#57 Last Stage Out Before Christmas.

Last Stage Out Before Christmas

By Patty Wilkinson

(Some strong language, adult themes and violence)

Title picture courtesy of Mr Jack Stainaker thank you

Chapter 1

It was the week before Christmas and preparations were well underway at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station.
Mrs Daisy Cooper, the housekeeper, had baked and bottled, cleaned and tidied until the ranch house shone and all the cupboards were full to bursting ready for the festive season.
Meanwhile Slim Sherman and his partner and best buddy Jess Harper along with young Mike Williams their ward, had been busy too. Setting the yard and outbuildings to rights, fetching in extra firewood for all Daisy’s cooking and of course hunting down the all-important Turkey for the big day. A huge pine had been cut and awaited dressing, propped up in the corner of the barn along with some holly and mistletoe.
Jess had also been up the mountain to meet with old Denver James and his kin, to procure some of their elicit Moonshine, to help celebrate the season, somewhat against Daisy’s wishes
“Garldarn it Slim, if the Sheriff can turn a blind eye to a drop of moonshine at Christmas I don’t see why Daisy has to be so almighty sanctimonious about it,“ Jess grumbled as they secreted the spirit in the back of the barn.
“Huh?” asked Slim grinning, “Sanctimonious eh Jess…you been looking in Mike’s dictionary again?” he said chuckling.
“No I ain’t. As a matter of fact it was the Parson that told it me. He said how it was a real good word…means like….pious and self-righteous according to Holy Joe that is. “
“Well he should know,” Slim muttered, and then, “So he told you that when he was in the jail last week? When you were covering for the Sheriff huh Jess?” he asked chuckling again.
The Parson, a defrocked priest, was known for his lively prayer meetings. Fired with an excess of alcohol and evangelical zeal he was often retained in the cells for fighting and then held over to sober up. As Mort often said, “that good old Parson will convert us all even if he has to kill us in the process.’
“Yup, that’s right and something else too Slim, he reckons there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with Moonshine. The Sheriff agrees too, he figures it’s OK to celebrate the joy of the Holy season with a drop or two….all things ‘in moderation’ of course….he says,” replied Jess with a wink.
“Um…well Mort Cory turns a blind eye to all the Moonshine activity up the mountain because he’s real sweet on Kate Munroe, Denver’s kin. Everyone knows that…and as for the Parson, he’s just an old soak,” Slim admonished.
“Uh…maybe Slim, but he talks real good sense and I like him. Told me not to fret iffen I didn’t always make it to Church Service. But I was just to pray real good when I could, even if I weren’t in the Church and the Good Lord would provide.”
“Yeah, well I don’t reckon the Good Lord is gonna provide us with more firewood for Daisy’s cook stove, so I figure that’s up to you Jess,” Slim said grinning at his pard.
“Aww Slim, you ain’t got no soul,” but he went off happily enough to the chopping block.
It’s true what they say, Jess reflected as he collected the split logs sometime later, having worked up a sweat in the chilly yard. Wood warms you twice, once in the cuttin’ and second in the burnin’.
When he took some into the kitchen for Daisy, Mike was leaning against the table licking out the remains of cake making, from one of Daisy’s mixing bowls. Jess dumped the wood down by the stove and then shot out a hand to procure one of her cakes straight from the oven. But had it quickly slapped away by Daisy.
“You just leave my cooking alone Jess,” she said briskly, “there won’t be enough for our visitors….”
Slim who had just wandered in chuckled, ”Hey Jess you could make quite a name for yourself iffen you could draw a gun as fast as ya try and snaffle Daisy’s cooking.”
Jess ignored the jibe and simply joined Mike in dipping a finger in the baking bowl and licking it appreciatively.
“So who is coming for Christmas then Aunt Daisy?” The youngster asked.
“Well let me see…..er Mort of course and Kate Munroe,” and then turning to Slim and Jess, ”I’m so pleased those two seem to be getting along so well, she’s spending the whole of the holiday with the Sheriff you know!”
“Yes but who else?” Asked Mike impatiently, having little interest in the Sheriff’s love life.
“My Millie and Slim’s girl Lily, if Tom can spare them both,” asserted Jess.
“Oh I do hope so,” said Daisy her eyes lighting up at the thought of all the female company…. such a treat for her to have other women to laugh and gossip with for a change.
“Doc Sam and Carrie, I think that’s about the lot,” Slim said with a broad grin.
“No dear Carrie is visiting her aunt over in Denver this year, preparing for her cousin’s wedding at New Year, if you remember?”
“Oh yeah… I do now.”
“So that makes….er”…..and Mike busily counted up on his fingers…”nine with us too, right?”
“Umm…. its lucky there ain’t too many more or you’d have started to run out of fingers Tiger,” Jess said ruffling the boy’s tousled mop.
“I guess we’ll have to use the dining and kitchen tables and run a couple of planks between them,” Slim said thoughtfully, ”Let’s go see what we’ve got in the barn Jess,” and the two men went off purposefully to find some suitable timber.
It was the following morning when Jess was in town doing some last minute shopping that he had a message to go to the Stage line office.
He breezed in and smiled at the Stage line Superintendent, “You wanted to see me Mister Harrington? “
“Ah, Jess…thank you for popping in my dear boy. I’m afraid I need you to work over the holiday,” he said in his usual forthright manner, not pulling any punches.
“Huh, what say?” Jess asked looking more than a little put out, ”We’ve got folks visitin’ and I’m really needed home,” he floundered.
“Oh, of course you misunderstand me Jess….not Christmas Day itself. Just Christmas Eve, you’ll be home in plenty of time for the festivities I can assure you.”
Jess still looked less than happy, but knew Harrington was a good man and wouldn’t ask unless it was important.
“I really wouldn’t ask you unless it was imperative,” the kindly man said throwing Jess a concerned glance over his spectacles.
Jess gave him the ghost of a smile as the older man put into words his own thoughts.
“You see there will be a strong- box on board bound for the Cheyenne Bank containing a considerable amount of cash. The banks, in their wisdom, thought this a safe time to transport it…Ours not to reason why,” he said with a lugubrious sigh, “Anyway I don’t need to tell you we do a considerable amount of business with the local banks….so…..“ And he left the sentence in the air, just throwing Jess an apologetic glance.
“So we hafta keep ‘em sweet,” Jess finished.
“Ah, yes exactly. So are you willing to ride shot-gun for me Jess? I can promise you substantial recompense for your trouble.”
Jess was pretty sure that any which way he was bound to do it…Heck Slim would be real mad iffen he got them in bad with the Stage Superintendent, so decided to give in gracefully.
“Sure Mister Harrington, I can do that and I’ll be back home Christmas Eve ya say?”
“Yes, you’ll be on the last Stage out bound for Laramie….you can be dropped off at the Relay on the way back in plenty of time to help young Mike put his stocking up, OK?”
Jess agreed and the two shook hands, sealing the deal.
Chapter 2
“Well there weren’t nuthin’ I could say Slim,” Jess said later when they were discussing the matter in the barn. He turned to face his friend, from where he was grooming Traveller, ”He is the boss after all.”
“I know and you did the right thing Jess, it’s just that Mike will be so disappointed, it’s kind of tradition that we all dress the tree Christmas Eve.”
“I know Slim….but how about we do it a few days early, huh…..won’t matter for once.”
So a couple of days later the tree was hauled inside, put to the right of the fireplace and secured in a large old wooden barrel. Daisy covered the base in pretty red material and it all looked very festive.
Jess and Mike had their heads stuck in the dusty old box that had been full of Christmas decorations, recently liberated from the attic by Slim….and were looking for something.
“Here they are!” said Mike triumphantly holding up some beautifully carved Nativity figures. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus had been painstakingly carved by Jess for Mike on his first Christmas with them and was much-loved by the youngster.
He held the figures almost reverently before putting them in pride of place below the tree as the finishing touch and all sat back to admire their hard work.
The dark green, sweetly smelling pine was now adorned with treasures. Some dating back to when the Sherman family arrived from the Old Country. Delicate glass baubles brought by Slim’s Ma. Others more recently made decorations courtesy of Slim, his kid brother Andy and some made by Mike at school….
“Well I think that’s the very nicest tree we’ve had,” said Daisy coming in from the kitchen and drying her hands on her apron, beaming at them all.
“You say that every year Daisy,” said Jess grinning at her…..
“I know and every year I mean it,” she said with her warm smile.
Then Jess turned to Mike, “You’re kinda quiet Tiger…are you OK?”
The child turned tremulous eyes on his hero….”I guess…but it just won’t be the same with you away on Christmas Eve Jess…”
“Hey buddy, it’ll be OK,” he said pulling the boy into a bear hug, before sitting back and looking deeply into his eyes…”Mister Harrington promised I’d be home by supper time…”
The child turned his gaze to the window where gentle snowflakes had been falling for the past hour or so…
“But what if the weather’s real bad and you can’t make it back?” he persisted….
“Well iffen the weather’s bad and the Stage has to go direct to Laramie I guess I’ll get a hire horse from old Bert at the livery…and be home first thing on Christmas morning….so don’t fret huh…..”
“OK I guess,” said the boy, still looking rather wistful.
Daisy came to the rescue however and suggested milk and cookies and was soon rewarded by a happy grin from young Mike.
However he turned and looked back at Jess as he headed to the kitchen with Daisy…”You promise Jess….you will be home?”
“Said so didn’t I, one way or the other,” he said with a wink, and the youngster grinned and wandered off to the cookie jar.
But Slim was to remember this conversation much later….
Jess set off for Cheyenne early on the 23rd December, waving from the box where he sat up with Mose. He had his rifle across his knees and a broad grin on his handsome features… “I’ll fetch ya some candy from Cheyenne Tiger,” was his parting shot as Mose slapped the reins and hustled the team out of the yard and up the rise at a fast trot.
The weather was bright and sunny with just a fine dusting of snow on the ground and they made good time as there were no passengers or luggage to weigh them down.
Jess kept alert throughout the journey, but the only ‘outlaws’ they saw was a band of hungry wolves giving tongue off in the mountain foothills and a sharp eyed eagle hovering overhead.
When the strong box had been safely delivered to the bank, the two men parted company. Mose to the local saloon, Jess across to the Sheriff’s office to report the safe delivery of the important cargo.
He marched in and found his old buddy Doug Masters sitting at his desk, reading the local newspaper.
He glanced up when Jess entered and his rugged features relaxed into a welcoming smile…
“Howdy Jess, good journey all safely delivered?” He asked.
“Sure is,” Jess agreed, straddling a chair in front of the Sheriff’s desk…and beaming at his friend.
“Well you’re looking pretty chipper for a man that’s been dragged from the bosom of his family to work over the holiday,” said Doug grinning back.
“Ah, not over the holiday,” Jess said quickly, ”I’m takin’ the last Stage out tomorrow, be home by supper Christmas Eve if there’s any justice in the world.”
“Umm…and if God’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise,” Doug said chuckling at his friend’s good humour.
“You’re still looking mighty pleased with yourself….Don’t tell me you’re staying at Ma Johnson’s Boarding House and young Millie’s visiting her Ma?”
Jess shook his head a shadow momentarily crossing his face….but he recovered quickly. “Nope, Millie’s back home in Laramie. Tom couldn’t spare her to visit with her Ma and Mrs Johnson’s jam packed with guests anyway. She’d be away a week or so if she travelled over here. But at least Tom’s letting her come to the ranch for the day,” he finished with a soppy grin on his face. “She’s gonna catch up with her Ma week after New Year instead, the saloon should be pretty quiet then.”
“OK…so what is making you look like a dog with two tails then Jess?”
At that Jess put a hand in his vest pocket and pulled out a small leather pouch and threw the contents on the desk, “Five Gold Quarter Eagle coins, not bad for a day’s work huh Doug?”
The Sheriff looked on in surprise,” Well I’ll be, and yup that sure is generous, from old man Harrington?”
“Yeah, he sure looks after his staff, said I’d get ‘substantial recompense‘,” Jess said grinning again, “and I guess he weren’t kiddin’.”
“Sure wasn’t …so how are you spending it then buddy?”
Jess shrugged, ”Oh I ain’t. I’ll maybe keep one back, the rest I’m sharin’ with them back at the ranch, ’tis only fair. Miss Daisy and the boy were kinda upset I had to work, and Slim is landed with all the extra yard chores…so yup, I guess we’ll share it out.”
“Say that’s mighty generous of you Jess,” Doug said, ”but I figure you’ll maybe treat yourself to a round or two in the saloon later huh?”
“Oh yes,” Jess agreed, ”I’d got me some cash put aside for that before I got me this windfall, don’t ya worry about that Sheriff… first rounds my shout huh?“
“Sounds good to me,” his friend said, “see you after work Jess.”
Just then a voice intoned from the cells out back,”Is that Brother Harper I hear without?”
Jess shot Doug a grin, ”Is that ol’ Parson banged up in jail again; heck Mort’s only just chucked him out of the Laramie lockup.”
“Yes and he’s going back there, well to Laramie and doubtless jail at some stage,” Doug said with a wry smile, ”He’s booked to go on the last Stage out…so you’ll have the pleasure of his company.”
Jess grinned, “He ain’t as bad as folks make out you know Doug.”
“Umm…you don’t have to arrest him every couple of weeks for fist fighting,” said the Sheriff dourly.
“I guess not.”
Then he called out, “See ya soon Parson, you just take a nap huh?”
“Indeed Brother Harper….and before my repose I will pray for the soul of your friend the Sheriff…if indeed he has one,” came the equally dour reply.
Jess rolled his eyes, “See ya later Doug.”
Jess made his way down the sidewalk crowded with late afternoon Christmas shoppers towards Mrs Peggy Johnson’s Boarding House, ‘Respectable Gentlemen Only’ as the legend above the door professed.
As he was ambling along he heard the sound of hymn singing emanating from the new Church at the bottom of Main Street and on impulse made his way across the street and quietly entered.
The Church was in darkness save for a pool of light towards the front, where a small choir was practicing carols for the Christmas Service. They were under the expert guidance of the Rev Joshua Wesley the padre from Laramie, Jess noted, and a good friend of all at the Relay Station.
He relaxed in the gloom at the back of the church and enjoyed listening to the age old carols that he had learnt at his Ma’s knee so many years ago. His Ma had been a good God fearing woman and had brought her brood up in the knowledge and love of the scriptures. Even now Jess was able to recite verses from the Bible and knew all the words to the Christmas songs although he would never admit it.
Finally the practice ended and the worthy folk of Cheyenne made their way in ones and twos down the aisle and out into the frosty afternoon.
Once they had gone Jess mooched down the aisle to where the Reverend was humming softly to himself and collecting the hymn books up.
His head shot up as Jess approached and then his kindly face beamed at the young cowboy.
“Why Jess my boy, what a lovely surprise, what brings you here?”
Jess leaned over and shook the older man’s hand warmly, ”Workin’ Josh, been riding shot gun on a bank delivery. So why ain’t you over in Laramie?”
“Unfortunately since the Reverend Potts passed away we just don’t have enough Priests to go around,” he said sadly, “So I find myself on a circuit nowadays…. “
“Like the Judge?” Jess said with a grin…
“Yes, I suppose so, but with happier outcomes I like to think,” Joshua Wesley said with a chuckle, ”So this Christmas I will be preaching in Cheyenne and next year back to Laramie….But fear not I will be returning to town within the week, so you can tell dear Daisy I will be taking the usual service next Sunday.”
“Phew that’s a relief, “said Jess, tongue in cheek and Joshua winked at him.
“Less of your impudence young Harper,” he said chuckling again.
The man of God had a lot of time for Jess and although he might not be the most regular attendee of his congregation he knew his heart was in the right place and he had a love and respect for God…Sometimes the Rev thought more so than some of his more regular members of the congregation…
“So, are the family with you then?” Jess asked.
“Oh my goodness yes, Mary and the girls, we’re staying with friends.”
“Good, good,” said Jess suddenly looking slightly uncomfortable…. “They’re …ya know OK…the girls…Hannah?” He asked looking slightly embarrassed.
“Yes, yes, my dear chap, they are fine. And Hannah…she is well….. err…over all that business now you know,” Joshua said with a kindly smile.
“OK…good,” said Jess quickly, desperately thinking of how to change the subject. But he’d had to ask…make sure… He cast his mind back to how young Hannah had suffered a monumental crush on him, showering him with anonymous gifts, a good while back, making both their lives a misery, until she finally came to her senses. * See #40 The Secret Admirer…
Then before he could think how to steer the conversation onto more stable ground, Joshua looked down the Church to the door where a young woman, dressed in a voluminous blue cape had just entered.
“Ah, Jess will you excuse me, I have an appointment with this young lady, Merry Christmas to you and the others!” He called over his shoulder as he made his way hurriedly down the aisle.
“Sure, Josh and same to you and yours,” Jess replied.
As he turned to leave, Josh hurried the young lady into the vestry. However Jess caught a glimpse of the girl and thought there was something vaguely familiar about her. But he just shrugged and wandered off in search of a room and hopefully supper at Ma Johnson’s place.
Chapter 3
Jess was received at the boarding house with utter delight when he knocked on the door sometime later. Peggy Johnson and her sister Betty both pleased to have the handsome young cowboy under their roof once more.
“Of course I can find room for you my dear,” Peggy said smiling up into his deep blue eyes….”What on earth would my Millie say if I turned you away?” She chuckled.
“Well I don’t wanna be any trouble Ma,” he said sincerely,” iffen you’re all full up?”
“Bless you boy, of course you aren’t a trouble, that’s if you don’t mind having Millie’s room?”
“That would be just fine,” he said although fervently wishing Millie was there to share it with him.
“And supper will be on the table shortly, I imagine you’ll want to be going off to the saloon later with your friends?”
Jess beamed at her and then impulsively leaned forwards and kissed her tenderly on the forehead, ”If I weren’t promised to yer daughter I guess I’d marry you Ma,” he said happily,” you sure understand how a man thinks.”
“Get away with you,” she said gently slapping his arm,” You go and wash up, supper in five”…and she marched off to the kitchen, hiding a smile, a spring in her step and twinkle in her eyes. Her dear Millie was certainly blessed she thought as she went off to rustle up Chicken and dumplings… “Poor boy always looks like he needs feeding up,” she muttered to herself as she went.
Much later that night Jess let himself into the Boarding house and made his way slowly up to Millie’s room at the top of the house.
Jeez, ol’ Doug could sure get stuck into the hard stuff he thought as he undressed and fell into bed….Thank the Lord the Stage out isn’t until noon and he sighed as the room started to spin slightly…
He turned on his side, suddenly feeling terribly bereft. Goddamn it he wished Millie was there with him. It seemed so long since he had held her close and made sweet love. He hugged the pillow to him and smelled a faint trace of the light floral perfume she always wore and gave a little groan as he clutched the bedding to him, finally falling into a deep slumber.
The following morning Peggy tactfully provided lashings of strong black coffee and little in the way of chit chat and Jess was again impressed by her understanding.
“Thanks Ma,” he said softly as he was leaving, “for everything, I really appreciate it.”
“Lord love you son, I’ve done precious little.”
He grinned, “That’s what I mean Ma, no fussin’ and frettin’ or lecturing me.”
“Well my dear a man’s got to go and kick the traces over occasionally and it is nearly Christmas after all,” she said with a broad smile.
After making his fond farewells he finally made his way down to the Stage office and met up with an equally hung over Mose.
“Sure was a good night,” the old Stage driver said, ”but guess I’m payin’ for it now.”
“You and me both,” Jess growled, “come on buddy let’s get this show on the road huh, I need to get home.”
“Hey hold hard there Jess boy, got us some passengers to load up before we can git going.”
Jess sighed deeply, “Oh yeah…..I remember now, the Parson for one. So we’ve got us some more?”
Mose tipped his hat to someone advancing behind Jess, “One just comin’ along now,” he said.
Jess turned and saw the young lady who Joshua Wesley had met up with the previous evening. Now seeing her properly in the morning sunlight he recognised her at once as the daughter of a neighbour, young Mary Smith…. She was still wearing the blue cape over her dress, only partially concealing her advanced pregnancy.
“Hey Mary, its sure good to see ya,” he said beaming at the young girl, ”Been back east in school ain’t ya?”
“Hello Jess,” she said softly, ”I was in school, but I’ve finished now, home for good.”
Then his somewhat befuddled brain was finally alerted to the fact that she was in the family way.
“Wow, I didn’t know you were Wed,” he blurted out, ”kinda young ain’t ya?”
Her face fell and then he glanced down at her left hand….oops he thought inwardly cursing his gaff.
“I err… I’m sorry Mary. So you goin’ home for Christmas?” he said quickly changing the subject.
“Yes, I wired Ma and Pa they’re picking me up from the Relay.“
“Well we’d better be getting goin’,” he said offering her a hand up.
“Excuse me young man…will you get my bags!” Said an imperious voice behind him and Jess turned to see Miss Agnes Cross, a spinster lady and retired teacher from the Cheyenne school. Also one of the most difficult women Jess had ever had the misfortune to meet. She had a sister in Laramie whom she visited often. Unfortunately every time she and Jess’s paths had crossed they had been at odds. Even dear Daisy said she was the most disagreeable woman she had ever met.
She was a tall angular woman with a permanently disagreeable expression on her face and could have been anywhere between forty and fifty Jess reckoned, with her homely looks and hair streaked with grey.
Now she stood there tapping her foot and tutting, “Well come along man, hop to it,” she cried irritably.
Jess glared at her and was of a mind to tell her where she could stick her darned bags, but then a strident cry rang out down the street.
“Brother Harper, Brother Shell, well met….I see my carriage awaits!” the Parson bellowed.
Jess groaned and clutched his head, “Oh God,” he muttered.
“Why whatever’ s the matter man,” yelled Miss Cross in his ear, ”you’re not ill are you Mister Harper. I just can’t abide illness, a weakness I always think, just get a grip man!”
Jess wished he could get a grip around her neck, but just marched off to fetch her bags and took delight in hurling them up onto the Stage, hoping the contents were fragile.
By this time the Parson had reached Jess and as he turned back from dealing with the bags, the old reprobate stuck a half bottle of Moonshine in Jess’s face.
“Fear not Brother Harper I come furnished with the nectar of the gods, should you feel the need to imbibe.”
Jess turned away quickly and gagged, but with great will power managed not to chuck.
“You OK?” asked Mose slapping him on the back, ”I don’t know, you youngsters just can’t take it can ya,” and he climbed up on the box chuckling to himself.
Jess took a deep breath and then handed Miss Cross up into the coach.
She settled back down in her seat and then observed young Mary’s interesting condition.
“My goodness,” she said in disgust, “whatever have you done girl!”
Poor Mary just dropped her head and blushed furiously.
Jess felt like saying well what do ya damn well think, but refrained and merely said briskly, “I guess that’s none of our business Ma’am.”
“Well of course it’s our business,” she said, “morals are sadly lacking nowadays and good God fearing folk must make a stand.“
“Yeah, well my old Ma used to always say, ‘judge not, that ye be not judged’ and I guess that’s pretty good advice,” he said glaring at the older woman.
“Mathew seven verses one to three,” intoned the parson lugubriously, ” Good advice Sister Cross, and what’s more…let he who is without sin cast the first stone….”
“Well I have none I can assure you,” she replied tartly.
“Are ya havin’ a dang prayer meeting down there Jess or are we gettin’ on our way?” Mose shouted down testily.
“We’re goin’,” Jess growled and pushing the Parson up into the carriage slammed the door shut behind him and clambered up to join Mose.
“Let’s get the hell outer here,” he said, sinking his head in his hands.
They had only been driving along for a few minutes when Jess felt something cold and wet on the back of his neck, his head still bowed as he fought rising nausea.
He looked up, his eyes aching in the bright reflected light and then realized it had started to snow again.
“Garl darn it, this is all we need,” he muttered, pulling his sheepskin jacket more firmly around him.
Mose looked up to the storm clouds racing in as the wind got up and tutted. ”Looks like it really means it this time Jess, I figure we’d better get a wiggle on,” and slapping the reins he urged the team on to a greater speed.
After a while he flicked a glance over to Jess who was peering morosely out at the increasingly poor weather.
“So was that Ernie Smith’s youngest you were talkin’ to just now?” Mose said after a while.
Jess merely grunted.
“So she’s kinda young to be in the family way ain’t she?” he persisted.
Jess shrugged, ”Dunno, old enough I guess.”
“Uh…well I don’t know about that Jess, by my reckoning I don’t think she can be more than sixteen.”
Jess just gave a low whistle but declined to comment.
Mose peered over at him again, just longing for a good gossip.
“I sure don’t know what old Ernie and Bess Smith will make of it,” he said lugubriously.
“Well I guess it ain’t none of our business,” Jess replied firmly, before pulling his hat down low, leaning back in his seat and settling down to sleep.
It was several hours later when he was rudely awakened by Mose elbowing him in the ribs.
“Jeez, it’s like tryin’ to waken the dead,” Mose grumbled as Jess finally surfaced from his deep slumber.
“Beats me how you can sleep up here anyways,” he continued to moan.
“Huh?” asked a groggy Jess squinting out at the now icy scene around them. The snow having stopped and the late afternoon sun turning the landscape….to a sparkling pristine winter wonderland
“I said I dunno how you can sleep up here,” Mose yelled back.
“Uh…well I ain’t now am I,” Jess snarled, ”so what do ya want Mose?“
“It’s that dang Cross woman, been bangin’ with her umbrella these last five minutes tryin’ to get our attention I guess. Reckon she’ll want to know iffen were nearly there yet,” he surmised frowning at Jess.
“So are we?“
“Nope…another hour, maybe longer….this snow is layin’ real thick here Jess can’t go too fast in case I hit somethin’.”
“OK, pull over and I’ll go speak to her,” Jess said grudgingly.
Mose pulled on the lines and the team came to a blowing, head shaking standstill….pawing the ground and wanting to be away to a warm stall and supper not stuck out there in the cold snow.
Jess slid down and hauling the door open said, “Yes Ma’am did ya want something?”
“Yes I did young man, it’s this girl here,” she said throwing Mary a disparaging glance. “She’s been fussing and fretting this last half hour. She claims the baby’s coming…but that’s ridiculous she’s said it isn’t due for another month.”
Then turning to Mary and enunciating like the girl was an idiot said, ”It’s all in your mind dear….just wind most likely.”
Jess ignored her and turned to the young girl, “Mary?”
She opened her mouth to reply and then doubled up gasping in pain a slick of sweat on her pale face and terror in her large blue eyes.
“How often are they?” Jess asked her quickly.
“Pardon…I don’t understand?” She whispered, after she recovered from the spasm.
“How often are the pains coming?”
“I…..I don’t know, about every ten minutes maybe?” She gasped.
“Oh nonsense…such a fuss about nothing,” Miss Cross said briskly, ”attention seeking Mister Harper…my girls used to try it on all the time in school pretending to be sick.”
Jess ignored her again and turned to the Parson, ”That right ten minutes apart?“
“I would estimate that would be a reasonably accurate assessment brother Harper.“
“That a yes?” Asked Jess looking sorely tried.
“Affirmative,” replied the Parson, ”and I will endeavour to check them with my timepiece if that would help?” He asked removing a pocket watch from the depths of his coat pocket.
“Yeah, thanks,” Jess said.
Then turning to Mary, “It’s OK sweetheart, plenty of time, we’ll be home in an hour or so, just hang on OK?”
She gave him a brave smile and he climbed back up on the box.
“Git ‘em goin’ Mose,” he said, ”looks like the baby’s on the way.”
“You heard me get these ornery beasts fired up some…unless you want a baby born in the back of the Stage that is?”
Mose looked horrified and yelled at the team, cracking the reins and setting them off at a lively trot.
Chapter 4
Jess thought they were home and dry, he really did. They had just passed the beginning of the Benson land abutting the Sherman property which was about three miles down the road. He could almost feel the heat of the ranch house fire and smell Daisy’s delicious supper. What’s more dear Daisy would know what to do with young Mary too. Heck she’d delivered more babies than Jess had had hot dinners. Sure everything would be just fine ….and then……
It was dusk now and they were rattling along at a fine pace when suddenly there was a huge bump in the road. The Stage bounced up in the air, followed by a loud cracking sound. The next thing they knew the whole Stagecoach had slewed to the right, sitting at a crazy angle and Jess and Mose were nearly thrown from the box. The old driver pulled on the lines and brought the team to a shuddering standstill. They stood shaking their heads and blowing. Their breath misty in the freezing evening air…an eerie silence surrounding them.
Jess was the first to come to his senses and jumping down from the box hauled the door open to check on the passengers.
They all seemed pretty shocked, but uninjured, so he turned his attention to the wrecked Stage.
Mose joined him as he bent down peering at the undercarriage.
“Much damage son?”
“Busted axle,” he said succinctly and then standing up kicked the rear wheel, “this ain’t goin’ no further either, wheels cracked too….dadgum it Mose, you must have hit a damn great rock in the road.”
“Well it ain’t my fault,” he declared furiously,” I was just tryin’ to git the little lady home as fast as I could.”
“Yeah, yeah, Mose,” Jess said wearily,”it ain’t your fault I know that.”
Jess sighed deeply. They were a good three miles from home and it was freezing cold. Deep snow lay on the ground and yup it looked like there was more to come. He had a cantankerous old Stage driver, ornery spinster woman, slightly inebriated defrocked priest and a very young girl about to give birth all relying on him.
The birth imminent if the shrieks now emanating from the Stagecoach were anything to go by. His head was aching something fierce and he felt like just lying down in the snow and giving up the ghost.
“Mister Harper….Mister Harper, I said what are you going to do about this!” A strident voice broke through his reverie, turning he looked into the furious face of Agnes Cross.
”I really must insist you get us to Laramie and as soon as you can young man!”
“And how do ya think I’m gonna do that Ma’am?” Jess asked turning hostile eyes on the infuriating woman. “What do ya want me to do? Wave a magic wand over this here Stage, ’cos that’s the only dang thing that’s gonna git it moving again tonight.”
“Well there’s no need to be facetious young man! It is your duty to keep us safe and transport us to Laramie is it not?”
“Well iffen you’d pipe down for a minute and give a man a chance to think,” he yelled, just about at the jumping off place now.
“Well really, I have never been so insulted,” and she marched off in high dudgeon.
Mose glanced over at him, “She’s got a point Jess what in hell are we gonna do? It’s way too far to walk…. And I guess we’re all gonna freeze our butts off if we hang around here much longer.”
Jess had been looking around him getting his bearings, ”We just passed the Benson land boundary a while back right?”
“Yes, but that old place is derelict and a good two miles up the track too,” said Mose blowing on his hands and stamping his feet to try and get the circulation going.
“Yeah, but there’s a line shack and stable just about half a mile up the next trail on the left,” Jess said excitedly, ”Slim and me use it all the time, when we’re over this side of the property. It ain’t no palace, but it’s stocked up with blankets, dry wood, straw, food for the horses and some store cupboard grub too…At least it’ll be warm and out of this dang wind.”
“Uh…well the way that girl’s a hollerin’ I figure we’d best make a move then Jess or the poor little tyke will be born out here in the snow.”
Jess cussed under his breath and then started organizing everyone.
“OK Mose can ya unhitch the team and then load ‘em up with anything we might need, food if there is any…..warm clothes too. I think we’ll need dry stuff later,” he said glancing up to where the snow had started floating gently down again.” It’s gonna be quite a walk, for the women folk anyway and I figure we’ll all be kind of cold and wet when we get there.”
Just then Miss Cross charged over, “Hurry up man,” she said addressing Mose,”unload my bags and get them on one of those animals…and be careful I have some valuable and fragile gifts.”
Jess shook his head, ”I’m sorry Ma’am but we can’t take those heavy boxes, just essentials. You got any food stuff in that lot, warm clothes a shawl maybe we could use for the little ’un?” He asked hopefully.
“What…what are you implying young man…that…that child is going to give birth here?”
“I guess so, sooner or later,” said Jess throwing her a quizzical look, “sure sounds like it…..so have ya?”
“What? Oh yes a Christmas cake and a beautifully knitted shawl a gift for my dear sister.”
“Sounds perfect,” said Jess cheerfully.
“Well really I wasn’t suggesting I donate those items.” she said looking uncomfortable.
Then there was yet another scream from the confines of the Stage.
“Oh for goodness sake take the things,” she said irritably, ”let’s just get going out of this cold!”
They were finally on their way. Mose leading the horses, Miss Cross marching along, her face set in a grim mask, the Parson swaying slightly and pausing occasionally to take a swig of Moonshine. Jess bringing up the rear, supporting young Mary.
Every so often she would pause and bend double in agony as yet another pain overwhelmed her.
Jess could do little but look on with concern as she cried out in pain and fear. But he tried his best to keep her as calm as possible. Talking softly and kindly until the worst of the pain passed and they could move on again.
“Listen to me sweetheart, it’ll all be OK. You’ll see….. this ain’t forever. It’ll all be over real soon. You OK to go on now, I don’t want ya gettin’ cold huh?”
She focused on his deep blue, concerned eyes throughout the contraction and then nodded, “Yes…I’m alright…”
“That’s good, real good,” Jess said softly,”come on not far now.”
However it soon became obvious that she wasn’t going to make it under her own steam and he ended up carrying her for the last few hundred yards or so down the track to the old line cabin. She was no lightweight either, bundled up as she was against the cold. Plus the extra weight of the baby and Jess really wondered if he would make it himself as he staggered on carrying his precious load.
He was shaking and sweating by the time the old shack hoved into view and he gave a sigh of relief.
Throughout the journey it hadn’t escaped his notice that Agnes Cross had completely ignored the young girl’s plight. Heck Jess knew the Parson was kinda out of it, having been enjoying ‘the nectar of the gods’, as he called the moonshine and old Mose had his hands full leading the team. But heck Miss Cross could have given him some support he thought bitterly.
Now as they entered the cabin and lit the lamps Mose went off to the adjoining stable whilst the Parson collapsed on the nearest seat and fell into a deep slumber.
Jess surveyed the scene and then looking over towards Agnes Cross said, ”I guess sorting everything out is up to us Ma’am. Could ya pull out that cot for Miss Smith?” he said nodding to where a couple of beds were stacked in the corner.
Agnes frowned and gave a huge sigh, but finally did as she was asked and Jess was able to gently lay Mary down.
“Right, I’ll get us a fire going if you can mind Mary,” he said, already on his way to find the dry kindling.
“Oh no, I don’t think so Mister Harper, it is not my job to care for the Overland Stage passengers that is your job. And I might remind you that I am also a passenger and as such deserve some service. So as soon as you have laid the fire you can make us a hot drink and some food.”
Jess stopped in his tracks his back to her and after a second he spun around.
The look in his eyes chilling….
“I’ll just say this once Ma’am. I’m doggone beat after carrying that sweet girl all the way here. I’ve got me the Ma and Pa of all headaches and it really don’t look like we’re gonna get home for Christmas the way things are goin’ and I hafta tell you I ain’t any too happy about that. Now unless you wanna see me get real mad I suggest you just buckle down and help me out some huh?”
Miss Agnes Cross pulled herself up to her full height, never afraid of confrontation, and then she saw the look in his eyes…The way one hand flexed over that dreadful gun he wore and finally she capitulated.
“As you wish Mister Harper, but your superiors will hear of this.”
“Well let’s just hope we’re all alive and you’re able to tell ‘em,” Jess said sardonically as just on cue there was the howl of a wolf off in the distance.
“We ain’t playin’ at this Miss Cross. It’s real dangerous being stuck out in the big open in winter and I’d really appreciate your help…OK?”
“Alright,” she said quietly, this time looking much more amenable.
Once the fire was set and Jess had checked on Mose and the horses he returned to Mary and was concerned by what he saw she looked exhausted and very flushed.
He glanced over at where Agnes was looking less than happy.
“Ah there you are Mister Harper. Please excuse me. I need some air,” and she disappeared off outside leaving Jess alone with Mary. He sighed deeply, one woman there to help and it had to be Agnes Cross of all people.
The shack and stable were of an unusual design in that they were all set in the one building with an open archway linking the two spaces.
Mose mooched through the archway from the stable area and glanced over to the young girl, now moaning softly.
“I figure we should make her a bed up in the stable,” Mose said thoughtfully,” there’s space. The stall right at this ends free and it’s plenty warm….give the little lady some privacy huh?”
Jess nodded, “That’s a good idea. She hardly wants us all lookin’ on when the time comes.”
“And when it does, who’s gonna care for her,” asked Mose, looking somewhat anxious, ”you Jess?”
He shrugged, “It doesn’t look like that darned woman is up for it, she might get her lily white hands dirty,” he muttered.
“Uh, well it ain’t like it’s the first time you’ve played midwife Jess,” Mose said with the ghost of a smile. See #5 The Return of the Bounty Hunter
“Yeah, well I weren’t thinking of makin’ a career out of it Mose. This is woman’s work, iffen there’s one about that is,” he said acerbically, ”Come on at least we can try and make her comfortable.”
The two men moved one of the other cots into the stall which was full of fresh smelling hay and it made a relatively comfortable discrete place for the young girl to give birth.
“I guess it ain’t like her bedroom at home or Doc Sam’s hospital bed,” he said looking down at their handy work, “but I guess it’s the best we can do.”
He had lit a lamp and suspended it from the beam above and it cast a warm glow on the stall, the only sound that of the horses contentedly munching their supper nearby.
Jess carried Mary through and laid her gently on the bed, covering her with a blanket, and was troubled to see how distressed she was. Each contraction now seemed to be ripping through her body and they were more frequent and very painful.
“Where in hell is that dang woman?” he asked peering up at Mose.
He shrugged,”I saw her a while back when I was fetchin’ the water in from the pump, said she was looking for the outhouse.”
A faint smile twitched at the corners of Jess’s mouth, “Well good luck with that one,” he muttered.
Then just moments later they heard the wolves baying again, but this time much closer and the door of the shack slammed as Miss Cross tore back inside, panting and looking decidedly put out.
She peered around the room and then seeing nothing but the recumbent Parson still sleeping, ventured through the archway into the stable part of the building.
“Ah, there you are Mister Harper, there are wild creatures out there that need dealing with,” she said breathlessly.
“Yeah and there’s a young girl here who needs a woman’s help,” Jess said firmly, “come and give me a hand will ya?”
“I’ve told you already young man, this is not my problem,” she replied turning on her heel and marching back to the fireside in the other room.
Jess glanced back down at the feverish young girl, the fear in her eyes mounting. “I’ll be right back Mary,” he said softly, and followed the middle aged woman out.
She had her back to him, warming herself by the fire and he strode across, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her around to face him…his expression furious.
“Listen to me Miss Cross,” he said in an urgent whisper,”that kid is going through hell in there, she’s in agony and is scared shitless. Pardon me, she’s terrified, all she needs is another woman to reassure her…be there for her is that too much to ask?”
“I…I don’t know what to do,” she said suddenly looking terribly vulnerable, ”I can’t help really I can’t.”
Jess relented then and said more kindly,”Look I ain’t asking you to do it all. I know what to do. I’ve delivered a baby once before. I just need your help, Mary needs it…please Ma’am. She’s just a child herself, you were a teacher weren’t you used to kids?”
“Well yes….but.”
“Well then,” and he turned back towards the stable. At the archway he turned back, “you comin’ Ma’am?”
She stared bleakly at him and then nodded, “Yes alright Mister Harper.”
They were greeted with young Mary wailing and crying hysterically, “Jess, Jess! Help me, make it go away,” she cried, ”I can’t do this I can’t……”
“Nonsense girl,” said Agnes Cross, “of course you can!”
Mary flicked her glance from Jess to Agnes and back, looking even more petrified.
“That ain’t gonna help any,” Jess said aside to Agnes, “can’t you just try and be kind of sympathetic…huh?”
Agnes sighed, but nodded and advancing on the girl took a piece of the clean rag that Jess had been using to wipe her face, and gently swabbed the girl’s perspiring forehead.
“Come along dear,” she said more gently,”be brave, it will all be over before you know it,” and she forced a tight smile.
As the minutes turned to hours and there was still no sign of the baby however, Jess began to feel concerned.
It sure hadn’t taken this long with the young wife he had helped up on the mountain that time. Stranded in a storm, Jess had been the only help available. When she had asked if he knew what he was doing he had told her he had birthed many a calf and foal and it couldn’t be that different. But oh how it was, he had confirmed later when telling Slim all about it.
Then the whole thing had been over and done with within an hour or two….Now it was the early hours of Christmas Day and poor Mary had been in labour for over ten hours and was fast losing strength.
She had been trying to push the baby out for a good hour and nothing was happening. Jess desperately wanted to ride for Daisy or even Doc Sam, but knew he just couldn’t leave her alone, hell at this rate she might well die before he could return.
He looked down at the youngster, now deathly pale. Beads of perspiration on her forehead and running down her cheeks, mingling with tears, her eyes wide with fear and pain, too weak now even to cry out, as pain after pain assaulted her weak little frame.
The Parson had entered some time ago. Even his Moonshine soaked; befuddled brain had taken in the seriousness of the situation. He had fallen to his knees praying zealously for the life of the mother and safe delivery of her child.
Agnes Cross had surprised Jess immensely in that once she too realized the gravity of the situation she’d rallied around, encouraging young Mary and doing whatever was asked of her without question.
Finally Jess turned to the older lady, “Things don’t look right, she should have had it by now.”
“What can we do?”
He shook his head, “Walk her around some, maybe that’ll help.“ It sure worked when the mares were in labour he thought wryly to himself.
They supported Mary and made a circuit or two of the stable and then she doubled up again screaming in agony as Jess lifted her up in his arms and placed her once more on the makeshift bed.
Then things finally started moving.
“I can see the head,” Jess yelled, ”one more push …come on Mary!”
Agnes who was holding the girl’s hand cried out emotionally, “Come on my dear once more…. We’re nearly there.”
“I can’t…I can’t do it anymore,” she gasped.
“Yes you can,” Jess yelled, ”you’ve gotta Mary….come on!”
One final push and the tiny baby slipped out into Jess’s waiting hands….Small, but alive and well. Jess cut the cord with his well cleaned hunting knife and moments later the little one gave a lusty cry.
“Well there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with his lungs anyway,” Jess said triumphantly.
“It’s a boy?” Mary squeaked, her face alight with joy, as Jess put the baby in her arms.
Then he glanced at Agnes Cross and saw the look of pure delight on her face…tears running down her cheeks.
“Hey are you OK Miss Cross?” he asked solicitously.
“Yes,” she replied haltingly, dragging her gaze away from the new baby and looking Jess in the eyes, “and you may call me Agnes…..Jess,” she said quietly.
Jess looked like he might well faint clean away at this gesture of friendship, but took a deep breath and said softly, ”Thank you Ma’am…err Agnes.”
Then his attention was drawn to the Parson who had leapt up from his supplications and was now grinning broadly, his wild eyes looking even stranger than usual as he peered across at the small tableau.
“Alleluia, Praise the Lord!” he cried loudly, making the mixed company jump.
”And a very Merry Christmas one and all! I do believe this calls for a celebration Brother Harper,” he said turning to Jess and beaming. “Let us drink to the birth of this agreeable baby and also to our Dear Lord this merry morn! Alleluia indeed!” He boomed.
“Merry Christmas,” Jess said shaking the old cleric’s hand.
Then he turned and looked down to where Mary lay back looking ecstatic, but weary.
“Merry Christmas Mary,” he said softly leaning down and kissing her gently on the forehead.
“Merry Christmas….and thank you Jess,” she said her gaze holding his, “I’ll never forget what you did….all of you,” she said including Agnes and the Parson in her huge tired smile.
“Merry Christmas Jess,” said Agnes suddenly jumping up from the bedside and giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek. Jess grinned back at her and returned the greeting.
Then he reached in his vest pocket and withdrew the little pouch containing his Gold Quarter Eagle dollars and placed one in the baby’s hand, curling the fingers around it, ”Happy Birthday, little fellah, ”he said softly.
“Oh Jess you shouldn’t,” said Mary looking delighted all the same.
“Hey it’s good luck to give a baby gold,” he said chuckling, “supposed to make sure they never want for anything in life.”
“I hope you’re right,” she said quietly and then hid a yawn, barely able to keep her eyes open.
“I guess it’s still real early,” Jess said,”maybe we should all try and get some sleep huh Parson?”
“Yes of course Brother Harper, I will leave the new family to rest. God works in mysterious ways,” he added, noting how Miss Agnes Cross had transformed, apparently, into a completely different person who smiled at babies and kissed young cowboys.
He left the stable and marched off to find his Moonshine supply, shaking his head in wonder at the miracle of birth…..”And in a stable too,” he chuckled to himself, “well, well, who’d have thought it.”
Moments later old Mose poked his head into the stable….”Does this mean I can stop boiling water?” he asked irritably.
“Huh? Oh yeah, I guess,” replied Jess grinning over at him.
“So what do I do with it all?” he persisted.
“I dunno do I?” Jess said, “It’s just what folks seem to do at a birth ain’t it. You could make us all a coffee though; you’ll find a tin of Arbuckle’s top shelf.”
Mose shook his head, but went off to do as he was bid and returned sometime later with coffee, liberally laced with whisky.
“Found something else on the top shelf too,” he said tapping his nose and winking at Jess… “a tad more palatable than that gut rot the Parson’s so attached to.”
Agnes accepted the proffered coffee and after wrinkling her nose and saying it smelt rather rich, she drank it down with relish, Jess and Mose finding it hard to hide their mirth.
“Right then off you men go,” she declared later, ”I need to help dear Mary here to wash up and this little angel too,” she said referring to the baby who was now sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms, wrapped in Agnes’s sisters Christmas shawl Jess noted.
Jess and Mose raised an eyebrow but relocated to the room next door.
“Dadgum it, she’s sure changed her tune,” said Mose once they were out if earshot,”callin’ you Jess and ‘dear’ Mary… Then offering to help her wash up, where’s that all come from huh? She wouldn’t give either of you the time of day before all this!”
Jess just shrugged, “Miracle of birth maybe. It affects some folk kinda strange,” he said vaguely, remembering the lump in his own throat when he’d held the new born.
“So anymore of that whisky?” he asked gruffly, trying to return to his tough male image, “And Mose…“
“You go tellin’ them in the saloon I’ve been playin’ midwife again and you’re a dead man…get it!”
Mose’s old eyes twinkled, ”Or that you get kind of a kick out of cuddling babies either huh?” he asked, having seen the look of wonder and adoration in the young cowboy’s eyes as he delivered the baby.
Jess grinned at him then, “Yeah that too. But hey he’s kinda cute ain’t he….huh?”
Chapter 5
It was sometime later when Mose offered yet another shot of whisky in Jess’s coffee, but he declined…
“I guess not, I’d better keep a clear head. I’m gonna ride over to the ranch at first light, come back with the buckboard, take these good people home.”
“We’d best turn in then and…”
But Jess never heard what Mose was about to suggest, as the distant howling that had punctuated the quiet night for the last hour or so, suddenly became much, much louder.
Jess put a hand up to silence Mose, ”Goddamn it, those wolves are a dang site closer and by the sounds of it a real big hungry pack.”
He marched across the room and collected the rifles, throwing Mose’s across to him.
Then just moments later there was a raucous yapping and yelping and an almighty thud as one of the animals threw himself against the door….
“Git the window Mose,” Jess yelled before tearing through to the stable.
“It’s OK,” he said quickly to the two terrified women before he wrenched the door ajar and took aim at the nearest critter. He shot it straight between the eyes as it charged for him and the noise scattered the others but he knew they’d be back.
He slammed the door shut and turned to the woman and Parson who had been awakened by the shots and now stood protectively beside the women folks.
“Our friend Canis Lupus I take it Brother Harper?” he asked.
Jess looked baffled for a moment, then realized the old man was spouting his Latin as usual, so he just nodded tersely, ”And quite a few of the dang critters too Padre.”
“Ah, but all God’s creatures my son, merely trying to provide for their young no doubt, a shame to slaughter them”
“Yeah well what are ya goin’ to do then parson? Try prayin’ with them…’cos I don’t think they’re of a mind to listen right now.”
The horses were now adding to the general pandemonium, whinnying in fear and stamping in their stalls, eyes showing the whites and heads shaking.
Just then the baying broke out once more and there were various thuds and crashes as the animals hurled themselves against the windows and doors of the old shack.
“I guess we ain’t got time to argue,” Jess yelled as Mary screamed in fear and the baby started crying loudly too. He threw his hand gun over to the Parson, “Go help Mose out,” he said curtly….”and aim to kill Parson; we ain’t got ammunition to waste.”
“As you say, Brother Harper,” and the older man lurched off, his wild eyes looking almost manic as he went to do as he’d been bid and the critters yelped and howled without.
Jess turned back to where Mary was cowering on the bed, Agnes beside her a comforting arm around her shoulders.
“It will be OK I promise ya,” he said before opening the door a crack and firing in quick succession, several of the wolves dead within moments. Others running for cover and then slinking back again on their bellies before attacking once more.
The Jess suddenly saw red.
Hell he’s been up all the dang night delivering a baby. He was exhausted and just about at the end of his tether.
Blind fury suddenly just took over and he charged out of the shack shooting indiscriminatingly until just minutes later, helped by Mose and the Parson, a dozen bloody corpses lay around the front yard of the shack.
He ventured off to the treeline several yards away and listened intently….but nothing. It was completely silent.
A silvery moon was shining benignly down, stars twinkling brightly. The scene before him almost magical as the snow glistened and sparkled in the moonlight. Jess stood there for a few minutes absorbing the atmosphere and taking deep gulps of the cool, refreshing night air, before slowly turning and retracing his steps back to the shack.
He stepped over the carcasses of the slain wolves, making a mental note to remove them in the morning before the women folk ventured out. He too hated the waste of the striking animals, but it was the law of the big open. Sometimes you had to kill or be killed and he knew he’d had no choice.
As he entered he was greeted by cries of welcome from Agnes and Mary.
“Thank God,” the younger woman gasped, “we were so worried when you went out there with those terrible creatures,” and the tears started running freely down her cheeks.
“Hey, its OK sweetheart, you’re just real tired. How about we all settle down try and get some sleep huh?” He said sounding a lot more relaxed than he was actually feeling. Jeez, it had been cold out there and if there was more snow to come….well things could just get kinda difficult he thought with true Harper understatement.
They had all settled down to rest, finding comfort where they could from the sagging old couch to a couple of low cots. Jess was just nodding off when he heard Mary call out.
He sat up from where he was lounging on an old armchair and peered over to where Agnes was sleeping soundly on one of the cots, Mose and the Parson also deeply asleep and both snoring gently.
He sighed and pulled himself up and mooched through to the stable.
“What’s up sweetheart?” he asked softly.
She looked kind of anxious and then,”I’m sorry did I wake you, I’m just worried about lying on the baby, I’m such a restless sleeper.”
Jess came and sat down beside her, looking down at where the baby was nestled in her arms.
Then he looked over to the manger attached to the side of the stall just near her.
“How about in there?” He suggested raising a quirky eyebrow.
Jess wandered over and checked it out, placing fresh clean hay inside. Then taking the precious bundle from Mary placed him almost reverently in the sweet smelling hay, still bundled in the cosy shawl, given with genuine affection by Agnes. The significance of the act was not lost on either of them.
“Just like baby Jesus asleep in the hay,” he said chuckling and turning back to her.
She smiled at him,” Are you remembering Away in a Manger?”
He nodded, “Ma taught us kids to sing that almost as soon as we could talk,” he said coming over and sitting back beside her…. “She put a lot of store by singin’ hymns and the like….”
“She sounds nice…”
“Yeah, she was….”
“Was…..is she dead Jess?”
He just nodded….
“I’m sorry… I didn’t know,” she said quietly…. ”I can’t imagine what it must be like not having a Ma”….and she glanced back to the manger, thinking if it hadn’t been for these kind folks caring for her , then her dear baby son might have been motherless.
“Yeah, well it was a real long time ago,” he said quietly, taking a deep breath.
Then changing the subject asked, “So what are ya going to call him?”
“I’m not sure,” she said hesitantly.
“What about his Pa…..are you going to ….you know get hitched?”
She looked so sad he wished he’s said nothing, but eventually she replied….”I hope so yes…. He was a boy at my school. Oh Jess I know what we did was wrong…but I love him so much. I wanted us to run away together. But he said no, we were to do things properly…He told his Ma and Pa about the baby and they’re going to help us….Once the baby was born they said they’d visit Ma and Pa. Talk everything through.”
“He sounds like a sensible kid,” Jess said gently, ”so maybe you could call the baby after him?”
She beamed at him then…”Yes of course he’d like that, his name’s Luke.”
He nodded, then he stood up, ”You’ll be OK now…huh?”
“Yes, thanks goodnight Jess.”
“Night Mary,” and he tucked the blanket warmly around her.
Then leaning over the crib, ”Night Luke.”
Chapter 6
It hardly seemed that Jess had closed his eyes before the first light of dawn started filtering through the shack windows.
Then just moments later he was cruelly roused from his slumbers by someone hammering on the door.
He was up and out of the chair, gun in hand in a split second, Mose not too far behind him, reaching for his rifle. Whilst the Parson sat looking slightly bemused and Agnes darn right terrified.
Jess strode over to the door and opened it an inch or so, gun at the ready and then threw it wide open a welcoming grin on his face.
“Denver you old son of a gun, what are you doin’ here? “
“Well I’ll tell ya Jess, me an’ the boys,” he said tipping his hat towards his son’s Cody and Mick, “we done see the Stage wreck. Then saw the smoke from this ol’ shack chimney and thought to check it out. So you folks OK?” He asked peering past Jess to the amassed company within.
“Come on in,” Jess said throwing the door open wide.
Cody glanced over at the wolf corpses, “I see ya had some company last night Jess.”
“Oh yeah, some,” he said,”I figure the bad weather’s made them a tad restless…hungry too.”
Denver nodded, “We’ll take ‘em off your hands if you want Jess, some good skins there.”
“Be my guest,” grinned Jess as he showed the three mountain men into the now rather crowded shack.
Agnes gazed at them in ill-disguised horror. From their filthy buckskins and unshaven, unkempt appearance, to the all-pervading smell of animal skins and liquor they were everything she despised in men. She hated the way they killed animals for profit and sold their disgusting and illegal Moonshine, but mostly she despised them for their ignorance and refusal to comply with the laws and rules of society.
Therefore she was more than a little surprised by the warm welcome they received from all the men.
“Well met!” said the cleric, suddenly becoming animated, ”Merry Christmas brothers one and all, Merry Christmas!”
“Howdy Den,” said Mose grinning,”kinda off yer beaten track ain’t ya?”
“Yeah, so what are you doing off the Mountain then Den?” Jess asked,”with it bein’ Christmas and all.”
“Well I’ll tell ya,” said Denver with a wink,”I have it on good authority that our Kate and the Sheriff are goin’ to be at your place over the holiday Jess…”
“Yup, that’s right,” he said looking puzzled.
“So, me and the boys figured that while Mort’s out of town it would be a good time to do some trading. I heard tell ol’ Tom, in the saloon, was running kinda low on supplies and one or two other folk….so we’re heading over there.”
Agnes could contain herself no longer and tutted.
Denver looked over and noticing her for the first time beamed at her, ”Why ‘mornin’ Ma’am season’s greetings,” he said pulling his disreputable old fur cap off and bowing low.
She merely nodded regally, but said nothing.
“This is Miss Cross,” Jess said quickly, “Agnes, this is Denver James and his sons Cody and Mick they’re…. err trappers,” he improvised.
The boys both doffed their caps politely too.
“An honour to make you acquaintance Ma’am,” Denver said now getting into his stride. But Agnes merely gave him a frosty smile and moved away back to her place by the fire side.
Denver looked slightly put out but rallied well and turned back to Jess, “So you folks are all OK, nobody hurt?“
“Nope, ’cept we’ve got us one more passenger than we started off with,” Jess said his eyes twinkling with mischief.
Then as if on cue there came a whimper and then a shrill cry from the stable end of the building.
“I’ll go,” said Agnes at once, glad just to get away from the pungent smell of mountain man.
She returned some fifteen minutes later looking astonished and saying,” Mary wishes to see you and the boys Mister James.”
Jess had already explained about young Mary’s baby and Denver was thrilled.
“Sure go on through Den,” Jess said at once.
As soon as they left, Agnes grabbed hold of Jess’s arm, “You can’t possibly let those dreadful men visit that young defenseless girl,” she whispered, ”it’s disgraceful, really it’s just not right!”
Jess pulled his arm away and shook his head sadly, maybe Agnes Cross hadn’t changed all that much. She was still judging every dang person she met, he thought irritably and usually found fault with them too.
“I can assure you she’s quite safe,” he said briskly, “come and see for yourself.”
As they entered, Mary and the men were chatting animatedly obviously very comfortable in each other’s company.
Then after a few minutes Denver said hesitantly, “May we take a look?” Gesturing to where young Luke was now cozily ensconced back in the manger and sleeping after his feed.
Mary beamed at him, “Of course.”
The three rough, tough mountain men made their way to the manger and peered in, a look of delight and awe on every face. Agnes’s jaw dropped at the way they conducted themselves so respectfully. So very humble as they admired the tiny baby. Bizarrely making her suddenly think of the Three Wise Men, come to visit Jesus.
Then they quietly wished Mary and the baby a Merry Christmas and tiptoed out for fear of waking the little ’un.
Once back out in the yard they resumed their usual rough and ready personas as they went about skinning the wolves, burying the carcasses and then throwing the skins on a spare pack horse before turning to where the Parson was watching them.
“Would you like a ride back to town Joe?” asked Denver grinning over at the Parson. Then he glanced up at the sky, ”A shed load more snow ta come you know…Git yerself over to the Sherman spread and you could find yerself snowed in I reckon.”
“In that case Brother James, that would be a most conducive arrangement…. if you have means to convey me?”
“Sure, no problem, as long as ya don’t mind ridin’ along with those skins?”
They left shortly afterwards waving fond farewells to Mose and Jess.
Jess too cast his eyes skywards to where the sun had retreated behind big grey snow clouds.
“I guess I’d better take one of the team and ride over to the Ranch,” He said, “will you be OK minding the fort here for an hour or so…?”
Mose rolled his eyes, “As long as Miss high and mighty there don’t start kickin’ off again.”
“Yup, I guess she is kinda sanctimonious,” said Jess relishing the word.
“Err…yeah,” said Mose looking slightly baffled.
Jess went back inside to let Agnes know he was riding out and she was ready for him.
“How on earth could you let those dreadful men in with that new baby?” She asked.
“They were filthy and so rough.”
“And a real good friend to Mary and her kin,” Jess said firmly…”Heck you saw how they were around little Luke, they’d sooner face a nest of rattlers than hurt that baby. They just wanted to see him and why shouldn’t they? I guess young Mary wouldn’t be here iffen it wasn’t for Den.”
“What…what are you talking about?” She replied looking askance
“When young Mary was about nine or ten years old she had a big bust up with her brother and said she was leaving home, way kids sometimes do. Only young Mary there was a real feisty one, so the very next day she did just that, saddled up her pony and lit out for the Big Open.”
Agnes looked shocked, but said nothing, just listened intently.
“She did real well, was halfway up that ol’ mountain before something spooked her pony and threw her. It was winter Agnes…real cold. God knows how long she lay there before ol’ Denver came across her.”
Agnes still said nothing just stared at him, now open mouthed.
“Well he took her back up the mountain and him and his kin, Kate nursed the girl day and night. Kate said it was a real close run thing….but they saved her Agnes. Saved her life and took her back down the mountain to her Ma and Pa. Nobody has ever forgotten about that. Not Mary, not her kin …or me. Sure they’re rough and ready. Pretty dang filthy too and yeah, they deal in bootleg whisky, but deep down, where it counts, they’re good men, real good men. They’ve saved my bacon more than once. So maybe it’s kinda a good idea to get to know folk before ya judge them too harshly huh?“
She flushed up unable to look at him, tears in her eyes.
Then she bowed her head, “You’re right, of course…I’m sorry Mister Harper.”
He gave her a tired smile, ”Jess, he said, ”I thought we were passed all that, it’s Jess huh?”
She nodded, “Jess.“
“I guess I’ll just go say goodbye to Mary before I head out,” he said, wandering off to the stable.
He sat beside the cot and took her hand as she was again tearful.
“It’s OK sweetheart,” he said sympathetically,” I guess it kinda goes with the territory feelin’ a mite blue…hardly surprising, seein’ as all you’ve been through.”
“You know an awful lot about it Jess,” she said through a watery smile.
He chuckled, “I guess livin’ with Miss Daisy, you kinda pick up some stuff. She’s always off helpin’ the doc or acting Midwife to friends and neighbours. We could have done with her yesterday,” he added giving her a rueful smile.
“No,” she said quickly, “you were just wonderful…. I couldn’t have done it without you…I’ll never forget what you did for me…Miss Cross too,” she said as an afterthought. Then she said thoughtfully, “She’s kinda changed hasn’t she? She’s been real kind to me, said that Luke can keep that beautiful shawl it’s strange isn’t it?”
He just nodded, agreeing she’d changed…but maybe not that much, he wasn’t sure. Anyway he had more pressing issues on his mind right then.
“So when I land back home I guess your Ma and Pa will be waitin’ on us. They’ll have figured that probably the Stage took the back route into town because of the bad weather, but I’ll have to tell them you’re here and everything’s OK. So err….they do know about, everything don’t they Mary?” He asked warily.
“Uh…yes,” she said hesitantly.
“Why do I think there’s a ‘but’ comin’?” He asked.
She now had a guarded expression on her sweet face, “Well I might not have explained that it was due quite so soon, they just think I’m a few months gone or I guess they’d never have let me travel home without them.”
“Yeah, I wondered about that. So when did you tell them?”
Again she looked somewhat cagey,”I sent a letter just a week ago. I travelled as far as Cheyenne with a school friend and her Ma, as I always do when I come home in the holidays. Ma and Pa always insist on that. Then I told them I was staying with her for a few days and that I was, sort of pregnant.”
She was sort of pregnant? Jess thought….um.
“Why did ya do that,” he asked looking puzzled, “why not just go home, and get it done with?”
“I just couldn’t face them. Then when I met up with Rev Wesley I opened up and told him everything, he’s so easy to talk to. He’s been wonderful,” she said, “encouraged me to write and tell them, then said he’d visit and support me when I’d had the baby…help smooth the way with Ma and Pa.”
“Ah, yeah, I saw you with him the night before we set off, he’s a good man,” Jess said thoughtfully.
Then he looked resigned, ”I guess it’s up to me to break the news then huh…about Luke?”
She nodded, ”I’m so sorry Jess.”
He winked at her…”Don’t worry, I’ve had to do worse and I guess once they git over the shock they’ll be pleased…real pleased….Let’s just hope they don’t shoot the messenger though huh?” He finished with a cautious smile.
Once he had one of the horses ready to go and wandered off outside again he was shocked at how much the weather had deteriorated. The wind was now howling, snow was obviously imminent and it was bitterly cold.
“Safe journey Jess boy,” Mose said rubbing his hands together to warm them.
Jess nodded his thanks and pulled his hat down hard, “I’ll be as quick as I can, keep ‘em safe,” he said, before kicking the horse off to a brisk trot.
Chapter 7
By the time he arrived at the ranch he was freezing cold and soaking as the snow had fallen relentlessly, the wind flinging it into his face making his eyes and skin sting as he battled on.
The Stage horse played up too, not used to being ridden and objecting to the terrible weather as well. So it took Jess all his time to stay on the animal’s back and steer him towards the distant ranch.
Finally they made it into the Relay yard, their arrival heralded by Buttons and Jess’s dog Blue barking in welcome and alerting Slim who came running out of the barn to meet him.
“Hey pard what are you doin’ up on old Joey and why are you so dang late anyway? Are the Stage passengers stuck in town? Ernie and Bess Smith are here ya know…Real concerned for their Mary, ” he gabbled with hardly a pause for breath.
“And a Merry Christmas to you too pard,” said Jess sarcastically.
“Yeah sure, sorry Jess, Merry Christmas….so what’s going on? “
“Can I git inside in the warm…dry off some huh?”
“Sure, sorry come on in coffee’s hot and everyone’s here.“
“Yup, the Doc and Mort with Kate and the girls…all came early yesterday to avoid the weather and to give Daisy a hand too. Come on in pard and get dry we’ve all been missing you.”
As soon as Jess entered he was swamped by their visitors all asking questions and wishing him the season’s greetings. Young Mike ran up overjoyed at his hero’s return.
“I said you’d be here Jess. Told Miss Millie as how you said you’d be here Christmas morning latest and you came through I just knew you would!”
Jess gave the boy a bear hug, then turned and hugged Millie to him as well, ”Gee it’s good to see ya,” he whispered.
Then Bess and Ernie Smith came forwards, ”Jess we’ve been so worried. Where’s the Stage and our Mary? She’s…. err, kind of sick,” her Ma said blushing, ”we’ve been so worried.“
Jess flicked a quick glance from Ernie to Slim and back and then said abruptly,”I guess I need to talk with Bess and Ernie…in private.”
There was a shocked silence and then the guests all melted away, leaving Jess sitting by the fire side with his good neighbours.
“I guess there’s no easy way to tell you this but…..“
A little later after some tears and recriminations, Mary’s parents were beginning to come to terms with the situation. Bess secretly delighted about the new addition, although she would have preferred a more acceptable start to her grandson’s life…. Whereas Ernest was slower to accept the news and was trying to control his anger, particularly towards the young man who had, in his mind, led his innocent daughter astray.
“We must go to her,” Bess said leaping up from the chair.
But her husband would have none of it. “No my dear you are only just over that nasty bout of flu and it’s bitter outside. I’ll go and maybe the Doctor could join us?” He asked looking over to Jess.
“Sure I’ll fetch him,” Jess said quickly, whilst Slim strode off to hitch up the buckboard.
He brought it round to the front of the house ten minutes later, Jess and Mike having filled it with soft hay to make the ride more comfortable and topped off with a tarpaulin to keep everything dry from the still falling snow.
Promising to be back within the hour they took off at speed heading for the old shack, Jess and Slim up top and doc Sam and Ernie Smith comfortable under the tarp in the back, Blue chasing along beside the horses.
“So what happened to the Stage?” asked Slim as they drove along.
“Busted axle and cracked wheel,” Jess said succinctly, “we hit somethin’ in the snow. I figure if we come out tomorrow we should be able to make good the axel well enough to limp home, fix it up there.”
Slim shrugged, “All we need, but at least nobody was hurt and you got ‘em all to the shack safely thank goodness.”
“We were lucky. I guess Mort with the girls and Sam must have passed that way in the morning before we made it that far, so we’d have been stranded if we hadn’t landed so close to the shack. I doubt anyone else would be on that road in this weather,” said Jess.
“Yeah, that’s right Kate and the girls thought it unfair for Daisy to do all the work, so they decided to come first thing yesterday and been cooking up a storm ever since,” he said with a broad grin. “And don’t fret Hotshot, I figure iffen you hadn’t landed by Christmas lunch I’d have come looking for ya….after I’d eaten of course,” he said with a bark of laughter.
“Why you!” And an unseemly scuffle took place, Slim nearly falling off the seat as Jess laid in to him, both men finally spluttering with laughter.
By the time they finally arrived at the shack however they were freezing cold, the temperature having dropped even lower and the horses having trouble making it through the deep snow.
Doc Sam gave mother and baby a cursory examination and judged both well enough to travel. Although he was most concerned about the effect of the cold weather on the pair and bundled them up as warmly as he could. Mary and Luke were soon on board, her father’s comforting arm around her as he admired his new grandson for the first time, his previous anger melting at the first sight of the beautiful baby. Mose and the doc jumped up into the wagon too and then it was time for Jess to help Miss Cross up. However once she cast eyes on where Blue was gamboling around Jess’s feet she froze.
“What on earth are you doing with that….that terrible creature?” she squeaked.
“That….that wolf!” she cried looking terrified.
“Oh Blue,” said Jess grinning at her, “he ain’t a wolf Agnes, he’s a wolf sheepdog cross….mostly dog where it counts though and he won’t hurt ya, honestly,” he said cheerfully.
“Uh, unless you mess with Jess,” Slim said as an aside to Mose, the two men chuckling.
She was finally persuaded to get in the buckboard, but objected violently when Jess told Blue to jump up too.
“Really Jess, I must protest it really isn’t safe having that wolf…err dog travel with us,” she said primly.
“I told yer, he won’t harm you Ma’am,” he said coldly. ”It isn’t good fer him runnin’ around in this snow, he’s walked all the way here and got snow packed between his toes…it’s real painful. I’ve cleaned him up as best I can, but he’s ridin’ back,” and with that the matter was closed and he told the dog to lie down and stay once he was in the wagon.
Blue sighed and lay down with his head on his paws, casting Miss Cross a baleful look, but never moved from where he’s been told to stay.
It was just ten minutes into the journey when Doc Sam voiced concerns about the baby and asked Jess to pull over so that he could check him over.
“He’s awfully cold,” he said looking worried, ”we could do with one of those wolf skins you say old Denver James took,” he said shaking his head, ”can’t beat fur for warmth.”
Then Jess smiled at the doc, ”Well I guess we’ve got the next best thing and he called Blue over, ”Sit here boy, right by this little biddy baby,” he said stroking the big dog’s head.
Blue gave the little bundle a curious sniff and then turning several times curled up beside the baby…the heat from his body warming the infant in a matter of minutes.
Agnes Cross had sucked in a fearful breath as Blue settled down but thought it wise to keep her comments and concerns to herself as Jess flicked a glance in her direction, before taking up the reins again.
However it was not long before the horses started faltering and slipping in the icy conditions and he handed the reins over to Slim.
“I’ll get down and lead them.”
“I’ll go, you’re already wet and cold,” said Slim.
“Yeah, so it won’t make any dang difference,” Jess said winking at him,” besides the horses work better for me, I spoil ‘em.”
“Well that’s sure true,” Slim said returning the smile.
However his smile was soon to fade as he saw Jess slipping and sliding and even falling a few times. But with true Harper stubbornness he refused to let Slim take over, “Ain’t no point in us both getting our doggone butts froze off Slim!”
Miss Cross blushed furiously at that and avoided the other’s eyes, all the men chuckling at this typical dialogue between the two old friends.
By the time they finally made it into the yard Jess’s teeth were chattering and everyone up on the wagon were pretty near frozen to the marrow as Mose was to say later. Save for baby Luke warmly snuggled up to Blue.
Jess stood panting and from what Slim could see the only thing holding him up was the fact that he was grabbing hold of the horses bridle.
“Come on pard let’s get you in the warm,” Slim said gently as he slung an arm around Jess waist and supported him inside the others following on.
“Oh my, Jess dear you’re soaking,” said Daisy hurrying out of the kitchen as the party arrived the guests rushing to welcome them.
“Slim dear please get a hot tub ready in your room.”
“I’m OK Daisy quit fussin’,” Jess said quietly, but it was obvious he was done in.
Slim ignored his protests and the tub was quickly placed in their room and filled up.
In the meantime he had been chatting to Millie and the others. She had stripped off his wet coat and gloves and he’d been made to sit by the fire shivering uncontrollably now.
“Come on Pard let’s get you warmed up,” Slim said a few minutes later coming back in and hauling Jess up from his chair.
Jess paused at the door to his room though and threw Millie a cheeky wink, ”So are you comin’ to scrub my back then sweetheart?”
She shook her head laughing and then caught Miss Cross’s eye and looked down blushing a little.
Then the moment passed and she, along with Kate and Lily made their way back to the kitchen where the preparations for the meal were well underway.
Back in the living room Mort, Mose and Sam were getting stuck into some of Denver’s famous brew whilst Ernie and Bess Smith chatted quietly to their daughter and admired their new grandson.
Meanwhile Mike made a fuss of Blue rubbing him down and bathing his painful paws.
Miss Cross looked on and was amazed at how gentle the huge dog was around the youngster accepting his ministrations without a murmur.
Once the task was completed to Mike’s satisfaction he patted the dog kindly and received a friendly lick on the cheek, before the big animal settled down by the fire to sleep.
Miss Cross smiled over at the child, who seemed quite well mannered she thought compared with so many youngsters nowadays.
“Jess was worried about the…. err…dog,” she said casting the boy a kindly look”is he alright now?”
Mike nodded and sat down beside the rather scary lady, somewhat reassured by her interest in the dog.
“Blue,” he said quietly, ”his name’s Blue and I guess he’s one of Jess’s best friends, that’s why he was worried. But it’s OK Ma’am he’s fine now.”
“Well that’s a relief,” she said with a tight smile, ”but I hardly think the animal is Mister Harper’s best friend.”
The boy nodded, “Not best, just one of ‘em alongside me and Slim and Aunt Daisy.” Then he considered for a moment, “And Miss Millie of course, he really loves her, they’re always doing yukky stuff like kissin’,” he confided.
Miss Cross took this in her stride, and said, ”Well I’m sure dear, but you are all people, of course you are his friends, but that err….Blue is just an animal not the same thing at all.“
“Don’t say huh dear, it’s awfully common, say I beg your pardon.”
“Huh?” said Mike again looking puzzled…
Miss Cross sighed, “It’s just that Blue is merely an animal therefore he cannot be classified as a best friend child,” she said firmly.
Mike took this in and then said, “But sure he can. Blue saved Jess’s life and I reckon that’s a good enough reason to be good friends ain’t it?”
“Isn’t it dear.”
“That’s what I just said didn’t I?” said Mike looking thoroughly perplexed now.
Miss Cross sighed deeply again and decided to give up on improving the child’s vocabulary and grammar.
“Saved his life you say?” she asked waiting to hear some childish tale.
“Sure did,” said the mop haired youngster his eyes open wide as he related the story of how Blue had spent the night cuddled up keeping Jess warm when he was away from home once and had been caught in a wolf snare.
“It just snapped shut on his leg,” the child elaborated…”and the jaws of the trap bit clear down to the bone, he’s still got the scar. I bet he’d show you iffen you asked,” he said seriously.
“Uh, really?” Miss Cross asked weakly.
“Yup snapped shut and he couldn’t open it and it was real cold. Then old Blue happened along and Jess thought he was a wolf, was gonna shoot him, then he saw his collar and next thing ol’ Blue there had cuddled up to him real good and stayed with him all night, kept him warm…until help came.”
Blue opened one eye and his tail beat a rhythm on the floor at the mention of his name.
“Is that true dear, it’s naughty to tell fibs you know.”
Then suddenly Blue jumped up and tore across the room and Agnes Cross thought the huge animal was going to attack her. But he ran past her and jumped up as Jess entered the room, putting his huge paws up on the cowboy’s shoulders.
“Hey git down boy,” he said laughing as Blue licked his face before dropping down and padding back to the fireside.
“It’s true Agnes,” he said quietly, “the boy doesn’t lie and that’s one hell of a dog, watches my back and saved my bacon more than once, sure he’s a real good friend.”
“I see,” she said quietly, “I think I underestimated him. You too Mike, I’m sorry.”
“That’s OK,” the child said quickly, before looking up at his hero.
“Are you OK now Jess?”
“Sure Tiger I’m real warm, you bathed Blue’s paws?”
“Yes sir all done, he’s just fine now.”
“Good boy,” Jess said ruffling the child’s hair and then the women folk all came in announcing the meal was served.
Chapter 8
At first Agnes Cross had reservations at being forced to spend Christmas Day at the Ranch, but it soon became clear that she was accepted by all and included in the generally cheerful banter…both the food and company proving to be most conducive…
Mose was in his element spending the day with dear Miss Daisy, as he always referred to her, and it was common knowledge that the old timer was kinda sweet on Daisy. Whilst she took it all in her stride and treated him with the care and kindness awarded to all her dear friends. However Daisy’s heart was absolutely free as air and the only feelings she had for Mose were affection, occasionally tinged with amusement. But the kindly soul would never hurt the old timer and she made sure he had an enjoyable time at the ranch with plenty of her good cooking, which was so appreciated.
Mort too was having the time of his life with his Kate….Gee she was a fine woman he decided as he watched her blue eyes twinkling and not looking her years at all. As trim and vital as a woman half her age he secretly thought. Her skin glowing and her unusual white blond hair framing her strong handsome face…Now if only she’d see reason and come down the mountain and find a place in town to call home. Maybe even with him…he thought bewitched as he was. But in his heart of hearts he knew Kate was her own woman and would never be tied down to a man again, after the sad demise of her husband….But even if she had her own place he could visit couldn’t he….He took another slug of Moonshine a soppy grin on his handsome rugged features.
The Smiths were in seventh heaven having already managed to forgive their daughter her indiscretion, so besotted were they with their first grandchild. Already busy making plans to meet up with Luke and his parents….and plan a wedding as soon as possible. But of course Ernest was still finding it difficult to reconcile himself to the fact that his beloved daughter now had another man in her life. And what sort of a man was he Ernest wondered, to get his dear daughter in trouble this way? He had sighed deeply; yes there would be some straight talking once he laid eyes on Mary’s fiancé and the boy better come up to scratch he thought bitterly.
Meanwhile little Luke had been put to sleep in a large basket of Daisy’s cuddled in a blanket and still wearing Agnes’s beautiful shawl… He had been happily watching the lights and baubles on the tree after Mary had fed him and had then fallen asleep. But now a bout of raucous laughter from Mort and Mose at one of Jess’s awful jokes startled the little one and he awakened crying.
“I’ll get him,” said Jess who was the only one to have finished eating, always enjoying his food at top speed. Mary nodded her thanks as he went and picked the tiny baby up, resting the little ones head on his shoulder, gently rubbing his back.
The women looked at the scene totally enchanted.
“He’s a natural,” Lily whispered to Millie as the baby immediately stopped crying and nestled into Jess’s neck.
“I heard that,” Jess said gruffly, throwing Lily a mock glare, then chuckling said, “Dang it Lily you don’t grow up in a family of five kids without learnin’ how to deal with cryin’ babies ya know. You’d get no darned sleep otherwise,” and everyone laughed.
After a moment he returned to the table and continued tending to the baby who seemed perfectly at home in this rough tough young man’s strong arms Agnes noted and she smiled, absolutely charmed by the vision.
Then she glanced up and caught Daisy’s eye and knew there was something she had to do.
When Daisy left the table a moment later to fetch some more cream for the apple pie Agnes followed her into the kitchen.
“Mrs Cooper…er Daisy, that was a wonderful meal…thank you.”
Daisy looked at her levelly, “You’re welcome Agnes,” she said thinking it strange that they were now on first name terms…after…well after things that had happened in the past. But Daisy was not one to harbor a grudge and merely smiled, before making to move back to their guests.
But Agnes put out a hand and stopped her.
“That’s not why I came in here,” she blurted out, ”although it was a lovely meal….. But Daisy I really must clear the air between us….what I said that day was unforgivable….I’m just so sorry.”
She had been visiting her sister and was a guest at the Laramie Women’s Group which her younger sister Freda attended…. Freda was rather a gossip and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. She had regaled her sister with tales of Jess Harper. The big bad ex gun slinger who regularly was involved in altercations in the saloon…Why that very morning Freda had seen him sporting a black eye and looking very much the worse for wear. She also muttered darkly as to strong drink and wild parties taking place at the ranch house. With Mrs Cooper being ‘no better than she should be’ she had quipped, living way out there with the two young men.
And so it was that Miss Agnes Cross felt it her duty to set this housekeeper on the right road by suggesting she leave the sinful house and as soon as possible. Miss Cross never beat about the bush and as soon as the ladies group had convened she took Daisy aside.
“I imagine you will think it none of my business my dear,” she said in her usual forthright manner, “but it has come to my notice that you are working in a house of…let us say ’ poor reputation,’ and as a God fearing Christian woman it is my duty to tell you that you must leave and as soon as possible.”
Daisy just stared at her uncomprehendingly… “I beg your pardon Miss Cross…. I think there must be some mistake? I am Housekeeper at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station.”
“Precisely my dear,” Agnes broke in,”a house full of sinfulness and it really isn’t seemly that a lady like yourself should be seen living alone out there with the likes of that Jess Harper.”
Daisy’s jaw dropped not believing what she was hearing,”You know Jess?” She asked weakly.
“By reputation only and my dear sister has told me a lot about him. He is a womanizer of the worst kind. A known killer and gunfighter Mrs Cooper…Daisy. Why only this morning Freda said he’d been brawling yet again……I really feel you are not safe there, not safe at all. Why a man like that could….well could turn on you….or worse.”
Daisy finally pulled herself together.
“I understand perfectly now. Your sister is the biggest gossip in town and not only is she totally misinformed what she doesn’t know she makes up!” Daisy said loudly, ignoring how the other ladies had suddenly realized there was unrest in their midst.
“Now I will tell you the facts and that will be an end to it. I am not merely a Housekeeper I am also a good friend to all at the Sherman ranch. In fact I would go so far as to say I am as proud of all three boys as if they were my own kin…As to implying that I am in some sort of danger from them that is preposterous. And just for the record, Jess is no longer a gunslinger as you so eloquently term it, “she said sarcastically, “but a partner in the ranch business. Oh yes and he was involved in an altercation yesterday undergoing his duties as temporary Deputy Sheriff. So if I hear any more of your lies and nonsense I will suggest Mister Harper and Mister Sherman consult the family solicitor and consider suing for slander…..good day Miss Cross!” and she had swept majestically out to a round of applause from her friends. Miss Cross and her sister seen leaving shortly afterwards.
Now she faced Daisy across the kitchen, her face flushed and eyes brimming with unaccustomed tears.
“I am so sorry,” she repeated again,”I was wrong on every account. Those boys are like sons to you and treat you with the upmost respect. And Jess was so brave saving us when those dreadful creatures attacked.
Daisy just nodded,”It comes in handy being good with a gun sometimes then?” she said raising a quizzical eyebrow.
Agnes nodded, and then she sighed wiping the tear away, “I was so very wrong,” she whispered.
Daisy smiled to herself, yet another female had been captivated by her boy, well, well… Agnes Cross had a heart after all.
Then she realized Agnes was waiting for her to speak, “Oh that’s all water under the bridge,” she said with a genuine smile, “come along Agnes dear let’s re-join that wild party shall we?”
The irony wasn’t lost on Agnes and she smiled back, ”Thank you,” she said softly. Then, “Yes let’s,” and the two women wandered back in together.
When they returned they found baby Luke back in the arms of his mother. The soppy looks on the women folk’s faces hadn’t gone amiss by Jess and he was beginning to feel he was appearing way too domesticated for his liking. He had quickly passed the baby back to Mary and then had a fleeting thought, wondering if holding babies could be similar to catching bouquets at weddings, kinda like you’d be next. He shook his head slightly to clear it, blaming his over active imagination on the moonshine.
After the meal everyone sat around replete and happy as they exchanged presents. Those there as a result of the poor weather and Stage crash enjoying the proceedings as much as the invited guests, as they looked on delighting in the pleasure derived by their friends……
It had been agreed that Mose would spend the night and help mend the Stage the following day. The Smiths would make the short journey home before supper; since the doctor said young Luke had warmed up well and was fit to travel. Sam also had to leave before supper as he was on duty early the following morning.
Whilst the other men were to spend the night in the main house, laying their weary heads wherever they could, the women folk had been well catered for. The bunkhouse made ready and welcoming for Kate, Lily, Millie and now Miss Cross. The stove had been lit, cots made up with fresh smelling bedding and the place shone after Daisy’s careful preparations… And that was exactly where Jess decided he’d have a little private time with his best girl.
The two young couples had offered to wash the dishes after the meal, secretly wanting a little time away from the others. There was much fun and banter in the kitchen, including the odd stolen kiss.
Once the task was nearly completed Jess took Slim to one side.
“Me and Mil could do with five minutes…ya know,” he said with a wicked wink,”will you and Lily cover for us if we nip out for a while?”
“Hey Jess, so what about us?” Lily asked coming up behind them and snaking an arm around Slim’s waist.
“Aw Lily, you two can go later….and I asked first,” Jess said throwing her an imploring look.
“Go on,” said Slim grinning at his buddy,”but don’t be long Hotshot….and don’t go getting carried away,” he said with a smirk, “or I’ll send Miss Cross to fetch ya!”
Jess threw him a murderous look, and then remembered his friend was being cooperative and merely cuffed him gently on the head.
“Back before ya know it Slim.”
Then taking his jacket from the peg on the kitchen door wrapped it tenderly around Millie’s shoulders and clasping her hand the couple ran off across the yard like a couple of naughty school kids.
“That was nice of you,” said Lily, snuggling into Slim’s warm embrace.
“Ah,” he said,”there’s a reason for that. See the way I figure it, if we make our escape after supper, well everyone will be so full of Daisy’s cooking and Denver’s recipe….that they won’t notice us going off for a bit of time together…..and it’ll be nice and cosy over in the bunk house too.“
“Um…” she said thoughtfully, “that would be lovely…as long as Miss Cross doesn’t decide to have an early night.“
Slim looked horrified at that notion, “You don’t think….do ya?”
She just shrugged and giggled,”Come on let’s make some coffee. “
Over in the bunkhouse Jess closed the door behind them and then took Millie in his arms…kissing her tenderly.
“I’ve wanted to do that since the first moment I clapped eyes on ya today,” he said softly.
“Me too,” she said dreamily.
He took her hand and they made their way over to one of the cots pulled up near to the fire, waiting to be made up for their extra guest, and sat down, Jess slinging an arm around her.
After a moment Millie said, “You’re shaking, are you still cold after that soaking you had this morning?”
He shook his head, “I ain’t cold…just…. you know?”….and he looked deeply into her eyes…”I guess you have that effect on me.”
She gave him a loving smile,”I do? “
He just nodded….”You know you do,”….and he leaned in and kissed her again long and slow, one hand gently running up and down her back.
Then the kisses became more and more passionate…..Jess’s breathing coming faster and faster, Millie flushed and excited…..Just as things were getting real interesting, as Jess was to tell Slim later, there was a loud crash as someone banged the outhouse door and they pulled apart guiltily….Jess suddenly aware that Mike or one of the others could barge in at any moment.
“I guess Slim was right, we shouldn’t get too carried away,” he said pulling back and throwing her a rueful grin.
Millie gave a little sigh, patting her hair back into place and turning huge adoring eyes on him.
“I guess you’re right cowboy….we can make up for it when you stay over at mine at New Year,” and she rose to go,”They’ll be wondering where we are.”
But Jess pulled her back down, “Don’t go yet Mil…I’ve got something for you.”
“Oh?” She asked, sinking back down beside him, “But I’ve had your beautiful present Jess,” she said, remembering the finely carved trinket box she had unwrapped earlier.
He just smiled, “Well a man can spoil his best girl can’t he…huh?”
He felt in his vest pocket and then pulled out a small gift, wrapped in pretty paper and tied up with a red ribbon.
“Bought it special in Cheyenne,” he said proudly and the woman in the shop wrapped it real good when I said it was for my girl.
She took it from him and opened it carefully before her beautiful face registered firstly surprise…and then delight.
“Oh Jess it’s beautiful,” she said as she held the little silver locket aloft to admire it by the lamp.
“Open it up,” he said, eyes sparkling.
Inside he had placed their likenesses that had been taken by a good friend and famous photographer, Jack Williamson, a few years earlier. See #43 The Visitor.
“It’s beautiful,” she said close to tears….
He took it from her and placed it around her neck, carefully fastening the clasp…and sat back to admire his handy work…
She looked down at it and then up at him… her eyes shining with love.
“I kinda thought when ….well when we get hitched….ya know,” he said, flicking a glance at her, his expression kind of shy.
“Yes?” She said encouragingly.
“Well I thought we could have pictures taken at the wedding and put in here. And you could wear it…always. So as you’d remember it….the special day an’ all.”
“That’s a lovely idea,” she said,”and I won’t keep you waiting too much longer I promise….once we’re really sure we’re ready huh?”
“Yup, you’ve got it,” he said bravely. He knew it in his heart that she was right to want to wait until they were just a little older, a little more settled. But at times like now, oh how he longed for them to be together…. even to have children together like that cute little Luke.
Almost as though she read his mind she smiled and said, ”Of course I may needed a bigger one in time,” as she fingered the beautiful locket once more.
“Oh,” he said raising a quizzical eyebrow, “how so?”
“To make room for the pictures of all those babies we’re going to have one day,” she said her eyes once more brimming with emotional tears… a tremulous smile on her lips.
He leaned in and pulled her close.
“I love you so goddamn much,” he whispered holding her tightly.
“And me you,” she said softly. Before pulling back and seeing he too was looking emotional, she decided to lighten the atmosphere.
“At least if we find ourselves snowed in someplace you can deliver any babies…goodness knows you’ve had enough practice now,” she said with a little laugh.
To her surprised he didn’t join her in the laughter, but looked stricken and merely shook his head.
“Jess…Jess what is it?” She asked looking surprised.
He took a deep breath.
“I couldn’t Mil…just couldn’t bear to see you in that kind of pain,” he said softly, his eyes anguished.
“Oh Jess,” she whispered and then they were kissing again…all their promises of moments ago, to wait until they had some privacy…. forgotten as their passion grew.
Then there was suddenly a hammering on the door and once more they leapt apart. Adjusting their clothing and Jess jumped up calling out to come in…in a rather shaky voice.
Mike poked his head around the door grinning at them.
“Slim said that I should tell you Miss Cross has just said she thinks she’d like to take a nap after her coffee. He said maybe you two were over here making a bed up for her?” He asked looking around the dimly lit room.
“Err, yeah, you got it buddy, that’s right,” Jess said thinking quickly,”just gettin’ to it now.”
The boy advanced into the room….
“I’ll give you a hand,” he said happily…
Then he frowned,”It’s kinda funny Slim said that I was to knock and wait for you to answer…said you might be real busy with something…so were you huh?”
Jess spluttered with ill-concealed laughter. But Millie threw a kindly arm around the child… ”No dear, but I think Slim just thought we might have been taking a nap like Miss Cross wants to.”
“Oh is that all,” the boy said wandering over to find a warm blanket from the chest.
Millie and Jess exchanged an amused glance before setting to make up a bed for Agnes Cross.
Chapter 9
The day continued with a kaleidoscope of laughter and jokes, reminiscing and storytelling, alongside good food and drink….until eventually it was time to call it a night.
The woman guests had retired to the bunkhouse, Mike and Daisy to their respective rooms and now it was just the men who were left around the fireside still celebrating into the small hours.
It had not gone unnoticed that Kate and Mort also managed to escape the company for a little while, on the pretext of checking on Mort’s horse in the barn. But as Jess said later they were gone an awful long time….
Mort, Slim and Jess were sitting in front of the dying embers of the fire enjoying a last glass of Moonshine a piece. Mose already having succumbed to a slight over indulgence was now snoring gently on the old leather couch by the window.
“So, is that ol’ buckskin of yours OK then Mort?” Jess asked flicking a glance over to Slim and winking before peering across to the Sheriff, on the far side of the fireplace.
“Just fine and dandy Jess, so why do ya ask?”
“You were just gone kind of a long time out there after supper. I thought we’d hafta send out a search party,” he said grinning broadly now.
“Why you young bucks, you think romancing the ladies was made just for you don’t you!”
“Yeah,” said Slim and Jess in unison, chuckling.
“Look this is no laughing matter, she’s a fine woman Miss Kate a real fine woman.”
“So are you thinking of popping the question?” asked Slim, still smiling.
“Well don’t think I haven’t thought about it Slim, thought long and hard.”
“Sure would be a smart move Mort,” Jess said tongue in cheek. “Not only do ya get the lovely Kate Munroe to keep yer bed warm, but all the Moonshine you can drink as well. Speakin’ of which,” and he reached down beside his chair and grabbing hold of the bottle wiggled it at the Sheriff,”top up?”
“Uh, don’t mind if I do,” he said grinning inanely at Jess.
He took a sip once the glass had been refilled and then said, “Where was I?”
“Just proposing to Kate,” Slim said with a broad grin.
Mort shook his head resolutely, “Nope…..nope I wasn’t…. haven’t…dadgum it I ain’t about to!”
“You ain’t?” Jess asked looking baffled,”Heck Mort you keep tellin’ us what a mighty fine woman she is and Hell you’re right,” he said seriously now.” Kate is one of the best. Would look after a man real good with all her herbal medicines too, fixed me up a time or two. A good lookin’ woman, for her age too. Yup I figure you could do a lot worse.”
“Well I know that don’t I! But no…I guess not. See I figure it would kinda spoil what we’ve got iffen I went all serious on her Jess. Thing with Kate is she likes to be real free and easy. Likes a good time….and I mean a real good time,” he said with a wink. ”But nope she sure ain’t the settling down sort. Said as how Charlie was the love of her life and after he passed, well I guess no man could hold a candle to him,” and he sighed deeply.
Slim and Jess gradually took in this information, the moonshine slowing down their thought processes somewhat, and then Slim said, “Well that’s a real shame Mort.”
“Yup, that’s the way it is though,” and he shrugged and took another slug of his whisky.
“But you’re…you know…. alright together?” asked Jess looking equally downcast on his buddy’s behalf, “You’re good together you and Kate and she stays at your place pretty often don’t she, huh?”
“Oh sure,” said Mort grinning now,”we get on real well that way. I guess what we’ve got together is good, real good…Just kinda hard for a man though, when she goes back up the mountain…. you know?”
The others nodded and sipped their whisky looking into the fire…women, who could figure them?

Meanwhile, back in the bunkhouse the women had moved their cots closer to the stove and were currently also enjoying a last coffee of the evening laced with a splash of moonshine, courtesy of Kate.
Lily seemed to be in her own little dream world that largely featured Slim and the recent overtures he had made to her earlier in the kitchen. It hadn’t quite been a proposal of marriage, heck they hadn’t been together that long. But he had certainly hinted at the prospect and now she was in her own little realm, the ebb and flow of conversation around her unheeded. Her pretty little blond head full of ideas and possibilities for the future.
“The sheriff seems very fond of you Kate,” said Agnes, emboldened after her whisky enhanced coffee and having also got her second wind following her nap earlier.
Kate threw her a cool appraising look.
She knew all about this retired school marm and what she knew didn’t impress her any. It had been Millie who had filled her in on what had occurred at the women’s group and unlike Daisy, Kate wasn’t the forgiving sort. She and Jess went way back to his childhood on the Texas panhandle. She also had another big reason why the young cowboy was so important to her (See #56 Kate Munroe’s Secret). But she had no intention of sharing that with Miss Cross. Or anything else if her suspicions were correct and the woman was a gossip and bigot.
However Kate was also aware that she was a guest at the ranch and as such she didn’t want to spread any dissent and so merely gave a tight lipped smile and agreed he was.
“I envy you,” Agnes said now, the unaccustomed drink beginning to make her more frank and open than usual. “I find it rare that women of our age get a second chance in life for love,” she said, herself now with a dreamy look in her eyes to rival Lily’s.
Kate flicked a glance over to Millie and slightly raised an eyebrow before replying. Deciding that a bit of plain speaking would doubtless shock and hopefully effectively end their conversation, so she could turn in.
“Well I guess that’s right Agnes,” she replied innocently enough. ” But I reckon it depends on what you call ‘a chance for love’? I’m happy enough with the lovin’ side of it alright. But ya won’t find me up and marrying a man again. No siree, my washin’ their dang undershorts and feedin’ ‘em all the blessed time is long gone. Nope that just ain’t for me. Why Denver and the boys do all their own chores too, we live kinda independent ya see? And as to Mort, well he’s a great guy and I reckon I love him…yeah…but marriage?” And she shrugged emphatically.
Kate sat back a smile on her face waiting for Agnes to explode with self-righteous indignation…but nothing.
After a moment Agnes said quietly, “Well each to our own Kate. It wouldn’t suit me, but you and the Sheriff seem very happy and I can appreciate that, well I’m trying to anyway,” she said more honestly.
There was a stunned silence and then deciding to change the subject Millie said, “Well I guess Daisy won’t be buying a new hat for a while then, as Jess and I don’t have immediate plans to get wed either.”
“Um,” said Kate alert to a slight air of sadness in the statement,”So young Jesse still won’t commit huh?”
“Oh no,” said Millie quickly, “it’s not him. It’s me I guess, I know he thinks he’s ready to settle down, would get married tomorrow if I’d agree. But…” and she looked down blushing.
Kate peered across at her intuitively knowing there was more to this than what Millie was saying.
“He thinks he’s ready?” She said picking up on the all-important word. “But you don’t think so Millie girl am I right? I get the feeling you’d get hitched tomorrow too….but you’re scared Jesse isn’t quite done with some of his wild ways?”
The use of Jess’s old childhood name wasn’t lost on Millie and she gave the older woman a warm smile, ”You know us both too well.”
“Well I should do, known the pair of you since you were in diapers. And as it happens I agree with you Millie. Jess’s heart is in the right place and I’m sure he really thinks he’s ready for marriage and a family and all. But I guess there’s still some of that old wanderlust in him. The need for the big open….adventures….and yes the odd spot of trouble if I know the boy,” she chuckled.
“That’s it exactly Kate,” Millie said eagerly,”I just don’t want him to get married and then feel trapped once the family come along. Look at how he was just last year when he went off after that awful outlaw, Jack Hardin, and nearly got killed. I don’t want to be left a widow with two maybe three little ‘uns,” she said quietly.
“Nor will you girl. If I know one thing about Jess Harper it’s his loyalty, especially to you. Once he takes that step of getting hitched I figure he’ll put that old gun of his up for good. But until then I guess you’re right. You’ve just gotta bide your time girl. But it will happen. And that business with Mad Jack Hardin….well he felt he had to do that, loyalty again you see girl, helping kin out…you can’t fault him on that.“
Millie gave her a grateful smile, “I know,” she said softy.
Then Lily finally came out of her reverie at the mention of Jess.
“It was very special what he did helping poor Mary,” she said,”Not many men could have done that.”
There were general nods of agreement and approval all round from the women to that.
“He was good with little Luke today too,” Lily continued,”the way he picked him up and stopped him crying straight away. Jess is a natural Pa. It was so sweet to see,” and the women looked dewy eyed at the memory.
“Um, well just don’t go putting that around the saloon when we get back tomorrow Lily,” Millie said…”Jess would go mad if some of those bar flies found out about that side of him.”
Lily put her hands up in surrender,”Don’t worry about that Mil. Yes Jess has got a softer side. But I sure wouldn’t want to rile him, I’ve seen way too much of the other side of that cowboy to cross him,” she said with feeling.
Then Kate noticed that Agnes had gone very quiet.
“So have you revised your opinion of Jess? Now you know him a tad better?” Kate asked with a hint of a challenge in her voice.
Agnes’s head shot up and she looked over to Kate, suddenly feeling terrible. Of course she would know about that dreadful outburst in the Women’s Group that day, after all Millie had been there too.
“Yes I have actually,” she said firmly,”he’s a very perceptive young man…and very honourable too.”
“Perceptive?” Kate asked looking intrigued.
She nodded and paused for so long the others thought she might not continue, but then….
“Yes, you see he saw straight through me. I have always tried to portray the embodiment of Christian values and ideals but somewhere along the way I lost my path and what I thought of as being highly principled… Well I was just being plain judgemental and unforgiving and Jess saw that, wouldn’t let me get away with it either. I was, well less than charitable to young Mary, when really I should have been more understanding and that was wrong of me. The Good Book says love thy neighbour as thy self,” she finished quietly.
“Uh, he always was one for plain speaking, says what he feels is right,” Kate agreed, hiding a smile.
Then she turned to Agnes, ”But maybe it needed to be said?”
Agnes flushed up, but then nodded, “Oh yes, he was right.”
Then turning to Millie and including Kate,”I’m truly sorry for what I said about Jess that day, Daisy too…. I’ve apologized to Daisy already.”
“Well if Daisy can forgive and forget I’m sure we can can’t we Kate?” Millie said kindly.
Kate merely smiled, but she was never one to make snap judgements so decided to wait and see if Agnes Cross really had changed….or not.
The women had finally settled down for the night and were just nodding off when Agnes Cross sat bolt upright and cried out in alarm.
Millie, who had a lamp near her on the nightstand turned it up so they could all see what the problems was, as they focused on Agnes now looking terribly distressed, expecting to see a spider or maybe even a mouse had startled her.
“Whatever is it woman?” asked Kate being somewhat irritated by being roused from her sleep.
“It’s Freda my sister….she’ll be so worried, I should have arrived yesterday!”
“Well it’s kinda late in the day to git het up about it, ain’t it?” Kate muttered turning over and going back to sleep.
“You should have said something,” Millie replied looking sympathetic, ”Doc Sam could have driven you in when he left earlier.”
“I didn’t realize he was leaving, I went for a nap, if you remember and anyway with all the excitement it clean went out of my mind that dear Freda would be waiting on me.”
“Well Sam did say he’d have a word with Mort’s deputy Lon and get him to inform people about the Stage breaking down, so don’t worry.”
“Oh well that does make me feel better dear, but I really should get to town as soon as I can.”
“Well you must come with us Miss Cross,” said Lily kindly, “we’re due back at work tomorrow and Mort and Kate are driving us in,” she said nodding to where Kate was now fast asleep.
“Oh, thank you my dear, I can relax now,” and she lay back down the lamp was extinguished and peace prevailed.
Chapter 10
Early the following morning Jess was rudely awoken from his slumbers by Mike shaking him vigorously by the shoulders.
He sat up quickly and then groaned his back and neck stiff from a night in the fireside chair and looked around the still dark room, illuminated by a lamp on the mantelpiece.
“Huh…what is it Tiger….where’s the doggone fire and what’s the dang time?” He muttered.
Then he glanced around the room again and noted Mose still spark out on the couch, but Slim and Mort’s chairs vacated.
“I dunno, real early still I guess….nearly dawn maybe?”
Jess groaned again, ”Where’s Slim and Mort?”
“Slim’s asleep in the bedroom, Mort too; he’s taken your bed.”
“The hell he has,” Jess muttered running a hand through his tousled wavy hair.
“Look Tiger why don’t ya go and tell Slim whatever is botherin’ you…I’m asleep,” and he lay back down in the chair.
A moment later he was shaken again, “I did Jess. I woke him up before I came in here and he said the same, that he was asleep and it was way too early to be up and if I wanted something to tell you.”
Jess sighed deeply, and opened his eyes again.
“OK you win Tiger, so what’s up…wanna go to the outhouse and afraid of that ol’ bogey man? You know I told ya that was just in the story book.”
Then he looked inspired, ”Why dontcha take Blue over with ya huh?“
“No Jess you don’t understand, it ain’t the outhouse. It’s the storm I’m tellin’ you about and the snow in fact I reckon, we’ll need ta dig out the outhouse.”
“Wha…what are ya saying?” Jess asked looking bewildered.
Then he heard it, the wind moaning in the chimney and leaping up he made it to the window in three large strides and pulled the drapes back.
“Jeez,” he whispered as he surveyed the scene before him.
The yard was knee deep in snow being blown hither and thither by a strong wind causing it to drift. He peered out to the bunkhouse, just beyond the small corral, and saw that the drifting snow had practically covered the door and windows, the women were effectively entombed.
Jess cussed softly. How much kindling did they have left for the stove he pondered? He had put extra in the night before, but that would be nearly all used up by now. Sure the bunkhouse was real purty. It had been converted into a beautiful large comfortable room after Daisy’s dear God daughter, Flora, had lived there with them for a while. (See #19 Daisy’s Dilemma) But even so it would be striking real cold soon and the women needed to be brought over to the main house. And that would be no easy task, the way the snow was laying and heck still falling too, Jess mused.
He turned back from the window and then started shaking Mose awake.
“Git up Mose work to be done,” he said urgently, before marching into the bedroom and rousing Mort and Slim.
It took him a good few minutes to convey the urgency of the problem. But once they drew back the drapes and saw the situation for themselves they were galvanized into action.
Daisy was already up, awakened by the noise of the men thumping about and started brewing coffee and making breakfast for them all, ready for when the women had been liberated.
“Oh my,” she gasped as she to saw the gravity of the situation, knowing full well what a killer a Wyoming winter could be.
The men worked unstintingly for the next half hour or so. Dawn was just breaking when they saw a lamp lit in the bunkhouse and a few minutes later one of the women waved from the window. But it was a good while later before they finally reached them and were able to haul the door open.
“Thank goodness!” Agnes cried, whilst the girls were much more relaxed and Kate positively unperturbed by the storm.
It was still raging around and the women made sure they were all well dressed for the inclement weather. Slim and Jess gallantly offered to carry their girls across the deep snow, both agreeing with alacrity.
However when Mort offered the same courtesy he was met by a steely glance from Kate and a biting, “Are you kiddin’?“ Before striding out in her tough boots, being no stranger to stormy weather.
Mort stood there admiring her retreating back, before he was finally aware that Miss Cross was still standing observing him.
“Ma’am, care for a hand?” He asked politely and taking her arm escorted her across the yard.
Once they were all warm, dry and fed they sat back to review the situation.
“Well I guess there isn’t going to be any ride over to Laramie today,” Mort said, ”I reckon my Buck and old Betsy won’t be able to pull the buggy through this kinda snow.”
“And the Stage ain’t gonna be runnin’ that’s for sure,” Mose agreed, casting a glance at Miss Daisy and figuring all his Birthdays had come at once. Not only Christmas Day with the delectable Daisy but possibly many more days to come if the weather carried on this way!
They all listened as the storm blew on around the house, making its old timbers creak and groan, the wind whistling down the chimney.
Then Miss Cross had her say, ”But I must get home I really must, poor dear Freda will be fretting so,” now feeling even more guilty at hardly sparing a thought for her sister the previous day.
“I guess Tom will too,” muttered Millie grinning at Lily.
“Lon as well, I really should get back to town,” Mort said without conviction.
“OK well I guess me, Slim and Mose better head off as soon as this storm gives up and try and salvage what we can of the Stage, iffen you good folk are gonna get back home any time soon,” Jess said winking at Millie.
It was in fact a good two days later before the storm finally relented enough for it to be viable to risk the journey out to the Stage’s ‘last resting place’ as Jess jovially termed it.
They had been days full of laughter and banter as the friends rallied around in helping with the domestic and yard chores or spent time just sitting chatting and sharing memories.
One morning a lively snowball fight had broken out in the yard between Slim and Jess and their girls, with Mike and even the Sheriff joining in whilst the older women and Mose watched from the safety of the porch.
Kate smiled, “It sure is good to see the boy so happy and relaxed after his tricky start in life,” she confided to Daisy, with typical Texan understatement, as she watched Jess’s antics.
Daisy just nodded, “It can’t have been easy for anyone back then,” she said softly. “Slim saw the old town and the remains of the homestead when he visited with Jess a few years back. He said he’d never seen poverty like it…even worse since the war.”
Kate just nodded sadly, “Broke many a good man has poverty,” she agreed, alluding to Jess’s Pa, but saying no more, suddenly aware that Agnes was taking an avid interest in the conversation.
“Remains of the homestead?” Agnes said now, casting Daisy a questioning look.
“Um…yes you see it was fired by the Bannister gang one night. Out of the family of seven only three of the children survived, his parents and younger siblings all perished,” Daisy said softly, seeing no reason not to answer Agnes. She glanced at the woman who she was now beginning to take to, on further acquaintance.
But Kate was not feeling quite as charitable.
“He went off after the gang aged just fifteen,” she said gruffly, “learnt to shoot real good….only thang on his mind retribution. His young heart full of bitterness, I guess that’s how he ended up the way he did,” she said more quietly now, “Off on the drift a young boy can fall in with bad company, find himself in trouble.”
“I can imagine,” said Agnes quietly, now seeing yet another facet to the young cowboy, with this added insight.
“Can you?” Kate asked rather cynically.
Agnes glanced at her, realizing that maybe she deserved that jibe, seeing as how she had judged the young man so harshly previously.
“Maybe not, but I am trying to,” Agnes said meekly.
Kate threw her a thoughtful glance, but just made a noncommittal grunt and the conversation was halted as a snowball came perilously close to them and they decamped back into the warmth of the ranch house.
As Agnes sat back in one of the fireside chairs and observed her fellow guests, she started to really try and understand them, instead of making her usual inflexible judgements.
Mose who she had initially viewed as a rather unintelligent crass old man, turned out to be quite eloquent in his turn of phrase when addressing ‘Miss Daisy,’ as he always called her. It was obvious to Agnes that the old timer adored the housekeeper and she was intrigued to note how very honourable and gentlemanly the old man was in her company.
Slim was pretty much as she had expected he would be. Having been born to a respectable rancher and a School teacher for a mother of course he would be the epitome of good manners and impeccable behaviour. That’s why she was shocked when she overheard the odd snippet of conversation and observed the occasional stolen kiss between Slim and Lily. Leading her to the conclusion that their relationship was intimate even though not wed or even promised…Then even as she judged them unfavourably, a little voice in the back of her head said, is it really your place to make judgements? Is it any of your business?
As to Millie, she was a lovely girl, once Agnes had dismissed her as just another scatter-brained saloon girl and probably no better than she should be. However she had been delighted to discover an intelligent highly perceptive young woman. One who was deeply in love too and would never stray or entertain the thought of pleasuring men at the saloon. Agnes blushed at the fact that she had thought so badly of her and misjudged her so completely on absolutely no grounds.
However Jess was the most interesting and by far the most complex person she had met. Full of so many contrasts, yes he fought and drank and doubtless gambled too….but none to excess she realised now. It was just that he had a reputation which tended to be exaggerated and distorted until there was very little truth left, so she was beginning to learn. Some of those fights that Freda had delighted in telling her about had actually been carried out in his line of duty, whilst assisting the Sheriff. Whereas many of the reports of gun-play and brawls were doubtless people enjoying a good tale she thought now. Yes the boy was no angel, but he was a good, kind and honourable man she now believed, those traits all the more admirable after his hard start in life.
She also saw the Sheriff in a new light. To her mind he had always been a somewhat staid pillar of the community, polite when their paths crossed, but certainly not the dashing character he now appeared to be. In the company of Kate he was light-hearted and romantic, seeming much younger than his usual persona and full of fun and laughter. Why she had to admit, she found the greying, wiry Sheriff rather attractive herself.
As to Kate, Agnes was somewhat in awe of her and that was pretty much a first for Miss Agnes Cross. She had been something of a bully as a child making the subservient Freda’s life a misery. Now in the cold light of day, with time on her hands to reflect, Agnes realized that little had changed. Goodness she had barely thought of dear Freda over the last few days much less really considered her feelings, yes things had to change from now on she decided.
Leaving Freda to one side for a moment she continued to consider Kate and wondered why she was one of the two people she had met recently who she was totally overwhelmed by, the other being Jess Harper, to her amazement.
She regarded herself as a strong woman, who didn’t suffer fools lightly and had ruled the school room with a rod of iron….but that paled into insignificance when she compared herself to Kate. She tried to put her finger on what the difference was between the two women, Kate seeming so much stronger and tougher than she was, so self-assured.
Of course Kate had relationships with men and seemed to be very popular in that department, whereas Agnes had never had a boyfriend as a youngster, dismissing all that silliness, as she referred to it, as a waste of valuable time, when she was young and studying.
Then when she was older she used the excuse that courting would not be compatible with her lifelong career as a teacher. But in truth she now acknowledged she had been just plain scared. She was scared of making that kind of commitment, scared of giving her heart lest it should be broken. That was why she had refused to commit to dear Edward and after several years he finally lost patience with her. He ended their relationship and was wed to another within a few months.
‘Well marry in haste repent at leisure,’ had been Freda’s comment on the betrothal and it wasn’t too long before she was proved right. Olivia turned out to be a sickly woman, who also nagged poor Edward badly, but he was a man of honour and having made his choice he stuck by it. That wasn’t to say he didn’t have regrets, made obvious to Agnes whenever they met by chance. The way he looked at her with such adoration brought a blush to her cheeks and she always made an excuse and bustled away. What was the point she would lament…….it was too late.
She turned her thoughts quickly away from Edward as usual and concentrated her mind back on the present.
There was more to Kate than her obvious popularity with the males in the group. The women liked her too and respected her as well, that was very apparent. Especially in the way they looked to her for approval. Bowing to her greater knowledge on many matters, especially herbal medicines and doctoring, yes Kate seemed to have many talents.
However she wasn’t the most diplomatic of people and was extremely outspoken on occasion, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. In fact as far as Jess was concerned, she noted, that was one of the things he admired in her most.
Only the other day she had heard him laughing with the Sheriff who had been on the receiving end of Kate’s sharp wit after some small misdemeanor.
“Good ol’ Kate,” Jess had chuckled, “always tells it like it is!”
Then Agnes realized it was that which separated the two.
She was harsh in her groundless judgement of others and was often unkind too.
However, Kate was usually accepting of others. Never judging them, believing that it was not her place to do so. Certainly not without having knowledge of all the facts, as Agnes had done on so many occasions.
If Kate occasionally used her sharp tongue to berate someone it was done justly and hopefully made the other consider the error of their ways and actions. Like the time she had addressed Agnes over the business in the Women’s Group. Now at the thought of it Agnes flushed up. How could she have been so crass and unfeeling….so dreadfully outspoken about a man she barely knew?
Well if nothing else, she said to herself now, this has been a life changing experience for me. It certainly won’t be the same Agnes Cross that steps onto that Stagecoach who stepped off just a few days ago. She was going to reinvent herself. But what would the new Agnes Cross be like, she wondered?
Then she was suddenly brought back from her reverie to the present as she heard the others bidding Slim, Jess and Mose farewell and she too leapt up to wave them off as they left to try and retrieve the Stagecoach for repairs.
Chapter 11
It was a hard ride over to where the Stage had come off the road and it took the men most of the morning to travel the three miles down to the crash site. The snow was up to the horse’s hocks in some places and drifting up to six feet in others, so they had to take their time, occasionally dismounting and leading the animals.
They were somewhat encumbered by having to lead four of the Stage horses as well, none of the critters wanting to be out in the bitter conditions. Jess had also loaded two of them with the jack and other equipment needed to make emergency road side repairs, before they could limp back to the Relay to do the job properly.
Once they arrived they were pleased to see none of the boxes and parcels had been tampered with and they unloaded them all, to lighten the vehicle, before starting to carry out their repairs.
“At least Miss Cross’s expensive gifts ain’t been raided, “Jess said with a grin.
“Um hell I doubt there’s anyone foolish enough t be about and about in this dang weather,” Mose muttered darkly.
Jess cast his gaze up to the hills above them and then up and down the road, a pensive look in his deep blue eyes.
“What’s up Jess?” Slim said picking up on his buddy’s sudden change of mood.
“Dunno, just a feelin’…… kinda like we’re bein’ watched,” and shrugging he turned back to the job in hand.
Over an hour later Jess scrabbled out from beneath the wagon, wiping his hands on an oily rag, “I guess that’s the best I can do out here. But you’ll just have to take it real slow Mose,” he said glancing over at the driver, who was stamping his feet trying to get warm.
Then Mose started hurling the boxes and parcels back up top, whilst Jess stacked the tools inside the coach and Slim hitched up the team of horses.
It came from nowhere, the sound of wild whoops and war cries…and then the band of young renegade Indians were upon them.
Two burning arrows thwacked into the Stage, whilst others were aimed at the men, who quickly took cover behind the Stagecoach.
They returned fire, knowing that they had the superior weapons and the youngsters would give up and ride out shortly, this merely being an act of bravado rather than a genuine attack.
However one of the fire arrows was well into setting the Stage alight and Jess broke cover to extinguish the potential hazard. That was when a lucky arrow caught him at the top of his left arm and he yelped in pain, before firing a shot off in the direction of the brave, who quickly rode off.
They left as swiftly as they had arrived….the silence absolute for a moment, before Slim rushed to Jess’s side.
“Jeez, that looks nasty pard,” he said observing the arrow embedded deeply in his arm.
“Well don’t just stand there git the dang thing out,” Jess gasped through gritted teeth, as he sank down to a sitting position, his back to the stagecoach wheel.
Slim hunkered down beside him and taking his hunting knife quickly cut away the shirt sleeve so that he could see the wound better.
Then Mose came over staring down grimly, “It looks like that was those young Crow renegades again, and all drunk as skunks.” he said disparagingly.
“Well one sure had a good aim, iffen he was drunk,” replied Jess, bitterly.
“I take it you weren’t aiming to hit him,” Slim said raising a quizzical eyebrow, already knowing the answer. Heck Jess could have shot his attacker stone cold dead and they both knew it.
“You crazy,” asked Jess, “what do ya want a full scale uprising?”
“No of course not, I’m just glad you had the same idea as me,” Slim said smiling at his buddy, “We all know the Chief condemns these kids for their foolish ways. But I guess he might see it kinda differently iffen a white man steps in to meter out discipline.”
Jess nodded, “Especially with a gun. Nope it’s Denver I blame sellin’ them Moonshine, those young braves just can’t handle it.”
Then he yelled as Slim gently probed the arrow head trying to remove it.
“I’m sorry Jess this is going to hurt some….hold on…..”
Then Slim cussed loudly, “Goddamn it the darned shafts broken, the arrow heads loose in there now.”
“I don’t want a dang running commentary,” Jess cussed, “just git it out Slim.”
Slim was sweating freely now, beads of perspiration standing out on his forehead, whilst Jess was deathly pale.
“I’m doing my best,” he said in exasperation as he pushed a finger in the now gaping wound trying to locate the rough metal arrow head.
After a moment he called out to Mose who had backed off some looking anxiously at the blood now covering the sleeve of Jess’s shirt.
“Get that bag of tools out of the Stage, will you Mose,” he yelled, “I need the pliers.”
“Garldarn it Slim I ain’t a darned lump of machinery. What do ya want the pliers for?” Jess growled.
“Next best thing to Doc Sam’s forceps I guess. I need to get a grip on the head Jess. Sam’s used forceps to remove arrow heads before and right now this is all we’ve got. Unless you’d like to lay there and bleed to death?” he said sarcastically.
But Jess was beginning to get way past arguing, “Just do it,” he muttered closing his eyes tightly and gritting his teeth against the pain.
It was a good ten minutes later before Slim was able grasp the arrowhead which had embedded itself in the bone at the top of Jess’s arm and finally pull it out, but it took all his strength.
“You got it?” asked Mose peering down at the bloody scene before him.
Slim was sweating with the effort and just nodded before tying his bandana tightly around the copiously bleeding wound.
“That should hold it pard, come on let’s get you up,” said Slim hauling a pale and shaking Jess to his feet.
Mose helped him lift his buddy into the Stage and he lay down on the seat. Slim went off to fetch his bedroll and covered a now shivering Jess.
“Take it easy pard,” he said gently, tucking the blanket around his buddy, before turning to the old driver.
“Come on Mose let’s get this wagon moving,” Slim said brusquely before casting Jess a final anxious glance and slamming the coach door shut.
It took them even longer to get back to the ranch and it was late afternoon before the Stage finally made it into the yard at walking pace.
As soon as it pulled to a standstill Mike came dashing out followed by a joyful Buttons and Blue barking in welcome.
He ran across to where Slim had jumped down from the box, the child full of his news.
“Gee Slim, I’m sure glad you’re back….Mister Smith came by….seems Mary got sick and Aunt Daisy and Missus Munroe went over to the Smith place in Mister Smith’s buckboard,” He said importantly. “They said they’d be stayin’ until she was better. Mister Smith didn’t think he’d make it all the way to the doc’s place, but he reckons Missus Munroe and Aunt Daisy are almost as good when it comes to birthin’ and the like,” he continued pausing for breath.
Then moments later Mort strolled out.
“It’s true, apparently it ain’t looking too good,” he said as an aside to Slim,” she’s hemorrhaging pretty bad, so Smith said.”
Then looking up to the box where Mose was just clambering down and then to where Traveller was hitched to the back of the Stage, said, “So what have ya done with Jess?”
Slim hauled open the coach door, “In here Mort, and hurt pretty bad, he stopped an arrow from one of those dang Crow braves. I’ll tell ya now if old Chief White Eagle doesn’t sort out Grey Wolf and his brothers pretty darned soon I reckon there’s going to be one hell of a lot of trouble! Folk are sick of their drunken ways Mort and this time they’ve gone too dang far,” he finished, the worry for his partner making him sound belligerent.
Mort looked down to where Jess still lay curled up on the seat, looking deathly pale.
“Come on I’ll give you a hand with him,” he said looking equally concerned.
They supported Jess into the ranch house almost carrying him over to the couch and in moments Lily, Millie and Agnes emerged from the kitchen where they were preparing supper.
Mike had followed them in to the room. He stood watching, a look of fear on his young face.
Agnes turned very pale and just gaped at Jess’s blood stained shirt and the silent, deathly pale figure now lying so still on the old leather couch.
Millie cried out in shock before running over and kneeling beside the couch, taking Jess’s hand, “What happened?” she asked peering up at Slim, who was standing looking indecisive.
“Darned Crow hoodlums, Grey Wolf and his band, they tried to fire the Stage. Jess went to stop ‘em and got this for his trouble,” he said angrily.
“Oh, Jess hon,” Millie said gently.
At that his eyes flickered open and he made a huge effort to focus on her saying huskily, “Hey I’m OK sweetheart….will be soon anyways,” he said more honestly. But it was plain that he was feeling pretty sick.
“You got it all out?” asked Mort raising a questioning eyebrow to Slim.
He nodded and then took the Sheriff to one side, “I’m worried Mort, he shouldn’t be this bad, he’s stopped arrows before and bounced back OK…..unless…..”
“What Slim?”
“Unless the dang thing was poisoned, if they’d been hunting they might have been using arrows dipped in Rattler venom or some other putrid muck they use,” and both men turned anguished eyes on their friend.
“If it was venom, he’d be real sick by now,” said Mort honestly, “It could be anything I guess,” he said shaking his head. Then, “Jeez, we could sure do with my Kate; she’d know what to do.”
While they had been talking Lily had run off for some water and clean rags and Millie was now cleaning the wound, whilst Agnes looked on in morbid fascination. Finding the whole scene deeply disturbing and just wishing she knew how to help.
“What do you mean would be real sick,” Millie said having overheard Mort’s words, “he is can’t you see that!”
“Maybe I should ride for Kate?” Mort suggested.
“No,” Jess said forcefully…. Before gasping for breath and saying more quietly, “if young Mary’s sick she’s needed over there…I’ll be OK, just let a man sleep will ya?”
“Sure pard you just take it easy huh?” Slim replied.
Slim ushered the others away, the women folk taking a tearful Mike off to the kitchen with them, leaving just Millie tending the wound, as best she could.
“I’ll be right back, Millie,” Slim said softly, “I just need to attend to the horses and then I’ll come sit with you.”
She nodded her thanks and then turned back to Jess.
But even as she watched she could see his arm had swollen around the wound and there was bruising appearing too. Even though she tried to be gentle it was clear that he was in severe pain as she bathed the affected area and she bit her lip feeling helpless.
After a while he rolled his head on the pillow to focus on her and gave the glimmer of a smile, “Hey beautiful, don’t look so worried, I’ll be OK you know.”
She just squeezed his hand looking too upset to speak.
He glanced over to the Christmas tree, the decorations glittering in the dim light from a lamp on the mantle. The crackling fire casting shadows on the walls, the room peaceful and full of Christmas scents of pine and spices.
“Real purty, best tree we’ve had Miss Daisy said,” he whispered.
She nodded clasping his hand and noted he now looked slightly dazed.
“Uh….where’s Mike?” He asked again in a mere whisper.
“In the kitchen helping Lily and Agnes with supper,” she replied, “Did you want to see him?”
He shook his head, “I guess not, just make sure he’s OK though Mill……huh. He gets kinda upset iffen I get sick.”
“Sure I will, can I get you something a drink maybe?”
He shook his head and grasped her hand more tightly, “Just you sweetheart, that’s all I need.”
Moments later his head rolled sideways and his breathing became erratic.
“Oh God,” cried Millie, “Lily….get Slim…it’s Jess he’s real bad!”
Alerted by Lily, Slim and Mort tore in from where they’d been putting the horses up.
“Jess…pard are you OK?” Slim asked as he gently placed a hand on his chest, but it was clear he was unconscious now.
Mort and Slim exchanged a fearful glance.
“He isn’t right Mort, not right at all. I figure he’s been poisoned by those dang hostiles,” said Slim, “and if we can’t find out what it is we could lose him.”
“No!” Mike yelled, from where he’d run into the room and been rooted to the spot since Millie’s anguished cry, “Do something Slim you’ve gotta!”
“It’s alright Mike, don’t fret,” Lily said pulling the boy close and smoothing his hair down, in an attempt to calm him some.
Agnes stood looking down to where Jess now seemed to be struggling for his breath. Goodness she was a school teacher wasn’t she, used to taking over in emergencies. But here she was completely out of her depth. She had no medical training and she was scared, actually shaking she was so frightened.
She remembered how plain speaking and honest the young man had been, making her really think about her attitude to life for the first time in years.
Then she suddenly had a vision of him encouraging young Mary through her labour and that look of pure delight on his face when he finally held that new baby in his arms.
He couldn’t die….not when he had so much to live for.
She was suddenly galvanized into action, remembered when her old Pa was dying his breathing had been so difficult, but had been eased by sitting him up.
She rushed forwards, “Pull him up…Slim sit him upright and support him, that will help his breathing. Millie fetch another blanket dear. He’s shaking and needs some extra warmth.”
Then turning to Mort, “Sheriff ride for Miss Kate at once!”
She almost barked the command.
“No matter what this young man says,” she said glancing at where Jess was still looking so very sick. “I’m sure Daisy can cope with the young mother, but this boy needs Kate’s help now.”
“Yes Ma’am!” Mort replied, making for the door at speed, pausing only to give Millie an encouraging smile, “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” and he was gone.
The next hour or so seemed like a lifetime to all at the ranch.
Jess came around again a few minutes after Mort rode out. But he had deteriorated massively, hardly seeming to know where he was and he was shaking uncontrollably.
Slim piled more logs on the fire and sent Mike off to fetch yet another blanket, but little seemed to help.
It was when he started crying out in pain that Slim decided Mike should leave the room, the sight of his hero in such a bad way extremely upsetting for the boy.
“Lily, would you mind?” asked Slim tipping his head towards the door.
She nodded, “Come on Mike, I reckon we should go and check on Traveller for Jess and then maybe bed down in the bunkhouse tonight and you could tell me all about how you’ve been training that old racoon of yours huh?”
The boy was finally convinced that Jess would be just fine once Kate returned and that he could visit with him in the morning and he eventually did as he was asked. Wandering off sadly with Lily, Slim squeezing her hand as she went out, “Thanks…” he whispered and received a warm smile.
Meanwhile Jess was now thrashing about on the couch narrowly missing hitting Millie in the face, although he was still out of it and not aware of his actions.
“Maybe you should let me take over,” Slim said gently, “I guess he’s getting a mite lively.”
“It’s alright Slim, I have to help,” she said firmly, but it was clear that the distressing scenes were upsetting her as much as they had Mike.
It was sometime later that he came round properly again and Slim was immediately by his side.
“Hey pard, you had us kind of worried, you’ve been out of it for a while and thrashing about, thought you were in a saloon fight huh?” He said with a kindly smile.
Jess still looked very dazed and blinked his eyes several times trying to focus.
“What’s up Jess can’t you see me any too well?” Slim asked in concern.
He shook his head, “Kinda blurry.”
Millie had gone to fetch some water and now tenderly lifted Jess’s head so he could drink but just a few minutes later he chucked it back up, groaning and apologizing.
“It’s OK,” she said softly, cleaning him up and noticing how he winced as he moved position.
“That arm is really bothering you isn’t it?” She said
Then Slim noticed something else, “Can you move it pard?”
“That bad arm, you haven’t moved it…even just now when you sat up.”
Jess tried and then shook his head, “It feels kinda dead” then he tried to flex his fingers but nothing.
He looked up in panic, “Hell Slim what’s goin’ on?” he muttered, his breathing still quite erratic and making speech difficult.
“I reckon the tip of the arrow was maybe dipped in Rattler poison Jess, that’d account for the way you’re feeling.”
Jess was looking drowsy again, but Slim was disinclined for him to sleep, thinking maybe he should be drinking more fluids or wasn’t it whisky that was supposed to be good for snakebite?
Hell there were so many, so called, miracle remedies out there, it was hard to know what was best. Some recommended gunpowder in the wound or neat whisky, even salt and bread poultice? Some worked and some didn’t, it just seemed to be the luck of the draw. Mostly Slim had relied on cutting the wound and sucking out the venom on the odd occasion he’d had to deal with snakebite. But he knew it was way too late for that now. Heck if only they’d known the dang arrow was poisoned at the time.
Jess was deathly pale and looked nauseous, as Miss Cross bustled in from the kitchen bearing a cup of beef broth, “Here you are Jess, my dear Ma always recommended this for sickness. It will help settle your stomach” she said confidently.
Jess groaned softly and turned away muttering something very rude under his breath.
But Slim coughed quickly and intercepted the cup.
“Gee thanks Ma’am,” he said beaming at her.
“I’ll just leave it here, to cool a little,” he said removing it from Jess’s vision, knowing the strong smelling brew would only make him heave again.
“Err…so how’s supper coming on?” Slim asked, trying to deflect her attention.
“Well, I wasn’t sure if you’d want anything, so I haven’t prepared the vegetables yet,” she said flicking a glance over to Millie for support.
“Sure we will,” said Slim quickly, “well I reckon ol’ Mort will be pretty peckish when he gets back anyway,“ he improvised.
“Oh…well if you think so….yes I do believe the Sheriff has a good appetite. I’ll go and attend to it at once, and she marched off busily.
Millie and Slim exchanged an amused glance, “Thanks,” she whispered, “ I don’t think Jess is quite up to Miss Cross’s care on top of everything else.”
“Uh, I guess she means well,” Slim said before turning back to his friend.
“So more water huh buddy, I’ve a mind that’s supposed to help some.”
Jess just cast him a skeptical glance, both men knowing Slim was merely clutching at straws.
It was an hour or so later when Slim heard the buggy rattling into the yard and moments later a flushed looking Kate, followed by Mort strode in, their cheeks rosy from the bitter cold night without.
Kate didn’t waste any time before examining the patient.
“Been chucking?” She asked as she examined the wound site.
Slim affirmed that he had and also appeared to have a fever and difficulty moving his arm.
“I can speak fer myself,” Jess muttered breathlessly.
“Save it,” Kate said briskly.
“Your breath boy, save it. You just relax back there and we’ll fix you up real good OK?”
Jess just nodded, admitting defeat once he saw Kate was wearing her ‘doctorin’ hat.’
“So,” she said turning back to Slim, “Mort said he stopped a Crow arrow, maybe poisoned?”
Slim nodded, “Yup, one of those young renegades.”
“So probably Rattler and entrails,” she said dryly.
“Huh?” yelped Jess, looking horrified.
“Nice little trick the Crow have. They mix venom with dead animal guts, sometimes liver, leave it till it’s real ripe and then dip their arrows in. It paralyses their prey real good, that is real bad as far as the poor critters are concerned,” she amended.
“Well it ain’t done too much for my dang arm either,” Jess muttered.
She grinned at him then, “Don’t fret any Jess. I figure you’ve only had a small dose, probably an old hunting arrow and just got traces of the stuff on the arrow head. Enough to make ya sick, but you’ll live to tell the tale.”
Then turning to Mort, “Could you fetch my saddle bags from the buggy Mort? I figure I’ve probably got just the thing in my old medicine pouch.”
The Sheriff returned shortly and Kate dug about for a while.
Then pulled out some dark roots…. “Snake-root,” she said, like producing a rabbit from a hat, “that’s what you need Jesse, made into a nice hot poultice and we’ll have that arm fixed up in no time. As to your other ailments, well it’ll take a little while boy. Some of my special herbal teas, lots of rest and I reckon you should be ready to dance the New Year in with your girl as planned in a few days.”
Jess groaned, “Aw Kate not that godawful tea of yours and Snake-root, yer kiddin’ me.”
“Hey Jess you just treat Miss Kate respectful,” Mort said wandering over and glaring at Jess.
But Kate merely chuckled, “Don’t go getting yer pants in a ruck Mort, Jesse is just a venting his spleen, we understand each other don’t we boy…huh?”
Jess nodded, “I guess; so come on Kate git to it ….do yer worst.”
Kate duly mixed up her powerful potions and once the poultice was bandaged in place covering his upper arm and at least some of her special tea drunk everyone relaxed.
Mike had broken loose from the bunkhouse, having got real upset and was eventually allowed to come back in to say goodnight to a now sleepy Jess.
“Hey buddy I sure hope you ain’t been givin’ Miss Lily a hard time,” he said drowsily.
“Nope…well not really,” the child said honestly, “but I can’t settle out there Jess. I wanna be in here near you.”
Millie suddenly remembered what Jess had said about the boy getting so darned upset when his hero was sick and decided to address the problem.
“So Mike, how would it be if I bunk down in your room? I could tell you a story about when me and Jess were your age and then we can check on him first thing in the morning huh?”
“Gee Miss Millie that would be just swell, thanks,” he said.
Then jumping down from the edge of the bed where he’d been giving Jess a goodnight hug, grabbed hold of her hand… “Come on…I’ll show you Bandit’s new trick too,” he said happily.
Millie turned and blew Jess a kiss, “See you in the morning cowboy.”
He nodded and mouthed, “Thank you,” and she grinned back before disappearing off into Mike’s room.
It had been agreed because of the bitterly cold weather the women would sleep over in the main house which was more substantial, whilst Mort, Mose and Slim decamped over to the bunkhouse. Before long, Lily, Millie and Mose had all retired for the night after the long day, Slim insisting Lily take his bed whilst Agnes had Jess’s and Kate would use Daisy’s room.
Now Mort looked to where Kate was practically dozing off as she sat on the edge of the couch watching Jess now sleeping peacefully after having taken another draft of her herbal infusion.
“Come on old girl” Mort said softly, “I know for a fact you were up all night with young Mary, why don’t you turn in, me and Slim will watch Jess.”
She tried to hide a yawn and then grinned over at him, “You know I think I might just take a nap, but you call me iffen there’s any change. I guess he ain’t quite as much on the road to recovery as I’ve told him. I think maybe fit for New Year was a tad optimistic.” Then she tapped her nose, “But as Doc Sam and I always say, Iffen you think yer on the mend then you’re halfway there.”
Mort leaned down and gave her a tender kiss on the forehead, “You and your sayings,” he chuckled. “Git to bed woman, I figure me and Slim can look out for the boy, God knows we’ve had enough practice.”
A couple of hours later Slim was awakened from where he was dozing in the fireside chair as Agnes emerged from the bedroom.
“Everything alright ma’am?” he asked politely, sitting up and stretching.
“Well it is with me young man. I’ve had a good nap and I’m feeling very well, which is more than I can say about you Mister Sherman, you look done in.”
“I’m OK,” he said with a weak smile, “I’ve got to keep an eye on Jess, he’s to have more of Kate’s infusion shortly and I sent Mort off to bed he was exhausted, so I guess it’s up to me.”
“Oh no that won’t do at all,” she said decisively, “I am perfectly capable of nursing Jess, now off you go to your bed young man. After all you need to start the repairs on the Stagecoach tomorrow don’t you?” She asked raising a questioning eyebrow.
“Well, yeah, I guess so,” he said wearily.
“Well then off you go and if I have any problems why Kate is within calling distance isn’t she, come along now off you go,” she chivvied.
Slim was just too dang wore out to argue and she had a point. He had to get that Stage on the road or there would be repercussions from the Overland and they really didn’t need any problems with their contract.
“OK thanks Ma’am, but please, if he gets worse come and get me huh?”
She nodded, “Of course.”
Slim took one last look at his buddy, mentally apologizing, before taking his leave.
Agnes settled down by the fire, but after a moment she heard Jess stir and she wandered over.
“Slim?” He whispered peering around the dimly lit room.
“He’s resting Jess, but I’m just going to heat up some of Kate’s herbal for you.”
Jess just groaned and muttered something unintelligible.
Agnes returned a little later with the ‘evil brew’ as Jess always termed Kate’s herbal infusion and insisted he drink it down.
“Jeez, that’s terrible,” he complained after the first sip, “that’s bad even for one of Kate’s brews, what the Hel…err….heck is in it?” he asked raising an eyebrow.
“It contains Dogwood, to reduce your fever, Birch bark for pain, Ginger to ease the nausea and Senega to fight the poison you have ingested,” she said succinctly. “It’s really interesting the science of the use of herbs isn’t it and dear Kate is so knowledgeable.”
“Yeah real interesting,” he muttered sarcastically.
“Come along then,” she said briskly, “do drink it up while it’s hot Jess.”
He finally did so just to get some peace and quiet. But it soon became obvious that Agnes took her nursing duties very seriously and started puffing up his pillows and tucking the blanket around him.
“I’m just fine thank you Ma’am,” he said gruffly, but she wasn’t to be deterred and settled down in a chair beside him.
It was very quiet and peaceful in the room. The only sound that of the fire crackling merrily away. The flames illuminated the Christmas tree baubles and they glistened and shimmered in the light, taking Jess’s attention, his gaze finally coming to rest on the Nativity figures so lovingly carved by him for young Mike. Then he remembered the other birth on Christmas day, witnessed at first hand so recently.
“How’s young Mary,” he said, suddenly remembering that she was sick, “did Kate say?”
“She’s going to be just fine,” Agnes said beaming at him. “Just a minor thing in the end, but Mary’s Ma and Pa were panicking some according to Kate. Anyway Daisy promised to keep an eye on her and young Luke just for a few days, until they are in a routine. It seems that Bess Smith hasn’t been too well of late, and so Daisy thought they could use the help.”
“That sounds like Daisy,” Jess said with a loving smile.
“You’re very fond of her aren’t you dear and Kate?”
He just nodded, “Nearest thing to kin I’ve got I reckon, as far as a Ma goes, although I guess Kate wouldn’t wanna be thought of in that way,” he said with a wry grin.
Agnes was also staring at the Nativity scene, “It was very special wasn’t it?” She said quietly, turning back to look at him, “happening at Christmas that way. Makes you really appreciate the wonder of the Christmas story.”
Jess instinctively knew she was referring to Luke’s birth and he agreed smiling into her eyes, “Yup, real special.”
“And you were too,” she said softly.
He looked down blushing slightly, feeling uncomfortable, “I just did what needed to be done,” he said quietly.
“In doing so you transformed their lives forever….and mine too.”
“Huh?” he said suddenly giving her his full attention and looking baffled.
“Yes, you see Jess, your plain speaking from the moment we met has made me….well revue my life I suppose,” she said giving him a quizzical look.
“Yes, you see maybe I should explain. I was invalided out of teaching early because of ill health. I was sick with the lung fever for several weeks. By the time I recovered the town council had brought in a new teacher, prettier, younger and if I’m honest easier to live with than me.”
Jess hid a smile, “Go on.”
She sighed deeply, “Ever since then I have just been killing time, the only thing of any importance in my life is the Church and my mission to convert sinners. I set myself up as judge and jury, as you have seen by the terrible way I spoke about you and poor Mary.”
“Poor Mary?” Jess queried, “I reckon she’s pretty blessed. A beautiful baby, the support of her family and the father too and I guess he’ll do the right thing by her. I understand what you’re saying Agnes. It was wrong what they did I know. The place for a baby is within marriage. Sure they got it wrong and I guess they weren’t the first or the last. But none the less they’re good people trying to do the best they can.”
“You’re right of course,” she said.
Then she suddenly looked closely at him.
“You made that whole speech without pausing for breath. I really think you’re on the mend you know Jess,” she said beaming at him.
He grinned back, “You know I think you’re right.”
They sat in companionable silence for a little while and then, “So you said I’d ‘transformed your life’ what did you mean?” He asked looking puzzled.
“I mean a marked change, a huge change in the way I think and what I intend to do with my life,” she said, suddenly looking excited.
“Tell me Jess, how old do you think I am…. fifty…..fifty-five?”
He shrugged looking embarrassed, “I dunno Ma’am….ain’t fer me to say.”
“Oh tosh….well I’ll tell you I’m just forty one years of age and looking so much older because I’m bored, bad tempered and critical. It has to change….I have to change.”
“Err…right,” he muttered wondering what she would say next.
“I decided here at the ranch after everything I’ve…we’ve been through, I should say. Now it’s suddenly become clear to me….I want to be a nurse, a healer a carer.”
Jess just looked skeptical but said nothing.
“Yes, you see I’d never have thought about it until that business with young Mary, seeing the birth it was truly inspiring wasn’t it Jess?”
“I guess it was,” he agreed.
“Then getting to know Kate and Daisy, seeing how wonderful they are at healing. It’s been an inspiration to me a real eye opener. Now helping to nurse you, I feel I have a real vocation. And as luck would have it Doctor Lloyd back in Cheyenne is looking for help.”
“He is?” Jess asked weakly, wondering if maybe this was all a tad sudden.
She nodded, flushed with enthusiasm.
“There was a note in his window, ‘Mature Lady sought to assist at visits and in surgery, training given and good remuneration,” she quoted, “and that job has my name on it Jess,” she said the light of battle in her eyes, “It’s what I was meant to do and I have you to thank for opening my eyes to the truth.”
Unbeknownst to them both Kate had entered the room quietly and had been privy to this last little speech, listening with a wry smile on her lips.
She came forward and made herself known as she gave a discreet cough and walked over to the couch, now pulled up close to the fire.
She acknowledged Agnes with a curt nod and then ran a gentle hand over Jess’s forehead.
“Fever’s lessened,” she said with a smile, “so how’s that arm feeling Jess?”
“‘Bout the same I guess,” he said.
“Um… I think we’d better change that poultice.”
“Would you remove this old one while I go and fix up a new dressing?” Kate asked turning innocent eyes on Agnes.
“Why of course,” she said with enthusiasm, delighted to have a chance to try out her nursing skills so quickly.
“Just take it slowly,” Kate called over her shoulder as she marched off to the kitchen to heat up water for the new dressing, “it could be a tad painful for Jess.”
As soon as she started unwrapping the bandage from around his arm Agnes could tell Jess was in severe pain. Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead and he closed his eyes tightly, but made no sound.
She began to feel lightheaded herself, once the bandage was removed and she saw the full extent of his injury, at close hand, for the first time.
The wound was bloody and gaped open from where the arrowhead had been removed by Slim and the poultice dressing stank of the putrid poison that had been on the tip of the arrowhead.
Agnes swallowed hard and turned away almost gagging as the full stench of the festering wound hit her.
A few moments later Kate returned taking in the situation.
“Are you alright dear,” she asked solicitously, a slightly mocking expression in her shrewd eyes the only sign of her real thoughts.
“Quite,” said Agnes gathering herself quickly.
Kate leaned over and examined the deep wound expertly and then cast a glance to where Jess lay, seemingly placid.
However Kate knew him well and saw the closed eyes and firm line of his mouth and knew he was barely holding it together….the pain in his arm agonizing.
“I’m sorry boy, but this is a mess, I figure I’m going to have to cauterize it. It’s bleeding real badly, but I reckon this old poultice has sucked the worst of the muck out.”
Jess’s eyes had open at her voice and now he sighed deeply, “Whatever you’ve gotta do Kate, I guess I’m kinda fond of that old arm of mine, wouldn’t wanna lose it.”
“Oh goodness it won’t come to that Jess,” Agnes said having rallied now and feeling better with Kate at her side.
Kate and Jess just exchanged a knowing look before Kate went off to get what she needed.
When she returned she made for the door, “I’ll go wake Slim,” she said to Agnes.
“Why Kate, I’m quite able to assist you,” Agnes said staunchly.
“Err, I don’t think so,” Kate replied. Yes she knew she had been testing this awkward woman by asking her to remove the putrid poultice. But to ask her to assist with a cauterization, well that was a step too far even for Kate. It would be profoundly unfair to expose this well-meaning woman to such a barbaric practice. For that is what it was Kate knew all too well, sealing the flesh with a white hot knife, without any anaesthetic….but there was no alternative.
“Really, please let me prove to you, I can do it,” Agnes said now getting up from her place by the couch and moving over to Kate, who was about to open the door.
“It isn’t any too pleasant,” Kate said in her usual way of understating things and then more quietly, for Agnes’s ears only.
“That boy’s one tough cookie, but even he’s gonna buck and jump about once I put the knife to the wound, it’ll take some strength to hold him,” Kate said.
“I can do it really I can Kate I’m stronger than I look you know.”
Kate just shrugged and made her way back to the fire and placed a kitchen knife in the flames. Then leaving it to heat up she advanced on Jess with a bottle of red eye.
“Take a swig of this boy it’ll take the edge off some,” she drawled.
Jess accepted the proffered bottle and took a good pull, grimacing as the fiery liquid hit his throat.
Then he handed it back, “OK, git to it Kate….let’s get it over with huh?” He said stoically.
“I’ll clean the wound out first Jess and then get this bleeding under control,” Kate said in a business-like manner, nodding to Agnes to come across.
“If you can stand on the other side of the couch,” Kate said, “and just hold the arm steady for me…OK?”
Nothing had prepared Agnes for the horrific scenes she was about to witness.
Kate first cleaned the wound with clean cloths soaked in whisky, the spirit burning and making Jess cuss softly and jerk a little, but Agnes was able to hold the arm still.
If she had thought that was bad enough, when Kate finally cauterized the wound with the hot knife it was unbearable. The smell of burning flesh was sickening…making Agnes again feel she might well faint. But then all her attention and strength was called for as she held Jess in a vice like grip. Even though he cried out and jerked away trying to escape the penetrating pain as the blisteringly hot knife did its work she held on tightly as Kate worked quickly and efficiently.
Seconds later it was all over and he lay there sweating and shuddering as Kate started binding the arm again, the wound now clean and the bleeding stopped.
Agnes staggered to one of the fireside chairs and collapsed down, breathing deeply and looking white as a sheet.
Once the task was completed Kate brushed Jess’s unruly tangle of dark hair back from his forehead and said gently, “You take it easy OK boy?”
He nodded, “Thanks Kate.”
“You get some sleep now, best healing there is,” she said softly, tucking the blanket around him.
She turned away and fetching the whisky bottle poured a little into a couple of cups before going to join Agnes by the fire.
“Here get this down you,” she said brusquely, “you look like ya need it woman.”
Agnes was about to refuse, but then changed her mind and taking the offered cup sipped the strong brew, before relaxing back and closing her eyes for a moment.
Then casting a glance across to the couch said, “Will he be alright Kate?”
“Sure, sleeping like a baby he is,” she said with a chuckle, “be good as new in a day or two. Well week or three,” she said more honestly.
Agnes just shook her head, “Why?” she said turning bewildered eyes on the older woman. “Why did you have to let him suffer that way?”
“No choice,” Kate replied in a matter of fact manner. “The way he was bleeding he wouldn’t have made it, those poultices are good to draw the poison out you see Agnes. But the down side is that they tend to make a body bleed some. That was a real deep wound, I reckon Slim had to dig about to fetch the arrow head out damaged a few blood vessels on the way. Yup you always have to be careful with poultices on deep wounds I guess. You might wanna remember that when you go helpin’ Doc Tom out.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Doc Tom Lloyd, you were telling Jess you’d a mind to go work for him and iffen you want my opinion, then I guess you’d be good at it….. real good.”
“Really,” Agnes squeaked looking ecstatic, “You do…really?”
“Sure iffen you can handle Jess here with all his cussin’ and ornery ways I figure anything old Tom has for you would be real easy,” Kate said with a huge grin.
“Thank you,” Agnes said returning the smile, “you’ve no idea how much that means to me…. coming from you.”
“Take as I find,” Kate said briskly. “First meetin’ I wasn’t any too impressed,” she said with her typically brutal honesty. “But well I reckon you’ve changed of late and Tom might make a real decent nurse of ya in the long run. Now how about a drop more of Denver’s best huh?” She asked with a wicked wink.
Chapter 12
By the following morning Jess was almost back to his normal ornery self, or so it seemed. Demanding bacon and beans for breakfast and that he get up and help with the yard chores.
“Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with my dang legs,” he growled, “and Slim’s gonna be busy mendin’ the Stage.”
“That’s as may be,” said Kate firmly, “but you ain’t taking a step off of that couch until the swelling in that arm is down and you can argue without still havin’ to catch your breath….understand young man?”
Jess just looked sulky, but didn’t dispute the matter knowing he was no match for Kate Munroe. And even managed a smile when Agnes took pity on him and brought him bacon as requested, albeit minus the beans and with a rather watered down coffee.
However his disappointment was more than made up for by the presence of Millie. She had taken over the nursing duties from a slightly inebriated Kate and Agnes the night before, whilst the older ladies had finally gone to bed. Once the ladies had retired Jess moved over on the couch and made room for Millie to join him and she snuggled down in his warm embrace. They talked until dawn in muted tones, whispering loving words and making plans for the coming week-end together.
Now she cleared away the breakfast dishes and smiled down at Jess, “I’ll make you a proper coffee in a minute,” she whispered with a wink, “as soon as Agnes goes off to pack.”
He grinned up at her and then sobered, “Jeez I’m sorry this happened,” he said running a hand across the heavily bandaged arm, “I sure hope it hasn’t spoilt your time here.”
“Of course not,” she said brushing his tangle of wavy hair from his forehead in a loving gesture, “and we’ll have time together at New Year.” Then she paused, “You’re sure you will be well enough to get to town?”
“Of course I will. Try an’ stop me,” he said his expression filled with love and the promise of nights of passion ahead. But before he could grab her hand and pull her down for a kiss Mike and Blue stormed into the room both charging for Jess and scrambling up on the couch beside him. Mike snuggling up and Blue, lying across Jess’s chest, his eyes soulful as he gave his face a cursory lick.
Jess grinned and rolled his eyes at Millie before cuddling the child and dog to him.
“Well I guess you’ll be in good hands when I head out, “Millie said with a little giggle as the couple exchanged an amused, but rueful glance.
It was a day later that everything finally fell into place.
Slim, with Mort and Mose’s help patched up the Stagecoach and it headed out later that day, with fond farewells from Lily and Millie and promises to meet at the New Year Dance in town.
It was also goodbye from Agnes. Surprisingly she felt almost bereft at losing the closeness she now felt she had with Jess. The young cowboy had changed her world so much, along with the others who had contributed, especially Kate and Daisy. But now she knew she must move on with this new life they had helped her to discover.
Kate and Mort had just headed out together, looking for all the world like ‘two young love birds,’ so Slim declared, when Daisy arrived home.
Ernie Smith had driven her back and now she hurried into the ranch house seeking out Jess at once.
“Oh my dear are you alright, I wanted to come straight home when Mort said you were sick, but poor Mary couldn’t really be left. Kate said she had just the thing to set you to rights, and you know how er…persuasive she can be,” said Daisy diplomatically, the words tumbling out as she was so relieved to be home.
Jess looked up at her from where he was still laying on the couch, his arm now in a sling.
“Downright bossy ya mean,” he said with a grin, grabbing hold of her hand with his good one and pulling her down on to the edge of the couch beside him, “Gee it’s good to have ya home Daisy,” he said with feeling.
She squeezed his hand and beamed at him, “And it’s good to be home too dear.”
As usual Jess played down his injuries and without Kate there to spill the beans to Daisy he got away with murder and was up later that day. Assuring all that he was just fine and soon pitching in and helping again, he refused to admit how weary he was really feeling.
Slim and Jess set to on the ranch chores along with Mike’s help and the weather took a turn for the better, the snow melting and even some warmth in the huge red sun. The unaccustomed change in the weather was a relief for the adults, but not for Mike, Buttons or Blue, who all loved to cavort about in the deep snow.
“Looks like we’re all set fair for the festivities at New Year,” Slim said as he came in from the yard chores early one morning.
“Are we really my dear?” Daisy asked, as she hurried out of the kitchen bearing the breakfast coffee pot, “so is it really thawing out there?”
“Looks to be,” Slim said with a cheerful smile, “I reckon you and young Mike will be able go to the dance and children’s New Year party at the Laramie Hotel as planned.”
“Are the Jackson brothers still good for minding the place for a couple of days?” asked Jess, who had just followed Slim in from the yard.
“Sure,” said Slim happily, “as long as we’ve got the cash those lads will oblige and to be honest Jess, after the year we’ve had I reckon we deserve a day or so having some fun, Daisy and Mike too,” he said smiling at their kindly housekeeper.
“Well you certainly won’t hear no argument from me,” Jess replied happily, before turning his attentions to the coffee pot.
“Are you sure you’re up to it Jess dear?” Daisy asked casting him a concerned glance. “It’s still only a few days since you were so sick.”
It hadn’t gone unnoticed by her that he still wasn’t using his left arm much, although now out of the sling, and often looked bone weary at the end of the working day, retiring early on most nights.
“Sure I am,” he said quickly, making an effort to grin at her, sitting up and adopting a perky manner, “Never better.”
“Um,” she replied, but let the matter drop.
The following morning was the thirtieth of December and the men were kept pretty busy getting everything ship shape at the ranch before their few days of New Year revelry. Whilst Slim agreed to do the yard chores, Jess had opted to ride out to the East pasture to check on the stock.
After his recent confinement to the ranch house and yard he was glad to be out and about again. The deep arrow wound was still bothering him some, but today he tried to forget about it and enjoy the freedom of riding out.
It was a beautiful morning with almost a scent of spring in the air, although Jess was too savvy to Wyoming weather now to believe that for a moment. But none the less, he revelled in the unaccustomed warm spell.
He was just cresting the hill above the East pasture when he heard the sound of someone crying out in fear and pain. Looking down to the valley below he saw a young man pinned down and three ragged looking Indian’s beating him savagely.
Jess didn’t pause for a second. He galloped Traveller down the hill and taking a flying leap from the saddle threw himself at two of the braves, bringing them to their knees. Where he commenced knocking nine bells out of them as he was to describe it to Slim later.
As he had hoped the unknown youngster pitched in and helped him out as they exchanged blows with the young braves.
Jess had pretty much downed two of the Indians, Grey Wolf and his brother, who were now lying in a bloody, semi-conscious heap. Before he turned his attentions to the remaining one Red Hawk… He had the reputation of being a real fighter, but Jess was pleased to see the young white man was holding his own, although looking like he’d had just about enough. At that Jess waded in and after a further left and right swing to Red Hawk’s jaw the young warrior fell forwards out cold before he hit the ground.
Jess straightened up, pulling off his Stetson and running a hand through his unruly hair before ramming it back in place and grinning over at his fellow combatant.
“I guess we showed ‘em pretty good,” the youngster said, surveying the comatose warriors.
“Guess we did,” Jess agreed leaning over and shaking hands.
He rubbed his now aching previously injured arm with his good one and glared down at the young braves. Glad to finally be able to meter out some revenge for all the pain he’d suffered, before turning his attention back to the young man.
He surveyed the rather dishevelled youngster now and realized that he was just a kid, sixteen, maybe seventeen and dressed in smart Eastern duds too.
Then his suspicions were confirmed when the personable young man grinned at him, “Luke, Luke Saunders sir and I want to thank you, I guess you just saved my bacon.”
“Jess Harper, so I guess you’re here to catch up with Mary Smith and meet her folks, see young Luke junior too huh?” Jess said enthusiastically.
“Well, yes, yes I am…I’m Mary’s …well intended I guess,” he said with a happy grin….. “But who is Luke junior?” He asked looking bewildered.
Jess suddenly realized that the news wouldn’t have filtered through yet.
“Why he’s your baby son,” he said grinning, “Congratulations!”
“But how can that be?” He asked looking astonished, “The baby isn’t due for ages yet.”
“Well he’s here and waiting to see ya, Mary is too.”
“Are you sure?” The boy asked, looking totally amazed at the wonderful news.
“Sure I’m sure, I delivered him didn’t I,” said Jess chuckling.
This produced an even more astonished expression from Luke.
However before he could inquire further one of the Indians stared to stir.
Jess drew his Colt.45 and covered all three men.
“I’ve some rawhide in my saddle bag, get it will ya Luke. I figure we’d better get this lot trussed up and take them back to the camp. Then I’ll show ya where the Smith’s place is OK?”
After the braves had been hauled up across their ponies, hands and feet tied tightly Jess lead two of the mounts leaving Luke to bring up the rear with the other. After they’d been riding for some ten minutes Luke asked where they were headed.
“Just a few miles from here,” Jess said, “the Crow have their winter camp….Chief White Eagle will sort these lowlife dang renegades out,” he said with feeling.
Luke had seen how ferociously Jess had laid into the braves, showing no mercy and had roughly tied them…the look of fury in his eyes quite disturbing.
“You seem real mad at them,” the boy said, “I guess when they attacked me they were just drunk…maybe didn’t realize what they were doing,” he said charitably.
“Oh they knew alright,” Jess drawled, “and yeah I am kinda mad at them. They tried to fire the Overland Stage and then shot me with a poison tipped arrow, nearly cost me my arm. Hell, maybe even my life iffen a friend hadn’t come and nursed me real good. So yeah Luke I am kinda mad.”
They rode on in silence for another few miles and then cresting a ridge saw the tepees of an Indian camp in the wooded valley below them, wood smoke spiralling into the clear winter sky.
Luke cast an anxious glance at this rather formidable, tough looking cowboy. Then down to the camp where woman folk and children were cooking at the fire. Whilst many older Indians and braves sat in a circle smoking and exchanging banter.
“Will it be OK? Err… I mean these Indians attacked us, what will a whole tribe do to us?” he asked looking fearful.
“Sure it’ll be fine,” Jess said easily, “White Eagle and I go way back and when he hears what his nephews have been up to I figure he’ll be as mad as I am.”
A little later they rode in but at the edge of the camp Jess told Luke to wait for him there.
“See White Eagle knows me, these Crow get kinda wary of strangers, ”and taking the lead reins from all three ponies Jess ventured onwards alone.
Several braves came running out, bows at the ready as Jess approached but once they saw who it was they laid their weapons down. Then moments later White Eagle himself emerged from one of the tepees.
He raised a hand in peaceful greeting and Jess did likewise before slipping down from the saddle.
“Greetings Jess Harper, it has been many moons since we last met.” Then turning to survey the still bound bodies of his nephews, he looked dismayed, “And this visit is not one of pleasure I am thinking?”
“Well yer thinking darned right,” said Jess angrily. “See it’s this way White Eagle these kids are up to their dang necks in trouble. They almost set the Overland Stage afire just a few days back and when I tried to stop ‘em, they done shot me in the arm with a poisoned arrow. If it hadn’t been for Kate Munroe’s real good medicine, I might not be here right now! “
The old Chief looked mighty disturbed by this news and then nodded. Kate Munroe, he thought a good woman. How had his dead brother’s sons got so wild? But then his attention was drawn back to this dark haired young man who had his respect.
“Now I could easily have dispatched one and all to their Maker that day. But I didn’t in the hope that you’d take ‘em on and sort ‘em out. Because they sure as hell need takin’ in hand White Eagle! Just an hour ago they attacked this young man,” Jess said tipping his hat to where Luke still sat his mount on the edge of the camp, “Would have killed him I guess iffen I hadn’t happened along. All drunk as skunks on white man’s fire water too. So what in hell are ya gonna do about it? Sure I’ll speak to Denver James and make sure they don’t get any more strong grog. But I guess the rest is up to you.”
White Eagle looked furious and gestured to some of his tribe’s men to take his young nephews away.
Then he asked Jess and Luke to follow him into the camp.
Jess beckoned Luke over and the two men joined Chief White Eagle, sitting cross legged around the camp fire, accepting a pipe from the old chief.
However Jess didn’t smoke it, but just looked over to the older man and said, “Well?”
The Chief looked into Jess’s eyes and then said softly in his own language, ”I am deeply ashamed……”
Jess just nodded, acknowledging the fact.
“They will be punished! Twenty lashes each and then they must work as the woman folk do. They will not be accepted as braves again until they can prove they are truly repentant for the dishonor they have brought me. If they leave the tribe again without my permission they will be put to death,” he finished, casting Jess a look of deep regret.
Jess again merely nodded, but finally took up the peace pipe and smoked it before handing it back to the chief.
“Thank you my son,” the old man said quietly, “I think we understand each other? No hard feelings as you say?”
“Nope, Chief, no hard feelings,” Jess agreed and taking the old man’s hand shook it warmly.
It was sometime later before the two white men were able to make their way home from the Indian encampment.
As they finally wended their way towards the Smith spread long shadows of evening were cast before them, the huge ball of red sun setting in the west. Jess turned to the young man with a wry grin and said, ”I guess that’s yer first taste of Indian hospitality then Luke?”
The young man nodded, ”What was that meat?” he asked looking stricken.
Jess smiled at the youngster, ”I guess it was preserved Buffalo but preserved none too well, all those herbs and spices kinda hide the taste.”
“Um…”said Luke, ”well I sure hope my Mary can cook better than that.”
“Oh I guess she can, iffen her Ma’s cooking is anything to go by and anyway count your lucky stars,” he said chuckling, “could have been bear on the menu tonight,” and he shuddered slightly at the thought.
When they finally made it to the Smith’s place it was late evening and Ernie Smith was pleased to see Jess escorting his potential son in law safely home. There was rather a tense exchange between the two men at first. But eventually Ernest was won over and convinced Luke would do the right thing by his daughter. He was also impressed at the way the easterner was adapting, having held his own against the Indians. Now he said he was prepared to put in the hours working the ranch with his future father in law and help to provide for his young family. Yes it looked like Mary had made a good match despite the rather rocky start, Ernest thought. Eventually he broke out the red eye and all three men had a glass or two.
Luke was absolutely besotted with his new little son at first sight. Once he had helped put him to bed and re-joined the men around the fireside he impulsively grabbed hold of Jess’s hand, shaking it warmly.
“Mary has just told me how wonderful you were,” he said, his eyes sparkling in gratitude, “I guess I can never thank you enough for what you did that night Mister Harper.”
“That goes for me too,” rumbled Ernest Smith, raising his glass to Jess.
“Well you just make sure you look after young Mary and Luke, way a good man should,” Jess said sincerely, ”and Hell don’t even think of tellin’ folk I delivered the kid either,” he added with feeling.
“That goes for me too, you looking after my Mary that is,” came from Ernie Smith, and all three men laughed loudly and raised their glasses in a toast…’To Mary and Luke.’
Then Ma Smith came in fussin’ and frettin’ that they’d wake the baby…..But turned to Jess…”Oh my goodness dear you’re bleeding,” she said looking at the fresh stains on the sleeve of Jess’s shirt.
He rode into the Relay a good spell later and walked Traveller across the yard to the barn and was just about to haul his saddle off when the barn door opened and Slim strode in.
“Where in Hell have you been,” he exploded without pausing, “supper was way back and Daisy and Mike have been fretting! For goodness sake Jess they’ve been real worried…. me too. Daisy already thinks you should be resting and then you go and pull this stunt!”
Then Jess turned to face Slim, from where he’d been tending his mount. Slim saw the bruises to his face, from the fight with the Crow braves, and the look of total exhaustion in his eyes.
“Garldarn it, you’ve been fighting Jess,” he exploded and then moving forwards sniffed his breath…”and drinking too! Heck you’ve been down town drinking and brawling in the bar haven’t you, admit it!”
Jess stood there speechless feeling kind of sick and dizzy if he was honest.
“And spending time with your girl too no doubt,” Slim said even more angrily, searching Jess for signs. He sure didn’t have that satiated look he usually bore after an afternoon of passion spent in Millie’s room above the Laramie saloon. In fact he looked kind of peaky Slim noted on closer inspection.
Jess just stared back at him in consternation, not believing the injustice of it.
“Hell Slim I ain’t!” He exploded.
Then both men stared at each other and Slim suddenly realized what he’d been implying and said, “Hell buddy this sounds like the kinda of conversations we used to have when you first moved in here.”
Jess hung his head and then looked up at his buddy a twinkle in his eye and the corners of his mouth twitching into a smile, ”I guess you’re right Hardrock, always thinkin’ the worst of me.”
“OK, I’m sorry…… so what really happened?”
“Well I’ll tell ya Slim, I came upon those no good renegades. You didn’t really think I was gonna let ‘em get away with what they did to me that day did ya?”
Slim just grinned shaking his head,” Nope, I guess not so go on then.“
Jess had just finished a potted version of the last few hours when he was suddenly aware that his poor old horse was still standing waiting on his attention.
He went to haul the saddle off and nearly collapsed, a wave of dizziness and nausea almost overwhelming him. Slim jumped forwards to take the saddle from him, ”Come on pard,” he said pushing him down onto a straw bale, ”sit a spell, I’ll see to old Trav for you.”
Jess was just about feeling too wore out to argue and later even allowed Slim to haul him up and help him over to the house.
“Mike and Daisy are long abed,” Slim said, “But Daisy left you some supper in the oven Jess.”
He shuddered at the thought, ”I guess I’ve had enough for tonight, thanks Slim,” he said rubbing his stomach that was lurching at the thought of food, ”Got me a belly full of White Eagle’s buffalo stew.”
Slim threw him a sympathetic glance, ”Just bed then huh buddy and maybe some of Miss Daisy’s peppermint tea?”
It was when Jess stripped off for bed that Slim saw the cuts and bruises to his torso and the blood stains on the sleeve of his shirt and raised an eyebrow.
“What happened pard?”
Jess just shrugged, ”I guess I fell kinda badly in the fight and the wound opened up some but it’s fine now, Bess Smith cleaned it up.”
“You’re sure?”
“Yup, I’m sure,” and Jess pulled off his shirt, with the bloodied sleeve and tossed it under the bed.
Slim sighed and looked perplexed, “What are you doing now Jess?”
“Losin’ my shirt ain’t I. If Daisy sees I’ve been bleedin’ again, that’s my trip to town over. Heck its New Year’s dance tomorrow, I ain’t missin’ that and don’t you dare tell her Slim or else,” he said menacingly.
Slim just shook his head chuckling.
Chapter 13
The following morning although Daisy clucked around what she thought to be a rather peaky looking Jess, her attention was finally deflected by Slim.
“Hey Daisy I thought you wanted to get over to the Church Hall early to set out all your food and make sure everything’s all ready for the children’s party,” said Slim, “the buckboard’s all ready for you and Mike you know.“
“Oh thank you dear, yes I must fly,” and she cast Jess a final anxious look as he sat brooding over his breakfast coffee.
“You’re sure you feel up to coming to town later?” she asked for the third time.
“Sure I am,” he said jumping up from his seat and hustling her out to the waiting wagon, “You and Mike have a swell time and we’ll catch up with ya both for supper at the Hotel later OK?”
Soon they had gone happily on their way, Mike beside himself with excitement about the New Year’s Eve Party, organized by the women’s group for all their members and children.
Then Slim turned to Jess, “So how are you really feeling?”
“Ok I guess. Hell Slim don’t you start fussin’ too huh. I’m alright, just kinda beat up some…but it ain’t like it’s the first time is it?”
“I guess not, so come on let’s get the yard chores done and then we can head for town too huh. “
It was mid-afternoon when they finally rode in having left the ranch and relay in the capable hands of the Jackson brothers.
They deposited their mounts at the livery and then made their way down to a lively saloon.
Both Lily and Millie were busy serving, but were able to say a quick howdy to the men and let them know how much they were looking forwards to the dance at the hotel later.
Jess took a pull of his beer and leaning on the bar surveyed the room, until he found who he was looking for. Kate Munroe and Sheriff Cory were sitting at an intimate little table at the back of the room. He strode over a grim expression in his deep blue eyes.
“So where’s that son of a bitch Denver?” he growled as he loomed over them, addressing Kate.
“Well good afternoon to you too Jess, take a seat,” said Mort grinning up at his friend and exchanging a wink with Kate.
Jess sighed realizing how cantankerous he was being and removing his hat he placed it on the table and slumped down in the offered chair.
“Sorry Kate…Mort,” he said,”I’m just so dang mad.”
Turning to Kate, “So where is Denver then?” He asked.
“Gone back up the mountain, had some business to attend to,” she replied.
“I bet he has,” muttered Jess darkly, “Selling more liquor to the Crow is he Kate? Garldarn it, that’s the root cause of all the dang trouble we’ve been havin’. That attack on the Stage and all the rest of it, there’s been strong drink involved.”
“I know,” said Kate, “that’s what I told old Denver, but he said he ain’t sold ‘em any in months, that’s when he figured they’d got wind of where his still is and been helping themselves. So that’s the business him and the boys have gone on. They’re takin’ it down and moving it over to…..”
Mort gave a little cough at this point, ”Err I don’t think I want to hear anymore Kate…..iffen I don’t know where he is, then stands to reason I can’t go after him and his illegal still….…huh?”
Kate grinned across at him,”I like your way of thinkin’ Sheriff,” she said, before turning back to Jess.
“Anyway boy so what are you doing in town? You surely aren’t well enough yet…Dadgum it, I should know. I’ve been on the business end of one of those dang poison arrows myself once…was sickly for a few weeks.”
“Aww quit fussin’ Kate,” he said with asperity, their lifelong friendship allowing him to address her that way knowing no offence would be taken.
She merely rolled her eyes,”And you’ve been fighting,” she said with spirit.
Then Jess launched into the tale of his meeting with Luke Saunders and their set to with the Crow braves and how he’d escorted them back to the winter camp.
“I intend riding over,” said Mort,”I need to talk everything out with the Chief, this can’t go on,” and he cast Jess a saddened glance, noting how pale he was looking.
“No need,” said Jess grinning now, “all sorted out,” and he explained about the punishment White Eagle had metered out to the young braves and the threat of death if they left the camp again without permission.
Mort gave him a wide grin at this news.
“Looks like you’ve done my job for me then Jess, thank you, I guess this calls for another round,” and he marched off to the bar looking a mighty relieved man.
The dance was in full swing and one and all were having the whale of a time.
All except Jess, who was really beginning to feel the strain now. Sure he’d danced pretty near every dance with Millie who just loved to party. He’d even had the odd dance with Daisy and Miss Agnes. Although he drew the line at entertaining her spiteful younger sister Freda, knowing that she had been the one behind all the nasty rumours that had been passed on to Agnes.
He and Agnes had chatted well enough as they danced and she was still all fired up about applying for the job with old Doc Lloyd.
“Well I sure wish you luck Ma’am,” he said politely as their dance came to a close.
Then the next dance was announced as a ‘Ladies Excuse Me’ and he quickly thanked Agnes for the dance before he beat a hasty retreat towards the door saying he needed some air.
Agnes’s concerned gaze followed him out. That young man isn’t himself she thought sadly and just wished she was already adept at nursing and could advise him. And then she smiled to herself, as though Jess Harper would listen to her advice anyway. No she was sure Miss Daisy would be keeping an eye on him.
Slim sought out his pard sometime later and found him slumped forwards, elbows on knees, on a bench outside the hotel, smoking a cigarette and looking pale and drawn.
“Here you are,” said Slim, sitting down beside his buddy, “you missed the ‘Ladies Excuse Me’ and every darned woman in the room wanted to know where you’d disappeared to,” he said chuckling.
Then he looked more closely at his pard, ”Hey are you feeling alright Jess?”
“Huh…er…yeah, just wanted some fresh air ya know.”
Slim gave the cigarette a cursory glance and said, “Yeah?”
Jess inhaled deeply and then chucked the butt into the road, Yeah.”
“Thought you’d given up?”
“I have, just scrounged one off of Mose.”
They lapsed into silence and then Slim said quietly, “Why don’t you turn in Jess, iffen you aren’t feeling any too good?”
“You’re kiddin’, its New Year’s I don’t wanna spoil it fer Millie.”
“Daisy has taken Mike up to bed, sends her best and said she’ll see us at Miss Molly’s for breakfast.”
Jess just nodded, ”OK.“
Slim stood up and stretched,”I’d better get back in Lily will be missing me.”
Jess sighed deeply,”I’ll be back in a minute.”
Slim reached over and squeezed his shoulder affectionately, suddenly feeling a wave of pity for his buddy, so obviously totally worn out after the recent events that had occurred.
A few minutes later the hotel door swung open again and Millie trotted out and came and sat down beside him.
“I missed you,” she said softly.
“Sorry sweetheart, I just needed a moment,” and he turned to look at her, thinking how beautiful she looked. The jade green silk dress clinging to her curvaceous figure…… the low cut neckline showing her delectable cleavage and the silver locket to perfection.
“Jess,” she said quietly, “would you mind awfully if we went home, back to my place that is…..now?”
His eyes opened wide in surprise, “Heck Millie you love New Year all that excitement to the countdown and everything. The shootin’ in the streets fire crackers an all”
“I know, but not tonight…. I’m kinda tired after working in the bar all day and anyway, I guess all I want to do is be with you,” she said turning adoring eyes on her lover.
“You really mean it?”
She nodded, “Really,“ and she mentally thanked Slim for the quiet word he’d had with her a few minutes earlier, as she saw the look of relief in Jess’s deep blue eyes. Something else too…..the light of passion and she smiled to herself. Her cowboy might be feeling kinda bruised and battered…..even pretty wore out…..but when it came to romancin’ , well she reckoned maybe not too darned wore out.
Almost as though he’d read her thoughts he leaned over, took her face between his large gentle hands and kissed her very tenderly,”Yeah, let’s go home,” he said softly.
Chapter 14
It was several weeks into the New Year when Mose brought them mail.
Once they had returned to the ranch after the New Year celebrations the unusual warm spell had disappeared and within days there was deep snow down, effectively cutting off the Ranch and Relay from town and their neighbours. So it was the second week in February before they finally heard the Stage making its way down the rise and into the yard.
Mose peered at them from the box and then jumped down grinning at both men before shaking their hands warmly, “It’s been a while,” he said giving them his friendly toothless grin.
“Good ta see you looking so chipper Jess boy, you were lookin’ a mite peaky when you scrounged that smoke off of me at New Year’s, yes proper peaky.”
“Oh he’s fine now Mose,” Slim said chuckling, “fit as a butcher’s dog and twice as sassy.”
Jess launched into his partner with a well-aimed clip to the head and all three men made their way into the Ranch house for coffee laughing.
“So how’s dear Miss Daisy keepin’ then?”
It was when Mose was finally on his way that he remembered the shed load of mail that had accumulated for the ranch over the last few weeks when the Stage hadn’t been running. He tipped them over to where Slim and Jess had just changed the team.
“Dunno who’d be writin’ all those dang letters to the likes of you boys,” he said scratching his head, ”mostly feed bills and Miss Daisy’s catalogue I reckon. But there’s one here from Cheyenne. Don’t recognise the writing,” he said pausing hopefully in case they opened the mystery letter and satisfied his curiosity. But Jess merely grinned his thanks and said it was for Daisy and he’d pass it on.
“Oh and how’s that little biddy Luke doin’ over at the Smith place?” Mose asked, his eyes twinkling with mischief.
“Just fine, far as we know,” Jess said stony faced, “Hell you ain’t said anything about all that in the saloon have ya Mose….huh?”
The old timer merely tapped his nose and slapped the reins to get the Stage moving, giving Slim a sly wink as he passed by.
“I’ll dang well swing fer him,” Jess yelled as he watched the coach disappearing up the rise and Slim turned away chuckling to himself, Gee, Jess was so dang easy to get a rise out of sometimes.
It was that evening after supper that the men remembered about the letter and asked Daisy about it.
“Oh it’s the strangest thing,” she said suddenly animated, “It was from Miss Agnes Cross, telling me all about her new job with old Doctor Lloyd. She says she loves working for him and actually helped to deliver twins the other day! Then stayed on with the young mother to help care for them, said it brought back happy memories and sends her love to you Jess.”
Jess flushed up looking embarrassed, but merely topped up his coffee cup and grunted noncommittally.
“She goes on to say she has been nursing the terminally ill wife of an old friend too, goodness it looks like she’s certainly getting lots of experience,” Daisy said thoughtfully.
“Good on her….so any more pie then Daisy?” Jess asked.
Then said, “What?” when Slim and Daisy rebuked him.
“Give her a chance pard,” Slim said quietly, “I reckon she’s done really well managing to turn her life around like this….and I figure you’d be the first one to know all about that wouldn’t you?”
Jess flushed up again, “Yeah I suppose….and er……send her my best when you write back huh Daisy.”
“Certainly I will dear.”
“So…anymore pie Daisy?”
The second visitors came the very next day in the form of Luke Saunders and his father-in-law to be Ernie Smith.
Jess and Slim were busily mending harness in the barn when they heard the men riding in and greeted them warmly.
“I figure Daisy should have the coffee on round about now,” Slim said, shepherding the men towards the ranch house, “come and sit a spell.”
Once they were all seated around the table Jess grinned at the younger man, “So how’s your son gettin’ on and Mary?” he asked.
“Just fine and dandy thanks Jess.”
Then he cast a secretive smile over to Ernie before saying, “That’s why we’re here Jess. You see Mary and me would be really happy iffen you’d do us the honour of being Godfather to the young ‘un. We’ve spoken to Reverend Wesley and we’ve got the Christening scheduled for after Church Service, week Sunday. I know it doesn’t give you much notice. But what with the bad weather and all, well we couldn’t make it over to see you sooner, “he gabbled on in his enthusiasm.
All the time he’d been speaking Jess had just sat stock still, mouth slightly a gape and eyes open wide… a look of shocked wonder in their deep blue depths.
All three men stared at Jess, who still sat there as though, in a trance.
“Jess,” Slim said softly, “say something pard.“
He finally looked over to Slim and then back towards the eager faces of Luke and Ernie.
“I err….can’t, I mean you have to be real special fer that kinda thing,” he said quickly, ”like real religious….an’ stuff.”
“Well I guess you’re religious enough,” said Ernie Smith, smiling at his friend. ”Rev Wesley certainly thinks so. You may not be the most regular remember of his congregation Jess, but from what he’s told me…..well I reckon we’d be hard pushed to find anyone better.”
Jess still looked unconvinced.
“And my Mary would be heartbroken, iffen you refused,” he finished, looking expectantly at Jess.
“OK,” he said grinning,”But I’ll talk to Josh first…..alright?”
Luke looked ecstatic, “Of course, now just Miss Daisy to ask.”
A couple of weeks later Jess found himself in his Sunday best suit sitting on the front pew of the Laramie Church. He was flanked by Daisy and Mary’s big brother, Peter, on leave from the army, all waiting their turn to declare themselves as Godparents to young Luke. Now sleeping peacefully and blissfully unaware of the great event ahead of him.
A few days earlier Jess had ridden into town and sought out Joshua Wesley as he went about his daily duties in the church, after a mid-week service.
“Why Jess how lovely to see you,” he said smiling broadly, ”I guess we tend to meet up more in the summer when I indulge my passion for fishing at your lake, and when you make the occasional visit to my Church of course,” he added chuckling a little.
“I guess you’re right at that,” Jess said looking a tad embarrassed, “but I really need to talk with you Josh.”
“Of course, come sit a spell,” he said kindly, sinking down onto a pew and patting the seat beside him.
Jess sighed deeply, “See it’s this business of bein’ a Godfather Josh…well I figure I really ain’t cut out for it.”
It was a good hour later before Reverend Joshua Wesley had finally persuaded his favourite parishioner that he was the very best candidate as far as Godfather material was concerned.
“Heck Jess, this commitment isn’t just about Church going, although of course that and religious knowledge and obedience are important. But anyway I figure Daisy as Godmother can more than deal with that side of things. But it’s also about belief and faith in Our Lord….which I know for a fact you have,” he said with an encouraging smile.
”There’s also more things to consider, like helping him to grow up loyal and true and I guess you are as good a role model as anyone could wish regarding that Jess. Also you have the experience…the knowledge, of what it’s like to be outside that strong loving family to guide you. You’d to make your own way in life from a young age….and in doing so…well I imagine you found out about the importance of trust and friendship from an early age?”
Jess just nodded, knowing the truth of it…
“Also who is better qualified to show a young man right from wrong in life than someone who has…well experienced both sides of the coin so to speak…….um?”
“I guess if you put it that way Josh,” Jess said grinning broadly, “I’ll try to do my best by the boy…. Really I will.“
And that was exactly what he had promised at the Christening and it was to be a promise he would honour all the days of his life…..
There was a small party at the Smith’s place after the Christening, just for close family and friends but Daisy was pleased to see that Miss Cross had been invited.
“Well she did help at the birth,” Bess Smith said,” and we are truly thankful for all the help dear Mary received that day.”
It was once the cake had been cut, toasts made and baby Luke finally put down for his nap that Miss Cross wandered over to Daisy.
“What a wonderful occasion,” she said blithely, “such an engaging baby don’t you think Daisy dear?”
Daisy turned to really look at Agnes properly for the first time and was stunned by the change in her. Could this really be the same difficult, disagreeable woman of old? Yes Agnes seemed to be mellowing slightly during her enforced stay over the Christmas period. But this ……this was a completely different woman or so it seemed to Daisy. The easy way she spoke to one and all. A smile for everyone and laughter never far from her lips, lips that looked suspiciously like they had seen the merest slick of lipstick, if Daisy wasn’t mistaken. Yes she was indeed wearing some very subtle makeup. The grey had gone from her hair too, which she now wore in a new style with a rather daring henna rinse to boot Daisy noticed. In fact Miss Cross looked a good ten years younger with her trim figure and modern smart dress.
Daisy’s thoughts were put into words a little later as Jess sidled over to her and whispered in her ear, “Who in heck is that and what’s she done with Agnes Cross?”
Daisy giggled and slapped Jess’s arm gently, “Shush….. She’ll hear you.”
It was later when they were back in the privacy of the Ranch house that they discussed the matter further.
“Well Agnes’s new career certainly seems to be suiting her,” Daisy said happily.
“Um,” said Jess,”maybe it’s being around all those babies they do say that can mellow a person.“
Slim barked with laughter at that sentiment.
“What…what’d I say?” growled Jess looking askance.
“Well it sure hasn’t mellowed you any being around babies,” Slim chuckled. “Heck it was just after the birth of young Luke that Mose said you threatened to shoot him iffen he breathed a word about the part you’d played.”
“Yeah, I meant it too,” Jess muttered. ”I ain’t lived down the last time I was called on to help out a pregnant lady yet. I sure don’t want folk thinking I’m makin’ a habit of it,” and he marched off to the barn in high dudgeon, leaving Slim and Daisy shaking with silent laughter.
It was just a few weeks later when they were to learn the real reason for Agnes’s transformation.
Yet another bulky letter was delivered to Daisy and this time she opened it at the kitchen table whilst Jess, Slim and Mike looked on.
As she slit it open a large gold edged card fell out and Mike stooped to pick it up, glancing at the content before handing it back to Daisy.
“What does all that squiggly writin’ say,” the child asked looking fascinated, ”it’s something about presence of……requested and my name is on there. Yours, Slim and Jess’s too…….what does it mean Aunt Daisy?” He asked as he contemplated the bold copperplate writing on the posh cream and gold card.
“Yeah, what does it mean?” Jess asked looking wary.
Daisy studied it closely before she gave a gasp of amazement, ”Oh goodness me…..Agnes is getting married,” she squeaked with excitement, ”How wonderful and we’re all invited!”
“Wonderful,” Jess said in a voice laden with doom, his expression matching his tone.
“Miss Cross is kinda old to be getting married ain’t she?” Mike asked looking equally stunned.
“Isn’t she Mike,” Slim corrected.
“Yeah, that’s what I just said ain’t it?” Mike retorted impatiently.
Slim rolled his eyes and then turned his attention back to Daisy, ”So who’s the lucky man then?”
“Um…let me see,” Daisy turned to the accompanying letter, “Someone called Edward, he was an old beau of hers she says, but she threw him over as she wanted to devote her life to teaching and he married a woman called Olivia. She was always sickly apparently and…… well listen to this, ‘as I have been nursing poor Olivia through her last illness Edward and I have again become close and have decided to take this wonderful chance. Fate has thrown us together and this time we are ready to make the commitment.”’
“Poor sucker,” Jess whispered for Slim’s ears only, ”looks like she got to him when he was grieving. Just got rid of one wife and I guess his defences were down…never saw it comin’…..Miss Cross sure got him hogtied pretty darned quick too didn’t she?”
Slim chuckled but said nothing and Daisy was too engrossed in the letter to hear.
“Well you boys will all need new white shirts and haircuts as well….um…and maybe a new hat for me?”
“Aw Daisy do we hafta?” Was the inevitable response from Jess and Slim.
“Yes we do!”
“Oh goody, I guess there’ll be cake and ice-cream,” Mike said cheerfully.
“Traitor,” Jess muttered before stomping off to do the yard chores.
But Slim grinned across at Daisy, “Sure,” he said indulgently, ”I guess this calls for a new hat, maybe even a dress too huh?”
If the men of the ranch thought one wedding was a burden, then two within months of each other was just too dang much to take on board, as Jess had asserted to Slim when the second invitation came through, just days after Miss Cross’s nuptials.
They had actually quite enjoyed Agnes and Edward’s wedding with Mike pigging out on ice cream, Miss Daisy indulging in a new hat and both Jess and Slim enjoying some romancing with their girls. Although both men had made sure they were nowhere around when the bouquet was thrown at the end of the service, Jess having been literally caught out that way once before.
It was the following month that they all attended Luke Saunders and Mary Smith’s wedding and this was a popular event with many of their friends and neighbours attending. Maybe it was the bonhomie, or the excess of good hill whisky supplied by Denver James, but both men had their guard down when the bouquet was thrown by a mischievous Mary, directly at young Lily Laverne, Slim’s girl.
She caught it easily and much was made of the event.
However it wasn’t until a few days later that the matter was brought up at the ranch, as Jess and Slim were grooming the stage line horses.
“So I guess that’s you done for then,” said Jess turning mocking eyes on his pard.
“Huh…..what say Jess?”
“Well Lily caught the flowers didn’t she Hardrock, I guess it’s only a matter of time huh?”
“Matter of time?”
“Yeah sure before the wedding I figure you’ll be next huh? “
“Well that never worked when you caught them that time did it? “ He countered…
“Yeah, but I got rid of them real quick didn’t I iffen you remember,” Jess said. ”I figure that was OK…did it in time see.”
Then Slim turned pale, “Heck, Lily’s had ‘em in a vase in her room this past week you know.”
Jess just shook his head sadly,”I guess that’s it then pard….no hope for ya….and they say these things come in threes.”
“I thought that was supposed to be misfortunes?” Slim said.
“Yup…..that’s right,” Jess agreed whistling softly as he turned back to his work.
Slim just stared at him with anxious sky blue eyes.
It was later that night that the subject of weddings came up once again.
Daisy and Mike were long abed and the men were indulging in a nightcap of Denver’s finest brew before retiring as they sat by the dying embers of the fire.
“You know I’ve been thinking,” Slim said, ”how things can happen and then they make something else happen.”
“Well I bet you never realized all the things that would happen at Christmas just because old man Harrington asked you to work Christmas Eve did you?”
“You’re darned right I didn’t,” Jess agreed quickly, “and I’ll tell ya now I dang well wouldn’t have volunteered iffen I had,” he said hotly.
“Oh but don’t you see,” Slim said turning his animated face to his buddy, ”you were the catalyst that made everything happen the way it did.”
“I was?” he asked looking baffled.
“Yup facilitator…catalyst, call it what you will, but it was your presence that was so vital to, well to making everything happen the way it did. In fact I guess you’re responsible for two weddings and a christening.”
“I am?” He asked looking even more bamboozled, ”How so?”
“Well first off….if you hadn’t been there I doubt Mose, the Parson or Miss Cross would have known what to do to help Mary deliver young Luke safely. In fact they wouldn’t have stood a chance stranded out in the wrecked Stage. It was you who knew where the old stable was and got ‘em there safely and delivered the baby. So later Luke was christened and Mary married! If it hadn’t been for you I guess she might not have made it.”
“Uh, maybe,” said Jess thoughtfully as he sipped his whisky.
Then he turned to his pard looking kinda dreamy eyed, “It sure was real special ya know Slim, that little biddy baby bein’ born on Christmas Mornin’ and all.”
Both men contemplated the scene for a moment, the new baby placed reverentially in the manager and the pure joy of seeing a new life come into the world. As true now as it had been at the birth of Christ all those years ago.
“Hang on a minute,” Jess said waking from his reverie,”You said I was dang well responsible for two weddings. Well I sure didn’t meddle in Miss Cross’s love life that was all up to her, nabbing poor old Edward when he weren’t thinkin’ straight.”
Slim chuckled….”Oh but it was. You see Agnes told me that it was you insisting that she help at the birth that got the ball rolling for her. She was just so completely captivated by it all, seeing a new life safely into the world. Then when you were so sick with that poisoned arrow and she saw how Kate tended you, that was the thing that really clinched it for her. She decided on a career in nursing there and then. That’s how she met her Edward again and the rest is history as they say.”
Jess grinned, “Well I’ll be… I guess maybe you’re right pard.”
Then he chuckled, “You know what we were sayin’ in the barn earlier, about how these things come in threes like weddings?”
“Uh” Slim said warily.
“Well I guess maybe yours will be down to me as well. See it was me that pushed Lily forwards so she caught the bouquet!”
“You did what!” Slim yelled looking incensed, “Wait ‘til I get you!”
Jess lurched up from his chair and made for door….Slim in hot pursuit.
It was a good week later before Jess and Lily finally took pity on Slim. They told him that the whole bouquet scam had been of their making, with a little help from Mary. Slim was so relieved he forgave them both on the spot.
”Not that I was worried,” he said to Lily later, ”in fact I guess I’m kind of warming to the notion.”
“All in good time,” Lily said with a loving smile, knowing perfectly well how to catch a cowboy. Just play it cool and wait for him to make his mind up she thought. And in the meantime she reckoned they’d have plenty of fun before they finally made that big commitment.
Agnes and her new husband had a long and happy life together, despite of Jess’s forebodings. Although they proved too old to have children of their own they fostered many from the Cheyenne children’s home. They also adopted two little girls who were the apple of their eye and made Agnes and Edward the happiest and proudest parents ever to be seen in Cheyenne town.
There was no further trouble from the young Crow braves, who after their initial embarrassment of being treated as squaws decided to toe the line. They never indulged in the white man’s fire water again and grew up to be the kind of men their Uncle, White Eagle could be proud of.
Denver James moved his still, way up the mountain to a secret location and never traded with the Indians again. Kate had passed on how furious Jess had been with the old man and he decided to err on the side of caution. Jess Harper made a good loyal friend, but you sure wouldn’t want him as an enemy he thought wryly.
As to young ‘Luke Ernest Jess Saunders,’ he had a good life….Helped in part by the input from his inspirational Godfather, ’Uncle’ Jess who taught him so many lessons in life.
They would often be found together on a summer Sunday afternoon fishing in the creek. Jess sharing his thoughts on right and wrong, trust and honour. The importance of being a loyal friend and finally to always put your horse’s needs first. These philosophies were to stay with Luke all his days and gave him a sound base from which to tackle all life’s ups and downs. His first thought in any dilemma, what would Uncle Jess do?
It was also Jess who inadvertently was to instigate a life changing decision for the youngster.
It was when the eight year old child had witnessed Jess badly injured after a shoot-out. Then observed how Doctor Sam Baker had tended him that he decided his destiny was to be that of a doctor. He was terribly upset at seeing his hero so seriously wounded that he made a promise there and then. Should Jess be spared then Luke would train as a doctor to help others.
And so it was that young Luke Saunders often accompanied Doc Sam on his rounds from the tender age of just ten years old. Sam teaching him the basics of medicine and saying he was the best darned assistant he had ever had! Then at twelve he was sent back east to get all educated up, first at boarding school and then on to Medical School.
However he spent every summer at home. This time always so special to him after the endless grind of studying in the big city, just to relax and chat with old friends was wonderful. Spending his time huntin’ and fishin’ with Uncle Jess was a breath of fresh air to the young man and always kept him grounded.
He finally qualified and after an internship at the city hospital he returned home and went into partnership with Doc Sam, taking over the Practice when Sam retired many years later.
He was kept busy caring for a long list of patients in the growing town of Laramie. But he always found time to spend with his friends back at the Sherman Ranch and especially with his Uncle Jess.
As he made his way briskly about town driving his smart buggy off on his rounds, occasionally he would spy Jess in the distance. Then he would always rein in for a quick howdy, before dashing off to the next patient giving a cheery wave and a “See ya later,” as he went….which Jess would return. Then turning to whoever was close by he’d grin proudly and say,”That’s my Godson, you know…. the doctor.”
The End
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