#56 Kate Munroe's Secret

Kate Munroe’s Secret


Patty Wilkinson

Chapter 1
(Some strong language, violence, adult themes and distressing scenes)
After a hard day in the saddle spent checking stock, an icy wind blowing snow in their faces, the two men now sat before a crackling fire and relaxed. Slim Sherman and Jess Harper of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station were pretty bushed as they sipped a welcome coffee. Their housekeeper Daisy Cooper and ward young Mike Williams already tucked up for the night.
After a while Jess stood up and excused himself and made for the door, snagging his hat from the peg as he went, ramming it down on his thatch of black wavy hair.
Slim shot him a glance.
“Where are you off to its freezing out there?”
“Barn…you’ll see,” he replied with a mischievous grin, tapping his nose,” back in a minute.”
True to his word he returned a few minutes later bearing a half full bottle of Moonshine aloft.
“What’s left from the stuff I bought from old Denver James to celebrate Thanksgiving,” he said, ”I thought we could use a pick me up after today.”
Slim cast a glance towards Daisy’s bedroom door and looked a mite uncomfortable.
“Oh come on pard she’s fast asleep by now…and anyway you ain’t petticoat bossed in your own home are ya?” Jess asked with a chuckle.
Slim looked a little sheepish at the notion.
“No of course not,” he professed, “just…. well you know how Daisy is about having this…’illicit spirit,’ as she calls it in the house.”
Jess just shook his head and rolled his eyes before topping up their coffee cups. Then placing the somewhat depleted bottle in the hearth, said “If the Sheriff ain’t bothered, I don’t see why Daisy should fret.”
“Uh…well we all know Mort Cory is kind of sweet on Kate Munroe,” said Slim with a grin, ”that’s why he turns a blind eye to the goings on up the mountain.”
Jess nodded in agreement and then raised his cup.
“Here’s to Spring and let’s hope it ain’t too far away,” he said sincerely and they relaxed back in their chairs, feet in the hearth, sipping the strong brew contentedly.
After a while Slim said, ”It sure was good that you made it back for Thanksgiving. I really thought you wouldn’t, when you were a day late.”
Jess just shrugged, “Said I would didn’t I? I just wanted to call in see to Denver and pick up a couple of bottles for the party. See how Kate was too.”
Denver James was a real character, an old Mountain Man, who now spent most of his energy in producing his famous Moonshine, rather than fur trapping as he had done in the past. He lived up the Laramie Mountain along with his two sons. Then a distant cousin Kate Munroe had joined them about six years ago after the death of her husband. Kate and Jess went way back to his childhood on the panhandle. She had been a family friend when he was a youngster and they had seen each other now and then over the years.
At nearing fifty she was a handsome woman with white blond hair, deeply tanned unlined skin and startlingly deep blue eyes. She was also a larger than life character like Denver, having frequently outdrawn any troublemakers in the saloon she and her husband had owned back in Texas. Now she had adapted well to her new life up the mountains in Wyoming. Was as good at shooting the four legged critters as she had been the two legged, or so she had once proudly announced to Jess.
Slim had first met her many years ago when Jess had been working at the ranch just a few months. He had been very badly injured apprehending a criminal and it was Kate who found Slim trying to nurse his partner out by the lake and had come to their aid. #55 The Lonesome Pine
Now Slim cast his buddy a warm glance, “So how was Kate, you never said?”
“Oh she’s good, just the same you know,” he replied…”She sure is one fine woman, feisty too…you really wouldn’t wanna cross her… I figure she don’t take any nonsense from Den or his boys.”
“Well Mort sure thinks she’s pretty fine too…shame she doesn’t seem to reciprocate,” remarked Slim thoughtfully.
“Feel the same about him Jess.”
“Oh, yeah, well I figure she likes him well enough, she just don’t want to be tied down by any man after her Charlie died.”
“So Denver hasn’t got any aspirations, thoughts, that is, in that direction then?”
“What you’re kidding me…If it can’t be shot at or drunk Den ain’t interested. And Kate sure ain’t interested in him either…nope they just rub along OK I guess, look out for each other I reckon.”
“Can’t be easy for her stuck up the mountain all winter though,” Slim said more seriously, “I sure wouldn’t want to end my days up there. So hasn’t she got any other kin? No children to look out for her back down in Texas?”
“Nope… .old Kate ain’t mothering material I guess,” he said with a chuckle…
Then more thoughtfully, “But she sure was good to me when I was a little ‘un back on the panhandle. Always there with a kind word…..you know?”
“She was sure good to you that time you were knifed too… I reckon that herbal medicine she cooked up for you saved your life you know Jess,” Slim said seriously.
“Well something tasting that dang bad just had to either kill you or cure you,” Jess said laughing.
It was a few months later before they had cause to think about Kate Munroe again. It was now springtime. The two cowboys had taken all the stock back up to the higher ground and were ready to think about a mustanging trip.
Jess came back from town one day with the news that some wild mustangs had been seen just below the Laramie Mountain. They were heading south east, for the easy grazing, so they decided to head out and see what they could find. Jess had gone into town to buy some fencing materials and someone in the store had tipped him off about the mustang sighting. Then he had called in at the Bank to pay in a check. It was mid afternoon by the time he’d completed all his marketing, so he decided to call at the saloon for a quick beer before heading home.
It had been over a week since he had cast eyes on his girl Millie too and he really wanted to visit with her for a little while. With her curvy figure, beautiful face and long dark hair she sure was a cracker. But more than that she was as beautiful inside as out and was Jess’s best female friend as well as long time lover. Gee he sure was blessed to have her in his life he thought happily as he made his way into the dim interior of the Laramie saloon.
Tom the old barkeep came over at once, as the lunchtime rush was over with just a few diehard bar flies talking quietly over their whiskey.
“Beer is it Jess?”
He nodded and threw some coins down before glancing around the bar.
When he returned Jess took the glass with thanks and downed it almost in one, as Tom grinned over at him…
“Another one is it Jess?”
He shook his head, “Better not, got work later…So where’s Millie Tom, out on her lunch break?”
Tom sobered at once, ”Nope, just taking a break out back…truth be told Jess she’s kinda upset…real upset.”
Jess’s head shot up at that piece of news, ”Why, what’s up Tom?”
“It’s her Ma, had a bad fall, apparently she’s in the doc’s hospital bed over in Cheyenne.”
Jess looked troubled by that.
“Out back you say…can I go through?”
“Sure you can son, I figure she could use some cheering up,” and he opened the bar hatch and ushered Jess through to the kitchen.
“Visitor Millie,” he called out before wandering back to the bar.
She sat at the table a soggy handkerchief clutched in her hand and her eyes red and swollen from crying.
Jess advanced quickly and sat down opposite covering her tiny hands with his own large ones.
“Heck Millie, I’m so dang sorry, what happened?”
She looked up and her bleak expression cleared for a moment when she saw who was there.
“It’s Mama, she fell down a flight of stairs at the Guest House, the carpet was worn….she’s broken her leg Jess…really badly.”
“Gee that’s too bad, so what’s gonna happen about the Boarding House? Your old Auntie Betty can’t manage alone can she?”
Jess was referring to the demanding business Millie’s Ma and sister ran over in Cheyenne.
“I’m going to have to go,” she replied fretfully, ”take over until she’s well. But the wire said it could be a couple of months, maybe longer… I just don’t know what to do.”
Then she turned tearful eyes on him, “At least Tom has said he’ll keep my job open for me…but I’ll miss you so much,” and she started sobbing again.
He got up immediately and pulled her up into his arms…
“Hey sweetheart, don’t take on so…it ain’t all that long…Anyway, me and Slim will be mustanging down around the lowlands east of the Laramie Mountains, not too far away, maybe I can visit some….huh?”
They both knew it was one heck of a way away, but she gave him a watery smile.
“Sure honey…maybe.”
“So when are you going?”
She shrugged.
“I’m not sure, as soon as I can… I just need to ask Tom for a sub on my wages for the Stage ticket.”
He shook his head, ”Uh- uh… nope I’ll cover that.”
“Jess no you can’t.”
“Sure I can. I’ve got me some savings… I’ll go buy it now. I’ll get you on the first Stage out in the morning….yeah?”
She nodded the tears welling up again, ”You’re so good to me.”
“Hey you’re my best girl ain’t you…Now go fix up your face and I’ll take you out to supper OK?”
When he arrived in the Stage office he bought the ticket and then bumped into Mose just taking the late Stage out.
“Howdy Mose, can you do me a favour?” he asked giving the old timer his engaging grin.
“As long as it don’t cost me,” came the lugubrious reply.
“Say what’s eatin’ you?”
“I’ll tell you Jess….my back’s playin’ up something fierce…I just about lost my last dollar at poker last night and I’m running a double shift to make it up….so I’ll see you bright an’ early tomorrow too,”…and with that he dragged himself up onto the box , before remembering Jess’s request.
“Well, what did ya want?”
“Oh yeah, can you tell Slim I won’t be back tonight, I’m staying in town, I’ll see him first thing.”
“Uh…OK, as long as he don’t shoot the messenger,” and with that he urged the team on to a brisk trot off down Main Street.
Jess turned back towards the office door and nearly toppled over a lady just coming out.
“Whoa,” he said grinning down and steadying her, ”excuse me Ma’am,” he apologised, before pulling back and taking another look at the woman.
“Kate…Kate Munroe is that you!”
“No need to sound so amazed young Jessie Harper,” came the whiplash quick answer, ”I can dress like a lady when I need to.”
Jess chuckled at that, ”Sure you can Kate and a very handsome lady you make too…..It’s just that I’m used to seeing you in your buckskins and toting a rifle,” he said with a grin.
“Yes well I figured that isn’t the right kind of attire for where I’m a going tomorrow.”
“So where’s that then Kate, not like you to be off the mountain…?”
“My sister’s funeral boy, I’m travelling to Denver.”
Jess’s expression was immediately contrite.
“Gee Kate I’m real sorry I didn’t know.”
She gave a sad smile, ”And how could you son….”
“Look, me and Millie are havin’ supper out later, would you like to join us?” he asked.
“No….thanking you kindly boy, but got me a powerful lot of thinking to do tonight,” and with that she hurried off, leaving Jess looking sadly after her.
By the time he returned to the Saloon Millie was looking a tad more cheerful, when he caught up with her in her cosy room above the bar.
“Lily has promised to cover for me this evening so Tom has given me the night off and Rose’s sister Jenny is looking for a job just until the end of May when she gets Wed, so she’s going to be helping out,” she said thankfully.
“Well there you are then sweetheart, you can look after your old Ma and not be worrying about what’s going on back here.”
“Uh….. I suppose, but I’m sure going to miss you though Jess,” she said turning her sad eyes on him.
He gave her an encouraging smile, “Hey, come on…it won’t be so bad…and anyway….”
“What?” she asked raising an eyebrow.
“Anyway….. I guess we’ll just have to make up for things tonight huh?“ He replied with a wicked twinkle in his deep blue eyes.
She gave him a playful slap on the arm, but her eyes smiled up at him with adoration.
He looked back down at her, their gaze locking and then suddenly she was in his arms and they were kissing passionately…
Then all thought of their meal out was forgotten as they tore their clothes off and jumped into Millie’s huge comfortable old bed…..laughing and loving and finally… passion spent… lay holding each other tightly……Jess telling her again and again how much he loved her….how much he would miss her until they were reunited..
Much later they’d got up feeling ravenous and Millie provided ham and eggs from her little back kitchen which they ate sitting cross legged on the rug in front of the fire.
Now as they sat by the fire with Jess’s strong arm holding her in a warm embrace they relaxed with a coffee apiece.
After a while he turned to her and said…”I’m sorry, I said I was going to treat you tonight, make it kinda special with it bein’ the last time we’ll see each other for a spell.”
She shook her head and gave him a secret smile, “Oh but it was,” she whispered, “real special.”
He pulled her closer, her head resting on his shoulder and he felt he had never been more contented.
“You know I’ve a mind to give up ranchin’ and come over to Cheyenne with you,” he said after a moment, only half joking…..but Millie didn’t take it well.
“Why Jess Harper, you’re a partner in the business and you know Slim couldn’t manage without you!” she said firmly.
He squinted down at her and then gently put a finger beneath her chin so that she looked up into his eyes…”And I don’t reckon I can manage without you,” he said now totally sincere.
Chapter 2
The following morning they were up early and standing on the sidewalk in the cold dawn when the Stage came into view, Mose on the box bringing the team in at a fair speed.
At the sound of the Stage’s arrival the other passengers emerged from the Stage office and started to embark.
Both Millie and Jess welcomed Kate, Millie offering her condolences on Kate’s sad loss.
“Thank you my dear, and at least I shall have your company as far as Cheyenne,” she said with a brave smile.
Jess leaned in and gave Kate a small peck on the cheek, ”I hope it ain’t too upsetting for you,” he said softly.
She smiled, pausing for a moment and caressing his cheek tenderly. Then she gave a little sigh and accepted his hand up to the Stage.
Millie was the last to climb aboard after a passionate kiss from her lover.
“I’ll write,” she whispered, now looking tearful again.
Jess nodded and swallowed hard…
“If you’re away too long, I’ll ride over I promise,” he replied, before helping her up…an impatient Mose chivvying him to get a move on.
“And I’d git yer sorry ass back home too, iffen you know what’s good fer you Jess,” was his parting shot. ”Slim weren’t any too impressed when you didn’t show with those fence rails yesterday!”
Jess sighed lustily and after waving the Stage off went to hitch up the buckboard for the journey home.
He arrived as Slim was emerging from the barn, having just about finished most of the yard chores, a look of irritation in his light blue eyes.
“So where in tarnation have you been Jess, I was waiting on that timber, you know that!”
Jess swung down from the seat and started unloading the wood.
“I’m sorry Slim, something came up, I had to…” but Slim cut in….
“What’s more important than your work here!” his partner exploded, now getting into his stride…his annoyance increasing with Jess’s seemingly unrepentant attitude.
“Look Slim, it’s Millie’s Ma, she’s had a bad fall and Millie’s havin’ to go over…..and no tellin’ when she’ll be back…she was real upset, needed me last night I guess.”
“Well why didn’t you say so,” replied Slim quickly and looking a mite sheepish at his cavalier attitude.
“Because you didn’t give me a chance,” replied Jess evenly, “now are you gonna help me off load this timber or just watch?”
Slim pushed his Stetson back and scratched his head.
“How come you’re the one as didn’t come through yesterday……and yet I’m the one ends up feeling guilty?”
Jess just shrugged…”That over active conscience of yours I guess pard.”
Slim pulled his hat back down and grinned over at his buddy shaking his head, ”I’ll give you overactive conscience,” he said throwing a less than gentle cuff to Jess’s head before he pitched in unloading the buckboard.
It was later when they were enjoying a coffee and welcome break, sitting around the kitchen table, that Jess remembered about the mustang sightings and suggested they go take a look as soon as they were able.
As it was a Saturday young Mike had joined them for milk and cookies. As Daisy dispensed the drinks they all waited for the familiar dispute as to Mike accompanying them on the mustanging trip. The youngster always argued his case passionately, but so far had been disappointed, Slim being adamant that he should not miss any school.
Now however he turned his innocent young eyes upon them and said with resignation, “I guess I can’t come along because of school.”
Slim looked astounded, but agreed that he couldn’t miss any lessons.
“I’m sorry Tiger,” said Jess softly, knowing full well if it was left to him alone then the child would have been more than welcome to tag along.
“Oh that’s OK,” said the youngster beaming at him, ”I guess school is more important.”
Jess and Slim turned to exchange a shocked glance before turning back to the child and saying as one…”Huh?”
Daisy smiled benignly across at the scandalized cowboys.
“Uh, Mike has a new friend in school, and maybe he doesn’t want to abandon her, with her just having joined the class,” she said, hiding a smile.
“Oh, really?” asked Jess raising a quirky eyebrow in the boy’s direction.
Mike looked suddenly elated.
“Oh yeah, Emma, she’s real neat you know…Gee she can even spit further than me! She’s real pretty too,” he professed happily before draining his milk.
“May I get down Ma’am,” he asked politely, ”I need to go check on Button’s puppies.”
Daisy inclined her head graciously and the child ran from the room, a whirlwind of energy.
“Well I’ll be,” said Jess turning back to his partner, ”blown out by a kid who can spit real good…what are things coming to?”
“Ah, no you miss the point Jess,” said Slim with a smirk…”a real pretty girl that can spit real good… I think young Mike is kind of smitten.”
Jess chuckled at that, “Could be…”
“Oh he’s just a child,” interjected Daisy, “plenty of time for girlfriends when he’s older.”
Then Slim said thoughtfully, ”You’d never know he was adopted, I could swear he’s yours Jess, way he’s taken to the ladies!”
Daisy and Slim laughed at Jess’s affronted expression.
“That ain’t so, I ain’t no womanizer,” he said gruffly.
“Well you couldn’t tear yourself away from your girl last night could you?” said Slim with a triumphant grin.
“Slim!” Jess hissed, looking embarrassed and tipping his head towards Daisy…”Not now huh?“
“Oh don’t mind me dear, and so how is Millie?” Daisy asked cheerfully.
When Jess informed her about Millie’s Ma’s accident Daisy was very sorry and promised to write to Peggy Johnson that very day.
Then the conversation turned to his seeing Kate Munroe and her recent bereavement.
“Oh, the poor woman, losing her dear husband quite young and now this, were they close do you know dear?”
Jess shrugged, ”I didn’t even know she had a sister until she told me about her yesterday, she’s about ten years older I think, left town before I was born, married a guy from Denver Kate said and he died just last year.“
“Oh my, what a tragedy…so are there any children?”
“Uh… a girl I think, in her teens…so not like there’s little kids involved at least.”
“Still a young lady left alone in the world…..so sad,” she murmured as she went off to wash the dishes, leaving the men planning their mustanging trip.
They set off early one morning a few days later, having been assured that their neighbour’s sons would tend to the ranch chores and the Stages, whilst they were away.
“I hate having to pay out good money on staffing the place,” said Slim shaking his head as they rested up later that day, ”but I figure it makes sense financially from what we’ll make on these beasts once they’re broken and sold on.”
“Yeah, but we’ve gotta find ‘em first Slim and we ain’t gonna do that sittin’ around here, come on,” and he threw the dregs of his coffee onto the fire.
“Hey Jess, are you feeling alright, not like you to be so doggone keen to work when there’s good coffee on the go.”
He stood up and stretched looking out to the horizon.
“I guess I’m feelin’ kinda edgy,” he admitted.
Slim tipped his hat back and looked up at his buddy from his place still by the fire.
“Millie?” He asked quietly.
Jess turned to look at him the mention of her name.
“Yeah I guess…..just got kind of a bad feeling…I’m worried she might stay over there…..for good you know?”
“But why would she do that Jess….her place is here with you…..she’s got a good job, friends in Laramie, what is there for her over in Cheyenne?”
He shrugged, ”Security I guess, that Boarding House pays real well….maybe she’d be better taking that on instead of me.”
“What….. what do you mean, you and Millie are good aren’t you?”
“Sure, it’s nuthin’ like that…just…oh I don’t know,” and he looked back out to the distant hills again.
“Come on then so what are you saying?” Slim persisted.
“Well what have I got to offer her right now? “ He asked looking frustrated.
”We’re only just about making ends meet at the ranch after we lost all that stock in the floods. Then all that damage done it the storm….heck Slim you know the way we’re fixed…There sure ain’t any spare cash to build and I can’t think of getting hitched until I can offer her our own place.”
“Hey pard, where has all this come from? I know you and Millie have a sort of understanding. But there isn’t any rush is there? You said yourself you were both happy the way things are at the moment…Heck Jess you’re both still pretty young.“
“I know it…but I think…..well maybe she wants more…you didn’t see how dang upset she was last week Slim, I’ve never seen her that way before.”
“Come on Jess, she was probably just upset about her Ma…huh?”
Jess shrugged again, ”I dunno, maybe.”
Then he turned towards his horse, “Come on Slim let’s find these dang critters……”
However it was to be some time before they were able to do that……
It was mid afternoon and they were riding along a ridge parallel with the Laramie to Cheyenne road, skirting the Mountain. They were keeping a weather eye open for any sign of the band of horses believed to be in the area, somewhere between the mountain and River some twenty miles west of Cheyenne. They had just turned due north away from the road when they heard it…… the distinct sound of gunfire.
They reined in their mounts and paused for a second, exchanging a questioning glance, before turning and heading back towards the road at speed.
As soon as they crested the hill and looked down they saw it. The Laramie Stage slewed to a standstill at the roadside….Mose on the box with his arms up in submission and a couple of masked hoodlums shooting their colts in the air and shouting orders.
Jess cussed under his breath before spurring Traveller on to even greater speed. He had his rifle out of the scabbard and aimed in the direction of the outlaws in one swift movement and discharged it as he came into range, swiftly followed up by a shot from Slim.
At this sudden unexpected onslaught the would be robbers turned tail and took off in a cloud of dust….Warning shots following them as they split up….weaving and making a desperate effort to escape the volleys of gunfire aimed at their retreating backs.
Instead of giving chase Jess and Slim reined in their mounts.
Then peering up at a now angry and flushed Mose, Jess tipped his Stetson back and with a twinkle in his eye said, “Was that who I thought it was?”
Mose nodded, ”Yup, ‘twas those dang Snell brothers…and it’s getting beyond a joke….They may be firing blanks and acting the fool, but it sure rattled me…I thought it was for real this time….!”
Slim shook his head, ”I figure it’s time those kids had a spell in jail. It seems the Sheriff’s warning didn’t do any good at all.”
“It’s that dang father of theirs that’s to blame,” spat Mose, “said it was just high spirits!”
“Well those ‘high spirits’ could well cost them their lives next time,” said Jess…”It was just lucky I recognised their mounts or I’d have been aiming to slow ‘em down some not scare ‘em off!”
“Uh, well maybe that’s what they dang well need Jess,” Mose said, maybe iffen they stopped one of your bullets they’d think again before terrifying my passengers.”
Then he looked worried.
“Goddamn it…my passengers!” and he started to clamber down from the box.
However Slim was quickly off his horse and had the Stagecoach door open in a flash and reaching up he assisted one of the passengers down, before stopping and giving a welcoming cry of recognition.
“Kate, are you alright?” he asked solicitously, as he handed Kate Munroe down.
“I guess,” she said looking angry, ”just sorry I wasn’t totin’ my gun, or I sure would have given ‘em something to reflect on,” she said furiously.
Jess had slipped down from the saddle and now came forwards to grin over at Kate…
“Well iffen anyone can straight them kids out I guess it’s you Kate,” he said smiling down at her.
“And don’t think I won’t ,”came the brisk reply, ”just as soon as we reach Laramie I’ll be talking to Mort Cory about this business!”
“Well that should get things sorted out then,” said Mose as a whispered aside to Slim, knowing full well how the Sheriff felt about Kate Munroe.
Then Kate’s attention was taken by someone else in the coach and a moment later a young lady jumped down, peering around her with interest and surprisingly not a trace of fear, considering the circumstances.
After a moment her eyes came to rest on Jess who had moved forwards to offer a hand as the young lady alighted and she paused as their gaze locked…
Jess just stared, rendered speechless by this vision of loveliness that had suddenly wafted into view.
She had black wavy hair, lose and reaching down to her waist, a very slender but womanly figure and Kate’s striking, deep blue eyes….
As he continued to stare he was completely unaware of anything else going on around him. Conversation ebbed and flowed…but all he could hear was his heart pounding, and feel the sweat suddenly breaking out on his forehead, was aware that he was breathless and trembling slightly.
He licked his lips in an attempt to try and speak…but he seemed to have forgotten how to….and just remained glued to the spot….seemingly unable to move either.
“I said this is my niece Lori, Jess,” Kate said again throwing the young cowboy an impatient glance…..
After a moment Slim dug him sharply in the ribs with his elbow…
“This is Kate’s niece, visiting from Denver.”
Kate cast Lori a quick look and was startled, and not a little perturbed, to see the young woman in a similar state of disorientation.
Jess was the first to come to his senses and at once realized why this beautiful young woman was clad from head to toe in black.
“Err…. I’m real sorry….” he faltered.
She raised a quizzical eyebrow at that, but said nothing.
“For your loss,” he said manfully soldiering on…. ”your Ma…Kate told me.”
She bowed her head for a moment but then looked him in the eye and gave a tiny smile.
“Thank you…for your concern….Jess,” she said softly, her voice musical and seductive…
Jess gave a little sigh, and just smiled at her again.
“Well I can’t hang around here all dang day chewing the fat with you folk,” Mose said briskly, ”I’m a runnin’ late already…all aboard,” he called, making his point clear as he scrambled back up to the box…gathering the reins together.
Jess suddenly leapt into action and helped Lori back on board and then took Kate’s hand.
She threw him a slightly anxious glance, but just thanked him and settled back down in the coach.
“So you’re staying around for a while?” Jess asked Lori, standing with the door still open.
She nodded, “A while yes….”
“We aren’t too sure of Lori’s plans,” Kate said quickly, “she’ll probably be visiting kin back east….”
Lori’s head shot up at that news and she cast her aunt a puzzled look, but said nothing…
Then Slim came up and placed a hand on Jess’s shoulder…”Come on pard, Mose wants to be off.”
“Sure, be seein’ you,” he said smiling up at Lori, and casting Kate a friendly look, before slamming the door and waving up to Mose.
“Take her away Mose….”
The two men stood watching as the coach disappeared down the track in a haze of dust and once it had gone Slim turned to his pard.
“So what was all that about then?”
“You Jess, coming on to that Lori.”
“Don’t know what you mean,” he said flushing and marching off towards Traveller where he hopped up in the saddle…
“Come on then, are we mustangin’ or what?” he called brusquely before spurring his mount off at speed.
Slim caught up with him halfway up the ridge, but one look at his friend’s set features told him to let the matter rest, for the time being at least.
Jess rode on up the ridge his emotions in turmoil….
What was happening he asked himself for the twentieth time since he had first cast eyes on Lori.
The moment their eyes had met he had an overwhelming feeling of……what…. love?
He tried to analyse it…
It wasn’t as Slim had tried to make out. He wasn’t hitting on her… Sure she was attractive a real cracker…but no, his feelings went far deeper than sexual attraction, he felt…like he knew her. Really knew her…and the way she had exchanged his gaze he was damn sure she felt the same way too.
How could that be?
He loved Millie, always had, and always would, so where was all this coming from?
He sighed deeply and pushed Traveller on to a greater pace, almost as though he was somehow trying to out race his emotions…leave these unsettling feelings back on the dusty road where the Stage had been held up…where they belonged.
Chapter 3
It was nearly nightfall and they were about half way to the lake where they hoped the mustangs would stop to water when Slim called a halt.
“For goodness sake Jess will you hold up…what are you thinking of doing riding all dang night!”
He sighed deeply, ”It’ll be dark shortly pard, let’s make camp, set off at first light OK?”
Jess looked around him like he was wondering where he was, before turning back to his buddy.
“Sure hows about down in that valley yonder, there’s a stream and plenty of pines for fire wood,” he said tipping his hat to where a narrow trail lead down the ridge to a leafy valley below them.
Slim gave him a genuine smile then, ”Good now you’re talking, come on pard let’s go set up camp, I could kill for a coffee.”
It was an hour or so later with both men sitting before a crackling fire, a plate of rabbit stew apiece, that Jess finally gave up all pretence of eating and put his plate down.
Slim had noticed him pushing his food around and now he threw him a questioning glance.
“Not like you to be off your food pard, you feeling sick?” he inquired solicitously.
Jess just shook his head.
“Nope I’m fine,” he muttered.
Slim finished his meal and then replenished their coffee cups and taking a sip regarded his buddy over the rim of his cup.
Jess lay sprawled out on his bedroll, leaning on his saddle and looking deeply into the flames, his coffee cup forgotten in his hand.
“So are you going to tell me about it then Jess?”
His head shot up at that and he threw Slim a hard look, “Don’t know what ya mean?”
Slim rolled his eyes looking exasperated.
“Sure you do…so what was going on between that Lori and you then….?”
Jess looked furious and flushed up and Slim mentally prepared himself for the verbal onslaught he was expecting….
But Jess seemed to think better of it and instead turned troubled eyes on his good friend.
“I dunno Slim, I just dunno,” he said helplessly.
Slim merely raised a questioning eyebrow and waited for him to say more.
Jess looked back into the fire his slender face troubled as he tried to find the words.
“I guess it was kinda strange… I just felt, well like I knew her Slim…real well.”
“So do you? Maybe you met before, after all you’ve known Kate a long time…The niece could have visited when you were young, maybe you were playmates?”
Jess just shook his head.
“Nah I’d have remembered her….it just felt so…..” he sighed deeply, ”I don’t know Slim, just so special I guess.”
Slim shot him a shocked glance at that and then said softly, ”What about Millie?”
Jess just shook his head, ”It ain’t got nuthin’ to do with how I feel about Millie…this is different,” and then he rolled over on his back and just stared up at the stars… “I guess I just can’t explain it.”
Slim just shook his head sadly, wondering what on earth had come over his buddy….Heck the way he’d been acting around that pretty girl, well he thought it had everything to do with Millie…Because he was darned sure she wouldn’t be too happy if she had witnessed the scene, that was for sure.
The following morning they finally caught up with the wild horses, just as Jess had predicted, grazing near the large Crystal Lake.
They lay on their bellies down wind of the herd watching for a few minutes, Jess’s blue eyes sparkling in delight.
“There ya go and I reckon they’ll be here for a few days so we’ve time to back track up to that box canyon and fix up a fence and gate at the entrance…drive ‘em in and wait on them getting wore out, then an easy ride home.”
“Uh, you make it sound so easy,” said Slim grinning across at his buddy, glad to see he seemed to be more his old self.
The procedure had not been without its setbacks however.
They had set up a holding area in the blind canyon and had skilfully managed to cut out a dozen of the best mares and colts and drive them over. Once the animals were barricaded in they had spent all their energy galloping around in a mindless frenzy looking for an escape route. Before finally moving more and more slowly eventually pacing around casting Slim and Jess baleful looks as they regarded the animals from the safety of the temporary corral fence.
It had been when they were driving the beasts home that disaster struck when one particularly head strong colt, a mite older than the rest, decided to make a break for it. He took off with Jess in hot pursuit leaving Slim to watch the remainder.
It was sometime later when a somewhat bloodied and battered Jess returned triumphantly leading the recalcitrant animal.
It was later that night, when Jess reluctantly told his tale.
He had begun to wash up, stripping off his shirt and then bathing his chest in the icy water from a small stream running through their camp when Slim wandered over. He glanced down at the angry abrasions to his buddy’s chest, before saying conversationally, “You need some spirit on that Jess unless you want an infection…”
Jess continued cleaning the wound as best he could and then sighed…
“I guess so.”
Slim leaned over and punched his arm gently, ”Come on pard I’ll do it for you.”
Jess lay down on his bedroll while Slim deftly disinfected the painful friction burns, whilst Jess cussed under his breath.
At last it was done and Slim picked up his friend’s shirt and after eyeing it dolefully passed it across….
“Looks like you’ve ruined a perfectly good shirt too. I don’t reckon even Daisy will be able to sort that out.”
Jess said nothing but shrugged it back on and fastened as many buttons that were left and tucked it into his denims, before reaching for the whiskey bottle.
He held it aloft and gestured to Slim’s coffee cup and on receiving a nod topped up both their cups with the strong brew before re corking it.
Slim sipped the drink gratefully before casting his pard a questioning glance.
“So what happened?”
“I roped the bastard and then the dang critter managed to wrap himself around a pine…. He jerked the rope and pulled me out of the saddle. Dragged me a good few yards before I could get control,” he said with a self depreciating grin.
Slim merely shook his head…”You could just have let go Jess.”
“Huh? You’re kidding me, he’ll make top dollar Slim.”
“Yeah, if you manage to break him,” Slim replied with a wry smile.
“Sure I’ll break him…I’ve got to ain’t I,” he replied more soberly, “we need the goddamn money Slim, or had you forgotten?”
That brought back their earlier conversation about Millie and how Jess felt she wanted to settle down, but his finances were totally inadequate.
“I know,” Slim said softly.” But you’re sure going to have your work cut out these next few months Jess; you won’t be able to spare time to go visiting Millie.”
He just looked down into his cup and said nothing.
“I know that don’t I,” he said angrily, before jumping up and marching off, on the pretext of checking on the horses.
Slim watched him go, wondering sadly just what was going on in his buddy’s head right then.
Chapter 4
They landed back at the ranch late the following afternoon, just as Mike was looking out for them by the old lone pine, up on the bluff behind the ranch.
As soon as he saw the dust cloud up on the horizon, he just knew it was Jess and Slim back from their trip. He hurtled back down to the yard to open the corral gate in anticipation of their arrival, yelling for Miss Daisy as he did so.
Ten minutes later they heard the approaching sound of pounding hooves and then the men came in sight. Jess leading a magnificent looking black colt, followed by a small group of colts and mares, with Slim bringing up the rear herding them in, down the rise.
Jess threw himself from Traveller and loosed the big colt off into the corral. As the last horse was hustled in he slammed the gate closed behind them, grinning down at Mike and ruffling his hair.
“Good timing Tiger,” he laughed. Slim and Daisy joined them leaning on the gate and surveying the steaming panting animals milling around, rolling their eyes and looking wild and wicked.
“Oh my, what wonderful creatures,” Daisy said clapping her hands together in delight, “and what a lot too! You’ll really have your work cut out with these dear,” she said smiling across at Jess.
Then she caught sight of his blooded and ripped shirt and glanced from Jess to Slim and back…
“Oh my goodness, what have you been up to now?” she asked her face suddenly anxious.
“Uh, it’s nuthin’ I’m fine Daisy.”
She glanced back up to Slim for reassurance.
“No he isn’t Daisy; he’s got some nasty friction burns that need checking out…and I really don’t think we’ll be able to save his….”
Daisy threw him a quizzical glance and broke in.
”We won’t be able to save his what?” she asked looking slightly taken aback, raising a questioning eyebrow. Jess looked a mite pale and there was significant blood on the shirt front….But he looked well enough otherwise she decided…certainly his life wasn’t hanging in the balance….
“….his shirt,” Slim finished winking at her, “I reckon that’s only good for the rag bag now.”
“Oh you!” she said chuckling and batting his arm, before turning back to Jess.
“Come along in dear, that will need cleaning thoroughly and a fresh binding,” and she chivvied him towards the house.
Jess turned back at the door and threw his partner a black look.
“Thanks,” he whispered bitterly, ”I’ll remember this,” before following Daisy meekly inside.
The nasty abrasion was indeed in need of Daisy’s ministrations and although painful Jess took it all in his stride as usual. Then Mike and Slim joined them, the youngster wanting all the details of their latest adventures.
It wasn’t until supper time that Daisy realized all was not well with Jess. She noticed him pushing his food around the plate and then abandoning it completely.
“Are you alright dear?” she asked kindly noting he looked drained and slightly on edge too.
“Sure,” he muttered, ”just bushed I guess Daisy, been a long trip, reckon I’ll turn in.”
Once he had left and Mike had also been dispatched to bed Daisy and Slim took their coffee to the fireside.
“Do you think he’s sick,” she said after a moment, ”it’s not like him to leave food, Slim?”
The tall rancher stretched his long legs out in front of the fire before turning to address his beloved housekeeper.
“I don’t know Daisy; I reckon not, he’s just kind of unsettled right now…Millie being away and all”…he said vaguely.
He decided not to mention meeting Kate and Lori on the trail and the extraordinary effect the young woman had on his pard. Knowing instinctively that Jess would not want the incident discussed, even by dear Daisy. Anyway he thought to himself, Jess was highly unlikely to meet with Lori again in the immediate future. He would doubtless soon forget about her once the hard work of breaking the mustangs began in earnest, he mused.
Well Slim was sure right on one account, as Jess put his heart and soul into breaking the critters over the next few weeks.
He was always very committed to the task, especially as more often than not they were running to a tight dead line, readying the beasts for an army contract. However this time Jess seemed to be working himself into the ground and Slim and Daisy became more and more concerned about him as the days went on.
He had sustained the usual bruises and scrapes after being thrown. But then he had a more serious fall jarring his back badly and was in tremendous pain. However he insisted on carrying on, saying it would stiffen up if he stopped working.
Then something happened the very day that Slim had been remonstrating with him to ease off some.
He had been working the animals day after day with hardly any break. The first batch had already been green broke and dispatched off with an army platoon just the previous week. Now they were down to the last four critters. These were all being broken for local buyers, so the pressure was off. However that seemed to make no difference to Jess who continued to push himself to the brink.
Just that morning he and Slim had words about Jess’s punishing schedule.
The dark haired cowboy had been grooming Traveller prior to starting work when Slim wandered in to the barn.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, ”how’s about you take a break today, head for the creek, the fish are biting so I hear.”
Jess didn’t even turn around, just continued brushing Traveller.
“Work to do Slim, those critters ain’t gonna gentle themselves….got us folk waitin’ on ‘em bein’ broke.”
“Yeah, I know that Jess, but we aren’t going to get the job finished at all unless you ease up some. “Look at you,” he said more aggressively when he got no response. “You’re all but done in…covered in scars, black and blue. You’re hardly eating and we’re all hard pressed to get a civil word out of you…Next thing we know you’ll have a bad fall or get sick so how’s it going to help then…. huh?”
Jess turned at that speech and threw his buddy and irritated glance.
“I ain’t gonna get sick and there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with me. Now quit your frettin’ Slim, you’re turning into as big a worrier as Miss Daisy…”
That really annoyed Slim, ”Be it on your own head then, if you’re going to be so garldarn stubborn,” he replied before marching out of the barn in high dudgeon.
He wandered across the yard and stood staring out to the horizon. What on earth had come over his buddy? It was ever since they had met up with Kate and her niece on the trail he decided that was at the bottom of things he was sure. He knew Jess of old and if he had a real big problem he did one of two things. Either he went off to try and sort it all out….or he stayed put and worked himself into the ground to try and forget his troubles.
It was later that day when disaster struck, just as Slim had predicted.
Jess was working the black colt that had given them all a headache since day one, when he took off and Jess had taken a fall from the saddle recapturing him. Since then Jess had gone to great lengths to gentle the critter. Working hard to make some sort of bond between them before he even attempted getting a saddle on and eventually mounting.
All his strategies had not paid off though and the animal was mean and bad tempered, earning him the name of Fury from Mike. However Jess frequently called him by another, much worse name when out of range of Daisy and Mike…and there certainly wasn’t any love lost between the pair.
Today the animal seemed to be in an even worse temper than previously, maybe picking up on Jess’s edgy, frustrated mood. Whatever the reason he bucked and reared from the start with Slim watching in fear from the sidelines whilst Jess held on for dear life as he was tossed about like a rag doll.
Finally the inevitable happened and he was thrown off. But unusually for Jess he fell badly on his back, hitting the ground hard. He was winded and vulnerable as the critter turned and reared up above him, its lethal hooves crashing down to earth just inches from his head.
Slim immediately tore across the corral and dragged his buddy to safety under the fence and after a moment Jess tried to sit up, before collapsing back in pain.
“Take it easy pard, let’s get you inside,” said Slim gently, but Jess pushed his offered hand away and eventually levered himself up and got to his feet, swaying a little and with a murderous look in his eyes.
“Jess?” said Slim casting him an incredulous look, “you’re not thinking of getting back up?”
Jess hardly glanced in his direction, before brushing himself down with his hat and moving off back towards the corral.
“Sure I am, I’ll stiffen up otherwise,” he threw over his shoulder.
“And he ain’t gonna think he’s the boss either,” he said more quietly, fixing the recalcitrant animal with a hard look.
It was the second fall a few minutes later that finally did it for him and he had to admit defeat, for then anyway.
That evening at supper he could hardly sit in his chair, but when Daisy raised the subject of calling Doc Sam their physician for a second time, he made an angry retort.
“For God’s sake will ya leave it Daisy!” he spat furiously.
There was a shocked silence around the table and he bowed his head, cursing inwardly at his crass behaviour.
After a moment his hand shot out and covered hers where it lay on the table, a look of shock in her kind old grey eyes.
“Gee Daisy, I’m real sorry,” he said sincerely, squeezing her hand and looking deeply into her troubled eyes.
She immediately softened towards him.
“That’s alright dear, I know you’re not yourself right now…”
“That’s no excuse for yelling at you that way though,” said Slim staunchly.
Jess’s head swivelled to look at his buddy and for a split second Slim thought he would get up and hit him, but the moment passed and he hung his head again.
“You’re right Slim,” then he turned back to Daisy again, ”I was out of order Ma’am and I’ll see the doc tomorrow I promise,” and with that he got up and left the room quietly, heading for bed.
Throughout the proceedings Mike’s eyes had been huge and frightened. Once his hero had left he turned to Slim and said, ”What’s wrong with Jess, Slim….he ain’t usually unkind to Aunt Daisy?”
Slim leaned over and ruffled the youngsters hair.
“No he isn’t Tiger and I guess he’s just feeling pretty bad. He’s in a lot of pain…I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”
The child just nodded and accepted the answer.
Later when the youngster had turned in for the night, Daisy turned troubled eyes on Slim.
“What is the matter with him dear? He’s been short tempered and edgy since you came back from your trip, has something happened to upset him?”
Slim just shrugged, wondering the same thing himself. One thing was definite; his pard sure was trying his patience right then.
However when he went to turn in sometime later and saw Jess lying on his belly, his head resting on his folded arms and a look of intense pain and wretchedness in his eyes his heart melted.
“Hey pard, not feeling too good?” he asked as he sat down on the edge of his own bed looking across with compassion.
“It’s hurtin’ real bad,” he finally managed, suppressing a cry of pain as he rolled over onto his side, the better to see his buddy.
Slim instantly put a gentle hand out and rested it on Jess’s shoulder.
“Want me to take a look?”
Jess had been adamant that he was ‘just fine’ and had not allowed Daisy to check him out, but now it was obvious he was in severe pain he finally admitted defeat and let Slim take a look.
He very carefully lifted his undershirt and suppressed a cry of shock when he saw the dark bruising and swelling to his lower back.
“Gee Jess, this looks real bad pard…”
Jess just groaned but didn’t put up any further resistance when Slim disappeared and returned a little later with a bowl of cold water and some rags.
“This’ll help the bruising some and the pain too I guess,” he said as he soaked a cloth in the icy water and placed it on Jess’s lower back.
He let fly with some choice expletives, but finally just buried his head in the pillow whilst Slim replaced the ice cold dressing every few minutes, until Jess’s teeth were practically chattering with cold.
“What are you trying to do to me,” he muttered irritably ”freeze me to death?”
“Quit your moaning Jess, this will stop the swelling, we had to do this for old Jonsey the time he had that fall from the hayloft…remember?”
“Hey…weren’t that when all his problems with his sacroiliac started?” asked Jess casting him a disconsolate look.
“Uh…well it sure didn’t help any,” Slim mumbled.
Jess just said something unintelligible, that sounded very rude, and dropped his head down in the crook of his arm again.
Slim decided his buddy had probably had enough by then and finally removing the cold compress he covered him over with an extra blanket and retired to bed himself.
“We’ll get doc Sam in tomorrow,” was his parting shot…
But Jess seemed to have given up on the day and whether he was asleep or just brooding Slim was none too sure.
Chapter 5
The following morning Doc Sam Baker breezed into the yard and jumping down from his buggy marched over to the porch where Slim was just emerging.
“Morning Sam thanks for coming over so quickly,” he said shaking the doctor’s hand.
“Well old Mose seemed to think Jess was in a bad way, reckoned he must be if he was confined to bed without you holding a shot-gun to his head,” he said with a grin.
“Well you know Jess…he said he was OK. But last night he was in real bad pain. Then this morning when he tried to stand, his legs just gave way…kinda spooked us both if I’m honest Sam.”
The doctor’s face clouded at that information.
“Uh, that doesn’t sound too good and Mose said he fell off one of those pesky mustangs, is that right?”
“Yes, he was tired I guess and fell really badly Sam….”
The doctor just shook his head sadly, ”That boy never does anything by halves does he?” He said, ”OK lead on Slim.”
After a thorough and painful examination the doctor finally straightened up and cast Jess a firm look.
“I figure you’ve been really lucky this time Jess.”
The cowboy threw him a cynical look, ”You do, do ya…Well I reckon you should be lyin’ here Sam, see how lucky you feel then,” he replied irritably.
“Jess, behave will you,” said Slim sternly…
“Go on Sam,” he continued looking from Jess back to the doc.
The doctor nodded to Slim and then eyes twinkling he addressed Jess.
“I know you’re not feeling too good buddy, but it could have been worse believe me. The bruising indicates a very heavy fall, you could have broken your back Jess…..As it is I think it’s just a severe sprain, you may have damaged some ligaments, but no fractures. I think the weakness in your legs is just because the nerves are inflamed due to the trauma and severe bruising.”
Jess sighed lustily…
“Just give it us in English will you doc…when can I get back to work, huh?”
Sam braced himself for the onslaught to come next as he told Jess how it was…
“Bed rest and hot and cold compresses applied hourly to reduce the swelling. That will hopefully relieve the pressure on the nerves and you should be able to walk again. Once you are able to walk OK, light duties, absolutely no heavy work for at least another two weeks. No horse riding until the end of the month and no bronc breaking…ever again!”
“Huh?” ejected Jess looking scandalized.
“Well maybe I’m joking about that,” Sam said with another twinkle…”That’s what I’d like to prescribe, but in reality I guess you can get back on one of those dang creatures in six to eight weeks….”
He snapped his bag shut and looked for his nearest escape route, knowing Jess’s temper would explode at these latest restrictions and he wasn’t disappointed.
“Aw Sam, I can’t stay cooped up in here for weeks, I’ve gotta get those critters green broke, there are folk waiting on them you know!”
“Well that’s just too bad Jess, because if you defy me and get up on one of those beasts before you are healed, then we may well be looking at a much worse injury….so do you want that?”
Jess just flushed and looked down, before muttering, “I guess not.”
“OK then, once the swelling and bruising have eased you can walk….I said walk, down to the creek for a spot of fishing. So how about that…a nice peaceful convalescence and I may even join you come Sunday,” he said with a huge grin.
Jess had to smile back and somehow life suddenly didn’t look quite so black.
“I reckon I don’t have much choice. OK you’ve got yourself a deal Sam,” he said finally and with that the medic withdrew with a sigh of relief. Jess was not one of his easiest patients he reflected as he made his way off to his next call, but he sure was a good fishing buddy and he grinned at the prospect of a relaxing Sunday afternoon.
True to form Jess was back on his feet within a few days and champing at the bit to go check out how the fish were biting down at the river.
Slim declined his offer to tag along as there was a Stage due later, plus he needed to shoe one of the horses.
Jess looked a little troubled at that.
“Maybe I should stay around here, there must be something I can do that won’t strain this darned back of mine.”
However Slim was having none of it.
“Git out of here pard, you deserve a rest after the way you’ve been working lately,” he said with a chuckle, ”and take that darned dog with you too, she’s done nothing but mope since the last of her puppies was sold off.”
Jess grinned and whistling Buttons up wandered off, his fishing rod over his shoulder and a smile on his face.
It was a beautiful warm early summers’ day, but there was a refreshing breeze down by the water and he was soon settled, happily casting his line and relaxing in the warm sunshine, Buttons dozing beside him.
The fish were biting well and after an hour or two he had plenty for supper and he decided to close his eyes for a moment. The warm sun was now beating down and before he knew it he had relaxed back and was fast asleep.
It was sometime later when he was rudely awakened by the sound of distant barking and sitting up quickly he winced as a spasm of pain ran down his back.
He cussed lightly and then glanced around him, only to see, as he had suspected, Buttons had taken off onto their neighbour’ s land across the water and was now happily chasing rabbits.
“Dang critter,” he muttered as he got to his feet and after removing his boots and rolling his denims up he waded across the narrow river and started whistling and calling the little dog.
He was now on land belonging to the old Benson place which had been  unlived in for several years, since the old man had passed away. The land had been left fallow. So had no beasts grazing it, or crops grown the wildlife especially rabbits, had taken over, making it the ideal hunting ground for a playful young dog. However Jess knew Buttons reputation for getting lost or stuck in underground tunnels, so he continued to make his way across the meadow, now yelling more loudly.
Finally his efforts were rewarded when the diminutive pup came into view and leaping and barking joyfully tore back to Jess, greeting him like he was a long lost friend.
The young cowboy laughed at the dogs antics as she gamboled around him, jumping up and barking in delight and he was about to turn for home when a distant figure caught his attention.
He shaded his eyes against the fierce sun, the other hand automatically going for his gun, but he holstered it quickly when he saw the stranger was female, her long dress blowing in the light breeze.
After a moment she waved and quickly made her way forwards and soon he was able to make out a vaguely familiar figure. She was wearing a canary yellow blouse tucked into a dark skirt. Dark wavy hair framing a pretty heart shaped face and flowing loosely down her back. The small trim figure, now making its way determinedly towards him was suddenly recognizable…
Jess gasped and momentarily felt his head swim….it was Lori.
Then she was there beside him her deep blue eyes twinkling and looking up into his with such a warm gaze he felt his heart begin to pound…all his senses suddenly alerted.
“Lori?” He whispered.
She grinned up at him, “You remembered,” she said sounding delighted.
“Sure…sure I did,” he eventually managed… “So what are you doing out here all alone?”
“Well I live here of course silly,” she said with a charming little giggle, “we’ve been here a while now…. I was kind of hoping you’d visit…”
“You…you an’ Kate you mean?” he asked hesitantly.
“Why of course Kate… I don’t know anyone else around here….except for you and Slim of course,” she said and their gaze locked again, Jess feeling almost mesmerized…
After a while he managed to pull himself together.
“We never knew you were here, me and Slim that is, or Daisy, we just assumed you’d be going on to Denver James’ place up the mountain.”
“Uh, I guess that’s my fault, why Aunt Kate can’t go back home that is….She’s kind of over protective of me….I’ve been sick and she figured I’d be safer down here, where there was a doctor…But aw she’s just fussing you know the way old folk can be…”
He nodded, “Oh yeah, I know alright,” he said bitterly.
Then he shook his head grinning down at her, “But I wouldn’t let Kate hear you callin’ her ‘old folk’, not if you value your life.”
They both laughed at that.
“You’re right and I should really be getting back or she’ll be fretting, you want to walk back with me, visit a while?”
He nodded and they walked through the meadow in companionable silence for a while and then she turned quizzical eyes on him…
“So where are your boots?”
Jess looked down and chuckled.
“Back by the fishing hole, that darned dog started chasing Jack rabbits and I needed to cross the stream, didn’t wanna get my good boots all wet…so…”
“Are you ok like that?” she asked throwing him a concerned glance.
“Oh sure I never wore boots as a kid growin’ up….makes no odds to me.”
“Uh…I guess there wasn’t much money for boots back on the panhandle,” she said seriously, “Aunt Kate and Ma told me all about what it was like growing up there.”
He nodded, “Well you just count yourself lucky your Ma moved out when she got Wed.”
She just smiled at that idea, “I guess so.”
He ventured a glance at her and figured she looked kind of sad…
“So, you’ve been sick?” he asked quietly.
“Uh….sort of….it comes and goes…I’m fine now really,” she said dismissively.
They had reached the old Benson Ranch house now and Jess was shocked to see what a bad state the place was in, with peeling paint, the corral gate hanging awry and the vegetable plot full of weeds.
“So are you renting this place then?” he asked thinking they’d got a pretty bad deal.
“Uh…..not exactly, Mort Cory said we could stay, seems there is a problem with the Will. He can’t find the next of kin, and he’s holding the Deeds right now. He said it would be good to have some tenants in to keep an eye on the place.”
Jess hid a grin at that news.
Sure Mort, he thought to himself, you’ve managed these past three years without worrying too much about that… but there again old Mort was kinda sweet on Kate as Jess was well aware.
However his reverie was cut short as Kate herself came out onto the porch toting a rifle and looking a tad discomforted when she saw who was with Lori.
“Why Jess, what on earth are you doing over here?” she asked, trying to hide her ill ease.
“Visiting of course Kate,” he said wandering over and planting a warm kiss on her upturned cheek.
“I’d have been over a darned sight sooner iffen I’d known you were out here too…”
Then he cast a glance around the down at heel yard…
“Sure looks like you could use a hand around here….I can come over tomorrow, give you some help?”
“Err…well it’s alright son, we’re managing just fine really,” she said quickly, avoiding his eye.
Jess looked surprised.
“Why Kate Munroe anyone would think you didn’t want me around,” he said and then with a chuckle, “Couldn’t be I’d be cramping your style huh… Lori here tells me Mort is your proxy landlord?”
Kate flushed a little at that, but rallied quickly.
“Nonsense, but I thought you’d have enough to occupy you back at the ranch breaking those darned mustangs, you were heading after last we spoke.”
Jess ‘s head bowed, “Uh, well thing is I took kinda a bad fall…Doc’s signed me off for a few weeks, but I reckon I could mend that gate…tidy the yard some, huh?” he asked looking hopeful.
Even though Kate had her own reasons for not wanting him around, she just couldn’t resist those eager deep blue eyes twinkling down at her.
“Oh you,” she said with a chuckle, “you always could get around me young Jessie…..Yes I guess we would be grateful for your help anyway, if your sure you’re up to it?”
“I’m up to it,” he said smiling at her and then turning to wink at Lori.
However Kate turned on the young woman and chivvied her inside…
“Come along Lori, it’s time for your nap…”
“Aww, auntie, Jess is visiting,” she replied casting her aunt a pleading glance.
“Never mind that, off with you young lady,” and she shooed her off indoors.
Jess cast Kate an anxious glance, once the door had closed behind the dark haired girl.
“Say Kate, is she really sick then?”
The older woman looked defensive and declined to answer properly.
“She’s just rather fragile Jess, tires easily; I really don’t want her…upset in anyway.”
He threw her a calculating look, “Well I ain’t gonna upset her,” he said finally… “how could you think I would?”
Kate looked immediately contrite then.
“No…of course not, it’s just that she needs to be so careful; she can’t enter into all the usual activities that you young folk enjoy…..”
He stared at her not really understanding, but decided he’d just have to go along with things, for then anyway.
“Sure,” he said nodding, “I’ll watch out for her, see she don’t overdo things…OK?”
Chapter 6
So it was that Jess began his trips over to Kate and Lori’s place as he now thought of it.
Slim and Daisy had been equally surprised when he came home on the first afternoon saying who was renting the old Benson place.
“But why on earth didn’t Kate say something dear,” was Daisy’s exasperated reply, “I could have visited, taken some dishes over to welcome her.”
However Slim was a little more hesitant, “So was she pleased to see you?” he asked eventually.
“Uh…well funny you should say that pard…..she was kinda cool at first. I couldn’t figure it…but I guess she came around in the end. It seems Lori’s been sick…and Kate was just lookin’ out for her, didn’t want her doin’ too much you know?”
Slim just made a non committal reply, but secretly thought that maybe Kate had noticed the instant rapport between Jess and Lori and she didn’t approve…. Well that made sense to Slim. He knew Kate was very fond of Millie and wouldn’t want to see anything happening to spoil her relationship with Jess…Hell neither did he, Slim thought sadly.
He glanced over to where his buddy was talking happily to Daisy about his plans to straighten up the old Benson place and noted the radiant look on his face…The happiest he’s looked since Millie left for Cheyenne and his heart sank. He just couldn’t believe that anyone could come between those two…
He quizzed Jess about it later that afternoon as they were standing by the corral watching the last four wild mustangs prancing around. Jess eyeing them up and wishing to goodness he was fit enough to get on with the breaking.
“Must be frustrating for you,” Slim remarked out of the blue.
Jess’s head swivelled, “Huh?”
“Not being able to get up on those darn ornery critters, finish the job.”
“Uh…oh yeah, I guess,” he nodded, before turning back to scrutinizing them.
“Must be kind of frustrating not having Millie around too,” he said casually.
Jess really turned and looked at him at that… “Sure, I’m missing her like crazy, you know that.”
“Umm…I guess Lori will help take your mind off things though,” said Slim playing his trump card and glaring at his buddy.
As he expected Jess exploded angrily, “Well what the Hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think you know Jess,” he said darkly, before marching off leaving his pard looking after him, his expression deeply troubled.
It didn’t stop him going off to their neighbours early the following morning though and that set the agenda for the next couple of weeks whilst he was ‘allegedly recuperating’… as Slim had said to Daisy one day.
“Why whatever do you mean dear, I’m sure he won’t be overdoing things and I know Kate will be glad of his help. It can’t be easy for two women trying to survive on their own over there. Goodness knows how Kate is going to eke out a living at that old Benson spread.”
“Me too,” Slim said sipping his morning coffee thoughtfully. “I wonder why they’ve decided to settle there instead of going back up the mountain.”
Daisy shrugged, “I’m not too sure. When I visited the other day Kate said that Lori had been sick…But she seemed alright as far as I could see… She’s very slim and delicate looking……but such a pretty young woman,” she finished enthusiastically.
“Umm… and you’re not the only one that thinks that,” said Slim dourly.
Daisy looked perplexed for a moment and then the penny dropped.
“What you mean Jess is attracted to her?”
When Slim just nodded she looked troubled.
“No, surely not, he worships Millie; I just can’t believe that of him.”
Slim said no more on the subject, but Daisy was to remember this conversation much later and wished she had acknowledged his fears at the time.
Meanwhile Jess was enjoying pottering about the old Benson place, gradually getting it shipshape again. Then as his strength returned he was able to dig over the vegetable plot as well as mend the odd broken fence.
Kate had pitched in and helped him, but when Lori tried to join in Kate would send her indoors to rest after an hour or so, much to Jess’s surprise and disappointment.
It was at the end of the first week that he started to notice something strange about the beautiful young woman.
They had been planting out some vegetables and Kate had gone inside to prepare lunch leaving them alone for the first time.
They were both very warm and tired after the hard work with Lori having pitched in for the last hour or so .She wandered off to the pump, drank her fill of water and then returned to where Jess was slumped on a bench, in the sunshine, admiring their handy work. She carried a cup of water for him, but as she passed it over her hand started trembling uncontrollably, spilling some of the water.
“Hey steady,” he laughed relieving her of the cup and taking a long draught, before glancing back to where she was now seated beside him.
To his surprise she looked embarrassed and had her still trembling hands tightly clasped in her lap.
He looked down and then back up to her tense face.
“Hey sweetheart are you OK?” he asked kindly.
She just nodded before making an excuse and disappearing off into the ranch house.
Later Kate returned with some cold cuts and bread, but gave Lori’s apologies and said she was lying down.
“She is OK?” asked Jess looking deeply concerned.
Kate merely nodded.
“Eat up Jess, you must be hungry after all that work…thirsty too I don’t doubt,” and she offered a tin mug containing a coffee.
Jess sniffed it appreciatively and grinned over at her.
“Some of Denver’s Moonshine seems to have found its way in here Kate,” he chuckled.
“Drink up boy, won’t do you any harm,” she said winking at him, “it never did me any.”
Jess enjoyed the repast but later made a mental note not to drink whilst working again though, after he had spent most of the afternoon out in the hay meadow sleeping off the overindulgence.
He was to remember that day and his encounter with the strong drink though…after what happened later…..
The following week he started to notice a few more strange things about Lori. Sometimes when she spoke to him, her speech seemed to be slightly slurred. But it was when she started to drop things and then one day appeared to stagger when she got up suddenly that he wondered if she had been taking the odd nip of Kate’s supply of Moonshine. He was shocked by the possible revelation and worried for her too.
He went home that evening feeling deeply troubled and after making his excuses disappeared out to the barn after supper to groom Traveller. He always found the gentle rhythm of brushing his horse comforting and as he relaxed he tried to make sense of what had been going on in his head….and his heart over the last couple of weeks.
From the very first moment he had clapped eyes on Lori he had strong feelings for her……but not the way Slim thought….he just didn’t understand Jess thought bitterly. But there again Jess had to admit honestly, he didn’t understand either.
It was akin to love….but he wasn’t in love with her…not in the way Slim thought anyway… Sure she was attractive, in fact incredibly beautiful, but his feelings towards her were very pure…he didn’t lust after her in any way….but he did…well love her….in a manner…she was just so incredibly special to him….
He thought of her all the time, he worried about her…and now after today he was shocked and upset….He didn’t judge her, there had to be a reason why she was drinking…but nobody must find out. It was shameful enough for a man to be found to be tipping the jug too much…but a young woman, well that was just unthinkable…..He knew she would be ridiculed and ostracized if anyone found out. Then a thought struck him. If he was aware of it, then surely Kate must be too… So why did she keep strong drink in the house and why not do something about it, try and help the girl…and he felt angry…..what was Kate thinking of?
Then he thought of Millie….gee he missed her, loved her so dang much….and he knew, just knew that Lori would never come between them. Whatever it was he shared with Lori, it was real important sure…but like he’d told Slim on that first encounter with her, it was nuthin’ to do with Millie…He and Millie had something completely different…and that would always be so….
He suddenly felt exhausted and he left the stall and went and slumped down on a straw bale, dropping his head into his hands…what the hell was wrong with him…..why was he feeling this way? Part of him just wanted to walk away from the situation. Up sticks and go visit Millie in Cheyenne. Maybe even just cut loose and stay there… But part of him knew he couldn’t do that…Lori was sick…..in one way or another and she needed him. If Kate wasn’t about to deal with the situation, well then it was up to him.
That was the way Slim found him an hour or so later.
He walked in very quietly and stood contemplating his buddy for a minute or so, his heart turning over in pity as he saw how sorely tried Jess looked. Then he coughed softly and wandered over, as Jess sat up looking slightly dazed.
“We were wondering where you’d got to,” Slim said taking another bale, “Daisy’s got the coffee on.”
Jess just nodded, but made no move to get up.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Slim said after a moment.
Jess looked away, “About what?” he asked gruffly.
“Oh, I think you know pard…this thing you’ve got for Miss Lori….Hell Jess I thought more of you than that, seeing another girl behind Millie’s back!” he said angrily, all his resolve to try and talk the problem out rationally gone.
Jess threw him an equally angry look at that outburst.
“It ain’t what you think Slim…it’s not like that I just…..” and then he floundered. How could he explain it to Slim, when he couldn’t fathom it out himself?
“Well I think it is,” replied Slim furiously, “and whatever happens someone’s going to get hurt real bad…it’s only a matter of time before Millie finds out. Folk in town are talking already, seeing you take her and Kate in to do the marketing every darned week….”
“Kate’s a real close friend,” he said defensively, “sure I wanna help her out, what’s so wrong in that!”
“And Lori…is she a very close friend too…or are you lovers now Jess…..huh?” he spat, suddenly furious at the injustice of it all as far as dear Millie was concerned.
Slim just never saw the punch coming. Jess was up in a split second, dragged Slim up from his seat on the straw bale and laid a haymaker on him that sent his buddy crashing across the barn, coming to rest several feet away, blood streaming down his chin from a split lip.
Both men stayed stock still, shock in their eyes at what had just happened.
Jess was the first to recover and walking over offered a hand up, which Slim accepted after a moment or two.
They stood opposite each other Slim looking wary and Jess repentant.
“Slim…I’m so goddamn sorry…you just caught me on the raw I didn’t mean it really…..”
Slim grimaced and rubbed his chin.
“Well I sure wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that fist if you did mean it,” he replied ruefully.
Jess just bowed his head and then faced his partner again and put out a tentative hand to his arm…
“Come on pard, let’s go over to the pump and get you cleaned up before Daisy starts creating.”
The atmosphere between the two men was very tense over the next few days. But if Daisy picked up on it, she was wise enough to say nothing…and to turn a blind eye to Slim’s battered face. She instinctively knew her input would be resented. So bit back the comments she longed to make and just tried to keep everything as normal as possible.
The following day Jess decided to have it out with Kate once and for all. He arrived early to find Lori in a bad way. She was trembling and seemed to find it hard to walk in a straight line when Jess caught up with her feeding the chickens.
“Are you OK,” he asked grabbing her arm as she nearly fell.
She looked up at him and for a moment it was as though she didn’t recognise him.
She blinked a few times, peering up into his anxious face, before giving him a tiny smile.
“Yes honey, look I don’t think you’re feeling so good right now, why don’t we go in and you can have a lie down huh?”
“I’m alright,” she asserted, trying to walk away, but stumbling.
He grabbed her again, his heart breaking at the state this beautiful fragile girl had gotten herself into.
“Come on,” he said gently, putting a supportive arm around her waist, “I’ll make you a coffee.”
It was sometime later when Kate joined them. She had been out on an early morning hunting trip, dispatching a couple of rabbits for their supper.
Jess stood up as soon as she entered the ranch kitchen and shot her an angry glance…
“Jess you’re here early,” she said quietly, putting the rabbits down and giving him a hard look.
“Got my own work to do, I said I’d be over first thing to fix that latch on the chicken house,” he said, looking equally grim.
Then Kate noticed the condition of her niece and quickly went across and helped her up.
“Come along Lori dear, you’re looking a mite tired. Let’s get you back to bed,” and as she helped the young woman up Jess was distressed to see she could barely walk alone now…
When Kate returned sometime later he was still sitting at the table, his empty cup in front of him and Kate threw him a questioning glance.
“I thought you’d come over early to fix the hen house door?” she said.
Jess ignored her and his eyes dark with anger said, “So is she OK now?”
“She will be after a rest, she’s just very tired,” Kate said dismissively.
“Yeah, right,” muttered Jess… “tired that’s what you’re calling it are you?”
“Well what would you call it?” cried Kate throwing him a challenging look.
“Drunk,” he exploded, “Hell Kate anyone could see she’s been tippin’ the jug…What I can’t figure is why you’re tryin’ to hide it instead of getting some help for her.”
Kate looked over helplessly, before sinking down into the chair opposite him.
“That’s not true Jess. You don’t know what you’re talking about, she’s sick I tell you.”
Jess stared incredulously at her for a moment and then nodded.
“OK we’ll play it your way Kate, maybe she is sick…one way or another. But the bottom line is she needs to see Doc Sam.”
He was amazed to see Kate looking near to tears. Hell she was as tough as old boots, what the heck was goin’ on he wondered.
“I…. I was going to take her in to see him tomorrow…you’re right, she isn’t herself.”
“Uh…well I figure I’ll just ride along with you,” he said, still not trusting her to do what was right, “make sure she gets there safely.”
Kate merely nodded looking defeated, “If you like…..”
The following morning he drove Kate and a very pale and fragile looking Lori to town.
She looked very sickly to Jess and he asked her kindly how she was feeling.
“Bad head,” she said softly and his heart went out to her. Jeez he sure knew what that felt like after a night on the ratified whiskey.
But he just shook his head and said nothing, knowing it was neither the time nor place for recriminations.
Kate was grim faced and so they drove into town in silence.
He reined the buckboard in near to Doc Sam’s office and helped Lori down first. Then turned to hand Kate down and it was then that Lori staggered and fell on the sidewalk.
Jess and Kate were there in a flash to help her up, but not before several passersby had stopped to stare, the look of disgust in two older matron’s eyes plain to see.
Jess just threw the small crowd an angry look, before gently taking Lori’s elbow and escorting her and Kate across the road to doc Sam’s door, where he left them, promising to meet up in Miss Molly’s café once their appointment was concluded.
He went over to check on the horses and several people from the small group that had witnessed Lori’s fall were still standing around gossiping, which he tried to ignore.
But then Chad Myers from the Flying D spread and a gang of his buddies were suddenly there blocking Jess’s passage as he made for the mercantile.
He looked up at Myers and made to pass, but the big man barred his way.
Jess sighed deeply before glaring at the troublemaker, not feeling in the mood for any of the older man’s stupid games.
“What do ya want Myers?” he growled.
“Well Harper a little courtesy would be kinda nice and it’s Mister Myers to you.”
Jess looked down and took a deep breath before fixing the beefy man with his steely gaze.
“Like I said what do you want Myers?”
The older man flushed up a nasty shade of puce at his insolence …..
“I’ll tell you Harper, me and the boys are just off to Cheyenne to pick up some beeves and we figured as to how we’d look up young Millie, seeing as how you’ve gotten yourself a new woman…”
Jess’s head shot up and the murderous look in his eyes made the collected crowd back off some…
“What did you say?” he asked in a dangerously low tone….
“Well it looks like you’ve got yourself a new woman….Shame she’s kinda over fond of the bottle, but then I figure that maybe makes her a tad more accommodating…huh?”
The blow that Jess delivered sent Myers flying through the air and he landed a good five feet away before gradually staggering to his feet as Jess advanced on him…
“Hey Harper no need to be so dang contrary about it, we were just havin’ a laugh weren’t we boys,” he said turning to the group of drovers now looking slightly uncomfortable.
“Oh really,” asked Jess as he grabbed Myers by the shirt, “well let’s see if this has ya in stitches,” and he laid another blow to the chin followed by one to the belly, making the bullying Myers fall to his knees…. But then, a minute or so later he got his second wind and retaliated, catching Jess with a lucky left hook to the chin and before long they were trading blows…
Then once it looked like Jess had floored Myers the other ranch hands started throwing punches and a free for all developed…
Eventually someone ran for the Sheriff and it took Mort, Lon his deputy, and a bystander all their strength to finally drag Jess off Myers, who had rallied and was once more back in the affray.
“Dang you Jess, will you ease off and simmer down,” yelled Mort beginning to lose his temper.
“Whatever this big lug has done it isn’t worth having your neck stretched over it….now just ease off…” he said again.
Jess finally loosed his grip and backed off cussing softly as he snagged his hat up from the dirt .He brushed himself down with it, all the time glaring at Myers. He was panting and sweating, blood and perspiration running freely down his face and he ran his sleeve over it and swallowed hard….his eyes still not leaving the big rancher.
Meanwhile Mort had relaxed a little. After quickly questioning of the onlookers it soon became obvious that Myers and his men had been the instigators of the fracas.
Mort turned and gave Myers and his workers the rough edge of his tongue…. “And what’s more I don’t want to see you or your men in town for a good month…I’m just plumb sick and tired of the trouble you cause,” he said brusquely.
The men shuffled off looking sheepish and Mort turned his gaze on Jess.
“In my office,” he said quietly, “we need to talk.”
Then turning to the crowd of onlookers, “On your way folks, the show’s over…move along.”
He closed the office door behind him and shot a glance over at where Jess was pacing around the confined space looking as angry as all get out.
“Jess will you calm down…here sit,” he said pushing a chair towards him with his foot.
Then he turned and poured a couple of coffees out, passing one over to his buddy.
Jess took it and after wiping his sleeve across his blooded face again took a sip.
“I figure you’d better go out back and get cleaned up when you’ve finished that,” said Mort, regarding Jess thoughtfully, “you’re a mess buddy.”
Jess looked down at his bloody, ripped shirt and sighed, “I guess you’re right.”
Mort sipped his coffee for a few minutes and then gave him a penetrating look.
“So what’s this all about then Jess?”
“You know dang well what it’s about. That low life Myers was tryin’ to wind me up, like he always does…Ever since we won the deal for breaking horses for the military over him… he’s never gotten over it I guess.”
“I know that Jess….what beats me is why you don’t just walk away from it all…”
“Walk away,” he exploded, “did you hear what he was sayin’ about me an’ Lori?”
Mort just nodded, “Sure, someone told me what he’d implied. But what I want to know is what really is going on…between you two?”
Jess looked furious again and leaping up leaned over the desk and yelled, “So what in Hell has it got to do with you…or anyone else for that matter!”
“Jess, I’m not gonna tell you again. Will you simmer down… I’m just trying to help you, can’t you see that?”
Jess sighed deeply and finally collapsed back on his chair…. “I’m sorry Mort I guess I’m kinda strung out right now.”
“So are you missing Millie?”
He nodded looking down, “Something fierce.”
“So what’s all this with you and Lori then? The word on the street is that you’re seeing her…...that doesn’t look too good you know Jess, what if it gets back to Millie huh?”
“Goddamn it Mort will ya butt out, this is my business and I’ll deal with it!” he said furiously.
Mort just remained silent and after a moment Jess bowed his head and sank back in his seat, before looking back up at Mort… “Sorry,” he whispered again.
Mort just inclined his head in acknowledgement.
“I’ve got pretty close to Kate these last few weeks,” Mort said out of the blue.
Jess’s head shot up and he couldn’t help but smile, “No, really?”
“Yup, she’s a fine woman you know Jess…..real fine.”
Jess nodded, “I know that…..But there’s something…I dunno, something not right between us at the moment.”
Jess nodded and then opened up to Mort.
“Hell she was like kin to me back on the panhandle…and since too. When we’ve met up we’ve always got on real good….But now…well I just get the feeling she don’t want me around.”
Mort looked down, “Maybe she’s got her reasons boy.”
Jess was suddenly on the alert.
”You know something dontcha,” he said narrowing his eyes and peering at his friend.
Mort just continued to look at his buddy and then seemed to come to a decision.
“I guess I do Jess….but I can’t say anything… I promised see. But I can give you some good advice?”
“Go on,” he said in a deadpan voice.
“Back off Jess…from Lori and Kate too….just leave it huh?”
Jess looked furious, but swallowed and then said quietly, “I can’t do that Mort…Lori needs me right now,” and he got up and walked towards the door.
Then he paused with his hand on the handle and turned back… “It ain’t like you think though…I love Millie…always will….” and with that he left, closing the door quietly behind him.
Mort shook his wise old head sadly, “Oh Jess boy you’re heading for a fall,” he said softly….
Jess marched straight across the road to Doc Sam’s office and was just about to ring the bell when the door opened and Lori burst out and ran straight into his arm, tears streaming down her face.
He held her close, one hand tenderly stroking her hair.
“Hey sweetheart what’s all this about?” he asked softly.
“I’m scared,” she whispered, “take me home Jess please…..”
Then Kate was there and she gave a little gasp of shock when she saw Lori in Jess’s arms.
He looked up at her over Lori’s head, his eyes questioning, “What the Hell’s goin’ on here Kate?” he asked.
Chapter 7
In spite of Mort’s warning and Kate’s obvious ill ease Jess refused to leave the situation alone and continued to visit with Lori every spare second he had when he wasn’t working. As a result the two became incredibly close and the stronger their attachment became the more Kate fretted, but she still refused to talk to Jess about the problem.
When they had returned from the doctors, with Lori still looking real sick, she had point blank refused to discuss the situation with Jess. Indeed asked him to leave, this making Lori even more upset.
Jess glanced over to where the beautiful young woman was trembling, tears running freely down her cheeks, yet again, before he turned troubled eyes back to Kate.
“OK,” he said quietly, “I’ll leave because I don’t wanna see her upset anymore by us fighting….but I’ll be back Kate. Whether you like it or not me and Lori have become good friends and I ain’t gonna sit by and see her suffer this way. If you ain’t going to tackle her problem then I guess it’s up to me….”
“Listen to me Jess I…..” Kate started, but Jess cut in.
“No,” he yelled, “you listen to me! I’ve seen the drink ruin far too many lives…including my Pa’s, or had you forgotten the way he was?”
She just looked down flushing deeply.
“Yeah, well I ain’t gonna sit back and see her go the same way,” he growled.
Then he turned to Lori.
“It’s OK sweetheart, I’ll be back and we’ll see this thing through together OK.”
She had that dazed, strange look about her that he had begun to know so well and he just sighed deeply before turning to leave.
“I will be back Kate,” he said firmly… “and I’d really appreciate it iffen you’d talk to me…. I thought we were real good friends….?”
She suddenly looked terribly vulnerable and slightly guilty too…
“I’m sorry boy, really I am,” she finally managed… “But it's better you don’t know….for all of us,” and with that she took Lori away to bed.
So the visits continued until one dreadful day when everything came to a head.
Jess just couldn’t figure out as to why Lori was not getting any better or still refused to admit she had a drink problem. Some days she seemed just fine …and then others, usually after they had spent a busy day together, she would suddenly revert to her old ways. Her speech slurring, unsteady on her feet and finally one day she nearly collapsed.
They had been for a walk down to the river one hot, sunny summer’s day. Once they arrived they talked about this and that, falling into the usual close companionship that now existed between the pair…But when Jess once more tried to tackle her demons she clammed up and said she was just fine as usual.
It was when they arrived back in the yard that she stumbled and nearly fell. He grabbed her arm and supported her, but then he realized she looked like she might well faint…
“Lori, what is it?”…..Surely she hadn’t been drinking that afternoon?
He had been with her all the time….Then she swayed and put her arms around his neck, and he grabbed her around the waist steadying her….and that is how Kate found them when she burst out onto the porch a moment later.
“What are you doing,” she yelled, “get off her boy!”
Jess turned shocked eyes on the older woman…
“Hell Kate what do ya think I’m doin’ the girl practically collapsed…I’m helpin’ her that’s all….”
“Well it sure doesn’t look that way from where I’m standing,” and she strode over grabbing hold of Lori’s arm and dragging her away.
The girl staggered again and nearly fell, but Kate’s strong arms supported her and she bore her away saying she needed a nap.
“More like a black coffee,” Jess muttered darkly, but Kate ignored him and took her niece indoors.
When she returned a while later she was surprised to see Jess leaning on the corral fence looking off to the distant hills, but he turned when she approached.
“What are you still doing here Jess?” she asked wearily.
“I ain’t going until you tell me what’s going on,” he replied “I wasn’t messin’ with her, you know that, just looking out for her is all.”
She just shook her head.
“Well it didn’t look that way to me, her with her arms around your neck, it’s not right…not proper….!”
Jess sighed deeply.
“Look Kate it ain’t like that…I’m with Millie you know that….Lori’s just a friend to me and I figure she needs one right now… I ain’t interested that way….”
Then he threw her a bitter look, “And what if I was anyway. What’s up Kate, you figure I ain’t god enough for her huh?”
Kate was tired, worried sick about the girl and incredibly frustrated by Jess’ stubbornness or she wouldn’t have exploded with anger the way she did…..
“Don’t be ridiculous,”she shouted furiously… “It’s not that! It’s because she’s your sister Jess that’s why it isn’t right…..!
The moment the words were out of her mouth she regretted them….and the two just stared at each other in shocked silence.
Jess’s face was a picture of stunned horror and then he gradually came to his senses.
“What in hell are you talking about? I’ve only got one sister living, the others perished in the fire. You know that damn it, you were there Kate…what are ya sayin’?” He asked his voice cracking with emotion.
She looked like she might well collapse and clutching the corral fence she swallowed and took a deep breath before replying.
“Come and sit on the porch with me Jessie, we need to talk this out.”
Jess stared at her, noting the use of his childhood name and her pale tormented face.
He took her elbow and gently led her to the porch and once they were both seated she started talking hesitantly.
“I knew your Pa when we were just kids growing up on the panhandle,” she started. “We grew up together and then became close, real close.”
Jess just stared at her, his expression deadpan….”Go on.”
“Well, things didn’t work out and we went our separate ways….I got a job in the local saloon and he worked real hard and got himself a nice little spread. Met your Ma and settled down….he had a good life, before everything turned sour on him….”
“So I’ve heard,” said Jess sarcastically and he cast his mind back to a conversation he’d had with an old family friend. A man Jess called Uncle Titus. He had tried to explain why Jess’s Pa was the way he was, when the two met up on a cattle drive some years earlier.…..* See #31To Hell and Back
Now he cast his mind back to that difficult conversation with Titus……
“He drank all our money away and us kids would have starved iffen it hadn’t been fer me and my brother goin’ huntin’ and workin’ in the fields to put food on the table! No wonder I never got me an education,” Jess finished bitterly staring out to the horizon, his heart pounding and feeling real mad.
Titus was quiet for a long while and then patted Jess’s knee, ”Things weren’t always that way you know boy. Your Pa was so full of life and enthusiasm when I first knew him as a young man.”
“Oh yeah,” Jess spat, “so what happened to him then?”
“Life I guess son, just life….he had a lot of ill luck. Had his own place when I first knew him, a nice little spread, but he lost the lot, through no fault of his own. The big drought did for him, killed all his crops and beasts and he had kids, three young uns. Then he was forced into poverty, moving around from one share farm to another…..I guess somewhere along the way he just lost his soul. Couldn’t provide for your Ma and you kids, well by the time the youngest were born he was pretty much a defeated man… done for……just lost his way.”
Kate broke into his thoughts….
“Well you’ll know he lost the ranch, had a lot of ill luck and a young family to support…that’s when he started drinking kinda heavy I guess and that changed him.”
“You’re tellin’ me this?” Jess spat, “Do you think I don’t know!”
She looked down, “I’m sorry of course you do.”
“Anyway, you’d be about nine or ten, your brother and Francie older, when your Ma lost a baby….”
Jess’s head jerked up “Yeah, I remember.”
She nodded and put a hand out to squeeze his resting on his knee, before continuing.
“It really did for your Pa. I’d never seen him so low…he was in the saloon one night….and we got talking…He was different that night Jess…almost like he used to be when we were both young….I…I still loved him you see.”
Jess shook his head in skepticism, but said nothing; just wanting her to get it all over with……feeling intensely uncomfortable by these revelations.
Kate could see this, but persevered none the less.
“Anyway, he was in need of comfort that night and I…provided it.”
“You slept with him?” Jess asked bitterly. “He cheated on Ma, after what had happened?” And he closed his eyes in pain “The bastard,” he whispered.
Then turning furious eyes on her, “And you’re no better!” He spat “How could you, goddamn it Kate! How could you do that?”
There was a long silence, before she finally answered…
“I loved him, he needed me, that’s all there was to it then as far as I saw it…Now…. yes of course I can see how wrong it was, but I was young and these things happen…..”
Jess knew in his heart she was right and he was maybe being over censorious. But hell this was his Ma and Pa they were discussing…
He took a deep breath and tried to control his temper…
“OK, so what’s all this got to do with this business with Lori?” He asked.
“Don’t you see? I got pregnant that night….just one night…” she said sighing at the unfairness of it all.
Jess just looked bitter, “Oh that was one thing my Pa was real good at, siring kids…whether they were wanted or not!”
Kate chose to ignore that jibe and continued with her tale.
“So… I moved to Denver, had the baby….and gave her to my sister and her husband… Strange really,” she continued, “there was me with a baby I didn’t want and they’d been trying for nigh on ten years, so I suppose you could say it worked out OK for everyone.”
Jess slowly assimilated this latest bomb shell.
“So Lori was the baby….my half sister,” he said in wonder.
Then it all suddenly started to make sense to him.
That instant rapport on their first meeting and the strong feelings he had towards her which had troubled him so much. The feeling of love, but not being in love with her…How he had tried to explain to Slim, that she was no threat to his relationship with Millie…. Now he was suddenly furnished with this information he could see it… The way Lori had of waving her hands around when she talked just like Francie did. Then the way she held her head on one side when she was listening to you…just as he did. Those eyes were Francie’ s too…why hadn’t he seen it before?
He wanted to go to her, hold her tightly. Tell her she was his little sister and he loved her…..and then Kate broke into his thoughts once more.
“She can never know,” she said quietly.
“She mustn’t be told that I am her Mother and not her Aunt, Jess…The shock would kill her and she’d never forgive her adopted parents either….. I just can’t do that to her….”
Jess just stared at her completely speechless.
“What about me, don’t I get any say in this? She’s my little sister and I have to keep it secret?” He asked in bewilderment.
“Yes Jess and there’s another reason too…She’s very fragile, this could set her back make her really ill.”
Jess looked angry then.
“She ain’t ill, she’s just gotten a liking for the bottle and iffen you and the doc can’t sort that out then I guess it’s up to me.”
Kate looked down and took a deep breath before looking Jess in the eye.
“No Jess, you’re wrong. She is sick…Really sick and Doc Sam has been trying to help her…She has a very rare nerve disorder, one that he is currently unable to treat.”
Jess looked completely dumbfounded.
“What…she’s sick….so sick she might die….?” he asked after a moment, in a shocked voice.
Kate’s eyes filled with rare tears, and she put a hand out to him….. “Yes,” she whispered, “it is progressive.”
Jess just stared at her, completely out of his depth now.
“So you’re tellin’ me I’ve gotten a little sister and now you’re sayin’ she’s dyin’?”….he whispered unable to accept it all.
Kate just nodded,” I really didn’t want you to know….But then when I saw how close you were, I had to warn you off, you must see that?”
Jess just looked at her…feeling totally drained.
“It weren’t ever that way between us Kate, you have to believe me…”
She looked deeply into his concerned blue eyes and saw the truth there…
“Thank God,” she muttered.
Then the Harper fighting spirit finally came through.
“I don’t believe there ain’t nuthin’ to be done. I’m gonna talk to Sam about it, ok?”
“Of course, he’ll explain everything better than I can anyway.”
He nodded and stood up to go…But she shot out an impulsive hand….and clutched his arm to keep him beside her.
“I’m so, so sorry,” she whispered.
He nodded and after a moment patted her hand, “I know,” he said softly……
He jumped up on Traveller but she called him back before he rode out.
He reined in looking down at her.
“Jess you can’t say anything…not to anyone, please, she mustn’t find out.”
He said nothing just pulled his hat down hard and giving her a little salute spurred his mount off to a brisk trot.
Jess rode back to the ranch with very mixed feelings.
He couldn’t believe it…He had a little sister…Part of him wanted to cry it from the mountain top…tell the whole world and he was filled with such elation…Ever since Francie had left for California and a new life, so shortly after they had found each other again, his heart had been bruised…aching afresh for the family that was no more….
And now he had someone…someone of his own again…but he couldn’t tell anyone….Then he thought back to the recent conversation with Kate, the reason for the secrecy. That alleged illness that Lori was suffering from .Jess shook his head in an attempt to clear it as he rode on across the meadow. What kind of sickness could she have? One affecting her nerves…that made her limbs weak, made her stumble? Progressive….what in blue blazes did that mean…it got worse…so bad that she could die….? No he almost shouted aloud…that couldn’t be so, not when he’d just found her.
By the time he rode into the yard he was a mess, both emotionally and physically. His nerves were jangling and he felt that the least little thing would make him explode with fury, the unfairness of life suddenly too harsh to bear. He was also trembling by the time he dismounted and felt a wave of nausea and dizziness that made him clutch onto his saddle for support. The shocking revelations of the last hour making him feel sick to his stomach.
Just at that moment Slim wandered out of the barn, a bridle he’d been mending in his hand and glanced over at his pard, before striding over.
“Jess….are you OK, you’re white as a sheet?”
Jess looked up and tried hard to focus on Slim through teary eyes…
“Jess…what is it?”
He took his hat off and wiped his sleeve across his eyes and replaced it, pulled it down firmly, took a deep breath and forced himself to look at his friend.
“I just got a tad too warm, it’s awful hot today ain’t it?” he replied before leading Traveller over to the barn to rub him down.
Slim’s eyes followed his every movement, knowing his buddy just too well…Something was wrong , very wrong and doubtless had something to do with what he secretly thought of as the ‘Lori situation’.
He sighed deeply and mooched off to the kitchen to put the coffee on, wondering where this latest dilemma his friend was involved in would end. Not happily, for either party, he was dang sure of that he thought sadly.
Chapter 8
Jess had wanted to take off to talk to doc Sam at first light, but then Slim cut up rough and he had to postpone his visit to town.
“Heck Jess, we hardly ever see you,” Slim had said irritably. “You’re either off at Kate’s place or wandering around here like a bear with a sore head.”
Jess shot him a hurt look, “That ain’t true,” he cried angrily.
As soon as Slim saw how much he’d rattled his buddy he retracted at once.
“I’m sorry Jess, that was unkind, but you sure haven’t been yourself lately. Now you want to take off for town on a working morning and won’t even tell me why.”
“I can’t,” muttered Jess sullenly.
Slim looked more closely at his buddy then.
“Jess are you in some sort of trouble?”
“No I’m not in ‘some sorta trouble’, now will ya leave it Slim. So do ya want me to go fix the corral fence or what?”
It was a few hours later and Jess was wondering if Daisy had the coffee on yet, when he heard a buggy coming down the rise. Shielding his eyes against the bright sunlight he was just able to make out Doc Sam driving into the yard.
Jess threw his hammer down and walked over to greet him just as Slim emerged from the barn where he’d been grooming the team for the noon Stage.
Both men greeted him and Slim offered a coffee.
“I figure Daisy should have it on the go by now the noon Stage is due shortly,” he said smiling over at his friend.
“Uh, thanks Slim, but I’ve got some private business to discuss with Jess here,” he said throwing the dark haired cowboy a meaningful glance.
Slim looked surprised, but rallied well.
“Oh sure, well coffee’s on when you’re done,” he said quickly and marched off towards the house.
Jess and Sam wandered over to the porch and took a seat apiece before Jess threw him an anxious glance.
“Is this about Lori…is she OK Sam?” he asked anxiously.
Sam removed his Stetson and studied the brim for some seconds before replying.
“Yes, it is Jess…she took a turn for the worse last night and Kate called me out. I’ve just come from there and Kate gave me permission to discuss Lori’s health with you…uh given the circumstances.”
Jess’s head shot up, “You know then?”
“Yes, I’ve known for a while, but Kate made me promise not to say anything. I agreed, because I thought it was the best for all concerned.”
“Oh, you did, did ya?” asked Jess looking more than a little annoyed.
Sam took a deep breath knowing he was about to meet the Harper temper head on, but he had to try and explain.
“Yes, you see this could really upset her, knowing she’s been lied to all her life by those she loved. Finding out her aunt is in fact her Ma…and dealing with that. I really don’t think she’s got the strength to cope with all that right now Jess.”
“So you don’t think she has the right to know she’s got a brother? To know she has real family that cares for her? She may just have lost who she thinks of as her Ma and Pa, but she’s still got me.” He said his face contorting in pain… “Doesn’t that mean something?”
Sam just scratched his head looking unhappy, “I just don’t know Jess. If she wasn’t so sick I guess she could handle it, but right now…well?”
Jess just accepted that, for the moment at least.
“So what is this illness then?” he asked finally.
“Its French name is sclerose en plaque disseninee and was observed in a woman in Paris by a French physician back in ’68.”
“Huh, what the heck does that mean Sam?”
“Roughly translated it means disseminated sclerosis.”
Jess looked like he was losing the will to live and just arched a questioning eyebrow.
“Basically it is a disease affecting the nerves. The nerves carry messages from the brain to various different parts of the body...In this illness part of the nerve is damaged and depending on which nerves are involved, well that depends on how the illness manifests…shows itself. So speech can be slurred, the nerves to legs and arms may be affected causing tremors or weakness so the patient falls or spills contents of a glass…for example,” Sam said.
At last, the light of understanding gradually dawned in Jess’s eyes.
“So the patient could seem like they were drunk…but they were actually just sick with this…uh….”
“It’s called Muscular Sclerosis well that is the latest name for it. Coined by a doctor back in the old country who is doing ground breaking research into the disease. And yes the symptoms can mimic a look of drunkenness in a perfectly sober individual,” Sam supplied.
“So this woman back in Paris, France….did she die of the illness?” asked Jess.
Sam nodded, “It was the autopsy that showed the scaring in the brain and that led to the theory of understanding the symptoms and the naming of the disease.”
“But not the cure,” said Jess bitterly.
Sam looked down, “No, not up to now. The form of the disease that I think Lori has is relapsing and remitting. That means sometimes she will be fine….it goes into remission, but then comes back again….Just no telling what will happen in the end though. The work in London England is by far the most advanced so far. I have been following it closely, trying some of the professor’s ideas for treatment…but it’s hopeless I’m afraid.”
“How so Sam, you’re the best…if anyone can cure her I’d bet my last dollar on you.”
Sam smiled at that vote of confidence, “Well I’m very flattered Jess, but even if I had the knowledge I don’t have the research facilities to carry out all the tests needed. She really would have to be in England for that.”
Jess was silent for a long time….and then he looked up at Sam…
“Ain’t nuthin’ for it then Sam, she’s gotta go.”
Sam looked over at him in surprise before gathering his wits.
“Well in an ideal world yes. But Kate sure doesn’t have that sort of money….and it would have to be a one way trip. Once she underwent the treatment, it would have to be monitored…for life…”
Jess’s head shot up and he stared at Sam in shock, before looking down and saying quietly, “If that’s what it takes.”
“That would be really hard on you.” Sam said softly, “Having just found her and all.”
Jess continued studying the porch floor boards for a long time and then finally looked up at Sam.
“You’ll never know how hard Sam…But like I say, if that’s what it takes, then she has to go….”
“Jess, buddy, this is all talk anyway. She can’t afford the fare, or the treatment….Kate hasn’t got that kind of money like I say…and neither have you.”
Jess turned his penetrating gaze upon Sam.
“Nope, but I will have,” he said quietly.
Something in his voice made the hairs on the back of the doc’s neck stand on end…Then he saw the determination in Jess’s eyes and felt frightened by the intensity he saw there….what was he about to do, Sam wondered uneasily.
Before he could speculate further the Stage rattled into the yard and the next few minutes were spent in light banter with old Mose as he brought the vehicle to a standstill beside the porch.
“So this is where you’re hiding then doc,” he chuckled as he swung down from the box.
Sam grinned back, “Guilty as charged Mose, you’ve blown my cover and just when I was thinking of taking off fishing for the afternoon.”
“All right for some,” muttered Mose as he made his way over to the porch and bumped into Slim just coming out to change the team.
Then he turned to Jess and threw him a far from friendly look.
“I dunno iffen you’re interested Jess, but I delivered Millie back to town last night…and she weren’t looking any too happy.”
Jess visibly paled and then without missing a beat dashed over to the barn to saddle up, leaving Mose shaking his head after him… “Nope not happy at all,” he said with satisfaction before going in search of his coffee.
Slim and Sam exchanged an anxious glance.
“Uh- uh…”said Slim and turned to deal with the team.
Jess arrived in town in record time and jumping down from Traveller he tethered him outside the saloon before dashing inside.
He scanned the dimly lit room for Millie and when he had no luck moved over to the bar.
“Is Millie around Tom?” he asked quickly when the barkeep wandered over.
He sucked in a deep breath before answering.
“Well she is Jess, up in her room…But you might like to give her a wide berth right now, she’s madder than all get out.”
Jess flinched, “That bad eh?”
“Worse,” said Tom with a grim smile.
“I’d better get it over with then,” said Jess stoically heading for the stairs.
He knocked on her door and a few minutes later a rather flustered looking Millie answered.
She stared blankly at him for a moment and then she grinned from ear to ear…
“Jess…oh Jess, is that really you….Gee I’ve missed you so much!” and she threw herself into his arms.
He held her close and then pushed her away a little so that he could look deeply into her loving brown eyes…
“Hell Millie, me too,” he whispered and then they were kissing passionately.
A little giggle from one of the other girls passing down the corridor brought him to his senses. He pushed her gently into her room, shoving the door shut behind him with his foot, all the time still holding her in his strong embrace.
It was much, much later when they were finally sitting on her shabby old couch in front of the fire that they began to catch up on their news.
“Tom said you were really mad about something.” he started casting her an awkward look, “I kinda thought that might be with me?”
“Huh?” she looked surprised for a moment and then caught on….
“Oh, you mean what you wrote about, you looking out for Kate’s niece…..No that’s fine I understand, I guess.”
“You do?” he asked sounding slightly surprised.
“Why sure, you’re just looking out for a good friend’s niece…..it’s not wrong is it…..being neighborly?”
“Well, no I guess not…but it’s kinda complicated. I figure I couldn’t explain too well in my letter…you know me and letters,” he said ruefully.
“Ok, well I’m listening now,” she said calmly… “if there’s something more you need to tell me?”
“It’s kinda hard,” he said looking down, not knowing where to start…Or if indeed he could go against Kate’s wishes and tell her everything… But there again, he loved and trusted Millie. Knew she would never breathe a word to anyone…..hell she deserved the truth didn’t she?
Then she said something that made him make up his mind.
“I had a visit from Chad Myers and some of his buddies from the Flying D when I was at Ma’s,” she said softly.
Jess’s head shot up.
“What did that low life want?” He asked crossly.
“He said he’d had a run in with you over some girl. Said how the Sheriff had banned them from town because of it…He was real mad.”
“Well he should have thought of that before he started bad mouthin’ innocent folk….so what did he say?” he asked more gently, remembering how Myers had said he’d tell Millie everything…But he had thought it just bluster at the time.
“Just as to how you’d thrown me over for this Lori, who was kind of fond of the drink. Also, he said that you were trying to get her to give it up and were inseparable….Like a pair of love sick kids.”
“He said that?” cried Jess looking real mad now….
Then he calmed down “Jeez sweetheart I’m so sorry…. You didn’t believe any of that rubbish did you?”
“No of course not, but I’d like to know what’s going on Jess,” she said casting him a slightly questioning glance…
“I paid no attention….That is not until I arrived here and Betty and one or two of the others tried to tell me about it too. Well then I knew something was up…but I didn’t really believe what they were saying.”
“Betty always was a trouble maker,” said Jess darkly.
“I know. That’s why I decided to wait for you to tell me the truth,” she said with a candid look.
So he did.
Starting with how he and Slim had first met Lori. Then being completely honest, he told her how they had hit it off from day one. How he felt they had always known each other. Then he explained all about his suspicions that she had a drink problem.
“Turns out that ain’t so,” though he continued, it seems she’s real sick.”
“Oh?” asked Millie looking genuinely upset.
“Uh, I can’t quite recall what the doc said Muscular….somethin’. Anyway, it seems it effects the nerves, makes a body seem drunk. They can’t talk too well, drop things and they can kinda stagger around, because the ol’ nerves aren’t workin’ right.”
“That’s awful, poor kid,” Millie said sadly. “And there’s no cure?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope, but there is a guy in the old country workin’ real hard on it. At one of the big hospitals in London England, Sam says, that’s her only chance I guess…to see him.”
“Wouldn’t that be more than Kate could afford?” she asked at once.
“I guess so. That’s why I’m going to get the money,” he said turning to look at her with deeply concerned eyes. “I just have to.”
For the very first time alarm bells started ringing for Millie.
All the rumours and stupid gossip had not once rocked her faith in Jess as she trusted him implicitly… But now suddenly, this raw emotion, this passion in his eyes, saying he simply had to help her…Hell what was all that about?
“You have to,” she asked softly… “Jess what is she to you…What you said about feeling you knew her so well at first sight. Then spending all this time with her….saying you have to help her….Are you trying to tell me something…?” She asked her eyes wide in shock as this thought struck her. How could he just have made love to her and now this?
Jess’s face was a picture of shock and regret….
“Hell no, of course not, I love you Mill….always have you know that!”
“So where does this Lori fit in then?” she cried finally letting her hurt and anger come to the surface.
He just stared at he for a full minute before he replied, knowing she deserved the full truth.
“She’s my sister Millie, half sister anyway…Kate and Pa…….”
“What!” she said looking shocked to the core… “Oh Jess……!”
It was sometime later that he finally explained everything more clearly. About Kate and his Pa having that one forbidden night of passion and the consequences…Baby Lori being shipped out to Kate’s sister and then how practically nobody else knew …and especially not Lori.
“Kate’s being real stubborn about it. She reckons Lori just couldn’t take the news right now. So she don’t know who I am…or that Kate’s really her Ma…..so you mustn’t breathe a word sweetheart.”
Millie looked deeply shocked….
“A little sister…oh Jess,” and she looked like she might cry. “So how do you feel…it must be so strange?”
He nodded, looking slightly dazed, even now the full implications not having fully sunk in.
“It surely is… I guess I just can’t quite believe it….I never thought….after the fire and all, well I just never thought I’d have a family again. Then Francie came back into my life……Then she upped and went to California. Gee that was so hard,” he whispered.
She took his hand and squeezed it gently.
“I know honey that was a real bad time for you.”
They sat in silence for a while remembering Francie taking off for the new life out west with her husband. Jess holding her so tightly and then having to wave her off…keeping that smile on his face. Joking about visiting, when they both knew it would never happen…
Now he was going to lose Lori too, just as they were beginning to get to know each other… But that couldn’t be helped and he knew he just had to do the best he possibly could for her….had to put her needs first.
“I’ll be here for you, no matter what,” Millie said, still holding his hand.
Suddenly life didn’t seem quite so grim to him anymore and he took her in his arms again….thanking God for this trusting, patient woman that was so much a part of his life.
Just then there was a tap on the door and Lily stood there and they pulled apart reluctantly.
“I’m sorry to disturb you folk.” She said throwing them a rueful smile. “But it’s Tom. He says your shift started nearly an hour ago Millie.”
“Jeepers is that the time?” Millie said jumping up… “OK I’ll be right there Lily.”
Once her workmate had gone she turned back to Jess.
“I’m sorry, I have to go. What with me having all that time off I daren’ t take anymore.”
He stood up quickly, “Sure I’ll go…”
Then he turned loving eyes on her, “We are OK now ain’t we?”
“Sure, sure we are,” she said smiling up at him.
He kissed her again and then turned to go, but looked back when he reached the door….
“So what were you so all fired mad at, if it weren’t me?” he asked.
She laughed, “It was Tom. He let that Betty have my room while I was away and she made such a mess I’ve only just gotten it straight again.”
He chuckled, shaking his head and gave a mental sigh of relief…
“See ya real soon sweetheart,” and he left with a much lighter heart.
He stood out on the sidewalk, trying to make up his mind about what he knew he had to do next.
The very thought of it was an anathema to him. It went against all he believed in….But then he had no dang choice he thought bitterly and finally marched over to Mort Cory’s office.
The Sheriff was bending over a report, but glanced up when Jess strode in.
“Howdy Jess, help yourself to coffee. I’ve just gotta finish this dang report, it’s overdue…take a seat I won’t be long.”
Jess did as asked, but found the waiting awful hard. Now he’d finally made his mind up he just wanted to get the whole sorry business over with as soon as was possible.
Finally Mort gave a deep sigh of satisfaction, threw his pen down and stretched.
“Right, that’s better, so what can I do for you then Jess?”
He took a deep breath and then said gruffly, “I wanna go through your wanted posters, check out the bounty.”
Mort who had picked up his coffee cup and taken a sip nearly choked….
Once he had stopped spluttering he managed… “What?”
“You heard Mort, I need to pick me up some bounty money…and a whole damn lot of it too.”
“Jess you’ve always said,” then he looked up to the ceiling to be sure to get the quote correct. “You’ve always said Bounty Hunters were on a par with rats and cockroaches only you find the vermin a mite more appealing.”
Jess just nodded his expression dead pan, “Yup I said that…”
“So what’s changed?”
“Lori.” Jess said, “In one word…she’s sick and I need the money for her….”
“Well that’s very laudable of you Jess…and I knew you’d taken a shine to the girl….But well this is going a tad far isn’t it?”
Jess stared over at his buddy, his eyes narrowed…. “Is it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know damn well what there is between me and Lori dontcha Mort? You’ve known all along. That’s why you tried to warn me off when you hauled me into your office after my run in with that low life from the Bar D.”
Mort flushed a little and moved restlessly in his seat.
“I’m right ain’t I?…You and Miss Kate have gotten real close and I figure she’s confided in you ain’t she?” Jess persisted.
Mort still looked kind of cagey… “She may have said something yes….”
“So hows about I put my cards on the table,” Jess said wearily, “because I just ain’t got time to waste Mort.”
“Go on….”
“Kate is Lori’s Ma……not her aunt.”
Mort nodded, “Yes, she may have mentioned something of the sort….She was afraid you’d start asking questions….and the girl would find out…Start asking about who her Pa was.”
“And you know that too….dontcha ?”
“Uh…well…..” muttered the Sheriff looking uneasy.
“Dontcha Mort!”
“Ok, I’m sorry Jess, I’ll come clean. Yes I do know Lori is your half sister. But Kate swore me to secrecy. So when did she tell you?”
“Not long ago, but Lori still don’t know any of this and the Doc says it has to stay that way. So we can’t risk anyone else knowing.”
“Agreed, but not even the folk at the ranch…Slim’s real worried about you, you know Jess?”
“Sam reckons not. I’d have to tell Daisy too, then Mike might hear something…..And anyway I doubt Slim will care too much either way once he knows I’m taking off bounty hunting. I figure that’ll be the last straw as far as he’s concerned.“
“Tell him then man, explain.”
But Jess had his stubborn look on.
“And what if he insists on comin’ with me? That would be even worse than him feelin’ pity for me. Hell Mort I’m gonna have my work cut out goin’ bounty huntin’ anyway. Slim would stand no chance…You can’t let him know anything…. Especially not why I’m going. Knowing old Hardrock he’d feel real sorry and be honour bound to help me out…and like I say that just ain’t gonna happen.”
“He wouldn’t pity you,” Mort said staunchly, “just feel real sorry about it….It’s a hell of a situation you’re in Jess…Finding kin that way and then her being so darned sick and all. Sure he’d wanna help you out, he’s your buddy.”
“Mort, will ya shut up and just show me the goddamn posters?” Jess exploded.
The Sheriff sighed deeply, but opened his drawer and pushed a bundle of dog eared wanted posters across.
Jess shuffled through them for some time, occasionally raising an eyebrow and sighing, until he came to one of the very last ones. A large heavily creased, poster. He opened it out and looked down dispassionately at its content.
Wanted Dead or Alive for Multiple Murder & Robbery
James Owen Hardin –Gunfighter
Aka Mad Dog Hardin
Aka Texas Jack
Dangerous & armed –
Approach with extreme caution
$5,000 Reward
Then he gave a grim smile and tapped the paper, ”Is this still valid?”
Mort took it from him and glanced down before sucking in a deep breath.
“Well go for the easy option why don’t you?” he said with a harsh, humorless laugh.
Then his glance flicked up to Jess’s face, ”You are kidding right?“
“Nope…..never been more serious in my life.”
“Jess are you plumb loco?” asked Mort looking shocked to the core.
He just ignored the Sheriff and took the poster back from him.
“That picture doesn’t do him justice,” he said quietly, ”he’s meaner lookin’ than that.”
“Uh…also known as Texas Jack….so you knew him Jess, back in Texas?”
Jess just nodded, “Our paths crossed once or twice. He’s a fair bit older than me, we moved in different kinda circles.”
“I should dang well hope so, seeing as he keeps company with murderers, robbers, rapists and horse thieves.”
“Well ya can’t hang a man twice Mort. I guess once he went on that killin’ spree he figured there weren’t no point in stopping.”
“You could be right, he’s blazed a trail from Texas up to Montana. Leaving death and destruction in his wake without a shred of remorse…nope he sure is a bad lot by all accounts.”
“Uh, bad sure,” agreed Jess…”and mostly crazy, the guy is purely insane…. You’d have to be to act the way he does…That’s why they call him ‘Mad Dog’ Hardin I guess…crazier than a loon.”
“And you want to tangle with him Jess….I reckon he ain’t the only crazy one,” Mort said with feeling.
“Yeah, well I need the money don’t I…and I figure you wouldn’t take too kindly to me robbing the Laramie Bank. So this is the next best option,” Jess said dryly.
“Well let’s hope poor Millie thinks the same,” said Mort, “Hell haven’t you put that poor girl through enough lately Jess, without this?”
“Leave it Mort!” Jess spat his eyes suddenly blazing mad and he stood up and marched over to the window staring blindly out to the street.
“I’m right aren’t I,” said Mort carrying on regardless, hoping his words might make his good friend think again. ”Folk have been filling her in on what a bad boy you’ve been while she was away you know. Whether she believes it or not…..well this crazy stunt is just going to confirm how much you care for young Lori isn’t it? Maybe make Millie start to wonder what’s going on?”
Jess spun around looking madder than all get out, ”I said just leave it Mort or so help me!” his hand flexing over his gun butt.
“So, what are you going to do Jess assault a law man? Well maybe I should just let you get on with it and then I can put you in my jail and keep you safe,” he said with a bitter smile.
Jess wandered back over and slumped down into his chair.
“Look Mort I have to do this and you really ain’t helping any. Millie understands the situation…understands me too and she’ll be OK…But Slim, well, I guess maybe I’ll just push him too dang far this time….If he’s had enough I guess I can’t blame him,” and he just shrugged, trying not to show how very much that thought upset him.
They were silent for a while and then Jess said, ”So do ya know when the last sighting was?”
Mort looked troubled, but then he thought, well if Jess is determined to do this he’ll do it with or without my help and finally gave in.
“Yes, I do as it happens…..…”
Chapter 9
It had been nearly a week since Jess’s conversation with Mort. Now he reined Traveller in and removing his Stetson wiped his sleeve across his sweating countenance. Then he peered out across the plain to the distant mountain range.
Mort had tried a last ditch attempt to stop him.
“It’s only hearsay that he’s holed up on the mountain and even if he is…Well it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack Jess….How are you going to find him.”
“I ain’t,” said Jess, “I’m just gonna git up the mountain, light a fire and wait for him to find me.”
Now as he sat staring over to the distant horizon his mind went back to his last few days at the ranch.
He had broken the news to Millie first and to his surprise she was indeed very upset, just as Mort had predicted. But not for the reason the Sheriff had said however.
“Sure, I can understand you have to help young Lori, heck Jess she’s your sister, why wouldn’t you?” Millie had said. “But oh Jess, not Texas Jack….that’s just a suicide mission. Why do you think nobody else has tackled him, he’s a killing machine!”
“Oh so you don’t think I can take him on?” he had asked with a wink trying to lighten the mood.
“I don’t think anyone can and live,” she replied honestly. ”He’s way beyond crazy and he just doesn’t have any kind of conscience or compassion…When I think of what he did to that poor woman in the bank heist,” and she broke off looking anguished.
“All the more reason to stop him,” replied Jess firmly, “and yeah he is loco….But maybe that’ll work for me… Get him mad enough he doesn’t think straight…an’ that’s when I’ll have him,” he said his eyes narrowing with a look so hard and challenging, it made him seem almost frightening to Millie.
She had said nothing, knowing how pointless it was to argue. Also aware that all she could do was offer her undying love and support as she always did. To be honest, she had to admit that just a little part of her was thrilled by his courage and single mindedness. Life was never dull with Jess around. That was for sure she thought as she looked up at him, a little frisson of desire mingled with alarm rushing through her body.
It had been even worse with Slim though, and he grimaced now as he thought back to the day he had ridden into the yard after having talked to Mort.
Slim had marched out of the barn, his expression enquiring.
“So how was Millie, mad as hell with you I guess…huh?”
Jess looked slightly puzzled for a moment, his mind now having moved on to the more pressing problem of taking off after Mad Dog Hardin aka Texas Jack.
“Millie….your best girl ? I seem to recall Mose thought she might be on the verge of shooting you Jess?” said Slim a twinkle in his kind eyes.
“Oh no, she’s good…we talked,” Jess said dismounting and leading Traveller into the barn.
Slim followed him in.
“I don’t know how you always manage to sweet talk your way out of trouble,” he said with a chuckle.
But when he got no smiling response he peered more closely at his buddy.
“Jess are you OK, you’re kind of quiet?”
Jess took a deep breath and mentally prepared himself for the onslaught he knew was about to come.
I figure this is one thing I ain’t gonna be able to sweet talk my way out of he said to himself before turning troubled eyes on his partner.
“See Slim, it’s this way……..”
“You’re going to do what!” Slim exploded five minutes later. ”I can’t believe this… I thought you told me you thought Bounty Hunters were like rats and cockroaches only not quite as appealing…Hell Jess what’s come over you!”
“Look, I need to do it for Lori…..She’s real sick Slim and got to go away to git the doctorin’ she needs….This is the only dang way, you’ve gotta see that,” he pleaded.
Slim pushed his Stetson back and regarded his buddy levelly.
“Nope, can’t say as I do. Sure I’m real sorry for the girl…But Hell Jess what is she to you? You’ve only known her a few weeks…why do you feel you’ve got to throw all your principles out of the window for some girl you hardly know?”
Jess turned away and picking up a brush started to groom Traveller.
“Unless……” Slim said thoughtfully.
Jess detected the note of question in his pard’ s voice and spun around…”Unless what?“
“Unless there really is something between the two of you and you really are lovers? Maybe you’ve been playing me for a fool…and what’s worse Millie!” he finished with a challenging glare.
“That ain’t so,” Jess yelled, looking furious…”it just ain’t so Slim, I wouldn’t do that!”
“Well what is the truth then Jess, because there’s something you’re not telling me….”
Jess just had that closed look on his face and turned back to his horse.
“Garl darn it of all the pig headed, stubborn……”
Now Jess sighed deeply and patted Traveller’ s arched neck as he remembered the bitter words and recriminations that had followed.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you,” Slim had yelled, ”you’re never here lately….You are a partner in this business Jess, or had that slipped your mind…huh?”
“I pull my weight around here, you know I do…All my visits to Kate’s place have been on my own time!”
“Well it sure doesn’t feel like it…You’ve been as ornery as all get out…hardly had any time for the boy. I can’t get a civil word out of you…I’ve just about had it….and now this stunt…How am I supposed to manage on my own then huh, answer me that?”
Jess hung his head.
“You really know how to put the boot in dontcha Slim…..I’ve always gotten time for Mike, he knows that…It’s just that Lori and Kate have needed me too. And as to this place I’ve arranged for Bill Jackson to come over and give you a hand…he owes me a couple of favors and I’ll pay him when I get back….so you can stop frettin’.”
“If….don’t you mean Jess, if you get back. You’re taking off after some low life outlaw and you won’t even tell me who it is!”
“It’s better that way.”
“Seems like you don’t wanna share anything with me anymore….time was we were real friends……. but just lately, well…”
“Slim will you listen to yourself. I need to do this…and if you can’t accept that then maybe it’s time I moved on!”
“Maybe that’s so!” Slim had yelled in anger, regretting the words the moment they were out of his mouth, but it was too late to take them back.
He saw the look of deep hurt in Jess’s eyes as he turned away…but just couldn’t bring himself to apologise
The only good thing, as far as Jess could see was that Daisy and Mike were off visiting her sister in Cheyenne, with it being the long school summer holidays. So at least he was spared Daisy’s fussing and fretting and having to explain to Mike why he would be away for so long.
He rode out later that day and spent the evening with Millie and it was breakfast before the two ranchers confronted each other again.
They ate the meal in silence and it wasn’t until Jess was saddling up Traveller for the journey that he was aware of Slim leaning on the corral fence watching him.
“About yesterday, I didn’t mean any of that…I’m just, well just real worried about you.”
Jess strode over and punched him lightly on the upper arm.
“Thanks, I didn’t either and I know I’m being a prize bastard right now Slim… I’m sorry really I am.”
They smiled and shook hands before Jess mounted up.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Jess said a look of such sadness in his deep blue eyes that Slim‘s heart ached for him.
“Watch your back Pard,” he said, trying hard to smile as he waved him off.
Jess had just nodded, pulling his hat down hard he spurred Traveller out of the yard at a brisk trot.
Now he patted his mount’s neck one more time.
“Come on boy, sooner we get there sooner we can get the job done,” and he kicked him off to a brisk trot towards the distant hills.
He had been riding North West for the best part of a week and heading for the Wind River Range up towards Montana. The word had been that Hardin had turned back from Montana deciding it was way too chilly up there for a Texas boy. Now he was thought to be laying low in a hideout he had used before in the mountain foothills near the small town of Lander.
Jess rode in late one afternoon and made directly for the Sheriff’s office.
He dismounted and then searched in his pocket for the Deputy’s badge Mort had insisted on giving him and remembered their conversation.
“What’s this for Mort…supposed to make me feel better about being a Bounty Hunter?….A tin badge ain’t gonna alter what I aim to do…won’t make me feel no better about it either.”
“That may be so,” Mort had replied with a grim smile, ”but it may solicit some support from the local Sheriff.“
“Uh…such as that might be,” he’d replied. “Hell iffen the man had anything about him he’d have gotten a posse together and flushed Hardin out, it seems like he’s holed up real close to the town Mort.”
Mort just shrugged…”Well I guess you wouldn’t be in line for the bounty if he had though Jess,”…and of course there was no answer to that.
Jess smiled grimly at the irony of the situation before pinning the badge onto his vest.
He tethered Traveller and gave the one horse town a derogatory glance before knocking and entering the small down at heel looking office.
Sheriff Ward looked up from where he was writing a report and peered at Jess over a pair of gold rimmed eye glasses.
“Yes…?” he intoned lugubriously.
“Sheriff Ward?” asked Jess advancing and offering a hand.
”Jess, Jess Harper, I believe the Laramie Sheriff, Mort Cory, wired you about me?”
The Sheriff put his pen down and shook Jess’s outstretched hand somewhat grudgingly before nodding to a chair.
“Take the weight off young man.”
Jess sat, pulling off his gloves and hat, before smiling over at the Sheriff, ”Thanks.”
The elderly, balding man peered over at Jess for a good few minutes before saying ”So you’re the crazy son of a bitch with a death wish then?”
“Well I’ve come to take James Hardin in if that’s what you mean?”
“Hardin?” and the Sheriff gave a little chuckle although his eyes were stony.
“Mad Dog,” they call him son and not without reason….So what makes you think you’ve got a chance of bringing him in when he’s dispatched more than a dozen others trying before you?”
“I presume that’s why you haven’t tried,” asked Jess throwing him a hard look and ignoring the Sheriff’s question.
The older man had the grace to look somewhat sheepish at that jibe, but then rallied.
“I don’t aim to get my head blowed off boy, not when I’m in spittin’ distance of retiring,” he growled.
Jess was mildly irritated at being called boy, but hid it well.
“So you do know where he’s holed up though?” he persisted.
“Got me a good idea of the general area yup…..“
“Well are ya gonna tell me?” asked Jess now beginning to feel kind of exasperated.
“Just as soon as you tell me why you think you’ve got a hope in hell of apprehending him,”said the Sheriff.
Jess sighed lustily, ”Because I know Jack; know the way he thinks too. He’ll recognise me so won’t shoot to kill…not right away …He’ll want some fun first, kinda cat and mouse style.”
“Uh…sounds like you really do know him…So do I detect a Texan accent there boy?“
Jess had just about had enough now, “Yeah…..and I ain’t a boy!”
“It would appear not, if you’re serious about this…So you know him as Texas Jack then….and did you know him back in Texas?”
“We’ve met.”
“Umm, so under what circumstances I wonder?” asked the elderly man a speculative look in his rheumy old eyes now.
“I reckon that ain’t any of your damn business,” replied Jess finally running out of patience. “So are ya any better at directing me as to where I can get a decent meal than to where Jack’s hanging out?”
The Sheriff gave him a genuine smile at the sarcastic comment.
“I like a boy, err young man, with a bit of spirit…café two doors down.“
Jess lurched up from his seat and replaced his hat pulling it down hard, “Thanks,” he muttered and turned to go, but at the door the Sheriff called him back.
“If you come back in the morning I’ll draw you a map……as far as I know it, OK?“
Jess nodded and gave him a weary smile, “OK….and thanks Sheriff.”
Jess wandered down Main Street, bathed in early evening sunlight, and was surprised when the café door suddenly opened and a blond haired young woman put her head around and beckoned him over.
“Evening Ma’am,” Jess said tipping his hat and grinning down at the petite lady, ”I was just heading your way, Sheriff recommended your cooking.”
He was even more taken aback when she grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him in through the door before turning the Open sign to Closed. Then after pulling the door shut behind him, slid the bolt across.
Jess turned to survey the empty café before looking back to the woman….
“I reckon you ain’t gonna do much business if you close up just before supper time,” he said with an uncertain smile, wondering just what this woman’s game was.
“Well maybe I’ve got more important things on my mind than business right now,” she said briskly.
“Oh, well that’s a shame,” said Jess half turning to go, ”because I’m real hungry.”
“Come in the back then, you’re welcome to some of my supper,” she said walking off behind the counter without waiting to see if he would follow her.
Jess looked back to the shop door and then to where the woman was fast disappearing into the back room and weighed up the state of affairs. Possibly being fed by a rather strange woman, who obviously had some other kinda business in mind…Or making his escape and looking for food elsewhere. Then he sniffed the aroma of fresh stew wafting in from the back room and turning followed her……
Sometime later he put his fork down and wiped his mouth with the napkin.
“Gee that was just swell Ma’am,” he said giving her an appreciative smile.
“We aim to please,” she said from where she had been sitting opposite, her chin in her hands watching him relishing the meal.
“Jenny,” she said suddenly, “we haven’t been introduced have we, Jenny Forrester.”
“Oh, sure Jess Harper,” he said.
“Oh I know, the Sheriff said you were coming.”
“He did?”
“Yes Sheriff Ward is a bit of an old woman when it comes to gossip. He eats breakfast here every day, so I get to know most things.”
“I see,” Jess said.
“Yes and of course I was particularly interested to hear you were arriving,” she said with a steady look.
“You were? So err…did you want to talk to me about somethin’?” he asked raising a quirky eyebrow.
She nodded, ”The Sheriff told me as how you were coming to take Jack Hardin in….He had a wire from Laramie.”
“So do you know Jack Hardin then?” he asked wondering what her connection was.
“Not really I’ve met him just the once. It’s my sister Annie he knows. She took off to be with him a few weeks back and I’m worried sick about her. She left a note saying as how they were in love. She’s…..well there’s no easy way to say it Mister Harper…but she’s run off to be with him, for good I think.”
Jess shook his head at that, “Crazy woman, don’t she realize what he’s like?” he asked casting her a concerned look.
“I guess not. I know I can’t make him out to be honest. He seemed so charming….and yet everything people say he’s done….?”
“People say it because it’s true!” said Jess suddenly angry.“He’s killed folk…attacked women too…. your sister is just plumb crazy hooking up with the likes of Hardin!”
“You don’t think he’ll hurt her?” she cried, now looking near to tears.
Jess just gave a noncommittal shrug, not wishing to fuel the fires of fear and have a hysterical woman on his hands, especially one he’d only just met.
“She’s very young, just nineteen maybe a little naive. But he swore that everything folk said about him was all lies. All those posters were fakes and there was someone that had it in for him. A Marshall back in Texas, who had made all this stuff up, had a grudge against him. He said he was innocent and was trying really hard to clear his name…and maybe if Annie stuck by him, then he’d manage it,” she said casting Jess a hopeful look.
Jess just shook his head sadly…”Your sister really is a little innocent ain’t she, iffen she believes that load of old cr…. excuse me… rubbish.”
“So he really was lying then?” asked Jenny turning pale.
Jess just nodded and suddenly had a feeling of deep sympathy for the poor woman. After his recent experience of having a little sister again it really hit home with him. Hell, how would he feel if this was Lori? It didn’t bear contemplating, especially with what he knew about Jack. He was a womaniser of the worst possible kind. Dissolute, immoral and quick to lose interest with a woman, once he’s had his way with her. Always ready to go on to the next conquest. Not only that, he had a temper and was handy with his fists if the girl of the moment didn’t comply with his every wish.
Jess’s thoughts must have been reflected on his handsome features as Jenny was now looking at him with real anxiety.
“So, you do think she’s in some danger then?”
He just nodded, ”Maybe. Have you any way of getting in touch with her… Do you know where she is?”
Jenny shook her head.
“She met him out riding a couple of times before she finally took off with him. She told me she’d met this stranger who was real attentive and charming….”
She tried hard to remember what else Annie had mentioned. Then her face lit up, “She said he had a cabin out on a lake someplace.”
More lies thought Jess darkly, knowing full well that he’d be holed up in some cave. Most likely up a mountain top where he had a good view of anyone approaching. However he decided to humour her and asked for details, but they were pretty vague.
“I’d have gone looking myself if I thought I could find the place,” she said honestly.
“So you said you’d met him?”
“Just briefly, it was one day I was riding with Annie. We were going to visit a friend down the valley and he rode up. Well he was all over little Annie, flattering her. I guess I can kind of see the attraction,” she said almost wistfully.
“Don’t be fooled by that,” Jess said bitterly.
“So you’ve come to bring him in, for these crimes he’s supposed to have carried out?”
“Not supposed,” said Jess firmly, “has carried out and yeah, I’m here to fetch him back to Cheyenne for trial.”
“He’s wanted there then?”
Jess sighed deeply, ”He’s wanted in four states Ma’am.”
She looked crestfallen at that bitter news, “I’m being just as silly as my sister over this aren’t I?”
Jess managed to swallow back his honest reply, “Well I guess he can be pretty convincing,” he finally answered.
He was beginning to feel tired after the long ride, along with the heavy meal and standing, picked up his hat.
“Thanks for the meal Ma’am I’m much obliged, what do I owe ya?”
She just shook her head, ”Nothing, it wasn’t much.”
“It was swell,” he said with a genuine grin.
Then as an afterthought, ”Say you don’t have a letting room do you? I’m lookin’ for a bed, just for the one night.”
She gave him a somewhat coy look from under her lashes.
“No, well there is only my bed.”
He threw her a surprised look, but recovered quickly, ”Well I guess you’ll be usin’ that,” he said with another charming grin.
She walked him through the dark, deserted café and unbolted the door, but as Jess made to leave she pulled him back.
“You will look out for Annie won’t you…if there’s shooting ….or something?” She asked looking anxious.
It was the one thing Jess had been worrying about ever since mention of Annie’s relationship with Jack. All he could hope was that she had already discovered what an utter bastard he was and decided to come back home.
He dipped his head before looking back up into her troubled face.
“I’ll sure do my best Jenny…… night” and touching his hat he walked away, knowing in his heart that the outcome would more than likely break Jenny’s heart. Her sister might even already be dead he thought morosely. Who could tell with the likes of Mad Dog Hardin…. Texas Jack, whatever folk called him it was all the same to Jess…he was one bad, bad lot.
He wandered down the now deserted Main Street, and was relieved to see the lights were still on in the town’s saloon.
As soon as he entered the general babbling chatter ceased as every man turned to stare at him.
Jess took it in his stride however and strolling over to the bar ordered a whiskey. He glanced around him as the barkeep poured it out and then knocked it back in one before calling for another.
He took a ruminative sip and then addressing the barkeep said quietly, “Say, is it something I’ve done, or do you just not git a lot of strangers around here?” and he gestured to where every customer was openly gawking at him.
“Guess we just ain’t used to your kind,”the man said dryly.
“Which is?” asked Jess, his eyes narrowing and his gaze turning decidedly frosty.
“Why the sorta man that’s prepared to take on Mad Dog Hardin. Men like you Deputy…least ways that’s the word on the street. You’ve rode in to take him back…or kill him trying?”
Jess had just been waiting for him to say, Bounty Hunter and realized just how bad he felt about himself right then. But it’s for Lori, he told himself, I have to do it for her…gotta keep remembering that Harper.
The more the barkeep said what a brave thing Jess was doing, the worse he felt. OK he was going to try and rid the world of one more no good outlaw….But for his own needs, not out of selflessness. And he felt awful.
After another couple of drinks, he said abruptly, ”Do you let rooms?”
“Certainly Deputy, first floor front is free,” and turning he took a key off the hook behind the bar and pushed it across.
Jess threw some coins down, ”Enough?”
The barkeep nodded and Jess tipped his hat and made for the staircase and by the time he had reached the top step the little bar had exploded with excited conversation again. This time it was all about brave Jess Harper and his quest to finish Mad Dog Hardin.
Jess rolled his eyes and made for the sanctuary of his room.
Chapter 10
He rode out early after catching up with the Sheriff on his way.
Sheriff Ward’s ‘map’ of where to find Hardin was about as useful as Jenny’s directions as far as Jess was concerned. But at least they were both in a similar area, so he figured he’d make his way in the general direction they had suggested.
He rode out of town and through the deep canyon to the south, a river bubbling along beside him and huge sandstone cliffs towering above.
Jenny had insisted that her sister had talked of a cabin beside a large lake. Where as the Sheriff’s thinking was more along the lines of Jess’s, saying that he believed him to be holed up some way up a mountain just twenty miles to the south of the lake.
One thing he was pretty sure of however if Jack had a pretty girl with him he wouldn’t be travelling anywhere, so he was still within Jess’s grasp, all he had to do was flush him out.
The further he went down the ancient chasm the steeper the walls became and he felt slightly vulnerable, hurrying Traveller along, until they finally came out towards late afternoon. The u shaped valley opened out and there were Douglas fir and Aspens offering some welcome shade as the midsummer sun beat down. As the vista opened up he could now see distant peaks. Then he turned a bend in the track and there before him lay a vast lake, the blue waters twinkling in the sunlight and for the first time that day he relaxed a little.
It was late afternoon by the time he had ridden the length of the lake, all the time scanning the distant views for the sign of a cabin, or telltale smoke on the light wind, but nothing.
He decided to cut his losses and camp by the lake before heading for the remote peaks of the Wind Rush Mountain range in the morning.
He made camp and spent a pleasant enough hour or so fishing for his supper, before settling down with the coffee pot as he watched a spectacular sunset over the lake. The deep crimson ball turning the placid lake waters to blood.
The deeply beautiful scene made him think of sunsets over the Laramie mountain range back home. Him and Slim sitting, feet up on the porch rail, chatting and drinking after a hard day’s work….Then for the first time he allowed himself to face the prospect that he might never get back…..His heart ached for them all back at the ranch as he had a sudden and uncharacteristic wave of homesickness. What were they all doing he wondered sadly.
As Jess was settling down for the night, back at the ranch Slim and Daisy were deep in conversation.
“I don’t understand how you could let him just ride out that way,” said Daisy yet again throwing Slim an exasperated look.
He sighed deeply and turned from where he was doing some paperwork at his desk.
“You know what he’s like Daisy. He get’s these crazy ideas in his head and there’s no talking to him.”
“Well, he’d have listened to me,” she said stoutly, ”goodness we were only away a week and we get back and everything is upside down. Jess gone and we have that difficult man Bill Jackson in his place. I tell you Slim, Mike is really upset.”
“Daisy!” Slim said loudly, before taking a deep breath and continuing more quietly, trying to keep his temper, knowing that Daisy’s nagging was born of worry.
“Daisy, I know how you’re feeling. I’m missing him too…but there’s nothing I can do. He’s got it in his head that he needs to go and collect the bounty on some outlaw or other. All so Miss Lori can have some medical treatment she needs.”
Daisy looked even more upset by that news.
“After I’d visited a few times I changed my mind about that girl,” she said thoughtfully. ”She seemed well enough at first, but later I just knew there was something wrong with her. Kate Munroe insisted she was fine, just growing pains… I ask you at 19? Well that’s hardly likely.”
Slim rose from his seat and went and joined her by the fire, abandoning the accounts.
“I really would have stopped him if I could have Daisy, or gone with him, things are pretty slack right now…But he just went mad cussing when I suggested it. He wouldn’t even discuss it, the next thing he’d ridden out to see Millie.”
“Oh dear, so you parted on bad terms?” she asked her old eyes filling with concern.
“Nope, we shook hands before he left.”
Then he gave a grim smile.
“He said he thought I wouldn’t want him back, after this last stunt he’d pulled, said he could understand it if I didn’t.”
“Oh my…you put him straight though?”
“Of course I did Daisy. The old place just wouldn’t be the same without Jess around. But he has sorely tried my patience this time…with all this business with Lori… Heck its Millie I feel sorry for….. It just isn’t like Jess, I don’t understand him.”
“I think there is more to all this than meets the eye,” said Daisy sagely,” and I believe that the Sheriff and Kate know a lot more than they are prepared to tell us too.”
“So why do you say that Daisy?”
“Because Mort has been keeping company with Kate and I’m sure she will have confided in him. As for Kate she has been quite secretive over Lori and Jess’s relationship…I tried to talk to her because I was worried for him, Millie too, but she just clammed up.”
“Yes Mort has been playing his cards pretty close to his chest too,” said Slim thoughtfully. ”You know I’ve a mind to ride into town tomorrow and have another word with him…If Jess is in real danger then you’re right, I’ve got to try and help.”
“You’re not going to like it Slim,” said Mort throwing his friend a concerned look. ”I guess I didn’t promise Jess I wouldn’t say anything, but……” and he just shook his head, “garldarn it Slim, don’t do this to me!”
“Please Mort if he’s in some danger I need to know where he’s gone…he just plumb wouldn’t tell me anything.”
“Well that’s because he didn’t want you to know,” said Mort impatiently. “He really didn’t want you to take off after him, didn’t want to get you involved at all.”
“So who is this mystery guy? To make Jess interested in him he must have quite a price on his head?”
“Oh yes, you could say,” said Mort wearily.
“Mort, for goodness sake, just tell me!”
“Alright, alright, I will tell you…it’s James Hardin.”
Slim’s head shot up at the revelation.
“What! Mad Dog Hardin! Dang it…please tell me you’re kidding Mort!”
Mort just shook his head sadly, ”I wish I could.”
Slim collapsed down into the chair opposite Mort, like his legs had gone from under him and he turned pale.
“You OK Slim?”
“Huh? Oh yeah. Hell Mort, what possessed him, and why did you let him take this on?” he asked angrily.
“Hang on Slim, you know Jess, once his mind’s made up…and he’s so dang concerned about Lori’s health….Well there was just no talking him out of it.”
“And what the heck is all that about?” asked Slim eyeing Mort curiously.
“Uh-uh, I’m not delving into that! You want to know about Jess and Lori’s relationship I suggest you go ask Kate Munroe…She’ll have me hung drawn and quartered if I breathe a word.”
Slim looked amazed, ”So you’re more scared of what Kate will do to you than you are of Jess?” he asked a twinkle in his eyes.
“You bet I am!”
Slim reined in Alamo, tethered him to the corral fence and strode quickly over to the porch, but the door opened before he could knock.
Kate stood there, an uncertain look in her eyes, “Oh Slim it’s you.”
“Who were you expecting, Jess?” he asked coldly.
Something in his tone made her look at him more closely.
“So, is he alright, he hasn’t been by in a while?”
“We need to talk,” said Slim still regarding her with a frosty expression.
She pulled the door closed behind her.
“Lori’s sleeping she’s not too well right now. We’ll sit on the porch.”
She pushed out a chair for him, taking the other herself.
Slim took his hat off and ran a finger around the rim, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. Kate Munroe sure was a formidable lady…But he had to know what was at the bottom of all this business, the reason that his pard had put his life on the line for almost a complete stranger. And not only that, his relationship with Millie was at risk too… or so Slim thought.
“So gone off to lick his wounds has young Jessie?” asked Kate not unkindly, raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“What do you mean?” asked Slim suddenly on the alert, looking surprised.
“Well I told him some things that were kind of hard for him to hear,” said Kate, now looking decidedly cagey. ”I figured maybe he needed some time to think things over.”
“Oh no,” said Slim suddenly sounding furious, ”he hardly needed any time at all to think things over….and take off on a crazy hair brained mission to try and help out young Lori in there,” he said tipping his head to the closed door.
Now it was Kate’s turn to look taken aback.
“What are you talking about Slim?”
“He’s only taken off after Mad Dog Hardin, for the Bounty. So he can send your Lori over to the Old Country for the treatment she needs,” he said.
Kate turned pale and she gave a low whistle, ”Goddamn it, the boy’s gone done that for little Lori?”
Then turning back to Slim, “Texas Jack….you say…..he’ll massacre the boy. Oh Jessie’s fast alright, one of the fastest guns I’ve ever seen…. But Jack…” and she just shook her head, “Jess has got no chance against him Slim.”
Slim just shook his head sadly, already aware to some degree as to what his pard had taken on after talking with Mort….But he knew from the way she talked and the horror in her eyes, that Kate had seen the outlaw in action first hand, and a shiver ran down his spine.
He was suddenly overcome with the enormity of it all. Jess riding hundreds of miles away to face possible death all for…what?
“Why,” he whispered now, “why would he do that?”
“Because he’s her brother,” Kate blurted out.
She hadn’t meant to say anything, but the true horror of what Jess had taken on had hit her hard and all her defenses were down.
Slim’s jaw just dropped in pure shock…”Her what?”
Then it all came out as Kate explained about her and Jess’s Pa…The deception that the family had weaved, never telling Lori the truth and finally how she must never know.
“She’s far too fragile,” said Kate earnestly. “Doc Sam is worried about her mental health, she has just lost who she thought of as her Mother. Moved hundreds of miles away from her friends and all she knew, and now has this terrible disease to fight. Anymore and Sam thinks she might well have a complete break down and that could make her even more ill physically… I just can’t risk that Slim.”
“I see,” said Slim quietly. “Well she won’t hear any of this from me…But surely knowing she had kin…wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
She shrugged, ”I’m sorry Slim, but I really don’t think he’ll make it back.”
Slim felt his pulse beginning to race and he suddenly felt sick to his stomach at her words.
“Well I guess you don’t know him as well as you think you do, sure he’ll come back,” he said hotly.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Why go after him of course,” he said without missing a beat, “watch his back….and bring him and the Bounty home.”
Kate closed her eyes to try and stem the unexpected tears, and finally gathering herself turned to face Slim squarely.
“Thank you for trying to get the money….you and young Jess,” she whispered, ”because I think that’s her only chance.”
Chapter 11
Meanwhile back in the Wind River Mountain foothills Jess rode on through the heat of the day a determined look in his eyes. He constantly looked around him, up at the towering rock face beside him and down the valley below searching for any sign of Hardin.
Once he had circumnavigated the large lake and found no sign of a cabin of any description he figured that Jack had told Annie that just to put any possible interlopers off his scent.
No, he’d be in some ol’ cave Jess thought now…and possibly above him, even now fixing him in the sights of his rifle. He shuddered thinking what an easy target he made and turned Traveller in towards the foot of the mountain, so he was hugging the steep rocks beside him hoping he would be obscured from the view of any above him.
After a while the trail took him up a gradual incline and he started climbing the mountain, again keeping a wary eye all around him. Finally as he neared the peak the going became pretty rough and he dismounted and ground tethering Traveller went the last half mile on foot.
Scrambling up the final length of rocky terrain he made it to the top sweating and panting before gazing out at the breathtaking vista spread out below him. The Wind River range continued to the horizon peak after peak, and down below was…..another, smaller lake….. Even from this great height he spied a tiny cabin set by the shore, blue smoke drifting up into the summer sky from the chimney.
Jess breathed a sigh of relief, “Gotcha,” he whispered.
He made his way down the mountain and picking up Traveller, turned towards the lake thankful of the cover the fir trees provided.
However as he neared the cabin he became undecided as to how to tackle the situation.
Normally he would have made his way stealthily across to the cabin and then blasted his way in, gun blazing and hope to catch his prey unawares. But because of Annie’s presence he knew he couldn’t do that lest he injure or, God forbid, kill her. Nope he had to take things real easy and although patience was hardly Jess’s strong point he knew he had to take things real slow and wait for his opportunity.
He left Traveller some way off in a small glade and hobbled him so he could graze contentedly and drink from a nearby stream. Then he made his way on foot until he was able to hunker down behind some scrubby bushes to wait it out.
It was now late afternoon, the sun still remorselessly beating down on him and the cool, sparkling waters of the lake looked mighty tempting. He was sweating profusely and exhausted after the long mountain trek. The ride over to the lake having been much further than it first appeared from the mountain top.
He removed his hat and wiped a sleeve across his burning face, before reaching for his canteen and taking a swig of the tepid water within. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and narrowed his eyes peering across the heat haze to the shuttered cabin….just a few short yards away.
There was no movement around the shack and no sound from within and he was seriously beginning to think they had headed off somewhere when the door burst open and a woman ran out sobbing. She was quickly followed by the tall heavy form of James Hardin, limping and cussing wildly.
“I’ll teach you to disrespect me girl,” he growled as he advanced on her.
The blond haired young woman half turned and in doing so lost her balance and fell sprawling full length on the hard ground, giving a little cry of fear and pain.
Hardin was upon her in a moment and dragging her up from the dirt threw a viscous backhander across her beautiful face, causing her to scream out in terror and fall again.
Jess didn’t even stop to think, he just reacted.
He tore across the few yards dividing them at incredible speed, but Hardin’s reactions were lightening fast.
Glancing up he saw Jess advancing on him and quick as a flash he drew his gun, grabbed hold of Annie and dragging her up placed the barrel to her temple.
“Hold it right there mister!” he spat.
Jess almost slid to a standstill, his eyes wide in shock, hands up in a gesture of submission.
Hardin glared at him and then the light of recognition dawned in his eyes….
“Harper, Jessie Harper, is that you?”
Jess just nodded and took a step closer, ”Yup it’s me Jack.”
Then Hardin saw the Deputy Badge and looked hostile…”What are you doin’ here boy?”
“I’ve err come to take the little lady home, Jess improvised, seems her sister’s frettin’ about her.”
“Are you dang well crazy,” asked Hardin, ”take my woman?”
Jess just stood staring at him and then advanced another pace forwards…
“Hold it right there boy! I ain’t about to tell you again…You move one more muscle and I’ll kill her…You know I keep my word dontcha!”
Jess stood stock still watching as Jack cocked the colt…..and a cold sweat broke out running down his back.
He knew Jack of old and his strange sense of logic, whereby he would rather kill his girl than give her up, this just confirming Jess’s opinion that the man was plumb crazy.
“Yeah, I know that Jack…OK I’ll back off just let her go huh?”
“Oh in time Jess, in time…Throw your gun down for starters….real slow and careful.”
Jess did as he was bid.
“Right now kick in off way over towards them bushes,” he said tipping his hat towards some scrub land.
Again Jess did as he was asked, all the time his gaze never leaving the face of the slim blond, who looked paralysed with fear by the current proceedings.
“OK good, now over here,” he said gesturing towards the porch and Jess made his way slowly over.
Then Hardin followed him dragging the terrified girl with him, before he threw her to one side and trained his gun on Jess’s head.
“OK put yer hands out,” and Jess did as asked.
Hardin then whipped a pair of handcuffs from his back pocket and quickly cuffed him, all the time with an evil little smile playing around his mouth.
“A little legacy I kinda borrowed from the last Marshall I dispatched,” he said proudly, ”never know when they’ll come in handy.”
Then he pushed him backwards….”Sit,” he barked.
Jess slithered down to the floor, one of the porch uprights to his back.
“Good, that’s good,” muttered Hardin giving him a sinister smile.
Then he turned to the girl.
“Fetch me that chain and padlock from inside,“ he commanded.
She just stared at him like a startled rabbit looking up a shot gun barrel.
“Now!” He yelled and she scuttled off returning a moment later with a heavy length of chain and padlock.
“Good, that’s good,” said Hardin again, now turning the menacing smile on her…
“OK, tie him to the post with it girl wrap it around his waist real tight.”
She did as she was told, throwing Jess an apologetic look when Hardin urged her to pull it tighter.
Then he sauntered over, gave a final tug so that the chain dug painfully into Jess’s torso and then padlocked it in place, before holstering his gun and standing back to admire his handy work.
Finally he gave Jess a long hard look.
“I don’t buy that about you coming to fetch Annie back to town…she ain’t nuthin’ to you……is he girl?” He threw over his shoulder to Annie, now suddenly wary.
“No! No Jack honest, I never set eyes on him before,” she said quickly, not wanting to ignite his wrath once more.
“No I thought not…So you were lying to me Jess,” and reaching forwards he back slapped him across the face so hard his head snapped back and fresh blood trickled down his chin from a split lip.
“You know better than to lie to me don’t ya, little Jessie Harper?” he said in a taunting singsong voice.
When Jess ignored him, he hit him again.
“It ain’t Jessie no more, it’s Jess and in case you hadn’t noticed I ain’t so little anymore either,” spat Jess now furious.
His anger strangely seemed to have a calming effect on Hardin and he looked down at Jess thoughtfully.
“Nope you ain’t at that boy…. I hear you’ve gotten yourself kind of a reputation as a gunfighter since we last met too….maybe we can have a little fun later.”
“Any time you’re ready,” muttered Jess darkly.
“Uh, I think I’ll just leave you tied up in the sun for a little while,” Hardin replied, ”see if it helps you to lose that ornery streak boy, you sure did always have an ornery streak so I remember.”
Then he turned his attention back to Annie.
“Gee honey, did I do that?” he asked wandering over and tipping her chin up so that he could examine the bruising to her cheek…. ”Hell I’m so dang sorry,” and he gave her one of his most charming, sincere smiles.
She flinched a little at his touch and looked uncertain.
“Annie, darlin’, I really didn’t mean it….Come here honey, let’s go inside and clean you up some huh?“
She nodded, still looking anxious, but figuring she should humour him,“OK Jack, sure,” she whispered.
“That’s the way my love, you come with old Jack and we’ll have us a little drink and patch you up some huh?“
“Sure.” she whispered, casting Jess an apologetic glance.
“Wh…what about him,” she asked, softly.
“Oh he’ll be just fine out here for a spell, honey. I figure he needs to calm down some.”
She still looked far from happy and so Hardin turned on his superficial charm.
“Hey come on honey. I love ya; you know that dontcha…huh?” He said putting an arm around her and looking sincerely into her eyes before taking her firmly by the arm and escorting her back across the porch to the cabin, smirking at Jess as he went.
“You just take it easy Jessie, err, Jess and we’ll have a chat later,” he said as though addressing a welcome guest.
After he had gone, shutting the door behind him, Jess closed his eyes and grimaced in pain, “Crazy bastard,” he muttered softly, just hoping Annie could see through this cunning, manipulative man.
After a couple of hours of the midsummer sun beating down on him Jess was feeling incredibly thirsty and nauseated.
He called out to Hardin a few times but nothing, and he finally fell into a doze, slumped forwards, held up by the vicious chain around his chest.
When he awoke some hours later the sun had set and the temperature had dropped significantly, leaving him shaking with cold.
The first fingers of dawn sunlight were just making their way across the porch, when the door slammed, jolting Jess out of a fitful sleep and Hardin stood there peering down at him.
“Sorry Jess boy I forgot about you last night, kinda got sidetracked, know how it is?” He asked with a licentious leer.
Jess squinted up at him through the early morning sunlight, which as yet held no warmth, and shuddered.
“So I guess you’ll need to wash up some, use the facilities,” he said briskly, again as though addressing a guest to his home.
“Here let me help you,” and he unlocked the padlock and swiftly removed the chain.
Jess all but fell forwards and Hardin supported him and then hauled him to his feet.
“I think we’ll leave the cuffs on, for the time being,” and he pushed him towards the outdoor pump and outhouse…
“Off you go then buddy…I’ll fix us some coffee once you’re done,” and he leaned on the porch watching Jess make his slow way over to wash up, his legs practically giving way after the long, uncomfortable, cramped night.
He staggered towards the water pump, but barely had the strength to prime it. Once the water splashed forth he drank thirstily, gulping it down his parched throat.Then seconds later he threw it back up …having drunk too quickly. He was on his knees retching and cursing when Jack wandered over.
“Oh dear me Jess, you need to take it easy,” he said sarcastically, throwing him a disdainful glance.
“Go to hell you evil bastard,” Jess spat and was rewarded by a swift kick to the belly, causing him to fall on his side, curling up in agony.
“Oh dear,” he said again, “it’s just not your day is it buddy,” and he helped him up, grinning genially.
The change from violence to seeming benevolence was so startlingly quick that it had Jess wondering again about the outlaw’s sanity.
Jack Hardin remained in this outwardly affable mood until Annie showed her face some time later.
Jess was again tied to the porch upright by the chain, but now cradled a cup of coffee, his hands still shaking so much with the cold that he had spilt some.
“Oh Jack, must he be tied up that way, surely if you know him he can be trusted?”
“Shut up,” Jack spat, turning on her, suddenly furious, ”you don’t know what you’re talking about you stupid bitch!”
Annie visibly quailed.
“Jack. …..what is it, what have I done?” she asked looking shocked.
“He’s dangerous can’t you see that, he’s come here to kill me and take you back to that dumb sister of yours!”
“I… I don’t understand, I don’t believe that at all. It’s cruel, how can you keep him chained up this way?”She said turning concerned eyes on the young cowboy.
“Hush,” Jess said softly, “just agree with him, don’t rile him Annie…..it’s OK.”
“Listen to him unless you want more of what ya got yesterday, now go make me some breakfast,” he said scowling at her, “me and Jess here have stuff to talk through.”
After she left Hardin turned his attention to Jess…
“I’m right ain’t I, you’ve come for me?”
Jess just nodded, knowing it was pointless to lie.
Jack’s face hardened, “By God I should just shoot you down like the dog you are Harper.”
Jess said nothing just regarded him balefully.
“But there again, I’m getting kinda bored, so I figure I’ll have some fun with you before I send you to yer Maker,” he said with a sneer…”See how brave you really are huh?”
Jess just threw him an irritated glance.
“Oh yeah, I know all about how brave Jess Harper foiled that raid on the Laramie bank a few months back and brought in Chet Andrews after he robbed the Stage…A regular little saint aren’t you now Jess boy? Of course all these folk who think you’re so darned wonderful didn’t know you back on the panhandle did they? When you were a no account kid with the seat out of his pants and no shoes…. So ya think you’re too good for the likes of me now do ya Jess…huh?”
“I thought I was too good for the likes of you the day you started gunning down innocent folk for the dadgum fun of it!” Jess yelled suddenly angry. He’d tried to hold his temper in check. God knows he had, but it was suddenly all too much and Hardin was going to kill him anyway so what the Hell.
“So you’re saying you never gunned down a man?” asked Hardin with a sneer.
“I never shot a man that didn’t try to kill me first no,” said Jess gruffly.
“You make me sick, with your superior attitude,” Hardin yelled, suddenly furious…”well let’s see how damn heroic you are now,” he said drawing his gun and pointing it at Jess’s head.
“Annie…Annie git out here girl,” he yelled, all the time his gaze locked with Jess’s.
After a moment a flustered looking Annie ran out, “It’s nearly ready; I’m just making the biscuits, I…. “
“Shut up fussin’ woman, I’ve just called you out for some entertainment…”
He broke the gun and removed all the bullets bar one, spun the cylinder and then handed it to Annie.
“Ok honey here’s what you do, hold it to his head, just like this,” he said placing the firearm to Jess’s temple, “and when I tell ya squeeze the trigger, real smooth…no jerking you got it?”
Annie’s eyes opened wide in terror, ”No,” she cried, ”I can’t…. I can’t shoot him, Jack please don’t make me!”
Jack walked across the porch and picking up his rifle aimed it at her…
“You do as I damn well say or I’ll shoot you both where you stand,” he said regarding her coldly.
She swallowed hard, and squeezed her eyes tightly shut, “Please,” she whispered….
“Just do it, now,” said Hardin…”he’s got a good chance, five empty chambers and only one bullet.”
“Now!” he yelled, his eyes empty, lacking any emotion.
Jess tensed and closed his eyes, ”Just do it,” he hissed through clenched teeth, ”or he’ll kill ya, he ain’t kiddin’.”
There was a pause and then a dull click as Annie squeezed the trigger.
Hardin let fly with a harsh burst of laughter, ”See… told ya he’d be fine.”
He took the gun from her and spun the chamber again…”Best out of three I think….”
She went through the same procedure a second time, although tears were now coursing down her cheeks, whilst Hardin looked on without a shred of sympathy at the girl’s, or indeed Jess’s plight.
Jess just sat there stock-still, holding his breath….and when there was again a dull click, he cussed lightly. His breath now coming in gasps, the sweat soaking the back of his shirt, but still he said nothing.
“So Harper aren’t you going to plead for your life, this is no fun…… I’m waiting,”said Hardin mockingly.
“You’ll wait ‘til Hell freezes over then,” Jess muttered.
“As you please….so last time Annie my dear, when you’re ready.”
However Annie could take no more, her hand was shaking so much she could barely hold the gun in place and Hardin took it from her impatiently.
He pushed her to one side and she nearly fainted, staggering as she made her way to a porch chair where she collapsed her head in her hands.
He spun the chamber one last time and Jess felt the cold mental against his head.
“Lets’ see if we can be third time lucky eh Jess?” he asked pleasantly, like they were rolling the dice in some sort of friendly game.
Jess waited…..and then one last time, a dull click.
His heart was pounding so hard he thought it might well leap out of his chest and he felt dizzy and sick to his stomach.
Hardin made a derogatory grunt, and wandered over to Annie.
“Come on then girl, I’m real hungry,” he said suddenly losing interest in the game and he bustled her back inside the cabin, leaving Jess shaken and pale.
Chapter 12
The following morning was pretty much the same as the first for Jess except he drank the water from the pump somewhat slower and managed to keep it down.
“So are you gonna feed me today or are you reckoning on starving me to death,” asked Jess once Jack had chained him up again.
“Well that depends buddy. I figure I need to go out and catch us some vitals, shame you’re kinda unreliable or you could come with me,” he said jovially.
“What,” asked Jess looking stunned, ”one minute you’ve gotten a loaded gun to my head and are playin’ spin the barrel and the next you’re talking about a buddies huntin’ trip, what is it with you?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me Jess,” he continued in the same genial tone, ”this is all down to you my friend. You’re the one who burst in here wanting to take me in for no good reason.”
“No good reason!” Jess practically exploded, “What about all those innocent folk you’ve killed Jack? Two Federal Marshalls, that poor woman in the Bank…that young married couple when you held up the Stage…Hell what more reason do you want.”
“Jess boy, you got me all wrong. I didn’t do any of that…I was framed every goddamn time. I’m not a killer….and I’m real upset you could even think that of me boy.”
Jess just stared up at him, from where he sat, once more chained up on the porch.
“You sure are good. I have to give you that Jack,” he said shaking his head. ”If I didn’t know better, hell I’d believe everything you say.”
Then just as he’d been so friendly and calm Jack suddenly took exception at that remark and went crazy cussing and shaking Jess until his teeth rattled.
“If I say I didn’t do it, then I didn’t do it…you understand, you low life saddle tramp!”
And with that he turned on his heel and entered the cabin where he started yelling at poor Annie.
“I guess our huntin’ trip is off then buddy,” Jess muttered to himself.
Sometime later Jack emerged from the cabin carrying his rifle and a gunny sack.
“I’m goin’ up the mountain to pick us up some dinner,” he said to Jess. Then leaning in so that his face was just inches from Jess’s said very quietly…”Iffen you even think to ask the girl to help you escape, I’ll hunt ya both down and kill you, you know that dontcha boy?”
“I know it,” Jess confirmed.
“Uh….well you just behave honey,” he said grabbing hold of Annie and pulling her close.
He kissed her long and hard and then marched off without a backwards glance.
She watched him go; a mixture of love and fear in her blue eyes.
Once he had gone she turned to Jess, “Are you alright?”
He nodded, “Kinda hungry, but I guess I’ll live.”
“You poor thing, I’ll fix you something, there’s some beans and bacon left.”
She came back a little later and sat down beside him her back to the porch rail and watched him eat awkwardly, hindered as he was by the cuffs.
“I’m sorry I don’t have a key for them, or the padlock on the chain,” she said quietly, “Jack took them.”
“It’s OK,” he said as he finished the meal, ”thanks, that was great.”
“Is Jack right, have you come to arrest him?” she asked then, casting him a shy look.
“Yes, and to fetch you home, your sister’s worried sick.”
She sighed, ”Oh Jenny’s always fussing,” she said dismissively.
“Hell, she’s got every cause,” said Jess stoutly, “can’t ya see the danger you’re in Annie?”
A hand shot up to a recent bruise on her cheek and she flushed a little.
“He doesn’t mean it. Really he doesn’t Jess…it’s all my fault really. I irritate him sometimes…I can be kind of slow I guess.”
“Heck Annie, none of this is your fault, the man’s totally insane. You saw the way he was yesterday didn’t you? Makin’ you hold that gun to my head for God’s sake!”
“I know,” she admitted, ”that was awful…but he’s had a very hard life Jess, you just don’t understand him. He gets mad sure, but he’s always real sorry afterwards…”
“I don’t understand him?” yelled Jess looking scandalized, ”I understand him all too well, he’s a lyin’ cheatin’ murderer and the sooner you wake up to that fact the better!”
“Don’t!” she cried leaping up and moving away with her back to him.
“I love him, we’re to be married, just as soon as he clears his name, he promised me!”
“His promises ain’t worth a bent nickel,” said Jess bitterly.
“Don’t talk that way,” she shouted, ”I don’t believe you.”
“Annie, for God’s sake, will ya listen to me. If you carry on this way you’re gonna git yourself killed. Just go while you still can! Go back to your sister. My horse is hobbled about a mile back in that grassland by the stream, take him and get away!”
“Yes Annie, why don’t you?“
Jess and Annie both looked up to where Hardin had walked softly over.
“Well honey, so do you really want to leave me?”
“No…no of course not,” she said quickly, looking from him to Jess and back.
Hardin gave her a sickly smile, “Well that’s better…”
Then his gaze lit on the empty plate and mug beside Jess.
“What’s this?” he said deathly quietly.
“Why I just gave him some food, he’s not eaten since he arrived.“
“How dare you,” he yelled suddenly beside himself with anger, “I didn’t tell you to do that!”
“I…I just thought….” she stuttered…
“Well don’t,” he said and striding towards her he slapped her face hard.” I don’t keep ya to think, just remember that girl! Now git in the shack….Harper and I have business.”
Once she’d left, Jack Hardin nodded over to the distant tree line and Jess saw the outlaw’s horse tethered there and beside him Traveller.
He swallowed hard, knowing how ruthless and evil the man was and dreading what he might do to his beloved horse.
“So, the bay, he is yours then Jess?”
“Huh…oh sure some hire horse I picked up in town.”
Hardin shook his head at that lie.
“Oh no, I don’t think so…I know how particular you are about your mounts…and this one seems kinda familiar. Didn’t ya name him after our illustrious leader’s horse? General Robert E Lee… huh Jess? I seem to recall you called him Traveller…didn’t ya?”
Jess nodded, ”That ain’t him, it’s just some hire horse…”
Hardin nodded sagely and then wandered over and led Traveller back.
“So Jess, this is just some no account horse huh?”
“I said so didn’t I,” he growled.
At the sound of his master’s voice Traveller pulled forwards and as Hardin dropped the reins the big bay trotted over to Jess giving a little whinny of welcome before gently blowing in his face and nuzzling at his hair. Delighted to see him again and ever hopeful for the usual sugar lump.
“Ger off,” Jess whispered harshly, but it was too late.
Hardin wandered over and grinned down at man and horse.
“Well he looks real pleased to see ya Jess and judging by that saddle blanket he’s wearing it looks to me like this is old Traveller alright…. ain’t it?”
Jess cussed softly, remembering too late how dear Daisy had embroidered the blanket for him as a Birthday present the year before.
He just nodded throwing the big man a wary look.
“Lovely animal,” Hardin said patting Traveller’ s neck, ”figure I’ll take him when I ride out…”
Then his face relaxed into an ugly grin….”Well you two sure get on swell dontcha.”
Jess just nodded knowing it was useless to protest as Traveller was now gently nuzzling his pocket, still seeking out the illusive sugar treat.
“I reckon we’ll have a little more fun, seeing how much you enjoyed that old spin the gun barrel yesterday,” said Jack. “Let’s just see how well behaved this old horse of yours really is…. I reckon you think he’d do pretty much anything for you huh?”
Jess said nothing, looking puzzled.
“I reckon we’ll test him,” continued Jack ignoring Jess’s silence, ”see iffen he does as he’s told huh?”
He dragged Jess up to his feet, before calling Anna out to join them.
“Fetch me the rope from my horse girl,” he said brusquely.
Meanwhile he removed the padlock from the chain and with his rifle in the small of Jess’s back he walked him over to a huge pine tree close to the cabin, leading Traveller along beside him.
“Right mount up Jess,” he said aiming the rifle at his head.
Jess slowly mounted and sat with his manacled hands on the saddle horn to steady himself.
Then Annie returned with the rope, looking puzzled.
“What are you going to do Jack?” she asked anxiously.
He turned towards her the evil grin back in place.
“See old Jess here is a real good horseman. Prides himself in breakin’ and schooling animals dontcha buddy?” he said grinning up at Jess.
Jess just stared at him wondering what horrors were to come next.
Jack took the rope from her and threw it over the lowest branch, before reaching up and slipping a noose around Jess’s neck and tightening it and then securing the other end of the rope to the tree. All in one fluid movement that took both Jess and Annie by surprise. “Goddamn it Jack,” cried Jess angrily, “what are ya playin’ at.”
“I thought that would be more than obvious….just having a little fun buddy,” Jack said in a friendly tone.
“You see the game is, you sit your horse for just as long as you can…before you either fall asleep or the critter decides to move. Either way I’m afraid the result will be the same….a good old neck tie party with you as the main guest,” and he laughed uncontrollably.
“No,” cried Annie, “you can’t Jack…please that’s inhuman…..”
“Yes, it is rather isn’t it,” he agreed pleasantly.
Then he turned dragging Annie with him…
“I’ll leave you and your good old horse in peace, let you find out how well behaved he is,” he said with another bark of laughter. ”See you in the morning, if you’re still with us that is….”
He turned and looked up at Jess and his eyes were completely empty of emotion and a shiver ran down Jess’s spine. The man was utterly devoid of any compassion; he realized….death was as nothing to him….and the thought made him feel sick.
With one final triumphant look, Jack escorted Annie back to the cabin and closed the door behind them, leaving Jess to endure the longest night of his life.
Traveller instantly picked up on Jess’s raw emotion, his tension being communicated to the critter, making him nod his head and snort anxiously.
“Easy fellah,” Jess said softly, caressing the horse’s arched neck as well as he could with his manacled hands, “It’s OK buddy, it’s OK,” he whispered, desperately trying to calm him down.
He took some deep breaths trying to relax, knowing that if his horse continued to absorb his stress he could well start playing up and even the smallest bit of skittishness would be instant curtains for Jess.
After a few minutes Jess felt the tension begin to drain from his horse and the animal relaxed, putting his head down to sniff around for any grazing, but even that simple act tightened the noose uncomfortably around Jess’s neck.
“Whoa boy,” he whispered and catching the reins pulled his head back up as well as he could.
Finally he felt the big horse relax again and after a while he stood hip-shot dozing as darkness fell.
Jess was exhausted, all the tension of the last few days having taken its toll and after a little while he too fell asleep for a few seconds, but as his head lolled forwards again the rope tightened and he was jerked awake. His heart pounding in shock and then dread as he remembered the circumstances in which he found himself…
Then, from somewhere from deep inside he rallied. He wasn’t terrified anymore he was dang well furious. How dare Hardin do this to him! Hell the stunt with the gun to his head playin’ spin the chamber was bad enough, but this, this was the last dadgum straw. Settling himself more comfortably in the saddle Jess put his mind to how he was going to escape and more importantly to him right then what he was gonna do to Jack Hardin when he did.
Once he really concentrated the answer was obvious…. but not easy, or without its risks…But what the Hell Jess thought, he’d give it his best shot and if his life ended now, then so be it. He’d had enough of this living hell at the hands of a complete and utter mad man…Nothing could be worse than one more day of that Jess figured.
He knew he had to try and reach down to his boot top and extract his hunting knife, but with his hands bound by the handcuffs it was impossible to reach it without bending and twisting. Both hands desperately tried to reach down and grab the knife, but as he moved the noose tightened alarmingly. The rocking motion also awoke Traveller and his head came up quickly and he took a pace forwards.
“Whoa, steady boy,” whispered Jess as sweat broke out, running down his face. His heart pounding afresh as the noose tightened yet again.
Thankfully Traveller obligingly stood rock still again and Jess offered up a silent prayer.
Next he lifted his right leg from the stirrup and pulled it up to meet his waiting hands…this in turn made him all but lose his balance and again the rope yanked alarmingly at his neck, which was now red raw with the constant chafing.
He sucked in an alarmed gasp and righted himself, his fingers now around the knife. Slowly, slowly he pulled it from his boot and then very gently stretched his leg out again and replaced it in the stirrup, so that he was once more relatively stable.
He spent a few minutes talking quietly to Traveller. Telling him what a good old horse he was and how he’d get his fill of sugar lumps if he could just stay still a mite longer.
Traveller blew through his nostrils and half turned before nodding his head a couple of times and then settled down again.
Once he was quiet once more, Jess reached up and holding the knife to the rope started to try and cut it. But razor sharp as the knife was he could get no purchase on the rope, it was too slack and merely moved with the knife. Finally after fruitlessly attempting to cut the rope for a good ten minutes and only achieving aching arms, Jess admitted defeat.
He took a deep breath and fixed his eyes on the distant mountain peaks. The first fingers of dawn was lighting them up with a beautiful golden glow as he got his second wind.
“I ain’t about to give up on this old world yet,” he muttered.
Then lifting up his aching arms once more he slipped the blade carefully between the noose and his neck. This time he was able to cut the rope, but the progress was painfully slow and it was another half hour before he felt the pressure on his neck released and the rope fell away.
He gasped and felt dizzy with relief before he slipped down from the saddle and rubbed Traveller’s muzzle affectionately.
“Good old boy,” he whispered, ”I knew you wouldn’t let me down,” and then he led him over to the water trough to drink his fill before splashing the blessedly cold water over his face and chest, relishing it’s refreshing effect.
Then with the light of battle in his deep blue eyes he advanced upon the cabin.
He paused on the porch, his eyes lighting upon his Colt where Hardin had left it lying on one of the battered old chairs and couldn’t believe his luck.
Even though his hands were still cuffed he was able to operate his hand gun and now the only thing standing between him and freedom was the key to the cuffs….
He walked stealthily across the porch and opening the door, slowly peered into the dim interior.
It took him a few seconds for his eyes to accommodate to the light. Then he was able to make out a cot in the corner of the room and two sleeping forms beneath the blanket.
He crept across the room until he was at the bedside and could see Annie on the far side of the bed with her back to him, Hardin, on his back sleeping deeply and snoring.
Jess looked down with a gleeful light in his deep blue eyes, “Payback time,” he whispered.
He leaned over and placed the colt’s hard, cold barrel against Hardin’s temple and cocked the trigger.
“Wake up you lowlife, murderin’ bastard!” he yelled.
Hardin’s eyes shot open in shock and feeling the cold steel against his head he peered up at Jess in horror.
“Jess, Jess boy what are ya doin’?” he whispered.
“What do you think I’m doin’,” replied Jess acerbically, ”I’m thinkin’ on blowin’ your brains out.”
At that there was a little cry of fear from the other side of the bed and Annie emerged from under the covers.
“No please,” she whispered, “please Jess don’t hurt him.”
“Oh I don’t aim to hurt him any,” said Jess bitterly, ”just kill him is all….”
“Look Jess….buddy we go way back don’t we…and I know you real well….It ain’t your style to kill a man in cold blood is it?” wheedled Hardin, throwing Jess a beseeching look.
“Well that’s true,” said Jess thoughtfully, “‘cept you ain’t a man are ya Hardin… I figure you ain’t got a soul…ain’t gotten any feelings for another body that’s fer sure…Not the way you left me to die last night. See you just don’t know the meaning of compassion do you?“
Hardin just stared at him blankly.
Jess shook his head sadly
”Nope I figured not. And no, you’re right I wouldn’t kill in cold blood. Not even you….so it’s your lucky day Hardin, I’m just gonna take you back to hang instead.”
Then he turned to Annie.
“Get up will you….and err, get some clothes on,” he said looking away embarrassed as she made to do as he told her.
Once she was dressed he gestured to the handcuff key on the nightstand.
“Take these dang things off me will you?”
She glanced at where Jess still had his gun trained on Jack and faltered as though waiting for the big man’s permission.
“Get to it, “Jess said abruptly, ”it ain’t too late for me to change my mind you know. He is wanted dead or alive and as far as I’m concerned dead would be a whole lot easier!”
At that she scurried around the bed and quickly removed the manacles.
Once freed Jess yanked Hardin brutally out of the bed and threw his denims at him from the bedside chair.
“Git yer pants on,” he growled.
Once Jack was dressed Jess turned him around and cuffed his hands behind his back before pushing him roughly from the room, Annie staring after them in shock.
He returned to the room some five minutes later.
“Right Annie, I’m taking him back to town to verify him with the Sheriff there and then on over to Laramie. You’re welcome to ride along with us as far as Lander. I’ll take you home to your sis…huh?”
She just nodded looking defeated.
But Jess wasn’t fooled for a minute.
“And I’m tellin’ you now; I ain’t putting up with any of your games Annie. I’m takin’ him in whether you approve or not, so don’t get in my way…you understand?” he asked throwing her a fierce look.
“Sure, whatever you say Jess.”
He continued to eye her fiercely before finally turning on his heel, “We ride in ten,” he threw over his shoulder before marching off to where Hardin sat roped to the pine tree looking furious.
However as soon as Annie arrived, his whole demeanour changed to that of the maltreated victim of the brutal unfeeling Jess Harper.
He staggered as Jess hauled him up and affected a limp; but it cut no ice with Jess.
“Say that leg playin’ you up?” he asked with a vicious grin, “I seem to recall you were limpin’ when I rode in…a little disagreement with Annie here as I remember.”
Annie flushed up at that, remembering that Jack had lashed out at her and she had retaliated by kicking him on the shins…However she had soon learnt that was not a wise move where Jack Hardin was concerned.
Then she recalled how Jess had come to her aid and felt guilty at the thought of betraying him. But betray him she must if she was to help her lover escape. As they mounted up and embarked on the journey to town her mind started working overtime as to how she could help Jack escape, but without harming Jess…..too much anyway.
Chapter 13
It was when she was making supper that evening that the idea came to her.
They were camped in the lea of the mountain, beneath some huge Douglas fir trees casting a welcome shade after the scorching ride, the summer sun having beaten down on them mercilessly throughout the ride. A stream bubbled along beside the track and Jess took the horses off to water them leaving Annie preparing the meal, Jack tied securely to one of the fir trees. It was then that she had her idea. She had brought the remains of the previous day’s rabbit stew with her, but as soon as she smelled it, it was obvious that it had gone off in the hot weather.
As soon as Jess returned she explained her dilemma and so he willingly offered to go and shoot some fresh meat.
“Get rid of it,” he said quickly, “we don’t wanna get sick…”
On his return he went off to check on Hardin, who had dozed off during Jess’s absence, once Annie had shared her plan with him.
As Jess was busy checking on Jack and then feeding the horses it was easy for her to cook up the new stew and then add just enough of the rancid old stew to Jess’s meal to make him sick…real sick. She had also added some strong tasting wild herbs she found growing near the stream, making the bad meat completely undetectable.
Jess wolfed down his meal with typical Harper relish and then suggested an early night for one and all.
“I want to make an early start,” he explained to Annie, “get a good few miles behind us before it gets too dang hot.”
Those were to be the last words he was to utter for quite some time.
It was in the small hours that Jess awoke with horrendous belly ache and the next few hours were spent a little way from the camp as he retched and groaned the night away, relieving his body of the poisoned food. By dawn he was completely spent and dragged himself off to his bedroll where he collapsed into a deep, almost comatose sleep.
It took no time for Annie to delve into his vest pocket and retrieve the key for the handcuffs.
Once Hardin was free he wasted no time in cuffing Jess and removing his hunting knife and hand gun.
“Do you have to do that,” asked Annie looking down at the semi conscious man as he moved slightly and groaned in his sleep,“ he’s hardly going to try and escape.”
“I don’t trust the bastard as far as I could throw him,” muttered Jack, staring down at the sick cowboy with empty eyes, not a shred of compassion in them.
Annie, on the other hand, was feeling extremely guilty and squatting down beside Jess she gently brushed his wet dark curls back from his forehead and then bathed his face with some cool water.
As soon as Jack saw what she was doing he exploded with rage and dragging her away he slapped her hard.
“Don’t you dare show that no good saddle tramp any kindness!” he shouted.
“But…he’s real sick, food poisoning can kill, I must help him,” she said sounding distraught.
“Well that’ll just save me a job then won’t it,” spat Jack with an evil grin, “now come away girl, afore I really lose my temper with you!”
When Jess came around it was afternoon and he groaned inwardly when he felt the manacles back in place on his wrists.
He sat up, his head spinning, and glared over at where Annie was brewing some coffee.
“Thanks a bunch,” he muttered, casting her a dark look.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered coming over and glancing back to where Hardin was sleeping off the excesses of a liquid lunch.
“Sure you are,” he drawled, ”so sorry for what? Poisoning me or helping Hardin escape.”
She hung her head, ”I’m sorry you’ve been so sick…But I had to help Jack, I love him, you must see that.”
Jess shook his head, ”I dunno who’s crazier, him or you….or me fer takin’ on this dang job!”
“So why did you?” she asked looking puzzled.
“I needed the money to help someone out a…err lady friend.”
“Look I ain’t proud of this. It ain’t my style to hunt a man down for the money, no matter what he’s done….But there again, now I’ve seen what an utter bastard he is I guess I’m glad I made an exception.”
Annie settled down beside him, ignoring the jibe.
“Tell me about her, she must mean an awful lot to you, to put your principles to one side that way?”
He just nodded, ”Yeah she does.”
“You love her,” she said with a warm smile.
Jess thought on this a moment and then he smiled back.
“You know I guess I do.”
“Well then,” she went on quickly, “if you’re in love you’ll understand how it is with me and Jack. I’d do just about anything for him….”
“No,” he said quickly, ”it ain’t what you think she’s my kid sister…well half sister…”
“Oh well that’s different. If she’s kin I guess you’d want to help her, no matter what, I can see that.”
“Sure, but I do have a real special woman in my life….And yeah, I’m in love with her. But what you have with Hardin ain’t love Annie… It don’t come anywhere close. He’s usin’ you and when he gets bored, he’ll just throw you aside…or worse kill you.”
She gave a gasp, “No don’t say that, why are you being so mean?”
“I ain’t,” he cried in frustration, “I’m tellin’ you how it is…For God’s sake get away from here while you can girl. It don’t matter none about me, just get yourself safe…now!”
“I don’t believe you, he’s not a bad man, just misunderstood!“
“Misunderstood!” yelled Jess looking almost beside himself with rage.
”He ain’t misunderstood, he’s loco…totally insane. Misunderstood? Try tellin’ that to some of his other girlfriends. Like the one who decided to withhold her favors because he came to her drunk as a skunk…..He slit her throat Annie! Or the one he got kinda bored with, decided to strangle her….but he waited until they’d made love first,” he spat looking disgusted.
Annie turned pale, instinctively knowing he would never make that kind of atrocity up.
“No,” she whispered now burying her face in her hands as the dreadful truth dawned.
“Don’t tell me you believe this rubbish Annie girl,” came a gruff voice from behind them and Jess and Annie looked up to see Hardin had awakened and was standing, swaying slightly from the effects of the mornings drinking.
“N…no,” she whispered throwing him a terrified look, ”of course I don’t.”
“Uh, well get over here then,” he snarled.
She threw Jess a frightened glance before doing as she was told.
“Good, that’s better,” then he made his drunken way over to where Jess still lay on his bedroll, weak as a kitten after the effects of the poisoned food.
He looked down, eyes devoid of any feeling and then kicked Jess viciously in the belly a couple of times before laughing drunkenly.
Jess rolled into a ball bringing his knees up and crying out in agony.
“Yeah, I thought that would hit the spot,” Jack grinned, “teach you to keep your dang lies to yourself!”
Then he turned back to Annie, his whole persona changing like he’d flipped a switch.
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about Annie”, he said walking over and gently caressing her cheek, ”It’s lies all damn lies to get you away from me. Don’t think I haven’t noticed him sweet talking you and bad mouthing me every chance he gets…That’s what it’s about darlin’ he wants you for himself.”
Then he gave her his most charming smile, “I guess I can’t blame him at that, a stunner like you.”
She turned huge frightened eyes on him and then back to where Jess was still clutching his belly and lying on his side, cussing softly.
“Can’t you…just let him go,” she whispered, ”you keep his gun and then we can take off for Texas like we’d planned, please Jack.”
“And you really think he’d just ride off into the sunset and leave us? Are you crazy woman!” he spat, suddenly furious again…”He’s come to bring me in or kill me trying….sure I ain’t about to let him go, don’t talk so stupid girl!”
She said nothing just looked down, feeling scared and tearful.
Jack sighed lustily.
“Come on Annie, ol’ Jack didn’t mean ta upset you. Come over here and sit a spell, forget about that no hoper,” he said recovering his temper again.
She followed him over to the other side of the camp fire and sat down beside him, still glancing over to where Jess was lying very still.
“What are you going to do then?” She persisted.

“Huh? Oh, about Harper, dunno, he can’t live and he’s slowing us down…maybe I’ll finish him now,” he said getting up. ”I figure it would be a kindness the state he’s in,” and he sniggered nastily.
Annie leapt up and grabbed his arm.
“No please Jack….err have another drink,” she improvised, desperately trying to divert him.
Hardin’s eyes narrowed and he threw her a speculative look….
“You’re not sweet on the boy are you?” he finally said, his words icy.
“No…. of course not,” she said quickly looking down.
“Why you two timing conniving bitch!” he yelled suddenly enraged.
He slapped her viciously across the face, so hard that she staggered and fell….
“I’ll teach you to respect me, goddamn it!” he hollered as he threw himself down on top of her grabbing at her clothes and ripping her blouse….
Annie’s screams finally alerted Jess to the disturbance and staggering up he quickly took in the situation.
Although his hands were still cuffed he pitched in regardless, knowing he had to try and stop Hardin before he added yet another poor innocent to his long list of victims.
He yelled for Annie to get out and as he did so Jack loosened his grip momentarily, looking up at Jess in surprise thinking him to be out cold.
His attention diverted Annie managed to pull from his grasp and rolling away staggered to her feet, looking back down to where Jack was still sprawled in the dirt, where he had been attempting to rape her.
She watched in shock as Jess suddenly exploded in anger and kicked ash and dying embers from the fire directly into Jack’s face.
He cried out in pain, his hands covering his face and burning eyes as Jess took his chance and leapt on him, throwing his full weight against the big man and straddling him, his hands around his neck.
They rolled around in the dirt and ashes for a good few minutes, but in Jess’s weakened condition the outcome was inevitable. It wasn’t long before Hardin managed to extricate himself and then with a couple of brutal blows rendered Jess semi conscious. He looked down dispassionately at his adversary, bleeding and sprawled in the dirt.
Then, satisfied Jess was defeated he turned his attentions back to Annie.
“Come here,” he said angrily, ”I’m not finished with you yet girl!”
“Oh yes you are,” she cried back, “Jess was right, you’re crazy and I’m getting out of here,” and with that she, threw Jess a pitying glance, she must get him help she thought. Then she turned on her heel and made for her horse.
“Don’t you dare walk away from me girl!” Hardin yelled after her, but she ignored him.
Something in Hardin’s voice alerted Jess and he struggled to his knees.
“Annie no don’t!” He cried, but it was too late.
As she reached her horse a shot rang out hitting her squarely in the back….
She made a desperate clutch at her saddle and then slowly slithered to the ground…dead.
Jess staggered to his feet and stood looking aghast before turning stunned eyes on Hardin.
“You utter bastard,” he whispered, his eyes blazing with fury.
Hardin answered by viciously back slapping his face and flooring him once more.
Then he wandered over to Annie’s body and stared down at her with contempt.
“I warned you, you stupid bitch,” he said bitterly, ”that was all your fault girl,” and he turned and strode back to where Jess was now sitting with his head in his hands.
Hardin marched over and grabbing hold of Jess’s hair jerked his head back roughly.
“What’s up, feelin’ sick?” he asked mockingly.
Jess nodded, “Sick to my stomach, figure it’s the company I’ve been keeping.”
Then he turned bewildered eyes on Jack.
“You just don’t feel anything do you? You’ve just killed that poor kid …an’ nuthin’…… You just don’t give a damn do you?” he asked feeling totally perplexed.
That was the last straw for Jack and he drew his colt and held it to Jess’s temple….
“If you’re so all fired upset about the girl I guess you may as well join her,” he spat cocking the hammer….the cold steel hard against Jess’s head……
Chapter 14
Slim had set off on his journey the day after his interview with Kate Munroe, knowing that his buddy was in dire need of his help and he just hoped to God that he was not too late.
He arrived in Lander late one afternoon and went straight to Sheriff Ward’s office.
The elderly lawman looked up and over his eye glasses as Slim barged in and frowned slightly before putting his pen down.
“Yes young man and what can I do for you?” he asked testily.
“I believe you’ve had my partner, Jess Harper, call by. He was tracking James Hardin.”
“Uh….yes, he was on the trail of Mad Dog….but I haven’t heard anything. I can’t say as to what’s happened….But odds are your partner’s met his Maker by now I should think,” he said casually, “ain’t many as could out draw that swine…if any,” he finished.
Slim looked anguished and then suddenly felt profoundly angry.
“Well maybe he’d have fared better if he’d had some support. Like from the local Law huh?” he asked bitterly.
The Sheriff just shrugged.
“I figure he decided to go after him for the Bounty. Nobody forced him…He sure looked tough enough and old enough to make his own choices Mister. Me I like the quiet life and I ain’t about to have it cut short by the likes of Mad Dog Hardin…that’s for sure.”
“So you’re just going to sit back and let someone else do your dirty work for you are you then?” asked Slim, sarcastically.
The Sheriff sighed and sat back in his chair.
“Like I said it was his choice. Now if there’s nothing else I’m kinda busy.”
Slim rolled his eyes with uncharacteristic rudeness… “So do you know which way he went?”
“According’ to young Jenny from the café he was making for the canyon south of town. Then heading for the lake…She seems to think that Hardin’s got a cabin somewhere around that area.”
“She does,” asked Slim looking puzzled, “so how would she know?”
“Because her dang fool little sister has run off with the bastard, that’s why,” replied the Sheriff hotly.
“Good God man,” said Slim astounded, ”he’s abducted a young girl and you’re not out there trying to help her?”
“No I’m not, because the stupid girl went of her own free will according to Jenny. She’s in love with him….well good luck to her if she thinks she can tame him,” he said with a grim smile.
Slim just shook his head in disbelief….”So where can I find this Jenny then?”
It was the following day before he set out on the trail of his buddy after spending the evening with the lovely Jenny.
By this time after having had no news of Jess or her little sister she was beside herself with worry.
“The Sheriff just won’t listen,” she explained to Slim as he accepted yet another coffee in her little back kitchen. The café long since closed for the night.
“Seems to me he just isn’t up to the job,” said Slim bitterly.
“I’m so scared, after what you’ve told me about Hardin and Jess warned me too….I just couldn’t bear it if anything has happened to her……”
Those words were now echoing in Slim’s mind as he rode on towards the large lake where he hoped to find his quarry.
By the time he reached the lake a dreadful thought struck him. If indeed Hardin was holed up somewhere nearby, well then something had gone seriously wrong with Jess’s mission, because he would have had ample time to apprehend his man and bring him in by now.
So it was that he almost breathed a sigh of relief when he could find no cabin, or any sign of Hardin having been living in the area. So if Jess had needed to go further afield, then there was still some hope that he had indeed apprehended the outlaw.
When he finally made it to the second lake and spied the cabin at its side, he approached warily as Jess had done. However there was no sign of life. It didn’t take him long to figure that whoever had been there had left and taken the most direct route back to town following along the far side of the lake.
Slim realized that was why they hadn’t passed and checking out the horse’s tracks figured Jess was escorting Hardin and Jenny’s little sister Annie back to town. Hardin sure wouldn’t be going in that direction if he had any choice. So Slim set off once more, his heart feeling slightly lighter furnished with this fresh information.
It was getting on for late afternoon and he was wondering about the wisdom of carrying on in the fading light. Or whether to make camp and continue in the morning, when he was suddenly shocked out of his reverie by the sound of a single gunshot, coming from over the ridge.
He spurred Alamo up the steep bank from where he could see the land open up before him and could just about make out a wisp of smoke rising above some huge fir trees about a mile away.
He peered out into the hazy distance, but could make nothing else out, and the afternoon was silent once more.
Maybe Jess and his prisoner were camped out by the firs, the shot Jess hunting a rabbit for the pot?
But some sixth sense told him all was not well. He quickly spurred Alamo on down the rise and made for the distant trees on the sky line.
He was about halfway there when another two shots crashed through the late afternoon silence….
They were almost simultaneous and the following silence felt somehow menacing.
Slim felt a shudder of fear run through him and again spurred Alamo onwards.
As he came to the edge of the camp the first thing he saw was Traveller ground hitched along with two more horses a big sorrel and a paint pony.
He dismounted warily and drawing his gun made his way slowly towards the camp.
Traveller gave Alamo a little whinny of welcome and at that Slim glanced across and then wandered over, still keeping his eyes peeled for any sign of Jess.
Then as he patted Traveller absently he looked over to the paint hitched a few yards away…That’s when he saw the body of the young girl, slumped on the floor at the animal’s feet.
He ran over and then stopped in his tracks as he saw the gunshot wound to her back and knew immediately that she was dead.
He looked down in shocked disbelief, before looking up with renewed fear in his heart.
He moved stealthily forwards again and on entering the camp site surveyed the carnage laid out before him….
Just a few feet away lay the body, of one who he presumed to be Jack Hardin, lying on his back; his eyes open wide in shock….and a bullet hole through his heart…
Then he finally dragged his gaze away and looked over to the other side of the camp and his heart turned over, his pulses pounding and he broke out in a cold sweat.
“No,” he whispered…”dear Lord no,” and he tore across the short distance and squatted down beside the seemingly lifeless form of his best buddy.
Jess was lying face down in the dirt and Slim gently rolled him over onto his back and sucked in a deep breath as he surveyed the pale lean face, half covered in blood from a wound to the temple.
He closed his eyes, and took a deep shuddering breath…..this was it…the end of the road.
How many times had he imagined this….and now it had happened he just could believe it…..
Slim unbuttoned his pard’s shirt and slid a hand inside over his heart…. “Jess….pard,” he whispered.
Then he felt it, Jess’s heart running real fast…it wasn’t right , sure Slim knew that, but garldarn it at least it was still beating.
It was a good half hour before Jess finally came to.
His eyes opened a crack and then he looked blearily up into Slim’s concerned face.
“Jess…… thank God,” Slim muttered.
“Sl…..Slim?” Jess managed licking his lips, his mouth almost too dry to form the words.
“Here take it easy,” said Slim putting an arm around his shoulders and gently lifting him forwards and offering the canteen.
“Easy, easy buddy,” Slim said as Jess gulped at the water.
He lay back down and then peered up at his partner.
“What in Hell are you doin’ here… I told Mort not to tell you,” and he stopped suddenly breathless.
“Never mind that, I’m here now and from where I’m standing you could use some help pard.”
He nodded and threw Slim a weak smile, “You could be right there,” he agreed softly.
“You just rest up a spell, I’ll attend to everything,” Slim said, casting a glance back to the carnage around the camp site.
“Did you see what the bastard did….to young Annie?” Jess asked after a moment.
Slim just nodded.
“You got him though Jess, straight through the heart.”
“He’d been drinkin’ slowed him down some….messed up his aim too. I guess….just creased me,” he said putting a tentative hand up to his head and wincing.
“Thank goodness for that at least,” Slim said sincerely. Then he looked closer at Jess, his complexion was a terrible greyish green hue, his eyes lacklustre and his general demeanour one of sickness.
“Jess are you OK,” Slim said anxiously, ”err apart from the head wound that is?”
Jess shook his head and then groaned as the pain shot through him.
“Had me a real bad dose of food poisoning, Annie spiked my food with some bad meat…been chuckin’ all darn night,” he said bitterly.
“Why would she do a thing like that?”
“Because of that bastard Hardin, that’s why. Stupid kid thought she was in love with him…would do anything he said …until just now that is…..”
“He was my prisoner Slim. I was bringing him in…until she poisoned me….I was out of it and she stole the key for the cuffs and freed him. Until what I’d been sayin’ all along finally hit home, when he turned on her….yet again!”
“She saw the light. Had enough of him and made a dash for her horse… I yelled…tried to stop her Slim,” he said with an anguished look in his eyes.
“Sure, I believe you,” Slim said gently….”she was probably just not thinking straight, wanted to get away?”
“You got it….and you know what Slim?”
“Go on…”
“He didn’t give a damn…just shot her down in cold blood like she was nuthin’. He was a crazy man Slim…pure crazy”…..and he sighed deeply.
“Then what happened Jess?”
Jess closed his eyes reliving those hellish last few minutes of Hardin’s life.
He had returned from surveying Annie’s body.
“You just don’t feel anything do you….you’ve just killed that poor kid …an’ nuthin’…… You just don’t give a damn do you?” he had asked feeling totally perplexed.
That was the last straw for Jack and he drew his colt and held it to Jess’s temple….
“If you’re so all fired upset about the girl I guess you may as well join her,” he spat cocking the hammer….the cold steel hard against Jess’s head……
Jess swallowed hard, so this was it the end… it was all going to be over at the hands of a madman….
He thought about Slim, Daisy and Mike…and finally dear Lori, who would never get that treatment she needed…and then Millie…and he knew he had to fight for his life….
“So, you’re too old and worn out to face me are you then Jack?” he said conversationally. The cold steel to his temple making his voice sound desperate even to his own ears. But at least it had the desired effect and Hardin slowly lowered his gun.
“What,” he said with a bitter laugh, “so you think you can out draw me…a soft rancher… Hell you ain’t been usin’ your gun to get by in years…you’d have no chance.”
“Well why dontcha try me then,” said Jess…”or is it all just bull shit with you Jack…huh?”
“We’ll see who’s bullshittin’” said Hardin now clearly furious.
He removed the handcuffs and then pulled Jess’s colt from where it was stuffed in his belt and handed it over.
Jess spun the barrel to check it before holstering it………
Now he opened his eyes and looked over to Slim.
“I riled him some, taunted him that he was too old an’ wore out to take me on…. one thing I was pretty sure of ol’ Jack don’t like to lose face… he just had ta prove himself.”
Slim just shook his head in awe…
“You were pretty lucky then Jess…that was one hell of a gamble the way folk talk about him.”
“Yeah, he’s real fast,” Jess admitted…”but I reckoned I’d got the edge on him. He’d sunk a fair few fingers of Red Eye and anyways there weren’t no choice. He’d already killed the girl and had his gun to my head. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose.”
“I guess not,” said Slim looking shaken.
Then he pulled himself together.
“Come on pard,” and leaning down he helped Jess up and supported him back to his bedroll beside the fire and settled him down.
“You lay back there and I’ll clean up that head of yours,” he said softly.

Chapter 15
They arrived in town after a difficult journey, Jess not being at all well. He may have said that Hardin had just creased his temple. But in reality it was a nasty wound causing quiet severe concussion, with Jess feeling sick and suffering terrible headaches.
“Why don’t we stop, rest up awhile?” Slim had said when Jess had needed to dismount and was violently ill, after just a few miles.
He stood up shakily, his eyes streaming, but refused to do as Slim suggested, just turned and took a drink from his canteen, wiping his mouth of his sleeve and breathing deeply.
Then he squinted up at the relentless sun.
“We’ve gotta keep goin’ Slim, got to get ‘em back as soon as we can in this darned heat,” he said tipping his hat to the two horses they were leading with their macabre load.
“I don’t give a fig about Hardin rottin’…. But young Annie….” and he shook his head too upset to continue and painfully hauled himself back into the saddle.
“I’m OK I tell you,” he replied gruffly, trying to ignore the rising nausea and pounding pain in his head, as they set of once more.
It was late afternoon when they finally landed in the small, one horse town.
As expected the world and his dog came out to gape at the grisly spectacle of Jess and Slim leading the mounts bearing the blanket covered corpses of Hardin and young Annie into town.
They reined in by the Sheriff’s office and then as Jess had feared, the slight figure of Jenny Forrester came running out of the café and then stopped dead in her tracks as she saw her sister’s pony…..Then the blanket shrouded figure lying across the saddle.
Her face turned deathly pale and a hand flew up to her mouth as though preventing her from screaming….
“No,”…she whispered, turning anguished eyes up to where Jess still sat his mount, ”please God no….”
He slipped down from the saddle and was beside her in two quick strides, taking her in his arms…
“Hell Jenny, I’m so dang sorry,” he said softly.
“She didn’t deserve this,” she whispered, then turned to look at the other blanket clad body…
“You killed him Jess, he’s really dead?”
Jess nodded, “Oh yeah, he’s dead alright, won’t bother anyone no more.”
She nodded and then some girl friends came up and took her away.
But she turned and looked back at him, the tears now coursing down her cheeks.
“I’m sure you did all you could,” she said sincerely…before she was born away to make the arrangements.
The undertaker seemed to have materialized from nowhere and once the Sheriff had finally strolled out of his office and formally identified the body, both the dead were taken away.
“So you managed it then did you?” asked the Sheriff casting Jess a lugubrious look.
“Looks like it,” muttered Jess. Glad he hadn’t expected any thanks and wasn’t going to be disappointed.
“You’d better come in, fix up the paper work,” he said grudgingly.
Slim and Jess entered the office to complete the necessary paper work, but when it came to writing the statement Jess could barely see such was the pain in his head.
“Come along boy,” the Sheriff chivvied, ”you won’t be able to claim the Bounty until I’ve gotten everything signed and sealed you know,” he said irritably.
Jess ran a weary hand across his face and sighed, his head pounding and his eyes refusing to focus properly.
“Damn it man, he’s sick can’t you see that!” exploded Slim angrily. ”I’ll write it down for him and he can sign, OK?”
“Well its real irregular,” muttered the Sheriff.
“I’d just be dang grateful you’ve gotten rid of a notorious outlaw from your patch without so much as getting out of your nice comfy chair,” Slim growled.
The Sheriff looked a mite sheepish at that comment and just passed the papers over to Slim.
Jess told him what to say and eventually it was all completed, with Jess’s signature at the bottom.
“Right, the committal will be tomorrow, buried outside the church yard wall of course,” the Sheriff said rather primly… “I don’t suppose you wanna contribute to the costs?”
“You suppose right then,” Jess said casting him a black look.
“Bounty can be collected from Mort Cory over in Laramie, I’ll get it wired across from the Cheyenne bank,” he said succinctly.
“Thanks,” growled Jess getting up quickly and then he staggered and clutching his head almost fell.
Slim steadied him, “Take it easy Jess.”
Then he turned to the Sheriff, “Is there a doc in town?”
“Across the street, old Doc Harrison….but don’t expect too much, deaf as a post and practically senile…”
Slim just nodded and taking a firm grip on Jess’s elbow helped him out of the office.
Once outside Jess looked like he might well faint, but he took some deep breaths and the moment passed.
Surprisingly he made no argument regarding the visit to the medic and went over to the doc’s quite meekly, much to Slim’s amazement.
The old timer straightened from where he’d been listening to Jess’s chest and then shone a light in his eyes and took a good look at the abrasion to his temple.
“A bullet you say….uh…seems you’ve cleaned it up well, young man,” he said looking over his spectacles at Slim.
“So this was quite recent?” he asked now addressing Jess.
He nodded and cussed gently as the pain shot through his head.
“Severe headache, am I right?” he asked, peering short-sightedly at Jess over his eye glasses.
“Yeah, you could say,” he muttered.
“What, speak up young man?”
Jess flinched at the old timer’s loud voice, but just agreed, that his head was real bad…”And you ain’t helping it none,” he added sotto voce.
“Nausea, vomiting, feeling dizzy and vision slightly impaired too?” He asked glancing up at Slim again.
“Yes Doc and trouble walking as well,” Slim said,” he’s all over the place, like he’s been on the Red Eye.”
“I’m OK,” muttered Jess irritably, ”I ain’t that bad….and I ain’t been drinkin’ either,” he said throwing Slim a baleful look.
“Tetchiness as well?” asked the doc with a small smile aimed at Slim.
Slim grinned back, ”Kinda difficult to tell with Jess, with his ornery streak and all.”
“I would guess there will be a few other problems too, before he’s better,” the doctor continued, now wading into uncharted waters as far as his knowledge of Jess was concerned.
Jess just looked at him like he was crazy.
“You’ve had a tough time of it I’m guessing young man, left you feeling a tad troubled huh?”
“The only thing that is troubling me is sittin’ here bein’ poked about by you,” Jess spat. “All I wanna do is get home. I’ve got me a real sore head, that’s all. Now iffen you’ve got something for it, well that’s just fine, otherwise,”…..and he made to sit up.
“Steady young man, I’m only trying to help you know!” The elderly medic said, looking somewhat affronted.
“Take it easy pard,” Slim said softly, “the doc’s right you aren’t yourself. You’ve been real edgy Jess and kinda down too.”
Jess felt like saying he wondered how Slim would be feeling if he’d practically had his head blowed off with a crazy man playin’ spin the barrel. Not to mention the skirmish with the hangman’s noose, being poisoned and then watching helplessly whilst a young girl was brutally murdered….a tad down, yeah you could say he thought bitterly.
He sighed deeply; “Can you just give me something for the headache doc huh?”
They rode out of town a couple of days later at Jess’s insistence, completely ignoring the advice from the doc, and at first, protests from Slim as well.
They had stayed for Annie’s funeral, and boy was that a harrowing ordeal for all present. Annie had been a popular young lady. The town’s folk trying to come to terms with the fact that she seemed to have almost thrown her life away by taking up with a known criminal and murderer.
Jenny was beside herself at the outcome of her sister’s waywardness and completely overwhelmed by grief.
It was apparent that she completely blamed herself as she’d had the task of bringing up her much younger sister after the sad demise of their parents many years ago.
Well Slim could sure identify with that, having been in a similar position himself regarding the parenting of his kid brother Andy after their parent’s sad demise.
He had stood around the grave next to Jess. His heart bleeding for his partner, as well as Jenny, as Jess seemed to feel terribly guilt ridden by the outcome too.
That was confirmed later when they had retired to the saloon, after visiting with Jenny to offer their condolences.
They sat at a small table at the back away from the main mourners, most of whom were male, of a certain age and happy to have a good excuse to be in the saloon on a working morning.
Jess sat staring into his whiskey, before knocking it back, grimacing and then pouring another.
“I can’t help thinkin’ this was my fault,” he said eventually throwing Slim a tortured look.
“Jess, you can’t think that way….”
“Sure I can, it was my job to try and keep her safe….Jeez I tried Slim, but she just wouldn’t listen…Then finally when she decided to make a run for it…. I should have stopped her….”
“Jess, will you listen to me! I’ve been chatting to one of her real good friends, before the funeral. It seems that young Annie was way out of control…She’d ended a love affair with her boyfriend and then just went off with Jack on the rebound. Seems her boyfriend was a real nice kid, half Arapaho, devoted to young Annie. Then he went on a cattle drive to get some money together for them….and that’s when she met Hardin. He kinda turned her head everyone said. She told all her friends how charming he was…He really kinda cast a spell over her pard. I figure there was nothing anyone could have done to change her mind about him.”
Jess just shrugged and poured another drink, “Maybe,” he said tersely.
Slim moved the bottle to the other side of the table and cast his pard an anxious glance…
“This isn’t going to help either. Come on let’s go pack up, ride for home like you wanted huh?” said Slim. Thinking riding out with a still real sick Jess was better than staying here and watching him try and drink the guilt away.
Jess gave him the ghost of a smile at that…”That sounds good to me pard…..”
Even though Slim set a slow pace, he could see that the travelling was really taking it out of his pard.
He reined Alamo in, mid afternoon, and looked across the vista before him to the edge of a pine forest, the river gurgling along beside them.
Jess pulled up beside him and threw a questioning glance at the tall blond man.
“I thought we might break early, set up camp down there,” Slim suggested, before casting a glance up to the sky. “Clouds building we could be in for a storm….and the last thing you need is a good soaking.”
Jess rolled his eyes and then grinned at his buddy, “OK …Ma!”
Slim grinned back, glad to see Jess’s good humour seemed to have returned.
But the relief he had felt was short lived, when Jess seemed to stagger as he dismounted and appeared quite disorientated.
Slim slipped from the saddle and marched over, grabbing hold of Jess’s elbow as he stood swaying slightly and casting a wary eye around the place they had chosen to camp.
There was a large clump of tall pines giving a vast canopy of protection against the approaching rain and the river flowed along several yards away.
“What’s up pard, dizzy again?”
Jess turned unseeing eyes on him, before shaking his head. The sound of thunder echoed in the distance and he pulled his elbow away, “I’m OK,” he said gruffly, ”will you stop fussin’,” although it was apparent that he was not OK at all.
Slim just raised an eyebrow, but said nothing and taking Traveller’ s reins, said, “I’ll deal with the mounts why don’t you start the fire, get some coffee on huh?”
It was sometime later when they were under the protection of the trees sipping their coffee that the heaven’s opened. The rain came down in a deluge, lightning flashes illuminating the prematurely dark sky. Thunder crashed around them and the wind got up, lashing the rain down even more spectacularly.
They were in the lea of the big old trees and quite sheltered, able to almost enjoy the spectacle.
At least Slim did, but after a few minutes he looked over to Jess and was shocked to see the look of despair in his deep blue eyes. His face deathly pale and his hands holding the coffee cup shaking slightly.
He opened his mouth to speak and then something in his buddy’s demeanour made him pause.
He was sitting upright, almost like he was listening to something, his head on one side and his eyes now peering around him in fear.
Slim stood up and went around to the other side of the fire, settling down close to Jess, noticing that he was now actually spilling his drink, he was shaking so much.
He leaned over and gently took the cup from him and set it down by the fire.
“Jess…you OK….. are you cold?” he asked softly.
Jess’s head swivelled to look at him, and again he had that vacant gaze for a moment, before focusing on his friend.
“Slim…..he’s …he’s here can you hear him? ”He asked, again looking around him almost in panic now.
“Who Jess?”
“Why goddamn it Hardin of course… I can hear him laughin’…..hell, I can even smell him!”
“Jess… it’s OK,” said Slim gently….”that noise, it’s just the wind in the trees, sounds pretty spooky, but that’s all it is……. And that smell, like alcohol? I put some Red Eye in your coffee…that’s all. You’re just imagining things…he’s dead Jess, remember?”
Jess stared hard at him and then seemed to relax a little.
“Yeah, I knew that,” he said quietly after a few seconds.
“Well drink up huh pard…then have a nap, sleep this old storm out eh? You’re looking kind of bushed.”
Jess just nodded and on swigging down the coffee, stretched out on his bedroll.
“I think I will Slim, I’m feelin’ kinda beat,” he admitted,” my darned head’s throbbing some too.”
“Sure, you take it easy,” said Slim kindly, “I’ll fix us some grub just now…when you’ve rested.”
Jess seemed to fall asleep instantly and Slim gently pulled his blanket over him and looked down at the pale slender face, looking so young in repose.
What in Hell had that bastard done to his buddy, he wondered, not for the first time. Jess had so far refused to talk about his ordeal, but Slim knew him of old… and figured his pard needed to get stuff off his chest before he could start to get back to normal and move on.
However as the afternoon turned to evening and Jess still hadn’t stirred it didn’t look like they were going to have that talk anytime soon.
It was finally the smell of bacon frying, much later that brought him back to full consciousness. However even after the refreshing sleep he still seemed real edgy and insisted on double checking the horses and around the camp before he would settle to the meal.
As they dug into the bacon and beans Slim cast his buddy an anxious glance.
“What’s up pard,” he asked after a few moments, ”you’re as skittish as a steer at culling time.”
He just shrugged and then after a moment said honestly, ”I dunno Slim, I just got this feelin’ we’re bein’ watched, followed earlier too.”
“Well heck Jess iffen we were you’d sure have spotted them by now, way you’ve been acting.”
“Yeah, well maybe I am kinda rattled, but I figure I’ve got good cause,” he said curtly.
At last thought Slim….”So do you want to tell me about it?”
Jess’s blue eyes looked up quickly and seemed to weigh up the question, before replying.
“Maybe it would help me understand some if you’d just tell me all about it,” Slim said kindly.
Jess gave an exasperated sigh, and then he finally launched into a very graphic description of what had happened. From the spin the barrel episode to the night he’d spent sitting his mount with a noose around his neck and lastly to Annie’s finally moments on earth, all delivered in a matter of fact, deadpan tone that somehow made it even more chilling to Slim.
After he had finished there was a heavy silence, as Slim just gaped at him, totally lost for words, unable to comprehend such atrocities.
“What?” Asked Jess irritably, ”you asked didn’t ya?”
A shudder of repulsion at what Hardin had done ran down Slim’s spine and he swallowed hard.
“I’m just so sorry Jess,” he finally managed.
“Don’t be,” was the gruff reply, ”it was what I signed up for weren’t it. I knew the way he was…. I guess it was all I deserved anyways…makin’ the money that way…collecting a bounty,” he spat.
“Jess, you can’t think that way! You can’t class yourself with those scumbags… You did this for a reason…and a real good one…. I figure you had no other way…so just remember that huh?“
“I guess,” he said softly, dipping his head.
Then he looked back up at Slim.
“So did you see her before you rode out…Lori?”
Slim shook his head, ”I visited Kate, day before I left and she said Lori wasn’t too good.”
“Darn it,” Jess whispered looking suddenly defeated.
It was completely dark now and the rain had ceased. The only sound the crackling of the camp fire and a distant owl calling.
After a moment Jess peered across at his buddy, “Why were you visitin’?” he asked quietly.
“I needed to know what was going on,” Slim replied evenly…”between you and Lori. I figured Mort knew, but he wouldn’t tell me…..”
“And….so did Kate?”
Slim just nodded.
“Yes I know everything pard…and I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time over it…..I was kinda shocked when she told me, couldn’t believe it.”
Jess gave him a faint smile, “Well how do you think I felt when she told me…another little sister eh?” And he threw Slim a bewildered look. Then he shook his head, ”She don’t know Slim, Kate won’t tell her…”he said looking sorrowful.
“Yeah, I know pard, seems the doc agrees with her too. He reckons the shock of finding out about everything would be just too much for her to cope with.”
Jess took off his hat, tossed it aside and ran a hand through his hair.
“I guess there ain’t nuthin’ I can do about that,” he said, ”But it hurts you know Slim…..not bein’ able to tell her….it’s real hard.”
It was later that night when Slim was suddenly awakened by the sound of Jess leaping from his bedroll, gun in hand and scanning the camp.
“What’s up?” whispered Slim, suddenly alert, drawing his own colt and peering into the dimness beyond the camp fire.
“Dunno, thought I heard something,” he said before checking the horses and the immediate area.
He came back and slumped down, throwing some more wood on the fire…”Nuthin’, sorry Slim.”
Slim sank back down on his own bedroll and peered across at his buddy, taking in his pallor and edginess. But after the revelations of earlier he hardly blamed Jess for feeling jumpy.
Now his pard sat huddled up on his bedroll, peering out into the darkness, all his senses on alert.
Slim resigned himself to staying awake all night as the time ticked by and it was nearly dawn anyway he figured as he turned back to his pard.
“Jess, will you relax, you’re making me nervous,” Slim said softly, ”there’s no one around…and certainly not Hardin, if that’s what you’re thinking, he’s dead pard, you know that.”
“Sure I do,” came the angry reply….”it’s just…..“
“It’s just what Jess?”
“Annie, I guess….I feel so goddamn bad about her Slim. I keep thinkin’ there could have been something more I could have done to keep her safe….She was only a kid you know….same age as Lori,” he finished throwing Slim a heartrendingly sad glance.
“Uh, it’s real hard, I know that Jess… but it seems to me, you did all you could….Hell you’d got that bastard handcuffed and under arrest….and then she went and poisoned you and let him go….I hate to say it, but she kind of brought that on herself…You were keeping her safe, until that happened….”
Suddenly there was the sound of a twig snapping and a shadowy form stepped forwards.
A young half caste boy stood there wielding a rifle aimed at Jess’s head.
He was dressed in buckskin, a lethal looking knife at his belt and wore moccasins…
“Is that true,” he asked glaring at Jess…”were you keeping her safe Mr. Harper….until that happened?”
“Who in hell are you!” Jess countered.
“Jay….I was Annie’s boy….we were gonna be wed…..until she took off with that lowlife Hardin.”
Jess looked distressed, “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said quietly.
“So did you?”…..the boy persisted.
Jess nodded, “Yeah, I guess I did…tried as best I could to keep her safe Jay….I told her he was a murderin’ bastard, but she wouldn’t believe me…..until it was too damn late that is,” he said bitterly.
Jay seemed to accept that and then said, ”What happened…in the end?”
Jess looked down, unable or unwilling to answer, Slim wasn’t sure which.
“Don’t do this to yourself boy,” Slim said, ”moving towards the youngster,” it can’t do any good.”
Jay turned the gun on Slim, who then stopped dead in his tracks.
“I have to know Mister, I just have to,” he said looking close to tears.
“I was cuffed,” Jess said, so softly that the boy came forwards a pace to hear him.
“Hardin said he’d had enough, was gonna finish it…..kill me in cold blood…” he sighed deeply and looked at the boy, “that’s when she pleaded for my life.”
The youngster just stared at him, willing him to go on.
“That made Jack real mad,” Jess continued in the same hushed tone…”he grabbed her……. Tried to force her to..……” he just shook his head, unable to go on…but his meaning obvious to the others.
He took a deep breath and continued…. “I had to try and stop him. I kicked the ashes from the fire in his face and she escaped. Hardin and me fought…but I had no chance…...tied the way I was….then…..”
He stopped again, looking down, the memory of what happened next making him feel sick to his stomach.
“Please, I have to know…..”
Jess just stared hard at the youngster, but finally carried on.
“She’d had enough…finally seen the light I guess…She was out of there…made for her horse….and he called after her, said, ‘don’t walk away from me’.“
Jess shook his head and sighed deeply, ”I knew, knew then it was all over. I yelled at her to stop…but it was too late…..He back shot her…. I’m so goddamn sorry boy,” he said again, sincerely.
The youngster seemed to droop. The hand holding his rifle relaxed, he dropped it to the ground and sinking to his knees, put his head in his hands and began to weep quietly.
Jess and Slim exchanged a concerned glance, before Slim finally went over and helped him up and across to the camp fire, whilst Jess poured him a coffee with a drop of Red Eye.
Much later when Jay had been persuaded to stay the night and had fallen into a deep sleep, helped along by another drop of Red Eye, Slim and Jess were able to discuss the matter.
“He looks so darned young,” said Slim peering down at the sleeping boy, “can’t be more than 17 or 18.”
“I reckon,” Jess mused. Then gave his buddy a small smile, “I said we were bein’ watched didn’t I…”
Slim nodded, and put his hands up in surrender, ”I guess not much gets past you out in the Big Open,” he conceded.
“It was the moccasins that fooled me,” Jess said, ”they hardly leave any tracks, walk real soft too, that and his Indian blood I guess he’s real good at seein’ without being seen.”
“Just a damn shame he had to go off on that cattle drive and then came home to the news that his girl had just been buried.”
Jess just nodded, knowing all too well the horrors of burying the one you’d planned to spend the rest of your life with….* See #1 Loved Lost Survived.
“I wonder what made her do it,” he said thoughtfully, ”go and leave a nice kid like this for that low life scum Hardin?”
Slim shrugged, ”Who knows, the way young girls figure things?”
Jess nodded, ”Uh, that’s for sure…any woman come to that,” and they lapsed into a contemplative silence.
They were to remember this conversation much later, when they again had cause to consider the vicissitudes of the female mind.
The following morning the boy had gone.
Chapter 16
They decided to ride into town, instead of heading home. Jess was worried that Sheriff Ward had maybe not kept his word about confirming Hardin’s demise, or making sure the bounty was wired across. So he wanted to check with Mort.
It was nearly dusk when they hitched up outside Mort’s Office and marched in, looking forward to a reviving coffee after their long ride. They had both decided that once they’d seen the Sheriff, they’d pay a call to the saloon to catch up with their girls. Maybe spend the night, before heading home the next day.
Jess pushed the door open and both men stopped in their tracks when Lon, Mort’s young deputy, glanced up at them.
“Slim, Jess…welcome back,” he said standing up quickly, from where he’d been lounging, feet up on the desk, and offered his hand.
They shook hands and exchanged a few pleasantries, before Jess asked where Mort was hiding.
“It’s kinda early for him to be proppin’ up the bar ain’t it Lon?” he said with a cheeky grin.
“Oh, he ain’t in the saloon Jess,” Lon said quickly, “he’s out on business, riding posse.”
“Oh,” said Slim, “anything we should know about?”
Then Lon looked uncomfortable suddenly remembering Jess’s well documented friendship with Lori.
“Well…err, Kate Munroe was by earlier,” he said,” seems young Lori has gone missing.”
“What!” yelled Jess, “When….why….. where did he go lookin’ Lon?”
“Easy pard,” said Slim quickly, ”give him a chance,” and he turned to the now anxious looking deputy.
“So when did Mort ride out Lon and where was he heading?” Slim asked more calmly.
“Been gone most of the day…they were making for the old Benson spread and then he was going to try and track her. But the weather’s been real bad we had a storm in the night and been blowing all day…I figure tracking would be kinda hard,” he finished looking worried.
“Why would she take off that way…. in a storm and all?” murmured Jess, looking weary and deeply troubled.
“It seems she overheard Mort and Kate discussing something last night….Then this morning when Kate went to wake her she’d done lit out,” replied Lon… “I dunno what it was over though Jess, honest,” he said earnestly, not wishing to ignite the Harper temper that he could see was just beginning to simmer.
Jess banged a fist on the desk, eyes blazing now.
“Garldarn it,” he spat, “what was Mort and Kate doin’ upsettin’ her that way?”
“Come on Jess we don’t know the facts yet, let’s wait and see what Mort has to say huh?”
Lon moved over to the window and peering out gave a sigh of relief.
“Looks like you won’t have to wait too long Jess, he’s riding in right now.”
Jess leapt up from where he’d sunk down on the corner of Mort’s desk and was across the room in two long strides.
“Is she there, have they found her?” he asked breathlessly as he peered through the window, elbowing Lon out of the way.
A minute later a very tired and muddy looking Mort came in.
He had a protective arm slung around Kate, who was bleeding from a head wound and for once was looking every year of her age.
Jess’s anger was forgotten as he came forward pulling Mort’s chair out for her and gently helping her to sit.
“Kate, what in Hell happened? Are you OK?” He asked solicitously.
She just nodded, ”I’ll be alright boy, just had a fall from that dang horse of mine, lost his footing and pitched me off.”
“I wanted to bring her back an hour ago,” said a harassed looking Mort, “but she wouldn’t give up the search.”
“No sign then? So what in hell was she doin’ goin’ off that way?” Jess asked now glaring at the Sheriff angrily.
“Jess just take it easy,” Slim chided.
Then the blond rancher turned to Kate and said, ”I’ll go fetch Doc Sam, that looks to be a nasty injury Ma’am,” and grabbing his hat he left.
Jess relaxed back onto the desk again and turned to Mort.
“Sorry,” he muttered, “but I’m just kinda worried, you know.”
“Well you’re not the only one boy,” Kate said tartly throwing him an exhausted glance….
“I just don’t know what she was thinking of, taking off that way; she knows she mustn’t over do things.”
Jess cussed softly, the thought that she might be laying somewhere hurt and frightened making his heart lurch in his chest.
“Why did you come back?” he asked throwing Mort a challenging look, “you should be still lookin’ Mort.”
Mort sighed, knowing full well that his friend’s aggressive attitude was down to the fear for his little sister and so responded as evenly as he could.
“Look Jess, we lost the light, no one can track in the pitch dark and besides Kate was hurt, I had to consider her too.”
“I guess,” muttered Jess wandering off and peering out of the window at the now dark street beyond.
“I just don’t get it,” he said again, taking his frustration out on Mort, “why would she do that, run off that way, huh?”
Kate had been dispatched to spend the night in the doc’s hospital bed and Lon had finished for the night and so it was just Jess, Slim and Mort sitting around his desk, a glass of Red Eye apiece discussing the current problem.
Mort sighed deeply and then knew he’d have to come clean.
“She overheard me and Kate discussing….everything,” he said raising his hands in a gesture of submission.
“What…everything?” Jess echoed.
Mort nodded.
“We were discussing you going after Hardin for the bounty… We were both real upset about it Jess,” he said sincerely, “thought it was gonna be a suicide mission. If I’m honest, neither of us expected you back, reputation he’s got…had, that is,” he amended.
Jess just shook his head, “Well I guess I proved you both wrong then Mort,” he said with irony.
He nodded and gave his buddy the ghost of a smile.
“You sure did. I got the notification from Ward a day or so ago, the money will be here by the end of the week.”
Jess said nothing, just waited for Mort to continue.
“So….I said that I figured you’d do pretty much anything for her, seeing as how she was kin….That she was your little sister….and how much that would have meant to you after losing your family the way you did….”
Jess’s head shot up at that, “Lori heard all this?”
Mort nodded, ”And there’s more too…“
“Oh, this is just great,” said Jess sarcastically….
“Jess!” admonished Slim, ”there’s no need to be so dang surly, Mort didn’t do this on purpose you know.”
Jess just hung his head, but declined to answer.
“Go on Mort,” Slim said kindly.
“Well, I guess the worst was when Kate said, that she should have told Lori all along that she was her real Ma….Explained all about her and Jess’s Pa…Maybe the kid would have understood? Then she said, ‘Should I have told her Mort?’“
The iron grey headed Sheriff looked down and sighed deeply…..
“That’s when Lori burst in on us… It seems she came down for a drink and heard us talking. I guess she heard your name mentioned Jess…and that’s when she stood behind the door…heard it all….”
“What did she do?” whispered Jess looking pale and anxious.
Mort shook his head, ”There was one hell of a lot of yellin’ and rantin’…tears too….”
“Well I imagine there would be,” said Slim thoughtfully, ”that’s one heck of a way to hear something like that.”
“I know,” groaned Mort…”me and Kate are so dang upset by it all.”
“You’re upset!” spat Jess jumping up and beginning to pace the room, ”So how in hell do ya think she’s feeling then huh?”
There was an uneasy silence and then Jess turned sad eyes on his good friend and sighed lustily.
“I’m sorry Mort, I figure I’m a mite edgy after everything that’s happened of late….I guess this is kinda the last straw…But it ain’t all your fault, not really…Just one of those things I guess… and I know you did your best looking for her.”
“We’ll resume at first light,” the Sheriff replied wearily. ”We’ll find her buddy, I promise.”
Jess and Slim finally took themselves off to the Saloon as previously planned, but Slim could see his partner was sorely troubled.
The saloon was real busy and the men were standing at the bar for a good few minutes before Millie looked up from serving and suddenly saw them.
She gave a little cry of pleasure before running around to the other side of the bar and hurling herself into Jess’s waiting arms.
Slim looked on smiling benignly as Jess kissed Millie long and slow, much to the amusement of the amassed company. It was a good few minutes later before Jess became aware of the cat calls and ribald comments and backed off reluctantly.
“Hell, I’ve missed you so dang much,” he whispered.
She said nothing, but the look in her eyes spoke volumes….
“Come along Millie girl!” Called the impatient cry of Tom, the barkeep, “You know we’re short staffed tonight, put young Harper down, plenty of time for those shenanigans after closing.”
Jess sighed, but let go his grasp on his girl and threw Tom a sheepish glance, before ordering a couple of beers.
It was much later, in the privacy of Millie’s cosy room that they were able to talk properly.
They were cuddled up together on the old couch, pulled close to a crackling fire.
“I’m just so glad you made it back safely,” she said sincerely, looking deeply into his eyes.
He raised a quizzical eyebrow to that, “So did ya think I wouldn’t?” he asked with a small smile. ”You don’t have no faith in me eh?” he continued.
“No,” she said quickly, ”it’s not that. But heck Jess everyone knows Mad Jack’s reputation…He’s just a crazy killing machine….anyone would have a tough time facing him.”
Jess nodded, ”I guess you ain’t wrong there,” and eventually she managed to get the whole story out of him.
“Oh Jess,” she whispered, close to tears, “When I think of all you’ve gone through…..“
“Hey sweetheart, quit frettin’,” he said quickly, ”anyway, I figure I’ve got more pressin’ things to worry about right now.”
“What’s that then?” She asked quickly.
He told her all about Lori’s sudden disappearance and was shocked when she heard of the reason for the young woman’s disappearance.
“The poor kid,” she whispered, “fancy finding out that way.”
Jess just nodded, still feeling pretty mad about the whole situation.
“I could dang well swing for Mort,” he said crossly.
“You don’t mean that Jess.”
He shook his head and threw her a rueful glance, “No, I guess not…I’m just so garldarn worried about her Mill… A youngster like her and sick too….what in hell was she thinkin’ takin’ off that way?”
“I guess maybe she just needed some space alone to come to terms with it all,” she said wisely.
He just shrugged, “I sure dunno where she’s doin’ her ‘comin’ to terms’ with it all though. Mort can’t find her. Her pony’s still in the barn, so she took off on foot, she can’t have gone that darned far…..”
Millie gave him the glimmer of a smile.
“Hey do you remember that big bust up I had with my Pa when he refused to let me go mustanging with him? He said it was no place for a girl and took my kid brother?”
Jess chuckled at the memory, ”I sure do, gee you were as mad as all get out…First time I ever heard you cuss. You sulked for a week!”
She grinned back at him.
“I guess I got my own back though. I took off, left a note saying as how I’d left home, sure put the wind up Mama, Pa too when he landed home that night.”
He shook his head grinning at her, “So where did ya go?”
“That’s the great thing,” she laughed, “you know that den we had out in the woods, back of our shack?”
He nodded, “Yup.”
“Well I holed up there. They hunted high and low, went to town, all around my friends and there was I just a few hundred yards away. Right under their noses and the last darned place they looked!” Then she shook her head sadly, ”Pa sure tanned my hide when he found me though.”
“Jess…. I said…..”
But he wasn’t listening any more….
He suddenly had the light of understanding in his eyes and he leapt up…
“Of course,” he cried, now beaming down at her, “that’s it …that’s where she’ll be!”
“Lori’s got a den. There’s this shack, real rundown, just on the edge of the old Benson spread. Nobody goes there. I reckon Kate don’t even know it exists and it’s pretty much hidden by weeds, trees all around it.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“It was Lori’s special place, she went there when she wanted to be alone to write….She kept this journal see, but didn’t want Kate readin’ it, so she kept it there… She told me all about it and we went once …. Dontcha see Millie, that’s where she’ll be hiding, I bet my bottom dollar!”
He made his silent way out of the saloon before first light and was well on his way by dawn.
After a loving night spent in his girl’s arms he had lit out early, with instructions that Millie should ask Slim to meet him at the old Benson place when he finally surfaced.
He had considered tapping on Lily’s door the night before, but then thought better of it, thinking Slim probably wouldn’t appreciate the intrusion.
Millie had given him a lingering kiss as he finally left and now as he rode on in the dim pre dawn light he reflected on how dang lucky he was to have her in his life.
Then he thought back to Lori and wondered how she felt now she’d had time to absorb all the revelations let slip by Mort and Kate. Was she mad, or upset? He just didn’t know and wondered how he would deal with the news that the person he had thought of all his life as his parents, were not. His aunt was indeed his mother ….and he suddenly had a big brother he knew nothing about. He shook his head feeling somewhat dazed at the thought and kneed Traveller on to greater speed….Just praying that once he found her, he would also find the words to help her come to terms with it all.
The first fingers of dawn light were just penetrating the dense thicket surrounding the tumble down shack when Jess rode up. Leaving Traveller loose to graze he made his way stealthily over to the dilapidated building.
He paused outside the old green painted door, which was hanging off its hinges at a crazy angle, took a deep breath and then stepped inside.
He waited for his eyes to adapt to the dim light within and then he saw her…..lying on an old cot pulled up to the dying embers of a fire in the grate. He could just make out her sleeping form, partially covered with a dusty old blanket.
He didn’t want to scare her, but knew he must wake her and get her home as soon as he could. In spite of the fire the room still struck him as cold and damp, the blanket filthy and threadbare and he was concerned for her health.
He moved forwards and then knelt down beside her, gently shaking her awake.
After a moment she jumped and gave a little cry of alarm.
“It’s OK,” he said quickly, taking her hand, ”it’s me Jess…..It’s OK sweetheart, you’re quite safe.”
She peered at him in the dim light and then sank back onto the pillow with a sigh.
“You frightened me,” she gasped…
“You frightened me too,” he said softly, “runnin’ off that way, Kate as well.”
Her face changed into a mask of resentment…
“My mother you mean,” she said sitting up straight now and folding her arms…every inch of her angry, and darned feisty Jess thought with a tiny smile.
“It’s not funny,” she cried, catching his expression….”how would you like it? How could they lie to me all those years Jess?” She asked her face now looking like she might cry.
His heart bled for her and leaning forwards he took her in his arms and held her close as she started to sob.
He gently rubbed her back and talked to her soothingly as he would to a frightened child….Then it suddenly hit him like a ton of bricks…. This was his little sister…His beloved only little sister and he felt like weeping himself, but with joy.
It was almost as though she picked up on his thoughts because after a few minutes the tears stopped and she pulled back and looked him in the eyes.
“There’s one good thing come out of all this sorry business,” she whispered…. “I’ve found you.”
It was some time later as they sat in front of the now blazing fire, stirred up by Jess and with the warm sunlight shafting in through the open door that they began to talk, really talk.
“I always wanted a big brother,” she said dreamily staring into the fire, before transferring her gaze to him…”and I guess I couldn’t wish for a nicer one…..or a braver one,” she said suddenly looking anxious. “Is it true what Uncle Mort was saying, you went after the bounty on that dreadful man Hardin?”
Jess just stared at her for a minute….huh Uncle Mort; he thought shaking his head slightly and smiling inwardly. Then he addressed himself to her question.
“I figured it was the only way to raise the cash for the treatment you need,” he said softly.
She looked down quickly, “You shouldn’t have taken that risk,” she said quietly, ”and anyway … I really can’t go you know.”
His head shot up at this and he looked bewildered…...”Huh? Heck of course you can Lori, you have to…“
“I can’t,” she repeated….”all my life I wanted a big brother, like I said, and now I’ve found you ….how can I leave you?”
Jess looked stunned, ”Lori….sweetheart, ya have to go……”
Then she was in his arms again, ”Fresh tears coursing down her cheeks.”
She finally calmed down again and looking up into his concerned blue eyes, said, ”I knew it…knew there was something special between us, first time we met….it felt like I’d known you all my life.”
He grinned at her then, ”Me too, I thought I was goin’ kinda crazy, and the worst was nobody understood…and I couldn’t explain it,” he said looking deep into her eyes. “I guess I didn’t understand it myself, until Kate let slip you were my little sister, then everything suddenly made sense.”
“I know just what you mean,” she agreed. ”I didn’t know how I could love someone I really didn’t know….It felt different from all those crushes I’d had on boys in the past, I wasn’t in love,” she said peering up at him, trying to make him understand…”I guess I love you kind of like I did my Pa…..”
Then she stopped and her face fell….”Or who I thought of as my Pa,” she said softly.
Then she asked the question Jess had been dreading since he found out the truth of their relationship.
“So what was our Pa like……and how could he cheat on your Ma that way?“
“You don’t wanna know,” he said bitterly. “Anyways I guess your real Pa was the one who brought you up, cared for you…Loved you Lori, he’s the one you should think of as your Pa….”
Just then there was the sound of someone clearing their throat and looking up Jess saw Slim, Mort and Doc Baker framed in the doorway.
“So here you are young lady,” said Mort striding into the room, ”Kate, err…. Your Ma that is, is worried sick.”
Lori jumped up looking a mite sheepish and peered past Mort in search of Kate.
“Oh she isn’t here,” he said quickly, ”still laid up at the doc’s place.”
“What, she’s hurt?”
“She had a fall from her mount,” Doc Baker supplied coming forward, and nodding to Jess, “she’d really like to see you Lori and I figure I should check you over too.”
Lori looked up to Jess and he gave her an encouraging nod.
“Go on sweetheart,” he said kindly, “we’ll talk about it all later huh?”
Once she had driven off in Doc Sam Baker’s buggy Jess turned and grinned at Mort.
“So what are ya doin’ here Uncle Mort?” He asked with a cheeky twinkle in his eyes.
Mort flushed up and looked decidedly self-conscious, “Well the kid felt kinda uncomfortable callin’ me Mort and Kate and me thought Sheriff Cory was kind of formal.”
Slim who had taken a back seat so far winked over at his partner before turning back to Mort, ”So should Daisy be buying a new hat then Mort?”
“What! Don’t be ridiculous,” blustered the Sheriff, ”we’re just good friends, that’s all. Kate’s a mighty fine woman, mighty fine…..”
Jess grinned across at his buddy, “He’s kinda protesting way too much, dontcha think Slim?”
Mort rolled his eyes and then threw Jess a hard look.
“I’ve gotten something here for you Jess and if you want it I figure you’d better keep a civil tongue in your head, or I might just send it back to the bank….”
He grinned then, ”The bounty Jess, it’s come through,” he said patiently, pulling a bulky wad of notes in an envelope from his vest pocket and passing it over.
Jess stood just staring at the offered money and ran his tongue over his lips, his mouth suddenly dry.
“Go on then,” persisted Mort, ”I guess you’ve earned it and then some…..it’s what you wanted isn’t it?”
“Blood money,”…he shook his head, “no it ain’t what I wanted Mort….“
Then he sighed deeply, “But I guess it’s what I need…so thanks,” and he took it from his friend.
Mort threw him a baffled glance.
“Good, well I’m glad we’ve got that sorted,” he said with irony.
“You coming back for a coffee Mort?” asked Slim, noticing that Jess was looking a tad troubled.
“No thanks; I’d better get back, now we’ve got this bit of business completed.”
Then he turned to Jess.
”I suppose you’ll be buying the tickets soon then, for Kate and Lori? The Doc reckons the sooner she starts treatment the better…?”
Jess just grunted and turned away causing Mort to glance at Slim and raise an eyebrow.
“I’ll be on my way then, catch you later,” and he mounted his buckskin and rode off with a friendly wave.
“Sure,” Slim called after him, “thanks Mort.”
“Yeah, thanks,” said Jess somewhat belatedly.
Then turning back to his buddy Slim looked anxious.
”So what’s wrong?” he asked once Mort had ridden off.
“Come on Jess you look like you’ve lost a $10 note and found a bent nickel , so what’s your problem, you’ve got the bounty, it should be all plain sailing now.”
“Yeah, yeah, so when was my life ever plain sailing?” he muttered throwing his friend a black look.
“Garldarn it Slim, its Lori, she’s sayin’ she won’t go…won’t leave me… now what am I gonna do?”

Chapter 17
Jess remained very quiet and withdrawn over the next few days. But it wasn’t until he came back from town one night somewhat the worse for wear that Slim knew he had to tackle the problem.
He had missed supper and Mike had gone to bed looking very anxious.
“He’s OK ain’t he Slim, he’s been really strange lately. He doesn’t wanna play with me, talk even, have I done something to make him mad?”
“No Tiger it’s not you,” Slim said gently. ”He had kind of a rough time bringing that old outlaw in you know Mike. I guess it’s taken it out of him some, he’ll be fine soon, you’ll see.”
The child had gone off to bed reassured by Slim’s explanation, but Daisy was not so easily fooled.
“Do you really believe that dear?” she asked as soon as Mike was out of earshot.
He sank down in his chair by the fire and Daisy joined him, taking her chair opposite and casting him a worried glance.
Slim sighed deeply.
“No I don’t Daisy, even though he had…well a terrible time out there, it’s not like him to brood on it.”
Then he explained about the conversation they’d had previously about Lori refusing to leave Jess and go back east for treatment.
“I just didn’t know what to say to him,” he said honestly. He asked me what he should do…and he shrugged, ”what can he do?”
It was much later that evening when Daisy had retired for the night that Slim heard Traveller trotting into the yard. After a few minutes he wandered over to the barn to see what had kept Jess from his supper.
As soon as he entered the dimly lit space he realized something was wrong.
Jess had unsaddled his mount and now he was leaning against him, looking like Traveller was the only thing holding him up.
“Jess?” he said softly.
Slim slowly walked over, so that he could see his pard in the dim light emanating from the lamp, suspended from the beam above him.
Jess half turned at his approach and surveyed Slim with bleary eyes.
“Jess you’ve been drinking!” said Slim, the comment sounding over censorious even to his own ears.
Jess turned and staggered a little, “So who are you, my Ma….?”
Slim flushed at that comment and looked embarrassed.
“It’s just not like you to go hitting the bottle real hard mid week….or anytime, to this extent,” he said taking a pace forwards and noting Jess’s extreme pallor, the sheen of sweat to his face and general unsteadiness.
“Oh quit yer lecturing,” Jess said turning back to his mount and starting to rub him down.
“What in Hell’s gotten into you….and where have you been?” Slim said, angry now. “Not the Laramie Saloon, that’s for sure. Tom wouldn’t have served you so much…and Millie wouldn’t have let you ride home this way either.”
“Well I ain’t been there have I?” He said angrily, ”I’ve been to that dive on the edge of town.”
“What Bawdy Bill’s place? I thought you said you wouldn’t go there again! Hell Jess it’s full of really rough workin’ girls and watered down beer.”
“Yeah well I weren’t there for the women or the dang beer,” he slurred, swaying again as he turned to glare at Slim.
“So what were you there for then?” Slim barked.
“A bit of peace where I can git drunk without everyone takin’ on like it was the end of the dang world,” he exploded, glowering at his partner.
“Well, iffen it’s peace you want I figure you’ve got it!” yelled Slim, before turning and marching out of the barn.
By the time he’d reached the ranch porch his anger was spent and he nearly went back to try and talk some sense into his buddy. But then thought better of it and after one final glance towards the barn retired for the night.
Jess spent the night in Traveller’s stall having sunk into oblivion shortly after Slim had left.
The following morning, when he finally appeared at the breakfast table, Slim threw him a disapproving glance.
“It’s a good job Mike’s already headed off for school, because you sure aren’t much of a role model this morning,” Slim said, but more in sorrow than anger, hurting Jess all the more because of it.
“Drink your coffee dear, ” Daisy said kindly, “could you manage some breakfast?”
Jess just shook his head, “No thanks Ma’am,” but accepted the proffered coffee cup.
He flicked a glance from Daisy to Slim and back, noting the kindly concern in their eyes and felt even worse as he sipped his coffee and wondered for the hundredth time just how he was going to break his news to them…….
He headed out pretty soon after that and spent the whole day riding fence, returning late in the evening again.
Slim was sitting out on the porch waiting for him and after Jess had put his horse up he wandered back across the yard, stopping on the porch.
Slim lifted up the coffee pot that was down beside his seat and raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Thanks,” said Jess quietly and sank down onto the other battered porch chair.
“Where’ve you been Jess, you’ve missed supper.” he said passing a cup across.
“Ain’t hungry,” he scowled taking a sip of his coffee.
“You still feeling sick?” Asked Slim knowing Jess had been throwing up that morning after his night on the Red Eye.
“No, I’m OK ….”
“So…where have you been?”
“Well I ain’t been in the saloon, if that’s what yer askin’…. I’ve been working, fixing that broken fence over on the North pasture if you must know.”
“What, until this hour?”
He just shrugged, “Pretty much….“
Slim decided to abandon that line of questioning and tried another tack.
“So what was last night all about, you getting drunk as a skunk….?”
Jess shrugged and then sighed deeply, ”I guess I was trying to figure a way to tell you something….”
“Must be quite an important ‘something’,” said Slim suddenly looking serious, ”if it takes you a bottle of Red Eye to figure it?”
Jess looked out to the horizon, now bathed in moonlight.
Then said very quietly, ”Yup, I guess it is….see I’m leaving Slim. You, Daisy and the boy,” he paused for a long time before continuing, “I’m goin’ to the Old Country with Lori.”
Slim choked on his coffee and it was a few minutes before he was able to reply.
“You’re what?”
“You heard…”
“Well I sure heard but I don’t understand it… What about the Business… Mike……Daisy…..what about us …...our friendship Jess…doesn’t that mean anything?”…..Then he looked bewildered…”Millie, you’re leaving Millie?”
“I have to go…you’ve gotta see that Slim!” Jess yelled.
He leapt up from his seat and grasped the porch upright turning his back on Slim, and looking out to the moonlit hills, as though they held all the answers.
“Why?” whispered Slim….
Jess swung around, ”She’s my sister….I have to help her, it’s her only chance Slim, you know that!”
“I asked you why Jess….Why are you throwing away everything you hold dear? Sure she’s kin, but it’s not all up to you…She’s old enough to take some responsibility too…Surely she must see it would kill you? Living in a huge city like London…. Leaving everything….everyone you hold dear….. Is that what you really want…… what she wants?”
Jess stood irresolute for a good minute and then threw Slim a heart wrenchingly sad look….
“Dontcha see, this was all my Pa’s doing…he should have looked out for her….”
“Hell Jess, he didn’t even know she existed, Kate never told him!”
“That ain’t the point, I do! I have to make up for him being the way he was….….So it’s for me to do the right thing by her… that’s what kin do Slim,“and with that he turned and entered the ranch house, closing the door quietly behind him.
Slim was up before dawn the following morning and shook Jess roughly awake.
“Wha….what’re you doin’?” he growled, angry at such cavalier treatment, and way before first light too.
“Wake up Jess I need to speak to you.”
After a moment Jess emerged from where he’d pulled the blanket over his head and looked properly at his buddy.
“What’s up?” he asked more pleasantly.
“Listen to me Jess, I’m riding into town on business and I don’t want you to say anything to Daisy…or anyone about what we were discussing last night.”
“Huh? Business so what kinda business is that?” Jess asked looking puzzled.
“Never you mind what kind of business. Just keep your mouth shut, until we can talk OK?“
Jess gave a cursory nod and settled back on his pillow.
“You ain’t changin’ my mind though Slim. I told ya how it had to be…whether you like it or not….I’ve gotta do what I think is right.”
“That’s what you think,” muttered Slim to himself as he made for the door.
It was still very early when he knocked on Doc Sam Baker’s door. His housekeeper Mrs Braddock answered and the middle aged matron cast Slim an anxious look.
“Oh dear me, is Mr Harper in trouble again my dear?” She said with concern.
Slim’s handsome features relaxed into a smile, “No Ma’am, at least he’s not sick, err…is the Doctor up?”
“Why yes Mr Sherman, just finishing breakfast,” and she opened the door wider. ”Go on through and I’ll bring fresh coffee.”
“He’s what!” gasped Sam sometime later. ”Has he gone crazy? He wouldn’t last five minutes in a big city like London, he’d hate it…and what could he do to make a living?”
Slim shook his head sadly.
“I guess he hasn’t thought it through properly Sam. You know Jess, he’s just so all fired up about doing what he sees as the right and honourable thing, that he hasn’t sat down and weighed everything up.”
“And you’re saying she’s refusing to leave Jess…him being her new found kin and all?”
“That’s about the size of it. It’s got Jess upset, real upset Sam.”
“Um… I think that young lady needs a good talking to….and maybe a clean break is what she needs as well. I know she’s not getting on any too well with Kate… I can’t see it working out if those two travel and then go on to live together. They’re like chalk and cheese. I reckon that is something to do with her reluctance to go too,” said the Doc thoughtfully.
“Uh, I can’t see Kate settling in a city any easier than Jess either,” admitted Slim.” She said just the other day as to how she was missing the Mountain something fierce….so to be in some cramped house in a teeming city….”and he shook his head sadly.
“Look I’ve an idea,” said Doc Sam after thinking hard for some time. ”I may just have the perfect friend and travel companion for her. Freeing up Jess and Kate….and I think she’ll go for it too. Just give me a day or two to wire a friend Slim and I think we may have our solution.”
“Hey that’s great Sam,” enthused Slim, ”but don’t take too long huh. Jess is getting kind of twitchy and it won’t take much for him to just take off with her…You know the way he can get once his mind is made up about something.”
“I’m on the case,” the Doc grinned. ”Now I guess it’s up to you to go and try and talk some sense into that young lady huh?
“Oh yeah I aim to! I’m just about ready to tell her a few home truths,” said Slim looking firm .”I feel sorry for the girl, sure I do. But she’s got to see how she’d be wrecking his life…and if she cares as much as she professes to…well then she won’t let him do it.”
“Good luck…. and you’ll find Kate there too…resting I hope…but I very much doubt it,” he said with an ironic smile…
He found Kate out in the barn at the old Benson place grooming her big old buckskin….and refusing to rest after her accident as the doc had surmised.
“I wondered when you’d show up,” she said turning and giving him an awkward smile.
“Lori says that Jess is giving everything up and taking her to England. She says I’m as free as a bird and they’ll manage….which is just dandy by me,” she reflected…”I guess I ain’t got a maternal bone in my body truth be told Slim,” she said with a rueful glance at him.
He just shrugged thinking of dear Daisy, ”I guess we’re all different.”
“Uh, I guess…but anyways. I know it should be me that goes….I’m her Ma after all…. What I was saying, about young Jessie, him taking it all on… that’s not right Slim, not right at all. He doesn’t have to do this for the girl… she ain’t his responsibility.”
“You try telling him that,” said Slim with spirit.
She shook her old head, ”It’s going to break his heart I know that for sure, leaving you and the folk at the ranch…not to mention young Millie…..”
“I just don’t understand how he could do that,” said Slim looking mystified.
“I reckon maybe he thinks she’ll wait for him? That he’ll be back someday….But I don’t reckon he’ll ask her to wait…. Knowing Jess that’s the way he’s coping, just hoping and praying she’ll be there for him, way she always has been,” she said sadly.
Slim agreed, “Maybe…”
Then he explained about Doc Sam’s solution.
“Only thing is I figure I’m going to have to get young Lori to change her mind. Then I can tell Jess she doesn’t want him along.”
“Well good luck on that one,” she said with a weak grin, ”one thing’s for sure….. the kid’s inherited the Harper Stubborn Streak.”
Slim finally tracked her down to the old shack.
He tapped on the open door before entering and peered down at the young woman, busy writing her journal.
“You busted free again?” he asked curtly.
She threw him a rueful look at that.
“Nope, Kate knows where I am…. Just catching up on this,” she said waving the notebook at him. ”Come and keep me company,” she said nudging an old chair towards him. “Is Jess with you?“
He shook his head. “So, busy making plans are you?” he asked nodding to the journal.
“Yes,”…..then she became aware of Slim’s less that genial attitude…..
“You know Jess is coming with me, are you mad about that?” she asked cocking a questioning eyebrow at him.
Slim took his Stetson off and raked a hand through his blond hair before replying.
“Yup, some I guess. That’s why I’m here.”
“Yes…..see Lori, ol’ Jess there can sometimes rush into things. He doesn’t always think things through….”
“Oh but he has,” she said quickly. ”He loves me you see Slim and wants to care for me….and I want to be with him….I always wanted a big brother…it’s going to be such fun together, he’ll love it there……..”
Slim sighed deeply, before turning sad eyes on her… “You really believe that don’t you?”
She just looked puzzled.
“He cares, he really does,” she cried then.
“Hey do ya think I don’t know that! I was there when he went after that killer to get the Bounty for you….Have you any idea what he went through, doing that for you Lori….have you?”
She just stared open mouthed, her eyes growing wide with horror as Slim spared her no detail of Jess’s run in with Hardin….About the torture he had been put through. The terrible wounding and then the following mental torture as he felt so devastated at young Annie’s death….and finally how she had met her end….
As he eventually stopped speaking Lori had tears streaming down her face ….
“He went through all that, for me?” she whispered.
Slim nodded, “But I guess that’s nothing compared to what he’s going to do next….”
“What…what do you mean?” she whispered, now looking pale and distraught.
“Well now you want him to go and leave everything he loves. His work with the horses…all his friends….and Millie….”
Her eyes opened wide in shock, ”I never thought….”
“No,” said Slim, slightly more kindly now…”But it’s not just that Lori. He’ll be like a fish out of water in a big dirty city like London…he knows horses, ranching…what’s he going to do for a living over there?”
She looked down and swallowed deeply, ”What do you want me to do?” she asked finally….
It was a bright sunny morning just three weeks later and all at the Ranch and Relay were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the noontide Stage bearing a very special visitor.
It was Mike who heard it approaching and yelled to Slim and Jess and then Daisy joined them all looking on in anticipation as Mose brought the Stagecoach to a juddering standstill.
Jess was there first and flinging the door open helped down a perky looking Lori accompanied by Doc Sam.
“Well don’t you look lovely dear,” said Daisy looking enchanted as Lori, dressed in a smart green velveteen outfit with a jaunty looking matching hat, stepped down.
“Real beautiful and grown up too, little sis,” Jess agreed as he offered his arm and escorted her into the ranch house for coffee, followed by the others.
Once they were all settled around the table the main topic of conversation was Lori’s trip over to the Old Country.
“I just couldn’t believe it when Doc said that his friend Doctor Saunders and his family were going over…and he is to work in the very same hospital where I will be treated,” Lori she said, he eyes sparkling.
“Isn’t Doctor Saunder’s daughter Lottie, the young lady you made such good friends with when you stayed in Cheyenne after your Ma passed over?” asked Daisy.
She nodded enthusiastically, ”She’s such a good friend to me….after Jess I guess she’s the one person I’d want by my side.”
Then she turned to Jess and said softly, ”I will miss you so much….but Slim was right, you’d hate it over there Jess….”
Jess’s head shot up and he threw Slim a surprised glance, but said nothing as Mose got up saying they must be off.
Then it was all hustle and bustle as they prepared to leave.
Suddenly Lori was in Jess’s arms trying to be brave.
“I love you so much,” she whispered, ”you’ll always be special to me .…You promise to write won’t you?”
He nodded, finding it hard to speak, “Sure,” he managed eventually…”sure I will.”
Then he helped her up onto the coach.
“Thanks for sorting all this out Sam, and takin’ her over an all…”
“My pleasure,” the doc said grinning, ”a good excuse for me to have a chat with my colleague before he heads off,”and he too jumped on board.
“So do ya want ta make it to Cheyenne this week or not?” asked Mose querulously, and they all laughed as he slapped the reins and set off at a cracking pace….
All save Jess, who was just staring after the coach, a look of deep sadness in his blue eyes.
Daisy hustled Mike back inside, lured by the promise of another cookie, leaving the two men together.
They retired to the porch and Jess sank down, staring up to the rise where the dust was still settling from the departing Stage.
Then he finally turned to his buddy.
“So what did she mean, ‘Slim was right’….have you been meddling Slim?”
“Huh, me,” asked Slim turning innocent eyes on his friend, “what makes you think that?”
“Well I thought it was kinda funny when she said she couldn’t live without me….refused to go …Then suddenly she goes off with this Lottie without a backwards glance. So what did ya say to her…huh?” he asked his eyes narrowing.
“Well nothing much pard….just as to how you’d probably pine clean away in that dirty old city….And how the only thing you were any good at was getting throwed by ornery mustangs and I didn’t think there’d be much call for that in London England…. And then she met Lottie’s brother. I figure that was the clincher, she didn’t want her big brother cramping her style I guess….”
Jess had been getting more and more irate as Slim spoke and a moment later he jumped out of his chair and yelling in mock fury chased Slim clean across the yard before depositing him in the horse trough and ducking him until he cried for mercy…..both men finally collapsing in tears of laughter.
Even though Jess had been larking about, the day of Lori’s departure he fooled nobody and Daisy and Slim could both see how much he was hurting.
He finally opened up to Slim late one night when they were sitting out on the porch several weeks later.
“I guess Lori and the Saunder’s family will be in the old country soon,” said Slim thoughtfully as he sipped his coffee, looking out to the moonlit mountains.
“I guess,” said Jess, “she said she’d write when she arrived.”
“Well you make dang sure you reply.” Said Slim, with spirit, ”You know what you’re like when it comes to putting pen to paper.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Jess tetchily.
But then he turned to look at Slim in the dim evening light.
“It ain’t the same though is it….?”
Slim knew what he meant at once, ”Nope I guess not pard.”
He sighed deeply.
“It’s so dang hard ya know Slim, finding you’ve actually got yerself a little sister and then she’s whisked away from you…..afore you’ve even gotten properly acquainted.”
“I know Jess…it was just so damned unfair, with her being sick and all….”
They were silent for a while and then Slim glanced across…
“Would you really have gone, left everything here?”
Jess shrugged and threw his buddy the ghost of a smile.
“I dunno Slim… I knew it’s what I felt was right…But whether I’d have been strong enough to leave everything….everyone, in the end?” He just shrugged “I dunno.”
“Well at least you didn’t have to make that choice.”
“Nope, and I figure that was due to you Slim....thanks.”
“I didn’t want to lose you did I?” said Slim with a grin….”And there was something else too…”
“I figured I’d never hear the end of it, all the local females wailing and lamenting your loss…It just seemed kinda easier to keep you right here,” he laughed.
Jess chuckled and then turned to his buddy, “There’s only one female that I care about…after Daisy of course….”
“Oh of course,” agreed Slim his eyes twinkling. “So how did Millie take it when you said you were thinking of sailing off and leaving her?”
Jess shrugged.
“I never told her, guess I got cold feet….in case she didn’t give me the right answer.”
“Huh, what do you mean?”
Jess looked surprised.
“Well I was gonna propose; take her with me weren’t I? Hell you didn’t think I’d run out on her did ya?”
Slim’s faced broke into a broad smile, “Well at last…so when’s the happy day then pard?”
“Hey, slow down there Slim, I said I was gonna ask her. It turns out I didn’t have to in the end did I…after you talkin’ some sense into young Lori and all….”
“Jess, honestly!”
“Oh come on pard…I’ll get around to it, but these things take time you know, can’t be hurried…..”
Slim chucked and shook his head…….figuring his partner wasn’t about to change his ways anytime soon.
Then Jess said thoughtfully, ”It’s Kate I feel kinda sorry for, having to keep that secret all her life. It can’t have been easy, knowing her daughter was being brought up by someone else.”
Slim nodded, ”She reckons she isn’t the maternal type. But I figure she’s just talked herself into believing that over the years, to spare her feelings. I guess if you can tell yourself you don’t care, then you can’t be hurt.”
Jess nodded, ”You could have a point…I wonder if that’s why she ain’t shacking up with Mort… I really thought those two were made for each other.”
“Doesn’t look that way, she’s gone back up the mountain and old Mort was looking like a bear with a sore head when I saw him last week,” remarked Slim sadly.
Jess just shrugged, ”I guess both of ‘em are a mite long in the tooth to start changin’ their ways now.”
Slim sniggered at that.
“Wha… what’d I say?”
“Oh nothing, I was just thinking, in a few years time it might be me and Mike sitting out here saying the same thing about you and Millie iffen you don’t stir your stumps and get a move on…She won’t wait forever you know pard…..”
“Aww Slim, don’t,” he said suddenly looking deeply anxious, ”we ain’t like Kate and Mort…Hell, I’m still a young man…real young…“
Slim could contain himself no longer and burst out laughing.
“Gee, Jess you are so dang easy to git a rise out of…..”
“Why you…….!”
The End
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