshold of the barn peering into its dim interior, expecting to see Mike maybe cuddled down weeping into the coat of his beloved dog Buttons. However once his eyes became accustomed to the gloom he saw the boy at his pony’s stall near the back of the barn saddling the pretty little palomino.

After a moment he strode over and stood staring at the child’s determine little back before saying,” Hey Tiger where do ya think you’re off to, supper will be on the table shortly.”

The boy spun around throwing his friend a distraught glance, before returning to his task.

“I’m riding over to Davy’s place; they’re telling awful lies about him, saying his dead.”

Then he turned pleading eyes on Jess,” But he ain’t he just can’t be can he Jess…..tell me, tell me it ain’t true is it?”

Jess turned his sad gaze on the child, his whole being yearning to be able to do that, to say ‘yeah, it’s all a mistake Tiger’….but he knew he couldn’t….

He advanced upon the boy and put a gentle hand on his shoulder, before replying softly,” It’s true Mike…I’m real sorry, but it’s true.”

The child’s jaw dropped and he just gaped at his hero for a moment before his face crumpled,” Yer lyin’,” he yelled and ran off out of the barn and tore across the yard into the house and his room, slamming the door behind him.

“Why whatever is the matter with Mike?” Daisy asked when Slim and Jess entered a few minutes later.

“He flew into his room like the Devil himself was after him and he’s locked the door and won’t come out.”

Slim threw her a profoundly sad look,” I’m afraid young Davy didn’t make it,” he replied.

She sucked in a deep breath, a hand flying to her mouth and she visibly paled…”Oh the poor boy…and his dear parents …..Oh my Lord and Mike……no wonder he’s so upset.”

Jess made for the door and tapped gently…..” Mike its Jess let me in will yer?”

There was no reply, but after a few minutes Mike finally came to the door and opened it before going back inside the room.

Jess turned and cast Daisy and Slim an apprehensive glance, before following the boy inside and closing the door quietly behind him……..

Mike had refused to come out of his room or eat anything and had turned in after Jess had left him earlier in the evening.

“Well?” asked Slim later that night when Daisy had retired to bed.

“He’s plumb mad Slim, never seen him so angry ,railing at pretty much everything and everybody, from the Doc to God….Why he kept askin’ why did they let him die?”

“So what did you say pard?”

Jess just shrugged, “What could I say, I can’t figure it either….. I just told him as there were some things that we didn’t understand but just had to accept….God’s will I suppose….but hell it don’t make no sense to me Slim….an’ I just can’t see a way to help the boy.”

“I guess we can’t Jess, you know as well as I do that you just have to go through the grieving process, there isn’t any way around it.”

“Um… I know you’re right Slim but that poor kid’s had more than enough grief in his short life….What with losing his Ma and Pa…then my Maria,” he said referring to his beautiful fiancée who had been brutally murdered…”Heck he’d come to think of her as his second Ma……I’ve a real bad feeling about all this Slim.”

“What do you mean?”

“I dunno I just think maybe this is just gonna be the last straw for the kid…. I’ve sure never seen him like this before Slim…”and he shook his head sadly.

The following morning when Mike finally came to the breakfast table, after being called several times, he professed to have a ‘real bad headache’, and really couldn’t go to school.

Slim and Daisy exchanged a glance, but Jess waded in,” You sure look OK Tiger; maybe it’ll will go off once you’re in school with yer buddies…huh? “

“I really don’t feel too good,” the child insisted…”kinda sick and tired too.”

“Maybe we sent him back too soon,” said Daisy, throwing him a compassionate look,” you go back to bed dear and I’ll come and settle you down in a moment.”

Once the boy had left Jess shook his head,” You’re just makin’ it worse Daisy, he ain’t sick…least ways not in his body….”

“Well maybe his spirit needs tending too,” she said firmly,” whatever the problem you can see the child isn’t himself,” and she bustled off to see to the youngster.

That was just the beginning and as Jess had prophesied things did indeed seem to get worse for the boy.

He just stayed quietly in his room all day and managed to eat his supper, but when breakfast time came around the following day he again professed to be ‘real sick’, and unable to go to school.

Daisy looked helplessly at the others but the child did look pale and drawn and this time Slim caved in and sent him back to bed again. But Jess merely wandered off to the yard shaking his head and muttering about them not doin’ the kid any favors.

The following day they had the same performance and Jess lost his patience, “OK so iffen you’re real sick like you say I figure we need the doc in.”

Then he turned to where Daisy was standing at the far side of the youngster’s bed.

“He’s visiting the Patterson’s place today ain’t he Daisy, figure I’ll ride over,” and with that he left Mike looking nervous, but still sticking to his guns saying he had a belly ache this time.

Doc Baker straightened from where he’d been thoroughly examining the child and beamed down at him, “I’m happy to proclaim you fit as a flea young man….so how’s about you get dressed and I’ll drop you off at the school house on my way home huh?”

The boy sighed deeply, but knew when he was beaten.

Then the doc took pity on the child.

“Come on Mike, I know you’re really upset about young Davy, but his little sister, Jenny has gone back to school you know and I figure she could use a good friend right now?”

“I guess so.” said the child haltingly, “OK Doctor I’ll get ready…and thanks for taking me.”

The doctor leaned over and ruffled the boy’s hair,” You’re welcome son.”

He left the boy getting ready and joined Daisy and Jess in the kitchen.

“He’s fine, just grieving and I don’t have any miracle medicine or pills for that I’m afraid.”

“I guess he’ll just have to work it through,” said Jess quietly,” but I’m kinda worried about the boy Sam, he’s real angry and fearful….but he ain’t cried…”

“I just don’t think he can accept it,” said Daisy sadly.

“Well these things take time I guess, ”the doctor replied sagely, “all you can do is be there for him when he needs you…. Talk things through when he’s ready,” he said glancing over at Jess knowing he was the one the child usually confided in.

It was the following Saturday when things took a turn for the worse with young Mike.

He had reluctantly attended school, but had started having terrible nightmares, the like of which he had not suffered since the demise of his parents.

They all took it in turns to get up and comfort the child, but he point blank refused to tell them the content of his dreams, just that he was real scared.

On the Saturday morning Jess was again working with the mustangs, this time trying to break a huge paint with a will of iron and a temper almost as short as Jess’s. As per usual the cowboy became quite well acquainted with the coral dust as the morning progressed much to his irritation.

Slim, who was sitting the corral fence along with Mike had already told him to take a break. But Jess being Jess had steadfastly refused saying the dang critter was on the point of cavin’ in….all he need to do was sit tight a little longer.

Slim rolled his eyes to Mike expecting a cheeky grin, but was surprised at how tense the youngster was.

“Hey Mike what’s up?”

“Is Jess OK….he looks kinda wore out, shouldn’t he stop really Slim?”

“You know old Hotshot….can’t tell him anything, I guess he’ll stop when the paint gives in,” he replied, giving the youngster a friendly wink….”he’ll be fine Tiger don’t fret.”

However no sooner where the words out of his mouth than the big horse shied to the right, then reared and bucked violently, unseating Jess, who fell badly, all the stuffing knocked out of him and then he rolled and lay perfectly still.

“Jess….! Hell Jess, “and Slim vaulted the corral fence, quickly followed by Mike as they ran over to the now deathly still Jess.

The boy knelt down and rolled his hero over and gasped at the blood pouring down his face from a deep gash to his temple…..then Slim was beside him, half lifting half dragging his buddy to safety as the big mustang stood tossing his head and pawing the ground just feet away.

Then Slim half turned back and saw Mike just standing staring at the mustang as though frozen to the spot…

“Mike, hey Mike git out of there!” he yelled and was relieved to see the child come out of his semi trance and make a dash for the fence.

“Is he OK?” he gasped looking almost as pale as Jess.

“Yup, he’ll be fine Tiger, help me get him in,” Slim said trying to reassure the youngster although in truth he was deeply concerned for his partner who looked really bad.

Daisy ran out from the kitchen as they dragged Jess into the house and deposited him gently on the old leather couch.

“Oh my,” she gasped before running off for her medical basket and some cool water to bathe the open wound.

Before long Jess’s deep blue eyes flickered and opened gingerly as he squinted up to where Mike and Slim were standing transfixed as Daisy gently tended the wound.

After a moment he cussed softly and put a hand up to his head, which Daisy gently batted away.

“Don’t touch dear you’ll make it worse,” she said kindly.

Jess secretly thought he couldn’t make it any worse, hell he felt like his brain was about to explode and rising nausea was making him feel edgy and dizzy….

He gave a little groan and tried hard not to cuss in front of the elderly housekeeper, although he felt that a good curse might improve matters.

“Doggone critter,” he made do with whispering softly, but the look in his eyes said it all.

“Jess, are you OK?” whispered Mike suddenly finding his tongue after having stared at his hero, with something akin to horror in his eyes, for the last five minutes or so.

“Sure…sure I’ll be just fine Tiger,” he said, although he looked anything but, his skin now having a faintly green tinge and sweat beading his forehead.

“I think Jess needs a bit of peace and quiet boys,” Daisy said turning meaningful eyes on Slim, her glance flicking over to Mike and back.

“Oh…yes of course,” said Slim quickly, catching her drift immediately.

“Come on Mike; let’s go finish the chores huh?”

To everyone’s surprise the child looked terrified and then flung himself down on Jess’s recumbent form.

“No!” he shouted,” I ain’t leaving Jess I ain’t!”

“Hey take it easy Tiger,” Jess said putting a gentle hand on the boy’s back,” what’s all this about eh?”

“I won’t leave you,” the boy said stubbornly…..”I’ve gotter stay here until you’re alright.”

Jess and Daisy exchanged a worried glance before he looked over to Slim.

“Maybe you could manage eh pard….let the young ‘un ride shot gun over me seein’ as how he’s ……”he was going to say upset, but changed it to….”seeing as how he’s a mind to…huh?”

Slim nodded,” Sure, you help Aunt Daisy look out for Jess Mike, but be real quiet huh?”

“Yup, I will, thanks Slim,” and the child snuggled up to Jess, looking a mite happier.

He refused to leave the young cowboy’s side all evening and once he finally fell asleep, exhausted, Slim gently carried him off to bed.

Jess was still suffering from a severe headache and nausea but continued to lie on the couch, saying he was just too dang wore out to make it to his bed, as an aside to Slim whilst Daisy was in the kitchen brewing some post dinner coffee.

“I really think we should let Sam take a look at you dear,” she said as she returned bearing the pot” I don’t like the look of that wound, it’s awfully deep, needs stitches I think.”

He just shrugged,” I’ll be OK.”

Then looking thoughtful,” So what was all that about with young Mike, heck he’s seen me beat up far worse than this and never fretted that way.”

“I fear he’s a very troubled little boy. I would guess that he has been so disturbed with the death of young Davy that he’s fearful that something else bad will take someone he loves….he’s just plain scared you’ll go the same way as Davy,” Daisy finished sadly.

“But that’s crazy,” said Slim,” sure Jess has been knocked about some, but he’ll bounce back in a day or two, it certainly isn’t life threatening…not serious.”

“Hey, it dang well feels serious,” said Jess hotly, “got me a darned serious headache….”

Then he relaxed and threw his buddy a lazy smile,” But you’re right of course…it ain’t nuthin’ to fret over, the way the boy is anyways.”

He turned concerned blue eyes on Daisy then, “So what do you think we should do about all this Daisy? We can’t have the boy fussin’ and frettin’ every darned time I take a dive off of a bronc……there’d be no end to it.”

“Well you’ve got that one right,” agreed Slim, receiving a mock scowl and light punch to the arm in return.

“I really don’t know dear, but I think maybe you should try talking to him again, maybe take him off fishing and just let him talk, if he voices all these hidden fears it could be that he’ll be able to face them better.”

“You think?”

She shook her head sadly,” I really don’t know, but he can’t carry on this way, he’s going to make himself sick.”

Chapter 11

Jess was laid low for a couple of days and was finally persuaded to see the doc and did indeed need some stitches in the deep wound.

“This is really nasty Jess and Daisy was right to insist you come to see me, so how are you feeling in yourself, any sickness, feeling dizzy?”

Jess shrugged,” Nope, I guess not, I did have but I guess I’m over that now…mostly.”

“Umm, it sounds like you’ve had a dose of concussion just take it easy Jess. A nasty gash like this you could get some more, delayed, concussion and you don’t need me to tell you how serious that can be….So I’d like you to stay off those mustangs for a week or so….OK buddy? “

“Aww Sam, don’t fuss.”

“Jess, listen to me!”

“OK, OK I was kinda thinking of taking some time out with young Mike anyway, maybe we’ll go sooner than I’d planned.”

“So how is the boy?” asked Sam conversationally once the treatment was completed.

Jess filled him in on the youngster’s latest out of character behavior.

“Gee it really ain’t like him Sam he’s been real ornery .Darned well refusing to do as he’s told. Real clingy around me…hardly lets me out of his sight and been getting these real bad nightmares. I’ll tell you we’re at our wits end as to know what to do with him.”

“I think it will take him some time to get over young Davy’s death and you’ll just have to be patient Jess….could you talk things through with him maybe?”

“Um….that’s what Daisy said, we’re going off on a camping trip to the lake, to get some fishin’ in. I guess I’ll make it, Saturday, seein’ as how you’ve banned me from mustangin’,” he said with a rueful grin. “Get him away from the ranch and possibly he’ll open up some huh? “

“You can but try and I think you’re the best one for the job Jess…good luck…..oh and Jess…..”


“Just take things real easy huh…you feel bad take to your bed….understand?”

Jess just waved a dismissive hand at his buddy,” Yup sure I will…..”


Mike seemed strangely unmoved by the proposed fishing trip, but was eventually persuaded to go and it was later when he was cleaning out the barn that Slim got to the bottom of the problem.

“So what’s up Mike I thought you’d be cock a hoop going off fishing and camping out with Jess.”

“Oh I am,” the child affirmed,” it’s just that…….”

“What Tiger?”

“I’ve been kinda bad lately ain’t I….kickin’ off and shouting and I was rude to Aunt Daisy and all.”

“You said you were sorry for that though didn’t you?”

“Oh sure,” the child agreed,” I really am sorry….for everything…. I don’t mean to be this way…..and I figure I don’t deserve a treat,” he said turning troubled eyes on the tall rancher.

“I agree you’ve not been yourself lately Mike. But me and Jess….Aunt Daisy too, we understand you’re hurting right now. So I guess we can cut you some slack and maybe a break away and some fun is just what you need huh?”

The youngster threw his arms around Slim and hugged him tight, “Thanks Slim,” and then he set about his work with renewed vigour, looking much more like the happy go lucky child they all knew and loved.

Mike wasn’t the only one to have some reservations about the proposed fishing trip.

Jess had …well maybe stretched the truth with the doc a little, as he was still feeling a mite off color. But hell he told himself a spot of fishing is probably all I need to get back on track.

They rode out early the following Saturday and reached the far side of the lake in ample time to set up camp in the big old cave overlooking the water. Then they had a good picnic lunch of the fried chicken and apple pie courtesy of Daisy before getting down to a spot of serious fishing.

It was after supper, when they were sitting around the crackling camp fire that Jess finally raised the subject of their recent loss.

“So how are yer feeling now Tiger….still kinda mad about everything?”

The child threw him a wary look and shrugged…”No….yeah… well…I dunno really…”

“Heck Mike you must know how you’re feeling, talk to me…please buddy you’ll feel better,” Jess pleaded.

When there was no response he sighed gently and tried again.

“Davy was a real swell little guy wasn’t he?…..The way he was so darned good with a rope, remember that time he came over to our place and roped that ol’ Blackjack…..heck, a mustang that size,” and he shook his head in admiration,” I figure he didn’t know what to do once he’d roped him….just dropped the end and ran like hell as I recall,” he said grinning across at the youngster.

Mike looked mutinous.

“I don’t wanna talk about him Jess…stop it…just stop it….!”

And he ran off into the cave where his bedroll was already laid out.

Jess rolled his eyes to heaven and sighed deeply, “Nice one Harper,” he muttered, “you sure did a good job of that.”

He gave the child a few minutes to calm down and then entered the cave, dimly lit by the camp fire set near the entrance and squatted down beside the recumbent child.

“I’m sorry Tiger, I guess I ain’t handling this too well…it’s just that….I reckon sometimes it helps to talk about it all…..kinda get it straight in your mind….you know?”

Mike turned wretched eyes on his hero.

“What’s there to talk about he’s dead ain’t he…He’s not coming back Jess…..talking ain’t gonna make it right….”and he turned away….still dry eyed and angry.

Jess just patted his arm gently, “Try and get some sleep Tiger, I’m just gonna check on the horses and then I’ll turn in….OK?”

The child nodded, and then sat up…”You won’t go anywhere will you Jess, you’ll be back soon?”

Jess turned sad eyes on the nervous child, so unlike his usual plucky self.

“Sure don’t fret I’ll be back in a minute Tiger,” and he wandered off…..

Jess spent a rough night tossing and turning, his head aching once more and the nausea, he had suffered after the mustang fall also returned. Then in the early hours of the morning he was once more awakened by Mike screaming in terror as he suffered yet another nightmare.

Jess was instantly awake and took the frightened child in his arms, holding him close and talking softly until he finally calmed down.

“Won’t you tell me about it,” he coaxed as the child sipped a drink of water, still looking around the dim confines of the cave in fear.

Then he turned huge terrified eyes to Jess.

“Can’t,” he whispered,” can’t say….if I say it might come true.”

“Heck Mike you know that ain’t so, dreams are just your mind playin’ tricks on you….they aren’t real, you know that.”

However the child just clammed up and refused to be drawn on the subject and they finally both fell into a troubled doze as the first light of dawn started penetrating the cave entrance, fingers of golden sunlight playing over their sleeping forms.

They both awoke late and neither in particularly good spirits. Mike still feeling anxious from the night before and Jess decidedly groggy, his head still throbbing.

He stretched and looked out at the brand new day wondering if they should cut their losses and simply make for home, Jess figuring it needed someone with a little more skill to help bring the boy through his current unhappiness.

Hell he knew from bitter experience that grief had to be worked through, but it was almost as though the youngster was trying to ignore it all….He hadn’t cried, refused to talk about his friend and according to his teacher he would have nothing to do with Davy’s little sister, Jenny, who had always adored her brother’s best friend. It just wasn’t right Jess knew that. Mike had to come to terms with the loss and only then would he be able to move on….but how to achieve this…what to say or do, he was at a complete loss.

He finally left the child, now having fallen asleep again and wandered out of the cave and stretching again looked out at the golden lake spread below him, the clear blue sky of an Indian Summer’s day above him and immediately his spirits rose.

“Time,” he muttered to himself,” the kid just needs time,” and he mooched off down to the lake to wash up before starting breakfast.

After the meal they made their way back down the track to the lake to do a little more fishing, Jess thinking it might take the boy’s mind off things and cheer him up some after the broken sleep of the night before.

However they had little luck in comparison with the good catch of the previous day and leaving Mike at the lakeside Jess clambered up a rock about six feet above the lake knowing it was a spot he’d had luck in the past.

Jess waved at the child and then concentrated on baiting his line and stood waiting patiently for a bite.

The sun was beating down on him and he never knew if it was that which caused him to suddenly feel dizzy, or the effects he was still feeling from the nasty head wound. However either way the result was the same, as he suddenly felt the earth spinning round and then he was falling…..falling and even as he was aware that he was tipping into the icy waters below everything suddenly went black as he lost consciousness.

Mike looked up in shock as he heard a splash and then saw the rock where Jess had been a moment earlier was now empty.

“Jess….Jess!” he screamed as he finally saw a flash of blue as Jess surfaced, his shirt momentary visible before he sank below the waves again.

The child waded into the shallows of the lake, heading for where he had last seen his hero, now screaming hysterically.

Jess didn’t know if it was the icy cold water or the horrified screams of the child which brought him back to consciousness…But he was suddenly aware of the dark icy water enfolding him and his lungs feeling as though they might burst….Then he shot to the surface and this time he made a brave attempt at swimming to the shore, which in reality was only a matter of a few yards away.

However he seemed to be almost powerless and made very slow progress until Mike was suddenly beside him, up to his waist in the freezing waters as he made a grab for the back of Jess’s shirt and was able to start to haul him towards the beach.

It was a long hard struggle, but with the youngster’s support Jess finally made it and they collapsed in a coughing retching heap, both of them completely spent.

Jess had rolled on his back and was squinting up at the sun beating down on him, desperately trying to get his breath and making terrible gasping noises, before passing out again.

Mike was the first to recover.

He leaned over the cowboy’s recumbent form and shook him frantically.

“Jess…..Jess wake up…..Don’t die, please don’t die!”

After a while he came around again and was able to gasp…”It’s OK Tiger…..take it easy,” and then he finally raised himself up on one elbow and after a few minutes the boy hauled him up and they made their way back up to the camp……

When they arrived Jess slumped down by the dying embers of their camp fire whilst Mike ran around collecting wood to get a good blaze going, but it wasn’t until they’d dried off some that Jess turned to the boy, a look of deep admiration in his blue eyes.

“Thanks Mike I guess you saved my bacon back there.”

“I didn’t do nuthin’,” the child said tremulously.

“Sure you did.”

Then he looked more closely at the boy and saw the tears welling up in his eyes and his lips trembling.

“Hey Tiger it’s OK… I’m fine now just took me a dizzy spell. I figure I ain’t completely over that fall off that ornery ol’ mustang….but I’ll take it real easy and be fine, you’ll see.”

“I… I thought my dream had come true,” the child whispered.

“Huh…those nightmares yer keep gettin’?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Wanna tell me about them now?”

He nodded and then turned agonised eyes on Jess.

“ I dream that Aunt Daisy and Slim are cryin’ and wailing something fierce and they won’t tell me why and then I’m callin’ for you and looking for you and you just ain’t there…..” he stopped obviously very upset.

Jess patted his arm gently,” Go on buddy.”

“I’m looking everywhere and calling and calling then I go up the hill…you know where Slim’s Ma and Pa are laid to rest?”

“Yeah, I know.”

Then the boy broke down and in between sobs he cried….”And you’re there Jess… I look down and see this grave and it’s gotten your name on the headstone…….”

“Hey, Tiger come here buddy, it’s OK…”and he took him in his arms holding him close…..” I ain’t goin’ anywhere, besides I’m too dang stubborn to up an’ die…you know that,” he said with a small smile.

“Oh Jess,” the child whispered,” I’ve been so scared, ever since Davy died I keep thinkin’ somethin’ awful is gonna happen,” then he started crying in earnest,” I miss him Jess….. I miss him so much!”

“I know Tiger, I know,” and he held the child as he wept inconsolably.

Then as he held the boy close, feeling his little body shuddering with the sobs, Jess felt tears prick behind his own eyes and eventually they welled up and spilled over running down his cheeks and he too was crying softly.

It was a while later before the child finally managed to pull himself together and looking up at Jess saw his tear stained face.

“Jess…..are you upset about Davy too?” He asked casting his mentor a sympathetic look.

Jess just nodded,” I guess,” he said with a rueful smile, dragging his sleeve across his face and taking a deep breath.

The child just nodded sagely accepting the truth of it.

It was much later after supper when they were getting ready to turn in that Mike raised the subject of Davy’s passing again.

“You know I figure I feel a bit better now,” he said with a huge sniff….”for cryin’ and all….I guess I’m kinda getting used to the idea he’s really gone…..and I reckon he wouldn’t want me to be so upset….He’d say git on with it Mike, ain’t no sense in fretting.”

Jess smiled at that, thinking the youngster was spot on, even to the tone of voice he had adopted, sounding just like young Davy.

“Good, I’m glad,” he said,” and you’re right that’s just what Davy would say.”

“Umm…. there’s just one thing bothering me now though.”


“It’s Davy’s sister little Jenny. Well I guess I’ve been real mean to her Jess. She wanted to talk about Davy….wanted me to go over and play like I used to as well…..but I couldn’t…. I just couldn’t……”

“And now?”

“Yup, I want to see her I really do. I like Jenny and her Ma and Pa. I figure I’ve missed them, but do ya think they’ll want to see me Jess? “

He nodded,” I’m sure of it and young Davy was teaching her how to rope wasn’t he, maybe you could offer to help her with that huh?”

“Hey that’s a swell idea Jess,” the child said looking almost his usual cheery self.

Then his face clouded,” Gee it must be awful losing a brother or sister that way.”

Jess just nodded,” Yup, it must be,” he agreed…….staring into the fire and knowing the truth of it.

Chapter 12

They rode back to the ranch at first light the following morning and Mike just had time to wash up and eat a hearty breakfast before the early morning Stage arrived to whisk him off to school.

He leaned out of the window to wave as the Stage took off and grinned out at Slim and Jess.

“See you tonight,” he called cheerfully, before the coach disappeared up the rise in a cloud of dust.

Slim turned and grinned at his pard once the coach had departed.

“Well I don’t know what you’ve said or done but he sure seems to have laid young Davy to rest, begun to accept it anyway?”

Jess just nodded,” I guess we both have,” he said enigmatically before heading to the corral with the Stage team.

Then Daisy was out there fussing and fretting.

“Jess Harper you just get in here. Mike has told me all about you collapsing and nearly drowning,” she said anxiously, “ you come and rest up a while young man.”

Jess rolled his eyes at Slim,” Wait till I see that kid,” he said in mock anger before retracing his steps back inside.

“Aww Daisy, yer know how fanciful Mike can be….. I’m just fine.”

As it was he found it easier to just cave in and rest up some and to be honest he was still feeling a mite unwell.

Later that night Slim put Mike to bed, leaving Jess with his feet up by the fire sipping his coffee.

After Daisy had also turned in the two friends sat on by the fire and after a while Slim turned an inquiring look on his buddy and said,” So what really happened then pard?”

“We just talked it through. I guess…it was me gettin’ in trouble that way that seemed to get him talkin’…I figure he was real scared, thought I was gonna drown,” Jess said shaking his head gravely.

Slim threw him a penetrating look…”And so did you…..nearly drown that is?”

He shrugged at that and threw his pard an embarrassed look, “Well you know, I did get in some trouble…..”

“Um and so then what happened?”

“Well Mike was great, helped fish me out, but it shook him up some I guess.”

“Go on.”

“It seemed to get him to open up. Apparently all those dreams have been about me dyin’. I reckon Daisy was right, he’s been so difficult lately because he’s so dang scared of losing one of us, the way he did Davy.”

“That makes sense….he told me about how he got real upset and was crying really hard and then he felt better afterwards, I think maybe that was what he needed, huh?”

Jess just nodded.

Slim looked down and then across at his friend, like he was trying to decide whether to say something or not, but then went on.

“He said you got pretty upset too?”

Jess dipped his head and nodded, “I guess I did.”

“Oh? “

“It weren’t about young Davy…. Well not all about him anyways; it was to do with….my little sister.”

Slim just waited for him to collect his thoughts.

He sighed and looked deeply into the fire, before continuing.

“After she died, Pa just went on like nuthin’ had happened, said it was nature’s way….but Ma and the little ones well they were just shattered.”

“I imagine…..you would be…a thing like that.”

“I remember breaking it to the other kids. Ma was way too upset. Then them sobbing and carrying on and I was tryin’ to comfort them when Pa came in and told ‘em to hush up….Then he turned on me and said,’ And I don’t wanna catch you sniveling that way boy, real men don’t cry’ and he fetched me a clip around the head…to kinda make the point,” he said with a grim smile at the memory.

Slim looked shocked to the core thinking that this was really bad, even for Jess’s Pa who was certainly not a charitable man at the best of times.

Jess just sighed again….

“So I didn’t cry for her……until yesterday by the lake…..guess I got it all out of my system then…..”

“I’m glad,” whispered Slim, “and you’re feeling better?”

He nodded, “Yeah, you know I think I do.”

“So maybe both you and Mike can start to heal and move on now?”

He nodded at that notion, “Yeah, let’s hope so pard…….”


Mike did indeed go over to the Scott’s place the first chance he got and was reunited with young Jenny and made very welcome by her folks too. After that initial visit he often went over and took on teaching young Jenny all about caring for her pony and riding and roping, just the way Davy had done.

It was one Saturday after a visit that Jenny’s Pa, Lenny Scott, rode Mike home and stopped off for a chat with Jess.

He was watering his horse and nodded over to where Mike was taking his pony over to the barn.

“That’s a mighty fine boy you’ve gotten there,” he said smiling over at Jess.

Jess returned the smile and said softly,” Yeah I guess we were real lucky when young Mike fetched up on our doorstep.”

“Oh yeah, of course I always forget the boy’s adopted…..I reckon I can see so much of you in him.”

“You can,” asked Jess looking amazed,” what you mean his temper’s on a hair trigger and he can cuss fer Texas?”

Lenny laughed at that.

“Nope, I was thinkin’ more along the lines of how he’s real loyal to his friends…..”

Jess just nodded.

Then the older man turned his expressive eyes on Jess.

“I guess the boy will never know what it’s meant to Davy’s Ma and I having him around, the way he’s taken on our Jenny and kind of helped her through the worst,” he shook his head unable to go on for a moment and then he swallowed deeply and continued.

“I figure I owe you and Slim and Miss Daisy too, for the way you’ve handled things with the boy. He told me all about your fishing trip….can’t have been easy, but I guess we’re all starting to move on now, thanks Jess,” and he reached over and shook his hand.

It was later that evening as the two men were bedding down for the night, after a long day, that Jess brought up the conversation he’d had with Davy’s Pa, Lenny.

He chuckled,” Funny thing is I can see a lot of you in the boy too,” said Jess.

“You can?”

“Umm, he’s pretty good at thinking things through, doesn’t dive in headlong like I do…. Look at that time I was missing all those weeks, after I fell in the Laramie River and lost my memory.”* See Lost. “It was Mike that thought it all through and figured out a plan to come and find me.”

“Yeah it was…wasn’t it…he sure had to think that one out,” Slim said smiling at the memory. “So how was Lenny?”

“OK I guess, it’s still real raw, but I reckon he’s coming to terms with it all.”

Slim shook his head,” You know I thought you were kind of over reacting to that Measles epidemic, but in retrospect….well…….”

Then he turned to smile at Jess who was now stretched out on his bed, hands laced behind his head, looking thoughtful.

“I reckon all those stories helped the boy no end. Sam said we were to keep him interested, try and take his mind of things and I reckon you did a swell job at that Jess….seems you’ve got a talent for storytelling,” he laughed.

“Yup, I reckon I’ve seen a lot of life, got me a few yarns to tell,” he agreed.

Slim settled on his own bed and grinned over at his friend” You know I kind of like to think of Mike passing all your stories on to his own young ‘uns one day.”

Jess sat up quickly, looking scandalized by that.

“Hey pard I ain’t even thinkin’ on getting married and havin’ young ‘un’s myself yet…….never mind young Mike….Hell don’t go rushin’ things!”

Slim grinned across,” Well I figure we’d better think on marryin’ our couple of swell girls before young Mike there beats us to the altar!”

“Aw Slim…. git outer here!”Jess laughed


Lenny Scot and his wife Annie went on to have two more sons to their name who turned out to be wonderful boys, but Davy would always have a special place in their hearts. And all their days they were to remember the kindness shown to them in their hour of need, by all at the Sherman ranch and young Mike Williams in particular.

Mike and Jenny remained friends throughout their lives and were even sweethearts for a while before they both left for college and made new friends and both met their future partners.

Mike went on to have four children, all boys, and their very favourite bedtime stories were those handed down to Mike by a certain, blue eyed young cowboy, with a temper on a hair trigger, who could cuss for Texas and was the kindest, most loyal friend a man could wish to have…..

The End

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