#54 The Vendetta

The Vendetta


Patty Wilkinson

Title Picture courtesy of Sally Bahnsen Thank you.

Chapter 1

(Some strong language, adult themes and violence)

Perhaps it was the fact that the boy arrived in a storm, just like Mike, that it all seemed so right…almost as though he was meant to be there at the Sherman Ranch and Relay. Well that’s what everyone felt at the time anyway…….all except Jess that is……

Jess Harper hustled his mount into the barn. Then removed his Stetson and wiped a sleeve across his wet face before running a hand through his unruly dark hair, jamming his hat back on and cussing softly.

“Dang Wyoming weather,” he said turning to Slim Sherman his best friend and partner in the ranch, “We don’t get darned storms like this, lasting days, down in Texas you know!”

Slim, who was now unsaddling his own mount paused and looking philosophical said, ”Well it’s Spring Jess you’ve got to expect a storm or two, besides it’s good growing weather.”

“Well it ain’t done much for my growth,” Jess muttered darkly, ”iffen I get soaked anymore I’ll darn well start shrinking clear away.”

Just then their lively, blond headed young ward, Mike Williams burst into the barn and stood still gazing up at his heroes’.

“Aunt Daisy said to tell you supper’s ready.” and then he stopped and grinned broadly…”Gee you really are wet ain’t you!”

“Well that’ll come from riding fence in a gale and torrential rain,” said Jess his voice loaded with irony, ”so I guess we were gonna get a mite damp.”

“Oh you’re so funny!” giggled the youngster, the sarcasm lost on him completely…..

Jess rolled his eyes at Slim and then turned and slapped the boy on the rump, none too gently.

“Git outer here Tiger,” he grinned, “go tell Aunt Daisy we’re on our way.”

Daisy Cooper, their long suffering elderly housekeeper watched tolerantly as the two men came in dripping mud and water over her clean floor as they stripped off their jackets and hung up their hats and gun belts by the door.

Then she took a closer look.

“Why boys you’re soaked to the skin,” she admonished.

“That’ll be the rain,” Jess muttered laconically, but Daisy didn’t hear.

“Off you go and change at once before you catch your death and supper will be on the table directly.”

The two men exchanged a resigned look, before they wandered off to their room to do as they were bid.

Gee old Daisy could fuss fer Texas Jess thought secretly. But Hell iffen you were sick, or shot up some or even just kinda troubled, well then it was always Daisy you wanted on side.

Much later after supper he had the same thought as he watched Daisy carefully darning his socks and he wandered over to the window and stared out at the raging storm before turning back to the warm cosy room.

“It was just such a night as this when young Mike landed,” he said as he slumped down on his rocker in front of the fire next to the elderly housekeeper.

“The poor boy,” she whispered, ”to have suffered seeing his parents killed that way in the Indian attack and then be lost in a storm, it’s just terrible….the poor little mite.”

The youngster was long abed or Daisy wouldn’t have spoken that way, but something about the inhospitable weather and the wind groaning in the chimney, sent a shiver down her spine as she thought of the defenceless child, lost and afraid.

“He’s just fine now though,” said Slim, getting up from his desk where he’s been checking the business account. ”He’s really happy and settled here, thanks to you.”

She blushed prettily at his kind words.

“Oh he’s a delightful child, so full of mischief too. I love looking after him….and he’s far less trouble than you two put together,” she said with a cheeky smile.

Jess grinned back and then took her hand impulsively, ”I reckon it was the best thing as ever happened when Mike turned up on the doorstep that night, he’s a great kid. And if he hadn’t landed we’d never have found you,” he said sincerely, ”and I’d still be darning my own dang socks too,” he finished in mock horror.

“Oh you,” she laughed and marched off to the kitchen to make them all some coffee.

They were just finishing their drinks and thinking of turning in when suddenly there was a wailing and yapping as the dogs gave tongue, ears pricked as they both looked expectantly out to the yard, having obviously heard an intruder…..

“Blue, Buttons hush up,” said Jess firmly and casting his pard an anxious glance both men moved as one and collecting their irons from by the door slowly opened it and peered out into the wild night.

After a moment Jess saw a movement over by the barn and realised the door was open and banging in the gusting wind.

“Stay here Daisy,” Slim said, “lock the door and don’t open it until we get back.” Then leaving the dogs to guard the house both men took off at speed.

They sprinted across the yard and then paused by the barn door before Slim kicked it open and both men crashed in, guns at the ready and looked around the dim interior…..

One or two of the horses stomped and let out a questioning whinny at this sudden intrusion into their peaceful repose but other than that there was complete silence.

Jess plucked the lamp from its hook and having lit it, held it aloft peering into the dim recesses of the large building and then he was rewarded by a single piece of straw floating gently down from the hay loft.

His eyes swivelled to Slim and he grinned before turning his attention to the hayloft ladder and striding over to it peered up into the loft.

“Git yer sorry hide down here pronto,” he rasped, ”before I blow yer head off!”

Slim came and backed him up , rifle at the ready and a few moments later they saw bare feet making their way hesitantly down the ladder, before their owner jumped the last few steps and turned to face his captors , shaking with fear.

“Garldarn it…he ain’t nuthin’ but a kid,” gasped Jess lowering his Colt.

“That’s not so, I’m near eighteen,” the youngster piped up, suddenly gaining confidence at the lowered weapon.

“Sure you are,” drawled Jess, disbelief written all over his face.

“So what are yer doin’ trespassin’ then huh?” he asked making his point my shoving a finger hard into the boy’s chest.

“Easy Jess, you can see the kid’s scared to death and half drowned too,” said Slim.

“So are you hungry boy?”

The youngster nodded eagerly, at the kindly looking blond man, ”Yes sir!“

“Come on then, let’s get you dried off and fed and then you can tell us what you’re doing here, OK?”

The boy again nodded vigorously, ”Thanks mister!”

He and Slim made for the warmth of the ranch house, slowly followed by Jess….

“You’ll regret this,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head.


“Well I think you’re crazy,” said Jess heatedly once they were in the privacy of their own bedroom , much later that evening, “We know nuthin’ about him Slim, and you’re lettin’ him stay in the bunkhouse… hell he could have robbed us blind by morning…..”

“Oh come on Jess he’s only a kid….and everyone deserves at least one break don’t they?” he said casting his buddy a meaningful look.

Jess knew he was referring to how Slim had given Jess a chance all those years ago when he’d ridden in off the trail with ‘a greased holster and trouble in both pockets,’ as Slim had later agreed.

“Umm…well as I remember you sent me packing and turned a rifle on me when you first found me trespassing on Sherman land,” he said stoutly.

Slim had the grace to look slightly embarrassed at that.

“Yeah, I guess it was Andy, that convinced me you weren’t all bad….and once you got that chance you proved it…..,” he said referring to his kid brother now away at school.

“Umm, well I guess maybe he can stay fer a while, but first time he messes up he goes Slim, we can’t afford to take on any passengers and besides he’s not 18, looks about fifteen to me.”

Slim yawned and lay down on his bed.

“I guess the truth will come out eventually and in the meantime we just have to believe what he told us, how his folks died in a tragic accident and he’s been on the drift ever since looking for work.”

“Yeah, yeah…. I know and he does look half starved so maybe that bit is true…”

“Anyway,” Slim said settling down to sleep, “look on the bright side, Daisy will be so darned busy feeding him up and looking out for him she’ll leave us alone and stop fussing every time we get too wet or cold…or forget to get in the tub!“

“Umm…I guess there is that,” said a much more cheerful looking Jess…and stretching out he was soon snoring gently.

Chapter Two

The following morning when a bleary eyed Jess finally made it to the breakfast table, late as usual, the others were tucking into Daisy’s bacon and eggs.

“Oh Jess dear would you go over and wake young Jody, he must have over slept, and your breakfast’s all ready so don’t be long.”

Jess cast the coffee pot a wistful glance before ambling off to do as requested.

He banged on the bunkhouse door and then entered.

“Wake up kid, chows on,” he called loudly.

The youngster jumped a mile and pulled the covers up, looking around him in bewilderment, before gradually remembering the events of the night before.

“Git dressed and come on over to the house OK boy?” he said not unkindly.

The youngster jumped up and started dressing immediately.

“Yes sir Mister Harper.”

“No need for the Harper,” Jess said,” you can call be Jess…. So what’s your full name then boy?”

“Jody …err….Jones,” he stuttered.

“Umm… you sure about that?” asked Jess throwing him a quizzical glance.

The boy just nodded and flushed up, avoiding the cowboy’s eye.

After breakfast the men wandered off onto the porch followed by young Jody.

Jess glanced down at his bare feet and then said thoughtfully,” I figure I’ve got some old boots as might fit you if Daisy can find you some thick socks….”

“I’m OK,” said the boy defensively….”I like bein’ bare foot….”

Jess and Slim exchanged a look before Jess turned back to the boy.

“No you don’t,” he said quietly, ”I’ll fetch the boots you can’t do yard work like that.”

“I’m fine and what would you know about it anyways?” the boy cried, almost belligerently.

Jess looked exasperated and then said brusquely, ”I know because I went barefoot most of my childhood and the first pair of new boots I ever got was when I enlisted, so don’t dang well say I don’t understand boy….”

The child gulped and looked up at Jess with renewed respect.

“Really, Jess?”

He nodded.

“And these boots ain’t charity either, we need to get a good days work out of you and we won’t be doin’ that iffen yer hobbling’ around with sore feet,” and with that he marched off to find the boots.

“So what can you do,” asked Slim once the boy was kitted up, ”you say you’re ok at all round ranching work then?”

The youngster looked a little uncomfortable, but agreed that he could do most things, yes.

Meanwhile Jess had disappeared into the barn and returned with Traveler and Scout, one of the ranch horses, saddled up and ready to go.

“I guess you’d better ride fence with me today, see how you shape up. You can ride the paint,” he said, ”he’s a mite lively as he ain’t been rode fer a few days, so hold him back at first ok?”

Jody looked up at the large horse that was nodding his head and blowing through his nostrils testily, whilst champing on the bit.

Jess looked over, one dark eyebrow raised in question.

Jody still stood staring at the critter as though mesmerised.

“Need a leg up?” asked Jess.

The boy just nodded and once in the saddle took the reins loosely and looked down, pure terror in his eyes.

“You OK?” asked Slim warily.

But barely before the words were out of his mouth Scout got wind of the fact that he had a complete novice sitting him and took off for the hills without a backwards glance.

“Whoa ….stop, stop!” yelled the youngster in fear and trepidation as he disappeared up the rise in a cloud of dust.

“What the Hell?” gasped Jess casting Slim an astonished glance, before leaping up into the saddle and giving chase.

Scout had made it a good half mile down the Laramie road before Jess caught up with him and he lunged forwards catching the reins and pulling the ornery critter to a standstill, surprised to see Jody still in the saddle.

“What in blazes are you playin’ at?” he yelled glaring at the deathly pale youngster.

“I…. I dunno,” he whispered.

“You ain’t ever sat a horse before have you?“

“Yes…. well no…… not one like this anyway, ours was a big ol’ plodder as pulled the plough.”

Jess’s expressive eyebrows arched at that piece of news.

“Blow me down you’re a dang sod-buster ain’t you!”

“You got a problem with that then?” asked the boy sulkily, the slight belligerence back in his tone.

“Not in general no, but I sure have when you’re trying to pass yerself off as a rancher yeah,” he spat.

The boy looked down embarrassed.

“An’ worst of all you’ve tried to hood wink my pard and he really don’t deserve that.”

The boy hung his head again, “I’m real sorry,” he finally whispered.

“Umm…well you go tell that to Slim, now hang on to the saddle horn real tight,” and Jess led Scout slowly back to the ranch.


It was later that night and they were sitting out on the porch, discussing the issues of the day.

“I still don’t get it Slim…..why you’re keeping him on that is. He’s lied to us and he can’t do anything useful around the place, what’s a sod-buster gonna do, weed Daisy’s vegetable garden?“

Slim shook his head and looked out to the horizon as the sun was slowly setting and turned in his seat to look at his pard.

“I like the boy and so do Daisy and Mike…It just seems kind of right him being here, landing in that storm and all like young Mike did.

Jess just rolled his eyes at that notion.

“He sure worked hard today too, doing all the yard chores and he’s a fast learner….”

“Slim …why?”

“Aww… I don’t know Jess I just feel kind of sorry for the kid, he’s trying so dang hard….”

“So where is this gonna end pard are we going to take on every darned stray as passes through….?”

“Look Jess we discussed this the other day, while you’re spending every hour the Good Lord sends finishing breaking those mustangs for the army contract; we need all the help we can get and young Jody comes cheap, plus there really isn’t anyone else available right now.”

“Umm…well I don’t like it Slim….have you seen the way he looks sometimes? Like he’s real angry about somethin’…kinda brooding…..don’t you ever wonder what’s going on in that head of his?”

“Jess you’re imagining things he’s just a typical youngster, they’re always kinda feisty. It’s not easy growing from a boy into a man, especially all alone without kin to help you out, thought you’d have known that better than anyone!”

“No it’s more than that Slim, he seems to have this kinda anger….bubbling up, just below the surface, like it’s gonna suddenly burst out……”

“Heck Jess when did you get so poetic….?”

“Look I’m just sayin’,” Jess replied angrily…”there’s something real wrong with the kid…”

“You know what your problem is Jess?”

“No what’s my problem?” he replied angrily.

Slim took a minute to reply and thought back to earlier that afternoon.

He’d been watching the boy sitting on the porch, his feet bare again and his dark hair flopping over his forehead as he bent to the task of oiling Jess’s old boots. His skinny form hunched over the task and then he had stopped and gazed over to the horizon. The look of suppressed anger and pain clearly visible in his eyes, yes Jess had a point Slim had to admit now.

Slim had taken a pace forwards wanting to talk to the boy, but something in his whole demeanour had made him back off…. Slim immediately knowing that his presence would not be welcome.

Now he sighed deeply, ”Your problem is Jody reminds you of yourself at that age Jess.”

“What! Yer kidding I was nuthin’ like that, the kid can’t even sit a horse!”

“No not that way, but physically sure he’s just like you were from what you said, real skinny….What did you say? ‘ A street kid half starved with no shoes and the seat of your pants out,’ isn’t that the way you described yourself once…..and then that time we went to your old hometown… I saw all those kids, looking just like you must have done….“

“So what’s your point?”

“Just that, that’s why I think you’re being so hard on the boy. You hate to be reminded of that time…and you’re right, I can see it now, he’s so dang angry….just like you were at that age….”

“Well I had a damn good reason, the Banisters had just burnt us out killing my kin and I was goin’ after them. Sure I was angry. But there ain’t no reason as I can see why the kid should be so darned mad. It ain’t right and it’ll get him into trouble too Slim, you mark my words!”

“He seems fine to me right now, so let’s just cut him some slack and see how he goes and anyway……”

“Anyway…. what?”

“Well you’re a fine one to talk, where anger is concerned….or have you forgotten what happened in the saloon just last Saturday?“

“No I ain’t forgotten….and Hell Slim that was justified!”

Chapter Three

It had all started a few weeks back when they took on temporary hired help in the form of one Jake Boswell and lived to rue the day.

He had just been passing through and said he’d be happy to ride fence and do basic chores. Thereby freeing Jess up to concentrate on breaking the mustangs, while Slim was away in Cheyenne for a couple of weeks on Stage Line business.

At first all seemed fine, save for the ripe language the rough and ready character used in front of Daisy and Mike, which Jess quickly brought him to task for.

“Didn’t your Pa teach you not to cuss in front of the ladies and kids?” he’d growled angrily one afternoon when he could see Daisy had been offended by the strong language. She had been pegging out the washing and returned to the house shortly afterwards looking flushed and unhappy at the yard talk issuing forth so loudly.

He just shrugged when Jess remonstrated with him and said, “Nope.”

“Well I’m tellin’ you,” said Jess scowling at him, ”you speak bad in front of Miss Daisy or the boy again I’ll ram those words down your throat…got it?”

Jake just nodded, looking slightly startled, ”Loud and clear boss,” and wandered off.

But worse was to come.

Jess found him slacking where the horses were concerned, not cleaning them out thoroughly and failing to tend his mount properly leaving the poor animals thirsty and sweating, tethered in the yard in the noon day sun.

They had practically come to blows after that and Jess had threatened to fire him on the spot. However he relented after Jake pleaded with him and promised to change his ways. However it was Daisy who finally interceded for him.

“Just give him one last chance Jess, Slim won’t be home for another week and you can’t manage alone dear.”

Finally Jess had seen the sense of her argument and agreed to keep him on and Jake had been careful to toe the line after that.

That was until he got his wages in his hands and then he took off to Laramie on a bender and was next to useless the following day.

“Hell Jake, I like a drink as well as the next man, but not in the working week, now go take a shower and then I want you out checking the east pasture, we’ve got a fence down.”

Jake had wandered off eventually, but had left Jess angry and frustrated.

However things really came to a head later in the week.

Jess had taken off for the day delivering one of the green broke mustangs to a rancher half way to Rawlins and dusk was falling when he made it to the Laramie road and knew he was only another ten minutes from home.

He was just wondering idly as to whether he’d missed supper when he heard a horse galloping hell bent for leather across the rough country to his left and wondered vaguely who would be fool enough to ride so recklessly on the rough terrain and in the semi dark.

Then as the rider drew closer he recognised Prince a young Palomino that Jess had broken and schooled on to use as a spare horse for wrangling when Traveler was taking a rest.

“What in Hell” ,he muttered as the rider came closer and he was just able to make out Jake’s stocky form and swarthy Romany features, as he mercilessly beat the poor horse and spurred him on to greater speed.

“What’s he doin’ up on Prince?” he whispered, knowing that the hand had been told only to ride old Betsy a patient grey mare and not to go near any of the other stock.

Jess was just about to cry out and tell him to slow down…. But even as he opened his mouth to do so….it happened.

As he watched in horror a dreadful scene played out in front of him as the willing young horse faltered, caught his foot in a prairie dog hole and fell hard throwing Jake off to safety before the big horse rolled and lay still.

Jess spurred Traveler towards the fallen animal and leaping off, tore over to where the horse lifted his head, showing the whites of his eyes and giving a heartbreakingly fearful whinny.

Jess fell to his knees and gently felt the fore leg, knowing the truth of it before he even felt the hot tense limb, it was broken…..and he bent his head feeling totally devastated. Garldarn it, young Prince was the best working mount on the spread after Traveler.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a movement and turning saw Jake standing there, hat in hand looking guilty as hell.

Jess stood up and saw the man stagger slightly and then caught the smell of stale whiskey on his breath.

He just stared at him for a full minute and then yelled, ”Git out….just git the hell outer here!” his voice breaking with raw emotion

Jake needed no second telling and he turned and loped off down the hill towards the ranch house.

Jess looked back at the horse and then turned and marched over to Traveler and led him a good distance away and tethered him behind a tall pine before taking his rifle and sadly making his way back to the fallen horse.

The single shot echoed around the empty countryside and on hearing it Jake flinched….hell he’d really done it now.


Jess tethered Traveler by the door and burst into the ranch house….”Where the Hell is he?” he yelled, for once forgetting to moderate his language in front of Daisy.

Slim, who had returned just a couple of hours ago, stood up from where the family were all sitting around the supper table.

“Jess?” he said questioning his strong language and then he saw his pard was deeply upset…his face white and a look of fury in his dark blue eyes.

“Hey pard what’s up?” he asked more quietly.

Jess merely turned on his heel and marched over to the bunkhouse where he kicked the door open and stood staring at Jake as he turned from where he was pouring out a whiskey.

“Ain’t you had enough?” he barked.

Jake hung his head…”I’m sorry OK, I just borrowed the horse to give him a run out…..and then I got kinda sidetracked in town….wanted to land home afore you did so I pushed him a bit….but it was an accident…..”

“So that makes it OK then does it…you take a horse you were told not to touch and then run him into the ground…..dang well kill him ….. but Hell it was just an accident… So that makes it alright……in your book….huh?” he asked moving forwards and pushing the gypsy hard in the ribs.

“Look I’m sorry OK?” he cried belligerently….. “Hell it’s just an ol’ horse… not like you haven’t got plenty more.”

Well that was it for Jess…. Jake never knew what hit him as the dark cowboy lashed out with a punch to the jaw, followed through by several body blows and by the time Slim arrived on the scene a few minutes later Jake was out cold with Jess still raining blows down on him.

It took all Slim’s strength to pull him off.

“Enough,” he yelled, ”Hell Jess whatever he’s done it ain’t worth feeling a rope around your neck for!”

Jess stood there sweating and panting and wiped a hand across his face before turning to Slim.

“Whatever he’s done…! I’ll tell yer what he’s done, he’s taken Prince into town so he can get blind drunk and then realising I’d be home soon he dang well ran the poor critter into the ground…. Hell Slim he was beatin’ him to within an inch of his life and then the poor beast stumbled in a prairie dog hole,” and he looked down in anguish.

“He’s OK though?”

“ …… I had to shoot him, he broke his leg.”

“Jess….oh pard, I’m so dang sorry.”

“Yeah well, I’m going back in, just see he’s gone by tomorrow will you Slim….. I guess I just don’t trust myself around him right now,” and he turned on his heel and walked out.

Slim just nodded,” You bet.”

Jess was up at first light the following day and Slim stirred as he heard him moving about.

“What are you up to so early?” he asked yawning broadly.

“Gotta go an’ deal with ol’ Prince afore the buzzards git him,” he replied brusquely.

“Oh… yeah… you want me to come and help you pard? “

“Nope, I’m fine,” and with that he slammed out of the room and a few minutes later Slim heard him ride out.

It was when he arrived back a couple of hours later that all hell broke out.

He’d gone to put his horse up and when he came back into the yard he saw Jake Boswell wandering over towards him.

“What the hell are you still doin’ here, I thought Slim fired you yesterday?”

“Well he did Jess, but I thought if I explained…..it was just a terrible accident like I said and…….“

Slim marched out of the house then, “Are you still here,” he yelled, ”I thought you’d taken off an hour since.”

“I did… just came back to see Jess here ….apologize, I thought once he’d calmed down… I’d may be get my job back?”

“Well you thought wrong,” Jess spat, ”Get the hell outer here…you’re fired, or do you want me to explain it to you all over again?” he asked flexing his hands into fists.

Suddenly Boswell’s persona seemed to change and his face went from subservience to a mask of fury…

“You bastard,” he yelled,” it’s ‘cos I’m of Romany stock ain’t it…. Just a little old no account gypsy boy…so cast him off…..without even a full wage packet!”

Jess sighed deeply.

“No it ain’t and just fer the record some of my real good friends are Romany…so don’t play that card… You’re fired because yer a lousy worker and you were responsible fer the death of one of our best working horses, through deliberately mistreating him, so you’re lucky to take any dang pay home at all… you’ve got what’s owed you. Now git while yer can still walk!”

Boswell swore long and loud and then turned away, brushing past Jess as he made to leave.

Then he turned back and pointing at the dark haired cowboy swore again and said, ”A curse on you Harper…” then he muttered something in a foreign tongue.

“The Devil will take you….you will suffer much misfortune until you pray for release by death….! This curse I lay upon you and those who you love will watch you endure much pain and hardship!” and with that he stormed off.

“Good riddance,” Jess murmured as he turned to see Slim, Daisy and young Mike all staring at him in consternation.

“Heck you don’t believe any of that rubbish do yer?” he asked

“Well, no I guess not,” replied Slim eventually, “but he sure sounded convincing.”

Then Mike ran over and hugged Jess hard, ”You’ll be OK won’t you?” he asked tearfully.

Jess hunkered down by the child so that he could look him in the eye.

“Hey Mike you remember my friends who are true Romany folk dontcha and they would never curse anyone. Boswell’s just tryin’ to scare us because he’s real mad…OK Tiger, you understand that?”

“I guess so…but he’s real scary ain’t he Jess?”

“You can only be scared of people if you let ‘em scare you,” he said firmly, “you just remember that Mike, now did you leave me any breakfast then?” he asked ruffling the boy’s hair fondly.


It was the following Saturday that Slim saw Jake Boswell again, in the Laramie saloon. By the time he and Jess entered, in early evening, Boswell had obviously been there some time. He was with a huddle of ne’re do wells at the far end of the bar and Slim just hoped Jess wouldn’t notice his presence.

As luck would have it Millie, Jess’s girl, was on duty that night and she quickly took all his attention.

“Well hello there cowboy, so where have you been!” she said with a raised eyebrow, but her charming smile taking the sting out of her words.

“Aww, Millie, I explained honey, gotta git those ol’ mustangs ready to go, else we’ll lose the contract.”

“I know,” she said reaching over the bar and tipping his Stetson over his eyes, ”just kidding you, so what are you boys having?“

Once they’d both got a beer Jess perused the bar and his eyes finally lit on Boswell, “Oh no,” he muttered.

“Jess leave it,” insisted Slim, ”let it go huh, we’re just here for a quiet drink.”

“So it’s true,” said Millie softly, giving Jess a fearful look, “he really did curse you?”

“Not you too, tell me you don’t believe in that rubbish do you Mill?”

“No… well I guess not, but he sure sounds real convincing and something else Jess, he’s really angry…says you and Slim ripped him off, made him work like a slave and then didn’t pay him a fair wage.”

“He said that did he?” Jess spat, turning from the bar to glare at Boswell.

“Jess, just leave it,” said Slim again grabbing his arm and pulling him back…”come on you’re bigger than this, let it go huh?”

Jess sighed and took a pull of his beer, “Sure,” he said softly.

“So you and me are OK for later sweetheart, take you out for supper when you finish?”

She grinned back at him at that, “I thought you’d never ask, sure, I’ll get Tom to let me off early….ok?”

However before she could do that Boswell sauntered over, the light of battle in his eyes, made even bolder by his cronies egging him on.

“So Harper, you can afford to take your girl out…and I have to drink cheap beer because you don’t pay a decent wage.”

“Just forget it Jess,” said Slim, once more pulling him away from Boswell as Jess spun around.

But then Slim suddenly turned on the argumentative cuss himself.

“Leave it Boswell; I’m warning you….we paid you a more than fair wage after what happened, now just ease off.”

“So you’re this wild cat’s keeper are you then Sherman….gotta keep him in check have you?” Boswell snarled before turning to confront Jess once more….and a second later threw a punch, which Jess dodged with ease.

That was it for Jess. He let go with a haymaker to the chin and then followed through with a left and right to the chin and torso and Boswell crumpled.

Nobody knew what would have happened next if Sheriff Cory hadn’t suddenly arrived, but luckily he did and the collective bar…..including Slim and Millie heaved a sigh of relief.

Mort Cory was a good friend of all at the Sherman Ranch and Relay and now he studied Jess’s furious countenance….

“So you all done Jess, or am I gonna have ter take you down to the jail?”

Jess, dusted himself off with his Stetson and ran a hand through his dark hair before ramming his hat back in place…

“I guess,” he finally muttered.

Mort nodded and then hauling up the now semi conscious Boswell, marched him from the bar, before returning a few minutes later.

“Barred him for the week and sent him home, he was drunk as a skunk,” the Sheriff informed Tom, the barkeep, before sauntering back to Slim and Jess and accepting a beer from Millie.

“So what was all that about?” he asked turning quizzical eyes on Jess.

“I was provoked,” he muttered taking a swig of his beer and throwing the Sheriff an angry glance.

“Uh…well some folk are saying you’ve got a vendetta going on with Boswell Jess, firing him and then I believe you’ve warned several people not to employ him?”

Jess’s head shot up.

“Sure I have the man’s poison around the horses, I caught him beating old man Mason’s mare the other day, and yes I told his boss….and I warned Burt at the Livery not to take him on as well…”

“I guess that could be seen as a grudge against the man….stopping him getting a job Jess?”

“Sure I’ve got a grudge against him,” said Jess honestly, ”he darned well rode one of my best horses into the ground…Hell even a wet behind the ears kid knows not to gallop a horse on rough terrain in the dark, it was deliberate cruelty and cost the critter his life…..” and he sighed deeply before staring down into his beer obviously upset.

Mort exchanged a glance with Slim and then more gently asked, “Which one Jess?”

“The Palomino I used, Prince,” he said softly.

Mort heaved a big sigh,” I’m sorry I didn’t know that and yes, it does seem the man’s gotten a poor reputation for his work around the horses…..anyways maybe he’ll just move on if he can’t get work…..”

Chapter Four

All that had happened the previous Saturday and now as the men sat out on the porch under a starry sky their thoughts returned to their immediate problem, young Jody Jones.

“If that’s his real name,” said Jess thoughtfully.

“So you think he’s lied about that as well?”

Jess just nodded, “Yup.”

“But why would he do that?”

“Dunno, maybe he’s on the run.”

“He’s a mite young to be in trouble with the law isn’t he Jess?”

He gave a bitter laugh at that, ”I guess you’re never too young to git in trouble iffen you’re desperate enough.”

“Uh,” said Slim, knowing something of Jess’s appalling childhood and how he’d occasionally had to work on the opposing side of the law to put food on the table…..”Maybe, but he sure isn’t about to tell us is he?”

“So what are we gonna do with him?”

“I really don’t know Jess…… keep him on for a while at least. Like I say he’s a fast learner and he can ride shotgun over you when you’re working the Mustangs, that’ll free me up some to get the rest of the work done. I figure you don’t need much skill to jump down from the fence and scare the critter off if you have a bad fall and get into trouble…huh?”

“No I suppose you’re right, but I’m still not happy, there’s something not right with the kid…”

“Hey Jess, just humour me huh….and anyway have you forgotten you’ve got a curse hanging over you,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes, ”I figure you need all the help you can get pard.”

“Aww Slim, shuddup, I’d forgot all about that,” he said throwing a playful punch.

The following day Slim rode out as planned to get on with moving some of the stock and checking the fences for the new arrivals, so was kept pretty busy away from the ranch.

Jess was also busy…….in fact way too busy as the doc was to profess later.

He had been up working with the mustangs since shortly after dawn and his break was long overdue when he decided to try one last critter before taking a rest. Daisy was off visiting a friend, so he’d just grabbed a couple of biscuits at noon and worked straight through. Now hot and tired he chose what he thought would be an easy ride.

He’d saddled up a quiet looking grey gelding, but as they say looks can be deceptive and the moment Jess’s butt touched the saddle the animal just exploded. He took Jess completely by surprise and he held on for dear life, the animal bucking and rearing his way around the corral.

All the time Jess had been working with the critter, over the last weeks, he had shown no ill temper. He seemed to accept everything from being roped to the saddle being put in place and so this display of open aggression, although never a complete shock in a wild mustang, was unexpected in this particular animal and caught Jess unawares.

Here’s me thinkin’ I’d gotten an easy ride at the end of the day and I end up with this widow maker he thought bitterly as he strove to stay in the saddle.

It was all over within a few seconds as the critter finally bucked furiously throwing Jess off. Then the animal lost his footing and fell badly, rolling and striking Jess, before scrabbling to his feet again, blowing and snorting angrily.

Jess lay dazed, struggling to get his breath back… when he saw the gelding advancing on him once more nostrils flared and a killer look in his eyes

‘Goddamn it where in hell’s that boy, he’s supposed to be looking out fer me,’ was his last coherent thought before he felt a searing pain in his left arm and then everything went black.

When he awoke he was in his own bed and their good friend and doctor, Doc Sam Baker was leaning over him a look of concern in his kindly dark eyes.

“Welcome back buddy, we were beginning to think you’d be out of it for the foreseeable,” he said with a grin, ”so how are you feeling now Jess?”

Jess groaned as he explored a bump on the back of his head with one hand and then was suddenly aware that he couldn’t move his other arm and looking down saw it was bound in snowy white bandages and realized it was hurting like hell.

“Bust?” he whispered.

“No, you were lucky, but very badly lacerated Jess. That grey caught you a nasty blow with his hoof, you won’t be able to use it for some time and I figure you’re probably concussed too….So bed rest and then light duties for a while..OK?”

“Aww Sam, you’re kiddin’. I’ve got me a whole mess of Mustangs to break this summer and I need to get on with it.”

Then he saw Slim’s face loom into view behind the doc.

“You’ll do as your told pard, you’re dang lucky to be alive. God knows what would have happened if I hadn’t landed back home early.”

“Huh? …..So what happened to young Jody then?”

“When I rode in he was just sitting the fence watching you get stomped on…. I couldn’t understand it….so anyway I pitched in and pulled you out and sent him to ride for the doc.”

“Thanks Slim, I owe you…..”

It was much later that night when Slim had turned in, that the question of what happened in the corral was brought up again.

“So what was it with Jody then? Does he get some sorta weird pleasure from seein’ folk stomped on?” Jess asked bitterly.

Slim rolled his head on the pillow so he could see his buddy better.

“Try not to be too hard on the boy Jess. I figure he panicked and just froze…..said later he wanted to help, but he was just unable to move…. I’ve seen that before, in the war…..boys too darned scared to move a muscle…just stood still and were shot down like sitting ducks in the line of enemy fire.”

“Yeah, me too…but hell Slim it weren’t a battlefield out there, just a mean critter….All he had to do was yell some and he’d have backed off!“

“Yes, well he’ll know for next time, he has to learn you know…get experience.”

“Next time, what next time!” Jess exploded. “Hell there ain’t gonna be no next time Slim… I ain’t a darned cat with nine lives yer know….So what if he messes up again and the critter jumps on my head….do we just put that down to him gaining experience?” he finished bitterly.

“Look your tired and sick too Jess, just get some rest and we’ll talk it through tomorrow……OK?”

Jess merely made a noncommittal grunt before turning over and falling into a deep slumber almost at once.

The following morning Jess admitted that his head was aching something fierce and much to Daisy and Slim’s surprise there was no argument when they suggested he stay put for the day. So it was the evening before the matter of young Jody was discussed again.

“Look Jess I can understand why you’re so mad and ordinarily, well I guess I’d agree with you. But right now we really need the help and Jody’s our only option. A lot of places have been hiring recently and there just isn’t the help to be had…so it’s the kid or nothing.”

“Yeah, well maybe it would be safer to have nothing,” replied Jess casting his friend an accusing glance.

“Come on Jess he’s not that bad, in fact he’s worked really well today. He’s been a good help and while you’re laid up we really don’t have much choice…..and besides…..”

Slim ground to a halt looking thoughtful….

Jess sat up in bed and looked over at where Slim sat and said….”Besides what?”

“Oh I dunno, it just seemed sort of right to help him, like it was meant, the way he turned up in that storm same as Mike did.”

Jess threw him an incredulous look, “Don’t tell me yer thinkin’ on adopting him too,” he said a look of mock horror in his deep blue eyes.

Slim chuckled at that idea.

“Heck no….but I feel I want to help him out some……just for the summer. Once your arm is fixed up and you’ve finished the mustanging he can be on his way and with a little bit of spare cash to help him….and hopefully a few ranching skills too…. He’s sitting a horse better already……so what do ya say pard…..huh?”

Jess just shook his head looking like a man who will live to regret his decision……

“OK, OK I give in, but I ain’t having him sittin’ the fence for me again…That’s down to you or Mike ‘cos I sure don’t trust him.”

“OK, it’s a deal, now get some shuteye and with any luck you’ll be fit enough to feed the chicks tomorrow…nice light duties…..huh?”

“Just great,” said Jess sarcastically, “can’t wait……”

As it happened he settled well to the light work and by the end of the week even proposed that young Jody accompany him into town to do the marketing.

Slim looked delighted at that news and taking his buddy aside said, “Thanks Jess, for making the effort with him, I appreciate it.”

“Well there ain’t no point in holding a grudge and I guess he’s just a kid, got a lot to learn. Anyway I need him to drive the darned buckboard, this arms still kinda tender,” he said with a cheeky grin.

Once all the goods were stowed in the wagon Jess suggested a quick drink before returning home and the idea was accepted with alacrity by the youngster.

“Just lemonade for you boy,” he said with a playful punch to the arm, “You may have Miss Daisy and ol’ Slim believin’ you’re of age…but not me.”

“Aww Jess,” but the youngster took it in good heart and they were soon propping up the bar of the Laramie Saloon, exchanging banter with Millie.

“So are you still OK for tomorrow night?” Jess asked after a while.

“Sure honey can’t wait, come up the back steps about seven and I’ll be there to let you in OK?“

It was some time later that Jake Boswell and his cronies entered the bar and he stopped in his tracks when he saw Jess and then motioned to his still bandaged arm.

“I see my curse is working then Harper,” he said with an evil grin.

Jess just turned away and continued talking to Millie, but after a moment Boswell grabbed hold of his good arm and pulled Jess around to face him.

“Don’t turn your back on me Harper,” he spat…”What’s up, not so brave when you’ve got an injured arm, can’t start knocking me about now can you!”

“There ain’t nuthin’ wrong with my gun hand,” Jess said menacingly, “Now just back off and go simmer down.”

However before he could reply a voice behind them said, ”That’s real good advice Boswell,” and both men turned to see the Sheriff standing behind them cradling his rifle.

“Now you men git,” he said gesturing to Boswell and his friends with his rifle.

“Oh wonderful,” spat Boswell angrily, “why do we have to go…just because Harper here is one of your buddies’ is it sheriff?”

“Nothing to do with that son, but iffen you remember you’re currently banned…..after that last little fracas you had in here, now hop it afore I chuck you in the cells to cool off.

Boswell turned and glared at Jess, “This ain’t over,” he muttered and then slouched off with his buddies.

“Thanks Mort….drink?”

“No thanks Jess, can’t stay I’m on duty….but just watch your back where Boswell’s concerned. I reckon he could be trouble. So are you planning on coming into town tomorrow with it being Saturday?”

“Yeah, but don’t fret Mort, only place I’m gonna be is in the company of my girl here,” he said grinning across at Mille, “I reckon she’ll keep me out of trouble.”

Mort winked over at Mille, ”Well I’m relying on that,” he said with a chuckle and marched off.

Then Jody excused himself saying he wanted to pick up some candy for young Mike and they arranged to meet back at the buckboard a little later on.

Jody was very quiet on the drive back and after a while Jess turned to him.

“That was real nice of you thinking to get the candy for Mike.”

He just shrugged, ”He’s a good kid, I kinda like him.”

Then he was silent again for a while before turning to Jess a frown on his young face.

“So do ya think that Boswell will try and attack you like the Sheriff said?”

Jess shrugged,” I doubt it, he knows I could outdraw him…and anyways I’m going to be up in Millie’s room…..she’s cookin’ for us,” he said with a lopsided grin,” and I figure that’ll be a heck of a lot more dangerous than Boswell and his compadres, if her last meal was anything to go by, had belly ache for a week.”

“Heck Jess so why are you going then?”

“She’s my girl, ain’t she,” he said like it was obvious, ”and supper ain’t the only thing on offer.”

Jody just shook his head in bewilderment, ”I just don’t get it.”

Jess pulled his hat down hard hiding a smile, “Gee you are young ain’t yer,” he muttered to himself.

Then quickly changing the subject, “Come on then boy are you drivin’ this team or what, get a wriggle on Miss Daisy will have dinner on the table anytime now.“

Chapter Five

The following evening Jess was dressed smartly in his dark blue bib front shirt, clean denims and highly polished boots.

“You look like a man who’s on a promise,” Slim said aside from where Daisy and the youngsters were setting the supper table.

Jess just winked, ”So are you seeing Lily tonight then?”

“I guess I’ll wander by later,” he confirmed, ”but she’s gotta work tonight doing the evening shift, seems like her buddy’s got a hot date.”

Jess chuckled at that, ”Well next Saturday it’ll be Lily’s night off and your turn to gloat….anyways can’t keep a beautiful lady waiting.”

“See y’all,” he said giving the others a cursory wave.

“Goodnight dear have a good time and tell Millie if she follows my recipe to the letter nothing can go wrong.“

“Uh… famous last words,” Jess whispered to Slim.

Then a little louder, “Thanks Daisy, I’ll tell her,” and a few minutes later they heard him riding out of the yard at a brisk trot.

Millie went along the corridor and opened the door at the end that led onto the back fire escape steps, at seven o’clock, and was surprised when there was no sign of Jess. She hung around for five minutes or so and then fearful of burning the meal she left it on the latch and returned to her cosy room above the Laramie Saloon.

Then she got so engrossed in checking the meal and making a special sauce that she failed to notice the minutes ticking by….until she heard a tap at her door.

“About time Jess Harper I’d just about given up on you,” she said merrily as she hauled the door open and found herself looking into the surprised eyes of her close friend and workmate Lily.

“Why Millie, is Jess not here yet, it’s gone eight o’clock…. I just popped up to see how the meal was going?”

Millie looked worried, ”That’s not like Jess to be so late…..unless he’s down in the Saloon drinking….. I’ll murder him if he is,” she said with spirit.

“No he isn’t honestly. I’d have told you…..heck told him to get up here. No, in fact it’s kinda quiet for a Saturday, that’s why Tom said I could pop up for a minute.”

Millie looked worried, “So where on earth can he be?”

“Slim’s due in later maybe he can tell us, could be something’s happened at the ranch to delay him….you know the way he’s always tipping off those wretched mustangs,” Lily said with a little giggle.

“Umm… don’t I just. The thing is though he’s not bronc busting right now because of that injured arm…. “

The girls went and checked the back steps again before they went down to the bar, Millie feeling troubled by now as it was getting quite late.

“Oh, there’s Slim now,” said Lily and both women made for the table in the corner where Slim was sitting quietly sipping a beer.

He stood up when the girls approached and removing his hat he kissed Lily and grinned across at Millie.

“So what are you doing down here Millie, I figured you’d be watching my pard stuffing his face and coming back for seconds by now,” he chuckled.

“Well I might be if he’d shown up,” she said brusquely, worry making her sound irritated.

“Heck he left a good couple of hours ago, and what’s more Traveler was in the livery so he can’t be far away,” said Slim, looking puzzled.

“Maybe he’s hooked up with Mort? It could be he needs some help with something or other,” he said vaguely.

“Well he better hadn’t be off riding posse for the Sheriff when I’ve got a good meal waiting,” she said, now beginning to feel more annoyed than concerned, rolling her eyes at Lily, the sentiment ‘men!’ left hanging in the air.

Slim suddenly had a thought. He knew for a fact that Mort had a new bottle of Malt Whiskey recently opened in his office and was offering the tempting prospect of a sample to some of his more worthy friends, Slim being amongst them and he’d enjoyed a shot or two a few days earlier. However he’d not visited his good friend this evening as he was running late and he wondered if his buddy had been tempted to imbibe a little and not noticed time slipping by.

“I’ll go check out Mort’s place and have a quick look around town, he can’t be far away,” he said cheerfully. Then seeing the look in Millie’s eyes he beat a hasty retreat not wanting to get caught up in her escalating bad humour.

When Mort confirmed that he hadn’t seen hide or hair of Jess for more than a week, he agreed to walk down the town and see if he was about.

Once they’d done a turn or two of Main Street and confirmed he was neither at Miss Molly’s Café or the doc’s….

’I’m sorry Sheriff, both the doctor and his nurse are out of town attending a confinement,’ they thanked the elderly housekeeper and turned back to the Saloon.

“I just can’t figure it Mort,” said Slim looking worried, where the devil’s he got to?”

Mort shrugged looking equally foxed, ”Search me, let’s try Millie’s place again, maybe he’s shown up by now.”

They turned down the dark alley at the side of the saloon, chatting quietly and making for the fire escape that led up to the staff quarters and were just about to climb up when Mort grabbed hold of Slim’s shirt sleeve.

“You hear that?”

“Huh…. No what?” asked Slim pausing at the bottom of the staircase.

“Hang on……. listen,” said Mort urgently.

Then they both heard it, a soft groan and then a cry….” Slim…. that you?”

The men looked around them and then after a moment they heard another movement behind some old beer barrels and peering down saw Jess lying in the dirt, bleeding and battered.

Slim was there beside him in a heartbeat and Mort close behind.

“Jeez, who did this to you son?” asked Mort looking at the broken body of his good friend with finely concealed horror.

“Never mind about that,” said Slim, ”help me get him up…..to Millie’s place. I guess seeing as Sam is out of town…..we’ll worry about the whys and wherefores once he’s cleaned up some.”

When they rapped on her door Millie opened it almost at once and then stood there looking appalled.

Jess looked completely out of it now, blood streaming down his ghostly face from a gash to the forehead and his clothes filthy and blood splattered.

“Oh please no,” she whispered, “Sheriff what happened?”

“We don’t rightly know yet,” said Mort, ”but can we bring him here for now, the doc’s out.”

She jumped back pulling the door wide, at once.

“But of course, you don’t have to ask, put him on the bed, I’ll fetch clean water and bandages,” she said, barely concealing a sob.

Once Jess was cleaned up a little Mort sank down on the edge of the bed.

“So, do ya know who’s responsible then?” he asked softly.

Jess’s eyes opened to slits like the light was too bright for him and took a deep breath before replying.

“Sure, I know alright, but I can’t prove it.”

“Go on pard,” said Slim anxiously.

“It was that bastard Boswell and his cronies of course,” Jess spat bitterly, ”just makin’ sure that ol’ curse of his is workin’ nicely.”

“Are you sure?” asked Mort.

Jess opened his eyes fully, ”Oh I’m sure alright. They pistol whipped me back in the alley and then when I came around three of ‘em were holding me and Jake Boswell were knocking the shit outer me.”

“Oh Jess,” whispered Millie from where she was sitting on the other side of the bed holding his hand.

He rolled his head on the pillow to see her better.

“I tried….real hard to get free…. I did at one point and laid one on Boswell sent him flying….That’s when I got a rifle slammed in my belly and don’t remember anything past that,” he finished sadly.

Millie looked even more upset and turning to the Sheriff said, ”I really need to check him over properly, can’t you go and find these men Sheriff,” she asked impatiently.

“Yes Ma’am,” said Mort rising, understanding her distress.

“Coming Slim?”

“Sure,” then he leaned over and rested a hand gently on his pard’s shoulder, ”You’ll be OK?”

“Of course,” said Jess trying hard to rally, ”got me the best little nurse in the world here ain’t I?”

“That’s as maybe,” said Millie with a small smile ”but I’d still like the doc to come over, leave a message for him will you Slim?”

Once the men had gone Millie looked down into those features she knew and loved so well.

His face was covered in bruising already turning dark and one eye was blackened and swollen.

The gash to his forehead was stark against his deep pallor and as she carefully removed his shirt she exposed a plethora of cuts and abrasions there as well.

Jess winced a little as she gently bathed his torso and she bit her lip looking worried.

“I wish the doc would hurry up, ”she whispered.

“Hey, I’m OK and Mill…..I’m real sorry, I guess I’ve spoilt your evening…..and the meal too,” he said with a sad look.

“Oh heck, don’t worry about that, there’ll be other times,” she said quickly.

Then she gave him a small smile, “And anyway Lily’s taken it, she’s going to heat it up for Slim when he lands back.”

Jess almost sat up at that news looking most affronted, ”Heck ol’ Hardrock’s gotten my supper?” he growled.

She gave a genuine giggle then, ”I’ll go make you some broth if you’re hungry.”

“Broth,” he gasped in mock horror, ”Gee sweetheart a man can’t survive on dang broth.”

“Well this one is going to have to,” she said chuckling, ”no big meals until the doc has checked you over,” she asserted as she went off to prepare his meal.


“You did quite right not to feed the patient too much heavy food,” Doc Sam Baker agreed sometime later.

Then he turned concerned eyes on Jess.

“That’s a mighty nasty injury to your belly Jess, that old rifle could have done a power of damage internally. I guess we’ll just have to keep an eye on you for a few days and keep our fingers crossed there is no internal bleeding.”

“Just great,” muttered Jess, “I was goin’ back to work come Monday and now this…..and what’s keepin’ Slim and Mort they should have found that lowlife by now.”

“You just settle down and get some sleep, time enough for retribution tomorrow. You just try and think of something else huh? “ said Sam firmly.

Jess sighed, but said no more and the doc wandered off to the door with Millie, giving her instructions as to his care.

When she returned she sank down on the edge of the bed and brushed back his unruly locks from his forehead, looking deeply into his troubled eyes.

“Sam’s right, forget about Boswell and you heard what he said you have to relax, just try and think of something else Jess.”

“Well I reckon that all depends….”

“Depends on what?”

“On whether you’re thinking of turning in anytime soon,” he said with a cheeky grin.

“Why Jess Harper, you’re supposed to be badly hurt.”

“Uh….well you know what they say…. you can’t keep a good man down…..so are you …huh….huh Mill….?”

She giggled and nodded.

Mort Cory knocked on the door early the following morning and Millie ran to answer it hastily pulling on a dressing gown and tying it tightly before she hauled the door open.

“Good morning Ma’am, sorry to be calling so early, but I figured I needed to speak with Jess as soon as possible….get it over with,” he muttered as Millie ushered him in.

Jess sat up in bed, “Mornin’ Mort, you catch up with them then?”

Mort sank down on a chair near the bed and removed his hat and stared at it for a good minute before replying.

“Yup, finally caught up with him and his buddies over at old Shamus O’ Leary’s place…..playing poker.”

“And so, you brought ‘em in…right?”

Mort shook his head, ”I’m real sorry but they had an alibi. O’Leary reckoned they’d been in a card school at his place since the afternoon.”

“What… you didn’t believe him did you? Hell Mort that old fool would sell his granny for the price of a beer!”

“I’m real sorry Jess, but there’s nothing I can do right now, except keep an eye on them…and …”

“And wait fer Boswell and his men to have another go,” spat Jess angrily.

Then there was another knock on the door and Slim marched in and peered down at his partner.

“Mort told you then?”

Jess nodded looking furious.

“Look Jess, don’t blame Mort here, it’s not his fault, it’s your word against Boswell… and I guess if you don’t have any proof……”

“You know I don’t.”

“There’s something else,” said Mort looking troubled, “folk are talking about this business. Saying as how you’re just trying to lay this attack at Boswell’s door to get back at him…all part of this vendetta you allegedly have against him.”

“Hell Mort how many times do I have ter say it! I ain’t got a vendetta against the man, anything he’s suffered he’s dang well brought on his own head.”

“I know buddy and I’m real sorry…but I have to abide by the law and if there’s no proof, well then….”

“OK Mort, it ain’t your fault I guess…..but just keep him away from me though… or so help me I ain’t gonna be responsible……“

“Look just simmer down pard, let’s get you home, Daisy will be frettin’,” said Slim, trying to diffuse the situation.

Mort said his farewells and then motioned for Slim to show him out.

“Just try and keep him out of town for a while will you Slim, until he settles down and with any luck Boswell will move on soon if he doesn’t find work.”


As it happened Jess was in no fit state to travel into town anyway.

Sam had to be called in, as the following day Jess started chucking up a little blood and the doc was quite concerned for a while. However eventually the bleeding in his stomach stopped and although Doc Sam said it would take a while to heal completely he was out of danger within a few days.

Of everyone at the ranch it was Mike who was the most upset by it all and it wasn’t until Slim was putting the youngster to bed some days later that the reason came out.

“Jess is OK isn’t he.” said the boy for the third time since Slim had tucked him up.

“Sure, you heard the doc, he said Jess was out of danger and as long as he’s sensible and sticks to that special diet for a few weeks he’ll be just fine.”

“You sure?” asked the youngster his eyes huge and worried.

Slim pushed back the child’s mop of blond hair and said, ”What’s this really about Tiger, you know Jess, he’ll bounce back real soon.”

“But what about the…. You know….”


“Mister Boswell…and that curse, well it’s working Slim. First he had that real bad fall and now this…Ever since Mister Boswell put that curse on him things have gone real bad for him.”

“Heck Mike, there isn’t such a thing as putting curses on folk, it’s just something Boswell and his kind make up to scare people, Jess explained that to you didn’t he?”

“I guess, but bad things seemed to have happened to him since then all the same.”

“You know Jess, he’s always getting into scrapes, this isn’t any different, just coincidence, you understand?”

“Umm…. I suppose.”

“OK now you get some shuteye because with Jess still laid low I’m going to need your help come the weekend, OK?”

The boy beamed at that thriving on responsibility, “Sure you bet, night Slim.”

Chapter Six

Jess slowly recovered from his stomach injury. After moaning long and loud about his restricted diet, asking Daisy balefully how a man was to survive on milk puddings and broth on a daily basis.

However as Slim predicted he was soon back on form and was pronounced fit for work by Sam a couple of weeks later.

“In fact I’d go so far as to say fit for a spell of fishing too, if you feel up to it,” he said grinning over at his buddy.

It was a Saturday and Sam had finished for the day and so all the male members of the Sherman ranch took off to the lake for a peaceful few hours enjoying their passion for fishing. All except Jody however who opted to stay home and finish off the chores.

“Are you sure?” asked Slim, “You’ve worked real hard since Jess has been laid up; you’re welcome to join us son.”

The boy just shook his head and wandered off leaving Slim looking puzzled.

“I just can’t make that boy out,” he said to Sam later that day when Jess and Mike had taken off to some rocks further down the shore line hoping for better luck.

“He sure seems a mystery,” agreed Sam, ”I can’t get anything out of him about his folks or former life, it’s as though he didn’t exist until he landed here.”

Slim nodded in agreement.

“I know what you mean, he’s real hard to get to know and he seems well….almost afraid of Jess.”

Sam grinned at that notion,” He can be kinda scary you know Slim if you’re not used to his ways, that temper of his and all.”

“Oh come on Sam, he’s a pussy cat now compared with what he used to be like, calmed down a lot and tamed that temper some too.”

“Uh….well you try telling that to Jake Boswell. It was me that had to fix him up after Jess had finished with him, over that business of Boswell ill-treating the palomino …..”

“Yeah, and you treated Jess too don’t forget Sam, after Boswell and his cronies got their revenge, bushwhacking him that way.”

Sam nodded sadly, ”Nasty business that and I know Mort feels really badly about it too…but his hands are tied.”

Just then there was a shout of joy from the edge of the lake as Mike landed a whopper and all thoughts of Jody and Boswell were shelved as the men ran over to congratulate the young fisherman.

When they arrived back at the ranch Jody ran out to meet them looking really worried.

“Gee I’m so glad you’re back,” he said addressing Jess, ”It’s your girl friend Millie…..”

Jess swung down from the saddle…”What about her boy?” he asked looking anxious.

“Well err….this drifter came by a while back asked to water his horse…and we got talking.”

Jody took a deep breath before continuing.

“He said is this where her man lives then…..And I said what do you mean…who? He said that saloon girl back in town….. Millie something, folks said her man lived at the Relay and how he’d go crazy when he heard the news…Then he said, the girl’s been shot real bad… he thought….. I’m sorry Jess but he thought she might have died.“

Jess just stared, the shock sending a wave of dizziness crashing over him, making him sway slightly and he clutched onto Traveler’s bridle to steady himself.

“I said yeah, Millie was your girl and he said, ‘Well you’d better tell him then’ and ….then he just upped and left…. I’m so sorry Jess…...”

Jess never waited to hear anymore. He was back up on Traveler and a mere cloud of dust up the rise before the others could even draw breath or make sense of the message.

He rode hell bent for leather to town and throwing himself down from the saddle tore into the saloon, looking around him in fear. Then he strode across to the bar.

“Where’s Millie?” he asked Tom…”Hell just tell me she’s OK,” he pleaded.

Tom turned puzzled eyes on his old friend.


“Millie, fer God’s sake Tom, where is she?” he yelled vaulting the bar and grabbing hold of the barkeeps shirt, such was his agitation.

“Steady boy,” said Tom, disentangling himself from Jess’s vice like grip.

“Simmer down Jess, what’s gotten into you; she’s on her break out back.”

Just then Millie walked back into the bar and Jess just stared for a full minute before whispering, “Thank God,” as he strode over and took her in his arms.

When he was still holding her tightly a few minutes later, Tom came over and said softly, ”You might like to take this out back huh Jess?”

Jess suddenly became aware of the curious glances from the bar and hustled his girl out into the back room away from all the prying eyes.

“Jess what’s this all about?” she finally asked once they were alone. She could see he was visibly shaking now, his face very pale with a slick of sweat, his eyes looking almost haunted as he tried to calm down and accept that it had all been just a terrible hoax.

“Jody said a drifter came by the ranch and said as how you’d ….you’d been dang well shot…..maybe fatally,” he finally managed.

She pulled back from him looking astounded, “What, shot…me?“

He just nodded, looking like he might well break down.

“Jess what’s this all about, I’m just fine…someone’s been kidding you.“

“Kidding!” Jess exploded, “Some low life has just lied about you being dead sweetheart, that ain’t kidding, that’s dang well evil.”

“Oh Jess…. I’m sorry honey…..who could be so mean as to do such a thing?”

He shook his head, ”I dunno, but I aim to find out.”

She peered up at him and then pulled him close into a warm embrace, ”OK but not tonight huh…..not tonight…….”

He cupped her beautiful face between his hands and looked deeply into her brown eyes, ”OK sweetheart tonight I’ll stay with you,” he said softly, confirming what he knew she was about to say…tonight they both needed to be together.

Then a minute later Slim and Doc Sam rushed in and on seeing Jess holding Millie both drew a deep sigh of relief…..

Then Slim felt pretty darned angry too.

“What in hell’s going on pard…..who could do this to you…to us all, Daisy and young Mike are in pieces back home.”

Jess shrugged, ”I dunno, but he’ll be dang sorry when I catch up with him.”

For once Slim didn’t err on the side of caution.

“Well I can’t say as how I blame you Jess…..so you staying put tonight?”

Jess nodded, holding Millie’s hand tightly, “Yeah I guess so, this has kinda shaken us up some yer know Slim.”

“Sure, look I’ll take Traveler over to the Livery for and you come on home when you’re ready…. I’ll ride back now, put the others out of their misery,” he said with a small smile.

“Thanks pard I owe you.”

“Well I’m just glad I’m not needed,” said Sam cheerfully, “night both”, and he wandered back home.

The following morning after a heated exchange with Mort, Jess left for the livery, his rash words echoing in his head as he marched along Main Street.

“I just don’t get it Mort, whose dang side are yer on anyway?”

“The Law’s side Jess you know that and I can’t go and arrest Boswell just on your say so. You said yourself the boy didn’t know the drifter and we’ve no proof to connect him to Boswell. Seems like the drifter’s long gone and I ain’t clapped eyes on Boswell in over a week, could be he’s left too.”

“Well just don’t go gettin’ mad at me iffen I happen to bump into him and ask a few questions myself,” Jess said flexing his hands into fists and leaving Mort in no doubt as to his intentions.

“You know I can’t condone that Jess…please don’t put me in this position buddy.”

“What about my damn position?” Jess yelled, flushing up and looking furious, ”Garldarn it Mort, I thought Millie was dead last night…Can you imagine how that feels….and this is all part of this so called ‘curse’ Boswell has laid on me…except he’s kinda playing a hand in it all himself….and you know it!”

“Even so, my hands are tied without some hard evidence….get me that and I swear I’ll sling him in jail and chuck the key away.”

Jess had just turned on heel at that and now as he entered the livery he began to feel a mite guilty. Hell Mort was only doing his job; he knew that….but yesterday had been terrible. It brought all those old feelings back that he’d had after his fiancée, Maria, had been shot down in front of him and the thought of losing Millie in the same way was unimaginable. * See #1 Loved, Lost Survived.

He cast his mind back to the night before, how they’d held each other so close all night, Millie in tears as she watched Jess’s anguish at the thought of losing her.

“How can he do this to you?” she whispered, ” it’s so cruel.”

“I dunno sweetheart, but he’ll pay and iffen he even thinks of harming you……”

Now he strode into the livery and spotting Traveler in his usual stall towards the back wandered over; and then came back calling for Burt the owner and good friend.

The old timer finally strolled over, ”Come to fetch Trav then son?”

“Yeah and pay yer…so what have you done with my saddle and rifle then Burt?”

“Oh, I moved it into the back, there was a kid hanging around it. I thought he might be a bit light fingered so I sent him packing and put your gear out the back.”

He went and fetched it and Jess settled up and was just about to leave when Burt called him back.

“I darned near forgot to tell you the news,” he said, ”I’d forget my head if it weren’t attached.”

Jess sighed softly and settled back in the saddle waiting patiently for the old man to get on with it.

“Had your neighbour by, Mason and he was mad as a wet hen.”

“Uh…” said Jess vaguely wondering if Daisy had kept him any breakfast back.

“Yup seems you’ve gotten a mess of trouble down your way.”

“Don’t I know it,” Jess muttered under his breath, thinking of his personal problems.

Then more loudly, ”We do?”

“Yup…old Mason said as how a renegade cougar had gotten in with his stock, killed one of his best breeders, seems the critter’s wounded, that’s why it’s come down from the hills…can’t hunt too well, he says it’s real dangerous and was heading your way.”

“Well hell, why didn’t yer say so, I’d better git going and warn ‘em back at the Relay.”

“It’s OK son, don’t fret, Mason told Mose Shell too. He’ll have filled Slim in on the early morning Stage run, your partner’s probably out hunting him down as we speak.”

“I’d better get off and help him then,” said Jess anxiously and tipping his hat he thanked the old man and lit out at a brisk trot heading for home.

He made good time and once he was back on Sherman land he kept his eyes peeled for signs of the big cat, but all seemed quiet.

He had just ridden down passed the lake and made to cut across the south pasture when he saw something in the distance lying beneath some large pines. Setting Traveler off at a gallop he was soon at the spot and staring down at a partially mauled calf.

His mount was obviously distressed snorting, shaking his head and pawing the ground moodily and Jess patted him absently on the neck.

“Easy fellah, that big ol’ cat is long gone,” and pulling his rifle from its scabbard he dismounted and walked over to the beast and looking down sadly, wondering if it was dead or he would have to finish it….. but it was dead alright….Then he got to wondering why the animal had just been chewed up some and thought maybe the cat wasn’t long gone after all……maybe he’d disturbed it….?

It was a terrified cry from Traveler that alerted him to the danger and spinning around he was just in time to see the cougar bounding towards him, he’d been right, the animal had simply run into hiding at his approach.

He raised his rifle and squeezed the trigger and nothing…… it jammed.

He tried again and again. Before he could throw the offending weapon down and reach for his hand gun the critter was upon him growling and spitting at him as Jess was thrown to the ground, the full weight of the mature male cougar upon him.

He grabbed it by the throat and tried with all his might to wrestle it from him, but after a moment it wriggled free and Jess tired to make a grab for the hunting knife in his boot. However the critter was too fast for him and it grabbed hold of his lower leg in its vice like jaws and Jess fell back in agony, his whole world turning dark as the teeth sank into the flesh of his leg.

Then just as he thought he could hold out no longer there was the sound of a rifle shot and then another and a third and the cat fell down dead across Jess’s prone body as he lay there shaking and crying out in pain.

“It’s OK…… it’s OK pard I’ve got you,” and suddenly Slim’s strong arms were around him dragging him away from the dead weight of the big cat, it’s eyes now glassy its life force draining away.

Jess lay there panting and cussing softly before turning to peer up at his friend….”So what kept yer then?”

Slim chuckled, but quickly sobered as he looked down at his buddy’s blood stained denims….

He tied his bandana around the wound to contain the bleeding and then threw his partner a worried glance.

“Think you can ride, we need to get home, have Daisy take a look at this.”

“Sure, help me up will you?”

He gave a gasp of pain as he settled in the saddle and turned very pale.

“Are you OK?” asked Slim looking concerned.

Jess just grunted and carefully eased Traveler into a sedate walk heading back towards the ranch.

After a while Slim looked across at his buddy…

“So what happened I saw your rifle on the ground, did he jump you before you could get a shot in?”



“No the goddamn rifle jammed.”

“What your Winchester never….how’d that happen?”

“I dunno, need to take a look, but I reckon someone’s been messin’ with it.”

“Huh…. so how come Jess?”

Jess explained about the stranger at the livery and how old Burt had seen him hanging around Jess’s saddle.

“Down to that bastard Boswell again ain’t it.”

“How do you make that out?”

“He probably slipped the kid a couple of bucks to mess with my rifle; same as he paid off Shamus to give him an alibi.”

“Jess, you don’t know that….”

“I’ll bet he did the same with that drifter that told young Jody as to how Millie had been shot too….it’s obvious Slim.”

“Look Jess I figure you’re getting paranoid.”

“Huh, say what?”

“Unreasonably suspicious, these things happen, guns can jam and….”

“Not mine that Winchester is new and anyway I look after my guns you know that Slim….”

“Yeah I know but…..”

“So what about all that nonsense about Millie being shot, then eh, tell me that?”

“Uh….. I saw Mort and he confirmed there had been a shooting in town, seems old Charlie White was pushed too darned far by his Mrs, she came to drag him home from the saloon for his supper and he opened fire…missed of course, pie eyed as usual…But you know the way stories can get all changed around in the telling, the drifter probably heard it third hand and then embellished it some to impress Jody. Some folk just love to shock others…you know, don’t like to let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Jess just shook his head.

“You’re crazy,” he muttered and kneed Traveler on to ride alone, feeling in pain, angry and darned well misunderstood.

When they arrived back at the ranch Mike ran out wide eyed and fearful when he saw his hero looking pale and shaken as he dismounted, then he staggered a little before Slim was at his side to support him into the ranch house.

“What happened to you!” cried the youngster looking frightened.

“It’s OK Tiger,” Jess said reaching out and ruffling the boy’s tousled blond mop, ”got me into an altercation with an ol’ cougar, but he came off worst, thanks to Slim here,” he said with a grateful smile, his previous ill humour forgotten now.

Then Daisy was there fussing around and gently scolding as she cleaned and bandaged the wound.

“Goodness me Jess dear you are in the wars lately, even for you! First that dreadful fall from the mustang, then being beaten up in town….not to mention all the distress about dear Millie….and now this, will there be no end to it?” she asked sighing and giving him a fond look.

“Slim reckons I’m paranoid and it’s nuthin’ to do with Boswell, all just a coincidence and run of bad luck,” he said soulfully.

“Nope I agree with you Jess I think it’s that curse Mister Boswell put on you…. I knew it would work I just knew it,” Mike said looking close to tears.

“Now Mike dear we’ve explained all about that,” said Daisy patiently,” there is no such thing as putting a curse on folk. I don’t know why Jess has been so unlucky lately but we just have to help him through it and hope it will all end soon.”

Then she turned troubled eyes to Slim.

“So did you find young Jody on your travels?”

“Oh no, don’t say he’s missing,” Jess interjected, ”we could sure use his help right now, do ya think he’s moved on then?”

“No,” said Slim, ”he left a note saying he was going to finish work on that fence that was down in the east pasture, must have left at first light but he wasn’t there when I checked earlier….”

“It’s OK,” Mike piped up, ”I saw him in the barn a few minutes ago, he just got back, but he was writing in that old journal he keeps and told me to get lost.”

“Thank goodness for that,” said Slim breathing a sigh of relief and then chuckling. ”I sure would like to know what he finds to write about every day in that diary of his.”

“Well don’t ask,” said Mike with feeling, “I asked and he went crazy and told me to mind my own business or else……!”

Chapter Seven

It was just a few days later when the so called ‘curse’ hit Jess yet again.

He was still limping badly from the cougar bite. He had wandered across the yard early one morning to loose the dogs out when Slim heard him calling and whistling out in the yard.

“What’s up Jess?” he asked as he hurried over.

“It’s Blue,” said Jess looking upset, ”he’s gone.”

Blue was Jess’s dog, a huge wolf, sheep dog cross and the best dang herding dog they’d ever owned everyone agreed. But he was more than just a working dog he was Jess’s constant companion and loyal friend after the dog had saved his life several years ago. Jess had been caught in a bear trap and would surely have died of hypothermia if old Blue hadn’t happened along and stayed with him, the animal’s dense fur keeping him warm through the bitter night until he was finally rescued the following day. Then when it transpired that the dog’s owner had died Jess had adopted him.

He was usually locked in the barn at night along with Mike’s little dog Buttons and now the critter leapt around Jess’s legs barking loudly, almost as though he was trying to tell them Blue had disappeared.

“He can’t have gone far,” said Slim, peering around him.

“Never mind that, how did he get out in the first place?” asked Jess looking perplexed.

Then a thought struck him, “Hell Slim iffen he’s wandered off alone he could end up shot, he looks more wolf than dog… I’ve gotta find him before anyone else does.”

“I’ll come with you,” and a few minutes later the men rode out, whistling and calling for the big grey dog.

It was much later that day when Slim admitted defeat.

“Come on Jess let’s turn back, we’ve yelled ourselves hoarse and there’s a storm brewing, what say we head for home…he may have landed back by now.”

Jess tipped his hat back and viewed the distant horizon.

“I just don’t get it Slim, the barn was all locked up and nobody could have gone in and taken him, he just wouldn’t go…and anyways he’d have barked enough to wake the dead iffen there’d been intruders.”

“Umm…. but not if he knew them Jess… what if it was someone he knew well and trusted?”

“Yeah, but who, it weren’t Daisy or Mike that’s fer sure and young Jody was over at the Mason place yesterday helping bring their stock down. The cougar attack had spooked the old man so he stayed overnight didn’t he….and he wouldn’t take the dog anyways…. No I’m wondering iffen Boswell is behind this too.”

Slim sighed heavily, ”Jess you’re getting obsessed with that man, as far as Mort knows he’s moved on,” he said shaking his head.

“Maybe he found out about Blue and rabbit stew,” Jess said thoughtfully, ignoring his pard’s dig at him.

The passion Blue had for Daisy’s rabbit stew was a standing joke at the ranch. Such was his love of it he would whine and drool every time it was served up and usually had to be removed from the room for being a complete pest….although his manners were excellent otherwise. Mose often joked about it and said who could blame the critter where Miss Daisy’s cookin’ was concerned.

“Mose could have said something in town.”

“Jess will you listen to yourself, you’re getting way too hung-up on this Boswell, he’s not taken your dog, now are you coming on home, before this darn storm breaks?”

Jess just shook his head stubbornly.

“Sam told me not to go back to the mustanging until this cat bite heals, so I can’t do much today, might as well keep lookin’ a while longer.”

“Jess, look pard I know how fond you are of the old fellah, but maybe he just got the call of the wild…. Got the scent of a cute lady wolf and somehow got out…..huh?”

“No…. someone’s taken him I’m sure…and I ain’t gonna find him sittin’ jawin’ with you….” then he sighed in frustration,” See yer later pard….tell Daisy to expect me when you see me,” and he kneed Traveler off at a brisk trot heading for the meadows beyond the lake where he and Blue often went rabbiting.

An hour later the thunder, that had been rumbling away all morning, finally came closer and closer, lightening splitting the now grey sky and then the heavens opened and a deluge followed soaking Jess to the skin in a matter of moments.

He cussed long and loud as to his stupidity for riding out without his rain slicker and was wondering as to the wisdom of giving up and riding home, before he was chilled to the bone, when he had a sudden vision of Blue cuddling up to him on that freezing night long ago when he had saved his life.

“Nope I ain’t giving’ up on yer yet boy,” he whispered and urged Traveler on through the downpour.

An hour or so later found him at the boundary with the Mason spread which was marked by a fast running stream in a gully between the two properties and Jess heaved to and looked around him. The storm had receded now leaving an eerie silence in its wake, the rain eased and mist rising as the sun broke through warming the soaking earth.

He again whistled and called before easing Traveler down the steep gorge towards the stream at the bottom, thinking he would water his horse before moving on.

He gave another ear splitting whistle……and then he finally heard something….a sort of low growl.

He listened intently and yelled again, “Blue…. Blue here boy….”

He was answered by a strange whining sound…..goddamn it, he’s hurt was his first thought after the initial elation of hearing him.

“Hang on I’m comin’,” he called and gently eased Traveler down the steep slope towards the bottom of the gully.

The whole area was shrouded in a thick grey mist and it was sometime before he eventually made out the dog’s outline through the haze. Tethered to a pine by a length of chain he was straining to get to his master and emitting little whimpers and as Jess approached he realised why the dog hadn’t barked…he was silenced by a bandana tied tightly around his muzzle.

He fell to his knees by the dog and tried to remove the bandana, but it was tied so tightly it was cutting into the dog’s nose and eventually he had to very carefully cut it away with his hunting knife and then he slipped the chain and the animal was freed.

Blue was so ecstatic at seeing his master that he bowled him over from where he’d been down on his haunches tending the dog. Jess was thrown on his back the dog bounding around him before settling down to attempt to lick him to death.

“Hey easy, easy boy,” Jess said laughing as he finally righted himself.

Then he checked the animal over.

His neck was raw where the chain had bitten into the skin and his nose had deep cuts from the dog trying to claw off the muzzle, but otherwise he seemed fine.

Jess led him to the stream where he drank his fill and once Traveler had been watered too, the trio turned for home, Blue capering around horse and rider, none the worse for his ordeal.

In fact by the time they finally arrived back at the ranch, Blue was in far better shape than his master as Jess was chilled to the marrow after his soaking earlier. His leg with the big cat bite was aching, his stomach rumbling after a day deprived of sustenance of any kind and his temper just about at boiling point.

Slim came running out to meet them followed by Daisy, and Blue jumped around them barking and prancing about as if he hadn’t seen them in months rather than just a day.

Slim made a fuss of the dog before turning to his pard, taking in his soaking wet and weary appearance.

“I’m sorry Jess; I should have stuck with you,” he said quietly. “Come on in pard and dry off.“

Once Jess had changed and eaten a late dinner he got up and Slim saw the determined look in his eyes.

“So where are you off to now?” he asked.

“Where do ya think to find that low life Boswell…Hell Slim, Blue would have died out there, no food or water and it were just lucky we had that storm because he couldn’t even pant properly to cool off!”

“Look just sit back down and we’ll talk it through,” said Slim placatingly.

Jess sighed deeply, but slumped back down in his chair.

Daisy entered the room from the kitchen then and sat down at the table next to the dark haired cowboy, gently placing a hand over his.

“Oh I know how upset you must be feeling dear, how much Blue means to you. But please wait and calm down, you’re still freezing cold,” she said squeezing the hand she held, ”and limping badly on that sore leg, don’t go getting into a scrap dear…please.”

“She’s right pard, you really don’t look up to it and besides nobody has seen Boswell all week, it’d just be a wild goose chase.”

Jess looked down and sighed, knowing the truth of it.

“So how long is Jody helping out old man Mason for?” He finally asked.

“He should be back tonight.”

“Well I’d better get about his chores then,” said Jess quietly and squeezing Daisy’s hand he gave her his cheeky grin and marched off to the yard, Blue at his heels.

However his light-hearted attitude denied how he was really feeling and by dusk he was shivering and feverish and thankfully retired to bed for an early night.

When Slim turned in several hours later he hid a smile as he saw Blue stretched out on Jess’s bed, his head and one paw on his chest, both of them snoring softly.

It’s a good job Mike can’t see this he thought, chuckling to himself, knowing how the youngster had an ongoing battle with the adults as to Buttons sleeping on his bed…the answer always being dogs should sleep out in the barn.

Then Blue awoke and peered up at Slim, showing the whites of his eyes in fear of being evicted.

Slim smiled down and reaching over patted him gently on the head.

“It’s OK boy, I guess you can stay just this once….” and was rewarded by the dog’s tail beating gently, before he stretched and then giving his master a cursory lick to the chin, settled down to sleep again.

Chapter Eight

Slim Sherman shifted in his seat opposite the Sheriff, accepted a coffee and then sat staring into it for a good minute.

“So what brings you over here so early Slim, it sure don’t look like a social call, from the way you’re staring at that coffee like it’s gonna up and bite you,” he said with a concerned glance.

Slim offered a weak smile.

“I wanted to talk to you about Jess, Mort …. I’m real worried about him.”


“Yeah, it’s this business with Boswell…Jess is so dang fired up about it all, I’m kinda worried he’s going to do something he’ll regret…this vendetta is on both sides I guess but if Boswell keeps on pushing him this way…..well, you know Jess”

“I heard about that supposed curse….an’ all the stuff that’s happened to Jess since but I figure you can’t lay all the blame at Boswell’s door. Yes I reckon he was responsible for beating Jess up…except there is no concrete evidence, and he could have paid someone to take that message about Millie…...or it could just have been a misunderstanding after Charlie and his Mrs had that set to in the saloon.”

“Umm, so what about his rifle being tampered with though Mort?”

Mort looked concerned.

“Yup that was bad and Burt said he didn’t recognise the kid who was messing about near Jess’s gear…But there again his eyes aren’t what they were, could have been anyone of the local miscreants after a bit of cash curtsey of Boswell… but it was just Jess’s bad luck he ran into that big cat.”

“So is that what you put it all down to then Mort, just bad luck?”

He shook his head, “Not all of it no…but some I guess.”

Then Slim went on to explain about the latest woe to befall his buddy.

Mort shook his head, ”I suppose that could have been Boswell too….he worked at your place so the dog would know him.”

“That’s right,” Slim agreed. ”I remember him talking to Mike once, he said’ take some advice boy as far as critters are concerned…either eat ‘em before they can eat you first…or dang well make friends with ‘em.’”

Mort laughed at that…”And so did he?”

“Yeah was forever feeding Blue treats, said you wanted a dang great critter like that to be on your side. So maybe he did get into the barn and take him…if he was offering treats….that ol’ dog would do pretty much anything for food.”

“Umm….pretty much like his owner then,” said Mort chuckling again.

Then he sobered, “So you think Jess is going to come into town and cause trouble?”

“I don’t think so, I know so Mort. The only thing stopping him right now is the wire we got from the army this morning. They want half the mustangs by the end of the week, so he’s working flat out…but once they’re delivered well…….”

Mort looked serious at that.

“I thought that white lie we’d been feeding him about Boswell moving on would have slowed him down some….but once Jess get’s real mad I guess there is no stopping him.”

“You’ve got that right,” Slim agreed sadly.

Mort sighed, ”And that ain’t the only problem you’ve gotten either Slim…that young Jody’s looking to get into trouble too.”

Slim’s head shot up at that and he looked astonished.

“How so…he never comes to town except with us.”

Mort shook his head, “Oh yes he does and been drinking and fighting too….got himself in with the Stockwell boys and I guess I don’t have to tell you about their reputation for hard drinking and getting into a mess of trouble.”

Slim looked astounded.

“All those night’s he’s said he’s beat and he’s turned in early, he’s really been going into town?”

Mort nodded in confirmation, “I figure you need a word Slim and there’s something else too.”

“Go on,” said Slim looking resigned.

“Old Ezra from the general store reckons the boy’s saving up fer a real slick shootin’ iron, put a deposit down apparently…well youngsters with attitude plus a precision weapon, plus alcohol is a real deadly combination and I don’t have to tell you that Slim.”

“No you don’t Mort….. I’ll speak to the boy.”


Slim arrived back at the ranch to find Jody up on the corral fence, looking sulky and Jess working on the mustangs.

As soon as Slim arrived Jody jumped down.

“I’ll get to mending that fence out behind the barn shall I boss?”

“Umm…. oh yeah, thanks Jody, that’s fine.”

As soon as he left Jess slipped down from the saddle and marched over looking furious.

“Where in hell have you been I told yer I didn’t want that kid watchin’ my back again I can’t trust him.”

“I know, sorry Jess I had some business in town.”

Jess just cussed at that looking even angrier.

“So I can get stomped on, but that’s OK as long as Mister Sherman get’s his business done….Garldarn it Slim you know I’ve gotta work around the clock, you sure picked a real swell time to go wanderin’ off”.

“I know, so how about a coffee, you look like you could use a break.”

Jess sighed, “Well yer don’t have ter be so dang agreeable about it do yer?”

Slim chuckled at that.

Jess vaulted the fence and Slim slung and arm around his shoulders, ”Come on pard we need to talk.”

“He did what!” Jess exclaimed.

“Not just the once, Mort says he’s been meeting up with the Stockwell boys regular, drinking, fighting, I just can’t believe it.”

“Well I can,” said Jess grimly ”let’s face it Slim, we didn’t know the kid when he first landed here and we don’t know him any better now.”

“Yes he sure keeps himself to himself,” Slim agreed.

“So maybe he’s gotten something to hide. Mike went over to the bunkhouse to collect his bedding for Daisy to wash this morning and Jody caught him in there and bawled him out, thought he was reading that darned journal,” Jess said.

Slim shook his head, ”Maybe he’s a secret writer, gathering evidence for a dime novel all about brave Jess Harper, ex gunfighter turned rancher!”

“Oh yeah, except iffen his Pa really was a sod-buster he probably spent most of his time on workin’ the land not in school learnin’ how to be a darned writer,” Jess replied.

Slim nodded in agreement.

“Anyway Mort thinks we should talk to him and who better than you.”

Jess’s head jerked up at that notion.

“Oh no I ain’t doin’ that! Besides the kid can’t stand me… I thought he was just kinda scared of me at first, but now”….he shook his head sadly, ”I caught him glarin’ at me the other day like he really loathed me and he’s so dang angry about something…..dunno what.”

“I still say you’re the man for the job though Jess.”

“Huh , so why me?”

“Because I reckon you can identify with him, know what he’s been going through having a tough upbringing and then losing his folks so young, going on the drift and all…..and …”

“And what?” asked Jess looking wary.

“Well you know all about getting into trouble too,” said Slim with a broad grin.

“Why you…..” and an unseemly scuffle ensued, until Daisy marched in from the kitchen and shooed them back out to work again.


It was after supper that night that Jess ran Jody to ground in the bunkhouse.

“Where have you been,” he asked as he strode in later that night, “didn’t Mike say I wanted a word with you?”

The boy just shrugged and threw Jess a belligerent look.

“So what do you want?” he asked, sinking down on his bunk.

Jess tried to ignore the disrespectful tone and took a seat opposite him on another bunk.

“Mort tells us you’ve been takin’ off to town and gettin’ in trouble,” he said, not being one to beat about the bush…”so what’s that all about then?”

“What’s it to you?” the youngster cried suddenly angry.

Jess leapt up and glared down at the boy.

“Less of your lip son, and ‘I’ll tell yer what it is to me, whilst you’re living under our roof and we’re payin’ your wages you act civil and that don’t include hightailing it off to town and gettin’ in trouble with those no hopers the Stockwells.”

“I ain’t your son,” he spat furiously, ”and the Stockwells are my friends…..and they don’t talk too highly of you either!”

“Well I guess they wouldn’t seeing as how I’ve helped the Sheriff round ‘em up and jail them more than once, and fer their own good too….Hell I don’t wanna see youngsters like that end up in prison or at the end of a rope….but they’re just too darned surly to listen to reason.”

“Yeah well you would pick on youngsters wouldn’t you seeing as how you shoot down innocent folk in the street!” the boy cried flushing up and looking livid.

“Huh?” said Jess looking astonished, ”Where in Hell’s that come from and where do yer get off cheeking me…haven’t we taken you in, fed you and given you a good wage…is this the way you thank Slim?”


“Sure it was him as persuaded me to agree to take you on, if it had been down to me you’d have walked that first day and I figure that’s just what you should have done too!”

“If that’s the way it is then I quit!” and he turned and ran out of the bunkhouse and strode off across the home meadow.

Jess shook his head sadly, ”Well done Harper you handled that real well,” he whispered to himself before turning back to the ranch.

“Quit! Hell Jess we need him right now, until you finish breaking those nags anyway!“

“I know, I know…guess I lost my rag with him, he was bein’ so dang cheeky Slim.”

“Uh…and so weren’t you ever lippy with your elders and betters Jess….?”

“Yeah, but were not talkin’ about me!”

Slim sank down onto a seat on the porch and Jess took the other one and they sat in silence looking out to the moonlit horizon.

Then after a while Slim turned to his partner, ”So maybe I was wrong all along, but I just wanted to help him….with him being on the drift and all. I thought maybe all he needed was a place to settle down and friendship…..like you did all those years ago.”

They exchanged a warm glance before Jess answered.

“Oh, I think Jody wants that deep down, I just think maybe he doesn’t know it right now.”

Then he gave his buddy a weary smile, ”I’ll talk to him again tomorrow, make him see sense…..”

Chapter Nine

Slim never discovered what Jess said to make Jody stay on until all the mustangs were broke, but whatever he did sure made the kid fall into line and there was no repeat of the previous bad behaviour in town.

However he was still taciturn and refused to open up about his past or really integrate with the family and so Slim decided that he would have to shelve his philanthropic ideals. But at least give the boy a decent wage so he had some cash to tide him over until he found his next job. He also hoped the youngster spent it on something worthwhile and not that slick hand gun he seemed to be hankering after.

Jess really got stuck into training the last mustang and by the end of the week all the horses were green broke and ready to go.

It had been agreed that a small platoon of troopers would help Jess herd the mustangs over to the garrison where the officer in charge would pay him in cash, as long as the critters came up to the army’s demanding standards.

Jess had dealt with Major Leroy on many occasions and the men had a mutual regard and respect for each other and so Jess didn’t anticipate any problems with the agreed deal.

He was invited to eat in the mess and enjoyed good food, drink and the company of the soldiers for some banter before heading out to meet with the Major.

“Excellent animals one and all,” said the major beaming at the horses, “you’ve excelled yourself yet again Harper and working against the clock too….many thanks for getting them here in time.”

“We still have another couple of months to green break the others?” he asked casting the older man an anxious glance.

“Oh yes certainly. There are a few problems up north and we need to send some extra new recruits up there at once hence the rush job….the others we can wait for.”

“Thank you sir,” said Jess politely, touching his hat in a little salute as he accepted the pouch of cash.

“You’re welcome…and er Harper, you’ll find a little extra there above the agreed price, for all your hard work.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that sir,” said Jess grinning back, “see you in a few weeks….”

He rode off feeling elated, I guess that ol’ curse of Boswells’ has finally run out he thought to himself, only half joking, yup his luck had certainly changed. He spent the next few hours conjuring up ways to spend his share of this unexpected windfall once he’d divided it out with the others.

It was late when he finally rode into the yard and once he’d dealt with his horse he made his way cheerfully into the warm and welcoming ranch house.

Slim grinned up at him from his seat by the fire.

“Welcome home pard, so how did it go?”

Jess smiled back, “Even better than we thought, askin’ price plus a real generous bonus fer getting the job done on time.”

“Heck that’s real good pard well done,” Slim enthused.

Then surprisingly Jody wandered in from the kitchen and gave Jess a weak smile.

“You want your supper Jess, kept it hot in the oven for you.”

“Thanks Jody,” Jess said raising an eyebrow at Slim as the youngster disappeared to get his meal.

“What’s gotten into him, kinda helpful ain’t he?” he whispered.

Slim nodded grinning, ”Yup sort of out of character isn’t it.”

Then the youngster returned and placed a steaming plate of spicy Mexican stew on the table.

Jess sniffed and grinned over at Slim, ”Great this should fill the gap,” and he sat down and started eating quickly.

“So where’s Daisy?” he asked through a mouthful of stew a while later.

“Oh, she’s not too good,” said Slim looking concerned, ”went to bed early with a bad head, so Jody there was cook tonight.”

“She’s OK though?” asked Jess looking suddenly anxious.

“Yes, she’ll be just fine after a good night’s sleep.”

“So how’s the meal Jess?”

“Umm…oh just great Jody, real spicy like I like it…thanks,” and he finished it off with relish.

Once the meal was finished and cleared away he showed Slim the money pouch before putting it safely in their secret hidey hole in the chimney breast.

Then Jody strolled back in from where he’d been doing the washing up in the kitchen and said he was off to bed.

“Thanks for the meal,” said Jess smiling at the boy.

“And doing the washing up too,” called out Slim as the youth went out through the door.

“Gee, I don’t know what you said to that boy, but he’s a changed character, cooking and washing up?” said Slim shaking his head in astonishment.

It was in the early hours of the morning when Slim was awoken by his partner groaning and swearing softly as he sat up in bed clutching his belly and then he made a dash out of the room to the outhouse where he spent most of the rest of the night.

When Slim awoke, his buddy was back in bed looking pale and shaky, a bucket place strategically beside him.

“What’s up Jess… you sick?”

Jess just rolled his eyes at that and then was groaning and retching again.

“Shall I fetch Daisy,” asked Slim looking on anxiously, ”or get some of her special medicine?”

“No….just leave me to die in peace will ya,” he finally managed.

Slim put his hands up in a gesture of appeasement, ”OK I’m going; you just rest up some huh.”

When he was still throwing up and looking like a ghost at the end of the day Daisy declared they should send for Doc Sam if he was no better in the morning.

“I just can’t understand it,” she said softly to Slim as the couple watched Jess sleeping finally, later that evening.

“Jody’s cooking didn’t upset anyone else and Jess is used to that Mexican food he was practically raised on it.”

Slim nodded, ”Maybe it was just kept hot for too long?”

Daisy shook her head, ”I just don’t know, but we’ve got a very sick boy on our hands Slim, it looks worse than just food poisoning to me, or at least a very bad dose.”


Doc Sam straightened up from where he’d been bending over his patient listening to his heart and cast Daisy a concerned look and shook his head slightly.

Jess’s eyes flickered open and he groaned softly and clutched his stomach.

“Is it still hurting really badly?”

“Yeah I guess so Sam…. like a knife twistin’ in my guts….and a fresh slick of sweat ran down his pale face.”

“Chucking up, feeling dizzy, stomach pains…..the runs, a fever and a real bad headache,” he said counting the symptoms off on his fingers, “is that it Jess?”

He just nodded, ”Enough ain’t it?”….and then rolled on his side, pulling his legs up as he again clutched his stomach and swore softly.

“Goddamn it Sam can’t yer give me somethin’?”

Slim exchanged a quick glance with the doc, knowing his pard must be in real pain to admit it that way.

“Sure I’ll leave some pain medicine with Miss Daisy. But it will be a day or two before you can keep it down I imagine. I’m really sorry Jess but you’re just going to have to ride it out I’m afraid,” and patting his buddy gently on the shoulder he left the sick room.

“Looks like you’re spot on Daisy it’s a real bad case of poisoning…. Looks to me like mushroom poisoning, I saw a similar case around here a while back, have you been frying them up for breakfast maybe?”

“Oh doctor how can you ask,” replied Daisy looking hurt, “you know I wouldn’t do that…all he’s had since his return is the Mexican dish that Jody made and we all ate that.”

Then she turned to where the youngster was hovering on the edge of the porch listening.

“Jess had exactly the same didn’t he dear?“

“Yes Ma’am,” said the boy quickly…

”No mushrooms sir,” he said turning to the doc.

“Umm…well keep him well hydrated Daisy, lots and lots of water and I’ll call by tomorrow.”

“He will be alright though?” Persisted Slim quietly

Sam looked uncomfortable.

“Too early to say Slim and we just don’t know what he’s eaten….maybe he cooked something up on the trail on the way home… I know he says not, but well one of the symptoms can be disorientation and forgetfulness. So, we’ll just have to take one day at a time and see how he goes,” and with a sad smile he left.

Unbeknownst to the adults Mike had crept out onto the porch and heard everything and now he looked distraught.

“It’s just like that gypsy man said in his curse,” he cried, ”he said as how Jess would be in pain and the folks as loved him would watch him hurtin’….it’s that curse,” and he burst into tears.

Daisy took control and whisking him off gave him a firm talking to mixed with kindness in equal proportions until he dried his tears and began to feel more himself.

“That’s better dear,” she said briskly, “now you go and help Slim and Jody with the chores whilst I tend to Jess and then you can sit with him later alright?”

The child nodded and ran off, before pausing and turning back.

“I guess it’ll take more than an ol’ mushroom to finish Jess,” he said more cheerfully, before running off to help out.

Meanwhile Slim stood on the porch looking out to the horizon….he remembered exactly what Boswell had said, “The Devil shall take you….you’ll suffer much misfortune until you pray for release by death…. This curse I lay upon you and those who you love shall watch you endure much pain and hardship!”

Then for the very first time he wondered if maybe …just maybe there really was some truth in the curse.

Later as he and Daisy took it in turns to bathe Jess’s fevered brow and watch him as he seemed to be in worse and worse pain, he began to really believe there was possibly something in it after all, had Jess really been cursed?

The following day when Sam visited again it was clear that Jess was in a bad way.

Not only was he in severe pain, but he also had a bad cold and was coughing and sneezing as well and feeling totally miserable.

“I’d really feel happier if he was back at my office,” he said as he looked down into Jess’s grey sweating face, ”no disrespect to your nursing ability Miss Daisy, but he really needs round the clock nursing.”

“But we can do that doctor,” said Daisy. ”It’s not like we haven’t done it before….there’s something else isn’t there?”

Sam took one last look at his restless patient and then motioned for Slim and Daisy to follow him out of the sickroom.

They sat around the table in the kitchen and Daisy poured coffee before the doctor spoke again.

“Mike’s at school?”

“Yes and Jody’s cleaning out the barn, we’re alone,” said Slim, looking anxious, “What is it Sam?“

“Jess is a very sick young man, I really think it is fungi poisoning and if they were found locally, then I can make a good guess as to the type, as I said we had a case just last month.”

“Oh yes, the women’s group were discussing it,” Daisy suddenly remembered, ”it was an elderly prospector…Jimmy….Jimmy Clyde that’s it,” she said looking pleased at having remembered the name.

Then her face fell….”But….oh Sam, but he died.”

Sam looked down and then met her eyes, ”Yes he did…these mushrooms are potentially deadly.”

Slim stood up quickly, gripping the table until his knuckles turned white, and uttered an oath before staring at the doc, his face a mask of horror, “Are you telling us we’re going to lose him Sam?”

“No….no, not necessarily, Mister Clyde was elderly and not too fit either. Jess has youth and strength on his side, not to mention that dadgum stubborn streak,” he said with a small smile.

“So there is hope then?” asked Daisy.

Sam nodded, ”The reason I wanted to take him back to town was because…. If the worst happens, when the end comes it can be very distressing, not only for the patient, but those nursing him and I just didn’t want to put you good folks through that.”

“How”…..Slim swallowed and tried again…”how does the patient….die?”

“Respiratory failure…can’t breathe and they suffocate….. I’m sorry to be so frank Slim, but you need to know….so do I make up a bed in my buggy and drive him back with me?”

Daisy and Slim spoke as one…. ”No!”

“No,” said Daisy again, ”I am quite capable of nursing him Sam, you know that and the prognosis you suggest will not happen, I’ll make sure of that,” and without another word she rose and made her way back into the bedroom.

Slim and Sam exchanged a sad smile, ”You heard the lady….and anyway Sam whatever happens I’m not about to give up on him….“

Then he said more softly, ”And if its God’s will he dies, well then he’ll do it here, surrounded by those who care about him.

Sam just patted his arm, feeling profoundly moved by the selfless act of Jess’s adopted family.

“I’ll be around tomorrow, just send for me if he gets any worse….”

Once the doctor had left Slim entered the bedroom quietly and saw Daisy standing looking down at Jess who was now rolling his head on the pillow and groaning softly, coughing, obviously in some pain and distress too. Her old eyes were brimming with tears and Slim immediately strode over and flung a comforting arm around her shoulders.

“I’m sorry dear,” she whispered, “it’s not like me to get upset….I’m just being silly.”

He shook his head.

“Not you Daisy, I figure you know exactly how ill he is….and who can blame you for feeling this way.” Then he shook his head sadly, ”I just can’t believe it’s come to this…a shootout, bad fall from one of those wretched mustangs, maybe….but to go this way…and why, how did it happen?” he asked turning anguished eyes on his beloved housekeeper.

“Hush dear, we mustn’t give up hope, you sit with him a while, try and get him to drink some water when he awakes. I’ll go and fetch some clean sheets and make some hot lemon for that nasty cough….as though food poisoning isn’t bad enough,” she lamented, ”he has to get a streaming cold as well.”

“He never does anything by halves does he,” said Slim bitterly.

Once she’d gone Jess’s eyes flickered open and he gave his buddy a quizzical look.

“Things must be pretty bad to have Daisy in tears…an’ you about to give up on me,” he croaked.

Slim looked uncomfortable, ”I thought you were out of it.”

Jess ignored that…”So the doc don’t think I’m gonna make it then?”

Slim sighed and slumped down on the edge of the bed…”The stuff you’ve eaten can be fatal yeah, but what the doc actually said was that with your stubborn streak, you were in with a good chance.”

Jess took this on board and then gave his buddy a speculative look,” So iffen you were a betting man, what odds would you give me?”

“Jess, for God’s sake don’t!” Yelled Slim looking appalled.

Jess shrugged, ”I just wondered,” and then he was doubling up in pain and all Slim could do was rub his back gently and offer words of comfort until the spasm passed.

When he could finally speak again he wiped his arm across his face now dripping in sweat and whispered, “So do ya believe in Boswell’s curse now pard?”

Slim looked him in the eye and after taking a deep breath and mentally crossing his fingers, said….”No, you?”

Jess shrugged, “Nope I guess not…..but I can’t figure this Slim…if the doc’s right and I’ve been poisoned deliberate…..well who done it?”

Before Slim could answer Daisy bustled in and started changing the bed and fussing around Jess and so it was later that night before the men talked again.

“Maybe the doc was right Jess and you cooked something up on the trail…and just forgot about it.”

Jess just rolled his eyes at that, “Oh sure I go an’ pick a mess of poisonous mushrooms, when you know I never touch mushrooms of any kind….. I hate darned mushrooms, fry ‘em up, eat ‘em and then forget all about it…..yeah right”.

“So what’s the alternative pard, Boswell sneaked in our kitchen and put ‘em in your dinner when nobody was looking?”

Jess thought about that and then turned to look at his buddy, ”No but Jody could have done it, suppose Boswell paid him real good, after all you did say he was hankerin’ after that iron in the store.”

Slim shook his head firmly, ”No he just wouldn’t do that Jess. He’s basically a good kid, I really don’t believe he’d harm you at any price…..what try and kill a man for the price of a gun…no definitely not.”

“Umm…‘suppose not…so I guess we’re back to that ol’ gypsy curse,” he said with a grim smile, before it turned to a grimace as the grinding pain struck his gut once more.

That was the last meaningful conversation they had for a while.

Chapter Ten

The following morning when Slim awoke and offered some water, Jess just groaned and turned over.

“Leave me alone will yer,” he whispered, closing his eyes tightly, in obvious pain.

Slim looked down feeling completely helpless.

“OK pard, you rest up I’ll come check on you later,” but there was no answer.

It was still very early when he emerged from the bedroom and he was surprised to see Jody standing near the fireplace.

“You’re the early bird, what’s up Jody, couldn’t sleep?”

“No, it’s not that Slim, I just figured you could all do with some extra help around the house , what with Jess being so sick and all, thought I’d come in and light the fire before I start the yard chores.”

“That’s really thoughtful of you thanks buddy,” said Slim looking pleased.

“So, how is he today?”

“Umm…oh not so good, doc reckons its touch and go…just have to hope and pray I guess.”

“But…I thought those mushrooms were real killers, so there is some hope then?” he said looking anxious.

“The doc’s not sure exactly what he’s eaten so it’s difficult to say,” replied Slim seriously, ”but Jess’s is a fighter ,he’s in with a chance. The doc will help him out if he gets any worse, I know he’ll come at once if we need him urgently and I’ve every faith in Sam….so try not to worry huh.”

When Daisy came in later he seemed to be sleeping peacefully so she tiptoed out again and it wasn’t until later that morning that Slim ventured back into their shared room.

As soon as he entered he sensed something was wrong and as he walked over to the bed he heard the rasping breaths Jess was taking and looking down saw he was struggling to breathe, his face ashen and a faint blue line around his lips.

“Daisy, Daisy come in here!” he yelled in panic before slumping down on the bed a gentle hand on his friend’s chest.

“It’s OK Jess take it easy, just try and breathe real slow….”

Jess’s eyes were open wide in panic and Slim could feel his heart pounding where his hand rested lightly.

Then Daisy was there taking in the situation in seconds, “Oh no,” she whispered under her breath before rushing to the bedside.

“Quickly Slim, help me to get him sitting up and support him with his pillows, yours too.”

Once he was upright, his colour became a little better.

Daisy put a hand on his naked torso and said gently, ”Now I want you to concentrate Jess. Breathe from down here, the bottom of your chest, breath in as deeply as you can and really slowly, just relax you’re safe, I’m here and I won’t leave you…now come on breathe for me….”

She carried on talking softly to him until the breathing was slightly more normal, although he was still coughing and found it impossible to speak.

Slim threw Daisy an anguished glance above his pard’s head, eyebrows arched in question.

Daisy knew exactly what he meant, although the words were left unspoken…. “Is this the end of the line?’

She shook her head and whispered, “I don’t know…but you must ride for the doc Slim.”

The tall rancher turned to go…and then turned back.

“I can’t…. can’t leave you alone Daisy….if this is the ……” he stopped, ”I need to be here,” he finished, ”I’ll send Jody.”

She nodded, knowing that if this was indeed the end for Jess…well then Slim would want to be at his side….

“I understand dear,” she said quietly, ”tell Jody to ride over to the Patterson place. Ma Patterson is due any day now, Sam said he was visiting there on his first call of the day and then would come here, Jody can bring him back within the hour.”

When an hour came and went and Jess was still in distress Slim could stand it no longer.

He’d been pacing around the room and paying frequent visits to the porch where he scanned the rise for a sign of the doctor’s ancient buggy, but nothing.

Now he looked down at his friend, struggling for breath and couldn’t bear to watch him suffering any longer.

“I don’t know where that darned boy’s got to,” he said to Daisy, ”but I figure I’d better go over myself.”

She nodded, ”Oh please do dear; Jess is in real need of the doctor. He’ll know how to deal with this better than I do….”

He nodded and then looking into Jess’s terrified eyes, he leaned over and squeezed his shoulder gently.

“Don’t you go anywhere pard,” he whispered, “I’ll fetch the doc back directly, just hang on……”

When Slim arrived at the Patterson spread half an hour later he was greeted by the sound of a new born, crying lustily and the door was thrown open by a joyous looking Jed Patterson.

“Why Slim, good to see you neighbour, come to wet the baby’s head have you?”

Slim shook his head…” Not really Jed….I’d be happy to have a drink with you to welcome the baby sometime real soon….But right now I need the doc…Is he still here?” he asked anxiously.

“Sure…come on in he’s nearly done.”

Slim entered and then said, ”So Jody explained Jess was sick, real sick did he?”

Jed looked puzzled. ”Jody? Oh yeah that new kid you’ve taken on…nope ain’t seen hide nor hair of the kid…why should I have done?”

Slim just gaped at him in shock.

Then Jed took in what Slim had just said….”Jess is sick you say, well I’ll fetch the doc…I’m sorry Slim I didn’t know.”

“I just can’t understand it,” Slim said again as the pair made their way hurriedly towards the ranch, ”Why ever would he not come and fetch you?”

“You said yourself he wasn’t much of a horseman, maybe he’s had a tumble Slim, limping home as we speak.”

Slim shook his head, ”No we’ve given him Betsy to ride and Jess reckons you could put your old granny up on her safely.”

Then at the mention of his buddy’s name his face fell…”Come on Sam, he really didn’t look like he was going to last when I rode out,” and the men hurried on, both with a look of grim determination in their eyes.

Sam marched into the bedroom and cast Jess an anxious glance.

It was obvious he was in great distress unable to breathe properly, his lips blue and face deathly pale as he lashed around on the bed fighting for breath.

“Oh thank God doctor,” Daisy cried as they entered.

“He has acute breathing difficulties, is confused, and barely recognised me just now. I’ve just tried to keep him calm,” she said finally, ”all I could think to do.“

“You’ve done the right things Daisy, sitting him up and trying to talk him through it,” said Sam giving her his warm look, before slipping down onto the edge of the bed and turning his full attention on the patient.

“Jess….Jess buddy, Sam here you know me, your doc….yes…? I just need to check you over.”

Jess’s eyes flickered open and he made an effort to answer, but it just ended in a paroxysm of coughing, the tears streaming down his face.

“How long has he been coughing this way?” asked Sam, digging about in his bag for his stethoscope.

“A couple of days, but not so bad, we thought he’d just picked up a cold,” said Slim, looking anxiously at his partner.

Sam listened to Jess’ chest intently and then turned his stethoscope to his back again listening to the laboured breathing and finally a smile spread across his face.

“Daisy will you fetch a basin of boiling water and a large towel please,” he said briskly and she scuttled off to do as she was bid.

“What is it Sam?” asked Slim looking apprehensive.

The doctor straightened up and smiled again.

“Good news my friend, I believe Jess is suffering from a severe chest infection, he’s gotten himself a bad cold or maybe even flu and because he’s been lying around with this food poisoning the infection has settled on his lungs and that’s why he can’t get his breath.”

“So that’s good news?”

“It’s not the end stages of the poisoning, not lung failure so yes I reckon it’s pretty good news.”

“You think he’s over the worst of the poisoning then?”

“That’s correct, Jess’s lungs aren’t failing and I really think…..” then he broke off, ”Ah, there you are Daisy my dear,” and the next hour or so was spent in tending the patient.


“So let me get this right Sam,” Slim said as the good doctor finally left the sickroom and joined him by the fireside, “You say that this inhalation of steam will clear Jess’s lungs eventually and he’ll be OK?”

“Hopefully yes, I think the poison has passed through his system now and if it was going to have fatal consequences…well I guess we’d have seen them by now. No it’s just unfortunate that he’s contracted this flu and the symptoms he was showing were very similar to failure of the lungs…. I guess he picked it up on his trip to the garrison, apparently they’re going down like flies over there.”

Slim looked quite bewildered as he tried to make sense of everything, his buddy was at death’s door, or so it had seemed and now…”but he will be OK though?”

“Oh yes, even though he is in a somewhat weakened state I believe he will get over it reasonably quickly, he’s looking better and breathing much more easily already.”

“Thank God,” Slim whispered, and then he leaned over and pumped his friend’s hand, ”Thank you so much Sam.”

It was much later, when Jess was sleeping peacefully and Sam was enjoying a coffee that Slim remembered about Jody.

“Where in Hell can that boy have gotten to,” he muttered, “Even if he’d had a spill he should be home by now?”

“Oh Slim dear maybe you should go and look for him…he could be lying hurt somewhere,” Daisy cautioned.

Slim sighed feeling completely drained after the trauma of the day, but agreed.

“I guess you’re right Daisy, anything could have happened, maybe a rattler spooked old Betsy or something.”

Sam offered to help him look and both men were rising to leave when they heard a horse trotting into the yard.

Slim heaved a sigh of relief and went to the door.

“Come on in boy, I guess you’ve got some explaining to do,” he said throwing the door wide open, only to see Mort Cory standing there looking troubled.

“Mort….come in,” he said quickly, then looking anxious, ”Is it Jody, has he had an accident?”

“Huh…accident nope, he looked right as rain when I saw him in town a few hours ago. No I was visiting the Patterson place on business and Jed was saying that Jess was real sick, so thought I’d call by, pay him a visit,” he said looking concerned.

“That’s really thoughtful of you Mort, but I’m afraid my patient’s sleeping right now, best thing for him.”

“Oh sure, as long as he’s OK, that’s the main thing ain’t it.”

“Look come in Mort, I need to know about young Jody,” said Slim brusquely, barely hiding his anger.

Mort came in and took a seat by the fire, and accepted a coffee from Daisy.

“Thank you Ma’am.”

Then he turned his attention back to Slim.

“The kid was in the general store buying that iron he had his heart set on and top of the range gun belt, holster, ammo…. I guess you’re paying him too dang much Slim,” he said with a grin.

“More importantly what in Hell….err excuse me Daisy….what the heck was he doing in town when he knew Jess was so dang ill and in need of the doc?”

“Huh…. he’s that bad?” asked Mort looking troubled.

“No…he’s on the mend now,” Sam reassured him, ”but these good folk surely thought the end was in sight and Jody knew that too…..how strange he should go off that way.”

“Strange,” yelled Slim, ”more like dang feckless, what was he thinking!”

“Hush dear, Jess is sleeping, time enough for recriminations when the boy arrives back home, let’s just rejoice that Jess seems to be over the worst.”

Slim hung his head looking embarrassed, “Yes, you’re right of course Daisy,” and the conversation moved on to the Patterson’s recent happy event.

Chapter Eleven

When Jody still hadn’t returned the following day Slim rode into town, but the youngster seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

Yes agreed Ezra from the mercantile, he was in yesterday and bought a colt.45, gun belt and ammo.

Yes he paid cash on the nail. And no he didn’t seem to be particularly worried about anything, he seemed in good spirits.

Next Slim marched over to the Livery and after a while Burt shuffled out from the back.

“Ah Slim, good to see you. I expect you’ve come to pick up old Betsy have you, been eating me out of house and home, sure got a good appetite on her that old girl.”


“Betsy, that boy you hired left him here…Johnny…Jon, no….Jody that’s it, never forget a name you know Slim, no sireee…..and my daddy before me…I remember when…..”

“Burt,” Slim yelled cutting in….”so where’s the kid now?”

“Umm…dunno Slim, just said he’d finished at the ranch, was leaving old Betsy fer you to collect and then he vamoosed.”

“Yeah, but where to Burt….did he buy a horse, leave on the Stage what?”

“Couldn’t tell you Slim, he just left the horse, I put her in the stall and by the time I got back he’d gone.”

Mort couldn’t shed any light on the youngster’s whereabouts either.

“I just can’t figure it,” said Slim sadly,” I thought he was a good kid at heart. Kinda ornery I’ll admit, there was something troubling him I’m pretty sure…..But to go off like that and leaving without fetching the doc, well it just doesn’t make sense.”

“So how is Jess?”

Slim shook his head and grinned broadly.

“Miss Daisy had to get real sharp with him this morning. He wanted to get up for breakfast and was demanding bacon and beans and gut rot coffee.”

Mort chuckled,” So what did he get?”

“Tucked up in bed so dang tight he can’t move and some warm milk.”

Mort really laughed at that news, ”Gee I sure wouldn’t wanna be at your place right now Slim, he’ll be madder than a wet hen! He’s unbelievable ain’t he,” the sheriff continued shaking his head as he refilled Slim’s coffee cup. “There he was practically ready to meet his Maker yesterday and today he wants to be up and at it….he sure is one tough cookie.”

“Don’t know about that Mort, but he sure as hell is one difficult hombre to live with…You should have heard him cussing this morning and once he gets wind of Jody doing a runner….well….”and they both grinned.


“What…..he’s done what!”

“Look Jess he’s a free agent I guess, can’t blame him for wanting to move on….I just wish he’d chosen a better time.”

“Umm, well I guess it’s dang lucky I’ve only got this bad chest,” he said wheezing slightly, ”iffen I really had been dying I reckon it would’ve been all over before Sam arrived and that would have been down to the kid.”

Slim just nodded, “I just can’t figure it, why would he do that?”

“We didn’t get on too well did we? I guess he didn’t give a damn…..anyways, the kid’s lit out so I’m gonna have ter git myself better real quick, still got the last few of those dang horses to break yer know Slim.”

“Umm, well at least school’s out for summer next week so Mike will be around to help, that’s something.”

Jess nodded enthusiastically, “Yup he sure is getting to be real useful around the place now he’s a mite older.”

It was a few days later and Jess was up and about again, sitting by the fire with Slim who was having a mid-morning break.

“No Jess, you’re to rest up to the end of the week like Sam said, you’re still coughing, now stop your moaning and drink your coffee,” Slim said fiercely, the twinkle in his eye belying his gruff tone.

A few minutes later Daisy bustled in, her arms full of dirty washing and Slim jumped up at once, ”Can I give you a hand Daisy?”

“No, it’s alright dear, I’ve just been over to the bunkhouse to get Jody’s bedding and I’ve turned the mattress as it doesn’t look like he will be back, only I found this beneath it,” and she passed over a thick, leather bound journal.

Slim took it from her and looked inside the cover, “Yes it’s his alright, got his name in the front…” and then he stopped.

“What is it pard?”

“Looks like you might have been right about him all along Jess; it says here his name is Jody James…not Jones.”

“Oh, what else does it say?” asked Jess with interest.

Daisy grabbed the book back from Slim and put it over in the bookcase.

“You boys can’t read that it’s private. I shall leave it right here in case he returns for it,” she admonished before marching off to do the washing.

“I wonder if it says where he got all the money to pay for that iron and smart new holster,” Jess said with a smirk,” because he sure didn’t get enough wages to cover it.“

“Yeah, I’ve been wondering that too,” said Slim thoughtfully, “at the poker table maybe?”

It was a few of days later before they had an answer to that particular question.

Jess had made a remarkable recovery and decided to accompany Daisy on her usual weekly shopping trip to town.

He had remembered he’d placed the mustanging money in their hidey hole in the chimney breast on the day he was struck down with the poisoning and now he went to retrieve it, ready to bank it in town…..but when he looked it wasn’t there.

He strode out into the yard and found Slim busy shoeing one of the Stage line horses.

“Did you bank the mustanging money Slim?”

“What?” he asked frowning over from the other side of the forge.

“The money that was in the chimney, did yer bank it?”

“Heck no, I’d forgotten all about that. I figure I was too dang worried as to whether my best buddy was going to last the course,” he said gruffly, ”heck Jess I can’t do everything.”

“You’re missing the point pard…it ain’t there, it’s gone.”

“Gone, it can’t be!” and throwing down his tools he charged into the house and peered into the gap in the chimney which they used as a safe.

Then he swivelled around to face Jess as he entered, “Garldarn it….the money’s gone!”

Jess threw him an impatient glance, ”Well I said so didn’t I?”

Slim shook his head in bewilderment, ”Who could have taken it….heck there’s only you me, Daisy and young Mike that knows about it…..and it isn’t any of us…so who?”

Then he looked very thoughtful.

“What is it pard?”

“Jody….he was here the night you came home, cooking the meal. He could have seen us putting it in there….and then one day when you were real sick, I caught him in here, right by the fire. He said how he’d come in to help out seeing as you were so sick, offered to light the fire for us……”

Jess threw him an incredulous look, ”And you swallowed that?”

“Look Jess, you were real bad, heck me and Daisy really thought you weren’t going to make it, I guess I just felt kind of pleased he was helping out.”

“Oh he helped alright,” said Jess grimly, ”helped himself to our hard earned cash… and when I get hold of him….”

“And how do you propose to do that he’s been gone for several days and we don’t know where to even start looking….”

“Well I reckon it’s about time we took a read of his journal,” said Jess bitterly pacing over to the bookshelf.

“Daisy won’t like it,” Slim murmured.

“Hang it all Slim, we’ve gotta find the kid and there may be a clue in here as to where he’s gone.”

“I guess you’re right, bring it over then.”

Both men poured over it for a few minutes but Jess’s reading skills didn’t stretch to Jody’s tiny intricate script and he gave up after a while, ”I can’t make head nor tail of that,” he complained.

“What’s up pard, can’t read it just because his hand doesn’t resemble a dying spider crawling across the page like yours does?”

“Aww Slim, just read the darned thing to me will yer.”

Slim licked his lips and threw his partner an anxious look, “Why do I get the feeling this is going to end in tears.”

“Just read it Slim!”

“Ok….umm…it starts way back a couple of months ago….”

‘Ma is so sick and I just know it’s trying to hold everything together here that has done it. What with the drought killing most of the crops and then that dumb house cow dying on us… I guess that was the last straw for her…. I know she’s going to die just like Pa did. Hell it’s over a year now and we still miss him something fierce. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had to stay and keep the place going I guess I’d go find that bastard that gunned down my daddy in cold blood….I’ll get him one day… I swear.

“It sounds like he was having kind of a rough time,” said Slim looking up, “his Pa dead and his Ma real sick…”

“Yeah, yeah, so that gives him licence to play us for a pair of fools and rob us blind does it?” asked Jess angrily.

“Oh come on Jess….he’s lost his family same as you and by the sounds of it his Pa died by the hand of a murderer, can’t blame the boy for being kind of bitter….I thought you’d be the first to understand that.”

“Umm…but I thought he told you his Ma and Pa died in a buggy accident, so he lied about that for starters….what else did he lie to us about Slim?”

“The next entry says….Ma is dying and I can’t stay, the doc is here and I’m off to get that loco son of a bitch as gunned down Pa.”

“Sounds like he means business,” said Slim, before he continued.

‘Well, I’m in! They caught me last night, but the blond one Slim has said I can stay… I reckon he’s a sucker for a poor down-and-out kid like me. I’ve just gotta get my feet under the table and then I can do what I came for, get him, kill him like he killed Pa!’

Jess and Slim exchanged a puzzled glance.

“Get who?” asked Slim.

“I dunno, the ‘bastard as gunned down his daddy’ I guess….seems like he thinks it’s one of us.”

“So is it?” asked Slim with a raised eyebrow.

“Well it sure ain’t you,” replied Jess with a grim smile, ”hardly your style to gun down anyone in cold blood, me neither…unless there was the small matter of life and death…his or mine that is….but I don’t recall anyone called James….do you?”

Slim shook his head and resumed reading the diary.

‘Had my chance today, Sherman rode out and left me watching out for Harper, who was breaking a wild mustang. Then all my prayers were answered, he fell and then the critter stomped on him real good and would have finished him I guess, iffen Sherman hadn’t rode up to rescue him. I just played dumb and said I was real scared and couldn’t move.’

“What in hell,” yelled Jess as the full implication of what was written finally hit home, ”it’s me…it’s me he’s after ain’t it Slim!”

“Looks that way…so do you recall a man named James, from about 18 months ago?“

“No, can’t say as I do…… but hang on Slim there was that shoot out back in Cheyenne, that would be about the right time….Sure I downed a guy as was turning over the bank…but I think his name was something different….Pete Jackson…..Johnson… somethin’ like that?”

“Well may be Jody isn’t the only one to change his name,” suggested Slim.

“So go on, what else does he say?”

‘Harper took me to town today and I hate to say it but we got on real good. We went to the saloon and he’s gotten a really lovely girl, acts just like a regular guy, I have to remember he is a killer…..I can’t get outer my mind the way he was over the boots either. It seems like he’s had it real tough too…..but no…..he killed my daddy and he’s gonna get what’s coming to him…. I can’t forget that…it’s for Ma and Pa that I’ve got to see this through.

Anyway, then a man called Boswell landed, who hates him as much as me I guess….I made an excuse to leave and met up with him. I told him the time and place Harper would be seeing his girl and Boswell is set to get him. With Boswell and his buddies I figure Harper won’t have much chance, may save me a job!

“What…so it was young Jody that set me up with the Boswells….’

I figured iffen that ol’ mustang didn’t do the trick then those bastards would see him off.

“He sure is resourceful,” Slim said.

“Yeah, right….so he got Boswell to do the dirty work for him.”

“Umm….sounds that way Jess, just lucky that Mort and I landed in the ally when we did or Boswell might have come back and finished the job.”

“So what else does he say?”

“Right OK……umm, so the next entry says:”

He’s better now, was really beat up bad but bounced back and I feel so dang mad… I just want to hurt him so much. Then I figured there’s more than one way to hurt a man, so I decided to say his girl was real sick as I knew that was probably the last thing he’d want to hear. They all went off fishing and then I made up the tale about this drifter saying as how Miss Millie was shot…and boy the look on Harper’s face was worth it!

“Garldarn it Slim, the kid set me up……Hell I was so darned worried…..just wait until we catch up with him, he’ll be sorry he messed with me, I’ll tell yer…!”Jess exploded.

“Jess calm down, sure I can see you’re real mad….but maybe there was a reason for all this?”

“Slim will you stop being so dang reasonable…You can see what he wanted to do to me…..Hell an’ you’re defending him?”

“Look I’m just trying to put myself in his place……Look how you felt about the Banisters, how darned mad you were, spending all those years trying to bring them to justice for what they did to you and your kin….Can’t you at least begin to understand how he’s feeling?”

“That’s different Slim and you know it, they were danged outlaws. I was deputising for the Sheriff and God knows I wouldn’t have killed the guy unless he’d left me no choice.”

“So what happened, you never really told me.”

“Maybe that’s because I wasn’t too happy about it,” Jess replied honestly. He sighed and went and slumped down in his rocker from where he’d been trying to decipher the diary over Slim’s shoulder.

“It was over in Cheyenne….. Johnson…Pete Johnson, that was his name and he was a sod-buster. I recall that now. Got himself into a mess financially, the Sheriff said later, but he never mentioned he’d got a family….a kid. Hell I’d have visited iffen I’d known, offered to help them out or something,” he said with a vague shrug.

“Yeah, I know you would’ve pard,” Slim said sincerely.

“Anyways he was about as good at robbin’ banks as I am at darning socks….and it all went terribly wrong.”

“What happened Jess?”

“He panicked and when the teller was kinda slow opening the safe he…..he shot him. I figure he only meant to wing him…..seein’ as how dead tellers don’t open safes,” he said bitterly.

“Anyways he was about as good at aiming as he was at planning bank raids and he killed the poor bastard.”

Slim sucked in a deep breath, ”And then?”

“First I knew about it someone tore into the Sheriff’s office and said the bank was being held up.” He gave a grim smile at that, “I remember thinkin’ that’s typical. Ol’ Sheriff Masters goes to visit his sick Ma and all hell’s let loose…..The dang jail was already full of drunks and trouble makers.”

“So, go on you headed down there?“

“Yup, just in time to see him running out of the bank.”

“I drew on him and told him to drop his iron and he fired at me…went about a mile wide, so I warned him again, but he just kept on firing and then dang me he got lucky and caught me in the left arm…”

“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten you came home with your arm in a sling,” said Slim with a faint smile.

“Not surprising you forgot, seeing as how it’s a pretty regular occurrence,” Jess replied with an answering smile.

Then he sobered, “Anyways I wasn’t about to stand around letting him use me for target practice, so I winged him and he fell…….”

“And then?”

“He went sorta berserk, drew a second gun and started shootin’ randomly at me…the crowd that had gathered……. anything that darned well moved.”

“And so….”

“So I killed him Slim! Hell he’d just narrowly missed a little girl as was passing by on the other side of the street. He just wasn’t safe and iffen I hadn’t downed him I guess he’d have taken a few others along with him before the end came….. I had no damn choice!”

Slim reached over and patted his arm gently, ”I can see that now Jess, take it easy pard….”

“I wonder what story the kid was told…he sure hates me don’t he.”

“Sounds like he was told a whole bundle of lies if he thinks you just gunned down his Pa in cold blood…..”

Slim turned back to the diary, “Do you want me to read some more?”

Jess just nodded, then said, “Yeah well you would pick on youngsters wouldn’t you seeing as how you shoot down innocent folk in the street!”

“Huh, what was that Jess?”

“I’ve just remembered that’s what Jody said to me when I was tearing him off a strip fer going off to town and getting in trouble, he got real mad at me and said that….I didn’t pay no heed at the time, just thought he was sounding off…..but now it all makes kinda sense.”

Slim continued reading the diary to himself, until he came to another relevant passage.

“Hey listen to this Jess.”

‘I went to town that night hoping to get a glimpse of Harper and see how upset he was, but I didn’t dare show my face in the saloon while he was there, what with him having gotten the idea that I’m under age, would make me look a real fool in front of my friends…Even if he is right. But I can’t help being only just turned fifteen….and I won’t be a kid forever. In fact I figure once I get hold of that gun I’ve set my heart on I’ll really be a man! Anyway as soon as I heard the rumour about there being a big cat heading for Sherman land I knew just what to do and scuppered his rifle…It was a real near thing because that old fool Burt nearly caught me….Couldn’t believe that it paid off so quickly and he was mauled….just a damn shame Slim went and rescued him again….maybe I should get rid of them both.

Slim raised an eyebrow at that, “Oh great I’m in his bad books now,” he said with a chuckle…..

“Hell this ain’t no laughing matter Slim. Iffen he was responsible for all this then it must have been him as poisoned my supper too.”

It didn’t take Slim long to peruse the diary and confirm the fact.

Yeah, had picked them a few days earlier when he heard folk talking about the old timer dying from eating poisoned mushrooms and then quote , ‘It was real easy to sneak them into his meal and the added spices hid the taste…anyway he ate it so darned fast I doubt he tasted it at all. Then I was gutted when Slim said that he was in with a chance. I can’t keep failing I have to do this for Pa, that’s why I’m going to take the mustanging money and go buy that gun. Did they really think I didn’t know their stupid hiding place…nearly gotten caught by Slim when I was getting it and that’s when I decided to hightail it out. I’m going to hide this journal where they’ll find it eventually, but by then I’ll have shot Harper…and maybe I’ll be dead too…but at least they’ll know why when they finally read this….that I did it for my Pa.’

“I figure he hadn’t taken into account Daisy’s fastidious nature,” said Slim with a grin,” as though she’d let used sheets lie around any length of time.”

Jess ignored the banter and looked thoughtful.

“You know I figure we don’t have to go chasing after him to get the money back. I reckon he’ll find us…well me anyways.”

“What…… you think he’ll really try for a shootout with you? Hell Jess he’s a crazy kid alright, but I didn’t have him down as plumb suicidal.”

“What you think I’d really shoot him?”

“You might not have any choice if he draws on you pard.”

“That ain’t gonna happen I’m way too fast for him. I’ll have his gun off of him before he has a chance to even think on drawin’ on me….No our problem is convincing old Ezra from the mercantile to give us our money back on that gun and fancy holster,” he said with his cheeky grin.

Then Jess frowned, ”What about the dog…Blue did he take him too?”

Slim resumed his search of the tome….”Yup, lured him away with some left over rabbit stew.”

Jess nodded, “Yeah had to be…..”

Then he struck his forehead, ”Garldarn it Slim you know what this means…..”


“Well none of this, except the beating, was down to Boswell! I’ve been bad mouthing him all over town…I figure I’d better go find him and eat one huge helping of humble pie.”

Slim nodded, ”That would be real big of you Jess….and anyway look on the bright side at least you aren’t really cursed.”

“Well I never thought I was ….why did you?”

“No, of course not!”

“Liar!” they cried in unison before collapsing in helpless laughter.

“So you’re really going to see him?” asked Slim once they’d recovered.

“Sure I am…and don’t think for a minute I swallowed that line you gave me about him having moved on….he’s still in town and I guess they’ll know over in the saloon where I can find him…”

“Um…well good luck with that one then Jess….”

Chapter Twelve

It was just a week later when they were to hear more about Jody James.

Both Jess and Slim were getting pretty edgy about the situation of the missing money, although they were relieved to find that he hadn’t taken all the cash, just enough for the gun and belt, as Daisy discovered when she double checked the hidey hole and found the rest of the cash pushed to the very back.

They had covered the surrounding area to no avail and Jess was all for going out and searching for the boy, time and again.

”Iffen he’s still around,” he said dourly, “he could be off spending my hard earned money in some saloon in another town as we speak.”

“No, I don’t think so, don’t forget he didn’t take that much. I reckon he’s holed up somewhere close by perfecting his draw. After all that’s what you did when you were gunning for the Banisters wasn’t it Jess? You spent all your time just practicing, well I think that’s what young Jody is up to, just waiting for his chance, but where he’s hiding is a mystery.”

“Umm…well I wish he’d dang well get on with it, if he’s gonna take me on,” said Jess irritably, looking out to the horizon as though he could somehow find him if he stood peering out to the hills for long enough.

“Look why don’t you get up on one of those ornery old mustangs, take your mind off things.”

Jess spent the next few hours on mustang breaking, things went pretty well and he had regained his good humour by the time the Stage was due in.

It was later that morning that the Stage rattled into the yard and came to a flamboyant standstill with the horses shaking and nodding their heads as they were pulled to a stylish halt.

Jess grinned over at his pard as the men advanced, ”Looks like Mose has got a lady aboard, he’s showing off again.”

Slim pulled the stagecoach door open and sure enough a pretty lady in her thirties took Slim’s hand as he helped her down and rewarded him with a winning smile.

“Mister Sherman?”

“At your service Ma’am,” he said smiling into her eyes and retaining his hold on her hand.

Jess rolled his eyes at Mose and commenced changing the team whilst Slim whisked the lady indoors.

Shortly afterwards Jess and Mose entered for their coffee and the old timer was soon sweet talking Miss Daisy, as he always did, complimenting her on the wonderful coffee and delectable pie.

Meanwhile Jess studied the slender woman sitting opposite him, her eyes downcast as she allowed the banter to flow around her.

She was very pale and vulnerable looking, he noted and she seemed tired and rather troubled Jess thought. Old for her age too, which he guessed was about mid thirties. But with her care worn hands and touches of grey in her dark hair she looked older.

It wasn’t until Mose left that they discovered the true identity of their visitor.

“You all set Ma’am gotta be rollin’” said Mose, although loathed to leave Daisy’s presence and would have sat down again and had a refill of coffee if he wasn’t in danger of arriving late at his next stop.

“I need to talk to Mister Sherman and Mister Harper in confidence,” said the woman, speaking for the first time in a soft hesitant voice….

Then she turned to Slim,” Would it be possible to stay a while and catch the next Stage out?”

Slim noted the way she held her bag so tightly that her fingers turned white and the troubled look in her eyes and decided that she was in need of help of some sort. A distressed woman alone, well how could he resist? He rather liked the look of this quiet, uneasy woman too and wanted to find out more about her.

“Of course Ma’am that’s no problem,” he said earnestly,” Jess and I will just check the Stage over and be back in a minute,” and with that the men all left the room, leaving Daisy dispensing more coffee and kindly chatter.

“Oh of course Ma’am that’s no problem,” Jess said in a parody of his buddy, ”hell Slim she looks like she’s gotten trouble written all over her… you sure are a glutton for punishment, we’re still suffering the consequences of you takin’ in the last waif and stray.”

“Oh come on Jess she looks to be a lovely lady and troubled sure but where’s your Christian spirit?”

Jess just made a noncommittal grunt and went off to check the harness, secretly thinking, umm, lovely ‘eh, so is Slim a mite smitten here?

Once they returned Daisy left them to talk as Jess and Slim slipped back into their seats around the table.

“So, what can we do for you Ma’am?” asked Slim throwing her his best smile.

“My name is Teresa…..Johnson,” she said quietly.

At that Jess’s head shot up and he exchanged a look with Slim before turning back to the woman.

“Pete Johnson’s widow?” he asked softly.

She just nodded and looked down quickly, unable to look him in the eyes.

Then she took a deep breath and continued.

“I’ve been very sick for weeks, the doctor really thought I would die,” she whispered, ”but as you can see I defied the odds and recovered…But I’m afraid when I was able to speak again and asked for my son they told me he’d run away…. He couldn’t bear watching me die I suppose and who can blame him after what happened to his Pa?”

Jess looked uncomfortable at that.

“Look Ma’am I’m real sorry…if there had been any other way….“

“I….. I know you were not to blame Mister Harper,” she said, finally looking at him properly, ”a friend was there, told me everything….The way you tried so hard to just stop him without killing him, even as to how you were hurt yourself in the process…..”

Jess just shrugged at that, ”I really did try, but it was when he opened up on the passersby….nearly hitting a kid…heck Ma’am I just had to stop him then.”

“Of course…of course you did,” she said putting out an impulsive hand and squeezing his arm.

“I just don’t get it,” he said softly…”the way he was shootin’ randomly, like he’d gone crazy.”

She sighed deeply.

“What you don’t understand is that my husband was sick….dying probably.”

Both men just stared at her in shock for a moment before Slim rallied.

“I’m sorry to hear that Mrs Johnson.”

“He had a problem in his brain, a growth of sorts, I don’t understand completely, but it changed his personality, he would have these awful headaches and then fits of terrible temper…So unlike him but so aggressive he’d shout and swear shoot his gun off…..and then later forget all about it and be his normal self. It was this growth that gave him the urge to rob the bank I’m sure, it seemed to make him really wild, just throw caution to the winds…… Please you must understand me; he was a quiet gentle man before he was sick.”

Jess nodded, ”That makes perfect sense…..gee I’m sorry Mrs Johnson, that must have been real hard for you.”

“Teresa please….and yes it was hard to bear. He was having problems working and that’s how we got into debt, I imagine he knew he didn’t have long to live and so he needed to provide for the future…. for me and his stepson young Jody.”

Slim nodded, “So that’s why the boy is called Jody James then?”

“Yes he was the son of my first husband, who died in an accident when Jody was just a baby, but Pete was his father in all but name, they were very close.”

“You ain’t had it easy have yer Teresa,” Jess said quietly, throwing her a compassionate look.

At this tears sprung to her eyes….”Please don’t be kind to me Mister Harper I can’t bear it.”

Jess looked embarrassed, “Jess, please.”

She sighed again and then looked deeply into his eyes.

“I spoke to Sheriff Cory when I arrived in town a day ago. He told me all about Jody landing here and about how he has been responsible for making your life hell Jess and I’m, just so, so sorry!”

“Heck it ain’t your doin’ Ma’am.”

“But it is, don’t you see, I’ve fed Jody a tissue of lies about what happened. We have a small farm about forty miles north of Cheyenne in a very isolated area. We have few neighbours and no passersby so I knew he would never find out what really happened on that terrible day…..So I told him…. “She closed her eyes and swallowed hard obviously distressed.

“Go on, you’ll feel better for talking it through,” said Slim gently, feeling so sorry for this troubled, pretty woman.

“I told him someone robbed the bank and the Deputy was so fired up that he was shooting at the bank robber, but missed and shot Pete in cold blood, just because he was standing innocently nearby. Then as how you were real good friends with the Sheriff,” she said turning to Jess,” and how you got off scot free….. I’m so very sorry,” she finished.

Jess just stared blankly at her for a moment before he stood up quickly and strode off across the room, his hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his denims and he stared out of the window for several long minutes, his back to them.

Teresa cast Slim an anxious glance and he wondered briefly if they were to see a display of the legendary Harper temper.

However after a few minutes Jess took a deep breath to calm himself and turning wandered back to the table.

“Thank you for being so honest,” he said quietly, “can’t have been easy.”

Teresa reckoned that this was as close as they were going to get as far as him forgiving her was concerned and she was just glad that he had taken it all reasonably well. Although she was under no illusion to the fact that he’d, had some difficulty controlling his temper after this latest revelation.

“So you’ve come looking for him,” asked Slim, quickly trying to diffuse the tension in the room.

She nodded, ”Sheriff Cory also told me about him stealing from you and the purchase of the gun; I’m so very sorry he abused your trust that way….. I can’t believe he is so bitter…..but then that is down to me,” she whispered looking close to tears again.

“Well things aren’t quite as bad as we first thought,” said Slim honestly. “It seems that the boy only took enough money to buy the gun and belt, he’d pushed the rest to the very back of our safe hiding place. So sure we’re out of pocket, but not nearly as badly as we first thought. But a youngster wielding a fire arm he’s not used to….well I reckon that’s a recipe for disaster,” he concluded seriously.

She took a deep breath, ”As soon as I heard that, about the gun, I knew I must come out here and hopefully when he comes back…if he does, to reason with him and to…well to tell him the truth.”

“I believe he will come back to confront Jess, we just don’t know when, but you are very welcome to stay…”

“Oh I couldn’t impose,” she began.

However Daisy chose that exact moment to come in with some fresh coffee and caught the end of the conversation.

“Oh do stay a while my dear,” she implored, ”you have no idea what’s it’s like shut away here with nobody but these young men to converse with, “she said casting her ‘boys’ a cheeky smile, ”I long for a good woman to woman chat, please stay.”

Teresa smiled gratefully at her, ”Well when you put it like that how can I refuse?” she said her smile lighting up her whole face and making her look almost beautiful Jess mused.

Slim caught that look in his pard’s eyes that he knew so well.

“Come on Jess, work to do,” he said briskly, suddenly feeling angry, ”let’s leave these ladies to get acquainted,” and he hurried his partner out into the yard.

“Say what’s yer rush Slim, I was just getting to know the lady,” Jess grumbled once they were back in the yard.

“Umm, that’s what I’m afraid of,” muttered Slim under his breath.


“Nothing pard, I was just thinking that maybe we should have another look for the boy, Mrs Johnson seems really distressed.”

“She’s distressed…. how do ya think I feel, it’s me he’s gunning for,” Jess replied with a cheeky grin and looking far from distressed.

“Well all the more reason to find him then.”

“Sure, but Hell Slim we’ve scoured the area and so has Mort, and there’s neither hide nor hair of the kid.”

“Maybe we should take another look at that journal, we could have missed something.”

It was later that evening that they had a breakthrough.

Mike and Daisy were in bed and Teresa Johnson had turned in too, in the bunkhouse so recently vacated by her son. It was quiet and peaceful in the living room…that is until Slim suddenly gave a little whoop and beamed over at his pard, sitting in his rocker on the other side of the fireplace.

“Found somethin’ Slim?”

“Maybe listen to this,”

‘Had just the best night out with my new buddies the Stockwell brothers Mick and Chas, they sure like a drink, felt terrible today but it was sure worth it…They hate Harper as much as I do and will help me out if ever I need a hand.’

“So what does that prove, we know he was hanging out with the Stockwells, that was the first place Mort looked,” said Jess impatiently.

“Yeah, but since their Pa died and it’s just their old granny keeping an eye on them they’ve gone off the rails. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jody borrowed a horse from them and took off for a spell and now he’s holed up there…probably having fast draw lessons as we speak.”

“Umm….I dunno Slim it’s pretty much a long shot ain’t it?”

“I guess, but it’s all we’ve got and they seemed really good friends, there are a whole lot of entries in here about them. I never paid them much notice before, was just looking for your name…. but there’s more….listen to this.”

‘Chas has gotten some real good ideas…what he calls the grand plan and reckons he’s going to be a millionaire….says money’s just for the picking if you know where to go. Well I figure working hard and being a good citizen didn’t do much for Ma and Pa so reckon I’ll throw my lot in with them…..’

“Oh wonderful,” said Jess sarcastically, “it just gets better and better don’t it, so whose gonna tell his ma he’s decided to turn to a life of crime?” he asked bitterly.

“Hang on pard, there’s more here,”

‘I figure we’ll all head out once Harper’s been blown away…..Chas is going to teach me real good, says I’ll be a real gunslinger when he’s finished with me. Him and Mick are pretty fast so I guess they’ll be good teachers…..can’t wait to get it over with…….’

“Umm…..then he starts ranting about how he’s got to get out with the money and get the gun….can’t hang about any longer…..”

“Sounds like you might be right Slim, he could be over at the Stockwell spread, let’s face it the old girl would never notice, she’s half blind and deaf as a post…..”

Slim nodded, “Poor woman, so what’s she ever done to deserve the likes of Chas and Mick?”

Jess shrugged, “So how about we land on ‘em at first light…Knowing those youngsters they’ll probably still be abed and we can catch them unawares.”

“That sounds good to me,” Slim agreed….”only one problem.”

“Oh, so what’s that?”

“Getting you out of bed that early,” he chuckled and was rewarded by a none too gentle punch on the arm.

As it turned out Jess was awakened at first light, but not by Slim pulling the bedding off and threatening to empty the water pitcher over him, but by a loud hammering at the front door.

Jess groaned, ”Who in hell’s that at this hour?”

Slim rolled his eyes, “Well how should I know,” and went to investigate.

Daisy and Mike had been awoken by the frantic knocking and they were peering out of their rooms as Jess brought up the rear, pulling on his denims, feet and chest still bare and he shivered in the cool morning air as Slim hauled the door open.

“Hell Mort where’s the fire?” asked Jess looking irritated at having his beauty sleep so rudely disturbed.

“Sorry folks, can I come in?” he asked looking anxious.

“Sure, “said Slim pulling the door open wider.

“I’ll make some coffee, Mike back to bed, it’s way too early for you to be up,” said Daisy.

“Aww Aunt Daisy I wanna see what the Sheriff’s here for.”

“Scoot Tiger,” said Jess ruffling his hair, ”I’ll tell yer all about it at breakfast. Now back under the covers before you catch a chill,” he said closing the front door and rubbing his bare arms to warm himself.

Mort took the offered seat at the table and Slim and Jess joined him.

“You look kind of troubled Mort,” said Slim weighing up his old friend, ”so what’s going on?”

“It’s that young Jody James….err Johnson, whatever….he’s in deep trouble and the Stockwell boys too. They came into town and turned over the mercantile late last night, well attempted to that is, old Ezra’s no fool, turned his shot gun on them, and winged one of the Stockwells, as they took off.”

“No kiddin’ so they all got clean away?” asked Jess.

“So far yes. They split up. The Stockwells heading north and young Jody said to be heading in this direction.”

“So you want to know if he came here, if we’ve seen him?” guessed Slim.

Mort sighed deeply and turned his gaze on the blond cowboy.

“More than that Slim. I want you two boys to try and bring him in. See Lon, my deputy, has taken a posse after the Stockwells and I headed off after Jody, hoping he’d land here. But I’ve not had a sighting of him and I really need to get back to town, can’t leave the place with no law. I figure Lon will take a while bringing those young hoodlums in as they had a good heads start.”

“How so,” asked Jess, “didn’t Ezra report it right away?”

Mort shook his old greying head sadly.

“Nope was too busy tending to Betty, she caught a bullet in the crossfire, Sam reckons its touch and go.”

Daisy entered with the coffee pot at that point and gave a little gasp of shock…

“Betty and Ezra have been married over forty years,” she said sitting down heavily and casting sad eyes on Mort.

“That they have Ma’am and if she dies there’ll be a lynching unless I get to those kids first… Miss Betty was…..err….is real popular in town.”

“Oh we must find the boy,” she said at that, turning horror stricken eyes on Slim and then Jess.

“So who shot her, do we know?” asked Jess quietly.

Mort shook his head, ”I don’t know for sure, need to get a proper statement from Ezra, he may have seen it. Otherwise we’ll know more once Sam gets the bullet out of her. We really need to arrest them and check their irons….which we won’t do sitting around here. I’ll cover the area around Dexter’s Point on my way back to town and I figure maybe one of you could look around your property and the other stay put in case he lands back here?“

“Sure Mort, but there’s one heck of a lot of ground to cover,” said Jess lugubriously, ”it’s knowing where to start.”

“I know where he is,” piped up a little voice from behind them and they all swivelled to see Mike standing there in his nightgown and boots.

“I sent you back to bed young man,” said Daisy briskly.

“I know Aunt Daisy and I’m going, but I need the outhouse.”

She sighed “Go on, but hurry up dear.”

As he passed Jess he put out a hand and stopped him….”What do ya mean you know where he is Tiger?”

Mike looked down and said quietly, ”I ain’t supposed to tell tales, my teacher told me that when I said as how Tommy Briggs kicked Ginny Gates…and Tommy called me a snitch.”

“Look Mike this is important OK… Jody may be in trouble and we need to find him real fast….so where is he?” asked Slim firmly.

Mike turned to look at Jess and he nodded, ”It’s OK Tiger, come on, tell us you ain’t snitchin’ you’ll be helping Jody keep safe… there are others lookin’ and they may hurt him see?”

The child shrugged, “Well I ain’t certain sure…but we went up to the cave once when we were out lookin’ for strays and I said as how we camped out there sometimes. How the fishing in the lake was real good too and how it made a real swell hideout and he looked kinda funny and said he’d remember that….”

Slim and Jess exchanged a glance over the child’s head…

“Makes sense,” said Jess after Mike had been despatched to the outhouse.

“Maybe one of you could check there?”

“Sure Mort, I’ll go,” said Jess at once, diving into his room for shirt and boots before striding across the room to fetch his gun belt and hat from the hook by the door.

Slim followed quickly and pulled Jess around, ”Maybe I should go pard…after all he’s still gunning for you and he may be feeling really desperate now with all this, open fire without thinking it through.”

“Stop frettin’ pard, I can handle it and anyways…someone’s gotta break the news to his Ma,” he said, before marching off towards the barn to saddle up.

Chapter Thirteen

Jess made good time and it was still quite early when he reached the cave.

It was a perfect summer’s day, the early morning chill now beginning to burn off as the sun rose in a deep blue sky and for a moment he just wished that he was here on a fishing trip rather than to try and winkle out a scared and possibly dangerous, young, would be outlaw.

He dismounted well before he reached the cave and tethered Traveler then continued stealthily on foot.

He walked up the steep path to the cavern and drawing his gun, stood at the entrance and called out, “Jody….you in there boy!”

There was complete silence and so he made his way in, scanning the shadowy depths of the cave, but apart from an old blanket and the cold ashes of a fire, there was nothing.

Jess returned to the cave mouth and peered out to the magnificent view spread out below him, the lake sparkling in the early morning sunshine and the distant hills beyond.

It was obvious someone had been camping there, but where were they now? he pondered.

After he’d searched the immediate area he wandered off and retrieved Traveler and walked him back to the lakeside to water him and then settled back to wait.

It was just an hour or so later that he heard a horse approaching and a minute later a paint pony came into view ridden slowly by Jody, looking exhausted and filthy.

He reined in his mount and stared at Jess for a full minute before sliding down from the saddle.

He moved forwards until there was only the matter of a couple of yards between them and then stood stock still, his hand hovering over the shiny new gun on his hip.

“You came then?” he said.

Jess stood up, in one fluid movement, from where he’d been lounging on a large boulder beside the lake, all senses alert and faced the boy.

“Expecting me were you then?”

He shrugged, ”Hoping…I thought Mike might tip you off…figure he’d have thought it through.”

“He did, he’s a bright kid…..more than can be said for you throwing yer lot in with those no hoper Stockwells.”

He looked a little sheepish at that, ”How is the old woman?”

“Still alive…just, no thanks to you,” he said hotly.

“It weren’t my fault, hell I didn’t shoot her Jess…..I wouldn’t, not an old woman like that……”

“So how about me, ain’t got no problem with shootin’ me down then?”

The boy flushed up and suddenly looked furious, ”It’s why I came ain’t it!” he replied belligerently.

“Seems that way,” said Jess placidly, relaxing his stance and casting the boy the ghost of a smile.

“This isn’t funny Harper I aim to blow your brains out for what you did to my Pa! So come on, let’s get it over with,” he said, feet apart and his right hand again on the butt of his gun.

“I ain’t drawin’ on yer Jody, so you may as well forget it,” said Jess quietly and he wandered back to the boulder and leaned on it, arms folded as he studied the youngster.

“You…you’ve gotta,” he yelled almost in tears of frustration…. “Come on you coward…fight me, or I’ll gun you down in cold blood just the way you killed my Daddy!”

Jess sighed deeply, ”I guess it’s time you heard the truth boy. Your Pa wasn’t an innocent bystander like your Ma said, she lied to you…. She didn’t want you to remember your Pa badly. Truth is…. it was him as was robbin’ the bank….”

“No!” Jody cut in wildly, “You’re lying. Pa wouldn’t do that!”

“He would and he darned well did boy!” yelled Jess angrily.

Then more gently, ”He was sick Jody, real sick, had a problem in his brain. It made him act out of character and I guess he was pretty desperate too. He needed the money for you and your Ma …he knew he was dyin’ see…and was just trying to provide for your future.”

“You’re lying…your lying …he never…” the boy shouted almost hysterically.

“I ain’t boy, your Ma told me herself.”

Jody was deathly silent for a good minute, his face a mask of fury.

“How dare you,” he yelled, ”how dare you say that! Ma’s dead…..I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you for saying that!” he screamed going for his gun.

Jess had him covered in the blink of an eye, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you Jody,” he said firmly.

Then they were both alerted to two riders galloping in and Jody gasped as his Ma carefully slipped down from the saddle and ran over to him.

“Jody…oh Jody what are you doing….Jess is a good man and he’s telling the truth son….You have to face it,” she cried.

“Ma…Ma is that really you?” the boy whispered as the couple embraced before collapsing in tears.

Slim and Jess wandered off down the lake shore a little way to give the couple some privacy.

“Are you OK pard?”

“Sure I am, so Teresa insisted on coming to look for him then?”

“Yup, wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was real worried about him, but looks like you had things covered …literally,” he said with a grin; glancing down at Jess’s gun, now safely back in its holster.

He nodded, ”I tried to talk him out of it, but as soon as I mentioned his Ma he went berserk. He thought I was disrespecting the dead I guess…didn’t believe she was still alive.”

Slim glanced back to the lakeside where Jody and his Ma were now in deep conversation.

“I guess he does now,” he said with a chuckle, ”and once the reunion is over I figure she’ll have some real plain talking with her son.”

“Umm,” Jess grinned, ”I figure there ain’t nuthin’ like a real mad Ma to put a kid straight, beats gun play any day!”

Then he sobered, “We’ve still gotta take the kid in though Slim, he’s gonna have to stand trial for this along with the Stockwells once Lon and the posse catch up with them.”

Slim nodded,” It’s a bad business that’s for sure.”

Jess shook his head sadly.

“Those boys just went wild after their Pa died. Gee Slim I tried to help ‘em, working alongside Mort brought ‘em in more than once for getting’ into trouble. Mort read them the riot act, I tried to knock some sense into them too…but I guess they just didn’t want to listen. Now it looks like one of them could hang for this iffen the old lady dies…What a goddamn waste of a young life….why didn’t they just wise up Slim, they had that spread to run, could’ve made a go of things if they’d just tried…”

“I know Jess, I feel as bad as you do, and as for poor Betty from the store, she sure didn’t deserve this. Ezra neither….I guess the kid will just have to pay the price and let’s just hope this makes young Jody see sense if nothing else.”

They were in such deep conversation and it was a few minutes before they were aware that a band of men had ridden in and now there was an altercation going on at the lakeside where Jody and his ma had been talking.

“What in Hell?” muttered Jess and both men sprinted the short distance just in time to see an elderly, burly man, sat on a large buckskin pull out his lanyard and lasso Jody. The rope easily snaking around his chest was pulled tight as the man hauled his ‘catch’ in.

Teresa screamed in terror and Jess glared up at the man.

“What the hell are yer doin’ Blaketon?” he asked addressing the elderly man.

“What you and Sheriff Cory should be doing Harper, bringing this killer to justice.”

“Killer,” echoed Teresa looking horrified, ”my son is no killer.”

“Beg to differ Ma’am,” replied George Blaketon, turning to the shocked woman, ”Betty Grove died this morning so we all reckon it’s a hanging offense now, don’t we boys?” Blaketon turned to address some of Laramie’s most well known troublemakers.

“I like your choice of posse,” Jess said sarcastically.

“Well maybe they aren’t afraid to do what needs to be done,” Blaketon replied sharply.

“That we ain’t,” returned Jack Smeetham, “string the bastard up now,” he yelled and was rewarded by cries of agreement from his cohorts.

“Now just a minute here George,” said Slim addressing Blaketon, “see sense, sure we’re taking the boy in…. but for a fair trial not a lynching.”

“Well I say let’s git it over and done with!” shouted Smeetham, turning to the others for approval.

It was Jess who brought the proceedings to a halt.

He drew his gun like lightening and pointed it at Blaketon.

“Anyone with ideas of takin’ this kid is gonna have to go through me first,” he spat.

“And me,” said Slim drawing his gun swiftly. “Now go about your business men and I assure you we’ll bring young Jody here in to the Sheriff’s office before the day’s out.”

Blaketon still sat there looking irresolute and then Smeetham rode forwards.

“You aren’t going to let this ex gunslinger get the better of you, are you George?” he asked throwing Jess a patronising glance.

That was just about enough for Jess.

He’d been dragged out of his bed at the crack of dawn, ridden hard without breakfast…..heck without so much as a sip of coffee, apprehended this troubled kid and now this….Well he was getting way past the jumping off place now and he discharged his gun, the slug raising the dust just beside Smeetham’s horse and the critter reared nearly unseating it’s rider.

“I ain’t about to tell you again Smeetham! Now move……the lot of yer!” he yelled, fixing the group with the full force of the Harper glare.

“And let the boy go Blaketon,” Jess barked.

There was a moment’s stunned silence and then they backed off and George Blaketon released Jody.

“You haven’t heard the last of this,” Blaketon vowed as he turned his mount and galloped off at speed, followed by the rest of his men.

Teresa held Jody tightly and turned fearful eyes on the two cowboys.

“Please you aren’t really going to take him in, he’s innocent I know he is.”

“I’m sorry Teresa,” said Slim gently, ”we have to keep our word, or else they’ll just be back, you must see that.”

She just looked down, but gripped hold of Jody even more tightly.

“We have to Ma’am,” concurred Jess, “otherwise there’ll be others wantin’ to string him up and we might not be able to hold ‘em back next time. He’ll be safer in custody believe me and anyways, I guess he’s not completely innocent, after all he was at the hold-up, he may not have shot Ma Grove, but he was robbin’ the store.”

Teresa turned pale at that news, ”I… I just didn’t believe it when Slim told me you were involved.” she said turning to her son, ”I thought there must be some mistake….”

The boy just shrugged but could not meet her eye.

“Jody, look at me,” she cried, getting upset.

“OK,” he yelled, ”I did it…..but I thought you and Pa were both gone… I had to survive somehow didn’t I?”

“So are you tellin me we didn’t pay you a fair wage?” asked Jess glaring at the boy.

“I suppose you did,” he muttered, staring at the ground.

Jess sighed in exasperation.

“Believe me Ma’am you won’t be doin’ him any favours iffen you help him wriggle out of this, because what the boy needs is a dose of reality….You break the law, well you get what’s coming to you.”

“You speak very harshly Mister Harper,” said Teresa, suddenly on the defensive.

“Well if someone had made me see sense a bit earlier I figure my whole life would have been one heck of a lot easier,” he said bitterly before marching off to fetch their mounts.

Chapter Fourteen

They rode back to the ranch to clean up and get some much needed food before taking Jody to town, but after their late breakfast Jess took Slim to one side.

“I’ve been thinkin’ pard; I don’t reckon ol’ Blaketon will be giving in. I wouldn’t be surprised iffen they’re waitin’ down the trail a ways for us to ride into town with the prisoner…ain’t like him to back down so easy, Smeetham neither.”

“You could be right Jess so what do you want to do?”

“Wait for the noontide Stage and take him in on that. One of us rides shotgun, the other on horseback keeping an eye out, I don’t reckon they’d try attacking the Overland.”

“Sounds like a good idea, do you want to tell his Ma or shall I?” asked Slim with the ghost of a smile.

Jess chuckled, ”You I guess pard, after all…..what is it you always say….um…..yeah that’s it, you’re the diplomat of the partnership…well go and be diplomatic, I’m havin’ another coffee.”

Slim sighed, but knew it was probably wise, tact and discretion not being skills Jess possessed in any great measure.

Well that statement was pretty much proved to be true Slim thought later, as he stood in Mort’s office alongside his buddy.

“What Lon, you lost ‘em, what in hell were yer playin’ at! Hell they’re only a couple of wet behind the ears kids and you had a whole dang posse with yer!”

“Look Jess, you’re really not helping any,” said a frustrated Mort. “And anyways if anyone’s going to bawl out my Deputy I figure it should be me!”

Jess just shrugged and moved over to the coffee pot, ”Be my guest.”

“So come on then Lon what went wrong?”

“I just dunno boss,” said the subdued looking deputy.

“We picked up their tracks easy enough once it was light…trailed then as far as the creek near Morgan’s Point and then they just disappeared. We tracked all the way up and down the banks for a mile or more, but nothing…..I’m real sorry boss.”

Jess made a disgusted grunt, but just sipped his coffee.

Mort removed his hat and ran a hand through his iron grey hair, before jamming the Stetson back in place, surveying his young assistant.

“OK Lon, you get off on your break, we’ll talk later,” he said, flicking a glance over to where Jess was looking morosely into his coffee cup.

“So what are we going to do?” asked Slim slumping down into the chair opposite Mort’s desk. You know what folk are like around here, if we’ve only got one suspect, well he’ll be the one they want to find guilty. Ma Grove was real popular and people will want to see someone swing for her murder, whether he’s guilty or not.”

“Now hang on here Slim, there will be a proper trial and if the boy’s innocent well he’ll get off….”

“Um,” said Jess wandering over, ”that’s all very well Mort, but you know as well as I do a really slick solicitor could get a conviction, and Ezra Grove can sure afford the best.”

Mort sighed, knowing the truth of it.

“So what do you propose to do about it then Jess?“

“Go find ‘em of course.”

“So you think you’re going to succeed where a lawman and dozen posse members have failed do you?” he asked, his patience beginning to wear thin and feeling a mite embarrassed about his deputy’s incompetence too.

“Can only try,” replied Jess succinctly.

“Jess!” cried Slim spinning around and throwing his pard an irritated glance.

“Come on Slim, we’re real quiet right now with all the mustangs sold on and Mike’s off school to help, you’ll manage for a day or two won’t you?”

Slim sighed deeply, “I guess so.”

It hadn’t escaped Jess’s attention that Slim seemed quite taken with Teresa and so now he played his trump card.

“Anyways, I figure Teresa will be real upset iffen we don’t do anything to save her boy, she is a woman alone you know pard…in need of help.”

“Do you think I don’t know that,” replied Slim irritably.

Then his face cleared, “So why don’t you stay home and I’ll go?” thinking that would get him in good with her.

“Well, that would be swell,” replied Jess, ”I’d like for you to do that Slim, but you’ve gotten the Stage line boss visitin’ tomorrow ain’t yer?” he said, trying to hide a triumphant grin.

Slim grimaced at that, ”Oh yeah, I’d forgotten. OK pard, but watch your back huh, they may only be kids but I guess they’re pretty desperate, probably start shooting before they start thinking.”

“Yeah, well I guess I’m pretty good at that myself,” he said with a chuckle.

“Do you want some back up Jess? I guess I could spare Lon.”

“Nope you’re OK Mort I’d rather ride alone and anyways I figure you’ll need all the help you can get around here just in case Blaketon and his cronies start talking about a lynching again.”

Then he turned to go, “See you later.”

Mort shook his hand, ”I appreciate this Jess, and take it easy huh?”

“Will do….”

“Oh and Jess better take this, guess you’ll need the full force of the law supporting you iffen you find ‘em,” he said flipping a Deputy badge over to his friend.

Jess pinned it in place and then gave a little salute before departing.

Once his partner had left Slim turned to Mort.

“I guess I’d better be getting back to the ranch, is Mrs Johnson still in with her son?”

“Yeah, she’s staying with you then Slim?”

“I guess so, she hasn’t got much money for a hotel and anyway I figure Daisy’s taken a shine to her, she doesn’t get much female company.”

Umm and I guess she isn’t the only one that’s taken a shine to that pretty little widow Mort thought to himself as he went to fetch Teresa.

It was later that night as Daisy and Slim, along with their visitor, were sitting by the fire nursing their coffees that the subject of Jess’s quest came up again.

Teresa shook her head sadly, ”I just can’t believe that Jess has been so kind as to go looking for those young outlaws after all he’s been through….the terrible things Jody did to him,” and she blinked hard trying to stop the tears that were recently never far away.

“What you need to know my dear is that Jess had a far from easy life himself as a youngster, he lost most of his kin at about Jody’s age. At the hands of violent outlaws and so I imagine he can understand what the boy has been going through and why he was so mad at him, thinking he’d killed his Pa that way.”

Teresa sighed sadly, ”And that was all my fault. I should have been straight with him from the start, but he was just a child and adored his father. I couldn’t bear to see him let down that way,” and a tear slowly trickled down her cheek.

Slim immediately leaned across and took her hand.

“Hey Teresa don’t take on, it will all be OK in the end you’ll see. Old Hotshot, Jess that is, he’ll find those kids and bring them to justice and hopefully Jody will just get a light sentence.”

“You really think so?” she asked turning glittering eyes on this cowboy with the kind face and sincere expression.

“Sure, it’s his first offence and Jess and I will speak up for him.”

“Thank you,” she whispered. “And you really think Jess will find these boys?”

Slim grinned, ”I figure you’re not acquainted with the Harper stubborn streak, knowing Jess he won’t come back without them.”

“Come along now my dear, try not to worry, why don’t you turn in, things will look better in the morning,” said Daisy kindly.

“I’ll walk you over,” said Slim jumping up at once.

Teresa paused by the bunkhouse door and turned back to Slim.

“Thank you,” she said impulsively reaching out a hand and resting it lightly on his chest, ”you have been so kind.” and she started to cry softly.

Slim looked down at her in consternation, ”Don’t Teresa please,” he whispered, before taking her in his strong arms and pulling her close.

She nestled in his warm embrace for a minute, feeling warmth and strength flowing through her before gently pulling back.

“Thank you,” she said with a brave smile looking up into his concerned gaze, ”I needed a hug,” and turning she opened the door and disappeared inside.

But Slim stood there for several minutes just staring at the closed door before turning and mooching back to the house.


When Jess had left the Sheriff’s office he had gone straight to the mercantile and seeing the closed sign on the door made his way down the alley at the side of the shop and turned into the yard at the back.

As he suspected old Ezra was hard at work stacking crates and Jess smiled and watched for a moment, knowing what a hard worker the old shopkeeper was, unable to keep still even when suffering his terrible grief….or maybe because of it Jess reflected.

Then he moved out of the shadows and went to greet the old man.

“Ezra, I’ve come to pay my respects, I’m real sorry fer your troubles,” he said sincerely, offering a hand.

Ezra Grove took it and shook hands with the young cowboy who he considered a good friend.

“Thankee Jess, a bad business….can’t believe dear Betty is gone and that’s a fact.”

Jess nodded sadly in agreement, and then after a moment said quietly, ”You’ve heard the posse lost them?”

Ezra nodded looking furious, ”Useless lot,” he spat, “should’ve ridden out meself, but was busy with the arrangements.”

“Sure…anyways, I’m on the case Ezra, I’ll bring ‘em to justice if it’s the last damn thing I do, I promise you that.”

The old man’s head whipped up at that and he locked eyes with Jess for a few seconds before the ghost of a smile spread across his tired old face, ”I believe you will at that son,” he replied.

“So who was it…that shot her down Ezra, did you see?”

“Oh, sure, sure… there was really only one villain in this Jess and that’s the elder Stockwell boy, Chas. It were him as opened fire on me…I winged him, but not before he shot my dear……” and he couldn’t continue.

Jess waited until the elderly man gathered himself, “What about the others, Mick and young Jody?”

He shook his head, ”Just stood there looking half scared to death and then when Chas started shootin’ Jody yelled ‘no’ and tried to wrestle the gun off of that Chas, but he just pushed him… He fell I think and then, that was when Chas opened fire again…..”

“Thanks,” said Jess softly, ”I’m sorry to have upset you Ezra, but I needed to know and Chas…shot badly was he?”

“Bad enough I guess, he made a run for it…his brother was supporting him….and Jody had hightailed it by then, he didn’t ride out with them. I figure he’s just a crazy kid as has gotten in with the wrong crowd, it’s that Chas you need to bring in Jess….fer my Betty …huh.”

Jess nodded and patted the old man’s arm, “Sure Ezra,” and rode out on his quest shortly afterwards.

He rode out of town with Mort’s words, ‘So you think you can succeed where a lawman and a dozen posse members failed do ya?’ still ringing in his ears.

Once he reached the creek at Morgan’s Point he reined Traveler in and sat there thinking hard.

OK Harper, you’re injured and on the run, now where would you hole up? He asked himself.

Where better to hide than in a busy mining and railroad town, where you can just lie low until you’re feelin’ better and then just melt into the workforce. A town with lots of migrants who wouldn’t be bothered to ask questions, a town without law and order….um, he thought a town like Carbon.

He rode in late one afternoon and the place was jumping. Drunks falling out of the saloon, coal miners and railroad workers jostling each other and the odd fight breaking out here and there….Nice peaceful place Jess thought bitterly and where in hell am I gonna find someone sober enough to tell me where those kids are holed up?

He decided to opt for the boarding houses first, figuring that with Chas being hurt they’d be looking for somewhere for him to rest up. He’d already checked and knew there was no medic in town and the Sheriff had been killed a few weeks back and not replaced, which accounted for the wild antics in the streets he reckoned.

It was at the fifth place that he tried that he finally hit the jackpot.

It was a filthy looking boarding house set down a back street, the windows dark and dusty and the front door paint chipped and scruffy.

Jess banged on the door and finally a diminutive, balding, middle aged man dressed in dirty denims and a faded undershirt, a cigarette hanging from his mouth answered.

He dragged the door open and threw Jess a bored glance.

“Yeah?” he drawled.

“I’m lookin’ for a couple of kids, sixteen and nineteen, go by the name of Chas and Mick Stockwell, you seen ‘em?”

The older man, looked unmoved, ”Might have done, so what’s it worth to ya stranger?”

Jess was hot and tired, in need of a long cool beer and was not in the mood for being messed with.

He leaned in and grabbed hold of the small man’s filthy undershirt and dragged him up almost off his feet.

“Look Mister, now let’s try this again, I’m in no mood fer playin’ games, so are they here or not?” he spat angrily.

The man looked like he still might argue the toss, until he spied the deputy badge and thought better of it.

“OK Deputy, no need to start frettin’,” the landlord said shakily, ”first floor back…the kids sick, younger one’s workin’ the livery.“

Jess pushed him roughly to one side and marched into the dark smelly entrance hall and started mounting the stairs.

“They’re only here until tomorrow, only paid up to then, I told ‘em, ain’t no credit….you hear me Mister…ain’t no credit, you pay for the week or they’re out first thing tomorrow!”

Jess ignored him and trying to hold his breath to lessen the stench, made his way up to the room and after tapping on the door entered.

It took him a few minutes to become accustomed to the dim light and after a moment he made his way over to the window and pulled back the dusty threadbare drapes before turning back to the bed.

What he saw sent a chill running down his spine and he shuddered before slowly making his way forwards and taking a seat on the edge of the bed.

There was a sickening smell of rotting flesh coming from the wounded arm and Jess felt revulsion and then pity as he saw the filthy, stinking, blood stained bandage on the boy’s upper arm.

Chas’s face was almost grey, a slick of sweat on his forehead and his eyes tightly closed.

“Chas, you awake?” Jess asked softly, gently shaking him a little.

After a few minutes the boy’s eyes opened and stared at Jess, desperately trying to focus ….

Then after a moment he whispered, “Harper? Jess Harper, you come for me then?”

Jess nodded, ”I figure we need to clean up that wound and get you feelin’ a mite better before we discuss that Chas.”

The boy’s eyes opened wide at that.

“Ain’t no point Harper…. I ain’t gonna make it.”

“Sure you are I’ll go fetch some bandages, clean water and then…..”

The boy’s good arm shot out to pull Jess back.

“No,” he whispered “ain’t time for all that ….listen to me will yer?”

Jess settled back down, ”OK I’m listening.”

“I…. I did a terrible thing back there,” he said looking up at Jess….”I guess I killed old Betty didn’t I and I’m so damn sorry… I never meant to …I just panicked I reckon,” he said, his breath now coming in harsh gasps…

“Look boy, like I said you’re sick, we’ll talk about it later huh?”

“No point…” he gasped again, ”no point in fixin’ me up ‘cos I’m gonna hang anyways….”

“Look, Chas…”

“No hear me out please,” he said his expression beseeching.

Jess nodded again, ”Have yer say son iffen it’s gonna make yer feel better.”

“Tell my old grandmother as I’m real sorry. The way I’ve been these last months since Pa went….. And I’m sorry to you too Mister Harper, you tried to make me see sense I know that now….guess I just weren’t ready to hear.”

Jess bowed his head, “No arguments there son.”

“Anyways, it ain’t too late for Mick. He ain’t a bad ‘un Mister Harper, can you take him back….speak up for him? The robbin’ it weren’t his idea, tried to talk me out of it…but well I’d had me some drink…was past caring I guess……it weren’t Mick’s fault.”

“Yup, I know about that, old Ezra Grove said as much, how the kid looked dang scared.”

Chas agreed, ”That he was…..”

His eyes closed and his breathing became more erratic and Jess cursed the fact that there was no doc to help him.

After a minute he finally opened his eyes…”You still here?”

“Yup, I ain’t goin’ any place….”

“Tell….tell Mister Grove as I’m truly sorry… I guess I’ll get my comeuppance,” he sighed… ”goin’ straight to Hell I figure,” and his head rolled to one side as the life force finally left him.

Jess just stared at the youngster for a good minute.

“Goddamn it,” he swore..... ”what a waste.”

Sure the kid would have hung anyways iffen he’d taken him in…which he would have done, he knew that. But what really hurt was the fact that maybe he could have done more to prevent the whole sorry business. Him, Mort… the townsfolk maybe they should have taken more responsibility for trying to tame the young hell raiser before it had come to this.

Jess ran lightly down the stairs only to find the landlord slouched against the wall waiting for him.

“So you payin’ up then Mister, else they’re out tomorrow, like I said, this here ain’t a charity you know.”

“Oh yeah, I can see that,” Jess said bitterly, ”and don’t worry about your precious room the boy will be gone before the day’s out.”

The scruffy man raised an eyebrow at that, “Well there’s no need for them to leave, just need the money is all.”

Jess pulled his hat down hard, ”Goin’ anyway,” he muttered as he hauled the front door open, desperate to leave and get some fresh air in his lungs.

“How come?” Persisted the penny pinching landlord.

Jess spun around his face a mask of fury, ”Because he’s damn well dead, that’s why,” he yelled and slammed out of the house leaving a very subdued looking hombre in his wake.

He made his way straight to the undertakers, which he’d noticed as he’d ridden in, made all the arrangement and paid for them, before heading for the livery.

He saw Mick as soon as he entered, cleaning out a stall at the back and after a moment the blond headed kid looked up, at first mild interest at the newcomer registering in his eyes, which quickly turned to recognition and then terror as he dropped his pitchfork and tried to make a run for it out the back.

Jess caught up with him in the back yard and wrestled him to the ground, twisting a hand up his back and rendering him helpless.

“Will you stop struggling’ Mick for goodness sake I ain’t gonna hurt, you now will you simmer down we need to talk.”

Eventually the youngster nodded and Jess hauled him up and gestured for them to go and sit on a couple of straw bales across the yard.

The boy wiped a hand across his filthy face and sniffed loudly before finally looking Jess in the eye.

“Guess you got me fair and square Mister Harper…..”

Then he whispered, ”How’s the old lady….did she make it?”

Jess threw him a deeply saddened look, before shaking his head, ”Nope I’m afraid she didn’t Mick.”

The boy gave a long shuddering sigh…..

“So Chas….he’ll hang?” he whispered barely daring to look Jess in the eye now.

There was a long pause that seemed to last an eternity to the boy….

“Mister Harper……so will he?” he asked his eyes bright with unshed tears.

Finally Jess shook his head….

“No Mick…see…..” he sighed deeply, throwing the youngster a compassionate look, ”see he’s dead boy, died a little while back.”

Mick’s head shot up and he stared at Jess for a full minute as if the news hadn’t registered and then he leapt up.

“No, he cried , no he ain’t he can’t be…...he’s my brother….he can’t be dead,” and then he fell to his knees and started weeping inconsolably.

Jess watched him for a minute before getting up and pulling the boy to his feet. He then led him back to the straw bale and sat him down, before collapsing next to him and throwing a comforting arm around the youngster’s shoulders. Hell he’s just a kid Jess thought sadly; he shouldn’t have all this trouble at his door.

They buried Chas the following day and set off for Laramie soon after the committal.

It had taken place at dawn, with only Jess, Mick and the aged priest present and now as they rode through the early morning sunlight Jess could only guess at the misery the youngster was suffering.

They arrived in Laramie just as the Saloons were closing and there were many folk, most of them slightly the worse for drink, there to witness Jess riding in, the youngster beside him.

“Hey Harper,” said an alleged pillar of the community, ”you should have the cuffs on that killer, and your rifle aimed at him, call yourself a Deputy,” he hiccupped swaying slightly.

Jess ignored him and tethering Traveler outside Mort’s office he watched as the youngster did likewise, his eyes round with fear as the crowd around them increased.

“So you’ve got one of our murderers then Harper,” shouted another citizen….”so where’s the other then?”

Jess’s head snapped up at that and he pushed Mick gently in front of him towards the office door.

“The kid ain’t a murderer,” he said grimly.

“Sure…sure he ain’t,” came the drunken, sarcastic reply….”so where’s his brother then?”

Jess turned and surveyed the now large crowd and suddenly lost his temper.

He grabbed hold of Mick’s arm and spun him around to face the crowd.

“This is the prisoner a sixteen year old kid, scared to death and grievin’ for his brother ….”

Then he turned to his original questioner, ”And yes Chas is dead, died from the gunshot wound. It was him that killed Ma Grove and I buried him a couple of days since….So why don’t ya just get off home to your beds and leave this young ‘un alone I figure he’s paid the price….”and with that he turned and ushered Mick through into the Sherriff’s office.

Mort grinned at his good friend, ”That was quite a speech Jess, all true?“

Jess just nodded, and Mort took charge of the prisoner.

“Come this way son, I’ll get you a drink and some food in a moment,” he said before showing him into the cell next to Jody.

“Go easy on him huh Mort; he’s had a pretty rough time of it.”

Mort cast his buddy a quizzical glance, “You’re not getting soft in your old age are you Jess?“

He shrugged and stretched suddenly feeling dog tired.

“Guess I know how it feels getting up to your neck in trouble so darned fast you just can’t figure how you got there, then realising there ain’t no way out,” he said giving Mort a tired look.

“Yeah, well it may not be as black as you’ve painted it Jess for Mick or young Jody. Ezra Grove has written a statement saying as how it was all down to Chas and that Mick and Jody were half scared to death and played no part in the shooting. With that and maybe a reference from you or Slim I think the jury will be reasonably lenient.”


Later that evening Jess retired to Millie’s place, figuring it was too late to ride back to the ranch that night.

“So will you?”

Jess looked up from where he’d been studying the flames in Millie’s fireplace for the last ten minutes.


“Will you speak up for Mick and young Jody at the trial?”

He sighed and ran a hand across his face before replying.

“I guess so.”

“Well that’s mighty decent of you considering the trouble the Stockwell boys have been giving you and Mort lately with all their rebel rousing…..”


“And as for Jody, well have you forgotten everything he did to you Jess? That lie he told about me being hurt, stealing Blue…. heck poisoning you, you could have died…”

“I know…it’s just….”

“Just what Jess?” she asked taking his hand and peering deeply into his troubled eyes.

“The Stockwells…I figure we should have done more than just throw ‘em in jail when they got into trouble. Maybe we could have done somethin’,” he shrugged, ”I dunno. I just know how hard it was for Slim left to bring up his kid brother after their folks died and at least he had old Jonsey to help.”

Millie nodded.

“I reckon their old granny wasn’t much support bless her….and will be even less now.”

“Huh, what do ya mean?”

“Oh, you won’t have heard, she was trying to manage that place all alone, so darned stubborn wouldn’t have help and she fell badly, doc says she’s going to be laid up for a long while, may not walk properly again, that’s for sure. She’s gone off to live with some old friend of hers over Rawlins way.”

Jess bowed his head, ”Poor kid so he’ll be all alone now then I guess…..”

“You survived it Jess.”

“Weren’t easy though Mill you know that and young Mick, well I just don’t think he’d cope by himself.”

“Umm, I can see as how you’d feel sorry for him, I guess I do too…but that Jody, everything he put you through Jess….?”

“Sure I’m still kinda mad at him….but the truth is his Ma…, Teresa that is, told him a whole shed load of lies about me….The way I killed his Pa, that’s why he was so all fired mad at me…and I guess I can understand that….I remember how I felt at that age after the fire…yer know… it ain’t the kid’s fault he was lied to that way.”

Millie just shook her head beaming over at him, ”So what have you done with him then?” she asked with a giggle.


“The real Jess Harper, the ornery dude with the fast temper and attitude…where is he?”

He chuckled at that, ”Ain’t no disgrace in tryin’ to be reasonable is there?”

She just shrugged and laughed again.

Jess reached out from where he sat next to her on her large comfy sofa and pulled her into a warm embrace, looking deeply into her eyes.

“Well I guess I’ll just have to prove it’s the real me, and he leaned in for a kiss…..”

Chapter Fifteen

The following morning Jess called in at Mort’s office to complete the paper work on his arrests and found his old friend just pouring out his first coffee of the day. Mort gestured with the pot and then passed a steaming cup over.

“So how are the prisoners then?” Jess asked with a grin.

Mort looked less than happy.

“I had to break it to young Mick that his grandmother was too sick to live with him anymore…he took it really badly.”

“He can’t go live with her at Rawlins?”

“Doesn’t look like it …..isn’t any room it seems and this old biddy will have her work cut out caring for Ma Stockwell, without taking on her tearaway grandson too.”

“I can see that…”

“Jody’s holding up better, of course his Ma visits with him everyday….she’s quite a woman that Teresa.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“She’s mighty pretty too…..a real nice lady, shame she’d been so dang worried about her boy…asks everyday if you’re back…..if you’ve found young Chas and Mick….”

“Yeah well, at least we’ll be able to put her mind at rest on that score.”

“Umm, that’s real good…..one nice lady.”

Jess sat up and took notice at this…

“Hey Mort is there somethin’ you ain’t tellin’ me?” he said with a grin.

“Oh it isn’t me that has got the hots for her it’s your partner…guess she’s kind of turned his head.”

“You’re kiddin’ me…. but ol’ Hardrock’s seein’ Lily…..it ain’t like him to play away.”

“Well I don’t think it’s anything serious…just a mutual friendship,” he said with a wicked wink…”just looking out for her you know Jess.”

“Umm… I know alright, but it still ain’t like Slim….”

It was only ten minutes later that the office door opened admitting Slim with Teresa on his arm.

He stopped in his tracks when he saw Jess and although he smiled in welcome he looked slightly edgy.

“Jess, so how did you do?” he asked coming forwards and shaking his buddy’s hand.

“Mick’s in the cells, and Chas is dead, was him as shot Ma Grove, he admitted it before he died, so I figure Jody’s in the clear,” he said turning to Teresa.

She gave a little gasp and a hand shot to her mouth, her eyes round in shock and then she hurled herself at Jess, throwing her arms around him.

“Thank you, oh thank you,” she whispered.

Jess looked slightly bemused, but folded his arms around her and gave her a brief hug before pulling gently back, but not before he’d seen a fleeting look of anger on his friend’s face.

“That’s OK Ma’am,” he said softly. ”And Mort figures Jody will get a light sentence iffen me and Slim speak up for him.”

She stared up at him in astonishment at that notion.

“You’d do that….after all he put you through?”

Jess looked slightly embarrassed for a moment but rallied well.

“Sure, wouldn’t we pard?” he said looking over for collaboration.

“Of course,” said Slim somewhat tersely.

Then turning to Jess, ”Are you coming home then Jess, the work’s piling up.”

Jess exchanged a knowing look with Mort, but said nothing, just finished his coffee and stood up to leave.

“We’ll see you tonight then Teresa,” Slim said giving her an adoring look, ”you’ll manage on the Stage… I could drive the buggy out?”

“No, you’ve done quite enough thank you Slim dear,” she said flushing slightly,” I’ll be just fine on the Stage,” and she hurried off to see her son and discuss the good news.

Once they were outside Jess turned a quizzical gaze on his buddy, “Slim…dear? What’s goin’ on pard?”

“Don’t know what you mean,” said Slim flushing up and looking uncomfortable, he quickly changed the subject.

“So where did you stay last night, thought you’d have made it home?” he said brusquely.

“Well you thought wrong,” replied Jess equally forcefully.

Slim just looked at him an eyebrow raised, waiting for a proper answer.

“It was too dang late by the time we rode in, so I stayed at Millie’s…besides I was kinda beat.”

“Yeah, busy being the hero as usual,” Slim muttered.


“Nothing, look you get on home Jess, I promised Daisy I’d do the marketing after I’d dropped Teresa off.”

“OK,” said Jess, deciding it wasn’t worth retaliating to that last jibe.

Then Slim grabbed his arm and pulled him back to face him.

“Did you…err……did you see Lily last night by any chance?”

“Sure I did she works there don’t she,” said Jess, referring to the Saloon where Millie worked alongside her good friend Lily.

“She was OK?”

“Yeah, seemed it, why don’t you call in later and see for yourself.”

Slim’s head snapped up at that…

“We can’t all spend half our lives hanging around saloons Jess….some of us have got work to do,” and with that he marched off without a backwards glance.

Jess stared open mouthed at his buddy’s retreating back.

“Now what the hell’s gotten into him?” he muttered as he wandered off to the livery to fetch Traveler.

When Slim returned with the supplies he unloaded and then went off to saddle up.

Jess who was just stacking the last of the shopping in the kitchen exchanged a glance with Daisy.

“So where’s he off to now, he’s barely said a word to me since I landed back.”

She just shrugged, “He does seem to be a little out of sorts lately.”

Jess pulled his hat down hard and marched into the yard just as Slim and Alamo were emerging from the barn.

“Where are you off to in such a hurry then pard?” asked Jess grinning up at the tall rancher as he mounted, and sat there looking moody.

“Fences need checking on the east pasture,” he said succinctly.

“Noon Stage will be by in a while, ain’t you stoppin’ for that?”

“I figure you can manage Jess, after all you seem to be expert at managing most things don’t you,” said Slim bitterly.

“Well what the hell’s that supposed to mean?” asked Jess looking hurt, but Slim had spurred his mount off to a brisk trot and didn’t deign to answer.

Jess removed his hat and ran a hand through his unruly black hair, gazing off after his friend a puzzled expression on his lean face.

Things got even worse that evening.

Slim had been out all day, missing the mid day meal and then rode back in just before the late afternoon Stage was due and showered and shaved.

Jess wandered into their shared room and found Slim washed, shaven and just putting on a clean shirt.

“You goin’ to town,” he asked with interest, ”goin’ to check up on Miss Lily after all?”

Then he looked thoughtful, ”I remember now Millie said as how you hadn’t been by for a while, good move pard goin’ in on a week night, keep the little lady sweet eh?”

Slim’s head shot up at that and he looked furious, ”No I’m not …just smartening up for supper, you should try it sometime Jess,” and with that he marched out in high dudgeon.

It was a few minutes later that Jess heard the Stage rattling in and went out to change the team.

As Slim joined him he gave him a grin, ”Now take it easy pard, you don’t wanna get mussed up, maybe you should leave it to me and Mose huh?” he joked.

To his amazement Slim turned his back on him and went over and pulled the door open and then after helping Teresa alight, took her arm and walked her off towards the porch.

“Hey Slim I was only kiddin’,” Jess called, but Slim just ushered Teresa inside and slammed the door behind him.

In the meantime Mike had jumped down and ran to Jess throwing his arms around him, giving him a bear hug.

“Gee it’s good to have you home Jess…Did yer get ‘em; those ol’ Stockwells….did yer?”

Jess returned the hug and nodded, ”Sure, and it’s good to be home Tiger, school go OK?”

“Yup, real good, I came second in the spelling bee!”

“Good boy, well done, help me change the team?”

“Sure I will,” he said beaming from ear to ear.

“Well at least someone’s pleased I’m back,” he muttered, turning to the task in hand.

Afterwards bearing in mind Slim’s criticism he went and washed up, but drew the line at shaving and changing just for a meal at home.

When he returned supper was being served and he slid into his place next to Mike and opposite Teresa.

As soon as he sat down she smiled at him.

“Oh Jess I can’t tell you how much Jody and I appreciate you going after those Stockwell boys.”

“Oh I think you did this morning,” broke in Slim with a smile, that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I know,” she said turning beguiling eyes on him, ”but I’m just so relieved Slim.”

Then the conversation turned to general talk of this and that, with Slim laughing and flirting a little with Teresa and pretty much ignoring Jess.

After a while Teresa started chatting to Jess about his trip and the more she laughed and chatted with him the more miserable and silent Slim became.

When the meal was nearly over she said, “Jody really wants to see you Jess, when you are next in town, he feels terrible, wants to apologise… for everything he did to you……he is so ashamed.”

“Yeah…..well,” said Jess looking down, the words ’so he darned well should be’ left hanging in the air.

However after a moment he met her eyes and smiled, ”OK, we’ll be in Saturday night won’t we pard?” he said cheerfully.

Then turning to Teresa, “We ride in every Saturday night to see our g…..“

“Jess!” Slim yelled making everyone at the table jump.

Jess looked surprised, ”What?”

“Err….. I’m sure Miss Teresa isn’t interested in your Saturday night exploits…..and if you’ve finished could you go over the paper work for the Army contract with me, I need to check the figures,” he said standing up and moving over to his desk.

“What now?”


Jess sighed deeply and wiped his mouth on his napkin before standing up.

“Thank you Daisy that was great,” he said.

Then turning to Teresa, nodded to her, ”Excuse me Ma’am,” and left the table.

Once Daisy and Teresa had dealt with the washing up, they brewed some coffee and Daisy called the boys over from their paperwork and they all settled around the fire.

From the outset Teresa engaged Jess in conversation, again asking details of how he’d tracked down the Stockwells, looking totally fascinated by the dark handsome young man’s every comment. Then she asked him about the work of mustang breaking and Jess was beginning to enjoy himself chatting and engaging in a little light banter.

Then he caught Slim’s eye.

His buddy was again silent and brooding and the look he threw Jess would have darned well curdled the milk, as Jess said later to Daisy.

After a while Jess began to feel kind of uncomfortable and rising said, ”I figure I’ll go and check on Mike, see how the homework’s goin’,” and left the room.

He stayed in with the youngster for an hour or so, helping him with his school work and then tucking him in and reading a story.

When he returned to the sitting room it was empty and he wandered into the kitchen to find Daisy at the sink washing up the coffee cups.

He grabbed a cloth and started drying.

“So where is everyone then?”

“Oh, err…Teresa wanted an early night and Slim walked her across the yard….he should be back soon,” she said glancing at the clock on the wall.

Jess put the cup he was drying and the cloth down and turned to the wise old housekeeper.

“What’s goin’ on Daisy, Slim’s been like a bear with a sore head ever since I got back…and what was all that rubbish about checking the Army contract figures, he knows I’m about as clued up on profit margins and all that stuff as the darned cat.”

Daisy put the last saucer on the drainer and drying her hands went and sat at the kitchen table and patted the seat next to her.

Jess sat, ”Well?”

“I think he was jealous dear, wanted to get you away from the table….”

“Jealous,” Jess echoed, ”of what?”

“Your relationship with Teresa, she’s obviously very impressed by you. All you’ve done to help Jody and I think Slim just feels he’s had his nose pushed out of joint a little.”

Jess looked down at his hands clasped on the table in front of him for a minute before turning surprised eyes on Daisy, “You mean he’s interested in her?” he finally managed.

Daisy just looked thoughtful, “It certainly looks that way.”

Then Jess remembered Mort’s words, ’your partner’s got the hots for her’…and then said it was just a mutual friendship, and so Jess had forgotten all about it, but now….

So maybe Slim really was interested.

“Heck Daisy what about Lily…. I thought he was real keen on her?”

“I think he still is dear, but right now he’s very confused and upset, that’s why he’s been so short with you…so try and be patient will you?”

“Umm…. well I guess, but I don’t like it Daisy, I’m real fond of Lily…iffen he’s been cheating on her…..”

Just then the back door burst open and Slim marched in looking flushed and guilty, when he saw Daisy and Jess with their heads together.

“What are you two gossiping about?” he asked, only half joking.

“Oh nothing dear, would you like some more coffee?”

He shook his head, “I think I’ll have an early night,” and he disappeared off to the bedroom.

Daisy sighed deeply, “Will you talk to him dear….please?”

“I dunno Daisy, seems like I’m the last person he wants around right now.”

She threw him her most beseeching look, and he was lost.

“OK, OK you win,” and leaning over he kissed her tenderly on the forehead, ”don’t worry Daisy, I’ll talk some sense into him.”

When he entered the bedroom a little later Slim was stretched out on his bed reading.

Jess came and slumped down on his own bed and glancing over said, “Any good?”

“Yeah,” Slim muttered, ”right up your alley, all about a dragon slaying knight always protecting the ladies.” Jess had suddenly had enough and jumping up he peered down at Slim looking angry. “Look Slim I dunno what I’m supposed to be guilty of, but I’m getting kinda sick of you bad mouthin’ me. Heck I ain’t done nuthin’….and I sure as hell ain’t interested in Teresa iffen that’s what yer thinkin’.

Slim threw the book down and sighed deeply.

“Well I never said you were!”

“So why are you so dang mad at me then?”

Slim jumped up and started pacing around the room, before spinning around and looking his buddy in the eye properly.

“I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at me!”

“Huh, so what are you sayin’?”

“That I’m sorry Jess; I guess I’ve been behaving like a prize fool and in more ways than one.”

“So…you wanna tell me about it then?”

He went over to his chest of draws and after digging about for a bit came back with a half full bottle of red eye.

Jess looked at him and then threw his pard a cheeky grin, ”I’ll get the glasses.”

Once they were stretched out on their respective beds, drink in hand, Jess said…”So….what’s the story?”

“I guess I can’t really explain it…we just seemed to sorta hit it off after you lit out,” he said glancing over at Jess. “She was really worried and I kinda reassured her and….we got…..close.”

He paused and threw back his drink before replenishing his glass and offering the bottle over to Jess.

“How close?” asked Jess darkly…..

“I’ve kissed her a couple of times….and…”

“And what,” said Jess sitting up and swinging his legs off the bed, so that he could see his pard better….”are yer tellin’ me you’ve been cheatin’ on sweet little Lily?” he asked angrily.

“Yes….no, well not really…”

“Hell Slim which is it…have you slept with Teresa or not?”

“No….no of course not, but I guess I have up here,” he said tapping his head and looking acutely embarrassed.

Jess sank back down again, “Well hell that don’t count none.”

“It does as far as I’m concerned I feel just terrible. I love Lily….but well I’m attracted to Teresa, I feel kind of responsible for her you know?”

“Slim will you just simmer down, these things happen…”

“They might happen to you Jess, but not to me…..”

“I guess you’ll just have to decide which one you wanna be with then won’t you,” Jess said succinctly, ”because it sure ain’t fair on either of ‘em the way you are.”

Slim bowed his head, “It’s over now anyway,” he said morosely.

“Huh, what do ya mean?”

“Well you’re back on the scene, I saw the way she was looking at you over supper…Just couldn’t get enough, ’oh Jess, I don’t know how to thank you,’” he said in a parody of Teresa….

Jess realised that his buddy had been topping up his glass time and again as they were talking and now he looked flushed and his words were starting to slur.

“Don’t Slim,” he said softly, “that ain’t true and you know it, she was just grateful, that’s all.”

“Oh yeah, she looked like she was real grateful,” he slurred looking furious….”bet she’d do just about anything to thank you……”

“Slim, it’s the drink talkin’ you don’t mean that….”

“The hell I don’t,” he said jumping up and staggering slightly, glaring at Jess….”and you encouraged her, flirting and laughing….”

“Slim, garldarn it I was just being friendly…what do ya want me to do ignore the woman?”

Slim sank down heavily on his bed and put his head in his hands…”No, no of course not,” then he looked up at his buddy with bloodshot eyes.

“You’re right Jess I’m acting like a complete jerk, I’m sorry.”

Jess gently pushed him backwards so Slim lay back down on the bed and then he covered him over with a blanket before removing the bottle and glasses from the nightstand.

When he returned he looked down to where Slim lay, staring up at the ceiling looking totally dejected.

“Come on Hardrock, you get some shuteye and we’ll talk it out tomorrow, huh?”

He nodded….and then threw his friend a sheepish look, “Sorry pard.”

Jess gave him a gentle clip to the head, “Night Slim.”


Chapter Sixteen

The following morning Slim was late to the breakfast table and both Daisy and Teresa exchanged a concerned glance as they took in the cowboy’s blood shot eyes and pale face, where as Jess just hid a smile and said nothing.

Mike was oblivious to the atmosphere and started rattling off the latest spellings he had learnt for a test that day, for all to hear, before Slim groaned, ”Keep it down a tad will you Mike, I’ve got a really bad head.”

The youngster looked worried, ”Gee I’m sorry Slim…. I expect it was all that number work you and Jess were doin’ last night after supper, math gives me a headache too sometimes,” he confided.

Jess almost choked on his coffee at that, but the moment passed as Daisy arrived bearing a huge plate of bacon and eggs, which she placed before him.

Slim took one look and turning slightly green he leapt up from the table and hightailed it out of the kitchen door making for the outhouse.

“Is he alright?” asked Teresa looking anxious.

“Sure,” said Jess tucking into his breakfast, ”least ways he will be sooner or later.”

Teresa looked mystified, but said no more and Daisy went off to give his breakfast to the dogs, shaking her head, it wasn’t like Slim to resort to strong drink in times of trouble, things must be really bad.

When he still hadn’t returned ten minutes later and with the Stage imminent Mike was chivvied up to get his books and Teresa rose ready to travel with Mike on the coach for her usual visit with her son, but Jess stopped her.

“I’ve, err gotta go to town to collect some timber, we’ve a fence down and I could drive you in and see Jody too,” he suggested, ”that’s iffen you don’t mind ridin’ in the old buckboard?”

“Oh, I’d like that,” she said beaming at him, ”and I know Jody needs to get his apologies off his chest as soon as he can, he feels just awful Jess, really,” she said resting a hand on his arm for a moment.

Jess glanced down and she removed it quickly, ”I’ll just fetch my jacket,” she said as she ran off to the bunkhouse.

They’d been driving for about ten minutes, with Jess desperately trying to think of a way to broach the subject of Slim’s feelings for Teresa and try and see if she was interested, when she suddenly turned to him and said, ”Jess may I speak to you in confidence?”

His head swivelled and he looked surprised, “Why sure.”

“It’s about Slim.”


“I think I may have…..possibly given him the wrong impression…”

“Go on,” he said warily.

She sighed and looked down, ”This is really hard for me.”

They were just passing the lake and Jess pulled the buckboard over.

“Shall we sit awhile?”

She glanced over to the lake, sparkling in the early morning sunlight and nodded, ”That would be wonderful, thank you.”

He helped her down and they wandered over to the same fallen log that he’d been resting on when he first met Slim all those years ago and they sat down on it, looking out at the magnificent view spread before them.

“Is this the place….you know where you and Slim first met?” she asked smiling up at him, an eyebrow raised in question.

He nodded and grinned at her, ”So how do ya know about that?“

“Oh young Mike told me all about it, said it was his favourite bedtime story.”

Jess chuckled. ”That it is.”

“So you must know Slim really well….”

“I guess, as well as anyone, better than most, so why do ya ask?” he said turning his intense blue gaze upon her.

“He’s a very honourable man isn’t he…takes things very seriously?”

“I guess you could say so yeah…. he’s kinda intense….especially where people….you know….affairs of the heart are concerned,” he said, casting her a searching look and flushing slightly.

“Umm……that’s what I was afraid of,” she said softly. “You see recently I have been feeling very helpless, just getting over my illness and then the shock of all this business with Jody. Well I fear it has made me rather overemotional in need of comfort…..and dear Slim and Daisy of course, have been kindness itself.”

“Yeah, well that’s understandable,” he agreed, “seeing all you’ve been through of late.”

She continued without answering him, ”So that is why I have acted the way I have…maybe showing Slim more affection than is ….. well, more than is wholly proper……under the circumstances.”

Jess ran a finger around his collar beginning to perspire and wishing he was miles away from this conversation and this pretty, honest woman.

“And so you think he’s kinda read more into your relationship…. than you’re offering,” he finally managed.

Her whole expression lit up at that, “Oh Jess that’s exactly right, you understand perfectly,” and then her face fell….”I fear I’ve hurt him and I just don’t know what to do…”

“So you’re not…well not looking for anyone then?” asked Jess, knowing he had to be absolutely sure before breaking it to Slim.

She shook her head and then turned sad eyes on him.

“There is someone else you see…or there was… He wanted to marry after my dear husband died…but it was too soon and I sent him away, he was terribly hurt and I don’t think he’ll ever be back….But I love him and so I guess I’ll just live my life alone….and that won’t be so bad, if only my dear Jody can be with me again, once all this is over and he’s paid for what he’s done.”

“I’m sorry about that,” he said softly, ”but I guess it’s sometimes better to be alone than with the wrong person….and iffen this other guy really cares, I figure he’ll be back for you.”

“You really think so?”

“Sure, and don’t worry about Slim huh, I’ll explain.”

She nodded, “Thank you,” and she patted his arm gently, “Daisy was right you are a good man.”

He looked down suddenly shy, ”Come on, Jody will be frettin’ if yer late….”

Chapter Seventeen

Jess walked out of Mort’s office and stood looking up and down the street for a moment.

He’d, had a long and emotional exchange with young Jody. The boy had been beside himself with remorse at the way he’d treated Jess and finally had been forgiven. However Jess hadn’t made it easy for him and the youngster was left in no doubt at all as to the hardship and pain he had caused Jess by his actions. By the end of the interview both Jody and his Ma were tearful.

Jess had finally left the cell, with Jody spent, but at last at peace, as he knew Jess had found it in his heart to forgive him.

Teresa had joined Jess in Mort’s office, blowing her nose and wiping her eyes, and Mort glanced up throwing Jess a look of askance at the state of the poor widow woman.

Jess shrugged and then turned back to Teresa.

“Look I’m real sorry about the way I was back there. But he had to realise what he’d done. Dang it Teresa he could’ve killed me with that stunt with the mushrooms. He’s old enough now to be accountable…. and with kids this age…well you really ain’t doing them any favours by being too easy on ‘em.”

Her head shot up at that….”Oh I know,” she said at once.

He just nodded, ”I’m sorry that I upset you too….”

“No Jess, you don’t understand, I’m not crying for Jody. He deserved to hear everything you said and God willing it will stop him from ever doing that sort of thing again…. It was you,” she said turning earnest eyes upon him….”I just feel so terrible about what he’s done to you.”

Jess looked down feeling slightly embarrassed at this outburst and in front of Mort too.

“Well there’s no need Ma’am,” he said quickly, before plucking his hat from Mort’s desk and ramming it firmly in place.

“I’d better be goin’ work to do, see you tonight,” and he was gone.

Now he stood on the sidewalk outside the office, knowing what he had to do next, but not looking forward to it one iota.

He wandered down the street and entered the Laramie saloon and after a moment Lily came out from the back room and smiled up at him.

“Hey Jess we don’t usually catch you in here on a weekday. If you’re looking for Millie you’re out of luck I’m afraid she’s out visiting, can I help….beer is it?”

“No thanks, I ain’t drinkin’ and you’ll do just fine,” he said grinning over at the pretty fair haired girl.

“So what can I do for you then Jess?” she asked leaning on the bar and looking up at him with trusting blue eyes.

Jess’s heart missed a beat as he thought of the way Slim had been treating her of late and he felt a sudden wave of anger towards his buddy.

“I just wondered if you’d seen Jake Boswell recently I believe he’s still in town?”

Lily looked slightly crestfallen, but rallied quickly.

“Yes he’s in here most nights, but drinks somewhere else on a weekend when you’re in here…after everything that’s been said I think he’s trying to avoid you.”

Jess nodded, knowing the truth of it, he’d pontificated long and loud at the bar saying how he thought Boswell was responsible for all the mayhem that had devastated his life. Which he knew now was purely attributable to young Jody. However he’d been persuaded by Mort to leave well alone and as the evidence was somewhat tenuous Jess had been persuaded to leave the gypsy alone and not seek him out.

“So, do ya know where I can find him then? I figure some idiots employed him, for him to have beer money?”

She looked down then, “Jess are you sure it’s a good idea confronting him, you know what Mort said, if any concrete evidence came to light he’d deal with it.”

He grinned at that idea, ”Hey Lily, you’re getting as good as Mill for tryin’ to keep me outer trouble,” he chuckled.

“Well someone has to when you’re best girl’s away,” she said joining his laughter.

“Don’t worry, I ain’t gonna beat him up…quite the opposite,” he said with a frown…”so?”

“He’s working for Charles Booth and Co.”

Jess looked incredulous at that news, ”What Charlie the undertaker?”

She nodded, ”As a handy man and coffin maker for Charlie.“

“Oh well I guess he can’t do much harm there,” he chuckled, ”all the dang clients are already dead, so no point in cursing them I guess.”

“Oh Jess, you are terrible,” she said trying to keep a straight face.

He turned to go, ”Thanks sweetheart.”

“Jess, hang on a minute.”


“Is Slim OK I haven’t seen him in over a month…he’s not been sick has he?”

Jess thought back to the events of that morning and hid a smile remembering the after effects of the strong drink….then he sobered. How could his pard be so unfeeling towards the girl he professed to love? But then he remembered the obvious distress his buddy was suffering over the matter and turned back to Lily.

“Err, he’s been a bit out of sorts lately, workin’ hard too…Sure he’ll be by real soon though honey,” and with that he left quickly, before she questioned him further and just hoping his words would come true.

He marched purposefully down the street and entered old Charlie Booth’s establishment.

He hated the place, been in it way too many times…

Charlie poked his head around from the curtain at the back and beamed when he saw who it was, his usually lugubrious face brightening considerably.

“No need to look so pleased to see me Charlie, I ain’t bringing you business.”

The Undertaker chuckled at that news, “So what can I do for you then Jess boy?”

“I wanted a quick word with Jake.”

Charlie’s face fell, ”Now I don’t want any trouble Jess.”

“You ain’t gonna get none, heck Charlie I’m here to apologise to him…OK?”

Charlie’s face was a study….”Really?”

“I can do that you know,” then he winked at the old man…”sure ain’t easy though.”

The undertaker smiled, “He’s out back, help yourself son.”

Jess entered the yard and found Boswell hammering a coffin, but his head shot up and he surveyed Jess nervously as he approached.

“What do you want Harper, come to tell some more dang lies about me?”

Jess shook his head…”Nope come to tell you I was wrong all along. It was someone else altogether as done all those things and I’m real sorry I’ve been bad mouthin’ you.”

Jake looked like he might faint clear away from shock.

“Now let me get this straight,” he said after a moment, carefully laying his hammer down. ”So this is the great Jess Harper actually apologising…sayin’ he was wrong about something?”

Jess looked far from happy, ”Yeah, and don’t milk it Boswell…. I was wrong and I admit it, but I wasn’t wrong about the way you were around the horses. And I reckon I can’t forgive you for what you did to old Prince….But as to this other business, yep I’m real sorry for what I’ve said.”

Boswell just stared at him and then his swarthy face broke into a grin…

“I guess you ain’t as bad as I’ve been thinkin’,” he said eventually. ”Yup I was out of order about that grand horse of yours….and that beating I gave yer and I’ve had time to kinda reconsider my opinion of you since then.”


“Yeah, that little saloon girl…..Lily put me right. She said as how you were real good friends with a Romany family, really helped ‘em out when they needed it…So I take back what I said to you about you bein’ against our kind.”

He advanced and offered a hand, “So no hard feelings?”

Jess paused for a moment and then took the offered hand, ”So long as you stay away from the horses I guess so,” he said with a cheerful grin.

“You’ve got a deal,” Jake said.

Jess turned to go…

“Just one thing though Jess, curses work in mysterious ways you know….It still could have been me behind that stuff all along,” he said with a cheeky wink.

Jess just rolled his eyes and chuckled as he wandered off…


Jess rolled back into the yard just before noon and saw Slim at the log store, sweating over a huge pile of freshly cut wood.

He jumped down from the buckboard and wandered over as Slim wiped his sleeve over his hot face and squinted over at him.

“How are yer feelin’?”

“How do you think?”

“As good as that eh?” Jess grinned.

“Daisy said you took Teresa into town?” Slim said ignoring the banter.

Jess nodded, ”Look Slim we need to talk about all that business.”

Slim just shook his head, ”There’s no point, it’s just like I said, the old Harper charm has done its work as usual,” he said bitterly.

“Slim will you listen to me and……stop being so dang sorry for yourself…..”

“Just leave it!” Slim yelled and throwing down the axe marched off towards the barn.

Jess sprinted after him and pulled him around by the arm.

“Slim, please you’ve got it all wrong I haven’t……”

Jess never saw the punch coming, one minute he was desperately trying to remonstrate with his buddy and the next he was laying on the deck peering up at him, blood trickling down his chin from a split lip.

He shook his head to clear it.

Then both men heard a little gasp and saw Daisy standing on the porch where she’d been about to call them in for dinner, her face white with shock and disbelief in her old, grey eyes.

Slim looked down at his best friend, a myriad of expressions flitting across his handsome features from, shock, through to deep regret and finally shame before he turned and marched away towards the barn.

Jess hauled himself up and picking up his hat dusted himself down, his eyes never straying from the barn that his pard had so recently entered.

He moved to follow him and then felt a gentle hand on his arm.

“No dear, leave him, come inside and let me tend to that face.”

Jess dragged his gaze away from the barn door and focused on Daisy, her face still ashen and her eyes brimming with tears.

“It’s OK,” he said softly, “don’t fret Daisy.”

She linked her arm in his as they made their way slowly back to the ranch house.

“How can I not when I see the two young men I love best in the world hurting each other?” she whispered.

Once inside she made him sit at the kitchen table while she busied herself fetching her medical kit.

He sat patiently whilst she tended to him, but when she suggested she serve up the meal he shook his head.

“I’m real sorry Daisy; I just couldn’t eat anything right now.”

She sighed deeply, “No me neither,” and she poured them out restorative coffee.

“What on earth was that all about?” she asked finally.

Jess shrugged, ”I dunno really Daisy. Slim seems to have gotten some crazy idea in his head that Teresa is…well yer know…..” he finished vaguely.

“Jess dear, I’m not a mind reader, Teresa is what?”

“I dunno….kinda keen on me.”

“And is she dear?”

He remembered how tearful she had been that morning and grateful to him, and knew he must answer Daisy honestly.

“No, not really, we talked this morning and she said that she was just feelin’ kinda helpless and over emotional after being sick for so long and then all the business about Jody and all….”

“Well that’s understandable.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said Daisy, and she said she’d been in need of comfort and how kind you and Slim had been while I was away lookin’ for the Stockwells.”

She nodded, ”Go on.”

“She also said that maybe she’d shown more affection than was …sorta appropriate as far as Slim was concerned….She was just real grateful, but she thinks Slim kinda read more into it all…”

“Well that’s for sure,” said Daisy with a little asperity, ”if he feels so strongly about her that he’s jealous of his own best friend.”

Jess just bowed his head at this, inwardly agreeing with her, his painful face a stark reminder of their recent clash.

“He doesn’t have any cause for jealousy does he dear?” she said softly, being well aware of Jess’s reputation with the ladies, whether deserved or not.

“No Ma’am,” he said looking affronted, ”I ain’t been messin’ with her Daisy, why would I? Sure she’s a real pretty lady and I like her. She’s real grateful for all I’ve done for her too, but that’s as far as it goes. Anyway she ain’t interested in either of us, seems she’s mooning after some guy who lit out a while back. He didn’t wanna wait to get wed and Teresa thought it too soon after her old man died…..so he walked out on her.”

Daisy shook her head, ”You young people I really can’t keep up with you all…”

“Yeah, well you don’t have to,” he said miserably, “It’s me that’s gotta break the news to Slim…an’ I guess I’d better try duckin’ this time,” he said with his crooked smile.

He walked into the barn a little later to find it deserted and after leaning on the corral fence pondering the problem for a few minutes he took off decisively across the home pasture, towards the creek.

Daisy who had been secretly observing him from the kitchen window, returned to the table and poured another coffee and just prayed that her boys would soon settle their differences and preferably without any more bloodshed she thought as she went to tidy her medical supplies away.

Jess made his way down the steep slope to the creek and there he found Slim, sitting on a huge flat rock overlooking the rushing water, just as he knew he would.

It was a place for solitude and privacy and Jess would sometimes go down there too, just to think, take a break or even do some fishing.

Now he watched his pard for a moment or two sitting as still as a statue and staring morosely into the foaming water below, before he wandered over and sat down beside him.

Slim flicked him a glance and then continued studying the water.

“Shouldn’t do it pard, I don’t wanna get all wet havin’ to pull you out.”

The ghost of a smile flitted across Slim’s face, how the heck could his friend joke after what he’d done to him, he wondered fleetingly.

Then he turned to look at him properly and saw the swollen lip and dark bruising to his face and Slim felt a stab of pain at what he’d done.

“Does it hurt much?” he finally managed throwing Jess a deeply embarrassed glance.

“Some…. I wouldn’t like you to have another go that’s for sure,” Jess said softly.

Slim flinched, almost like he’d been hit.

“Hell, I’m so damn sorry Jess….I figure I’m just not myself right now.”

Yeah, well I guess I’ve just about had my fill of bein’ understandin’ and forgivin’ today, Jess thought. Remembering his long discussion with Jody and then the humble pie he’d had to eat concerning Jake Boswell.

When Jess said nothing, Slim sighed deeply and then turned to face him again.

“So is she interested in you then?”

Jess just shook his head, desperately trying to stay patient.

“But you wouldn’t say no, would you Jess,” Slim said bitterly, ”I’ve seen the way you look at her!“

“Goddamn it Slim how many times do I have ter tell you, I ain’t interested and she ain’t interested in me….or you either!”

He took a deep breath and wiped a sleeve across his hot face. So much for breaking things gently….well done Harper, he thought to himself.

Slim was just staring at him, looking shocked now….”What do you mean?”

“Look Slim, I’m real sorry, but the reason I offered to drive her to town was to find out what was going on with her…. I just didn’t wanna see you hurt, is all.”

“So, what did she say?”

Jess bowed his head and collected his thoughts for a moment before replying.

“She ain’t interested in either of us like I say. There’s some guy in her past that she’s still keen on, hopin’ maybe it’ll work out some day. ….She said as how she never meant to lead you on, to hurt you Slim. She was just feelin’ in need of some comfort and I guess you were there at the right time to help her out some….but she don’t want you to read any more than that in it….see?”

Slim sank his head into his hands and remained that way for some time, before finally taking a deep breath and once more peering down into the foamy depths of the river.

Jess just didn’t know what to say.

After a while he said quietly, ”Don’t take on so Slim, these things happen, you’ll get over it.”

“I guess I’m just not cut out for this kind of thing,” he replied dolefully.

“Whereas I am I suppose,” said Jess a twinkle in his eye.

“Well you’ve sure had a lot more practice,” Slim agreed.

They both smiled at the truth of that….

They sat in companionable silence for a while before Jess turned back to his friend.

“Lily’s missin’ you something fierce you know Slim. I saw her today, she was askin’ after you.”


“Yup, so how about we go to the dance Saturday and you can mend a few fences huh?”

“Deal,” then he looked thoughtful, “talking of fences, did you get that timber?”

Jess laughed shaking his head, “Well you sure bounced back pretty darned quick.”

“Yeah well after that business with the whisky and then fighting my best buddy, I reckon this whole thing’s caused way to much bother. I figure I’ll just be a one woman man from now on….”

Jess gave a sigh of relief, “Well that’s good Slim, so you go unload the buckboard….I’m kinda hungry figure I’ll see if Daisy kept my dinner hot,” and he jumped up.

“Hey wait for me…dinner, is dinner ready then?”

Of course things were not as cut and dried as that and Slim suffered deeply over his infatuation with Teresa, sorely trying his buddy’s patience.

However Teresa was acutely aware of the atmosphere she had caused and a few days later she moved out to cheap lodgings in Laramie, pleading the need to be near to her son as the date of his trial drew closer. All at the ranch knew the real reason of course, but it was never spoken of and once she had departed life returned, pretty much, to normal.

The men resumed their usual pattern of working hard all week and then spending time with their girls over the weekend and Jess was pleased to see that Lily and Slim seemed to be happily back together again, although Slim was still often subdued and sometimes distant at home.

Chapter Eighteen

The day of the trial dawned bright and sunny and Jess and Slim got through their chores in record time before riding off to town.

They met up with Jody and Teresa in Mort’s office and Teresa, particularly, was in a terrible state, looking close to tears. As soon as he saw her Slim went over and put a protective arm around her shoulders.

“It won’t be so bad you’ll see,” he said softly. “Jess and I will speak up for him and even old Ezra is prepared to say that both Jody and Mick had been pushed into it by Chas.”

She just shook her head sadly, “It doesn’t change the fact that he was there and a woman is now dead, I can understand how her husband and the town folk must feel….if only they knew the real Jody.”

Both boys stood up to the ordeal reasonably well, speaking out clearly when asked questions. Then later when Mort took the stand and explained about the extenuating circumstances of both youngsters, having had difficult lives prior to the incident, it looked as though the judge might be reasonably lenient.

Then both Slim and Jess testified as to the youngsters’ remorse since the incident and their firm vow to lead law abiding lives henceforth.

It was during the recess that Mort wandered over to Slim and Jess and asked for a quiet word.

“I’ve discussed the matter with the judge and I really believe if young Jody were allowed to continue working for you for a while, after a short custodial sentence, then he would be quite lenient on the boy.”

It took both men a few minutes to take on the full significance of this and Jess exchanged an anxious glance with his partner.

“What about his Ma, would she go back home?” he asked Mort.

He shook his head, ”I doubt it; she’s been looking for work locally. If he’s sentenced to do his time here in Laramie she’ll stay, I know that for a fact.”

Jess shook his head at that insight ”Gee I dunno Mort, it’s a big ask, I’m not sure as we can afford to take him on for any length of time….and….”

“Jess, we need a word,” Slim said butting in, “will you excuse us a moment Mort?”

The two men wandered outside the court house.

“Look Jess we can manage to keep him on for a few months at least….”

“Oh come on Slim, I just said that as an excuse….You’re just gettin’ over all that business with Teresa, getting your life back together and if we take the kid on, well she’ll be around all the time, do you really want that?”

He shook his head, ”Nope, I guess not…but we can’t let the boy down….”

“I know, and what about young Mick? He’s had a pretty rough deal too, what with his pa dyin’ that way and then his brother and his old granny don’t look like she’s long fer this world either.”

“Umm……she made a good impression on the jury though, limping in on that stick and then saying what a good boy he was before his Pa passed.”

“As far as I remember both lads were always a mite lively…but they sure kicked off after old man Stockwell died that’s for sure,” said Jess with a grim smile. ”But by all accounts the kid’s prepared to turn things around and him and Jody are real good friends now too.”

Slim shook his head in amazement, ”I just can’t figure how you’re being so reasonable about these boys Jess, after the way Jody was to you. As for Mick and Chas, they led you and Mort a merry old dance with all their shenanigans around town, that time you were deputizing.”

“Yeah well, maybe I can kinda understand it some. It weren’t that long ago as I was a wet behind the ears kid gettin’ into trouble is it Slim and I’d have turned things around a hell of a lot quicker iffen someone had taken me in hand, back then.”

“So what are you saying we should take them both on?” asked Slim looking dazed.

“No I ain’t….look let’s just sit tight and see what happens, huh…no point in rushin’ into anything.”

“But you agree in principle Jess, to taking Jody on if that means he gets a lighter sentence?”

Jess just shrugged, ”Sure I do…but it won’t be easy for you…. so I guess it’s your decision pard,” and then the members of the public were called back inside the court.

The judge did his summing up and then cast a speculative glance towards where Jess, Slim and Teresa were sitting in the front row.

“The boys are both in need of firm guidance once they complete their jail term… the length of which will be decided, dependent upon whether or not we can guarantee that firm guidance. That should be in the form of strict overseeing whilst learning a good skill, like ranching for example,” the judge said, again staring at Slim and Jess. ”So if there is anyone here prepared to take these youngsters on, then please declare your intentions now.”

Jess turned to peer at Slim and saw the conflicting emotions on his face, sure he wanted to do the right thing, but at what cost?

As Jess knew it would, the ’right thing’ won and Slim began to slowly get to his feet….

Then there was a sudden disturbance from the back of the court and a tall gaunt man of about forty, dressed in a smart business suit strode to the front of the court.

“Yes sir I would like to offer my services as guardian to these two boys,” the stranger said.

Slim turned to Teresa as she gave a little gasp, one hand to her mouth and her eyes wide in shock.

“You know this man?” he asked.

She nodded, “It’s Kyle…..Kyle Moore, the man I told you about,” she said turning to Jess sitting on her other side.

“So, may I ask your interest in the case?” asked the judge, thinking possibly this newcomer was just looking for cheap labour.

“Certainly sir, my name is Mister Kyle Moore and I am a businessman and rancher. I am recently returned from back east, where I have made a considerable fortune and have bought the property adjacent to that of Mrs Teresa Johnson there,” he said finally turning to face Teresa, his dark eyes burning with passion, ”who I hope to persuade to become my wife at some stage in the future…”

Their gaze locked and Teresa blushed to the roots of her hair with embarrassment, but looked secretly pleased. There was some chattering and lively banter in the court, at this new turn of events until the judge asked for silence in court.

“So you obviously know the defendant well then?”

“Yes sir I was a friend of the family prior to his father’s death and know the deprivation and troubles they had around that time. As you say judge the boy just needs a firm hand and a good future and I feel I can offer both.”

The judge nodded sagely, ”Thank you Mister Moore….all stand.”

The judge pronounced sentence, which was as hoped a very short jail sentence to be served in Laramie before being handed over to the custody of Mister Moore.

Then everyone started piling out of the stuffy court room, to stand in groups outside gossiping about the recent proceedings within.

Once the boys had been taken down and the court cleared, Kyle Moore advanced on Teresa and giving a little old fashioned bow, took her hand and kissed it, before smiling into her eyes, “My dear I cannot tell you how good it is to see you again.”

“And you,” she whispered, ”and thank you so much for what you have done today….“

Then she took both his hands in hers and smiled up into his kind eyes, ”Oh Kyle I can’t believe you’re really here…”

Slim and Jess were beginning to feel very much like they were in the way, and so offering their congratulations at the positive outcome turned to leave.

However Teresa ran after them, calling out to Jess. Then as he turned she ran into his arms and hugged him close thanking him for all he had done to help her and especially for the forgiveness he had shown to her errant son.

He smiled down at her, “You’re welcome Teresa, just be happy,” he said casting a glance back towards where Kyle was waiting patiently for her.

Then she turned to Slim.

“I’ll never forget you,” she whispered, ”can you forgive me?”

He looked deeply emotional, but nodded, “Sure, nothing to forgive…you have a good life…err and don’t keep the gentleman waiting too long huh….”

She smiled at that advice, “Don’t worry, I won’t,” and reaching up she kissed him tenderly on the cheek.

Looking deeply into his eyes, she whispered, “Look after yourself,” before finally turning back to join Kyle.


It was several months later before they heard any news of Teresa and Jody. He had completed his six weeks prison sentence and then returned to the farm in Cheyenne with his Ma and young Mick. Kyle Moore promising to keep the boys in line.

They had called at the Relay station on their way back home and Kyle had taken Jess and Slim aside, whilst Daisy and Teresa caught up.

“I just want to thank you both for what you did for Teresa and the boy. I guess she’ll never forget your kindness.”

“Well you just make sure that those kids learn to fly straight,” said Jess grinning over at the pleasant man, “that’s all the thanks we need ain’t it pard?”

Slim agreed and was relieved that he could now see Teresa without his old romantic feelings towards her plaguing him. He was back in his loving relationship with Lily and knew that was all he wanted.

“Keep in touch Kyle and good luck,” he said shaking hands and finally waving the little group off.

Now, months later he and Jess sat out on the porch, sipping a final coffee before turning in.

“That was a mighty nice letter Teresa wrote Daisy, Jess commented about the correspondence their housekeeper had received that morning.

Slim nodded, ”I’m glad they’re engaged, it’ll make a proper family for Jody once their wed and it looks like they’ll take on young Mick too.”

“So you don’t envy him then?” asked Jess quietly, flicking a glance over to Slim where he sat next to him, on his old rocker, feet up on the hitching rail.

He raised an eyebrow and chuckled, “What raising those two kids…..no thanks Mike’s enough of a handful.”

Jess sighed, ”You know that ain’t what I meant.”

Slim took another sip of his coffee and looked out to the setting sun.

“No,” he said honestly, ”I’m all over that business now and me and Lily are happy…real happy.”

“Well that’s good pard…”and then he chuckled.

“So what’s tickling you?”

“Oh just something Daisy said to me, about all this business…”

“Go on.”

“Well she was real surprised I managed to apologise to Jake Boswell…admit I had a kinda vendetta against the guy and was prepared to say I was sorry.”

“Surprised doesn’t cover it,” said Slim, “I was doggone amazed…never thought you had it in you!”

“And she couldn’t believe I was so forgiving of young Jody after all he’d done either, said I was gettin’ real patient and empathetic…..err, that’s good right Slim?”

He grinned at that, ”Sure pard, means you really understand how someone’s feeling about things……”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true….and then she said…..”and he looked like he was going to crack up laughing.

Slim sighed, “What…. just spit it out Hotshot…“

“Well she said as how she reckoned we’d been around each other too long and I was changing into you and you were changing into me….”

Slim looked less than happy at that notion…”Umm so why do I figure this isn’t going to be in a good way…?”

Jess was really struggling not to laugh now…”She said as how you’d taken to seein’ other women and drinkin’ way too much red eye….and didn’t I think it was high time I had a word with you about it!”

“Why…..Jess she never said that….did she?”

Jess just shook his head, now almost choking as he tried to hide his laughter.

”I guess you’ll never know pard”….and with that he got up and stretched.

“I’m turning in, you comin’?“

But Slim just sat out looking at the sun, now just dipping below the horizon, but there was still enough light to see the twinkle in his buddy’s eyes as he stood by the door….and the fact that he could contain his mirth no longer…..

“Why you!” Slim exploded as Jess made a dash for the sanctuary of the house, laughing openly now, with Slim in fast pursuit.

“Just you wait ‘till I get hold of you Harper! Daisy never said any of that did she huh….….!”

The End

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