#55 The Lonesome Pine

The Lonesome Pine

By Patty Wilkinson

(Some adult themes, strong language and violence)

Chapter 1

The lonesome pine had stood on a bluff behind the Sherman Ranch and Relay station for as long as anyone could remember. It was a way marker for the Stage drivers telling them they had nearly reached their destination where they could take a break and change horses.

The vantage point beneath the tree was also a place where all at the relay could look out for the Stage. Or indeed any other visitors they were expecting, as they were able to see for miles from the hill top across the plain to the distant horizon

The wind blew through its huge branches making the tree sing as it swayed to the constant buffeting of winter storms, or it would stand tall and still, clothed in a blanket of snow, a symbol of strength and permanence. Then in the spring and summer its vast canopy offered welcome shade for a nap or short break from work

Right then the last thing on Slim Sherman’s mind was a nap as he fumed and fretted, strutting around the base of the tree looking out to the scrubland and pasture below, the Laramie road off in the distance bathed in late morning sunshine.

“Where in tarnation has he got to this time?” he said aloud, before sinking down at the base of the tree and resting his back against its broad trunk.

He removed his Stetson and ran a hand through his blond hair before replacing his hat, pulling it down firmly, a look of intense annoyance on his usually placid, handsome features.

How many doggone times had a member of the Sherman household sat up here waiting on Jess Harper, his best friend and partner in the business, he wondered.

Then he tipped his hat back and relaxed a little, he’d be home soon, sure he would after all he’d promised and he knew Jess always kept his promises. Heck after all they’d been through over the years he trusted him. Thought of him as a brother…..But it hadn’t always been that way….not in the beginning when he first landed at the ranch anyway……..with a greased holster and trouble in both pockets Slim thought with a rueful grin as he relaxed back and remembered


“What do you mean you’re riding out in the morning? Hell Jess there’s fences to mend, stock to care for, not to mention the barn roof needs mending, haven’t you got any sense of responsibility?“

“Sure I have,” was the gunfire quick reply, “responsibility to a friend and that’s gotta come first,” the dark haired young cowboy spat, his deep blue eyes now flashing dangerously.

“Well maybe it’s time you decided where your loyalties lie! Hell you’ve been here nigh on three months Jess, I’ve come to rely on you, and you can’t just up and walk out on me.”

“Oh can’t I!” he cried before turning on his heel and marching across the yard to the barn.

Andy, Slim’s kid brother had just caught the end of this conversation as he came out of the house and turned troubled eyes on his elder brother.

“He ain’t really going is he Slim?”

“Isn’t…not ain’t, garldarn it Andy how many times do I have to tell you that?

“Well Jess says ain’t,” said the youngster looking mutinous.

Slim knew fourteen was a difficult age, but Andy’s hero worship of the young drifter he had taken on as a hired hand was really beginning to annoy him. Especially as it was all Jess’s bad traits the child seemed to admire most.

Cussing, smoking, playing poker, the way he spoke with barely a cursory nod to correct grammar. Heck the list was endless.

He’d also alluded to a skirmish or two with the law. Not to mention a far too in depth knowledge of the fairer sex, than should be awarded to an unmarried man. Heck what would his Ma and Pa have made of the relationship between his kid brother and this cheeky young drifter?

But there again, the thing that was irritating Slim so much now was the very thing he admired most in his new friend, his out and out loyalty. Slim had seen it time and again since the wanderer had first arrived at the relay all those weeks ago. How he’d stood up for Slim and watched his back when a disgruntled former employee had accosted him drunkenly in the saloon one day. Jess’s quick draw had taken the breath away of all who witnessed it and the would be attacker had backed down immediately. 

Another time Jess had stood by Jonsey. He was an old family friend who had moved in to ride shotgun over Slim and Andy, after their parents had died. With Slim still a young man and Andy a mere child.

It was Jess who stepped in and bailed Jonsey out when he lost control of the buckboard and ended up miles out of his way. All the timber he’d been carrying spread far and wide. Not only did he sort everything out, but had kept it a secret as Jonsey felt so foolish and didn’t want the Sherman boys knowing of his inadequacy. However Jonsey had told Slim of the incident later.

“The boy’s got a good heart, is all I’m saying,” Jonsey had said, just the previous week after Slim had been berating Jess for some misdemeanour.

Then Jonsey had opened up and said how Jess had helped him out, and then some, over the lost timber.

“He didn’t need to help me out Slim. Didn’t need to help me save face either, but he did, can’t fault the boy’s loyalty.”

As for young Andy, well Jess was as steadfast as any good friend could be, often arguing Andy’s case and driving Slim and Jonsey crazy in the process.

Now it was Andy looking out for Jess as he marched over to the barn where his hero had decamped.

“Why Jess, I just don’t get it…why do ya have to go?” asked the youngster practically in tears.

Jess spun around from where he was busy grooming Traveller, at first his eyes flashing in anger, until he saw the look on the child’s face and his heart melted.

“Look Andy, I have to go. But I’ll be back …..if I can that is… and iffen Slim will have me, “he said turning back to his horse.

The youngster looked slightly mollified as he stood watching Jess groom his mount.

“But you still ain’t told me as to why you have to ride out Jess.”

The dark haired cowboy sighed softly, and rolled his eyes, although his back was to Andy.

Then he turned slowly and looked at the boy, before throwing down his brushes.

He wandered out of the stall and sat on a straw bale, indicating Andy should join him and sat looking thoughtful for a minute.

“Look it’s this way Andy. Did you ever have a friend, a very good friend that saw you though a real bad time?”

After a minute Andy nodded, “I guess I did…still do. Tom from school he always stands by me. Was real kind after Ma and Pa died. His folks were too…real understanding, you know?” he asked looking eagerly into those deep blue eyes.

“So ya know what I mean then…See there was this lady way back in Texas and she was a real good friend to me, looked after me one time I was shot up bad……would have died for sure iffen she hadn’t cared for me.”

The boy nodded, “So is she in some kinda trouble then Jess?”

“She’s dyin’,” Jess replied softly looking deeply saddened.

“Gee Jess, but that’s awful!”

“Yeah, but ya see the thing is Andy, she’s got a boy, about your age. A mite older maybe and he’s gonna be all alone in the world, needs a buddy right now to see him through, know what I mean?”

“Sure, sure I do Jess…but why didn’t you tell Slim all this, he’d understand.”

“Ya think so do ya?” asked Jess, his voice loaded with sarcasm.

“Well yeah…. I reckon,” replied the boy hesitantly.


“I said get to bed Andy its way past your bedtime.”

“Aww, but Slim will you listen to me, Jess really needs to help this friend of his he said….”

“Andy, I’m warning you I’m getting really tired of all this, now I’m not telling you again OK…. ?”

Andy just stared at his brother almost in tears of frustration… “But….”

“Andy, I figure you’d better do as your brother says,” said Jonsey, wandering in from the kitchen, “go on, we’ll talk in the morning huh?”

Andy sighed deeply and finally marched out of the room slamming his bedroom door behind him.

“So what do you think,” asked Jonsey casting Slim an anxious glance, “are you going to talk to him?”

Slim shook his head, “I don’t know, so where is he anyway?”

“Packed up his gear and headed off for the bunkhouse, said as how you probably wouldn’t want him sharing the house right now.”

“Well he’s not wrong there. Heck Jonsey, just as soon as you think you can trust him. Rely on him to take the strain some, he ups and runs out on us.”

Jonsey shook his wise old head sadly, “That’s what this is all about isn’t it Slim? You wanting to share the load some with him…Gee if I wasn’t such a beat up old man I could help you out more,” he said sorrowfully.

“Aw Jonsey, I didn’t mean it that way….”

“No, I know you didn’t boy, and I guess it’s more than the work too, isn’t it? Come on I’ve seen how you’ve brightened up since he’s been around. Going off to town enjoying yourself, like a regular young man should do. A drink or two and a pretty girl on your arm… no harm in that, no sireee, no harm at all.”

Slim threw the old timer a rueful smile, “It has been kind of good throwing off the traces some, having someone my own age around….”

Then he looked angry, “Hell Jonsey, why is he going off half cocked this way, he’s happy enough isn’t he?”

Jonsey just shrugged, “I figure you’d have to ask him that yourself.”

Slim sighed and then marched over to the door, snagging his hat from the hook, before turning, “I guess I will then.”

He tapped on the bunkhouse door and when he entered was surprised to see Jess already stretched out on one of the cots, a nightlight glowing on a stool beside him and a copy of the Laramie Sentinel in his hands. He threw it down and sat up when Slim came in, a look of mistrust in his deep blue eyes.

“If you’ve come to bawl me out again you can save your breath. I don’t git paid enough to listen to you yellin’ and frettin every garl darn minute.”

Slim sighed deeply and sat on the cot opposite, “Will you simmer down I’ve just come to talk…. that’s all…. I promise I won’t yell at you.”

Two minutes later Slim was about to break his promise.

“So let me get this straight,” he said frighteningly quietly, “you’re quitting work to go halfway across the country to help out some woman who’s in trouble?”

“No, not half way across the country , she’s moved up to Denver now…and she ain’t in trouble Slim. I don’t know what Andy told ya , but she’s dang well dyin’ that’s a mite more urgent than being in trouble….”

“OK, I’m sorry he didn’t tell me that bit, so you’re going to say your goodbyes… lay her to rest huh?”

“More than that Slim, I’ve gotta look out for her kid…he’ll be all alone, in need of a buddy…”

Slim’s eyes suddenly narrowed, “Look out for him huh…. like a Pa would?”

“Uh, well… I suppose… yeah.”

Then Jess saw the speculative look in his friend’s eyes…

He swung his legs off the cot and sat up properly.

“Now hang on one dadgum minute here Slim, so what are you sayin’?”

“A lady from your past wires you… You of all people, to care for her child, well it’s kind of obvious isn’t it Jess?”

It was the speed of the movement that shocked Slim as much as anything.

In one swift, fluid movement Jess was on his feet and had grabbed Slim by the lapels and hauled him up, literally throwing him across the bunkhouse, where he staggered and nearly fell.

“What the Hell do ya mean…….the kid’s mine is that what you’re sayin’?” he spat, his eyes black and dangerous.

Slim swallowed hard, “Well it’s kind of strange, she doesn’t contact you for years and then out of everyone…. she chooses you to look after him…?” he blustered.

“Well maybe that’s because she trusts me…and knows I’m the only one as will stand up to his Pa…. his real Pa that is!”

“So, I don’t get it, if the kid’s got a Pa where do you fit in?”

“Have you heard of Jackson Bailey?”

Slim looked astounded, “What the Jackson Bailey….that killed the Deputy Sheriff in Cheyenne and two bank tellers, got away with $10,000 in that bank heist?”

“The very same, so would you want Andy brought up by the likes of him?”

“Hell no of course not….”

“Well then…that’s why I’ve gotta go…satisfied?”

Slim shrugged, “She means a lot to you, this woman?”

“I guess, she saved my life and we were…well close…… real close once,” he said, sinking back down onto the cot again, all his anger spent.

“I see….”

“No you don’t Slim. Ok we were lovers once, but this ain’t about that. It’s about helping out an old friend… I can’t just sit back and do nothing…. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

Slim sat down again too and studied the floor for a good minute before looking across at his pard.

“No, it’s me that should be sorry Jess. You’re doing the right thing; of course you are. I guess I’m just being a tad selfish….Andy doesn’t want you to go…figure he’s going to give me hell…Blame it all on me, you heading out.”

“No, no he won’t Slim, I explained to him as to why I have to go….”

“Good, well, I’ll turn in then ,” he said standing up and stretching,”…see you before you set off?”


Slim turned to go, but when he reached the door Jess said gruffly, “Is it just Andy that don’t want me to go?”

Slim paused at the door, his back ramrod straight, before he finally turned round and gave Jess that warm open smile that was so much a part of him…. “Nope, I guess I’ll kind of miss you too, you ornery cuss…..you’ll be back?”

Jess just nodded and Slim turned and left quietly.

After he’d gone Jess lay back on the cot, his hands laced behind his head and an unfathomable expression in his deep blue eyes……as he stared up at the ceiling.

Chapter 2

He rode into the down at heel ranch yard just north of Denver and hitched Traveller up to the rail near the door before knocking and waiting…the silence all around somehow forbidding.

He sighed deeply and turned his back on the door to survey the yard where a few scrawny chickens were pecking listlessly. There was a fence down across the yard and somewhere in the distance the silence was broken by the complaining cry of a cow in dire need of milking.

After a few minutes the door finally swung open and a stunning young girl stood there, dressed in rags, bare footed and toting a rifle aimed at Jess’s belly.

His eyes opened wide in shock at the rifle and then looked up from it and noted the long blond hair, hourglass figure and full sensuous lips…Gee she was really something he thought privately.

He put his hands up in a submissive gesture and gave her a kind smile, “It’s OK Miss I don’t mean you no harm. The name’s Harper, Jess Harper I’m here to visit Ellie….Mrs Ellie Bailey that is….are you looking after her then?”

The girl’s hold on the rifle didn’t waver and she stared at him with startled blue eyes, the colour of cornflowers Jess thought fleetingly.

“Well can I see her?” he asked again when it became obvious the girl wasn’t about to answer him anytime soon.

After a moment she lowered the rifle… “Harper you say…you’re sure?”

Jess grinned at that, “Last time I looked yup.”

Then he reached in his wallet, “Look I’ve got me a wire here from Ellie, askin’ me to call…see?”

The young girl took the wire in a trembling hand before reading it and handing it back.

Then she finally lowered the rifle.

“I’m sorry Mister Harper, you can’t be too careful in these parts….I guess you can go in,” and she stood to one side to let him pass.

“You’ve got a cow that needs attention,” he said nodding towards the barn where the sounds of the distressed animal were growing even louder now.

The girl sighed loudly, “Dang critter,” she muttered before storming off across the yard.

Jess watched her go; grinning and he shook his head the cussing coming from such a pretty girl somehow oddly comical.

Then he sobered as he remembered the reason for his visit and taking a deep breath he pushed the door open and entered the shabby old ranch house.

When he called out, a weak voice replied from a room just off the parlour.

He tapped at the door and pushed it open, standing on the threshold whilst his eyes became accustomed to the dim light within.

Then he caught his breath at the sight before him.

Ellie, his beautiful, vibrant Ellie was a mere ghost of her former self.

He looked down in anguish at the aged, gaunt features, the disease having ravaged her young body, making her appear almost like an old woman.

He quickly adjusted his face into a welcoming smile and sank down on a chair beside the bed, before taking her tiny fragile hand in his own.

“You came,” she gasped, in a breathless, trembling voice, “thank God!”

Jess squeezed her hand gently, “Did ya think I wouldn’t?”

She gave him a faint smile, “I wasn’t sure iffen you were still alive,” she said honestly, “the life you lead.”

He grinned, looking down at her.

“Hey I’m real domesticated now, got me a job as a rancher. I ain’t bin in trouble in…..” he considered that for a moment, did that ruckus in Town the week before count?

“In ages,” he finally finished lamely.

“Same old Jess,” she whispered, “I guess you ain’t changed that much.”

“I still remember my old friends,” he said more seriously now, “if that’s what you mean.”

She nodded, “I knew I could count on you…. I need you to take Georgie to my great aunt’s place, just north of Laramie; Jackson won’t think to look there.”

“So where is the kid?” asked Jess looking around, “I didn’t see him outside,” thinking that the boy sure was pretty slack around the chores. Andy would have fixed that broken fence and smartened up the yard some, youngster or not.

“I’m here,” came a reply and Jess spun around to see the beautiful blond girl had sidled in silently and now stood behind him looking nervous.

Jess’s jaw dropped and he looked from Ellie to the young girl and back… “What, you’re George?” he practically squeaked.

“Georgie,” said the child sullenly, tossing her blond mane, “short for Georgina…”

“After my English grandmother,” Ellie confirmed.

Jess just stared at her for a full minute before turning back to her mother.

“I didn’t know,” he stuttered, “I thought he was…uh, she was a boy…Hell Ellie ya know what I mean.”

“Does it make a difference?” she asked looking weary.

“Well sure it does,” Jess exploded, “I can’t go carin’ fer a young girl, it wouldn’t be fittin’.”

Then he turned back to a now sulky looking Georgie, “So how old are you anyways?”

“Fifteen,” she said proudly.

“Only just turned, last week,” her Ma said softly.

Then more firmly, “Go get us some coffee honey, I need to speak with Jess.”

Once she had flounced off, sighing deeply Ellie turned pleading eyes on Jess.

“She’s just a child, hardly been off of the ranch Jess, save for her schooling, she’s innocent and really hurting. That’s why she’s acting so darned surly…but she’s a good kid at heart…please, please take her for me?”

Jess looked down trying to come to terms with this new turn of events…How could he deal with a stroppy, beautiful young girl like this? Hell only fifteen, she looked eighteen at least. With a figure to match and all the unsophisticated charm born of innocence and a complete lack of knowledge of how stunning she really was. He had no resources, no knowledge of how to deal with a girl at this difficult stage, it was impossible he told himself.

He was rudely awakened from his reverie by Ellie squeezing his hand hard and throwing him a look of deep anguish.

“Please Jess, for old time’s sake, if you ever loved me please do this last thing for me,” and then she fell back on the pillows gasping with the effort of speaking and the raw emotion the situation was generating.

He suddenly felt terrible, selfishly worrying about himself when Ellie obviously had but a short time to live and he nodded, unable to speak for a moment.

“Yeah, of course I will sweetheart. I’ll take her to Laramie and look out for her real good. Like she was kin, I promise you that,” he finally managed.

She closed her eyes and lay there until her breathing was under control again, before opening her eyes and fixing him with her candid gaze.

“I knew you wouldn’t let me down,” she whispered, before closing her eyes.

She was quiet for so long he thought she slept, but she forced her eyes open again finally and whispered, “You wouldn’t let me down, the way I let you down….”

“Hey honey, you didn’t…. I understood why you had to go. Really I did, it was real hard, sure it was, but I survived….”

“I made the wrong choice back then though Jess…..I was a fool.”

“Hush, that was all a long time ago…like I say I understand.”

She closed her eyes again and he noticed her breathing was more laboured.

Then she opened them again and seemed to rally a little, “Jess listen to me, lay me to rest here, there’s a plot out back…no service ya understand…don’t want Jackson getting wind of my passing.”

“Hey, Ellie, sweetheart, don’t talk that way,” he said feeling an almost physical stab of pain at her words.

She just shook her head and squeezed his hand again, “You’re a good man Jess Harper,” she whispered.

When Georgie returned a few minutes later with the drinks her Ma had passed away.

Jess had been holding her hand and telling her to just relax and he’d see to everything and then he suddenly felt her grip slacken and he knew she had gone.

He had gazed down, totally stunned, unable to believe that everything had happened so dang fast. God, it seemed like she had only just hung on to see him before giving in and slipping away into the realms of the hereafter….

Georgie stood in the doorway, sensing all was not well….. Then as Jess turned and gave her an almost imperceptible shake of the head, she screamed and dropping the tray ran to the bed and threw herself down beside her mother crying uncontrollably.

After a few minutes he put a hesitant hand gently on her shoulder and she spun around and fell into his arms crying even harder.

Jess held her close, wondering where the hell he went from here, when he heard Traveller give a little whinny as another horse trotted into the yard.

“What now?” he muttered before gently pulling himself free of the grieving child.

He stood up and surveyed the deathly still body of the woman he had loved…oh so, so long ago. Then pulling himself together he dragged the sheet over her still form and taking young Georgie by the hand left the room, closing the door quietly behind them.

He marched over to where the front door was standing open and was just in time to see a burly middle aged man dismount and walk swiftly towards the porch.

However he stopped in his tracks and frowned when he saw Jess standing there.

Jess felt Georgie stiffen beside him and give a little gasp of fear and he half turned, his initial feeling confirmed when he saw the look of alarm in her eyes.

He pushed her gently back a little and then walked out onto the porch to meet the stranger…

“Can I help ya?” he asked gruffly.

The man looked slightly taken aback, but rallied and standing by the hitching rail said, “I’ve come to visit with Ellie…..just step aside young man.”

Jess half turned , “He a friend of your Ma’s?” he asked.

She shook her head, “A neighbour, Thad Buckley….come to stick his nose in and upset Ma with his talk of taking our land,” she said belligerently.

“Now you know that isn’t true Georgie my dear,” Buckley said throwing the child a salacious look; you know how fond I am of your poor Ma and you too of course.”

“That’ll do,” said Jess suddenly feeling furious, “I think you’d better leave Mister Buckley.”

The man dragged his gaze away from Georgie and stared at Jess, his expression now cold and annoyed.

“Not until I’ve spoken to Ellie.”

“Well you can’t,” said Jess, his eyes flashing dangerously now, “so just ride out mister.”

The man looked even angrier now… “Well why the hell not?” he asked.

“Because she’s dead,” Jess spat, throwing him a look of loathing.

The man looked completely perplexed for a moment and started to turn away. Then he turned back and went for his gun, but Jess had his gun in his hand, cocked and aimed before the other had even slapped leather….

He went deathly pale, a cold sweat breaking out on his forehead and he gave Jess an uncertain look.

“Like I said, just ride out mister,” Jess said frighteningly quietly.

The man flicked a glance over to Georgie and then back to Jess before deciding to cut his losses and run.

He mooched back to his mount and once in the saddle turned back to Jess…

“I’ll be back, you’ve not heard the last of this….”

Then he turned to Georgie, “Pack a bag kid, I’ll be back for you,” and with that he rode out at a fast trot.

“What the heck did he mean by that?” asked Jess looking baffled.

She shrugged, “Some crazy idea he put to Ma, about him taking me on. In exchange for our land…we’ve some good pasture and a lake; he wants it.”

“And ya Ma…she was considering it?” he asked in disbelief.

“Heck no, of course not, the place is already sold anyways to a guy from Denver. A business man, Ma had an agreement all drawn up, legal like.”

“Go on,” he said gently.

“Mister Barrington gets the place when Ma …” here her lips trembled, but she continued bravely… “when Ma passed over. He’s lodged the check with Ma’s solicitor and I get some money now and the rest when I come of age…”

“And in the meantime you stay with yer aunt in Laramie yeah?”

“No,” she shouted suddenly becoming tearful and angry again, “I ain’t goin’ there Mister Harper and you can’t make me!”

With that she ran off to the sanctuary of the barn, leaving Jess staring after her in consternation.

“Goddamn it,” he cussed softly before turning away to look for a shovel and find the spot for Ellie’s last resting place.

Once the deed was done, Jess wandered over to the barn and on entering saw Georgie slumped at the far end, sitting on a bale of straw looking completely bereft. However as he entered she leapt up, the rifle once more in her hands pointed at him.

“Hey steady girl,” he said softly, “take in easy Georgie.”

“I’m sorry,” she muttered, “I didn’t know who it was,” and she threw the gun down and resumed her place.

He strolled over and after a moment sat down opposite her.

When she didn’t look at him he said softly, “That man….he scares you don’t he?”

At that her head shot up and she threw him a frightened look and just nodded.

Then the alarm bells started ringing and he felt deeply uncomfortable.

“Georgie, has he tried it on with you…Ya know been messin’ around?” he asked quietly.

After a moment she gave a little nod unable to meet his eye.

“The bastard,” Jess whispered, his fists balling and a murderous look in his eyes.

He sighed deeply, “Please tell me he didn’t…..”

“No,” she said quickly, “he hasn’t hurt me or anything…just tried to kiss me a couple of times, but I kicked him real hard and ran for it.”

He gave a sigh of relief, “Good girl,” he said softly.

Then after a while he suggested they go and say a few words over her Ma’s grave and the couple left the barn, together united in their grief.

Chapter 3

It took all Jess’s persuasive powers to convince Georgie that she was to ride out with him the following day.

“You ain’t got a home here anymore sweetheart,” he’s said casting his concerned gaze in her direction, “we’ve gotta go see yer Ma’s solicitor and collect the sale money, then go break the news to your Aunt.”

She sighed deeply and then looked a touch more agreeable.

“Ma did say as I could have some money for new clothes and stuff. Aunt Vera is kinda particular. I can’t go like this,” she said, gesturing to the patched dowdy dress she was wearing.

Jess could suddenly see some light at the end of the tunnel.

“Sure,” he said enthusiastically, “a girl’s gotta have a few fancy dresses, shoes and the like, I know that. We’ll go fix you up as soon as we’ve got the money huh?”

That evening George looked pale and shaken, obviously deeply upset by her Ma’s passing and put up little more argument about moving to her Aunts, much to Jess’s relief.

They rode into town the following day and while Georgie went off to say good bye to a couple of her girl friends and talk clothes, Jess made his way purposefully along Main Street to Ellie’s solicitors. Just hoping the time with her friends would help lighten young Georgie’s mood.

He had all the correct paperwork that Georgie had found in her Ma’s effects and with seeming ease was able to leave a little later with a reasonable sum of money. Enough to pay her way at her aunts and buy a few decent clothes he thought. Then in a couple of years maybe she’d find some work to supplement the cash. He sure wasn’t in a position to help her out financially he thought ruefully; just glad it looked like Slim Sherman would hold his job open, for a while anyway.

When he arrived at the little café where they’d arranged to meet he had expected to find her amongst a gaggle of giggling girls of her own age, but was surprised to find the place almost empty, save for an for elderly couple.

He sat down and ordered a coffee from the waitress, but when there was still no sign of Georgie after a further five minutes he began to run out of patience.

The girl came over and topped up his cup.

“Say, have you seen a young girl, about so high”, he said gesturing, “long fair hair, kinda pretty?”

“Uh…yeah, she went off with her Pa honey.”

“Huh…her Pa you say?” Jess asked looking askance.

“Well I reckon. She sure didn’t want to go with him, but he was ranting about how they had to get home… I figured maybe she’d come to town without his blessing,” she said chuckling, “young girls ya know!”

Jess didn’t return her cheerful grin though.

“So this guy, what’d he look like?”

When she described Georgie and Ellie’s ornery neighbour Thad Buckley to a tee, the alarm bells started ringing.

“How long?” asked Jess urgently.


“How long since they left?”

“Couldn’t say honey,” she said looking vague and starting to chew on a finger nail, her expression now bored.

“So do you know where they went?” he asked getting even more exasperated.

She just sighed deeply and rolled her eyes.

“Don’t tell me,” said Jess throwing her an annoyed glance, “you couldn’t say.”

She just sniffed, “More coffee?”

Jess threw some coins down and got up to leave, but as he was halfway through the door the elderly couple called him over.

“That young lady, Georgie I think her Pa called her, she looked really frightened,” said the old timer.

“They went that way, over the street towards the livery,” his wife said, “about five minutes ago, you’ll catch them if you hurry young man. He said he was taking her home.”

“Aww, thanks Ma’am,” Jess said beaming at her and leaning down he pecked her cheek, much to her delight, and tore out of the café and ran down the street.

He heard her yelling blue murder even before he reached the livery and as he burst in he was greeted by a flushed, hysterical Georgie desperately struggling with Buckley as he tried to drag her on board a buggy, watched dispassionately by the elderly livery owner.

Jess strode in and without missing a beat grabbed hold of Buckley’s shoulder and spinning him around laid a haymaker on his chin that sent him flying across the stable.

He came to rest in an untidy heap several feet away and lay there looking shocked to the core, rubbing his chin and glaring up at Jess.

“What’s your game Harper,” he snarled as he dragged himself up from the dirt.

No sooner was he up than Jess advanced and knocked him down again, a well aimed punch to the belly and follow up chop to the neck rendering him unconscious.

Jess stood there panting and after a moment took his hat off and wiped a sleeve across his face before walking over to a tearful distraught Georgie.

“It’s OK sweetheart,” he said, putting a comforting arm around her shoulders.

Then he felt it, cold steel being pushed into the small of his back.

“Stand away from the kid and raise your hands, real slow cowboy.”

Jess sighed deeply and looked down before he did as requested.

He felt a hand snake around his waist and remove his colt and then there was another sharp jab in his back…

“OK turn around.”

He found himself staring into the cold grey eyes of Sherriff Eaves.

Jess sighed deeply, “Hello Sheriff,” he said resignedly.

“So we meet again Harper, intent on shooting up my town once more are you?” the Sheriff asked with a less than friendly look in his eyes.

“Look Sheriff that was a long time ago, sure I was a bit wild back then, but I’ve changed.”

“Changed have you?” spat the Sheriff nodding to where Buckley was just coming around, “Well it sure looks like it, beating nine bells out of one of my law abiding citizens.”

“Law …abiding… are you crazy Sheriff? This no hoper was abducting this here fifteen year old kid, and God knows what he was gonna do once he took her back to his place!” said Jess gruffly.

“Uh, well let’s see what Mister Buckley has to say about all this shall we? As far as I know he is a good neighbour to young Georgie and her Ma…and you my friend are an unknown quantity… Well what I do know is not good anyway, that’s fer sure,” he finished with a mean smile.

Buckley shook his head and then put a tentative hand to his chin, looking dazedly around him, before groaning and staggering to his feet.

“Come along man, you’re not that badly hurt,” said the Sheriff testily, “so what’s this all about Buckley?”

Thad Buckley looked slightly sheepish, “I was just taking the child home sheriff, her dear Ma will be worrying and then this mad man accosted me out of the blue for no reason.”

Jess flew at him again at this injustice and had to be restrained by the Sheriff’s rifle being poked in his ribs.

“Garl darn it Buckley you know dang well her Ma’s dead and you were abducting her so that you could……”

“No! That’s not true,” cried Buckley flushing up guiltily.

“Is so, ” shouted a suddenly furious Georgie, “he’s tried it on with me before Sheriff, kissin’ me and the like!”

“Is this true,” asked Eaves looking suddenly alert…

Then turning to Georgie, “And is your Ma really dead child?”

Georgie just nodded vigorously, looking like she might well dissolve into tears.

“She’s dead alright,” said Jess looking mad, “and this bastard is tryin’ to muscle in on the land…git his way with the kid too by the looks of things…” and he made to lunge at Buckley again.

But the Sheriff was too fast for him and put himself between the two men.

“I’ll have none of that kind of talk,” said the Sheriff bristling and throwing Jess a censorious look.

“Hell Sheriff wake up to yourself,” yelled Jess in frustration, “he’s a lyin’ cheat and this kid ain’t safe around him.”

The Sheriff sighed deeply and then said “Ok, you get off home Buckley and you two, to my office, we need to talk this through.”

“What about me,” said a much affronted Buckley, now dusting himself down and throwing Jess a wary glance, “I’ve been assaulted.”

“Umm…well you’ve lied about Mrs Bailey’s death, maybe you’ve lied about the girl too…Now get off home before I find a cell for you as well!”

They repaired to the Sheriff’s office and on entering he turned to Jess and said, “Right, so why in the blue blazes should I believe anything you tell me.”

Before Jess could reply, Eaves continued, “If I remember rightly, last time we met I came into the bar you and your buddies were tearing apart and you drew on me!”

Jess remembered the incident well… in fact he had outdrawn the old Sheriff easily and there had been an embarrassed silence in the bar before he’d realised the old timer was a law man and had surrendered his weapon.

However he thought now probably wasn’t the right time to remind him of the event.

“Thought you were pretty smart didn’t you boy, showing me up that way?”

Uh-uh, he’d remembered anyway and Jess squirmed, “Look Sheriff that was a long while ago, I’ve changed, really. I’m a respectable rancher now, you can check with Mort Cory, Sheriff over in Laramie.”

“Uh, well I might just do that son… so tell me, what’s your business with this young lady then?”

Jess explained about his friendship with Ellie and the wire he’d received. Also as to how she had passed over, been laid to rest and the transaction with the property completed.

“Well you sure don’t hang about do ya?” asked the Sheriff throwing him a speculative look. “Seems hardly decent, her still warm in her grave and the old place sold off.”

“What she wanted,” said Jess succinctly.

“So why would that be?” asked the Sheriff, his eyes narrowing as he scrutinized the dark haired cowboy.

Jess remained taciturn, so Eaves tried another tack….

“Do you know her husband then …Jackson Bailey?”

Jess sighed deeply, knowing the truth would doubtless come out sooner or later.

“Yup, I knew him, back in Texas.”

The Sheriff looked even more suspicious, “You got any posters out on you?”

Jess sighed again and caught a look of fear on Georgie’s face, making him feel terrible.

“Nope,” he finally managed.

“So if I check the old files there’ll be nothing on you….squeaky clean yeah?” asked the Sheriff, now acting like a cat with a mouse.

Jess looked him in the eye, “I have been in trouble, but ain’t no more.”

“You got the papers to substantiate that boy?”

Jess stiffened at the patronising tone, but none the less said nothing , merely reached in his wallet for the document and handed it over.

“Uh, yes its coming back to me now…Harper, you’re a bundle of trouble ain’t ya boy? Walk a fine line between the law and the owl hoot trail and not too choosy as to whom you befriend either side so I hear…..Even ridden with a gang or two huh?”

Jess looked furious, “That’s all behind me Sheriff. I put up my gunslinger weapon when I moved into the Sherman place and I ain’t been in trouble since.”

The Sheriff shook his old gray head and took a seat behind his desk…

“No …..no boy, I don’t buy that, once a bad ‘un always a bad ‘un. Hell, look at the way you wear your gun. Real low and tied down…and you’ve got that …what is it?” he looked up to the ceiling as if in thought.

“Yeah I’ve got it…an air of menace about you boy….like a wild critter just waitin’ ter strike… You may say you’re domesticated…may even believe it, but trust me I know better.”

Jess bit back the harsh reply that instinctively flew to his lips.

“Look Sheriff if you ain’t gonna charge me for anything can we get on our way?”

“And where would you be thinking of heading off to with this child?” asked the Sheriff flicking a glance over to where Georgie had been standing as if frozen to the spot.

“I’m takin’ her to stay with kin.”

“So where would that be.”

“Look Sheriff, Ellie didn’t want folk to know, didn’t want ‘em to even know she was dead, so I can’t say.”

“Very convenient, so you’re taking off into the blue yonder with this pretty little lady and I’m just supposed to wave you off am I, wish you a safe journey?” asked the Sheriff sarcastically.

“Oh, for goodness sake!” Georgie spat angrily.

Both men turned to look at where Georgie had suddenly sprung into action.

She marched over to the Sheriff, arms akimbo, and said, “We’re going to my Aunt in Laramie and the sooner the better, now can we please be on our way Sheriff!”

“Look my dear,” said the Sheriff once he’d recovered from this onslaught,” I’m only looking out for you like your dear Ma would have wanted.”

“Uh, and what about my ‘dear Pa’,” she asked sarcastically…

“Well he’s another kettle of fish ain’t he honey,” the Sheriff said, his features hardening at mention of the man responsible for killing his colleague the Deputy Sheriff over in Cheyenne.

Then the Sheriff’s eyes swivelled to Jess.

“So do you know Mister Bailey well, or just his wife?” he said with a sly smile.

“Yeah like I said, I knew him a time ago, back in Texas,” said Jess throwing Eaves a hard look,” an’ I guess I’ve gotten even more reason to hate him than you do. So iffen you’re thinking I’m in anyway out to help him escape from the law you can think again,” he spat angrily.

“Uh, so you say,” mused the Sheriff looking less than convinced.

“Look Sheriff can’t you see I have to get Georgie out of town in case her Pa finds out about Ellie? She didn’t want him to raise the kid and neither do I. Surely you can understand that can’t ya, a criminal on the run?”

The old man suddenly had a scheming look in his watery old eyes….

“Uh, yup I guess you’re talking sense there young man,” he finally answered.

Jess looked slightly surprised at this new turn of events, but decided to ram home his advantage, “And I’m leavin’ town too, that’s gotta be a bonus ain’t it Sheriff?”

Eaves looked like he was pondering and then turning to Georgie, “OK give me the address of your Aunt’s place then girl, I’ll wire Mort Cory to check you arrive safely.”

Georgie flicked a glance over to Jess and after a moment he nodded, knowing there was no other way.

As they left Jess opened the door and allowed Georgie to go out ahead of him, before turning back to Eaves.

“Can I have your word you won’t say anything?” He asked quietly, “I promised Ellie I’d keep the kid safe you know… I really can’t risk that bastard Jack finding her.”

“Of course,” said the Sheriff with an insincere smile, and then his face reverted back into its usual irritable expression, “now git Harper before I change my mind and slam you in a cell to cool off some.”

Once the door had closed behind Jess the old man hauled himself out of his seat, wandered over to the back door and yelled for his deputy.

When he arrived the Sheriff looked up from a piece of paper he’d been busy scribbling on.

“Ah, there you are Denny, got a little job for you.”

The young man took the scrap of paper,” What’s this Sheriff?”

“Death announcement I want you to make sure it gets in the local paper, Cheyenne News and Laramie Sentinel too.”

The deputy read the note, “Oh Mrs Bailey that’s too bad…ain’t she got a young girl…I wonder how she’ll manage?”

“Oh, she’ll be just fine son, because her Pa will be coming looking for her just as soon as he sees that notice…Now make sure the clerk gets all the details including where the daughter will be living, in case folk want to write, send their respects you know….”

At that the young man stopped, looking thoughtful.

“Hang on a minute boss, ain’t her Pa that no good scum as robbed the Cheyenne bank?”

The Sheriff sighed lustily.

“You never were the sharpest knife in the drawer were you Denny? That’s the whole point you mule head…He goes hot footin’ it to claim his little girl and we’ll have the Laramie Sheriff ready and waiting to pick him up see…. And you make sure you put the word out on the street, make sure everyone knows where she’s to be found…”

Light dawned on the young deputy’s face and then he looked troubled… “Won’t that be kinda dangerous for the kid caught in the middle, could be some gunplay?”

The old Sheriff shook his head, “I never will make a Sheriff of you son…too dang sentimental…If the kid gets in the way so be it, we’re after a murderer…and what’s more he killed one of our own boy, don’t you forget that…now get to it..Pronto!”

Chapter 4

Andy practically haunted the lone pine looking out for Jess’s return. At least half a dozen times a day he would run up the hill behind the Relay and peer out to the distant Laramie road for any sign of his buddy returning.

It was one evening after supper and all the chores done that Slim sought him out up there.

He walked softly up the bank and then stood in the late evening sunlight watching his little brother for a while.

The youngster’s eyes never left the trail and they had a look of such longing and sadness in them Slim felt quite moved, as well as a little stab of what….jealously?

After a few minutes he wandered over and stood looking down at the boy.

“Still looking out for Jess then?”

“I guess…”

Slim sighed and then slid down next to his brother, Andy moving over slightly so that the big blond man could sit beside him, their backs resting against the huge old pine.

After a minute he turned to look at the child, and noticed for the first time that he was growing up. The childish features altering to show angular planes on his formerly soft curving cheek and a strength about the mouth he had not seen before. Yup his baby brother was growing up fast and it stood to reason he’d want to make new friends. Even go off on an adventure of some sort….maybe they could go fishing together he thought fleetingly.

When Andy said nothing, Slim said softly, “You’re really missing him aren’t you.”

The boy ceased studying the distant hills and dropped his head, before muttering, “Yeah, he was fun to be around, sure I miss him.”

Slim took in the tense anxious demeanour and felt for the boy.

Sure he didn’t have much fun around the place, but ranching was a hard life, the kid had to understand that….Then putting all his trust in a drifter like Jess…well it was darned well asking for trouble. Slim knew that…the boy was looking to get hurt at some stage.

“He may not come back you know Andy, have you thought of that?” he said gently.

To his surprise the boy leapt to his feet and turned on him angrily.

“He will so! He said he would and Jess always keeps his promises….you just don’t want him back,” he cried.

“Hey Andy, that’s not true…sure I do, but we have to be sensible about this, Jess is….”

“What a drifter, a no good gunslinger, is that what you’re gonna say, because it ain’t true Slim. It just ain’t so…. he’s changed…really….least ways he’s trying,” he finished more honestly, remembering the set to he’d had in town just the previous week.

“No, I was going to say, Jess is a very complex character. Sure I think he’s happy around here, for now, and he really enjoys your company…But well Andy that may not be enough to keep him. He’s wild and restless, used to the big open. Every time he goes off on one of these crusades of his, well I figure it’s harder and harder for him to settle down again when he comes home.”

“But you just said it Slim, don’t you see, you said when he comes home….and that’s what it is to him now I’m sure. He’ll be back, you’ll see.” and he peered out to the distant Laramie road once more, willing his buddy to come home.

Slim watched him helplessly. Where ever Jess was he cursed him lightly for causing all this upset. Then cast his eyes towards the distant road, wondering where he was…..and yes when the hell would his pard be home.


Jess and Georgie had experienced a long and exhausting ride back down to Laramie, stopping briefly for one night in a decent hotel in Cheyenne before pushing on, on the last leg of their journey.

Jess had been riding Traveller on the trip out, so needed to ride him home, but he had originally suggested Georgie travel on the Stage. However she categorically refused insisting on riding her paint pony all the way, slowing their journey considerably. Jess could see how much the critter meant to the child though, and seeing as she had lost her home and her Ma all in one go he figured she really didn’t need any more loss in her life.

As they sat by a camp fire on the last evening of their journey Jess finally broached the subject that had been bothering him.

“So tell me about your Pa,” he said eventually as they were sipping the last coffee of the day.

Her head shot up and she looked kind of startled he thought.

“Why do you ask?” she said guardedly.

He shrugged, “Just interested, he didn’t live with you I take it?”

She shook her head, “He walked out when I was about ten years old, he and Ma had a big argument about money and Pa going off all the time….”

“Going off?”

She turned and looked him in the eye now.

“Yes,” she said quietly, “he’d started riding with the gang again. We didn’t know….until the big argument and then it all came out. How he’d got some raids planned down on the Texas, Mexico border…”

“So what did your Ma say to that?” asked Jess looking shocked.

“What do you think? She threw him out and then we moved up to Denver. She said we’d be safe from him up there.”

“And were you?”

“Yes until just last year, someone told him where we were and he visited, tried to make Ma go back with him, but she wouldn’t. She was sick even then and that’s when she contacted her Aunt Vera…my great Aunt, back in Laramie. She made her promise she’s take me……if, well if the worst happened,” she faltered.

“So she agreed just like that? Heck she must be kinda old now to be takin’ on a youngster?”

“Uh, that’s what she said, but after Pa pulled off that awful bank raid, she changed her mind, said she’s take me in.”

“And that’s why ya don’t wanna go, because her arms been kinda forced to take you?”

“I guess…and she’s real old and stuffy. Ma used to call her all sorts, said she was full of airs and graces, always fussin’ and frettin’, you know what I mean?”

He threw her a grin at that, “Don’t I just,” he said thinking of old Jonsey.

“But I guess it’s better than your Pa finding you. You sure wouldn’t want that…would you?” he asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.

When she was silent and refused to meet his eye, he said, “Georgie?”

She looked exasperated then and said crossly, “No, of course not, but he is still my Pa I guess, I can’t hate him.”

Jess looked astonished, “What, after all he’s done, goin’ off the rails that way and then killin’ those innocent people in the bank raid?”

She looked unhappy, “Maybe it wasn’t his fault; they might have been shooting at him first…. I don’t know…maybe he’d change if we were together again?”

Jess just looked down and shook his head, “That’s crazy talk and you know it,” he said eventually.

She looked up, anger in her eyes, which slowly turned to misery.

“Yes I guess I do…and he’d changed last time I saw him…He frightened me, he was so wild and drinking…Ma and I were real scared….he won’t find me will he Jess?”

“Nope, I made real sure of that, the Sheriff promised to keep it a secret and your Ma said he don’t know where your aunt lives.”

“Take me with you Jess,” she suddenly pleaded, “I don’t wanna go to Aunt Vera’s. I really don’t…please take me home with you,” and a single tear ran down her cheek, her eyes now pleading…..her Ma’s eyes.

“Hey where’s this come from…. I can’t do that honey, you know I can’t,” he said looking worried, hating to see a woman cry.

“Why not, I’ll be good I promise, I can cook pretty well, do ranch work too.”

Jess looked down feeling uncomfortable, hell he’d promised Ellie he’d look out for her kid…..but this?

He sighed deeply.

“Look Georgie, you have to understand how I’m fixed…For starters I’m just a hired hand, ain’t my place to say who can live there and who can’t, only been there a few months see…. And in the second place…well it just wouldn’t be right.”

“Why not, what’s the problem?” she asked looking puzzled.

“Well because there’s just us men folk at the ranch…Me, Slim Sherman my boss, young Andy his kid brother and old Jonsey…all bachelors you see…….so it just wouldn’t be proper.”

She thought about that for a moment and then throwing him a challenging look said, “I know…you could say I’m your housekeeper or something.”

He shook his head sadly, “Nope wouldn’t wash sweetheart, and you’re just a kid.”

She gave him a mutinous look at that, “Well I can’t help being young. I’ve been nursing my Ma and running the spread these last months, I figure that’s real grown up isn’t it?” she asked petulantly.

Jess nodded, “It is and that’s why you need to get back to normal, finish school and let your aunt look after you.”

She looked angry then, “But I’m not a little kid, why won’t you listen!”

“Well it sure ain’t nuthin’ that won’t be cured by time,” he said with a grin, “I guess you’ll just have to be patient in the meantime though honey…Now why dontcha get some sleep…early start tomorrow.”

She huffed and puffed and threw him daggers, but finally flounced off to her own side of the crackling camp fire and wrapping herself up in her blanket, turned away from him and feigned sleep.

Jess shook his head, a small smile on his face. Women he thought, trouble from day one and the older they get the more trouble they were he mused, before wandering off to check on the horses.


The following morning Georgie was gone.

“Garl darn it,” Jess swore loudly, what in the blue blazes did the kid think she was doin’?

He tore his hat off and ran a hand through his hair in exasperation, before ramming it back on and pulling it down hard and went off to break camp and saddle up Traveller.

She’d gotten a good couple of miles down the trail before he finally caught up with her, Jiggy her paint pony easy to track in the early morning dusty road.

As he rode up she turned in the saddle a look of resignation in her blue eyes…

“I thought you might just give up on me,” she said at last, “let me go, thinking I’m too much bother.”

“Now why would I do a dang fool thing like that?” he replied anger tinged with relief at finding her.

She shrugged, “So why should you bother anyway, I’m nothing to you.”

“That ain’t true….you do mean something to me…… because your Ma did,” he replied quietly.

Her eyes opened wide at that news.

“You were more than just friends….you were….you were lovers weren’t you?” she asked, as the realisation suddenly hit her.

Jess ducked his head and then after a moment he dismounted.

“You missed breakfast,” he said eventually, “go fetch us some wood will ya and I’ll brew some coffee, I guess we need to talk.”

Chapter 5

Once they were sitting by the fire a coffee a piece Jess looked over at the beautiful young girl and not for the first time he was reminded of Ellie at that age. She sure had been a feisty little thing as a child Jess remembered. She was a couple of years older than him and she could hold her own with him and the other boys, be it fishing, shooting or hunting she’d have a go.

Then they had met up some years later when they were in their teens. Jess bitter, on the trail of the Banisters after they had burned out the family home killing most of his kin. Leaving him devastated and living only for retribution.

He had landed in a small town on the Mexican border. After a tip off that the Banister gang were heading for Mexico to hole up after a bank raid, and was delighted to find Ellie working in the local saloon.

He had little money and set up camp just outside town in a disused line shack. Pretty soon Ellie started riding out to visit him on a regular basis, as she only worked in the evenings and they resumed their earlier friendship.

That was when they’d first become really close friends he remembered. She was fascinated by his fast draw, watching him practice hour after hour, firing into an old clay bank, gaining speed and accuracy on a daily basis. His bitterness didn’t seem to deter her from befriending him. Whereas others were wary of this wild unpredictable kid with a chip on his shoulder and an ornery streak a mile wide, she just accepted him for what he was, acceptance slowly growing into affection and finally passion.

Maybe it was the fact that they had been friends as children, or maybe he just needed someone to be in his corner right then? Jess didn’t know as he looked back over the years remembering that animated, beautiful, young woman that had been Ellie. For some reason, whatever it was, he had accepted her into his world. That dark, dark place he had been dwelling in, anger and retribution on those who had killed his family his only reason for living back then.

However it wasn’t long before he became aware of a shift in their relationship, from friendly camaraderie and banter, to something much deeper… on her behalf at first anyway.

It was after the shootout that everything changed between them forever.

Even though he was still a youngster Jess had gotten himself a reputation in the small Mexican town as being a hot head with a fast draw with an even faster temper. And so it was that a Mexican gun fighter decided to take him on one terrible day, keen to enhance his own standing.

Juan Lopez was a gunfighter with a growing reputation, earning a swift buck or two from his colt and when he got wind of Jess’s alleged prowess with the weapon he decided to try him out.

Jess rarely visited town, having no spare cash to spend. So Lopez followed Ellie one day as he knew the two were good friends from odd things she had let slip in the saloon. As he had hoped she led him directly to where Jess was holed up waiting on the Banisters. He knew of Jess’s reputation with a gun from others tales. So when he had seen him in town a few times the couple had exchanged uneasy banter, each slightly wary of the other. Now he really wanted to test the youngster’s skills for himself….to prove a point if nothing else…that he, Lopez, was top dog.

Jess looked up from where he’d been sitting in the shade of an old cottonwood, witling, when Ellie rode in.

She dismounted and wandered over, looking down at him.

His lithe form although sprawled back against the tree had a restless energy about it, almost as though he was about to burst into action at any moment. His slender face sported a couple of days beard growth and he had an edgy, tough look about him. However the dangerous looking persona evaporated as he squinted up against the bright sunlight and gave her a lazy smile.

“Howdy sweetheart, coffee?” he asked nodding to where the pot perpetually simmered by the camp fire before him.

She accepted it gratefully and then sat down near him regarding him thoughtfully.

“Any sign?”

He shook his head, “I think they may be thinking of crossing over the river further north, I may move on in a day or two.”

She looked shocked at that news… “Aww Jess I’ll really miss you, do you have to go?”

He just nodded, “I guess.”

Then turning his deep blue eyes on her, “You never did say what you were doing in these parts?”

She looked down before answering, “I just needed to get away from home for a while; things were getting me down… I needed space to think.”

“That sounds kinda interestin’” he said with a grin, “what sorta things… a man huh?”

She flushed a little, “Uh, yeah, maybe and other stuff too…..If you were staying I’d tell you all about it,” she said hopefully… “please don’t go Jess, not just yet.”

Before he could reply they heard a twig snap, and then a figure emerged from the dense woodland surrounding the line shack, and Juan Lopez stood there, grinning from ear to ear, an evil twinkle in his dark eyes.

“Yeah Jess, don’t go yet,” he mimicked.

Then in his own Mexican drawl, “I figure we’ve got some business before you ride out gringo.”

Jess had sprung up at the Mexican’s approach, from where he’d been lounging beneath the tree, his eyes narrowed and his hand hovering above his gun….

“What the Hell do ya want Lopez, we ain’t got no business as far as I know!”

“Well that’s where you’re wrong mi amigo. You see the word in town is that you are a real fast gun, and seeing as I’m…shall we say always intent on improving my skills, I figured a shootout with you would be just what I need. Then when I kill you, my reputation will be even more impressive…what do you say Jess….a little sport no?”

“Are ya crazy, go take a walk Lopez, I don’t want no part of it.”

“Uh, well I’m sorry mi amigo, but you see you have no choice. I have set my heart on slinging your body across that sorry excuse for a mount you ride and taking you back to town. Then I shall tell the Sheriff how you drew on me first…It will be seen as a simple act of self defence…and I will be the hero of the piece. The fastest draw around, you understand, huh…..good for business no?”

Jess was feeling pretty riled now at the insult aimed at Traveller, but that was nothing to how he was to feel a few minutes later.

When Lopez saw that his jibe about the horse had not provided the desired amount of anger in his adversary, he started on Ellie.

She too had leapt up at his approach and now was sidling away from the imminent fight.

Quick as a flash Lopez made a grab for her, his gun out and aimed at her pretty blond head, before Jess could react….

“So are you going to oblige me Harper, or do I have to take it out on this little lady?” he spat.

“Leave her alone, Goddamn it, sure we’ll fight just let her go!”

Lopez beamed, his white teeth flashing in his swarthy face, and threw Ellie roughly away from him, his gun now trained on Jess, and he gave an evil leer.

“Of course I could simply gun you down where you stand, but that would not be honourable.”

So you think it’s honourable to call out a green kid and you a seasoned gunfighter, Jess secretly thought, but said nothing.

“And I guess you’re real ‘honourable’ ain’t ya Lopez?” he drawled sarcastically.

That seemed to provoke the Mexican and he flushed up looking furious.

“You think because you are half my age I should give you some advantage do you gringo? But are you not the famous Jess Harper who can supposedly ‘draw like the lightning’…huh?” he asked, quoting what Ellie had said in the bar and flicking a glance over to where she now stood rooted to the spot.

Jess ignored his taunting, knowing that he had little chance of outdrawing the legendary Juan Lopez, but knowing equally that he had no choice but to try. Or else be gunned down in cold blood as Lopez had alluded to.

“Well come on what are ya waitin’ for?” Jess yelled, his bravado belying his true feelings.

Sure he was pretty fast, Hell he was prepared to take on the Banisters for goodness sake, wasn’t he?….But something about this cocksure Mexican sent a shiver of dread down his spine.

“Come on then gringo, I’m waiting,” called out the tough Mexican in a singsong voice.

“Then you’ll wait ‘til Hell freezes over Lopez. I ain’t drawin’ on you…you want this then you draw.”

“So the young Americano wishes to be seen as the innocent party…well whatever, you’ll be just as dead Harper,” and with that he drew, so fast it was a blur.

Ellie screamed hysterically covering her eyes as the shots rang out, and then there was complete silence.

After a few minutes she dragged her hands down and peered over at the carnage set out before her.

Jess lay motionless face down in the dirt, his hat nearby….

Lopez was also down…but after a few seconds he dragged himself to his feet and staggered groggily forwards, blood pouring from a shoulder wound.

Ellie was suddenly galvanized into action and tore across to Jess and threw herself over his inert body, crying hysterically. Lopez finally staggered over looking down at the youngster and the beautiful girl lying across him, breaking her heart.

“He was a brave kid,” he said after a moment “ a good shot too,” and clutching his bleeding shoulder, shrugged and ambled off to his horse.

He mounted his horse with some difficulty before walking him slowly over to where Ellie was now almost fainting with grief and shock.

“I’d take him in, but I need to find a doctor someplace. I’ll leave you to make the arrangements my dear. Bury him deep, there are coyotes in the hills,” he said with an insincere smile, before turning his mount around and riding off at a slow gait.

Ellie sat peering down at Jess for a long time, before finally heaving him over onto his back and staring at his deathly pale face through tear filled eyes.

Then she gently brushed the hair back from his forehead in a loving gesture, wondering what she should do next, the thought of burying him filling her with dread.

The wound to his side was gently oozing blood and it was her first instinct to try and stem the flow with his bandana and she loosened it, before thinking what was the point, he was dead like Lopez had said, all she could do was provide a last resting place.

Then suddenly her mind seemed to shrug off the fog of grief and she began to think rationally. Of course the dead don’t bleed. If the blood was still being pumped out of him this way, well then it stood to reason that his heart must still be beating!

She pulled off the bandana and after gently unbuttoning his shirt found the wound. Low in his left side and pushed the bandana into the gaping hole, pushing it home hard and keeping the pressure on she sat back, praying and cussing in equal measure.

It must have been a good half hour later when he finally stirred and started some pretty impressive cussing himself.

Then his eyes flickered open and he found himself looking up into Ellie’s beautiful eyes, the colour of cornflowers he thought in passing.

He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing but a harsh whisper came out…

“Hush, it’s OK Jess don’t try to talk.”

He paid no heed however and after a moment licked his lips and tried again.

“Where’s Lopez, did I git him?”

She nodded vigorously, “In the shoulder, pretty bad I think. He rode out…said I was to lay you to rest,” she said with the ghost of a smile.

He returned the smile, “Yeah…...but not for about another fifty years or so huh?”

“You got it,” she said with a genuine smile now “so can you get to the shack, I think you need to lie down and I’ll try and clean you up some.”

The wound to Jess’s side just below the ribcage was extremely painful and bled copiously, but at least it looked like the bullet had gone straight through, so he was spared the added agony of Ellie trying to fish it out.

In all his short life he had never felt pain like it however, and it took all his grit and determination not to cry out in agony as she gently tried to clean and bind the wound.

Over the years Jess became an expert on the care of gunshot wounds, knowing the importance of cleaning them real good, with spirit to prevent infection. But back then he was pretty green and didn’t know what to do and unfortunately, neither did Ellie.

Sure she did the best she could, but as the day progressed and the sun gradually set, it was clear he was suffering badly.

He awoke from a restless slumber the old mattress pulled up close to the fire in the line shack and Ellie squatted down on it beside him. She was anxiously taking in the now fevered brow and recent fresh blood stains on the makeshift dressing when he awoke.

His eyes flickered open and his head rolled on the straw filled pillow so that he could see her properly.

“What ya still doin’ here, you’ll be late for work,” he croaked.

“I can’t leave you,” she said looking shocked, “how could I!”

“You’ll lose the job.”

“Hell Jess that doesn’t matter I was going to quit soon anyway…..and …“

“And what?” he asked suddenly alerted to the emotion in her tone.

“And anyway you’re more important than some lousy job,” she finished, tears in her eyes.

Jess bit back the light comment he was about to make, ‘Heck I never knew you cared’, and instead said softly, “Thanks Ellie, I appreciate that.”

She smiled down at him then.

“I just wish there was a doctor in town, I guess you could really use one.”

“There isn’t?”

“Nope was killed last week, got up too close to a shootout, bullet caught him in the head.”

Jess winced, ”Poor guy, gee that’s one hell of a rough town honey; I figure you’re well out of it!”

The next few days proved to be an exhausting ordeal for them both as Jess suffered a life threatening fever, tossing and turning as he lived through one nightmare after another, crying out in terror.

Ellie wiped down his sweating body with cool water and tried to make him drink too, but he pushed her away seeming to be completely unaware of who she was or indeed where he was, calling out for his Ma, such was his state of confusion. At other times he was shivering uncontrollably and she threw more wood on the fire and eventually cuddled up to him, holding him close through the night, willing her body warmth to warm his up some.

He’d also lost more blood, but Ellie persevered in her care for him, making him drink as much water as possible and tending the wound. Finally she was relieved when the fever broke on the third day after the shooting and the wound began to heal.

He awoke to find his arms around her, holding her close as they lay on the old mattress in front of the line shack fire, and for a moment he felt completely disorientated…as to where he was and why this beautiful girl was in his arms….

Then it all came flooding back to him and in the few moments of lucidity he had experienced while so sick, remembered Ellie desperately trying to get water into him. Then later holding him close as his body was wracked by shivers and pain….Gee she had been so darned good to him, he reflected now.

As far as Ellie was concerned… if she were honest, she had to admit she had gradually begun falling in love with the troubled young cowboy. As the days wore on she felt like her whole reason for living was purely to get him through this current crisis, nothing else in her life mattering right then.

As she sat nursing him, hour after hour in the dingy cramped line shack she remembered back to their childhood and what a tough little urchin Jess had been back then, she thought with a faint smile. His parents like most in that old panhandle town, dirt poor, scratching out a living as share farmers like her own folk. The age gap of just two years seemed wide when they were children, but as they grew up it had narrowed and even back then she had thought him an attractive boy when he was but thirteen and she was nearly fifteen…. Then everything had changed and she had been sent away from her home town to live with Aunt Vera…..

She had returned on a visit not long after the terrible fire that burnt out the Harper shack and seen Jess, but fleetingly, and was horrified by the change in him. Sure he’d always had a tough life as a child, but he was philosophical with his lot and generally reasonably happy go lucky. But this new Jess was hard and cold, filled with anger and looked mean and dangerous….To her eyes he seemed to have grown up over night after the tragedy…Leaving the other youngsters behind, both physically and emotionally, as he set off on his crusade to bring the Banisters to justice or kill them in the process. At the time she remembered thinking that they were both set apart from the other youngster…but for completely different reasons…

Now spending so much time with him she had seen the vulnerability beneath the tough façade and loved him even more for it. Oh she was under no illusions as to his strength and forbearance, or to his unwavering determination to bring the gang to trial…. But she also knew he was capable of deep feelings and was not as hard and cold as he liked to appear.

Now she slowly awakened and was aware of Jess looking down at her, an unfathomable look in his deep blue eyes and then realized that he was holding her in a warm embrace.

“You’re feeling better?” she whispered with a questioning look.

“I guess,” he replied softly his gaze never leaving hers, “and I figure that’s down to you, thanks Ellie.”

She suddenly became aware of their closeness, the way he still held her…..The look in those deep blue eyes now almost questioning as he glanced down at her mouth and back up to her eyes again, before gently moving in and caressing her lips with his own.

After a moment she responded and felt his grip tighten as he pulled her even closer, the kisses at first gentle and searching and then more confident and passionate.

It was Ellie who finally called a halt to the proceedings and Jess pulled back immediately, his eyes again questioning…

“I’m sorry, I thought you wanted…. I mean…”

“Hush, it’s alright,” she said quickly, “I did…. I mean I do, it’s just, well so sudden….we need to take things kind of slow maybe?”

He nodded, “Sure, I understand…..”

She got up and went and fetched some wood for the fire and the moment passed…but she knew she couldn’t keep up this pretence for long.

She wanted him. He was irresistible. So young and yet obviously experienced, strong and yet gentle, but with an underlying danger and excitement about him…How could any woman resist she asked herself…. But then not many girls of her age had so much responsibility back home, nor so many hard decisions to make.

Could she do that? Betray the two people in her life that meant so much…no the three people a little voice said in her head….the three people.

It was inevitable that things finally came to their natural conclusion between the young couple and Jess was everything Ellie had dreamed of and more. As for Jess he was totally smitten by the beautiful young girl, their love making something very, very special to him.

The dingy old cabin became their sanctuary. Their lovemaking was passionate and abandoned, both of them almost desperate to hide from the outside pressures and the responsibility that awaited them out in the real world.

Jess knew it couldn’t go on. He needed to be on his way and find the Banisters and nothing, no nothing, was going to stand in his way. But he was sorely tried by the situation, his need for Ellie tearing him apart as he knew he must go.

It was Ellie who made the decision in the end. The guilt was gnawing away at her until she could bear it no longer, but also knowing how she would hurt him when the bitter truth came out made it so difficult.

They were sitting around the camp fire after breakfast one morning, Jess desperately trying to find the words… Maybe she would wait for him. He could see her home before continuing his search for the gang…then once it was all over return to her…Maybe really make a go of things he thought with youthful optimism.

It was Ellie who broke the silence first though.

“Jess, remember how I told you I’d explain why I was out here…if you stayed?”

He nodded.

“Well I think it’s time I was straight with you…I haven’t been, well completely honest…”

“Go on,” he said, now giving her his full attention, looking intently at her.

She swallowed hard before saying, “Did you ever wonder why Ma and Pa sent me off to live with Aunt Vera?”

He shook his head looking puzzled “It were about money weren’t it? Lots of big families shipped their kids out to kin, to help ease the load some I guess.”

She just shook her head…

“I was pregnant Jess,” she said very softly.

His head shot up at that bombshell, “What….you’re kiddin’ me?” he said in a shocked voice.

She looked down embarrassed, “No, it’s the truth.”

“So….. you’ve gotten a baby, well what in hell are you doin’ out here?”

Then he paused and his eyes narrowed…”Out here foolin’ about with me?”

“Jess don’t be this way, I’m not a bad mother…not really. Ma’s got the child, I just needed to get away to decide what to do….. About me and Jackson…”

“Huh… that bastard Jackson Bailey, so where does he fit in?” asked Jess harshly, his anger hiding his hurt feelings.

She looked up and met his angry gaze, “He’s the child’s father and he’s asked me to marry him.”

“This just gets better and better,” Jess muttered under his breath.

Then more loudly, ”So why now? Hell you must have been….what…. fourteen when you had the kid, why wait until now?”

She sighed deeply, “He’s been banged up in jail, got out last month and came and found me, asked me to marry him.”

“So why didn’t you?” asked Jess feeling furious now.

“I wasn’t sure; I want my baby to have a father of course I do….and Jack has promised to go straight, provide for us both…I have to think of the baby Jess, ”she said almost pleadingly…”you must see that.”

“I see you’ve played me for a fool,” he said leaping up and turning on her…”So what was this all about for you then Ellie? A last fling…git all your wanderlust outer your system before you settled down to the happy ever after huh?” he spat angrily.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “really I am Jess, I never meant to hurt you…Never meant to fall in love with you either, but I have and I guess I can’t change that.”

His expression softened at that and after a moment he opened his arms and she jumped up and ran into them. He held her close his eyes tightly shut as he tried to control the waves of emotion threatening to overwhelm him…..

Chapter 6


He looked up and saw Ellie peering over at him looking puzzled and then shook his head….no it wasn’t Ellie of course it wasn’t, she was dead…… it was young Georgie, waiting for an answer to her question.

Now he gave her a candid look, knowing he couldn’t lie.

“Yes, yes we were lovers Georgie, way back…..just for a little while and we were good friends too. I guess she saved my life.”

He went on to give a brief rundown of those days spent in each other’s company down in Mexico, skirting around the more intimate details.

“So what happened….in the end?” she asked looking rapt at what she considered to be a story which was the height of romance.

He ducked his head and when he looked back up at her she saw a deep sadness in his blue eyes.

“Your Ma had to make a choice…. She said as there were just three people in her life that were real important, you…Jackson and me, said she had to hurt someone….and I guess that was me….”

“She chose Pa over you.”

“Yeah, she had to honey he was your Pa. He wanted to be part of your life and I figure I just wasn’t ready for that kinda commitment…maybe I never will be,” he finished quietly.

Georgie thought about this and then said, “Of course that makes sense now. I was just five or six, about to start school and I overheard Grandma and Grandpa arguing. Grandma saying Ma should marry Jackson, to give me a name before I went to school. Well that didn’t make sense; I had a name…..Georgie, but now I understand it.”

“Yeah, well I guess your Ma did the right thing in marrying. She made things right for you…and I reckon she didn’t know how it would eventually turn out.”

She pondered on that and then she gave him a small smile.

“I wonder what would have happened if she’d chosen you?”

He shrugged, feeling a little stab of pain, even after all those years, “I guess we’ll never know,” he said with a sad smile.

She took it all in and then said thoughtfully, “It seems our family owe great Aunt Vera a lot. She cared for Ma that way and now willing to take me in. I guess she’s the last of the old ones too, what with my grandparents both passed over.”

Jess nodded, “Sure, so are you willing to give her a chance now, see iffen you can make it work…for your Ma’s memory as much as anything…huh?”

She looked across at him and gave her beautiful smile that reminded him so much of Ellie.

“Yes, for Ma’s sake I’ll give it a try,” she confirmed.

They rode into Widow Brown’s place, as Jess knew it, later that afternoon. Vera Brown was something of a character he knew that and just wondered how she would get along with her great niece.

Her small spread was on the road out of town, just north of Laramie and not too far from the Relay as the crow flew Jess knew.

Jess and all at the ranch knew Vera Brown’s reputation of being something of a harridan who did not suffer fools gladly and she had even had the occasional run in with old Jonsey.

“That woman’s crazier than a box of frogs,” he had declared once, after Widow Brown had point blank refused to let him into the Church hall to drop off some baking for a fundraiser just because his boots were muddy.

“Garl darn it,” he said later,” I had ter wait for one of the women folk delivering their stuff to take mine in too…last time I help that lot and their good causes out!”

“So what was it for this time,” Slim had asked chuckling….”old folks or orphans….?”

“Dunno,” he had replied crossly, “orphans with any luck, ‘cos Andy will need to apply iffen I get any more cheek out of you Slim Sherman!”

Slim and Jess had dissolved into laughter at that.

“Or maybe it’s for a home for retired gunslingers,” Jess had sniggered, making them explode with uncontrollable gales of laughter again.

Now as they drew near to the place he smiled at the memory. Yup old Vera Brown sure was a one for her charity fund raisin’, not to mention her fussin’ and frettin’ and he felt kind of sorry for young Georgie.

They rode into the neat front yard and hitched their mounts at the rail near the door before wandering onto the porch.

However the door flew open before Jess had a chance to knock and Vera Brown stood there, arms akimbo and a grim look on her weather beaten old face. Jess noticed a rifle just by the door too and thanked the Lord she wasn’t armed as she greeted them.

“So what kept you young Harper,” she cried fixing him with a steely look, “I expected you days ago, according to that wire you sent!”

Jess removed his hat and grinned across at the stout, iron haired, elderly matron.

“Afternoon Ma’am, good to see you too and sorry ‘bout that, took us a mite longer than we thought,” he replied cheekily.

She just glared at him and then turned away towards Georgie.

“It’s been a long time child,” she said, “you were just a little scrap of a girl last I saw of you…before your Ma married that no good….”

Georgie looked unnerved by this verbal onslaught.

“Come on then girl, let’s get a good look at you! Come here…come here,” she said impatiently, “cat got your tongue?”

Georgie took a step forwards after casting Jess an agonized glance.

“She’s a mite deaf,” he whispered, “she don’t mean nuthin’ by yelling at ya.”

“What, what did you say young man, speak up!”

“Uh, said I’d gotta be on my way ma’am,” he replied touching his hat and throwing Georgie an apologetic glance.

“Yes of course off you go,” she said waving a dismissive hand in his direction.

“I’ll have a word in town see if I can get you a place in school,” he said to the scared looking youngster, “git you out of the house some.”

“That’s quite alright thank you young Harper, all dealt with the child starts on Monday,” came the quick fire reply from ma Brown…”now off you go, the child and I have things to discuss.”

Jess gave a huge sigh of relief at having abdicated his responsibility and jumping up athletically into the saddle, tipped his hat to both women.

“Be seein’ ya,” he said with another apologetic grin in Georgie’s direction, before heading out of the yard at speed.


It was nearly supper time when Jess finally turned onto the Laramie road for the last leg of his journey to the ranch, wondering what sort of reception he would receive.

At about the same time young Andy was making his way up to the lonesome pine, to scan the distant hills for any sign of his errant friend as had been his habit almost since his buddy had ridden out.

He knew Jonsey would give him a hard time when he climbed back down, as he should have been setting the table and giving a general helping hand. But shucks he sure was sick of the old routine…..If he had a dime for every table he’d set and every dish he’d washed he figured he could have been well on his way to California with the Wagon Train by now!

He arrived at the top of the hill, breathless and sweating a little from the exertion and finally leaned back on the old pine, surveying the Laramie road and distant hills……

Then he saw it…The distinct figure of a horse and rider, trotting along the road apace and kicking up the dust as he went.

Andy’s eyes narrowed as he tried to focus clearly on the lone rider, making his way closer and closer….

Something in the way he sat his horse, as though born in the saddle was so familiar .The dark Stetson pulled well down….the dusty denims…..yes…… YES it could be none other than Jess home!

The boy gave a joyous whoop of delight, throwing his hat up in the air in a moment of pure happiness, before turning and bolting hell for leather back down the hill and into the yard.

“He’s back; he’s back,” he yelled as he pelted into the courtyard, his cries bringing Slim out to the barn door to see what all the ruckus was about.

Jess rode into the yard a few minutes later and reining Traveller in, hopped down from the saddle and was practically floored as Andy threw himself at the young cowboy giving him a big bear hug.

Jess grinned down at the youngster before extricating himself from his grip.

“Hey steady Andy, I’m runnin’ on empty here, kinda light headed, you’ll have me over,” then hopefully, “Grub nearly ready then?”

“I might have known it,” said Slim marching forth from the barn a look of mock annoyance on his face, “might have known it, all he’s bothering about is his darned belly as usual!“

Then his face relaxed into a friendly grin and he reached across and shook Jess’s hand, “Good to have you back pard.”

Jess threw him a sincere look, “It’s good to be back Slim.”

Then he gazed around the yard, taking in the mustangs in the corral and finally the old homestead, before glancing back at the two brothers, “Real good.”

Then old Jonsey came to the door to see what all the fuss was about.

“Garl darn it the boy’s back,” he said, trying hard to suppress a grin and failing abysmally.

He gave a mock sigh, before turning back to the house.

“Come on then Andy, Slim, grubs up…..and bring that no good drifter with ya…looks like he’s in need of a good feed.”

Jess exchanged grins with the Sherman brothers and with a friendly arm from each draped around his shoulders they escorted him in to supper.

Later that evening after Andy had finally been persuaded to turn in, Slim having to do his big brother act and remind him it was school in the morning, the two men settled down to chat.

Jonsey was off in the barn tending to his latest batch of liniment, currently stinking the place out, and so Jess and Slim sat down with the coffee pot by the fire.

“So what was the boy like then?” asked Slim conversationally, “and please tell me he takes after his Ma and not his Pa.”

When Jess was strangely reticent Slim tried again.

“I just mean, you don’t want him to favour that Jackson Bailey….not with a bounty on his head and a noose waiting on him.”

Jess’s head shot up and he looked shocked, “Oh yeah of course, I never thought of that.”

“Hell Jess he’s wanted on three accounts for murder, sure he’s going to hang, soon as he’s found that is…Why, don’t tell me you like the guy?”

“Huh? Oh no, of course not…can’t stand him.”

“So what’s your problem?”

Jess just shrugged, “Just that the kid….well thinks a lot of him. Used to anyways, and still don’t believe he’s capable of all that.”

“Uh, well we know different don’t we?”

“Err….sure we do Slim.”

“So what’s he like then, this George?”

Jess looked a mite uncomfortable.

“Well ya see Slim, it ain’t George…it’s Georgie, short for Miss Georgina…”

“Miss Georgina. You mean she’s a girl?“

Jess chuckled, “Yup she’s a girl alright….and a real pretty one too, spittin’ image of her Ma.”

Slim took this information on board slowly, before his head shot up and he threw Jess a shocked look.

“So how old is this real pretty girl then?”

“Uh….oh fifteen…looks a mite older though.”

Slim looked scandalized.

“So let me get this straight, you’ve travelled half way across the country, on your own….camping out….sleeping out at night with a real pretty fifteen year old girl!”

“Sure I have, what did you expect me to do with her, parcel her up and mail her? I promised her Ma Slim…her dying Ma, what else could I do?”

“Well you could have sent her on the Stage couldn’t you?”

“She didn’t wanna go by Stage! Needed to bring her pony over…Hell Slim she didn’t wanna come period. It took me all my time to git her here so don’t start giving me a hard time over it.”

“I’m just saying….”

“Yeah, well don’t, I’m beat…. I’m turning in…..”

“Sure,”….then he threw his buddy a searching look, “Jess nothing happened did it…on the trail?”

Jess stopped in his tracks and turned back, his eyes blazing mad now.

“Goddamn it Slim what do ya take me for? She’s a young kid…and the daughter of a dear friend. Of course nuthin’ happened…. Jeez I may be kinda rough around the edges but I do have some honour you know!”

Slim ducked his head, flushing up….

“I’m sorry,” he said eventually, looking his buddy in the eye, “I was out of order I should never have said that.”

“Dang right you shouldn’t,” Jess agreed before slamming out to go sleep in the bunkhouse again, like he had the last night before he lit out on his travels.


The following morning an uneasy truce existed between the two men at the breakfast table, but it was obvious to Andy and Jonsey that all was not well.

“I thought you’d be bunking down with me and Slim,” Andy ventured, throwing Jess a questioning look.

Jess just grunted and swigged his coffee down before topping his cup up again.

“So…are you moving your stuff back in then? It’s started getting real chilly now falls here…you’ll freeze in that old bunkhouse,” he continued…”so are ya, Jess huh?”

“Ask your brother,” Jess spat, before jumping up and stomping out of the room.

Andy’s head swivelled to watch him go and then he flinched as the door slammed with such force it rattled the windows.

Then he looked back at his big brother…”Well?”

Slim just looked down at his plate, “Go get ready for school Andy, you’ll be late…”

“But Slim….”

“Andy, do as your told, I’m in no mood….!”

The boy sighed dramatically and rolled his eyes before slouching off to his room to get ready.

Once he’d gone Jonsey poured them both another coffee.

“Well,” asked the old timer, “so what’s ruffled that young wastrel’s feathers now?“

“Something I said last night. I don’t know why I said it…I just had to be sure in my own mind I guess…. But I shouldn’t have doubted him.”

Jonsey scrutinized his old buddy’s eldest son fondly; gee the kid could worry for Wyoming.

“So what did you say?”

“Not say…exactly, just implied that well, maybe he wasn’t a complete gentleman where this young Georgie is concerned.”

Jonsey had been as surprised as Slim when he’d been told that the child was indeed a girl, but had thought no more about it.

Now he turned sad eyes on Slim.

“No you shouldn’t have doubted him,” he said quietly…”that young man may be a lot of things, but he does have his honour, I’m darned sure of that…. No wonder he’s spittin’ mad Slim…Go sort it out son, afore he looks sideways at the house cow and curdles all the dang milk.”

Slim gave him a small smile at that notion and swigging his coffee down went to find his wayward ranch hand.

He ran him to earth in the barn grooming Traveller and he stood watching his buddy’s straight back for a minute, every inch expressing outrage, before he finally strolled over to confront the issue.

He stood quietly by the stall door watching his friend, knowing perfectly well that he knew he was there and was ignoring him. Jess had excellent hearing and Slim had seen his back tense as soon as he had entered the barn.

He stuck it out for another minute before sighing and saying, “Come on Jess, talk to me will you.”

Jess turned then and Slim was surprised to see the hurt in his friend’s eyes, the anger seeming to have dissipated.

“How could ya think that of me?” he finally managed.

“I …I didn’t, not really, like I say, I didn’t mean it Jess…. “

“Well iffen ya didn’t mean it why say it?“

Slim sighed deeply.

“Look Jess, I don’t know you….not really know you. You can be kind of difficult to understand…..you sure aren’t an open book. You came here just a few months ago with one hell of a lot of history… I guess we’re still trying to figure each other out huh?”

“So I’ve got me a reputation as a fast gun… But does that make me the kind of guy that would hit on a young girl?”

“No, of course it doesn’t, and I take it back OK….Now can we just get on with running the ranch and try and be civil if nothing else…huh?”

Jess looked down for a long time, before a slow smile spread across his face….

“Sure we can,” he finally said….”and yeah I know…… I guess I am kinda hard work sometimes. Well an ornery son of a bitch…. iffen we’re being honest, so yup, let’s forget it Slim.”

“Thanks Jess…. a fresh start huh?”

“Sure…and Slim…”


“Andy was right it is gettin’ kinda chilly out in the bunkhouse…”

Slim chuckled at that, “Come on I’ll help ya move your gear back…..”

Chapter 7

The following morning Slim was standing out on the porch after breakfast sniffing the air and looking over to the distant hills, when Jess joined him.

“What’s up?”

“I’m not sure Jess, but I think we might be in for early snow this year, maybe we should think about bringing the stock down early.”

“You’re kidding me! Hell winter don’t start yet around here does it? Hell we ain’t given fall a chance yet,” he said looking sorely tried. 

Slim grinned at that, “Well it’s not Texas you know Jess, and I can tell you now it’s going to get a heck of a lot worse before it gets better.”

Jess turned his gaze to the distant hills along with Slim at that news, “Is that so,” he said softly, his expression unfathomable. ’

They rode out early the following day and spent the next week or so bringing the beasts down to the lower pasture before winter began in earnest.

As Slim had predicted the weather turned unseasonably cold for late September, a biting wind got up bringing some sleety rain that whipped around their faces, stinging their eyes and even finding its way down their necks.

Jess had cussed long and loud throughout the day and now as dusk was falling he sat his mount, eyes narrowed against the flurries of sleet, looking the picture of misery, as he waited for the beasts to pass through the meadow gate.

Slim rode up a few minutes later chivvying the last of the animals along ahead of him, before hopping down from the saddle and closing the gate.

The he peered up at his buddy.

“You OK?”

Jess just shrugged, ”Apart from bein’ darned near froze to the bone and soakin’ wet, sure I’m just fine.”

Slim grinned and then looked to where Traveller was uncharacteristically pawing the ground and shaking his mane impatiently.

“Is he alright?” he asked nodding at the bay.

Jess shook his head, ”He don’t like this weather either,” and patted the arched neck, before turning him and heading back up the tack towards the ranch.

Slim tipped his Stetson back as he watched the ranch hand ride off, “You haven’t seen anything yet buddy,” he said quietly before spurring Alamo on to catch up.

By the time they got back to the ranch the sleet had turned to snow and it was coming down thick and fast.

Andy ran out to meet them, bubbling with excitement, “Isn’t this just swell, we could be snowed in by the end of the week and no school,” he said with glee.

Jess just grunted and went off to rub his horse down, leaving the boy looking puzzled.

“What’s up with Jess?”

“Says he doesn’t like the weather, too cold for him,” he replied with a chuckle.

“Oh, is that all, well heck Slim it’ll get worse before it gets better.”

Slim grinned down at his little brother and ruffled his hair affectionately.

“Yup that’s what I said….don’t worry he’ll get used to it.”


“I’ll never get used to this dang weather,” Jess said again, before sneezing loudly and groaning, as his head felt like it might very well burst.

Slim turned in the saddle and threw him a sympathetic glance, “I said you could stay home today Jess, there are only a few strays to find now.”

“Are you kidding me and let Jonsey start rubbin’ that dang liniment all over my chest again,” he said in outrage.

Sadly, as far as Andy was concerned, the snow had eased and melted quickly, leaving a muddy unpleasantly waterlogged landscape behind it. So now Andy was back in school and the two cowboys trudging across the north pasture, eyes peeled for the remaining half dozen critters yet to be accounted for.

The wind had got up again chilling them to the bone, but the rain had held off at least for most of the day.

It was late afternoon before they located them and Jess was far from happy, having survived on a scratch repast of coffee and jerky for his dinner and now it looked like they’d be late for supper too.

They were near Drusilla’s pond a stream fed watering hole, now full to bursting after the torrential rain and snow of the previous days, its muddy banks slippery and treacherous. It was Jess who heard it first, the unmistakable sound of a beast in trouble.

Cresting the ridge they looked down to the deep dark waters of the pool and saw at once one of their prime heifers up to her hocks in the mud at the water’s edge. Even as they watched they saw her plunge forwards and into the icy water.

Both men responded instinctively spurring their mounts down to where the critter was now struggling in the murky depths and kicking up one heck of a din in the process.

Jess was the first to throw himself down from the saddle and had a rope around the animal with lightning speed, then he took up the slack to try and keep her from getting in any deeper, before throwing the other end to Slim.

“Wrap that around your saddle horn and back up,” he yelled against the sound of the howling wind.

Slim did as requested, but it became obvious that the critter was terrified, was fighting the rope and getting deeper in trouble.

Jess at once saw he had no choice but to wade in and try and guide the heifer out by attempting to calm her down.

When Slim saw what his buddy was doing he swore softly and shook his head in despair.

“Dang fool what’s he trying to do drown himself?” He muttered.

It was some time before Jess finally managed to coax the terrified critter back towards dry land and then he and Slim hauled her out, both filthy and wet, but triumphant.

Jess was totally done in. Once the rope was off and she had headed off towards the other cattle he just collapsed back on the grass for a minute. His breath was coming in great heaving gasps and his body shaking with the cold and fatigue.

Slim re coiled his rope and ran over to him, peering down at his filthy, exhausted, buddy.

“Come on pard,” he said offering a hand and hauling him up, “we need to get you home you’re way too cold. What in hell were ya thinking going in that way?” he added sharply.

“Thinkin’ we don’t need to lose another prime beast after those two that got mauled by that dang big cat,” Jess threw back at him, equally angrily.

“OK, OK you’ve got a point, but we need to get you home, you’re a mess.”

He fetched his bedroll and draped it around Jess’s shoulders, now more anxious than angry. Especially when he saw his buddy was having trouble mounting. He finally gave him a leg up and then the two made tracks for home driving the recalcitrant cattle before them.

Once home Jess slipped from the saddle and started to lead Traveller towards the barn.

“Hold it Jess, you’re going nowhere except inside and straight into a hot tub.

“Aww Slim quit your fussin’ you sound just like that old goat Jonsey, give us a break will ya.”

“Nope, just do as your told for once will you, you ornery cuss. Look at you, you can hardly put one foot in front of the other. Now come on inside afore you fall flat on your face and I’ll tend the mounts in a minute.”

Jess was finally half dragged inside, one of Slim’s strong arms around his shoulders and once inside he galvanised the others into action.

“Andy go fetch the hot tub and the medicinal whiskey from Jonesy’s room.”

“Jonsey, boil up some hot water will you, and make it fast. Jess here’s been in Drusilla’s pool , thought it would be a novel idea to go swimming with the cattle.”

Andy who had run off at his brother’s brisk orders returned with the tin bath, eyes opened wide in shock.

“Gee Jess, did you really go in the pool with the stock?”

He shook his head at that notion, a faint twinkle in his deep blue eyes.

“That brother of yours is exaggeratin’ as per usual. It weren’t a bunch of cattle…it was just one little biddy old heifer.”

“Crazy, the kids plumb crazy,” Jonsey muttered as he threw some extra wood on the stove and commenced boiling up water for the bath.

Once he’d had a good soak, Jess was almost too tired to eat and when Slim saw him literally about to end up with his face in his dinner he gently led him off to bed. He was surprised when his buddy offered no objections and almost fell into bed and was asleep before Slim made it to the door.

Two pairs of anxious eyes surveyed him on his return.

“Is he OK,” asked a worried looking Andy, “it’s not like Jess to leave his dinner that way?”

“He’ll be OK Andy, he’s just dead beat is all.”

Jonsey shook his head sadly, “If that boy isn’t heading for a real bad chill, then I’m a monkey’s uncle!”

It was later that evening once Andy had been packed off to bed and Slim and Jonsey were enjoying a quiet coffee by the fire that the subject came up again.

“You know I just can’t figure him,” Slim said quietly.

Jonsey glanced up from where he was mending one of Andy’s shirts.


Slim shook his head, “You should have seen him this afternoon, he might have died saving that darned critter, but he just had t do it…..”

Then he turned puzzled eyes on his friend, “It seems as though this place and everything on it is almost as dear to him as it is to us… The way he was back there, he didn’t have to do that Jonsey… and yet?”

“Go on son, get it off your chest.”

“Yet, it was only a few weeks ago that he rode out without a backwards glance, having to help this ‘old friend’ out…just turned his back and ran out on us..”

Jonsey thought about that for a minute.

“Uh, maybe it’s more about him needing to go help someone more than running out on us…This girl was obviously a real important friend….and so in his eyes he had to go, because you don’t let a friend down. I reckon that’s the way he figures it.”

“So what about letting us down?” Slim replied tartly.

“I guess it’s a matter of need…. She needed him right then so he had to go….You needed him this afternoon and he came through for you didn’t he?“

Slim hung his head, before looking back up at Jonsey.

“Yeah, he did didn’t he, crazy fool,” he said affectionately.

Then he sighed deeply, “I reckon this new hand we’ve got is going to take one heck of a lot of figuring out Jonsey.“

“Uh, I think you’re right boy, but I believe maybe it’ll be worth it eventually. I think he’s basically a good man, just struggling right now….. But you dare tell him I said that and I’ll have ta shoot you,” he said throwing Slim his mock ornery frown.

When Jess didn’t roll out for breakfast the following morning Andy was sent to fetch him but returned a few minute later looking upset.

“I think you’d better come see Slim, Jess looks real sick.”

Jonsey who was dishing up bacon and beans sniffed loudly, “I told ya so, said he was heading for a real bad chill didn’t I?”

Slim got up and followed Andy into the room the three shared and peered down at Jess who was flushed and sweating, his head rolling on the pillow as though in pain.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and said gently, “Hey pard not feeling too good huh?”

“My darned head feels like its explodin’ Slim, and I’m so dang cold I….” then he stopped in mid sentence as Jonsey entered the room.

“Oh no…no Slim, don’t let that crazy ol’ man near me with that goddamn liniment of his or so help me I won’t be held responsible.”

Slim hid a smile before looking over to where Jonsey was looking somewhat affronted.

“He doesn’t mean it Jonsey; he’s just feeling really sick.”

“I do so mean it,” Jess muttered from the depths of his bed, throwing the elderly man a belligerent look.

Then the coughing started and Andy was despatched for water, whilst Jonsey went off in high dudgeon.

“And don’t think I’m giving the ungrateful young whippersnapper any of my special cough medicine either,” was Jonesy’s parting shot.

“Well thank the Lord for that,” Jess managed between bouts of coughing.

Andy arrived with the water and after a few minutes Jess returned to his normal colour from the alarming shade of puce he had turned during the coughing fit.

Andy and Slim stood back to survey their friend, not liking the look of him at all.

“I guess Jonesy’s right,” piped up Andy after a moment, “you sure do have a real bad chill Jess.”

“I’ll be OK,” he muttered sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed…and then another coughing fit assailed him and Slim gently pushed him back onto the pillows.

“You’re going nowhere,” he said firmly, then turned to his brother.

“Call in at Doc Johnson’s place on your way to school will you Andy, I think Jess here could use a visit.”

Jess recovered from coughing for long enough to protest at that, shaking his head vigorously.

“I said I’m OK just leave it Slim,” he wheezed.

“Oh sure you are,” said Slim sarcastically.

Then he motioned with his head for Andy to leave them, “Go get ready for school Andy, Mose will be here any minute with the Stage.”

Once the child had left Slim sank down at the bedside again.

“OK Jess so what’s the problem? Doc Johnson is a nice old guy and he’ll sort you out real good…A cough like that could turn to lung fever real easy in these parts you know.“

Jess met his buddy’s concerned gaze, and then sighed.

“Ok , truth is I can’t afford it…not on the pittance you pay me anyways,” he said with a rueful smile.

Slim shook his head looking down at Jess and grinning.

“Heck is that all? Look Jess you got sick doing your work here, fishing for that stray. I’ve got a special fund for that, I’ll fix up the bill.”

“Well I dunno, I don’t want charity…I…”

“Shut up will you and I don’t want you languishing in your sick bed any longer than necessary either…So it makes financial sense to get you sorted out. Now get some sleep, I’ll be back later,” and he marched purposefully out of the room.

It was the following day before Doc Johnson finally arrived full of apologies.

“This dang flu has been doing the rounds and I’ve been run off my feet…the boy did say it wasn’t life and death?”

“Nope, that’s fine Doc,” said Slim as he showed him through to the bedroom.

“He has gotten a lot worse over the last day though, coughing and a real bad fever too.”

The doc took one look at Jess and shook his head.

“Looks to me like more flu.” Then he listened to his chest and took his temperature before squinting down at where Jess lay looking feverish and miserable.

“Uh, so you’re not feeling too good then young man?”

“You could say that,” Jess replied looking pained.

“Umm….breathing laboured, chest very noisy and a relentless cough would you say?” he asked raising a questioning eyebrow in Slim’s direction.

He nodded in confirmation, “Been keeping us all awake, can’t get his breath after a bad coughing fit too doc….went almost blue last night.”

“Uh, and you’re from Texas I hear young man, probably not acclimatized to our weather up here yet huh?“

Jess nodded looking like he’d like to say a lot about the dang Wyoming weather, but collapsed in another bout of coughing instead.

The old man shook his head and turned back to the tall blond rancher.

“I don’t like the look of him Slim, nope not at all….”

“Hey I am here you know,” Jess managed, before dissolving into another coughing fit.

The doctor suddenly seemed to remember he was running late and snapping his bag shut nodded at Jess and with a brisk, “You follow the instructions I’ll leave with Sherman, young man,” he left.

“Well you’ve gotten yourself a very sick young man in there,” he said as soon as they were outside the room.

He then gave a list of instructions as to his nursing.

“And don’t take any of his nonsense Slim,” he said with a bitter smile, having already treated Jess for a gunshot wound during his short time in Laramie. “He can be real difficult, but if he doesn’t pay heed…well….”

“What you mean…. he’s that bad doc?”

“Early lung fever by the looks of things and if I’m right he’ll be one heck of a lot worse before he’s better. Just not used to this climate you see Slim and very little resources to fight off infection. Living on the drift so long he probably ate badly, if at all. He’s so dang scraggy, his belly’s practically touching his back bone….” and he shook his old head again.

“Oh well, time will tell. I’ll be back at the end of the week…should be better…. or not, by then,” he said avoiding Slim’s worried look and making his way briskly on to the next case.

When Slim went back inside Jonsey was there immediately, “See I told you he should have had that liniment of mine as soon as he took that soaking Slim. Garldarn it, I don’t know why you boys are so dang stubborn”….then he stopped as he saw the look on Slim’s face…

“Hey what’s the matter son?”

Slim turned to look at the old timer properly then, “He’s real bad Jonsey, doc thinks it’s going into lung fever, might not last the week.”

“What! You’re joking boy…”

Slim glanced back at him, his eyes troubled…”He reckons he’s real under fed…hasn’t got the…..err…resources to fight it off is what he said.”

“Rubbish, gee that old Doc Johnson is goin’ plumb crazy in his old age…not fight it…huh? Well I’ll dang well see about that,” and rolling up his sleeves he marched off to brew up some of his disgusting cough medicine.

Later that night with Andy fast asleep and Jonsey abed, Slim was turning in when he went over to check on Jess, his breathing sounding harsh and painful

“How are you feeling?” he whispered.

Jess shook his head and said, “What is it they say…..what don’t kill ya makes ya stronger…well I reckon it’s a pretty close run thing with old Jonesy’s so called cures.”

“You could have a point there, but his heart’s in the right place and when the chips are down Jonsey usually comes through. Nursed me a good few times and I survived…just about that is,” he said with a grin.

“Uh, I figure you have to be pretty darned fit in the first place to survive Jonsey and his medicine,” he replied, returning the grin.

Slim chuckled at that, ”Night Jess, yell if you need anything…”

“Night Slim….and Slim …”


“Thanks for everythin’ lookin’ out for me…payin’ fer the doc and all…well I appreciate it you know…“

Slim threw a gentle punch to Jess’s arm, “Sure…..now get some sleep, I need you fit and healthy again huh.”

They were never sure if it was Jess’s ornery streak, refusing to lie down and die, or Jonesy’s nursing skills that got him through the lung fever….or was it all down to Slim? They never really knew.

However when the doc visited a few days later he pronounced that Jess was not long for this world, unless some sort of miracle happened…..

It was that night that the crisis came…all three at the ranch watching over him. Young Andy in tears as he heard each painful, laboured breath sounding like it might be his friend’s last. Slim looking on in dismay as Jonsey tended the young drifter. He washed him down with icy cold water to try and break the fever…but as the night progressed so the fever increased, with Jess delirious and crying out in pain and fear.

Finally when it really looked like his body, now racked with shivers, could take no more Slim led Andy from the room.

Outside he broke down and cried like his heart was breaking.

“Why Slim, why is God taking him from us…he’s the best friend I’ve ever had…..I know he’s been kinda wild before he landed here, but that’s all behind him now. He’s put that killin’ gun up for good, he told me Slim….He’s not a bad person, he really isn’t, why is he being punished this way?”

Slim held his little brother tightly as he sobbed uncontrollably.

“It’s not as simple as that Andy ,” he said later, once the boy had composed himself again.

“Maybe it’s just his time…and if that’s what the good Lord has decided in his wisdom…well I guess we just have to accept it…..”

“No!” cried the boy loudly, “I won’t…it’s not fair..First Ma and Pa and now my very best friend in the world it just ain’t fair!” and he ran from the room, seeking sanctuary in Jonesy’s room.

Slim went to follow him and then thinking maybe he needed some time, bowed his head sadly and returned to the sick room.

Jonsey looked up when he entered and shook his head, before continuing to wipe Jess’s face with a cool cloth.

After a while Slim sank down on the other side of the bed.

“Why don’t you take a break Jonsey, I’ll tend him now, you look dead beat.”

Jonsey rubbed his bad back, before looking over to young Slim, as he thought of him.

“Oh, I’m alright son, I should be here..... I guess he hasn’t got much longer…..” he said looking deeply saddened.

Slim jumped up at that, “Don’t say that!”

Jonsey looked faintly surprised by the outburst from the usually placid Slim, “I’m sorry….”

Slim looked down and swallowed hard before replying.

“No, I’m sorry Jonsey, I’m just kind of edgy…look Andy’s real upset, holed up in your room. Can he bed down with you tonight…I guess he doesn’t need to be here when…..if…anything happens.”

“Sure son, I’ll go settle him down and get my head down for an hour or so……call me if there’s any change won’t you?”

Once he’d gone Jess groaned and opened his blood shot eyes and tried hard to focus on Slim…

“The old man reckons I’m a goner don’t he?” he whispered.

“Hell no, he was just rambling, you know the way old Jonsey is….…

Jess just threw him a disbelieving look, his breathing harsh and coming in gasps now.

“Is… is Andy OK?” he finally managed, before starting to cough again.

Slim dragged him up so that he was sitting upright which helped a little and then once the spasm was over helped him sip some water before resting him gently back on the pillows.

“Yeah,” he said finally, “he’s just kinda worried about you, we all are.”

He left to get a fresh pitcher of water, but when he returned Jess was completely out of it again. He looked down at the slender flushed face, glistening with a slick of sweat, listened to the rasping breaths and knew he was losing him.

It was a while later when something alerted Slim to a change in his buddy, the fever was even worse and his breathing was shallow and rapid and when he put a gentle hand on his chest he could feel Jess’s heart beating wildly….

Slim was no stranger to the disease. Hell he’d only been a youngster but he’d seen it take his grand pappy and he’d never forgotten the end….the fever consuming him……his heart practically beating out of his chest and then suddenly it was over…the room deathly silent, save for his Ma’s soft weeping. He’d been just ten years old and had sat in the corner so quietly his parents had completely forgotten he was there…

Now he turned desperate eyes on his buddy….and grabbing hold of his shoulders shook him hard…

“No!” he yelled, “I’m not going to let you do this Jess…….Goddamn you! Don’t you dare die on me…. you hear, don’t you dare!”

He continued in the same vein for several minutes, ranting angrily, getting more and more worked up, cussing and yelling, until he final collapsed back completely spent….

He sat there quietly contemplating every painful rise and fall of Jess’s chest….watched him struggling to breathe…..and then it happened….He seemed to relax and his breathing slowed down some…then when Slim put a tentative hand to his forehead it felt much cooler….the fever had broken.

Slim didn’t know how long he sat there as though rooted to the spot, watching his buddy gradually start to recover, the rise and fall of his chest more natural, the dreadful wheezing completely absent and his skin cool.

Then his eyes suddenly flickered and Slim saw a sliver of deep blue, and then he opened them completely and threw his buddy a hurt glance…”You were yellin’ at me,” he said mournfully, “what did I do wrong now?”

Slim’s face broke into a huge grin at that and reaching over he gave him a gentle punch on the arm, “Nothing Jess , ya did nothing.”

Chapter 8

Jess gradually recovered and when old Doc Johnson arrived to check him out later in the week he looked quite surprised to see Jess sitting up and moaning long and loud at still being restricted to bed.

“So you’re feeling your usual ornery self then young man?” the doc said hiding a smile.

“Heck doc I’m getting stir crazy lyin’ here, I need to get back to work.”

“All in good time young man…let’s have a listen to that chest of yours.”

After a while he stood up from where he’d been bending over the patient and threw him a quizzical look.

“Well there doesn’t appear to be any permanent damage, but you got way too close to those pearly gates this time young man…You just do as you’re told and rest up until old Jonsey here has got some flesh back on those bones of yours…”

“Aw doc….”

“I mean it Jess, just take it easy and we’ll see about light duties next week,” and with that he snapped his bag shut decisively and left.

Jess was very quiet and withdrawn over the following few days and even when he returned to work, the twinkle was sadly missing from his blue eyes and the spring from his step.

Slim had caught him looking wistfully off to the horizon on several occasions and a shiver ran down his spine….as he knew that look of old. It was what he thought of as Jess’s ‘pining for the big open’ look and he figured he knew what was at the bottom of it….. Jess wanted out and to return to his homeland of Texas with its milder climate and less demanding lifestyle.

Slim was surprised by the little stab of fear he felt at that notion…Hell he really would miss, that ornery, workshy, son of a gun…..

It was late one evening when Slim felt he finally had to broach the subject.

They were sitting out on the porch enjoying a last coffee before turning in, as had become their custom and Jess was again gazing off to the distant hills, a look of sadness in his deep blue eyes.

“You OK?“


“You’ve been kind of quiet since you’ve been sick Jess… I’m used to all your cussing and bad jokes…”

“Uh….well ya know,“ he said dipping his head.

Slim sighed and tried to be patient “No I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking.”

When Jess didn’t respond he decided to take the bull by the horns….”So are you thinking of leaving?”


“Riding out Jess…going home to Texas maybe?”

Jess’s head swivelled and he finally gave Slim his full attention.

“Now why would I wanna do a dang fool thing like that?”

“Well I figured it would be warmer for you…this old winter’s going to get much worse you know.”

He shook his head, “There ain’t nothing for me down in Texas anymore…”

Slim took a deep breath feeling relieved, but said nothing.

Jess suddenly looked very vulnerable…”You want me to go, is that it…..think I’m too much trouble?”

Now it was Slim’s turn to feel bad…

“Hell no, I don’t want ya to go. Sure you’re trouble,” he agreed…”but I figure you’re worth it.”

Jess’s head shot up,” You do?”

“Sure…you’re a darned good worker….when I can get you to work that is,” he said with his broad grin.

Jess returned the grin, ”Well that’s ok then ‘cos I weren’t plannin’ on going any place.”

“So what’s the problem then Jess, you still feeling sick?”

“Nah, it ain’t that…It’s young Georgie….I ain’t seen her since I took her to Widow Brown’s place and I’m feelin’ kinda bad, like I’ve abandoned her you know?”

“Uh…..yeah, I guess I wouldn’t want to be stuck out at Vera Brown’s place for too long!”

“That’s what I was thinkin’ figure I’ll ride into town come Saturday, pay her a visit.”


Slim had noticed that it wasn’t only Jess who had been rather distant and preoccupied over the last few days, Andy had been the same. However it wasn’t until breakfast time the following Saturday that things became clear.

“So I guess I’ll ride out this morning,” Jess confirmed, “do the marketing and then pay a call on Georgie on the way home.”

Andy’s head shot up at that information….”You know Georgie?” he asked looking flushed with excitement.

“Yeah, sure I brought her all the way up from Denver didn’t I?” Jess replied with a quizzical glance at the youngster and rolling his eyes at Slim.

Then it suddenly dawned on Slim that Andy had been the only person who was not privy to the information that George was really Georgie a girl.

At the time he had not wanted to enter into a big explanation as to why he had sounded off at Jess for travelling alone with the youngster. Then pretty soon after he had arrived home Jess got sick and the whole matter of Georgie had been pushed from their thoughts.

Now he turned to his little brother and explained the situation.

“So she’s in your class at school is she?” asked Slim.

Andy nodded vigorously, “She’s kinda stuck up, I’ve tried to be friends but she doesn’t want to know me.”

“Uh, I figure she’s just kind of unsettled right now Andy,” Slim replied, ”she’s had a really difficult time, losing her Ma and all.”

“I figure she could really do with a friend you know,” said Jess softly….

“Oh I want to be friends alright,” Andy confirmed quickly, “sure I do……”

“Well how’s about I put in a good word for ya when I visit,” Jess said with a grin, “tell her what a swell kid you are.”

“You would?”

“Sure, or even better why don’t you come with me?”

The boy looked ecstatic at that idea, “May I Slim?”

“Sure if Jess doesn’t mind you tagging along,” Slim said smiling indulgently.

“Swell, I’ll go wash up,” and the youngster ran off.

“Did I hear right,” asked Jonsey sauntering in from the kitchen with the coffee pot, “The boy’s washing up without being nagged into it?” he asked shaking his old head in disbelief.

Jess just shook his head smiling broadly, ”I guess the kid’s growing up.”

“What do you mean?” asked Slim looking perplexed.

Jess gave a mock sigh and rolled his eyes again, “Come on pard, keep up. Andy’s getting to be a young man and that Georgie sure is easy on the eye….”

Light suddenly dawned, but Slim quickly shook his head, “Heck no, young Andy isn’t ready for that kind of thing, he just wants to be buddies with her, you’ll see…..” and he dismissed the idea with a chuckle.


They drove the buckboard into Ma Brown’s yard later that afternoon. Andy jumped down and tethered the horse up to the old corral fence, before wiping his hands nervously down his shirt as he was suddenly perspiring, his heart beating uncommonly fast.

Jess cast him an amused glance, “Are you OK buddy you’re looking a mite warm.”

Andy flushed even more at that, “I’m fine,” he muttered, refusing to meet Jess’s eye.

They strolled across the yard towards the porch, when they heard a sound behind them and Georgie came running out of the barn…

“Jess….oh Jess you came at last!” she cried and cannoned into his arms.

“Hey Georgie, take it easy,” he said laughing and righting her, “are you OK.”

She pulled away and gave a little pout…”No I’m not, I’m going stir crazy stuck here on my own…Where have you been, you promised you’d visit.”

“Jess has been real sick,” Andy piped up, throwing Georgie an earnest look…”near enough died didn’t ya Jess,” he said turning to his hero for confirmation.

“Aw, it weren’t that bad,” he said quickly….”and anyway we’re here now…”

“So I see,” came an icy voice from the porch and all three turned to see Vera Brown standing there looking as frosty as a polar bear, Jess was to tell Slim later, and cradling a rifle.

“We weren’t expecting company,” she said throwing Jess a less than friendly look.

“No Ma’am, it’s just that I promised Georgie I’d come see how she’d settled in….Promised her Ma too,” he said softly.

“The child’s just fine; she’s with kin after all Mister Harper…..”

“Yes Ma’am, I know that…but like I say, I kinda promised.”

The elderly woman sighed deeply, “Well I suppose you’d better come in then and wipe your feet,” she added throwing Andy a doubtful look.

They sat in the parlour, Andy balancing a tea cup and looking uncomfortable, whilst Jess had abandoned his on a small side table and was desperately wondering how they could extricate themselves and talk to Georgie properly.

“So you are in the same class as Georgina are you?” asked Ma Brown

“Huh… Georgina?” asked Andy looking bewildered.

Then the light dawned, “Oh ya mean Georgie sure we’re in the top set,” he said proudly.

“Well you do surprise me,” the elderly woman said peering at him over her eye glasses, “being brought up by that brother of yours and Mister err…. Jones,” she said as though the name left a nasty taste in her mouth.

“You’ve forgotten the no good gunslinger,” Jess whispered softly, to which Andy smirked and Georgie giggled.

“I beg your pardon young man…speak up do!”

“I said Andy’s real bright. He’ll be going off to school back east next year, gonna get himself a real good education,” Jess said proudly.

“You do surprise me,” was the quick come back, as Ma Brown’s brows shot up.

“I’m amazed you are in the top set too my girl, considering all that time you had off nursing your poor Mama, “she said turning to Georgie.

Georgie just shrugged, “It’s easy, I like learning….In fact Auntie I was wondering if I could go over to the Sherman place sometimes to study with Andy,” she asked, turning pleading eyes on Jess. “That would be alright wouldn’t it?”

Before he could answer Andy broke in looking overjoyed, “Sure it would, that would be real neat wouldn’t it Jess?”

Jess hid a smile at the boy’s obvious infatuation.

“Oh I really don’t know,” started Vera Brown, looking less than enthusiastic, “I really don’t think that would be at all suitable.”

“Please Aunt, just to study.”

There was such a beseeching look in the girl’s eyes that Ma Brown finally relented.

“You’ll look out for her then young Harper and no shenanigans or I’ll hold you personally responsible, do you understand?”

“Oh there won’t be none of them Ma’am I can assure you,” Jess said, trying desperately to keep his face straight.

Vera Brown threw him a penetrating look, but just sniffed and asked him if he’d like more tea.

It was probably one of the longest afternoons of Jess’s entire life and he finally made his escape, saying Georgie would be most welcome to visit the following Saturday.

On the ride home Andy had a permanent grin on his face. But then the enormity of the situation hit him. The girl he had adored from afar was actually coming to the ranch next Saturday… Heck he wasn’t prepared…What did he do, how did you go about courting? Heck this was something he’d never really thought about before. Sure he’d always got on with the girls in school. A few were real good friends and he’d played all the usual games where he’d chased and kissed the odd one on the cheek….But nope this was in a different league altogether and he was completely at a loss as to how to play it.

He turned in the buckboard seat and scrutinized his hero’s face.

Jess was squinting through a curl of cigarette smoke, as he dreamed of his Saturday night in Laramie, hopefully in the company of one of the real cute saloon girls and he sighed happily.



“Can we talk?”

“Uh, yeah, sure so what’s on your mind Andy?”

The youngster looked down embarrassed and Jess immediately got his drift.

“Look why don’t we call in at the lake, sit a spell……it’s real nice now,” Jess said after a moment.

They were enjoying a late Indian summer after the atrocious weather of early fall and the day was sunny and almost balmy.

He reined old Rosie in and they jumped down, leaving her to graze as they wandered over to the lakeside where Jess took his ease leaning back against an old log. Andy silently scanned the shining waters before them, hands thrust deep into his pockets and a frown creasing his brow.

“So ya gonna tell me or do I have to guess?” Jess asked after a few minutes.

Andy turned and wandering over slumped down beside Jess, his back to the fallen log and eyes fixed on the distant horizon.

Eventually he turned troubled brown eyes on the young cowboy and blurted out, “I need you to tell me about girls Jess….everything…. how to date them and well…..you know everything,” he said imploringly.

Jess sat there looking at the child thoughtfully….Then he remembered how Slim had laid into him when he’d been less than circumspect when referring to some of his past conquests with the ladies. Sure he never spoke about his women, that was real personal, but his general language and explicit references to the joys of a relationship with the fair sex had been, as Slim had remonstrated, not suitable for young ears.

Now he felt slightly uncomfortable…

“Err I reckon this is a conversation you should be having with your brother, Andy it ain’t fittin’ for me to be talking to you this way.”

“Sure it is,” said the youngster, “we talk about everything don’t we, besides you’re way more knowledgeable about girls than Slim is…”

Well Jess couldn’t deny the truth of that, but even so….

“What do you want to know?” he finally asked, just knowing he’d live to regret this conversation.

“Well…..it’s Georgie…she’s real pretty ain’t she Jess….?”

“No arguments there…”

“You and Georgie’s Ma , you were…real close huh?”

Now it was Jess’s turn to feel embarrassed.

“Yes,” he said slowly, casting Andy a wary glance, “so what’s that gotta do with anything…?”

“Just that, well I guess you can imagine how I feel about her Jess. I think, well…… I think I love her,” he said quietly.

Jess’s head shot up and he looked shocked……”You do…heck that’s a real big thing you know Andy.”

“Oh I know, but you see it was love at first sight Jess. The moment I saw her I knew, I just knew, least ways I figure that’s what it is,” he finished looking bewildered….

Jess looked down and shook his head feeling way out of his depth, ”Like I say Andy you need to talk to Slim….. or Jonsey,” he said, grateful for the inspired idea, the old man would know what to say wouldn’t he?

“Nope that’s no good at all they’ll just say I’m still a kid and laugh at me,” the youngster wailed.

“No they won’t…”

Then he thought again, “Uh…maybe you’ve got a point….OK, come on then what do you need to know?”

“Well everything, like I say. Do ya think it’s love…and if it is what should I do….do I kiss her? Do I tell her, and then what…after the kissin’ and all…well I’m not too clear about all that stuff.“

Jess sighed and rolled his eyes, “Hey, whoa there partner…one thing at a time huh.”

“So, let’s start from scratch. Has Slim told ya about the birds and bees…..huh?” he asked raising an inquiring eyebrow.

Andy nodded vigorously, “Oh sure I know all that stuff…All about the stallion covering the mares of course I do…but it’s gotta be kinda different with girls don’t it Jess?”

“Oh yeah, it’s different alright. But I have to tell you Andy you ain’t ready for that kind of relationship yet. Heck you’re still a boy …….what are you fourteen?”

“Nearly fifteen and Georgie’s fifteen I heard her tell the teacher.”

“Uh, yeah so that makes two of you that are way too young for a full on relationship….Heck Andy you have to get to know a girl first. Get to be friends and then maybe the other stuff will follow on ….later. One heck of a long time later in your case,” he said with a firm look.

“Sure Jess, I know that, I just want to know how to treat her, what to say, that kinda thing…Whether I should hold her hand….you know?”

“Sure I know buddy and it’s like I say, you have to get to be friends first and then I guess you’ll know iffen she wants you to hold hands and stuff. Why don’t you just take it real slow and see how you get on? You don’t really know her properly yet Andy, she may not be what she seems,” he said trying to let the boy down lightly.

Sure Andy was smart and a nice looking kid, but Georgie had hardly been under his spell that afternoon and it was obvious to Jess that Andy’s feelings weren’t reciprocated…at least not yet anyway. He sure hoped the kid wasn’t in for a broken heart, but hell that was life and he had to learn some day Jess figured.

It wasn’t until the following day that Jess got to discuss the issue of Andy and Georgie with Slim.

He had ridden into town that night feeling kind of wild and restless…Hell it wasn’t his place to talk the kid through his first crush and what advice could Jess give him anyway? His love life had been about a hundred miles away from the advice he’d given the boy… Sure that was the right way to go about things…and Jess had even followed his own advice occasionally. But, more often than not he fell head long into relationships, usually with the most unsuitable of women with predictable consequences.

Since his illness he’d been real edgy and kind of unsettled too. Sure he’d told Slim he wasn’t thinking of riding out, least ways not in the darned winter anyways…but sitting down and playing happy families’ well maybe that was a step too far? He just didn’t want the responsibility of nursing the kid through all the heart break a woman cold bring. And Jess was under no illusions of the fact that Georgie was indeed a woman, even if young Andy wasn’t a man yet.

Maybe that was why he tied one on that Saturday night. Drinking way too much Red Eye, he got caught up in a fist fight. Then he’d ended up spending the night in the arms of a rather flirtatious and shapely young saloon girl. OK she was real good fun, but she turned out to be none too bright and after her obvious charms were exhausted she had little else to entice him and he knew he would not be seeing her again.

He had extricated himself from her warm grasp the following morning, kissed her farewell and made his exhausted way home, arriving back at the ranch just before noon, feeling weary and hung over.

Slim was in the barn tossing hay about and looking somewhat disgruntled.

“What darned time do you call this?” he threw over his shoulder as Jess trudged in and started tending his mount.

Jess just grunted before heaving his saddle off and standing there swaying a little and wondering if he was going to up chuck, but the moment passed and he fed Traveller and then started grooming him.

After a while Slim wandered over and leaning on the stall said, “Well?”

“Oh keep your darned hair on,” Jess muttered, his back still to the tall blond cowboy.

“Jess for goodness sake will you talk to me. I’ve done all your chores for you, the least you can do is pass the time of day.”

Jess whirled around to face him then, feeling hard done by.

“Thank you Mister Sherman,” he said sarcastically, “but I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed one goddamn night off…“

As he turned Slim saw the blackened eye and cut to his buddy’s cheek.

“It’s not the time off I object to Jess, it’s how you spend it. You’ve been brawling again haven’t you….and by the looks of you your hung over as well.”

“So?” he yelled belligerently and then screwed his eyes up in pain at the noise and clutched his head.

Slim couldn’t help himself and grinned, “Come on inside, Andy and Jonsey have taken off for Church, I’ll make you a coffee.”

Jess opened his eyes and gave Slim a penitent look.

“Sorry,” he said softly, “guess I did get a bit carried away last night…”

Once they were inside sipping their coffee Jess began to feel a little better.

Slim glanced over at him from the other side of the table, “So how did you get on at Ma Brown’s yesterday, you lit out for town before I could ask and I couldn’t get anything out of Andy.”

Jess filled him in on the dire couple of hours he’d spent sipping ‘that evil brew’ ,as he referred to Ma Brown’s tea, and trying to be polite.

Slim chuckled at that.

Then he said thoughtfully, “Andy seems really down, has he said anything to you about him and Georgie?”

Jess’s head shot up…sure he hadn’t promised Andy he’d keep their conversation private, but there again he didn’t want to embarrass the boy.

“Uh…sorta, I guess,” he said refusing to meet Slim’s eyes.

“Well has he or hasn’t he Jess, which is it?” Slim asked acerbically.

That old feeling of jealousy at his brother’s closeness to this young drifter was rising once more as it so often did, making him sound and feel angry.

Jess studied him for a moment before sighing, maybe it was for the best that Slim knew and he could deal with the issue.

He explained what Andy had said about his feelings for the girl and how he’d asked advice of Jess.

This seemed to infuriate Slim and he jumped up from his seat and started pacing about the room…

“Ha, that’s rich,” he muttered, “what’s the boy thinking asking you…he should have come straight to me!”

Jess groaned involuntarily as Slim’s strident voice seemed to pierce his skull.

“That’s what I said,” he muttered.

But Slim ignored the comment and then turned on him looking incensed.

“Look at you, stopping out all night, like an old Tom cat and come back home stinking of cheap perfume. I hate to think what sort of advice you’ve given the boy,” he said brutally.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jess yelled, just about reaching the jumping off place now. Hell his temper was never the easiest to control, but being yelled at, with his head about to explode….and when he’d done nuthin’ wrong, save try and help this man’s kid brother, heck it just weren’t garldarn well fair.

“I mean you’re hardly the role model I want for my kid brother,” Slim spat, furious now…”so what did you tell him, all about working girls and how he needs to get out there and have some fun?”

Jess flushed up at that notion, now feeling more hurt than angry.

“I…. I wouldn’t say that Slim. Of course I wouldn’t, he’s just a kid. I told him he wanted to just make a friend of Georgie, take things real slow, how he was too young for all that kinda thing!”

Slim looked suddenly chastened… “You did?”

“Sure I did, what do ya take me for?”….then he glared at Slim, “I guess I don’t need to ask that,” and turning tail he marched out slamming the door behind him.

“Damn it,” Slim spat. Again he’d let his jealousy get in the way of the fragile friendship he was trying to forge with this headstrong, complex man. Who had somehow managed to come hurtling into their lives, changing them forever.

He sighed deeply before following Jess out to the yard and found him leaning on the large corral fence looking out to the distant hills, that oh so familiar look in his eyes again.

He wandered over and leaned on the fence beside his buddy, contemplating the view himself for a few minutes before turning to address Jess.

“Look, I’m sorry if I got it wrong,” he said eventually, “I just think this is the kind of thing he should be discussing with me.“

Jess turned angry eyes on him, “And so did you ever stop to think why he didn’t?”

Slim just shrugged looking askance.

“Because he was afraid you’d laugh at him Slim! He don’t talk to you because you still treat him like a little kid…He’s growing up and fast and the sooner you accept that the easier things will be around here…..And just for the record, I really didn’t wanna discuss it either, I told him to talk to you or Jonsey….”

Slim felt totally crushed…”Listen Jess…pard, I’m sorry, really I….”

“Forget it,” Jess spat, “and I ain’t your pard, I’m just the hired help, remember?” and with that he stormed off again to finish cleaning out the barn.

Chapter 9

There was an uneasy truce between the men throughout the week. Jess was kept busy breaking a couple of wayward mustangs so they didn’t have to work together and were icily polite at meal times. So when Georgie landed on Saturday afternoon, it was to a rather subdued atmosphere.

She seemed to be delighted to be there however and was soon making a good impression on Jonsey and even Slim, despite his first worries that she would, ’lead Andy astray’. It soon became obvious to the young rancher that she treated Andy with the casual regard of a brother and himself and Jonsey as kindly uncles….However it was Jess that she wanted to spend all her time with Slim noted.

She brushed aside Andy’s suggestion that they should study together with a raised eyebrow.

“You’re kidding me; you don’t really want to study do ya?”

“Well, err…you told your aunt…and I thought….” he said stumbling over his words and turning pink.

“Oh you’re so cute,” she laughed, “of course we’re not going to study I just told Aunt Vera that to keep her sweet…So let’s go check out how Jess’s is doing with that mean ol’ mustang shall we?”

Andy looked slightly bewildered but recovered well and followed her out to the corral.

They sat the corral fence watching Jess work for most of the afternoon, until it was time for her to return home and Andy shyly offered to accompany her.

“Sure come-on,” she said with a friendly grin.

Then she turned to Jess who was making a brave attempt to brush an afternoon’s dust from his pants with his Stetson.

“I can come again can’t I Jess…. I promised Jonsey I’d help with dinner next time. Give that old back of his a rest, huh?”

Jess grinned at that news, “Sounds like a swell idea, as long as it’s OK with Aunt Vera though,” he said quickly, not wanting to incur the wrath of that particular lady.

So a Saturday routine began, with Georgie riding over and spending time at the ranch, much to Andy’s delight, tempered with frustration. It soon became obvious that Georgie viewed him as a pleasant enough companion, but that was all, and Slim began to think she was using him as a means to an end, throwing him the odd crumb of encouragement to ensure her visits continued.

One day after she had left, Andy opened up to his brother, his disappointment overwhelming him and making him finally seek Slim’s advice.

“I just don’t get it Slim, she says she likes me…but the next thing she treats me like an annoying little brother…It seems she’s only got eyes for Jess! Always wanting to watch him work, or go fishing…..but only if he comes along…Heck he’s old enough to be her Pa…you don’t think she’s soft on him do you?” he asked looking shocked.

“No, of course not,” said Slim quickly, “it’s just…. well…. Jess knew her Ma. I guess maybe he makes her feel kind of safe, he’s a sort of link to her Ma you see?“

“Uh, I guess… and she did say she wanted to be my friend…maybe she’s just shy huh?”

“Umm…maybe,” Slim replied, secretly thinking the girl was anything but.

It was late one night a couple weeks after her initial visit that Slim broached the subject with Jess.

Winter had really set in and the weather was blowing up for a storm; as they sat in front of a roaring fire, drinking a final coffee before turning in.

“So, young Georgie seems to enjoy her visits,” Slim said throwing Jess a speculative glance.

Jess who was preoccupied with cleaning his hunting knife just gave a grunt of agreement.

“She seems to spend a lot of time with you….?”

“Umm,” Jess agreed still not really paying much heed.

Slim sighed and tried again, ”She’s real pretty…isn’t she…”

Jess glanced up and smiled at that comment, “Yeah, takes after her Ma.”

“Andy sure thinks so, but he doesn’t seem to think she’s very keen on him though…Not in the way he wants anyway.”

“Well, he’s young he’ll get over it,” Jess said casually.

“He seems to think…..that well….. Georgie’s kind of sweet on you?“

Jess’s head jerked up, suddenly giving Slim all his attention, ”What are you crazy… I’m almost old enough to be her Pa!” he laughed.

Then he noticed Slim’s solemn look…

“Aww, Slim you’re not trying to hang that on me again are ya? I’ve told you I ain’t her Pa…just do the math…it’s that bastard no good bank robber Jackson Bailey, like I told you.”

“So what’s going on then Jess?”

“How should I know……Slim what are you sayin’….. I’ve been encouraging her? Hell she’s just a kid…..we’ve been through all this before! I didn’t mess with her on the trail and I ain’t been messin’ with her since… I wouldn’t OK?” he said turning angry eyes on the tall rancher.

“Well there must be some darned reason why she’s been trying to make herself indispensible around here. Jonsey said he’s going to retire if she takes anymore of his chores on….and I figure she’s just trying to impress you Jess….”

Then he threw his friend a shrewd glance, “They marry kind of young down in Texas don’t they…huh?”

“Married,” Jess spluttered, “have you gone plumb loco….she’s a fifteen year old kid!”

“The same age her Ma was when she was pregnant with her,” Slim said throwing Jess a calculating look.

He waited for the explosion which he knew would come from his buddy any moment…but no; Jess had a thoughtful look in his eyes.

“What did you say just…about Jonsey retiring?”

“He said iffen Georgie visited any more often he’d be able to retire.”

“That’s it, don’t ya see…that’s what she wanted when we were riding up… She wanted to live here at the ranch…scared of her old Auntie.”

“I guess I don’t blame her for that…so go on.”

“Well I said she couldn’t. It wouldn’t be seemly what with this being an all male household….so she asked to be our housekeeper…Dontcha see Slim, that’s what she’s angling for!”

Slim finally smiled at that idea, “So it’s not you she’s after, just a place of sanctuary from her old Aunt.”

Jess shook his head and applied himself to his knife again, “Told ya didn’t I, she ain’t interested in me Slim,” he muttered.


Back in her room at her Aunt Vera’s house, Georgie tossed and turned in the narrow bed in the small backroom. Listening to the wind howling through the yard as she started making her plans.

So far she had Andy in the palm of her hand, the kid was smitten. She was well aware of that and sure he was a nice enough boy….but that’s all he was a boy. Whereas Jess…well he was a real man…kind, strong and caring. She remembered how he had stood up to her neighbour, Thad Buckley, when he’d tried to abduct her. The way he’d stormed in and landed that lethal punch that had floored the no good hombre…gee that had been so impressive.

Then over the past few weeks she felt she had really begun to glimpse the man behind that tough exterior. She loved the way he was so totally natural, cussing and yelling when the wild horses threw him in the dust and then a minute later laughing at some joke with young Andy and play fighting with him, giving her his cheeky grin. She liked the way he treated her as an equal too…How he’d been totally honest with her about his relationship with her mother. Then the way he’d proved his loyalty to her Ma by coming when she asked for him at the end, and agreeing to her last wishes.

Georgie was under no illusion as to how much that had asked of the young cowboy, to look after another man’s child and see she was safe…Now he was going that extra mile to let her be part of his life here in Laramie. That took a real special kind of person she knew that.

She also knew that she wanted to be part of his life, to move into the ranch….at first as a helpmeet for old Jonsey, by making herself indispensible…and later, who knew? After all she mused, he had fallen for her mother and he’d also remarked as to how much she favoured her Ma….so the chances were he could learn to love her, she thought. OK, so right now he treated her like a little sister, but things could change….she really needed to make him see she was a woman…but how?

Her ideas on seduction were mostly gleaned from the penny dreadful magazines she and her girlfriends read behind the desk in school. So she knew what she needed to do, or so she thought, with the naivety of innocent youth. She certainly couldn’t acquire the sort of revealing dress she wanted. Her aunt would have a fit if she found anything like that in Georgie’s room….No she would have to enlist the help of her new school friend Jenny…She was good fun and old for her fourteen years. Yup, Jenny was the one to ask…and with that she finally fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.


It was the following Saturday that Georgie was able to put her plan into action. With the aid of her friend Jenny she had acquired makeup and a low cut revealing blouse that showed off her young figure to perfection. She had washed her hair and put it up in a becoming style which really suited her, making her look much older. She had even added a good dab or three of Jenny’s sister’s Parisian perfume too. As luck would have it her Aunt was out in town at a charity fundraiser allowing Georgie the freedom to preen to her heart’s content and it was a very different looking Georgie who finally set off for the ranch later that morning.

When she arrived there was no sign of Jess or Slim, but Andy came pelting out of the barn when he heard her paint pony trotting into the yard. He stood stock still staring as if transfixed as she dismounted and threw him a bold look.

“Why golly gosh what in heck have ya done to yourself Georgie?” he exploded after a moment or two.

“I really don’t know what you mean,” she said casually brushing some imaginary dust from her riding skirt.

“You look kinda different,” he said advancing on her, “and you’re wearing loads of makeup,” he said looking almost scandalized.

“So why shouldn’t I, I’m a modern young lady aren’t I?” she asked raising an eyebrow.

“I guess so, but Jonsey says women that wear as much makeup as that are usually up to no good, are harlots and such like….” he muttered looking suddenly profoundly embarrassed at what he’d just blurted out without thinking.

“Why Andy Sherman what are you implying?” she asked looking outraged.

“Nothing Georgie, really, you look just swell…” he said trailing off and looking miserable.

She rolled her eyes, “You can be such a child sometimes Andy….so where are Jess and Slim?”

“Out riding fence, they’ll be back for dinner soon though. Jonesy’s inside if you wanna give him a hand?” he asked hopefully trying to recover the ‘old’ Georgie.

“No… I need to speak to Jess about some…personal issues…Tell him I’ll be up by the lone pine when he lands back will you?”

Andy looked puzzled, “I’ll come with you….”

“No!” she said sharply, and then more kindly, “I need some space to think Andy, if you don’t mind…just tell Jess will you?”

The boy looked forlorn, but agreed and she flounced off in the direction of the pine, up on the hill behind the ranch.

Once there she shrugged off her riding jacket, although the fall morning was far from warm. Then carefully undid the first two buttons of the already revealing blouse, so a soft swell of cleavage was enticingly displayed, before she settled down on a fallen log beneath the pine to await Jess.

When Jess and Slim rode into the yard ten minutes later both men were tired and hungry and ready for the midday meal.

They left their mounts by the corral fence and wandered over to the outside pump and started washing up before eating.

“So are you off to town tonight?” asked Slim with a grin.

“Try an’ stop me,” Jess replied, “guess I’m on a promise with that Miss Julie from the Broken Dollar.”

Then after a moment he said thoughtfully, ”She’s got a real good lookin’ friend ya know Slim, Annie, cute little blond number, why don’t ya tag along huh?”

Slim looked thoughtful for a moment and then his handsome face relaxed into a huge grin.

“You know I think I might just do that pard, thanks!”

Just then the ranch door flew open and a sulky looking Andy wandered out….

“Jess, Georgie wants to speak to you…”

He looked up, shirt open and towelling his chest dry he raised an eyebrow, “Well tell her I’m all ears,” he said cheerfully.

“She ain’t here,” he said looking even more dour, “she’s up by the lone pine. Says she wants to talk in private, personal issues or something,” he said throwing his hero a woebegone look.

“Aww heck,” said Jess looking decidedly put out, “I’m starvin’.“

“Go on Jess, sounds like something’s bothering her, I’ll make sure Andy here doesn’t eat all your share,” Slim said laughing.

Jess advanced on the lone pine and saw Georgie sitting still as a statue, looking off to the hills. From a distance she looked so like Ellie that he caught his breath….a stab of pain in his chest as he remembered everything they had once been to each other… he sighed deeply and wandered over.

“Howdy Georgie, Andy said ya wanted to talk?” he said then stopped dead in his tracks as he saw the inexpertly applied make-up and then his eyes drifted south for a moment before flicking back up to her face.

“Georgie… what are ya playin’ at?” he asked gruffly.

She sighed deeply, hoping to sound like she was a world weary woman of experience.

“Goodness Jess, you’re as bad as Andy, haven’t you ever seen a woman dressed this way before?”

“Sure I have,” he spat, “the workin’ girls in that low dive in town!”

She jumped up at that comment looking deeply hurt…

“How could you,” she yelled, “I’m just trying to smarten up some….look older so you’ll appreciate me more.”

“Appreciate you?” Jess asked in surprise. “Sure I appreciate you. You’re great …and a real big help around here too… Jonsey thinks you’re just wonderful! But there ain’t no need to dress up that way to get us to like you more kid….really…”

“I’m not,” she shouted angrily…”I’m not just a kid Jess, can’t you see that?”

“Oh, sure I can see that alright,” he said sarcastically looking her up and down, “you sure ain’t left much to the imagination.”

That was just too much for her and she burst into tears.

“Oh, hell,” he muttered under his breath, never being able to stand seeing women cry.

After a moment he walked over and taking her in his arms he held her close, gently stroking her hair.

“Hey, Georgie, don’t take on so… it’s just that I care about ya…and walkin’ around dressed that way, well you’re looking to get into trouble…”

She raised her head from where it had been resting comfortably on his chest, the light of hope now shining in her beautiful cornflower blue eyes…”You do….you care about me?”

“Why sure I do….”

It all happened so quickly it took him unawares. One moment she was looking adoringly up into his eyes and the next, she had snaked her hands behind his head pulling him close, and her lips were on his kissing him passionately….

He kissed her back…but just for a split second…before he came to his senses….

“No,” he said softly as he pulled back, “this ain’t right honey…”

Then he saw a movement just by the path and saw Andy standing there looking devastated.

“I hate you,” he screamed, “I hate you both…!” and he ran off back down the track.

Jess stared after him.

“Goddamn it,” he muttered under his breath…then turned back to a breathless and flushed looking Georgie.

“What did ya do that for?” he cried angrily.

“You said you cared, I thought… I thought you wanted me to!”

“Well you thought wrong,” he growled and turning on his heel he retraced his steps down the hill back to the yard and marched into the house.

Slim stood up from the table and glared at him, “What’s going on?” he asked angrily.


“Andy just stormed in close to tears and when I asked him what was up he said I was to ask you and Georgie?”

Jess just sighed and rolled his eyes, ”It’s all a silly misunderstanding.”

“Well Andy doesn’t seem to see it that way,” said Slim staunchly.

“Well you would believe him over me wouldn’t you!” yelled Jess equally crossly.

“What in tarnation is going on in here?” asked Jonsey striding in with a couple of plates of stew and banging them down on the table……”Isn’t anyone going to eat, after me slaving away in that dang kitchen all morning…?”

“No! “yelled Jess and Slim in unison.


“I’m gonna take Georgie home, she’s gotten herself in a state over something,” said Jess…”stick mine in the oven will ya Jonsey I’ll be back.”

Then he turned to Slim, “Tell Andy I’m sorry for what he saw…. I’ll explain later,” and with that he marched out of the room slamming the door behind him.

When he arrived back in the yard both Georgie and her paint pony were missing.

“Garldarn it,” he muttered before mounting Traveller and taking off at speed after her.

He caught up with her about a mile down the Laramie road and she pouted at him when he rode along side and grabbed her pony’s reins to draw her to a standstill.

“So where are you off to in such a hurry young lady?” he asked throwing her a hard look.

“What’s it to you,” she replied rudely.

“Look, you ain’t too dang big to go over my knee,” Jess said angrily…”now just behave and listen up.”

She sighed lustily, but sat still and gave the pretence of listening at least.

“Now you an’ me are heading for town and you can pay a visit to your friend Jenny and wash all that rubbish off of your face and git some decent duds on before your old aunt sees you and has an attack of the vapours. Then I’m gonna take you home and there’ll be no repeat performances on the dressing or,” he said firmly, “or on the kissin’, you understand me?”

She nodded, suddenly feeling more than a little foolish.

“I’m sorry Jess, I don’t know what came over me.“

“Uh, me neither….but I guess you were just tryin’ to see a way out of livin’ at your aunt’s place huh?”

She nodded.

“It would have been so much fun at the ranch….and I would be such a good wife to you Jess.”

“Wife!” he spluttered. “Hell I thought you just wanted to be a dang housekeeper! Where the heck has all this come from?” He asked looking flabbergasted.

She flushed up, but then looked him boldly in the eyes.

“I love you Jess…and I want to be with you.”

He just shook his head.

“You’re plumb crazy,” he replied looking stunned ….”Well that sure ain’t gonna happen, so you’d better get used to it…Now let’s go get you cleaned up,” and with one more aghast look in her direction he shook his head again and spurred his mount on towards town.

Jess knew Jenny Green’s Ma slightly as Jenny was in Andy’s class and they had met once or twice at school socials. Now he stood on her doorstep and pleaded with her for some help to try and straighten out young Georgie. On their arrival she had exchanged an amused look with Jess at the state of the youngster and listened to his sorry tale before she called for Jenny.

“So young lady are you responsible for this?” she asked gesturing to where Georgie now stood her cheeks flaming and hanging her head in shame.

When Jenny finally nodded in the affirmative her Ma sighed deeply.

“You leave the little madam with me Mister Harper, I’ll get her cleaned up, and she’ll be ready for you in …..say an hour?”

Jess touched his hat and grinned at the harassed looking woman.

“Thank you Ma’am I really appreciate it.”

Jess wandered down Main Street, thinking he might while away an hour chatting up the saloon girls, when someone hailed him from across the street.

He looked over and saw Mort Cory sitting outside his Sheriff’s office, shotgun casually laying in his lap and waving him over.

Jess grinned happy to spend some time chewing the fat with the lawman, and not for the first time he marvelled at their good friendship.

Mort was the only Sheriff Jess had ever gotten along with. The two had struck up a good relationship soon after Jess had moved to the area when he’d offered to ride posse after the local bank was robbed.

Jess sometimes mused as to why they got on so well and figured it was the fact that the greying, tough lawman accepted him for what he was now, and didn’t constantly dredge up his past. Sure Mort knew all about Jess’s less than squeaky clean history. He knew about his reputation as a gunslinger and his brushes with the law too. However as far as Mort was concerned there was nobody he’d rather have covering his back when in a tight spot and that was the way it was. Jess was a good man, if a little difficult at times he thought. Right now he figured he was going to be on the receiving end of the young cowboy’s volatile temper and didn’t relish the thought.

Jess sauntered over and grinned down at the Sheriff.

“Howdy Mort did ya want me?”

“Uh…yes we need to talk buddy, inside maybe,” and he got up from his rocker and led the way in.

He replaced the rifle in the rack and turned to face Jess, gesturing to the coffee pot on the stove.

Jess nodded and helped himself before turning back to the middle aged man.

“Are you expecting trouble Mort?” he asked having noted the rifle.

The Sheriff sank down in his chair and indicated the seat opposite.

“Yeah, could be, I’ve just had a letter from the Sheriff over in Denver,” he said looking closely at Jess.

Jess’s head shot up at that news and he looked uncomfortable…”Sheriff Eaves?”

“The very same,” Mort agreed.

“Well what the heck does he want,” Jess asked looking annoyed, “writin’ to dish the dirt on me is he?“

“You don’t get on then?”

“You could say that Mort…. It was in my kinda…. wild days I shot his town up some,” he said looking a mite sheepish.

Mort hid a smile, “Is that all. I guess he’s gotten over it.”

“I reckon not, see I out drew him in front of the whole saloon, figure that didn’t go down too well,” he muttered.

Mort chuckled before sobering, “I guess it wouldn’t…not the brightest of moves eh Jess?”

“Yeah, well I’d sunk a few whiskeys and he looked like some old guy about to cause trouble. I didn’t notice the star until it was too late, just saw him going for his gun and reacted…..you know how I am Mort.”

“Uh, yes, only too well….So I guess that accounts for his less than glowing report on your visit to his town…”

“Oh yeah, I had a run in with a guy. Thad Buckley, he was tryin’ it on with young Georgie and I kinda taught him a few manners….But Hell Mort he ain’t takin’ the time to write about that is he? He let me off with a warning; there ain’t no unfinished business between us.”

“No, you’re right Jess, he just mentioned it in passing…It’s mainly to let me know to be on the lookout for Jackson Bailey….he’s coming looking for his daughter apparently.“

Jess leapt up from his seat narrowly missing spilling the contents of his coffee cup over the desk.

“What! What are you saying Mort, how in hell did he find out where she was?”

“It seems Eaves made sure Ellie Bailey’s death notice went in every newspaper within a hundred miles. Bailey was sure to happen on it sooner or later….Apparently he was sighted south of Denver and heading this way recently. They sent a posse out, but he’s a wily one, got clean away.”

Jess had been pacing the office as Mort spoke and now he turned on the lawman….

“He promised,” he spat, “he promised me he’d say nuthin’…..”

Mort sighed, “I guess he was just doing his duty as he saw it…to get Bailey by whatever means….”

“And those means will see Jackson killin’ anyone stupid enough to git in his way Mort…Like old Vera Brown. The man’s an out of control killer; we both know that…he’ll just wipe out anyone as gets in his way!“

“Well you may have a point there Jess and that’s why I’m telling you. The chid obviously won’t be safe there…or anywhere in town come to that, you’ll have to get her out of harm’s way….and there’s more.”

“Go on,” said Jess warily…..

“Seems he’s gotten wind of your involvement too…So he’s looking for a shootout apparently and that means the girl won’t be safe holing up at the Relay either.”

“This just gets better and better,” Jess said sarcastically.

Then he threw Mort a thoughtful look.

“I wouldn’t have taken her there anyway, couldn’t risk bringing all this trouble down on Slim and Andy or ol’ Jonsey either, they sure don’t deserve it.”

“No they don’t,” Mort agreed, “so what are you going to do?”

“I dunno, get her out of town to a place of safety and then come back and face Jackson I guess.”

“You don’t have to do that Jess, this isn’t your battle, and I’ll deal with Bailey…if he does indeed arrive.”

“Oh, it’s my fight alright,” Jess said darkly,” we go way back….an old score or two to settle….”

“No Jess, now listen to me… like I say I’ll deal with Bailey. But I would appreciate you taking the girl away from the scene for a while….and Jess I figure this will have to be our secret…If anyone knows where you are…well then Bailey will try and get the truth out of them… if they don’t know anything they won’t be at risk from Bailey, understand?”

“I hear you sure but….”

“No buts Jess, you want to keep old Ma Brown safe dontcha?”

“I guess I do, of course.”

“And everyone at the ranch too?….They can’t know where you’ve gone…especially if Bailey were to get hold of young Andy…huh?”

Jess sighed, “You’ll warn them to be on the lookout for him though, so Slim will keep the kid safe?”

“Oh sure I will…but as to you and young Georgie…well for now you’ve just disappeared without a trace…until the coast is clear that is….”

“Great,” said Jess, looking as miserable as sin… so what in hell were they going to make of this back at the ranch he wondered.

Chapter 10

When late afternoon came and there was no sign of her great niece returning home Vera Brown harnessed up her old mare and drove round to the relay station looking madder than a wet hen, as Jonsey said later.

When Slim answered her angry rapping on the door he stood back in consternation as she barged past him.

“Where is she then? I told her especially to be home before dark….I knew I shouldn’t have allowed her to visit so often,” she continued, now standing in the centre of the living room looking around her as though Georgie were about to materialize out of thin air.

“Come along, come along young Sherman, what have you done with the lass?” she bellowed.

Jonsey came through from where he was cooking supper and exchanged an anxious glance with Slim, then turned to Ma Brown.

“We’re not exactly sure Ma’am,” he said looking every inch a man with a guilty secret.

“What, what’s the old fool talking about?” asked Widow Brown turning impatiently to Slim.

“You see it’s like this Ma’am, Georgie is off somewhere with Jess. There was a bit of a…well a misunderstanding over something and Georgie rode off…..and Jess went after her… we thought he was just seeing her home…but…well….” he finished, looking as shifty as Jonesy, so Ma Brown thought.

“Well when was this?” she asked in exasperation.

At that point Andy burst into the room stopping dead in his tracks when he saw Georgie’s great aunt standing in the centre of their parlour looking as mad as all get out.

“Now then boy,” she said turning her frown on the youngster, “maybe I can get some sense out of you….so where is my great niece….?

Andy looked completely out of his depth, “I dunno Ma’am…she took off, I guess she’s with Jess….” he replied looking near to tears again.

“Andy, go wash up for supper, I’ll deal with this,” said Slim quickly.

“We just assumed he’d taken her home Mrs Brown. Why don’t I drive back with you, they’re probably waiting there…you’ll see,” he said, sounding unconvincing even to his own ears.


It was getting on for midnight when an exhausted Slim finally let himself into the ranch house and found Jonsey dozing in front of the embers of a dying fire.

He pulled himself up in the rocker as Slim wandered over and slouched down on the old leather couch, throwing his hat down beside him and running a weary hand through his blond hair.


“No sign of either of them Jonsey, I waited at Widow Brown’s place for a couple of hours and then went and checked with Mort…”

“And so, has anyone seen them?”

“Yes it seems Jess and Georgie were seen in town this afternoon, buying supplies and then they lit out….”

“Lit out…lit out! What are you saying Slim?”

He shook his head.

“Just that, they rode out together…Garldarn it Jonsey, I really didn’t think that of him…taking up with a youngster that way…I can’t believe it!” he said suddenly angry.

“He denied it , acted all innocent when I said something to him….about spending time alone with her on the trail….and now I find out he’s been lying all this time…Probably planned to take off with her all along, been playing me for a fool!”

“No, I just don’t believe it,” Jonsey muttered shaking his head.

“Oh you’d better believe it alright, what other explanation is there? I guess we just don’t know him at all Jonsey,” he said now looking profoundly sad. “I figure maybe they do things different down in Texas. They marry real young down there…maybe this kinda thing is acceptable… I just don’t know anymore.”

“Me neither Slim….but there is one thing for sure, that boy’s broken young Andy’s heart, in betraying him that way.”

Slim looked real upset and sighed deeply, “That isn’t all either Jonsey.”


“Uh, Mort told me Georgie’s Pa has been spotted over Cheyenne way. The word on the street is he’s riding down to claim his daughter. Mort said we are to be sure to watch our backs in case he comes calling, looking for her. He’s keeping an eye on Ma Brown too. He was waiting to speak to her when we landed at her place.”

“Well that’s it,” said Jonsey, his eyes lighting up…”maybe he’s taken off with her to keep her safe from her Pa.”

Slim shook his head.

“Nope, I reckon not…figure he didn’t know anything about it. Mort has only just heard. Besides knowing Jess he’d stay and fight Bailey, not run scared… Nope, I think he’s just fallen for the kid’s charms… you know Jess and women. And don’t forget Andy saw them kissing…well what more evidence do you need?” and with that he wandered off to bed, feeling about as bad as he could remember.


Meanwhile Jess was having exactly the same thoughts as Slim had earlier about him staying to fight Bailey and he knew what he had to do come morning.

Garldarn it, what in blazes am I doin’ hiding away here when I’ve got me a chance to get that bastard Bailey in my sights, he thought morosely as he lay by the camp fire in the cave, by the Sherman lake.

He watched Georgie sleeping and listened to the mournful cry of a nearby owl.

Aw hell, I can’t leave her here alone though he thought…as he finally turned in.

That evening had been difficult enough as it was. He didn’t want to burden Georgie with the fact that her Pa might be on the scene shortly as he knew how frightened she was of him now. So he’d just told her the Sheriff had heard rumours of her Pa riding to find her, but they were most likely unfounded.

“I guess we could take off fishing at the lake for a couple of days though, just to be on the safe side,” he’d said playing down the whole issue.

Georgie had complied, but was feeling terribly confused…. First he rejected her out of hand when she had made advances…then he had practically forced her to come out on this camping trip. There again he had treated her like the perfect gentleman….and even given her a reproving glance when she had tried flirting with him a little…What was going on she had wondered as she finally fell into an exhausted sleep beside the fire.

Jess spent a restless night tossing and turning, all the time trying to think of a way around the problem of how to keep Georgie safe whilst he went off and brought Bailey to justice…if he possibly could.

However the answer to his dilemma was to arrive shortly in the form of an old friend.

It was early the following morning and leaving Georgie still sleeping he ambled down to the lake to fetch some water for coffee and wash up too.

He was stripped to the waist and had cleaned up real fast as the water was freezing cold when he heard a hesitant footfall behind him.

He swung around, his gun in his hand almost before he’d turned …and then his face fell into a welcoming grin as he holstered the gun again, “Well I’ll be….. what are you doin’ here!”

“Trying not to get my brains blowed out, you’re a mite twitchy Jess boy,” the woman said as she walked over, returning his smile.

“Kate Munroe, as I live and breathe…. Gee it sure is good to see you,” and he took the middle aged woman in his arms and held her close in a warm hug, before pushing her away a little to study the tanned lean face, “You sure are a sight for sore eyes Kate, come and sit a spell.”

She nodded in agreement and they wandered over to some flat rocks beside the lake.

”Come on then boy tell me all about it, the trouble you’re in that is…..…Fighting…is it then….or are you frettin’ over some woman…huh?” she asked once they were settled.

He grinned…”You know me too dang well Kate!”

He studied her striking countenance, framed by wavy white hair, the deep blue eyes sparkling with mischief.. Her neat figure dressed from head to toe in buckskin, a knife at her belt and a rifle cradled casually in her lap.

“So how’s that old son of a gun, your cousin Denver James?” asked Jess smiling over at her, and playing for time before he answered her question.

“Oh up to his usual shenanigans, will be down from the mountain with his boys anytime soon, peddling his Moonshine I’ve no doubt,” she said with a chuckle…. “Be Thanksgiving before we know it, folks will be in the market for the genuine stuff….”

“I guess….so. Kate do ya ever regret coming up here to set up with Denver and the boys after your man died?” he asked throwing her a penetrating look.

“Nope, can’t say as I do boy…It sure ain’t Texas, but I guess I’ve adapted to bein’ a Mountain Woman….wasn’t like I was some little ol’ housewife back down in Texas now was it?”

He smiled at that notion, “No I guess nobody could accuse you of that…. You ran the toughest darn saloon I’ve ever been in…..ruled it with a rod of iron too… I’ve seen you out shoot more than one fast gun that got out of line,” he said with a look of admiration.

“Well then it’s like I say just a matter of adapting…. I’ve gone from killin’ two legged vermin to four legged, that’s the only difference boy.”

“So you’re trapping with Denver then?”

“Uh, some, it’s mostly his boys Cody and Mick that do the hunting and trapping now. Denver prefers makin’ that powerful brew of his.”

“I’m sure he does and sampling it too,” Jess grinned…

She rolled her eyes and nodded, “You’ve sure got that one right.”

”Say do ya know iffen the Sherman ranch is on his list for a visit?” he asked after a moment.

She shook her head, “Don’t ring a bell, why Jess?”

“I’m workin’ there…gone into ranchin’ Kate. I’ve made me a fresh start…was getting’ kinda tired of bein’ on the drift, watching my back all the goddamn time…….I wasn’t gonna go down the owl hoot trail….ain’t no future in that kinda life, so I’ve settled here.”

“Well I’m glad to hear it….and these folks the Shermans, do ya say, they’re good to you are they boy “

Jess considered that for a moment and then gave her a sincere look.

“A darned sight more than I deserve I guess,” he said quietly, remembering all he had put them through over these last few weeks, running off to help Ellie…Now this latest business with Georgie…knowing how he’d hurt young Andy…and he shook his head sadly.

“If you’ve got good people around you…you keep ‘em sweet boy. You never know when you’ll need a friend watchin’ your back.”

“You’re not wrong there,” he agreed.

The couple had been so deep in conversation they hadn’t noticed Georgie approaching until she was upon them.

She glanced from Jess to Kate and back and said with a hint of jealously, “So who’s your friend then Jess?”

Jess’s head shot up and he gave her a slightly reproving look at her tone.

Meanwhile Kate looked at the pretty child and then over to Jess….”So I was right, it is a woman you’re frettin’ on,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes.

Jess looked shocked at that, “No…you got it wrong Kate it ain’t nuthin’ like that,” he said quickly.

“Really,” she asked raising a quizzical eyebrow….”then what is it like then boy …huh?”


They made their way back to the cave and Jess poured them both a coffee, from the pot that was always simmering away, and topped it up with the water he’d brought. Then he turned to Georgie and asked her if she would go fetch some more wood for the fire. Once she had reluctantly wandered off he told Kate of the situation, explaining his plight.

She took a sip of her coffee, perusing him over the rim of her cup before replying.

“So let me get this straight Jess boy, you want me to ‘babysit’ that kid, so you can go off and shoot her daddy?“

Jess shrugged…”I guess, that’s about the size of it, yeah…..”

“And so does she know that?”

Jess glanced over towards the distant pines where Georgie had gone for the fire wood and then back to Kate.

“It’s kinda complicated,” he said softly…”she’s scared of him….her Ma kicked him out and neither of them wanted any more to do with him after he’d turned bad….But I guess he’s still her Pa…..and maybe it wouldn’t help any if she knew where I was goin’.“

“So you want me to lie as well?“

He sighed deeply, “Everythin’ always has to be black and white with you don’t it Kate.”

“I guess that’s the way I am boy…too old to change now that’s for sure.”

He grinned across at her then…”Old, you….never.”

“Well there’s nothing wrong with your sweet talking Jess. I’ll give you that, and you always could charm the birds out of the trees…”

“So you’ll stay a while, watch out for the kid for me?”

“Sure, just don’t be off in town chatting up those saloon girls and knocking back Red Eye and forget all about us stuck out here…..”

“As though I could….”

“As though you could what Jess?” asked Georgie, suddenly materializing as if from nowhere.

“Err, nuthin’, sweetheart. Look I’ve got me some business in town, but Kate here’s gonna stay and keep ya company for a day or two OK?”

She frowned at him and then glanced over at Kate and back again…”You’re going after Pa aren’t you….?”

Jess just stared at her, not knowing what to say, and then Kate broke the silence.

“Tell her boy, the kid’s no fool and I guess she has a right to know.”

“Know what…just tell me Jess…. please,” she said looking close to tears again.

“Sheriff Cory had a wire saying your Pa was riding this way. I guess it was more definite than I told ya….and we both thought it would be best for you to be out of town ,in case there’s any gunplay,” he said softly.

“I knew it… I just knew you were lying,” she cried looking flushed and tearful.

“Look Georgie, please…. I’m doin’ my best here to keep ya safe…to do what your Ma would have wanted and I’m real sorry iffen I’ve been less than truthful, but I was tryin’ to spare you bein’ hurt.”

She looked down for a long time and when she looked up again the tears were streaming down her face….

“I know,” she whispered “I know that…”

He opened his arms and she ran into them sobbing as he held her close, looking over her blond head across to Kate, his eyes full of pain.


Jess rode into town later that morning, deciding to touch base with Mort, if he was around; to find out if anymore had been heard about Bailey’s whereabouts.

Mort was at his desk reading the Laramie Sentinel when Jess breezed in.

“What’s up Mort, got no work to do,” he asked with his cheeky grin, throwing his hat on the desk and straddling the chair opposite.

“Well as a matter of fact, nope and seeing as how it’s been kinda busy around here of late, thought I’d take it easy today….”

“Hey hang on Mort, so iffen you’re layin’ around here, who’s riding shotgun on Ma Brown, your deputy?“

“No need,” he said, “I got me a wire from the new Deputy Sheriff in Cheyenne, first thing, sayin’ as to how Bailey’s been caught, banged up in his jail. He’s there as we speak.”

Jess beamed at the news, “Hell that’s great Mort.”

Then his face clouded, “Hang on a minute so when were ya thinkin’ on tellin’ me?”

“Well real soon, I sent my deputy up to the caves about an hour since, did you not see him?”

“Nope I came over by the back trail didn’t see a soul.”

“Oh well he’ll tell the kid and bring her home….”

Then he looked surprised, “Say did you leave her out there all by herself then Jess?”

“No, Kate Munroe landed she’s minding her.”

Mort’s face lit up at that news, “Well I’ll be….the lovely Kate Munroe is down from the mountain is she?” he said with relish.

“Sure is,” said Jess grinning at the infatuated Sheriff.

“But I shouldn’t get too excited Mort, she’s way out of your league….more into the lovable rogue type like me anyways!“

“Oh, yeah, yeah, very funny…’cept she’s way too old for the likes of you….She’d be in need of a nice mature man like me…”

“Have it your own way,” he said rising and picking his hat up, before smiling down at the Sheriff…”But I’ll tell you now she’s gonna be on the Moonshine run shortly, so I’d turn a blind eye iffen you want to stand a chance with her.”

Mort grinned, “Thanks for the tip off Jess….and if you should accidentally come by some I guess that would liven up Thanksgiving out at the ranch…?”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Jess replied with a grin, before turning to go…

“Oh and Jess, you might just want to pop into Widow Brown’s, tell her my deputy will be delivering young Georgie home shortly…huh.”

Jess’s face was a picture,” Aww Mort…do I have to?“

“I reckon, seeing as it was you who spirited her great niece off…you’ll need to explain what good care you’ve taken of the kid,” he said with a smirk, “she didn’t seem any too pleased when I told her where her niece was, and who with just now…better get it over with and make your peace with the old biddy.”

Jess sighed deeply, “I guess,” and wandered out of the office looking slightly less chipper than when he’d arrived.

He rode into Ma Brown’s yard and hitched Traveller before knocking at the door, expecting the Widow to throw it open, rifle in hand as usual. So he was a tad surprised when he had to hammer a second time before she finally pulled the door open a crack.

She looked pale and agitated as she stood staring up at him.

“Well young man?” she finally said.

“I err…come to tell you Georgie’s on her way home. Lon Deacon, Sheriff Cory’s deputy is bringing her back. I guess Mort told ya that… I only just heard Bailey’s banged up in jail, else I’d have ridden back with her this morning.”

She seemed to flinch and then barely able to look him in the eye mumbled, “You’d best come in young Harper.”

He looked surprised, but figured he’d better keep her sweet so followed her into the small front parlour.

Then he turned to look at her properly.

“Are you OK Ma’am? I’m real sorry iffen you’ve been worried about Georgie, but I figured, Mort, Sheriff Cory that is, put you in the picture as to how I was lookin’ out for her?”

“Oh, yes, he did young man…it’s just….”

“It’s just that she’s a mite preoccupied right now Jess.”

Jess spun around to see Jackson Bailey standing in the shadows, where he’d been hiding all along, a rifle aimed at Ma Brown’s back.

“Jackson!” Jess looked shocked, ”I…“

“Weren’t expecting me eh Jess? Simple really I just got a buddy, posing as the Sheriff’s new deputy, over in Cheyenne to wire Cory saying I was in the jail. By the time they’ve realized it’s a scam, it’ll be too late for you Jess and I’ll have high tailed it back over the border with my little girl.”

“You ain’t gonna get away with this Jack…“


“I guess you know there’s a rope waiting on me Jess…See I just haven’t got anything to lose…killing auntie here…….you…….it really doesn’t matter no more, can’t hang me more than the once can they?”

Jess just shook his head, a stubborn look in his eyes, “I ain’t gonna let you take her Jack….I promised her Ma I’d look out for the kid and that’s what I aim to do….“

Bailey’s head shot up at that and fresh sweat stood out on his forehead as he glared at Jess.

“Oh yes… I hadn’t forgotten that you and my Misses had history Jess….not for one moment.”

“So what do you aim to do about it, shoot me through the head with that rifle you’re toting, or fight me like a man?” Jess snarled.

“Oh, I think we’ve just got us enough time for a man to man fight, settle our differences for good,” he said with a mean looking smirk and laying his rifle aside he advanced upon Jess.

The two men circled each other like a couple of warring prairie dogs, until Jess made his move, a quick slug to the chin followed by another to the belly, felling the big man.

Jess had forgotten just what a giant of a man Jackson Bailey was. Even as a boy he had towered above his contemporaries. Now a few years older than Jess he also had a good few pounds on him and several inches in height…. Not to mention the length of his reach also giving him an advantage.

However Jess now had the big man on his knees and followed through with another haymaker to the chin, sending him flying backwards to crash against Ma Browns dresser, scattering and smashing plates to right and left.

She screamed and begged them to stop, but both men were far too fired up to even hear her.

Bailey dragged himself up, and with murder in his eyes advanced on Jess throwing a punch that Jess parried before finally hitting his mark, catching Jess on the chin and sending him reeling across the room.

He recovered well and getting to his feet traded punch for punch, both men being pretty evenly matched when it came to the depth of anger fuelling the brawl. That is until Jackson had a lucky strike that made Jess fall badly….and before he could gain his feet his opponent was above him, panting and sweating…but now wielding a knife…..

“You’re a mite tougher than I recall,” he panted, “and iffen we’re gonna finish this before that ol’ deputy lands I figure I’d better end it now.”

Jess instinctively went for the hunting knife he kept in his boot….and then he suddenly had a clear vision of it…laying on the porch back at the ranch, where he’d been whittling a stick one night whilst chatting with Slim.

He was up in a second, ducking and diving as best he could to avoid the razor sharp blade that was now slashing through the air, getting dangerously close to his face and chest.

He kicked out and nearly dislodged the knife…but then Jackson became even more frenzied in his urge to finally despatch Jess, knowing time was of the essence.

Jess was tiring and then the unthinkable happened after he made a snap decision to get between Bailey and Ma Brown.

He had seen the look in Jackson’s eyes. The look that said he really didn’t care who he knifed first…..Jess or Vera Brown.

Jess flicked a glance to Ma Brown and yelled for her to ‘git’….and that was when Bailey hurled himself at him, taking advantage of the momentary lapse in concentration. He lashed out kicking Jess hard in the belly and bringing him to his knees in agony. Then he followed through with a backhander to the face, sending him flying backwards. Then pinning Jess down on the floor, he straddled him, the knife held high above the desperately struggling man.

“No!” screamed Vera Brown….but even as she cried out she could see Jess’s strength fading as the knife came closer and closer…….sweat broke out on his forehead….his eyes staring up in anguish… for a split second aware of his certain fate….

Then suddenly it was all over…

Bailey plunged the knife into Jess’s chest near the shoulder, his added weight and strength finally overwhelming the exhausted cowboy…..

At the final moment Jess had jerked to his left, using his final ounce of strength and the knife plunged into soft flesh, was embedded up to the hilt…blood soaking his blue shirt in seconds from the grisly shoulder wound, but thankfully just missing his heart.

Now his adversary lay conquered Bailey turned his attentions on Ma Brown…..but as he rose and threw an evil glare in her direction his eyes opened wide in horror…..

“No!” he screamed……

The single shot from her rifle rang out and caught him in the chest at almost point blank range and he fell at her feet dead…..a final fleeting look of shocked disbelief on his ruddy features as he fell.

The look was mirrored by the elderly woman….as she stood there shaking, her old eyes filled with horror.

And that’s how deputy Lon Deacon and young Georgie found her as they burst in a moment later, the smoking rifle still in her hands, Bailey’s dead body at her feet and Jess lying in a pool of blood.

Lon came forward and gently removed the rifle before bending down beside Bailey, but a single glance confirmed he was very dead.

Then he moved over to Jess and felt for a pulse in his neck, but could detect nothing.

Georgie stared at her dead father, a shudder of fear running down her spine, even though she knew he could no longer hurt her….Then she turned to where the Deputy was squatting beside Jess a look of profound sadness in his eyes….

“No!” she screamed echoing the anguished cry which had so recently issued from her father’s lips.

Lon turned back to Jess and leaning over unbuttoned the now blood soaked shirt and laid his ear down against his chest…

After a moment he sat up, fresh hope in his eyes.

“Georgie….go run for the Doc…quickly girl…he’s still with us….just.”

When Georgie returned with Doc Johnson and Sheriff Cory a little later Jess was as white as a copse and deathly still, Ma Brown was still staunching the bleeding with some clean rags whilst Lon looked on helplessly.

The Doctor looked anxious when he saw the extent of the bleeding, shaking his old head sadly…

“What have you got yourself into this time boy,” he muttered as he gently eased Ma Brown aside and began pulling the sodden shirt away.

After several minutes of probing and gentle scolding when Jess winced and tried to pull away, he turned to Lon.

“He needs urgent treatment, in my office go and fetch my wagon would you Lon….as quick as you can son!”

At the doctor’s obvious concern, Georgie who had been standing as though frozen to the spot watching the doc work, suddenly sprang into life and threw herself down beside Jess sobbing loudly.

“Come, come young lady, that’s enough,” said the doctor testily, looking up to Ma Brown to take charge of the situation.

“You don’t understand,” she cried casting the doc and her aunt a beseeching glance, “I love Jess…. I love him!”

The doctor and Vera Brown exchanged a look of irritation before her aunt tried to drag the child away….but then Jess’s eyes flickered and opened and all attention was on him.

He looked up and finally focussed on the doctor’s concerned eyes and glanced down at his shirt sticky with blood, before licking his lips.

“It ain’t looking any too good is it doc?”

The doctor knew full well not to flannel this straight talking young man.

“You’ve lost one hell of a lot of blood Jess…more than I’d like to see…..you have a chance….But no boy it’s not looking good.”

Jess just nodded and turned his attention to Georgie…

“I want you to do something for me,” he whispered.

She just nodded the tears welling up in her eyes and falling unheeded down her cheeks.

“I want you to ride out to the ranch…..see Andy, explain,”…he gasped, “explain as to how it was between us…The kissin’ there was nothing in it….he got it all wrong, tell him….please Georgie….I can’t go with him thinking badly of me…”

“No,” she whispered, ”you’re not going anywhere, you can’t die, you just can’t!”

Then turning to the elderly physician, ”You’ll look out for him won’t you Doc? “

“I’ll do my damnedest child….”

Then Lon burst in, “Wagon’s ready doc, got a mattress and blankets in the back an’ all.”

“Good, good,” said the doctor briskly, rubbing his hands together.

Jess turned troubled eyes on the weeping girl…. “Georgie… please?”

She nodded, “Yes, I’ll tell him.”

Mort came over and gazed down at the young drifter he’d come to look upon as a good friend.

“I’ll ride out with her Jess, make sure Andy get’s your message.”

Jess nodded, “Thanks Mort….”

Then the doc and Lon lifted him gently onto a stretcher and started carrying him out, but he put a hand up as he passed Mort.

“Mort… tell Slim…well tell him I’m sorry…for everything, he always said I was a bundle of trouble…. I guess he got that one right,” he whispered with his last breath before closing his eyes and giving himself up to the throbbing agony of the deep wound.

The doc threw Mort a saddened glance and shook his head before hurrying out with his patient.

Chapter 11

Mort and Georgie rode into the Relay Station yard later that day, tethered their mounts over by the corral and walked towards the ranch house, both looking doom laden.

It was Jonsey who answered their knock and stood there, hands on hips a grubby looking apron around his waist and a sour expression on his face.

“I see you’ve brought the little troublemaker back,” he said casting Georgie a less than welcoming look.

Mort raised an eyebrow.

“Well I dunno about that Jonsey, but it seems like there’s been some kind of misunderstanding and this young lady has come over to try and iron it all out.”

“Uh she has huh? Replied Jonsey grudgingly.

Then turning angry eyes on her said, “So what have you done with your ‘boyfriend’ huh?”

Then he looked back to Mort, “And he’s another bundle of trouble…. So what have you done with the drifter then Sheriff…keeping a cell warm is he? It wouldn’t surprise me iffen the kid’s old aunt has had him arrested,” he said flushing up now and giving Georgie the benefit of his lugubrious expression. “Way he’s been acting…out of order it is Sheriff, way out of order….”

“Jonsey… Jonsey, will you simmer down and listen to me,” asked an exasperated Mort finally.

“Well go on then, and make it good. I said we were headin’ fer trouble takin’ in that no good drifter. He don’t know how to act around decent young ladies, that’s for sure,” he muttered darkly, before finally grinding to a standstill and listening to Mort.

“That, so called ‘no good drifter’ took on Jackson Bailey and near got himself killed in the process….And he wasn’t running off with the kid Jonsey, he took her off to keep her safe and at my request. We couldn’t tell you all here in case that bastard Bailey landed and tried to get the truth out of you and Slim…or worse still young Andy. We figured the less you knew about what was happening the safer you’d be.”

Jonesy’s jaw dropped….”Near got himself killed you say?” he echoed.

“Look, young Georgie here really needs to talk to Andy; put him straight about some stuff…you know. So where is he?” asked Mort, really needing to off load Georgie, not wishing to witness more tears as Jess’s prognosis was speculated upon.

“Sure, sure he’s out on the rise…up by that lonesome ol’ pine out the back girl, run along now,” Jonsey said quickly, picking up on Mort’s reluctance to discuss Jess in front of her.

Once she had run off, he looked back at the Sheriff.

“Come on in Mort, coffee’s hot and I’m expecting Slim any minute…Come and sit a spell and tell me what that young tearaway has gotten himself into now,” he said more kindly.

Jonsey was just pouring out the thick fragrant brew when Slim burst in through the door throwing his hat on the hook and marching over to the table.

“Howdy Mort,” he said smiling at his friend, “good to see you. So to what do we owe the honour…business or pleasure?”

Mort gave him a tight smile, “Business I have to tell you Slim. I’ve come about Jess…he’s in big trouble I’m afraid.”

“I might have known it,” spat Slim, slumping down in the seat opposite the Sheriff and accepting a coffee from Jonsey. “So what’s he done now,” he asked wearily,” apart from running off with a kid young enough to be his daughter that is!”

Mort sighed deeply, “You two sure have gotten that boy wrong.”

Then he went on to explain what Jess had really been up to. Also Georgie’s side of the events that had taken place up by the lonesome pine…..the true version that is. And finally that Bailey was now dead.

“Well I’ll be,” said Slim throwing Mort a sheepish grin, “I figure we kinda over reacted then, I owe him an apology.”

Mort shook his greying head sadly.

“Well I’m sorry Slim but it might just be a tad too late for that.”

“Huh, what do ya mean Mort? You said he’d gone after Bailey….and that the bastard was dead. So …Jess is OK…he killed Bailey yeah?”

Mort shook his head.

“Nope according to Ma Brown it was a fair fist fight… both pretty evenly matched. That is until Bailey drew his hunting knife … It seems Jess was unarmed when Bailey stabbed him in the chest….”

“Stabbed him …then who?”

“Ma Brown, shot Bailey at point blank range…seems she was no stranger to a rifle and knew how to use it thank God…or it would be her breathing her last too…..”

Slim shot up from his chair at that information, ”What are you saying Mort…Jess is dead…dying?”

Mort just nodded looking miserable.

“I’m sorry. The doc doesn’t hold out much hope….lost too much dang blood by the looks of it.”

Slim took this in and then sank back down again looking desolate…

“He said….” Mort continued…..stopping when he saw how stricken his buddy looked.

“Yeah… what?”

“He said he was sorry…sorry for everything. Said that you always thought he was a bundle of trouble….said to tell you that you’d got that right…..…dang it Slim, you know him, trying to make wise cracks to the very end.”

He exchanged a look with a very sober looking Jonsey and then glanced back to Slim and was shocked to see how pale he had gone…..

“He was still…..alive when you rode out?”

Mort just nodded.

Then he got up and went over to the door, snagging his hat on the way…. “I have to go to him…tell him…..”

But he couldn’t go on…and just raising a hand in a farewell gesture he marched out of the room and a moment later they heard Alamo galloping out of the yard.

Meanwhile Georgie was making her way up the steep pathway to the lonesome pine.

Andy was slumped down with his back against the massive pine, looking out desolately towards the distant horizon and didn’t hear her approach.

She stood watching him for a moment, the despair in his eyes upsetting her deeply.

She took a step forwards and he looked up, his expression at once hurt and angry.

“What are you doing here?” he finally managed.

“I came to apologise….for my behaviour and to explain for Jess too.”

“Jess?” he queried looking past her, “where is he, why can’t he darned well speak for himself, huh?” He asked his chin jutting belligerently.

She just stood there for a full minute staring at him and then a single tear rolled down her cheek…

“Because he’s dying Andy….may be dead by now…but he wanted me to come and explain…about what you saw between him and me up here”

Andy’s eyes opened wide in shock.

“He’s dying? What! He can’t be….what are you saying Georgie!” he shouted, as he sprang up and ran over grabbing her by the shoulders and looking deeply into her troubled eyes.

She quickly explained about the stabbing and as soon as Andy realized what had happened he made to run down the rise and go and find his hero, but Georgie was too fast for him and grabbed his arm, pulling him back.

“There’s no point in going to town, the doc won’t let you see him and besides I guess Slim will go once he finds out…he’ll tell us what’s happening.”

Andy stood irresolute for a moment and then turned back to the pine and sat back down.

After a moment Georgie joined him and put a tentative hand over his.

When he didn’t shrug her off she found the courage to continue.

“First off I really didn’t know you had feelings for me Andy….honest I didn’t I thought we were just buddies.”

He looked down flushing before finally turning to look her in the eye.

“I thought you must have realized, the way we were such good friends….I know I hadn’t gotten around to kissing ya, but I was going to….it’s just, well all this is kinda new to me and I wasn’t sure….” he faltered and came to a halt.

She squeezed his hand…

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, “I just didn’t realize. I guess I knew you had a crush maybe…but not this strong….”

He nodded and then said softly, “You said you had a message from Jess?”

“Yes, it was about what you saw up here….us kissing…”

He hung his head and flushed up again but said nothing.

“Andy, look at me please, you have to understand and believe this ‘cos it’s real important to Jess that you do…”

He looked up at her then, “Go on,” he said reluctantly, but now looking her in the eye.

“It was my fault…all me. I had…well have I guess, this stupid crush on him….thought I could get him to marry me…how dumb is that?”

Knowing of Jess’s love ‘em and leave ‘em philosophy he agreed it was kinda dumb, but said nothing.

“It was me,” she said again, “me that kissed him…and if you’d hung around you’d have seen him push me away and tell me off. ‘This ain’t right.’ he said. Then when you were so upset he cussed and made off after you….he told me to tell you that, how there is absolutely nothing going on between us….”

Andy looked at her and knew she was telling the truth.

“He said he didn’t wanna…..”


She took a deep breath and tried again.

“He said he didn’t want to go….with you thinking badly of him, he’s hurt Andy…real bad.”

“I don’t…… heck Georgie, of course I don’t think badly of him… I have ta see him…tell him,” and he leapt up and charged down the rise.

When he arrived at the ranch Jonsey was waiting for him.

“No boy,” he said as soon as Andy confessed his plan to ride to town.

“You’re going nowhere, the Sherriff is taking Georgie home to her aunt’s place and you’re staying here to help me.”

“Huh….oh Jonsey I have to go!”

Mort shook his head, “You’re needed here son. Old Doc Johnson would never let you see him and …well I guess Jess and Slim are relying on you to look after the place until they make it home…..Old Jonsey can’t manage the Stages alone you know that.”

Andy looked crestfallen, but could see the logic of the Sheriff’s argument.

“OK, I guess I’ll stay a while, tell Slim I’ve got it covered…..”

Then he rallied, “Iffen I don’t hear word that Jess is OK by Sunday I’m riding out no matter what,” and with that he marched off to get the change over horses ready.

“Thanks Mort,” said Jonsey sincerely …”and tell that young drifter….well tell him to stop layin’ about the place lookin’ for the sympathy vote and get his butt back here, there’s work a waitin’ on him,” and he strode off back to the house, the faint thickness of his voice the only sign that he was deeply upset.

Mort shook his head sadly and muttered, “I doubt he’ll make it through the night, never mind to Sunday,” and on that sad thought he went to fetch his horse.


Slim rode into town at full gallop and throwing himself from the saddle outside Doc Johnson’s office, tore up the steps two at a time and hammered on the door.

After a moment the doctor answered looking annoyed at the sudden interruption to his supper.

“Steady on,” he said testily, “there are sick folks here you know!”

Slim looked contrite, “Gee I’m sorry doc…it’s Jess can I see him…is he….”

“Dead? No son, he’s still with us…just about, come on through. He’s out of it but I guess sitting with him can’t do any harm…”

Then more quietly, “Folk should have someone there when they pass over I guess.”

Slim stopped in his tracks, “So there really is no hope?”

“Powerful little son, powerful little….but time will tell. If we could just get his fluid intake up…when he wakes try and get some water into him huh,” and with that he showed Slim into the back hospital room and returned to his supper.

Slim walked quietly in, closing the door behind him before advancing on the bed.

There was a strong smell of carbolic and a dim light came from a nightlight beside the bed and it took him a moment or two before he could see Jess’s features as he lay beneath the snowy white covers unmoving.

Slim finally collapsed down on the bedside chair and studied his buddy’s features and figured he had never seen somebody so deathly pale and yet still alive.

After a moment Jess seemed to be aware of his presence and stirred slightly before his eyes flickered open and rolling his head on the pillow looked around him before his gaze finally fell on Slim.

“Jess…. are you OK?” Slim asked anxiously.

He ignored the question and licked his lips before saying softly, “Did Andy git my message ….’bout me an’ Georgie….there was nuthin’ between us. Slim I swear…make sure the boy knows….. I…… I don’t want him thinkin’ bad of me…when I’m gone.”

Slim sat forwards and rested a hand on Jess’s chest.

“He won’t I promise and you’re going nowhere Jess…you hear me?”

When there was no forth coming answer Slim poured a glass of water and helping his pard to sit up said gently, “Here drink this Jess, doc says it’s all you need to get back on track…plenty of drinks.”

Jess threw him a cynical look.

“Is that so?” he muttered, but none the less took a good draft of water before lying back down again.

He closed his eyes and Slim thought he would sleep, but a moment later they flickered open again….

“Slim, are you still there?” he whispered peering through the dim light.

“Sure I’m here,” he said resting a hand on Jess’s arm…”what is it Jess?”

“I don’t wanna die in here Slim….can ya spring me…..please buddy?” he said beseechingly, “please…”

Slim swallowed hard, “I don’t reckon you’re well enough to go anywhere pard…just rest up some huh?”

Jess rolled his head on the pillow, the better to see him.

“I ain’t ever gonna ask for anything else Slim. I just wanna bed down under the stars….huh….I don’t want to beg you…but if that’s what it takes……”

“Jess!” said Slim more brusquely than he meant to…such was his distress….

He ran a hand through his hair, looking weary….but then seemed to come to a decision.

“OK, OK buddy if that’s what you want then sure I’ll spring ya….I’ll go hire a buckboard from the livery and we can camp out down by the lake for a spell…how’s that huh?”

“Thanks,” he whispered, “I knew you’d come through Slim.”

“I’m sorry Doc…. but that’s the way it is,” Slim told Doc Johnson as they stood arguing in the doctor’s office.

“The bottom line is he doesn’t want to die here in that hospital bed…he wants…no garldarn it, he needs the big open right now and I aim to see that’s where he spends his last night. You said yourself there was precious little hope so he may as well have it his way….it’s the least we can do for him.”

The old doctor shook his head, and finally capitulated.

“Alright have it your way Slim and if it’s what he wants….. His last wish…well then who am I to argue… I’ll give you a hand with him.”

It was a couple of hours or so later that they finally bunked down by the lake.

It was now late fall and a chilly, clear night. The stars were twinkling above them. A huge harvest moon was shining down, so close it almost looked as though they could reach up and pluck it from the sky, as it cast its light upon the lake turning it to silver.

Jess lay wrapped in his bedroll, a fire burned brightly and Slim was at his side…every so often ensuring that he drank some of the cool refreshing water from the lake.

He was very weak and breathless and found it hard to talk and so they sat in companionable silence, just listening to the night sounds, the sharp, refreshing smell of pine all around them.

Eventually Slim spread his bedroll down within easy reach of his buddy to he could look out for him and both men settled down for the night.

After a little while Jess said softly, “Thanks Slim….”

“That’s OK pard, you just take it easy huh….”

After a long time, Slim became aware that Jess hadn’t moved for some time and he couldn’t hear him breathing either….

He put a tentative hand out to rest lightly on his chest, feeling for a heartbeat and then after a moment there was a low chuckle in the night.

“What’s up Slim…checkin’ I’m still with ya?”

Slim threw him a sheepish glance and withdrew his hand quickly…”You were just so quiet…”

“Uh, yeah, I was thinkin’…..”

“What about pard?”

Jess rolled his head, so he could see Slim clearly in the pale light from the moon.

“About my sorry life….times I’ve been just a step away from death….wounded after a shootout…time I felt a noose round my neck…times I really thought it was the end….” and he faltered.

“Go on….”

“I just felt well…so what, ya know? If it’s my time then so be it…..”

“So a sort of fatalistic approach then?”


“Fatalistic Jess, it means you kind of accept your fate…isn’t anything to be done about it.”

“Yup, you got it…..anyways know it’s really come to it….. I…..” he paused, his breath short and laboured….

“What Jess?” asked Slim leaning up on his elbow and searching his friends face….seeing the anguish in his eyes as he struggled to continue….before taking a deep breath and trying again.

“Now It’s come to it,” he finally managed…”Goddamn it Slim I don’t wanna die….I’m happy fer the first time in years, got me a good job… true friends……some sorta future…Why now?”

Slim sat up at that and looked intensely into Jess’s face….

“You aren’t going to die Jess…not if I’ve got anything to do with it anyway!”

“So you got some sorta pact with the Almighty have ya,” he asked cynically…”because I reckon that’s what it’s gonna take.”

“Nope, just good old fashioned stubbornness…and I figure I don’t have to tell you about that Jess…We’re going to get your fluid levels back up, like the doc said, for starters.”

“My what up? …What are ya talkin’ about Slim?” he gasped.

“Water Jess…good old fashioned water, you’re going to drink this lake dry the next couple of days….If that’s what it takes to get you on the mend…..make up for all that blood you’ve lost. Doc said fluids and then a real healthy diet, lots of greens and steak to build you up…I figure old Jonsey will be up for that.”

By the following morning Jess and Slim were both exhausted from the marathon task of having Jess drink as much as he could every hour or so…and when Slim again offered the canteen as the dawn was just lightening the sky in the east, Jess was just about at breaking point from lack of sleep…and way too much water.

“Garldarn it Slim I can’t drink anymore,” he muttered, “you’ll have me swimmin’ up to those pearly gates at this rate….I’m turnin’ into a dang fish!”

Slim just grinned and grinned.

“Well what’s so dang funny?” Jess protested.

“You…I figure you’ve got your temper back…that’s always a sign you’re on the mend pard!”

But of course it wasn’t as easy as that.

After that first night in the big open Slim wanted to take Jess back to the ranch but Jess really wanted to stay out under the stars.

“It’s mighty chilly out here at night, not too much better now in the daylight,” Slim said, “you’d be better at the ranch.”

“Oh yeah sure with Jonsey fussin’ around and puttin’ that darned liniment any place he can reach.”

Later when Slim tried to help him sit up he felt very dizzy …and then up chucked some of the water he so desperately needed and that was when Slim figured they’d be better off staying put for a little while at least.

“You go….just leave me Slim, you’ve got a business to run,” said Jess breathlessly as he lay back down sweating and looking deathly pale again.

“No, I’m not leaving you…I left a note for Mort, so he’ll fill them in at the ranch….Andy and Jonsey can cope…for a while anyway.”

Jess stared up at the clear blue early morning sky, and then finally glanced back to where Slim was now tending the fire.

“Thank you… I guess I don’t deserve this after all the troubles I’ve brought to your door…” he said softly.

“You and your troubles,” Slim chuckled…”I don’t know what I did with my time before you arrived on the scene…you sure liven things up…”

“Oh yeah, I do that alright,” he replied with the ghost of a smile.

“Look Jess if we’re staying out here a while longer I figure I’ll go bag us some rabbits for supper…..think you could manage some broth instead of that freezing lake water huh?”

Jess went a shade paler and swallowed hard, “I dunno Slim, I’m feelin’ kinda bad.”

“You gonna chuck again?”

He shook his head…

“I’m OK. Sure you get off Slim, I’ll just have me a nap…”

“Well that’s something you’re good at anyway,” Slim said with a faint smile, trying to lighten the atmosphere, but Jess was already asleep.

“I won’t be long, take it easy,” Slim said softly, before squatting down to pull the blanket around Jess more securely.

He looked down at the slender pale face, dark hair falling across his brow and Slim thought how very young and vulnerable he looked….

“Hang on there pard,” he said softly, before silently moving off into the dense undergrowth bordering the lake to find some game…hoping the warm broth would ease Jess’s stomach some.

It was probably because he was chucking again that he didn’t hear Kate advancing upon him, treading softly as she did in her moccasin boots.

She stood a short distance away impassively watching him up chucking the freezing lake water he had so recently downed in an attempt to keep his liquid intake up as requested by Slim.

Once he’d finished retching he lay back down exhausted running his sleeve across his face and cussing softly.

That was when Kate made her presence known, strolling over and squinting down at him.

“Well I sure hope you ain’t been over imbibing son…not when I’ve made a special journey over to your place to bring you some of Den’s special brew”…she said waving a bottle of Moonshine in his face.

Jess groaned, but by great willpower managed to keep the remaining contents of his stomach intact.

“Arrrg, Kate don’t do that to me…garldarn it I’m sick not hung over.”

She was immediately contrite and knelt down beside him.

“Well I’m sorry to hear that boy, what’s the problem?”

Once he had explained she looked thoughtful….

“I’ve seen this before, real heavy blood loss…yup your friend is right to try and get liquids in to you…but I figure that old lake water has chilled your stomach… It doesn’t know what’s hit it…..so chucks stuff back up. See what you need is something to calm it right down again …and then warm stuff…..like that there broth your partner’s after making.

Jess turned even paler at the thought of it….

“I know son, you don’t feel up to much right now…but you just leave it to old Kate I’ll see you right,” and with that she was gone.

When she returned it was late afternoon and Jess was again sleeping, having taken a turn for the worse and Slim was beside himself, not knowing what to do for the best. Should he take him back to the doc’s place or the ranch where Jonsey could care for him? But then if this was indeed the end, well his pard had asked to die out in the big open, so how could he go against his last wishes.

He was wrestling with the problem when one of the horses gave a little whinny of welcome and he looked up to see a middle aged woman riding in. She was dressed in the mountain folk’s attire of buckskin, her hat at a jaunty angle and a twinkle in her deep blue eyes.

She swung easily down from the saddle and advancing offered a hand…

“You must be Slim Sherman, young Jessie’s buddy huh?“

Slim looked slightly bemused, but shook the offered hand. “Kate Munroe….old friend of Jess’s….He was telling me as how he had a run in with that Jackson Bailey and the bastard turned a knife on him….nasty business,” she said frowning… “Young Jack always was a bad ‘un even as a boy… a bully ya know?” she asked turning quizzical eyes on Slim.

He nodded and then gestured towards the fire…

“Please Mrs Munroe, come and sit, have some coffee…Jess isn’t too good right now I’m afraid, but he’d want me to make you welcome.”

She nodded and went over and scrutinized Jess’s deathly still form for a few moments before taking her place by the fire and accepting the drink.

“The boy hasn’t got long to go unless we can get him to keep something down you know,” she said casually. “He doesn’t look at all well, that’s for sure….”

“Do ya think I don’t know that?” said Slim with uncharacteristic petulance.

She gave him a small smile.

“I’m sorry son…I think you probably mistake my way of talkin’ as indifference…it ain’t…just the way we are down in Texas…We don’t tend to go in for too much refinement…tell it like it is….and like I say we’ve gotta move fast …I’ll get the stuff.”

“Stuff?” Slim echoed, watching as she strode over to her horse and came back bearing a gunny sack full of leaves and bark, which she spilled out onto a clean neckerchief, she also produced from the bag. Then she finally brought out a mortar and pestle from the same large sack and proceeded to grind up the bark and leaves into a fine paste.

Slim watched her in surprise, before finally saying…”So what is that stuff?”

“Just local herbs, plants, some tree bark… makes an old recipe handed down from my grand pappy…given to him when he first landed over here by an Indian chief… That was before the bad times,” she reflected, “when all the warring started….My grand pappy and old Chief Rivers were good friends in those early days…and he shared all his fine medicine too…”

Slim looked anxious.

“You don’t trust me eh?“

“It’s not that…it just looks ….well kinda unpalatable,” he finally finished trying to be charitable.

“Bless you,” she chuckled…”once it’s ground up you pour on boiling hot water…..make an infusion, like tea?”

Slim nodded and continued to watch her work in silence.

“So you and Jess know each other from back in Texas then?”

She nodded glancing over to where he still slept on.

“Yes I did, poor kid, he ain’t had it easy you know.”

Slim nodded…”Yeah, he’s told me a little of his history.”

She looked him over and then smiled…

“He ain’t an easy one to befriend is he son? It says a lot that you’re here for him now.”

Slim just smiled, “You can say that again…” then he glanced over at his sleeping friend, “but I guess he’s worth it….and then some.”

“Yes, I’ve known him since he was just a wet behind the ears pup….Then he had to grow up real fast, after what happened to his kin and all, losing them in that terrible fire when he was just a kid.”

Slim nodded…

She sighed deeply…

“I didn’t see him for a while after that…..until he walked back into my saloon…just after the war…and he was grown up then….real grown up,” she said her eyes looking deeply saddened.

“War does that to a boy…turns him into a man….way too soon… but there you are, nothing to be done about it…”

“No Ma’am,” Slim agreed soberly.

She finished her work on the medicine, boiling water was added and she left it to infuse before going over to check on the patient.

He awoke with a start as Kate bent over him and then relaxed, before looking around for Slim…

He ambled over, “Kate’s made some special medicine…says it’ll fix you up Pard, help your stomach some.”

Jess gave her a wary look, “You have?”

She nodded and wandered off returning with a cup containing…what Jess referred to as an evil brew after taking one sniff at it and turning his face away in horror.

“Garl darn it Kate I’m sick what are ya tryin’ to do finish me off!”

She exchanged a grin with Slim, before turning away and returning with a small bottle of her Moonshine and after adding a little handed the cup back to him.

“There you go son that should take the edge off it a little.”

Jess again sniffed it and turned mournful eyes on Slim, “Do I have ter?”

Slim just nodded.

“Come on Jess get it down you, it’ll stop you feeling so sick…”he said with more conviction than he felt.

Jess was finally persuaded to drink it all down and then fell into a deep sleep.

Throughout the evening and night whenever he awoke Kate offered him sips of the medicine and by morning he was looking and feeling a little better.

She looked down at him and nodded happily.

“I think you’ve turned the corner boy…I’ll leave some of the medicine, but you should be OK now…Start on warmed water then a little broth….and I reckon we’ll have you ready for the journey home in a day or so.”

He smiled up at her, “Thanks Kate…I dunno what that filthy muck was, but it’s sure done the trick.”

Then Slim wandered over.

“Yeah thanks Mrs Munroe…I really appreciate all you’ve done for us.”

“Kate,” she said quickly, smiling up at him, ”everyone calls me Kate.”

Then taking a pencil from the brim of her hat and a piece of paper from her jacket pocket she fixed the men with a conspiratorial look. She licked the pencil lead in a businesslike manner and then asked, ”So how many shall I put you down for boys?”

Slim looked askance of Jess, but he ignored him and said softly, ”I think a couple should do it Kate thanks.”

She nodded and put some figures on the paper and then folding it up put it in Jess’s top shirt pocket before spitting on her hand and offering it to Jess. He did the same and they shook on the deal.

“Leave it under the tall pine up on the bluff at the back, I’ll put the cash there for you,” he said, “not in the house……might be err… not appreciated by the old man.”

She pulled her hat down after replacing the pencil and said, ”Understood Jessie boy. Now you take care you hear…look after yourself… I’ll be seein’ ya.”

Then she turned to Slim and gave him a cheeky wink…

“Look after this ornery cuss won’t ya Slim….He doesn’t mean half he says you know and he ain’t as bad as he makes out either,” and with that she marched off, rifle over her shoulder and whistling a merry tune before she slipped into the saddle and rode off at a brisk trot.

Slim sank down beside Jess’s bedroll and pushed his hat back, and scratching his blond hair, before casting his buddy a quizzical glance.

“What in Hell was all that about?” he asked finally, looking bewildered.

“Just bought us some Moonshine, for Thanksgiving,” he replied proudly.

Slim turned pale….

“You did what!” he exploded.”That’s illegal Jess!”

“Only iffen you’re caught,” he replied with a grin, “and we won’t be.”

“And how do you know that pray?” asked Slim sarcastically.

“Because Mort is sweet on Miss Kate and is turnin’ a blind eye!”

“Sure …sure he is, so who told you that rubbish?“

“Mort did.”

Slim’s jaw dropped open at that piece of news and then after a moment he went and fetched the small bottle Kate had left to add to the herbal medicine and uncorking in sniffed…and then his face relaxed into a huge grin…

“For Thanksgiving you say?” he asked happily……

Jess nodded.

“Uh…well you’d better be right about Mort….you’ve already dang near shortened my life by a good year these last few weeks.”

“How so?” asked Jess looking surprised.

“Well first you go get that lung fever and we’d all but bought a piece of the ranch for you, and then doggone it if you don’t nearly bleed to death….and now you’re going to get me in bad with the law….wonder my hair hasn’t turned white and all!”

Both men stared at each other, then Jess started laughing and finally Slim joined in and in a matter of moments they were practically hysterical with mirth.


From then onwards Jess slowly started to recover and they were able to ride back to the ranch a few days later where the first thing he did was to make his peace with young Andy.

He caught up with him in the barn grooming his pony. The youngster spun around, his face lighting up as his hero advanced.

“Jess your back…..are you OK…Mort said you were real sick…I’d have ridden out but Jonsey said no….are you alright now… huh..?“

“Hey steady Andy, sure getting there anyway.”

He sat down on a bale of straw and the boy came out of the stall and perched on another opposite and scrutinized his buddy.

“You look kinda skinny and pale and your arm in that sling…is that where you got knifed?” he said eventually.

“Yeah, but I’m fine,” he said quickly, “and never mind about that we have to talk…about Georgie.”

“Oh…yeah,” the boy said flushing up a little. “She explained everything Jess, about how it was her who did all the chasing….and I’m sorry I yelled at you that way, I was just so dang mad at you…”

“Hey that’s OK, I can understand how it must have looked…but I’d never do that to you? You do know that dontcha Andy?”He asked looking troubled.

The boy gave him a small smile, “Sure I do ….and anyway…”


“It doesn’t matter anymore, her Aunt Vera is moving back East…got a sister there and she’s taking Georgie with her.”

“Gee…so what does Georgie say about that?” asked Jess looking taken aback.

Andy shrugged, “She was cool with it….said it would be like a fresh start…and after what happened at her Aunt’s house I guess they’re both too spooked to stay there.”

“Well that’s understandable,” replied Jess with a kind smile…”you’ll miss her though?”

“I guess…but you know I’ve been thinking Jess, I reckon I’ll give girls a break for a while, they’re way too confusing.”

“Well you sure got that right,” Jess grinned ruffling the boy’s hair with his good hand.

“Come on let’s go give Jonsey a hard time. I figure he’s had it way too easy with me bein’ away so dang much lately.”

As they made their way out of the barn and across the yard Andy looked up at his hero…

“You’re here to stay Jess…..You’ll be here for Thanksgiving and Christmas and all won’t you?” he asked holding his breath.

Jess paused and looked around the familiar yard and then out to the distant hills before turning back to the child.

“Sure…sure I will Andy…come on let’s get in the warm.”

That was Jess’s first Thanksgiving at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station and a good time was had by one and all, especially with the addition of the illicit Moonshine.

From then on Jess took Slim under his wing and as well as strong drink also introduced him to the delights of saloon girls and how to play a mean game of poker….As Slim was often heard to say, he sure had been all educated up Jess style.


Now sitting out under the Lonesome Pine, almost six years later, Slim thought back to that time and grinned.

Gee old Jess sure was a wild one in those days he remembered with a little smile and shake of the head.

He’d sure changed some over the years though and was almost domesticated now…A partner in the business and had a loving girlfriend……yup he was different in many ways. But still had that undying sense of loyalty, Slim mused….was reliable too….Well most of the time he thought with chagrin…where was that son of a …..

Things had changed around the ranch too he thought.

Andy and Jonsey were back east. Miss Daisy Cooper, their beloved housekeeper, now ruled the roost as Jonsey had once done. She was presently busy in the kitchen having shooed Slim out from underfoot. Then there was young Mike Williams their ward who brought such fun and laughter into their lives. He was currently off tending his critters, to try and take his mind off the fact that Jess was late home….the child so eager to see his hero again.

Slim sighed again and his thoughts returned to those of earlier…How many times had they sat waiting on Jess coming home in the old days…Wondering in fact if he actually ever would return home in one piece… How many times had he landed bleeding, shot up or sick, hurting…in body and spirit….

Slim shook his head, he was a day late now and he’d promised he’d be back in time.

Then something caught his attention; way off, bathed in the late afternoon’s golden sunshine he saw it… A horse and rider loping along the Laramie road…

He slowly got to his feet, peering into the distance as they came closer and closer……..

Then the lone rider glanced up at the rise…and a hand came up waving cheerfully in a gesture of welcome….Jess! It was Jess…. he was back.

Slim let out the breath he’d been holding since he spied the rider and was just about to make his way down to the yard when he saw Jess turn tack and ride across through the back gate and up towards the bluff….a few minutes later reining in his mount beside Slim.

He tipped his hat back and grinned down at his buddy.

“Howdy pard, you been lookin’ out for me?”

Slim regained his impatience of earlier after his initial pleasure at knowing his friend was safe.

“Doggone it Jess where have you been….…you’re over a day late you know. Miss Daisy’s been fretting, not to mention young Mike!”

Jess jumped down from Traveller in one easy motion and advanced on his buddy…looking soulfully at him…

“But not you eh?” he asked with a quizzical glance.

Slim couldn’t help but grin at that…

“OK, so I kind of missed you too…”

They shook hands and then gave each other a bear hug, before wandering back to the huge pine and slumping down at the base, backs to its trunk…staring out at the panoramic view spread out below them.

“I’ve been sitting here for ages, keeping outer Daisy’s hair. Then I got to thinking about the old days,” Slim said after a while looking across to his buddy.

Jess quirked an eyebrow at that….”Oh yeah, remembering my wild past huh?”

“Uh, something like that yes. I was remembering the time we had all that trouble with young Georgie. Then you nearly upped and died on me after that bastard of a father of hers knifed you.”

Jess shook his head sadly, “That was real bad….If it hadn’t been for you and Kate I figure I’d never have made it.”

Slim nodded gravely, but then looked more cheerful, “We sure had a good Thanksgiving that year though didn’t we…your first one here.”

Jess chuckled.

“Was about that time I taught you how to play a killer hand of poker and romance the saloon girls!”

“Not to mention getting a liking for Moonshine…Yup I figure it’s been all downhill from there on,” Slim said with a laugh.

Jess leapt up at that snapping his fingers, “That reminds me , brought you something,” and he marched over to Traveller and after digging about in his saddlebags for a moment returned holding two bottles of Moonshine aloft.

Slim beamed up at him, “Gee that’s great pard.”

“They’re the reason I was late back. What with me being away delivering those broncs I clean forgot to put an order in for our spirits for tomorrow….wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a glass or two of old Denver’s Moonshine.”

“Well you’re not wrong there Jess, so you went up the mountain to fetch some back?”

He nodded.

“Denver, the boys and Kate send their best, were kinda worried when they didn’t hear from us…..thought I’d finally run out of my nine lives Den said.”

“You? Never!” said Slim with a grin….”but I don’t know though… if you hadn’t made it back for Thanksgiving tomorrow I might very well have had to shoot you myself!”

Jess raised the bottles again…”Peace offerin’?”

Slim looked sternly at him for a moment and then that broad grin of his lit up his face….

“Deal pard, come on let’s go stash ‘em in the barn, before Daisy claps eyes on them!”

“Sure…say is supper nearly ready then Slim…..huh? I’m starvin’.”

“You and your stomach!” And the two friends walked slowly down the rise laughing and joking as they went.

Back up on the hill the Lonesome Pine looked out over the distant mountains  as it had done for as long as anyone could remember, an everlasting symbol of strength and permanence.

The End

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