#60 Dead and Buried?

Dead and Buried?
Patty Wilkinson
( Please be aware some strong language, adult themes and violence)

Many thanks  to Quickdraw Jess for Title Screen cap.

For Gail and Hope

A Laramie Story as told by Jess Harper.

Slim and me were sittin’ by the fireside late one evenin’ sipping a whiskey a piece and discussin’ old man Jackson’s funeral, which we’d been to just that afternoon.
“Well the old guy didn’t do too badly, made it to ninety,” said Slim casting me a thoughtful smile, “and he had a pretty good life all told.”
“Sure,” I agreed and then we lapsed into silence, just thinkin’, our own thoughts.
After a while I gave a bitter smile. Time was I never thought I’d make it through my twenties…..teens even such was the life I had led. Living by my fast gun and getting into way too much trouble from a real young age. Bein’ on the drift all those years, huntin’ down the Bannister gang that fired my old homestead killin’ most of my kin. I was gettin’ a reputation as a fast gun, with every chancer in town wantin’ to take me on. Then the war, gee, it sure was a miracle I was still around I thought.
It was old Slim there that saved my bacon, givin’ me a fair chance to turn my life around when I landed at the Ranch and Relay station all those years ago. With trouble in both pockets and a greased holster as he’d said later. It sure took time, what with me takin’ off and kickin’ over the traces every so often, but hell, we got there in the end.
Now I was almost a respectable member of society, a Partner in the Ranch and Relay business and even deputize for my buddy Sheriff Mort Cory every so often.
But it weren’t always that way, no siree and there was a time when I thought I’d never have a future of any sort. That fateful day, just a few months after I’d landed here. I nearly breathed my last and I cast my mind back.
It was dark….so dang dark I couldn’t see my hand before my face…there was an over whelming smell of fresh cut pine. I was in pain, all over and lyin’ on something solid and cold, I put a hand out and felt something hard at my side…then reached up and it was there too…I was confined…I had a terrifying feeling of panic! I was hemmed in….. Hell I was in a dang box. No, not a box, I felt more carefully, reached out my toes, my bare toes, to the end of the box, felt with sensitive finger tips…no it wasn’t just a box, it was a coffin…God help me I was lyin’ in a coffin!
Jeez, just the thought of that time made my pulse race and I felt a cold sweat breaking out and a shiver ran down my spine. The expression on my face must have been kinda uneasy as a moment later I felt Slim’s hand on my arm.
“Jess, what is it pard, you look real troubled…what’s up?”
I pulled myself together and threw him a sheepish grin,”All that talk of funerals. I was remembering that time I nearly went to my own.”
He sucked in a deep breath.
“Hell, I’d forgotten all about that business Jess; that was truly terrible. But you know you never really did tell me everything,” he said with an expectant glance in my direction.
I shook my head ruefully, “You don’t wanna hear,” I said.
“But I do Jess, really,” he said earnestly, “besides it’s obviously still playing on your mind some, might help to talk it through …huh?”
So, we refilled our glasses and settled down as I recalled all that had happened that fall all those years ago……
Chapter 1
At that time I was still kinda feelin’ my way around workin’ as a rancher and it took some doin’ after bein’ fancy free with nobody to answer to but me for so long.
Sure I’d worked. Had to, to keep body and soul together, ranchin’, ropin’, brandin’, some bronc bustin’, even the odd trail drive. So don’t get me wrong, I weren’t no stranger to hard work. But there was always an end in sight. I’d work over the bad winter weather, or to make just enough to move on…But this…..being in the same spot, hell under the same roof for so long, well it was hard for me at first, real hard.
In fact iffen it hadn’t been for young Andy I wouldn’t have stuck it out for so long in the first place.

See when I first landed at the ranch and relay, I really had no intention of stayin’. All I was doin’ was passin’ through and lookin’ for that no hoper who’d swindled me out of some money, and left me beat up, penniless and madder than a wet hen.
Well once that little matter was dealt with, not to mention seeing Slim out of a bit of trouble with the Bud Carlin gang, I was all for riding out. But Andy Sherman, Slim’s kid brother had other plans for me.
Anyway, I decided to stay and give ranching a go. Like I said that was one smart move, as far as I was concerned anyway. I wouldn’t be that darn surprised iffen Slim had thought different though. Those first few months I moved in were kinda difficult as I wasn’t the easiest back in those days.
“Garl darn it Jess will you get out of your pit and come and do some dang work, I’m not paying you to lie around in bed half the morning!”
“Aww, Slim I’m dyin’ here have a heart will ya?”
“Well if you’re dying you have nobody to blame but yourself, drinking that gut rot Red Eye like it was going out of style. Then you were chucking it back up half the darned night.”
“Arrg, do you have to yell so dang loud Slim?” I said pulling the blanket over my head and wishing I could just die quietly.
“And what’s old Jonesy going to say when he gets back from town with the marketing and finds you hung over? You know what he thinks about strong liquor. Not to mention young Andy, what sort of an example do you think you’re setting him eh?”
“Oh Slim fer God sake will you stop your preachin’ and go make some coffee…..huh?”
He swung out of the room, but I kinda guessed it wasn’t to make coffee and groaning I started dragging myself up. It was then that I heard old Jonesy arrive home.
He was an old friend of Slim’s family and had moved in when Slim and Andy’s folks died and now he generally ruled the roost as far as the domestics were concerned.
He kept us all pretty much on a tight rein, with his fussin’ and frettin’ iffen we so much as even stomped mud into the place. Well the kinda tricks I tended to get up to sent him into a frenzy of nagging and carping and I sorta figured I weren’t his favourite person in the world from day one.
Well he sure was in his element that morning and he started sounding off to Slim the moment he and Andy were through the door. I reckon he didn’t know I was listening on the other side of the bedroom door, but then again, I bet ya it wouldn’t have made any difference iffen he had.
“You won’t believe what that no good saddle tramp has been up to now!” he yelled as he entered carrying a bag of groceries.
I heard Slim sigh and say in a resigned kinda voice, “Go on Jonesy, what now?”
“Only fighting in the saloon, that’s all! Old Tom said he practically trashed the place single handed….”
“Single handed?” Slim echoed.
“Well, not exactly he did take on a gang of drovers passing through town, but it was him that started it alright.”
Then it was young Andy’s turn to take up the narrative.
“He floored at least six of them. They were lyin’ around out cold! He’d have had the others too, if Sheriff Cory hadn’t stopped the fight,” he said, eyes sparkling with excitement.
Slim turned angry eyes on his kid brother, “So you think it’s good to go getting drunk and brawling in bars do you?” he asked.
“Oh, he wasn’t drunk then, that was later, seemed these drovers had been asking for it, according to Tom. So when Jess dispatched them, everyone in the bar wanted to buy him a drink.”
“The Hell they did,” said Slim furiously and then marched towards the bedroom.
“Get your sorry hide out here Jess, what’s this about you fighting in town…again!“
I sauntered in looking the picture of innocence.
“Is this true Jess, have you been fighting?”
“I kinda took me some exercise yeah,” I agreed.
“Oh come on Slim what’s all the dang fuss about, a little fightin’ keeps a man fit.”
“Well if you’re that darned fit get out and clean the barn up,” he replied lookin’ furious.
I marched off to the barn and a couple of minutes later Andy had tagged along as I knew he would.
He stood watching me begin to rake the hay out and then said quietly, “Why do you have to be this way Jess? You know it makes Slim mad when you get in trouble, do you want him to send you away?” he asked looking close to tears.
The kid was only fourteen and kinda hero worshiped me some, thought of me as his best buddy. Him and me against the world…well against old Jonesy and his big brother anyway. I knew that was part of the problem between me and Slim iffen I was honest. He resented the way I was with Andy. Always larking about and playin’ hooky to go swimming or fishing, yup I sure was a bad influence on the boy.
I turned to him now and suddenly felt kinda sorry for him.
I beckoned him over and we took a bale of straw a piece and sat.
“Look Andy it ain’t how they think. See those drovers were plenty drunk, causing old Tom some bother and then one of them recognised me, from back in Texas.”
“From your gunslinger days?” he asked looking excited.
I just nodded, “Yup and he was all for tryin’ me out….wanted a shoot out to see if I was as fast as folk said.”
“So why didn’t you shoot him Jess, you’re so fast I bet you’d have shot him real easy.”
I sighed deeply and shook my head before throwing him a disappointed look.
“That’s the whole point boy. Sure I could, but it wouldn’t have been a fair fight. He was drunk and pretty old too. I tried to tell him to forget it….but he wouldn’t leave it.”
“So what did you do?”
“Ignored him, until he riled me so much I threw a punch…and then it all kicked off.”
“But why didn’t you tell Slim and Jonesy that? You were trying to do the right thing by not going for your gun, when you could have easy.”
I just shrugged.
“Slim don’t want to hear right now.”
“But that ain’t fair Jess…So what happened to the drovers.”
“They ended up in Mort’s jail.”
“But not you?”
“Nope, the Sheriff saw it all, saw them taunting me, just said I’d saved him a job. Tom had sent word that they needed to be removed anyway,” I said with a chuckle.
Suddenly I heard someone clearing their throat behind us and swinging around we saw Slim standing there a puzzled look in his eyes.
“Why didn’t you tell me that Jess?” He asked.
I just shrugged and getting up started on my chores.
It was much later that night when we had turned in that he brought the subject of the bar room brawl up again.
“So Jess what really happened in the bar?” he asked, throwing me that friendly open look of his.
I really didn’t wanna go into it all…but felt I owed him an explanation.
“It was the same as always,” I said bitterly, “some guy comes up who knows me…or my reputation and just has to try me.”
“And I try an’ walk away usually. Right away Slim…like out of town, move on, because sooner or later it comes to a shoot-out and someone gets hurt or worse,” I said quietly.
“So, is that what you’re thinking of doing this time?” he asked equally softly.
I was lying on my bed looking up at the ceiling and rolled my head on the pillow and looked across to where he was sitting on the edge of his bed peering intently at me.
“It’s what you want ain’t it?” I said gruffly.
His head shot up at that notion, “No….why do you say that?”
“Because you think I’m trouble. A bad influence on the boy….so does the old man, and I guess you put a lot of store by what Jonesy thinks.”
He was silent for a while and then he gave me the ghost of a smile.
“I do yup, but I always make my own mind up about things Jess….about people. You’re worth fighting for. Sure, you have a few habits I’d rather Andy didn’t pick up on, but all said and done…..”
He was silent for a minute or so and I eventually said, “Go on.”
“Well I was going to say, I reckon you’re a good influence on him too. The way you dealt with that incident, you could just have shot that drover, no problem, but you didn’t think it was fair did you, thought you’d have an unfair advantage huh?”
“I reckon so,” I agreed.
“And that’s not the first time you’ve acted in a …..well what my Pa would have called an honourable way.”
I gave him a weak grin.
“So for all your lazy, ornery, downright annoying ways, we’d miss you if you went,” he finished with his wide grin.
I smiled back, “Well thanks pard… err I think.”
“Umm, you know I wonder if you really want to make this work or not though Jess?” he said after a few minutes.
I said nothing just rolled on my back and looked up at the ceiling again, not knowing what to say, what I was really feeling…..Did I want to stay, try and turn my life around, or was the pull of the open road too great for me?
“Well, I’m right aren’t I? The thought of settling down, never going off into the Big Open again, it scares the shit out of you doesn’t it Jess…huh?”
I turned on my side away from him and just couldn’t answer.
After a few minutes he doused the lamp and stretched out on his bed….but it was a while before either of us finally slept.
Chapter 2
It was a few weeks later when his question was answered. Least ways he thought it was. As I was to ride out…for good, or so Slim thought.
However a lot was to happen before that fateful day.
The following morning after my set to in the saloon, I went out to the yard, after one of Jonesy’ s huge breakfasts, and bumped into Slim standing on the porch.
He was sniffing the air and looking out to the hills.
“What’s up boss?” I asked raising an eyebrow.
“I think we’re in for an early winter,” he replied casting me an anxious glance. We’d better start bringing the stock down this week.”
“Huh? You’re kidding me,” I exploded, “Hell Slim fall’s hardly had a look in yet, please don’t tell me winter’s comin’?”
“Oh yes,” he said with an evil grin, “won’t be long Jess…you’re not in Texas now you know.”
“And don’t I know it,” I said bitterly as I went off to start the chores.
Well after the next lot of trouble me and Andy managed to find I figure Slim was kinda glad to get me off of the ranch for a while.
See we decided that it would be a real good idea if we taught old Harpy, the mule a new trick. Harpy was originally called Harry and had belonged to an old prospector, who upped and died leaving the mule in his will to Jonesy. Well that was a good laugh for starters seeing as how Jonesy was around the four legged critters. Gee, he could get throwed practically before he put a leg over the saddle….nope ol’ Jonesy sure wasn’t a horseman.
So once I happened along Slim decided to change old Harry’s name to Harpy, short for Harper, seeing as we had so much in common…well according to Slim that is. Mostly our ornery nature and difficulty in gettin’ movin’ of a morning…darn cheek if you ask me, but everyone seemed to think it hilarious and the name just stuck.
So anyway, me and Andy struck on this idea to get Harpy to be even more annoyin’ than he already was. See Jonesy liked to take a nap in the afternoon, but he didn’t like folk knowing. So he’d take himself off to the barn and have a snooze up in the hayloft…but would swear blind he was workin’ up there if anyone caught him out.
So me and Andy hatched out this plan to teach Harpy to call for food as soon as Jonesy was settled, snorin’ away in the old hayloft and it was real easy to do.
We just fed him his favourite treat of a few carrot heads and then he’d start doin’ that real loud he-haw, callin’ for more as soon as we stopped. It didn’t take long before he’d start kickin’ off at the sight of the bucket with the goodies…an’ soon all we had to do was creep in with the bucket. Harpy would start making enough noise to wake the dead and ol’ Jonesy would be woken up. Then he’d come on down the hay loft ladder scratchin’ and cussin’ as his nap had been disturbed yet again.
Well, me and Andy thought this was priceless and I figure we’d have carried on indefinitely iffen it hadn’t been for the fact that Slim came around the side of the barn and caught us. We were rolling around, the tears of laughter streaming down our faces as poor old Jonesy’ s slumbers were interrupted yet again.
Slim really saw red, tore a strip off both of us and then some, sayin’ how Jonesy was an old man and deserved some respect and we both felt kinda bad when he’d finished.
“Anyone would think you’d never had a childhood, way you act!” was his parting shot.
That really hit home with me… ‘cos see I didn’t, not really…Way Pa was, he had us kids workin’ the land just as soon as we could barely walk. Then when he took to the drink it was down to me and my brother to provide food, by huntin’ and fishin’ as best we could….So no there weren’t much time for larkin’ about. But Hell I sure wasn’t about to share that with Slim, or anyone else come to that, so I just went real quiet and took myself off ridin’ fence.
It was the following day that Slim and me started bringin’ the stock down and Hell was that a tough job. Those ornery critters were happy up on the high grazing, thanks very much, and didn’t have a notion to move until we really got on their case and herded them down, our horses workin’ full tilt to git ‘em all rounded up.
Then there were the strays holed up all over the dang spread and they sure took some finding.
Towards the end of the week I’d just about had enough. There was a gale blowing and sleety rain cuttin’ my face up somethin’ fierce and to make matters worse I’d forgotten my dang rain slicker. Well, I’ll tell you I was feelin’ real mean when I rode into the yard that night.
Slim came out of the barn and looking up at me said none too kindly, “So where in Hell have you been?”
“Over on the east pasture like I said I would be,” I replied with a hard look, “where did you think?”
“Uh, OK, sorry…so did you find those strays?”
I nodded, “Bottom of that ravine, like I said they’d be…all in the home pasture now with their buddies.”
“Oh, well good,” he said looking kinda surprised and then his face relaxed into a friendly grin.
“Hell you’re a mess pard you look like a drowned rat, give me your horse and get inside. Jonesy’ s got the water on the boil for a hot tub iffen you’re interested?”
“Interested,” I cried leaping down from my mount…. “do grizzlies like honey…sure I’m interested!” and I took myself off at speed.
It sure was good soaking in that ol’ hot tub in front of a blazing fire and I was so relaxed that I really wasn’t expecting what happened next.
I’d just gotten out and was rubbing myself dry, one towel tied around my waist, when Jonesy came in and the first thing I noticed was this horrendous stink, like somethin’ had died.
“Wha’s that?” I cried looking all around me….
But he didn’t answer just said, “Sit boy”, and pushed me down onto the old rocker.
“Hey what’s your game Jonesy?” I exploded.
Then next thing I knew he’d slapped a dollop of this foul smelling sorta goo on my chest and commenced rubbing it in. Jeez it stank like somethin’ had died and stung too. Just then the front door opened and Slim and Andy marched in, quickly taking in the scene and barely concealing their amusement.
“Slim will ya help me? The old fool’s gone plumb loco!” I yelled, practically gagging at the smell now.
Slim just leaned on the wall, arms folded across his chest and grinned at me.
“Sorry Jess, but this is your initiation into Jonesy’ s special liniment.”
“Special what?” I gasped, my eyes watering now.
“Liniment son, the very best rub and all my own recipe too,” said Jonesy proudly.
I closed my eyes and swallowed deeply, trying not to breathe in….
“Why?” I asked weakly.
“Well you don’t wanna take a chill do you boy….remember that real bad cough you had when you landed here? Sleeping out in the damp gave you that… well you don’t want that old cough back again do you?”
I thought about that for a moment, hacking cough, that near brought my guts up….or Jonesy’s liniment…. No contest…
“I’m fine,” I said quickly, “and that cough weren’t too bad just get this dang stuff off of me Jonesy.”
“Sorry Jess, no can do, see it’s been absorbed now, penetrating into the depths of your bein’ and working its miracles as we speak.”
I threw Slim and Andy a pleading glance but Slim merely smirked whilst Andy looked helplessly on.
“Best thing there is for chills, coughs and colds, influenza, stomach cramp, lumbago, hoof rot…”
“Hoof rot,” I yelled, “you’re slathering me with hoof rot cure?”
“Like I said Jess it’s a miracle cure…for man and beast alike you could say.”
I knew when I was beaten and gathering my towel around me…and what little dignity I had left, I upped and made for my room.
“It’s OK, boy don’t thank me,” he called after me before turning to Slim.
“Ungrateful young whippersnapper, he’ll soon learn the wisdom of my doctorin’ won’t he Slim?”
“Yeah, ‘fraid so,” replied Slim, winking at his brother and making to open the door to let some of the stink out.
The following day was Saturday and Andy finally got to ride out with us. He’d been badgering Slim all week about it, but he was adamant that the kid shouldn’t miss any schooling.
“Come on Andy, you know how important your school work is and you’ll be missing enough of it once the snow’s here.”
“Aww Slim, Jess didn’t get him much schoolin’ and he turned out just fine…..why can’t I come with you huh?”
“Jess probably didn’t get much choice, but you do…Besides what would Ma and Pa say if they could hear you?”
Andy hung his head and marched off to his room, slamming the door behind him and Jonesy and Slim exchanged a pained glance.
“That was a bit below the belt weren’t it,” I said, “poor kid bein’ made to feel guilty by what his dead folks might think.”
Slim turned on me then, lookin’ real mad, his eyes narrowing as he fixed me with an icy stare.
“Just butt out Jess this isn’t anything to do with you. Andy is my responsibility, not yours and don’t you forget it.”
“I was just sayin’….”
“Well don’t, you’ve already turned his head with your crazy ideas and dang gunslinger’s past! He never acted up this way before you showed up.”
I turned on him then.
“So do you want me to go?” I yelled.
“No I don’t want you to go!” He yelled back….
Then more quietly, “It’s hard bringing the boy up the way my folks would have wanted Jess, real hard and you really aren’t helping any.”
I suddenly felt kinda sorry for him. Hell he was only a couple of years older than me, but all this responsibility was weighing him down. Making him old before his time and I vowed then to try and get him to throw off the traces some. Get to enjoy himself, even find a girl and then maybe he’d cut the youngster some slack.
Anyway like I say, the following Saturday Andy rode out with us and it sure was good to have the kid tagging along. We messed around as usual, and got a few annoyed glances from Slim, but mostly we behaved and got the job done so I dunno what he had to beef about.
It was later in the day when it started to rain again, real hard, that Slim sent the boy home.
Well young Andy kicked off something fierce.
“Hell Slim I ain’t a little kid, a few drops of rain aren’t gonna hurt me for goodness sake!”
“Andy, stop your cussing, what’s come over you!” retorted Slim, now furious. “You get off home and help Jonesy with the supper. Jess and I will be home in a couple of hours.”
The boy looked mutinous and started arguing again.
But old Slim there wasn’t having it and eventually the kid rode for home looking madder than all get out and spurring his poor old pony off to a gallop.
Slim watched him go…about to yell for him to ease off, but seemed to change his mind.
I said nothing, but Slim must have seen me shake my head and then he turned on me.
“It’s your darned fault the boy’s cussing all the time, thinks it’s clever just because you do it.”
I just shrugged at that, having learnt it probably weren’t the smartest move to argue with Slim where Andy was concerned.
He just glared at me and then I couldn’t help myself.
“You ain’t doin’ him any favors you know Slim keeping him wrapped up in cotton wool this way. He’s going to get a soaking and learn to cuss with the best of ‘em one of these days. It might as well be sooner as later…Just teach him a few boundaries…..as far as the cussin’ goes, ‘tis all.”
“Ha like you’d know all about boundaries,” he laughed bitterly.
“I know well enough not to cuss in front of the ladies,” I said hotly…. “and that’s all the kid needs to know.”
“Oh so you’re an expert on bringing up kids now are you?”
I just shrugged at that.
“I’m dang sure he’d learn more from sticking with us, instead of bein’ sent home at the first sign of a drop of rain or two…It’d make him feel like a man Slim instead of a little kid, and whether you like it or not the boy’s growing up fast and needs for you to acknowledge it.”
With that parting shot I rode off after some strays, but he said nothing and was real thoughtful for the rest of the day and I figured maybe something I’d said had hit home.
It was much later when we were riding home together, all the stray beasts on the lower ground that he turned to me, his face real serious.
“About Andy, you’re right, to some extent that is…. I am kind of over protective, but there’s something you should know.”
“Go on,” I said.
“When Andy was just a little kid he got a real bad soaking and a couple of days later he contracted lung fever, he nearly died Jess.”
My head shot up at that news.
“I’m sorry I didn’t know.”
He just nodded, “Well, like I say, we nearly lost him and after that Ma and Pa were real careful of him and so I kinda carried it on. But you’re right, he’s grown up strong and healthy, there’s no need for me to overprotect him that way.”
I just gave him an encouraging smile.
“As to the cussing, You’re right about that. As long as he keeps it to the yard and as you say not in front of the ladies, well I can live with that. Not that he ever sees that many ladies,” he added somewhat bitterly.
I grinned at him then.
“You know I’ve been thinkin’ about that Slim. Hows about you and me ride into town tonight, for a few drinks, hand or two of poker…maybe a little romancin’ of those real pretty saloon girls, what do ya say huh?”
He looked across, his face one of complete surprise and then after a moment he beamed at me.
“Gee, it’s so long since I did anything like that.“
“So are you up for it?” I asked.
Just fleetingly he looked like a kid in a candy shop.
“You bet,” he grinned and spurring Alamo off to a gallop, called over his shoulder, “race ya back.”
I watched him take off grinning like an idiot and smiled at his retreating back. Maybe I’d make a decent buddy of the guy yet I thought as I kicked Traveler off at a gallop chasing him down the hill and back towards the ranch.
Chapter 3
Slim and Jonesy were kinda surprised as to the way I scrubbed up. I looked every bit as good as Slim anyway, both in our Sunday best hats and boots, long dark frock coats and sparkling white shirts with black ties. Well I reckon the shirts were down to old Jonesy. But neither of them could get over the fact that this old drifter actually had some real smart clothes.
“Gotta keep the ladies happy,” I said laughing. But when Andy wanted to know why, Slim and I made our exit.
Well like I say we were looking kinda good and ready to hit the town real hard, although Slim didn’t know that then. He hadn’t been out with me yet and seen Harper in action, and that was kind of an eye opener for him.
We entered the saloon and it didn’t take me long to start flirting with the girls in there and they didn’t need too much persuading to flirt back either. It also didn’t take me long to find out that Betty and Marcie were just about up for anything. They had the night off for the town dance later too and were happy for us to escort them.
I quite liked Gina as well, who was quieter and a real stunner, but she said she had to work. She threw me the kinda look that said ‘ask me again cowboy’ and I made a mental note to do that very thing. Then concentrated on telling the red headed beauty Marcie how wonderful I thought she was.
Well Betty had kinda indicated that she was happy to go with Slim, but he really didn’t seem to have the right kinda chat when it came to the ladies and I figured he was a mite shy. That’s when I ordered him a shot of Red Eye and took him to one side.
“I usually just stick to beer,” he said eyeing the whiskey glass suspiciously.
“Oh git it down ya Slim, live a little,” I said knocking mine back and then pouring another from the bottle I’d bought to share with the girls later.
He sipped his drink hesitantly and then grinning at me said, “I sure don’t want to end up in the state you were the other night.”
I smiled at that idea.
“Oh no need to worry on my account, I aim to keep a clear head tonight,” I said with a wink, “for later you know?”
He looked kinda bemused.
Then said, ”For taking the girls to the dance you mean?”
I sighed deeply, this initiation of my new buddy into the finer things in life was gonna be harder that I thought.
“No Slim,” I said patiently, “for what’s gonna happen after the dance, when we’re invited back to their place. “
I rolled my eyes, “Look Slim it’s gonna be this way…….”
When I’d finished explaining he turned kinda pale, ”Well I don’t know Jess, I mean I hardly know the girl…I…err”
“Quit yer frettin’,” I laughed, “and you will by tomorrow anyway.”
“Know the girl,” I said grinning at him.
He just stared open mouthed.
“Come on pard, have another drink…and there’s a poker game just startin’ over in the corner. We’ve got time for a few hands before the dance,” and tipping my drink back I marched over leaving Slim looking kind of dazed.
Well we sure had a good time that night.
Slim was kind of wary at first but he soon got into the swing of things once he’d downed a couple more shots and I reckon he really enjoyed himself at the dance, I know I sure did.
Hell it seemed so long since I’d held a pretty girl in my arms and boy was Marcie pretty and one hell of a kisser too as I found out just a little later.
It was getting towards the end of the evening and I was darned sure I was on a promise and the way Betty was eyeing up Slim I figured his luck was runnin’ pretty good too.
We were over at the bar buying a couple more drinks and I looked over to where the girls were sitting out.
“OK pard, the last dance will be comin’ up real soon, that’s when you make your move yeah?“
“Oh come on Slim I don’t have to spell it out for you do I? Hold her real close, talk real sweet…and don’t forget the kissin’, the secret’s all in the kissin’.”
“I don’t think….”
“Slim! Look it’s OK. These girls are up for it. They just want a good time and are real happy to spend it with us…they ain’t the type to start wantin’ to call the banns the next day and commence talkin’ Spring Weddings. Or orderin’ a crib… well that is… Heck Slim, you are prepared for this ain’t you… you’ve got…you know….?”
He looked puzzled and then got my drift.
“Oh… sure yeah.”
“Well then, what are you waitin’ for?” and carrying the drinks I made for our girls.
Like I said, I sure had a good night and it wasn’t until we were riding home the next morning that I discovered Slim had too. Gee he had a smile a mile wide on his face and looked like he was in Heaven.
“See,” I said grinning at him, “told you. You just needed to lighten up some huh? Kickin’ over the traces don’t do a body no harm once in a while eh Slim!”
“Yup, you were right about that…I had a good time, real good, seeing her again next week.”
“That’s swell buddy.”
“So how about you and that Marcie, she looked a lot of fun?”
“Oh yeah,” I said quietly, “she’s a great girl.”
“Go on….” he said looking riveted.
“Oh no,” I said grinning over at him, “I never tell. What goes on in my lady’s bed stays there,” and kicking Traveller on to a brisk trot I left him staring after me, trying to figure me out, yet again.
It was years later that he told me how it took him one hell of a long time to figure out what made me tick. My sometimes old fashioned values and sense of honour seemed kinda at odds with some of my other ways. But it all made perfect sense to me. So I think it was a few years down the line before he was to really ‘get me’ and understand why I was that way….but that was much later, once we became best buddies.
So, we arrived back that Sunday morning and got the third degree from old Jonesy as to where we’d been all dang night and what we’d been doing.
I choked on my coffee and Slim turned kinda pale.
“Well where have you been?” Piped up Andy, leaning on the wall arms folded and looking for all the world like his big brother on a bad day.
”You’d sure be mad at me iffen I stayed out in town all night,” he said self-righteously.
“Well, err…that is….” muttered Slim looking flushed and guilty.
“We got in a poker game,” I said quickly, “an all-nighter, Slim there was on a winning streak, so we didn’t wanna pack it in…only just finished,” I said yawning widely.
“I might have known it,” spat Jonesy, “he never went gambling afore you arrived young Harper….coming here with your wild Texan ways!”
I nearly choked again at that, but recovered and getting up said I was going to wash up and get changed.
Slim followed me out, but at the door of our room Andy said quickly, ”How much, Slim?”
“So how much did ya win at poker?”
“Oh, quite a tidy sum,” he said casting me a baleful glance.
“So you’ll be able to shout me extra candy and a comic book next Saturday then?” the youngster persisted.
“Yeah, yeah sure he will,” I confirmed, before grabbing Slim’s arm and pulling him into the safety of our room.
“What did you tell him that for,” Slim whispered angrily once we were in the haven of our shared room.
“Well what do ya want me to do, tell him where you really were?” I whispered back equally crossly.
He sighed at that and finally gave me a tired grin, “No I reckon not.”
“Well then……”
It was from then on that we sorta began to really buddy up and Slim started to be a friend more than a boss and a real good one too. Once he started relaxing some I saw he could be mischievous and real good fun to have around, and we took to going to town regularly on a Saturday night.
Maybe it was this new understanding we had that made me think again about everything that had gone on since I first landed at the ranch and relay and thought that just maybe I could make a go of things.
Sure it hadn’t been easy, what with Jonesy sounding off on a regular basis as fussy as your old granny. Not to mention Slim bein’ so dang straight laced and forever frettin’ about Andy. Then there was young Andy. Sure he was a great kid and we had some fun together. But it was that relationship that had made it so dang hard for Slim to accept me. So there was all that goin’ on….but even so I kinda liked it there and had a notion to stay around a while longer.
Then everything changed again just a month or so later.
It was a Saturday evening and we had left our mounts down at the Livery and were just crossing the street to enter the saloon when Mort Cory called us over.
He had been sitting on a rocker outside his office, rifle on his lap, but he jumped up when he saw us and called out to us.
“Evening Mort,” Slim grinned, “can I interest you in a drink? Jess and I were just going across to the saloon.”
He looked kinda cagey at that, looking from me to Slim and back and then sighed deeply.
“So you haven’t heard, saloon’s closed…as a mark of respect…old Tom thought it fitting.”
“Huh,” I asked, ”what do ya mean Mort?”
“It’s Gina,” he said quietly,” she was murdered, early hours of this morning.”
I must have cried out in shock, because Slim and Mort turned to look at me.
“No,” I gasped, thinking of the dark haired beauty who I had dated a few times.
“Oh, yeah, you were seeing her weren’t you Jess?” said the Sheriff.
I nodded.
”On and off yeah, it weren’t nuthin’ serious, but she was a great girl, really lovely,” I whispered swallowing hard an’ feeling like I’d just been kicked in the belly.
Then we were suddenly aware of a kinda hostile atmosphere and glancing around us saw on every street corner there was a small group of town’s folk muttering and throwing dirty looks in our direction.
“You’d better come in the office,” Mort said, “the streets are kind of inhospitable tonight,” and ushered us inside.
“That looks like the makings of a lynch mob,” I said, “so have you got the culprit?”
“Oh yeah,” said Mort, “out back in the cells, ‘cept he swears blind he’s innocent…But he was caught red handed, there’s no mistake.”
I sank down on a chair, suddenly feeling like I’d lost the use of my legs.
Mort and Slim exchanged a glance and after a moment Mort poured me one of his gut rot coffees and passed it over.
I sipped it gratefully and then after a moment felt so mad I was shakin’.
“So where is this low life murdering bastard?” I asked, putting the cup down and peering around me.
“Steady Jess, I know you’re upset, but if you’ve got any ideas along the lines of that lynch mob out there you can forget it. The prisoner stays here until the judge arrives and he’ll get a fair trial.”
“Come on Jess, leave it,” said Slim sadly, ”let’s just go home, I’m not in the mood for merry making right now anyway.”
I nodded and got to my feet.
“Sorry Mort,” I said, “it’s just such a goddamn shame…. You don’t know why, there wasn’t a motive?”
“Nope, there was some screaming, went on for a while apparently before Tom heard anything, he sleeps downstairs and lets his rooms out. Well young Gina is the only staff that sleeps over the shop, young Betty and Marcie share rooms as you know,” he said with a faint smile.
Slim nodded.
“So there was just this guy staying in one of the guest rooms. A half cast… Ma was Cheyenne and Pa white,” he said, “nice looking young man…from your neck of the woods Jess, panhandle,” he said nodding to me.
“Yeah, so my theory is that he tried his luck with young Gina, she wasn’t interested him and he wouldn’t take no for an answer, she started yellin’ and that’s when he knifed her.”
“The filthy, lousy bastard!” I yelled, furious again.
That’s when it happened……
A voice from the cells called out….”Jess! Jess Harper…that you?”
My head shot up and I must have looked real shocked.
No…it couldn’t be…. I raced to the door to the cells and threw it open…Entering I walked along until I reached the end cell…….and there with his hands on the bars desperately looking out was one of my oldest and best friends….
“Billy….Billy Daniels, what in Hell are you doing there?” I gasped in shocked amazement.
“I didn’t do it, Jess,” he cried,” you’ve gotta tell ‘em I didn’t do it!”
“Well sure you didn’t,” I said at once, not a shadow of doubt in my mind. Hell he’d no sooner murder a girl as Slim would…he was innocent alright.
I turned to where Slim and Mort had followed me in and addressed the Sheriff.
“You’ve got the wrong man here Mort, Billy’s no murderer.”
He shook his old head sadly.
“I’m sorry Jess, if he’s a friend of yours and all, but we found him in her room, knife in hand, now what am I supposed to think huh?”
“Look Mort, just give me a moment, let me talk to him alone…please.”
He sighed deeply, “OK, but no funny business Jess, if you’re thinking of trying to spring him?”
It was my turn to sigh at that idea.
“Are you crazy Mort, with that lynch mob outside…besides I wouldn’t do that would I, a nice law abidin’ boy like me?”
He gave me a grin and unlocking the cell let me in.
“Ten minutes,” he said over his shoulder as he and Slim went back into the office to hit the coffee pot again.
I collapsed down on the other bunk opposite him…
“OK Billy, give, so what’s all this about?”
He started his tale haltingly, his big brown eyes looking deeply into mine, willing me to believe him.
“I met her last night; we got chatting at the bar, a real nice girl.”
“Yes, she was,” I said bitterly, “so go on.”
“After a while these two men came over real rough looking and I was kinda surprised when she seemed to know them. Seems they were brothers, she called one Carlos….”
“What in Hell do you want now Carlos?” she said.
“And, so who was the other one?“
He shrugged, “Dunno, but like I say, they were brothers I think, strong Mexican accent, both of them. Anyway this Carlos told me to beat it…said as how he was surprised the barkeep allowed half breeds like me in the place, you know, the usual shit.”
I knew only too well, hell the amount of fights I’d gotten into sticking up for my buddy because of that.
“What did you do?”
“Well I was gonna stand my ground, you know me. I don’t hold back when it comes to that kinda thing…but then this Gina said ‘please don’t make a fuss’. Looking at her I could see she was kinda scared of him, so I backed off…figured that it would make her life easier iffen I did as she asked.”
“Makes sense, so then what?”
“I’d turned in and I’d sunk a good few glasses and so I was sleeping real deep, but then I suddenly woke up and heard her yellin’ sounding terrified, ’No Carlos’, then I heard her scream.”
I sucked in a deep breath but said nothing, just nodded for him to continue.
“I tore across to her room, but as I went in these two guys pushed passed me and hightailed it down the corridor and out the fire escape door at the end. I’m pretty sure one of them was Carlos, but it was real dark. Anyway I went in her room and…..”
He turned real pale and I thought he was about to throw up, but he swallowed and continued after a moment or so.
“She was just layin’ there…… this knife in her chest, I leaned over, thought if I could get the knife out and stop the bleeding she’d have a chance…and that’s how old Tom, the barkeep found me ,the knife in my hand….”
“Then what happened?”
“The Sheriff came and a whole lotta other folk and I was arrested and brought here. I told Sheriff Cory the way it happened. He’s been out looking for clues all day, but no sign of them and nobody seems to recall seeing them either. It was real busy last night, full of drovers and the like….”
I took a deep breath and then said, ”Look Billy it’ll be OK. I’m gonna find these guys if it’s the last damn thing I do…just take it easy huh?”
I called for Mort and once back in the office turned on him feelin’ real angry.
“He told you he was innocent, so why dontcha believe him?” I yelled, feeling as mad as all get out.
“I don’t know what he’s told you son, but it’s an open and shut case. He was there knife in hand…what more’s to be said?”
“But what about the two guys Carlos and another dude, have you really been looking for them?”
“Well, sure I asked around, but the saloon was full to bustin’, those dang drovers were back and if there were any strangers in, nobody seemed to notice them.”
“But you didn’t bust a gut lookin’ did you Sheriff….huh, did you even speak to Betty?”
“Well, no….. I didn’t. She was too dang upset and like I say, it’s pretty easy to see what happened, no need to look any further.”
“Because he’s some no account half breed ain’t he, so he’s gotta be guilty!”
“Jess!” Slim yelled, ”you’re way out of order; just simmer down, what’s gotten into you? It’s pretty obvious the guy’s guilty…”
I spun around to face my partner.
“You too,” I spat, “I thought more of you Slim. Didn’t think you’d be so narrow-minded like the rest of this dang town.”
He flushed an angry red at that.
“I’m not prejudiced, but you’re being kinda gullible if you believe the man’s innocent. So what is he to you anyway…… one of your outlaw friends huh?”
I just stared at him uncertainly, feeling angry and hurt in equal measures. Why was he being this way, why couldn’t he just support me, goddamn it I thought we were friends….
“Because he’s a friend, a real good friend,” I finally answered….the words ‘unlike you,’ lying unsaid in the tense atmosphere between us.
Then I turned and made for the door.
“Where are you off to in such a blamed hurry?” yelled Slim, now looking even madder.
“To do what Mort should have done, find out who these guys are and bring ‘em in for Gina’s murder.”
“Jess will you talk sense,” he cried.
Chapter 4
But I’d already gone, out the door slamming it behind me and marching down the street making for the saloon.
I had to bang on the door for nigh on five minutes before a real irritated Tom hauled it open…
“We’re closed Mister…oh it’s you Jess,” he said pulling the door a little wider, “Come in son…so where’s the fire huh?”
“I’m sorry to get you up Tom, but it’s this murder, they’ve got the wrong man back in the jail for it.”
“What that half breed? He looked pretty dang guilty to me Jess.”
“Not you too,” I muttered under my breath. “What is it with you folk? So how come you’re all so dang judgemental huh?”
“Well I’m sorry Jess, so this guy, he’s a friend of yours?”
I nodded, “And he would no more likely knife a young girl than the padre would.”
“So who did it then,” asked Tom,” if you’re so dang sure about all this.”
“A guy called Carlos something and another guy with him, they were in here last night, talkin’ to her and bad mouthin’ Billy too,” I said.
“I do recall, now you mention it…. Carlos…he was her cousin I think…swarthy looking guy, Mexican, ”mused Tom.
“Well that makes sense; Gina was half Mexican…so they would be the sons of her Pa’s brother. She mentioned them once, something about the black sheep of the family.”
“Even so Jess, they are hardly likely to murder their own kin…talk sense,”he muttered.
“You’re kidding me, I know folks who would murder their granny iffen there was something in it for them.”
I reckon Tom secretly thought that was hardly surprising considerin’ the circles I moved in. But I guess he thought it was probably not a good time to say anything. Not with me lookin’ like I was working up to one of my full blown tempers and he wouldn’t have been wrong either.
“So did you hear what they were sayin’?” I asked.
“Nope, it was like Hell on wheels in here, with those Goddamn drovers intent on wrecking the place again….you might ask Betty, I think she spoke to them.”
“Thanks Tom,” and soon after I left for Betty’s place.
I hadn’t seen too much of her lately as Marcie had upped and taken a job in Cheyenne, so it had just been Slim visiting as he was still walking out with Betty. Whilst I’d taken up with Gina after Marcie left town, dating her for just a couple of weeks.
Now a pale and troubled looking Betty answered my knock, but she seemed pleased enough to see me.
Once I was sat by her fireside a coffee in my hand I said,” I’m real sorry about what happened, are you OK?”
She nodded, “Kinda shook up, you know…It was just terrible…why would that man do that to her? He seemed so nice.”
“It wasn’t Billy,” I said patiently” I know it looks that way, but he didn’t do it. I know him and believe him…so tell me about this Carlos….”
“Her cousins Carlos and Juan, they were arguing with her, something about that amulet she wore.”
“Huh, an amulet you say?”
“You know that big gold and turquoise pendant she wore around her neck. An amulet is supposed to keep the wearer from harm she told me all about it.”
“That didn’t dang well work too good then,” I muttered sarcastically.
Then more loudly, ”So what about it? It was just…..what do you call it…costume jewellery weren’t it, those jewels weren’t real?”
“That’s what she wanted people to think, Jess, but they were real. It was solid gold and covered with diamonds and rubies, worth a small fortune. Carlos wanted it back, said it was his birth right.”
“It had been handed down through the family for generations and when Carlos’s Pa found out the brothers planned to sell it when they inherited it, he decided to give it to Gina instead. Because he knew she would keep it safe in the family.”
“That makes sense,” I said softly, “why she never took it off…even in bed. It was real important to her because of her bein’ trusted with it, as well as it being so valuable.”
And I suddenly had a vision of her lying naked in my arms, naked save for the pendant…..her dusky skin so smooth and beautiful and I felt a spasm of pain, knowing I’d never see her again.
I must have turned kinda pale because Betty reached across and took my hand.
“Jess are you OK?”
I felt my face flush up some as I tried to still the image of Gina’s beautiful body in my arms.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said quickly, “so was she still wearing it after…..you know, she was killed?”
Betty shook her head,”I don’t know, you’ll have to talk to Charlie.”
I nodded and sometime later, after thanking her, made my way down the street to Charlie Fairfax’s place, the local undertaker.
Unlike Tom, Charlie opened the door at my first knock and ushered me in, like he’d been just waitin’ on me arrivin’.
“Come to offer your respects and view the body have you son?”
I nodded, suddenly feeling choked.
Hell this was the girl I’d held in my arms and made sweet love to just a week ago. Now here she was as white and cold as the marble she was lyin’ on ….damn it, this weren’t right.
Old Charlie left me to it and after a moment I reached out a finger and gently ran it down her icy cold white cheek.
“I’ll git the bastard,” I whispered, “goddamn it, he’ll pay sweetheart,” and I turned and went to find old Charlie.
“A nasty business,” he said mournfully, “and kind of ironic, her being stabbed with her own knife and all.”
“Yup, doc told me, that knife was hers, looks to me like she was trying to defend herself and there was a struggle and she ended up with it in her chest…. “
“Through her heart?” I whispered.
“Yes son, she wouldn’t have suffered at the end, killed her outright according to this Doc Peters that is, iffen you can believe him.”
“Huh, Doc Peters you say, so what happened to old Doc Johnson?”
“His brother’s sick, gone over to Denver to look out for him and we’ve got this new guy standing in for him, but between you and me he isn’t too reliable.”
“What do ya mean?”
Charlie made as if taking a drink, “Likes it way too much between you and me.”
I took this in. Great, a drunken doctor, just what I needed in my life, the amount of times I got beat up or shot.
I sighed and dragged my thoughts back to the current problem.
“So…err…..her pendant, that kinda sparkly necklace she always wore, she ain’t wearin’ it now, did you take it off of her Charlie?”
“Necklace you say,” the old timer repeated scratching his head, “she didn’t have any necklace on Jess boy.”
“I knew it,” I said almost to myself.
Sometime later I wandered back to Mort’s office, trying to remember everything she’d told me about these ‘black sheep’ cousins of hers. I pulled the collar of my sheepskin jacket up as a brisk wind suddenly got up, with the promise of snow sometime soon I thought miserably.
So Carlos and Juan…..err Lopez…..that was it Lopez and they hailed from a small town south of El Paso, just south of the border. That’s where they’d be hightailin’ it back to, pretty damn quick, iffen I wasn’t mistaken. I increased my speed almost running back to the office, sooner we started the better our chance of finding them….
“What do ya mean you’re not callin’ up a posse?” I yelled, really losing it now, slamming my fist now on his desk, rattling his coffee cup.
“I’ve told you Jess,” Mort said beginning to lose his patience with me as well…”there just isn’t sufficient evidence and these hombres could be any place. I’ve got me a town to run and I can’t take off on some wild goose chase.”
“What you mean is you’ve gotten your scape goat an’ seein’ that he’s a no good half breed he won’t be any great loss, huh Mort….!” I spat now way past furious.
“Jess that’s enough,”said Slim angrily, “Mort’s done his best!”
“You think so do you?” I said sarcastically. “Just butt out Slim, it ain’t you as has had his girl killed. Or whose real good buddy is gonna hang for it, unless I can talk some sense into the Sheriff here!”
Well that kinda hit home, because they both went real quiet.
“Look Jess I’m sorry for your trouble, real sorry. But the fact remains, the man in the cell is the guy that killed her and iffen you can’t face that…… well…” Mort said, all his temper suddenly evaporated and throwing me a look more in sorrow than anger.
That was it, I’d had enough and marched to the door.
“Where in Hell are you off to now?” asked Slim, still looking kinda mad at me.
“To find the bastard that murdered Gina and make you two eat your goddamn words!” I yelled, furiously bashing out the door and striding down towards the livery.
I’d saddled Traveller, figuring there was still an hour or so of daylight left, when Slim caught up with me.
“So you’re really going,” he asked angrily, “running out on me?”
“Your job Jess, or doesn’t that mean anything to you….No I guess not!” he said crossly… not waiting for me to answer just ploughing on, his eyes flashing in anger.
“You’ve just been looking for an excuse haven’t you…All that stuff you said about putting up your gunslinger weapon and making a fresh start, that was just talk wasn’t it…trying to impress young Andy I suppose.”
“Hell Slim will ya listen to yourself. This ain’t nuthin’ to do with me…or Andy or even your dang job. This is about me looking out for a friend…Billy don’t deserve this, to be treated this way and iffen Mort was doin’ his job proper, he’d think the same.”
He just shook his head at this attack.
“You’re crazy. Mort’s right you just can’t believe one of your so called friends could do something like that and what’s more……”
I didn’t wait to hear…’what’s more’, I was so dang mad I just knew I’d lash out if I stayed there a moment longer.
I was up on Traveller and out the door of the livery, practically running him down in my eagerness to escape.
“What’s more you’re fired!” he yelled after me.
“Too late I quit,” I yelled back and spurring Traveller on, I was down Main Street heading out of town before he could retaliate.
Chapter 5
I galloped on for a couple of miles and then finally took pity on my old horse and reined him in, patting his neck gently.
“Ain’t your fault old fellah,” I said softly. ”Well looks like it’s just you and me again now Traveller, we’ve done with ranching,” and after a minute I pushed him on to a gentle trot.
As soon as dusk fell I pitched up for the night. But it wasn’t until I was sitting by my campfire, with a glass of Red Eye, from a small bottle in my saddlebag…medicinal purposes only, that the whole business finally hit me, real hard.
I’d been so dang busy tryin’ to help out Billy that I hadn’t had much time to really take in what had happened to my beautiful Gina. Then seein’ her laying on the slab that way….it had sure shook me up.
Now I thought about her properly. It weren’t the romance of the century or anythin’ like that…certainly weren’t thinkin’ on proposing anytime soon. But we got on real good, had a laugh together and boy was she good in the romancin’ department, a real little cracker and I sighed deeply at the memory. We’d had something good, real good and I’d miss her….I sighed again, feeling so goddamn bad.
Then I got to thinking about Slim.
Why had he been so dang mad at me? Couldn’t he see I was only watchin’ my buddy’s back? Just like I always did for him, garldarn it!
Jeez me an’ Billy went way back to growing up together on the Texas panhandle… had shared memories….But hell much more than that I owed him, big time and I had to help him now, just had to…...
Maybe if I’d tried to explain it to Slim, told him everything that had happened, he’d have understood. Maybe even been on my side? I didn’t know…all I knew was that my heart was aching with the pain of loss and not just of Gina either.
I lay there in the moonlight thinking back over the last few months. How young Andy had befriended me and given me the sorta friendship I hadn’t experienced since I was a kid. Laughing and laughing together over the silliest of things.
Then there was old Jonesy, gee he sure could be an old woman, fussin’ and frettin over the least little thing…But he could be kind and thoughtful too….and you sure wanted him around iffen you’d been beaten up or worse, shot. He nursed you real good. Apart from that doggone liniment of course and I smiled grimly in the moonlight at the thought. Well Harper you won’t have to put up with that anymore I said quietly, the thought strangely making me feel profoundly sad.
Then there was old Hardrock… I thought we’d got us a real strong friendship now. The number of times we’d ridden out together, watched each other’s backs…gotten roarin’ drunk, laughed ‘til we cried, worked our butts off to keep the business up an’ running real good…Yeah, I sure thought there was a bond formed between me and Slim… But I guess I’d just pushed him too dang far this time.
I imagine the way he was seeing it, was that I was putting someone from my past before him and the ranch. I’d ridden off without a backwards glance yet again. How many times had I done that I wondered, three, no four times, in almost as many months….Nope I couldn’t really blame the guy for bein’ so dang mad at me. And then I got to thinkin’ that he wouldn’t have been so darned upset iffen he didn’t care…..and that kinda made me feel even worse.
I was up and on the trail at first light after a miserable cold night, the wind having gotten up in the early hours and the threat of snow ever present.
I had figured that the brothers would be heading home and knew the quickest most direct route down back to Mexico, having ridden it more than once. But then I figured they’d be taking the back tracks and trails not wantin’ to be spotted, with Gina’s blood fresh on their hands. Having walked that thin line between the right and wrong side of the law…and ventured onto the wrong side more than once gave me an added advantage. See I knew darned well all the back tracks, the best places to hole up iffen a posse was on your tail and that’s how I found ‘em pretty easy. But what I hadn’t bargained for was them splitting up.
I came upon the previous night’s camp fire by mid-afternoon and now with a thin sprinkling of snow on the ground was able to track ‘em real easy. Their trail was direct, no back tracking or attempt to wipe their tracks, so I figured they had no idea they were being followed.
Then an hour or so later the tracks divided, one set heading due south towards Cheyenne, the other heading east towards the distant pine bluffs. That was a good area to hole up in with some high ground to watch for any approaching law and plenty of shelter in the woods and caves.
I sat my horse undecided, which one I should follow. I thought maybe one was headed to Cheyenne for supplies, whilst the other lay low…but which of the two was the killer?
I finally decided that the one heading for Cheyenne would be easier to track down, and turning Traveller south, spurred him on to a gallop, hoping to catch up with my quarry before nightfall.
I rode into town just as dusk was falling and after attending to Traveller’ s needs at the livery, made my way over to the saloon.
My mind was so full of tracking down the Lopez brothers that I wasn’t thinking too straight. So it came as something of a shock when I ordered whiskey and this cute little red head slammed it down in front of me and with a sarcastic smile said, “Long time no see stranger.”
I looked up into the green flashing eyes of none other than Marcie Landon, the girl I’d been dating before Gina.
“Marcie,” I said, my eyebrows shootin’ up and a look of pure surprise in my eyes, “what in Hell are you doin’ here?”
“Working,” she replied tartly, ”as well you know Jess Harper…Because if I recall correctly you did promise to come a visiting when I left Laramie.”
“Oh…err, yeah,” I said feelin’ kinda sheepish, “sorry Marcie, old Slim’s kept me pretty busy over at the ranch lately.” “Umm…not half as busy as that Gina over in her bed, so I hear,” she said, now looking like she was beginning to enjoy giving me a hard time.
My expression must have been real shocked because she stopped her teasing and said, “What’s up Jess, I’m only joshing you. We hardly had an understanding did we? It was just a bit of fun wasn’t it and we’re both free agents, huh?“
I just shook my head.
“You ain’t heard have you?“
“Heard what?” She asked looking puzzled.
“About Gina, she’s dead Marcie, murdered.”
She gave a little gasp of shock, looking totally stunned.
“No,” she whispered.
I went on to explain everything, how one of my oldest and best buddies had been wrongly accused, but how I was on the case hunting down the real culprits.
“I can’t say as we’ve seen any strangers in here, certainly not Mexican,” she said thoughtfully.
“I tracked him to the road into town, he must be somewhere about,” I said, now beginning to lose faith in my own instincts.
“So, how long ago was that?”
“Dunno, he was a few hours ahead of me.”
“Maybe he just bought supplies and decided not to come in the saloon, playing safe if he’s on the run. The mercantile is closed for the day now but you could ask old Bert tomorrow.”
I sighed deeply and knocked back my whiskey, before pouring another.
“The livery guy ain’t seen him either,” I said beginning to feel I was on a wild goose chase. Were the tracks I’d been following even the right men…I just didn’t know.
“I’ll just have to go around all the boardin’ houses see iffen he’s booked in anywhere,” I said, not relishing the idea.
“Umm,” she said thoughtfully…”of course along with the mercantile and saloon there is another port of call a man might be heading for in town.”
“Yeah,” I asked,” so where’s that?”
“Why, Big Bertha’s place of course.”
“Oh I forgot you don’t know these parts too well yet do you?” she asked.
“Go on,” I said gruffly, feeling weary to the bone and not a little irritated that I probably was completely off track. Maybe my men were halfway back to Mexico as we spoke.
“So where and what is Big Bertha’s when it’s at home?”
“It’s only the biggest brothel in town. Bertha employs half a dozen working girls in her saloon, just on the edge of town. You pay over the odds for the drinks, but most men seem to think it’s worth it… I’m surprised you haven’t heard of the place?”
“Yeah well I don’t pay for it, never needed to,” I said curtly.
“No I imagine not,” she said with the ghost of a smile.
I knocked back my drink and turned to go.
“So you’re off then?” she called after me.
“Gotta find this guy, Billy’s depending on me,” I said softly before turning back to her, ”I’m sorry Marcie.”
“Will you be back later?” she asked with a little pout.
I shrugged, ”I reckon not.”
Hell, with Gina not cold in her grave yet, it hardly seemed right I should take up with Marcie again, so soon.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. ”I’ll catch you next time I’m in town, I promise,” and with that I marched off in search of Big Bertha’s dive.
And boy I wasn’t wrong there, what a dump.
The moment I walked in the joint I knew it was one of the lowest dives I’d ever been in and God knows I’d drunk in some rough old places.
It was dimly lit and filthy, with a smell of stale beer mingling with cheap perfume, the walls covered in garish paintings of naked girls, leaving the punters in no doubt as to what was on offer.
I mooched over to the bar and was greeted by a woman in a tightly fitting real low cut, bright red gown, stretched over an ample figure that was looking set to burst free at any moment. I’d found the redoubtable Big Bertha….and boy she sure lived up to her name.
She looked to be about fifty, had blond hair piled up high and thick makeup makin’ her look even older.
“Well hello honey pie,” she drawled, throwin’ me the kinda look you really wouldn’t want your Ma to see….
”So are you here for a little relaxation?” she asked, leaning over the counter of the bar and displaying her generous figure even more brazenly.
I couldn’t stop myself from glancing down and like I say, she sure lived up to her name and I kinda lost my train of thought for a moment there and stared back up at her blankly.
“So then,” she said with the smile of a hungry cat with a mouse within its grasp, “would you like one of my girls, or pay the extra for me …..Huh?”
I must have looked kind of horrified, because she leaned over even closer and running a scarlet finger nail down my cheek said, “Come on now honey, don’t ne bashful, I’ll be real gentle with you…..”
Well that was it. I suddenly came to my senses.
“I’m here on business Ma’am,” I said pulling my hat down hard and fixing her with my best steely glare.
“Well aren’t we all honey,” she said with a chuckle at her own humour,” so you wanna pay the extra then I could give a handsome boy like you a real good time, how about it…huh?”
“Goddamn it no!” I said, doing what I do best and reverting to my normal ornery, quick tempered self…
“Oh,” she said looking kinda taken aback…”just a drink then dear?”
I sighed deeply and tried again.
“I’m here looking for a guy. A Mexican, just came into town today, name of Carlos, or possibly Juan….you seen him?”
Her head shot up and she exchanged a look with another woman who had sidled up next to me, her cheap perfume making me feel slightly sick.
“Well,” I growled, “have ya?”
Neither answered but the newcomer with the bad taste in scent introduced herself as Avril and after coming up even closer suggested I buy her a drink.
Well I’d just about arrived at the jumpin’ off place now and glancing towards the red curtained stairs that led up to the girls’ rooms I made towards it.
“I’d better look for myself then,” I growled, throwing them both a black look.
“Fred, Freddy git your sorry ass out here,” Bertha called turning to look towards the backroom.
A few moments later an ugly giant of a man strode out from the behind the bar. Gee he even swamped Bertha and she was no lightweight.
“You called Ma?” he asked, throwing me a hostile glance.
“Gentleman here needs to leave dear,” she said, casting me a look more in sorrow than anger.
He cracked his knuckles and then made a sorta rumbling sound and stepped towards me.
In the end it was my speed that saw me through.
Fred was a good seven foot tall and as broad as a barn door and about as solid, but he were pretty slow, both in mind and deed I reckoned as he lumbered around, with me running rings around him.
As soon as he advanced on me I head butted him in the belly before he could grab me and as he fell to his knees, in shock as much as pain, I followed through with a couple of blows to the head. He was thrown back and collapsed in a heap, but before I could start celebrating my victory he dragged himself up and advanced on me, a murderous look in his piggy eyes.
So we started tradin’ blows, with me getting a split lip and black eye for my trouble before I finally downed him with a hefty haymaker and this time he stayed down.
I stooped and picked up my hat from the floor, dusted myself down some, dragged a sleeve across my bloody chin and finally replaced my hat pulling it down hard.
Then I turned back to Big Bertha.
“Which room Ma’am?”
She had the light of defeat in her eyes and jerked her head towards the red curtained stairway.
“First floor, number three, he’s with Ruby.”
I tore up the stairs two at a time and without bothering to knock barged straight in.
The room was dimly lit by a red shaded lamp, but I could just make out two figures sleeping on the bed.
“Hey what’s your game?” screeched a woman, presumably Ruby. Jumping from the bed she quickly covered her nakedness with a wrap, as I stood there dishevelled and still panting from the recent fracas.
“It’s OK Ma’am,”I said quietly, “I don’t mean you no harm. I’m here for that murdering bastard,” and I advanced on the bed, where the other occupant was still completely out of it. Either exhausted from his recent lust filled session with Ruby or excessive imbibing…probably both I thought wryly.
“Do you know who he is, did you even ask his name?” I asked.
She looked kinda indignant at that.
“Sure I did, what do ya take me for….it’s Juan…Juan…..somethin’.“
I hid a smile. I took her for exactly what she was a poor girl tryin’ to earn a buck or two any way she could. Hell I might not use workin’ girls, but I didn’t despise ‘em either. Way I figured it you had to make your way in life any way you damn well could, Jeez, I sure knew that if anyone did.
“Thanks,” I muttered and then taking a pitcher from the nightstand emptied the icy water over the still comatose Juan.
Well that sure enough brought him back to life real quick.
He shot up, cussin’ for Texas.
“Shut your filthy mouth,” I yelled, “ladies present.”
Then I stuck my cold hard colt .45 into his ribs, just so there would be no mistake that I meant business.
“Git up and git dressed you murderin’ bastard,” I hissed.
“Hey senor what is your game,” he squawked, “I have paid her for the night you wait your turn si?”
I just stared at him, icily.
Then what I’d just said finally hit home and he looked real uncomfortable.
“What is it you are talking about senor I am not a killer.”
“Well if you ain’t you’re sure related to one…now get up and I won’t be tellin’ you again!” I said pushing him hard in the chest with the barrel of my gun.
He cried out in pain and then lurched up from the bed and started dressing still protesting his innocence.
“So does the name Gina Lopez mean anything to you,” I said eventually, “because it sure should, what with you being her cousin and all.”
At the mention of her name he went white as a sheet.
“Gina,” he whispered, “she is dead?”
“Sure she is,” I said angrily, ”and I’m takin’ you in for her murder.
” Ruby screamed in horror,”Is this true, you’re a murderer?” she cried looking stricken.
“No…no Senorita I am not…. I did not do this terrible thing! It was my brother Carlos, I… I tried to stop him…”
Then he turned to me, ”Please Senor, believe me I cannot hang for this crime, I am innocent!”
I threw him a hard look, but part of me thought he was telling the truth. He was young, just out of his teens and didn’t have the killer look about him somehow.
“That’s up to the law to decide,” I said. “But iffen you tell me where Carlos is holed up I’ll beat the dang truth out of him…and that should see you right…”
“I… I can’t betray my brother,” he whispered.
“It’s all the same to me. You hang or he does I really don’t give a damn, come on we’ll let the Sheriff sort it out,” and I dragged him up and shoved him hard in the direction of the door, my colt still covering him.
“No…please senor, I do a deal, I tell you if you speak up for me at the trial, tell them I am innocent….si?” he said suddenly terrified as to what would happen to him.
“So come on where is he?” I asked not about to start making any promises I couldn’t keep.
“The caves, near the river just a mile past the pine bluffs. He is sick senor that is why I came to town to buy medicine for him.”
“Oh in that case you’d better give it to me,” I said sarcastically, “after all we don’t want him to dang well die on us before he gets a chance to hang, do we?”
Chapter 6
Meanwhile back at the ranch feelings were running high with Slim and Andy barely speaking since Jess had lit out, Jonesy playing mediator.
It had all kicked off when Andy had returned from school the previous week.
He had jumped down from the Stage and raced into the house, completely ignoring the friendly greeting from his older brother.
Slim did a double take and then peered up at where Mose was gathering the reins ready to take off, the horses having been watered.
“What’s up with Andy?”
“I’m blessed if I know something to do with Jess though. He was talkin’ to young Davy, who works at the livery, just before we left town.”
Slim just nodded and walked off towards the ranch house , but was just in time to see Andy, who had changed from his smart school clothes into his work ones, cannoning out of the house.
“Hey, whoa, where’s the fire?” he laughed as the youngster nearly knocked him flying.
When Andy merely threw him a look that would curdle the milk and marched off to the barn to groom his pony, Slim followed.
He entered the dimly lit barn and stood watching the dark haired youngster grooming his long suffering mount with somewhat more vigour than was strictly necessary.
After a minute he strode over and stood leaning over the stall.
“Don’t speak to me that way, have some respect, now what the heck has gotten into you?“
“You mean you don’t know!”
“No I don’t know, so what’s upset you huh?” Slim asked slightly more kindly.
Andy turned on him at that, his eyes blazing.
“My friend Davy was in the livery that night when Jess rode out. He said you were real mean to him…said that you fired him just for helping a friend…How could you do that Slim! How could you act that way after he’s saved our bacon more than once? And he’s my best friend….why’d you do that?” and he turned back to his horse, the tears now flowing freely down his cheeks.
Slim stood there feeling a mixture of anger and frustration tinged with pity for the little brother he loved so much.
“Andy, he quit,” he said wearily….” He was just looking for an excuse to go …he never really meant to stay.”
“He did so, that ain’t true! Davy said as how you said Jess just gave up his gunslinger weapon to impress me….that’s not true Slim…He wants a fresh start I know he does, he told me….we talked man to man. He doesn’t treat me like a little kid like you and Jonesy do!”
“Well if you’re not a kid anymore wake up to him!” Slim yelled suddenly feeling a stab of jealousy once again at the young drifter’s profound influence over the boy.
“Can’t you see it Andy, he just wants his freedom. He’s not ready to settle down, and he’d rather ride out with the likes of that friend of his back in jail,” he added disdainfully.
Andy’s head shot up and he walked over and looked hard at his big brother now.
“Is it true,” he whispered…”what Davy was saying that Jess said about you and Mort?”
“That is was because his friend was half Indian that he didn’t get a fair deal….is it Slim….huh?”
“Of course not,” blustered Slim angrily. “The man was clearly guilty….but Jess has this crazy loyalty to his friends…was just too stubborn to see it! Mort had to lock him up Andy, all the evidence is stacked against him
The boy just turned his back on his brother and return to his task.
After a while Slim sighed deeply and wandered back into the yard and stood staring off to the horizon.
Could Andy be right, was a tiny part of him prejudiced against the young man Billy because of who he was…he shook his head feeling ashamed.
Then another thought occurred to him. Could Jess have been right all along, was the young half cast Billy innocent of the crime after all? Andy was certainly right about one thing though he mused. The thing he hadn’t actually said but was so evident….they would all miss Jess, and Slim inwardly cursed himself for losing his temper that way and firing him…..
It was just the following day that Mort Cory rode in with news of the errant young drifter.
It was a Saturday and Andy and Slim both came running out of the barn when they heard a rider advancing.
Mort dismounted and after hitching his big old buckskin to the corral fence turned and grinned at the Sherman brothers.
“Howdy Mort, what brings you out here so early, after some of Jonesy’ s coffee and hot biscuits?” asked Slim.
“Well ya know I wouldn’t say no,” the iron haired Sheriff said, and smiling followed the brothers into the ranch house.
Once they were all seated around the table Slim cocked an enquiring eyebrow at Mort.
“So what can we do for you Sheriff?”
“I’ve got news of Jess…if you’re interested that is?”
Andy nearly spilled his coffee in his enthusiasm.
“Sure we are Sheriff, is he OK, heck he’s not hurt is he?” he asked suddenly looking anxious.
Mort smiled warmly at the youngster, ”No nothing like that son, least ways not yet…”
Then he turned to Slim with a slight frown.
“It turns out your buddy may have been right all along. I got me a wire from Sheriff Masters over in Cheyenne,” and the Sheriff went on to tell all about Jess apprehending Juan Lopez and how he had admitted to being at the scene of the crime. Also how his brother, Carlos had committed the murder of Gina Lopez whilst trying to grab the family heirloom from her…and she had been accidentally stabbed in the struggle that had ensued.
“I knew it, I just knew Jess would be right!” whooped Andy jumping up from his chair and bouncing around looking elated.
Slim shook his head in despair feeling truly dreadful at not listening to his friend, or trusting his judgement more.
“Simmer down Andy,” he said quietly, the boy’s antics making him feel even worse.
At that point Jonesy rolled in and after topping up the men’s coffee cups took Andy off to help him with the chores.
Once they were alone Mort sipped his coffee thoughtfully and then peering over the rim of his cup, fixed his old friend with his wise eyes, “There’s more Slim.”
“Go on….”
“There’s more about young Jess.”
Slim sighed and rolled his eyes.
“We’re still tryin’ to figure him out and God knows he ain’t the easiest to understand…To really get to know, is he?”Mort said.
“Amen to that,” said Slim vehemently.
Mort gave a little chuckle before continuing.
“Sheriff Masters, he’s a swell guy, new to Cheyenne, but I’ve met him a few times, very genuine, ex-army… a top man… well…...he really rates Jess,” said Mort looking thoughtfully across at Slim.
“Go on,” said Slim, his eyes never leaving his friend’s face.
“Turns out he’s a very good buddy of Jess. They rode together in the war…He said Jess was a real good man to have at your back, seems he saved Masters’ life….Anyway, he was kinda concerned as to the way we’d treated him…Said Jess really didn’t deserve that.”
Slim sighed deeply, “Do you not think I’m feeling bad enough about all this already Mort?”
The older man put his hand up to silence his friend.
“Slim you had provocation, I know how hard it’s been for you to work this place with Jess always hightailin’ it off someplace…and like we agreed he ain’t the easiest…. But maybe he has his reasons see there’s more and it might explain about all this business with Billy Daniels.”
Slim looked up, “Oh?”
“Uh, it seems they are real good friends, since childhood. Masters told me all about it when I went over to collect the prisoner. Apparently Billy had a real rough time in the town down in Texas, because of his race…..his Ma being Cheyenne and his Pa a Texan….But old Jess there befriended him, took more than a few punches standing up for the kid.”
“That sounds like Jess,” Slim said with a faint smile.
“Yeah, well as they got older the fights got worse and Jess really put himself on the line for the boy ….and that’s when a group of kids decided to gang up on Jess, try and make him back down over his friendship with young Billy….. and when Jess refused they threw him in the local river.”
“What!” yelled Slim his head shooting up and looking deeply shocked
“Hell Mort, he can’t swim, Andy’s just teaching him…or he was….”
Mort shook his head sadly.
“That’s right and he was only just ten years of age too. Masters said it gave him a real fear of water for a long time afterwards, I figure that’s why he’s only just learning to swim now.”
Slim looked wretched, remembering how he’d teased Jess mercilessly over the matter. How he’d taken it on the chin, never alluding to his past near drowning once.
“What happened?” He whispered.
“Young Billy jumped in and saved him, that’s what. The kid was a good head shorter and lighter than Jess, but he managed it…and that kinda cemented their friendship, forever.”
Mort grinned,”According to Masters they did this blood brothers thing and swore they’d always look out for each other, no matter what. Well you can’t fault Jess he sure kept his end of the bargain.”
Slim looked devastated.
“The stupid fool, why didn’t he just tell me?” he muttered.
“Maybe he thought you wouldn’t listen,” said Mort softly.
Then turning sad eyes on his old friend, “We were both guilty of that Slim, and God forgive me maybe I didn’t give young Billy all the support I could have done. It just seemed like an open and closed case. But I should have listened to him more…Jess too; we both owe him an apology.”
“So where is he,” asked Slim suddenly coming to his senses, “you say you collected one prisoner, how about this brother that committed the murder Carlos, where is he?”
Mort shook his head.
“Good question, still on the run and Jess has gone after him.”
“Uh, he knows where he is then?”
“Kind of yeah, his brother told Jess, trying to save his own skin. So Jess was heading for Pine Bluffs. But that’s one hell of a big area to cover and with Masters’ deputy having been killed he couldn’t help Jess out… The boy lit out before Masters could even get a posse together. Apparently Jess said he’d track the guy easier alone, said once he’d got him, he’d deliver him directly here for the trial in Laramie.”
“So what about this Billy Daniels, will he go free?” asked Slim.
“Yup, should do. Juan has already written a confession and admitted his brother is guilty of the murder. I’m holding Billy in custody until the trial can be held, his evidence will be crucial…and well that’s the safest place for him right now too. It seems there are still a few hot heads in Laramie that would like to see him strung up…trial or no trial.”
Slim shook his head sadly, “There’s still a lot of prejudice about, and I reckon our attitude hasn’t helped.”
“No,” said Mort quietly and they sipped their coffee in silence.
A little later Slim walked Mort out to his horse and he paused and looked up to the leaden sky.
“It looks like we’re in for that promised storm, and according to Masters they’ve had some snow already over Cheyenne way.”
“Gee, I hope Jess has the good sense to abandon the search and come on home if the weather really gets bad. It’s a killer and I’m not sure he realizes that yet,” said Slim looking anxious.
“Home?” asked Mort with a raised eyebrow. ”Way I heard it he doesn’t live here anymore Slim I thought you’d done fired the boy?”
Slim flushed up at that.
“A misunderstanding Mort…words said in temper by both of us, best forgotten I reckon.”
“Uh, you might, but not so sure about Jess…he may have other plans anyway.”
“Oh?” queried Slim.
“Yeah, according to Billy he says he came through Laramie on his way west to hook up with Jess again. Seems he’s gonna try his luck out in ‘Frisco. Said he wanted Jess to ride along with him, but before he could sound him out all this happened.”
Slim turned pale, ”Really, so you think he’ll go?”
Mort shrugged, ”It doesn’t look too much like he’s gotten a future here. So yeah, I figure he will. Shame, the boy ‘ll miss him,” he said as Andy wandered out of the barn to wave the Sheriff off.
“You too I reckon,” he said softly, casting his old friend a shrewd look before mounting up and kicking his horse off to a steady trot, throwing Andy a little salute of farewell.
It was later, around the supper table that the reason for Mort’s visit was thoroughly discussed again.
Andy’s face was troubled as he looked across at his older brother.
“What if he gets caught in a snow storm, he ain’t used to it Slim, he could get stranded or anything.”
“Isn’t used to it,” Slim corrected his grammar automatically.
“That’s what I said!” retorted Andy angrily.
Then he took a deep breath and tried to control his temper.
“Heck he could die up by those ol’ bluffs Slim, iffen he was caught up in a blizzard or something. Can’t you go fetch him back…please?”
“The boy will be just fine,” said Jonesy dishing out the rabbit stew, ”he’s managed to get along just hunky dory on his own this far.”
“But he hasn’t here, not when the snows down Jonesy!” The youngster said.
The old man rolled his eyes and dug into the meal, but Slim looked thoughtful.
“You know I think I agree with you Andy,” he said finally.
“Well that’s a first,” supplied Jonesy, with a quizzical look at both brothers.
“Really Slim you do!” piped up an astonished looking Andy.
Slim beamed across at his younger brother and clapped him on the shoulder.
“The way Mort tells it, seems Jess went after that Carlos a good few days ago and I figure he’ll be on his way home real soon. So yeah, I might just ride out and meet him. Help escort the prisoner back…and maybe clear the air some too….huh?”
“Jeepers Slim that would be just swell,” said the youngster bouncing out of his chair and cavorting around the room in his excitement.
“I don’t know what all the dang fuss is about,” muttered old Jonesy darkly. “All the wretched boy does is cause arguments and eat us out of house and home.”
However Slim saw the twinkle in the old timer’s eye. He figured Jonesy would be just as happy as the two brothers to have their troublesome, ornery and downright annoying….but well he had to admit it, kinda special, buddy home again.
Chapter 7
Meanwhile I’d been havin’ fun trailin’ that ornery cuss Carlos Lopez.
I should have figured young Juan wasn’t tellin’ me all the dang truth when I discovered that the supposed medicine was in fact half a dozen bottles of Red Eye.
We were in Sheriff Doug Masters’ office and Doug was expecting Mort to pick up the prisoner the following day.
“Well this is mighty strange medicine,” I said to Juan, “thought you said he was sick?”
“He is in a way…. you see he has a liking for the whiskey Senor.”
“Don’t we all,” I laughed exchanging a glance with Doug who grinned back at me.
“No Senor Harper, you do not understand he is …..how you say, fanatico.”
“Huh…oh addicted you mean, gotten a real taste for it?”
“Si, si senor, that is correct, he has to have the drink or he is real sick, he shakes….and has the cramps….so he has to have it and sent me to town…for the suministros….the supplies.”
Doug grinned over at me, ”I forgot you were pretty good in Spanish.”
“I can get by, got me a mess of Mexican buddies back in Texas….”
I sighed deeply, wondering not for the first time why I had dang well left….But then I knew really I could never go back, not after so much had happened.
“So, will you take these ‘suministros’ then Jess?” asked Doug nodding to Juan’s packed saddle bag.
I winked at him, “Just a couple maybe, gets pretty cold on the trail this time of year.”
Then he looked real serious.
“I wish you’d wait up…give me time to get a posse together huh?“
I shook my head.
“Nope Doug, I reckon I can manage one drunken old Mexican on my own…besides your posse would probably ride roughshod all over the dang tracks. Just tell Mort I’ll see him as soon as I can locate the bastard and I’ll deliver him back to Laramie.”
That had been a good couple of days ago and now I’d hiked all around the area to the east of Pine Bluffs, and nothing, not one sign of another living being for miles.
The air had got even colder as dusk fell.Then the first few flakes of snow started to fall and my heart sank, that was all I dang well needed I thought as I made camp.
Where in hell could he have gotten to I wondered as I sipped my coffee liberally laced with some of Juan’s suministros, the Red Eye keeping at least some of the bitter cold at bay. The camp fire flickered in the breeze that had got up. I could hear the distant sound of a lone wolf, carried in on the wind as night fell around me and I felt real low. Here I was off on a wild goose chase in the middle of nowhere. Getting my butt pretty near froze off and then when it was all over no dang job to go back to and nothing but the prospect of a Wyoming winter ahead of me.
Well that weren’t gonna happen I decided. Once I’d found the dang Mexican and liberated by buddy from Mort’s jail I was off…Texas or the West coast I didn’t really give a damn. I just wanted to put as many miles between me and this Goddamn place as possible. But there again if this dang weather persisted it didn’t look like I’d be goin’ any place in quite a while.
How could I have thought it would work out at the Sherman place anyhow? Hell we were just too different. Too many issues to face and old wounds to come to terms with like this latest argument we’d had. Surely Slim should understand that I couldn’t just sit back and watch a buddy hang for something he hadn’t done? Hell…. was incapable of doing… I knew that, knew Billy so well and we had something me and Slim didn’t have ……..history and I figured we were never going to get the chance to make any now.
I drained my cup and laydown, pulling my blanket up tight, the soft white flakes still fluttering down around me. Tomorrow I’d have to make a decision whether to continue my search here or head off back to Cheyenne to get that posse Doug had talked about. I sure couldn’t search the vast area alone and there was no telling where the desperate Carlos Lopez was heading….possibly to the nearest bar I thought bitterly as I settled down to sleep.
Then just as I was drifting off I suddenly sat bolt upright, of course that was it!
If I was a twitchy hombre desperate for a drink I’d head north to the mountains. They were closer than town and less likely hood of being picked up by an over eager Sheriff. And what did mountains have… Mountain Men and more…. Mountain Men with illicit stills happy to sell a jar or two of Moonshine to any passing traveler! I sank back down again, tomorrow I’d head for the foothills and was dang sure I’d catch up with Carlos there. I sighed happily, maybe my luck was turning.
The following morning the snow had finally stopped. It was bitter cold and once we were on our way I quickly saw that there were deep drifts and every so often I had to dismount and walk Traveller, making our progress sickeningly slow.
I was cold tired and bad tempered by the time we reached the foothills and made camp in the lea of some standing pines. The ground was cold and hard and dry kindling difficult to find and it was a good hour or so before I could get a sulky fire smoking away and was just too dadgum beat to even bother cooking.
I sat with a black coffee staring morosely into the fire and wondering how come my so called life had panned out this way, when I suddenly heard a twig snap. Leaping up, I had my colt in my hand within a split second and was peering around me into the fast falling dusk.
Then a moment later an old man dressed head to toe in filthy buckskin shuffled out of the shadows, hands held high and a toothless grin on his whiskery old face.
“Hold hard there boy, you wouldn’t be about to shoot a poor defenseless old timer would you?”
Although his hands were aloft in token submission they still held firmly onto a hunting rifle and he also had a lethal looking knife at his belt and the term ‘defenseless’ hardly seemed fitting.
“Well that kinda depends on what you want,” I said throwing him a hard look, never being too happy about folk creeping up on me that way.
He grinned again at that.
“Well I saw your smoke and was kinda wonderin’ iffen you’d be havin’ some coffee on the go…ran out last week and I’d sell my old granny for a cup boy,” he said, his rheumy old eyes pleading.
I smiled at that despite my mistrust, thinking his granny must be long dead, but said nothing.
Then I suddenly remembered my quest…
“Sure,” I drawled, ”I’ll trade ya a coffee for some information….OK?”
He grinned at that idea, and putting his hands down he came into the camp and carefully placed his rifle down between us, before making for the coffee pot.
Once he’d poured a cup and sipped it with a satisfied grunt he remembered his manners.
“The names Hannibal, Hannibal Jack, I live around these parts and you would be?” he asked raising an eyebrow.
“Jess Harper,” I replied, weighing up this dirty old man. With the rather overpowering stench which was becoming more apparent as he warmed up by the fire.
“I’m a trapper,” he added, “skin beasts for the hide, but ain’t much money to be made that a way nowadays, dyin’ trade it is.”
Well that accounted for the sickening odor I thought as I recognised the familiar smell of rotting flesh and dried blood.
I backed off a little and tried not to breathe too deeply.
“So have you seen any strangers around here lately?” I asked casually.
“Strangers, maybe wantin’ to do some trading?” I asked with a knowing wink.
He backed right off at that.
“I dunno what ya mean Mister…tradin’ you say?”
“Oh come off it,” I said openly grinning at him now, ”the skins might not pay but the Moonshine sure does don’t it?”
His brows knitted then and he threw me a calculating look.
“You ain’t the law are you boy?”
“No I ain’t the law,” I said with a laugh, “Jeez, do I look like the doggone law?”
“I guess not.”
Then he brightened, “So you in the market for some Mountain Dew then Mister?”
“I might be so have you sold any recently to a Mexican hombre maybe?”
“Oh him….yellin’ at me in dang Spanish and wavin’ a gun around in my face the bastard”
“So that’s a yes then,” I said with a wicked grin.
“Yup, yesterday, but don’t you worry son. I got my own back on him you go a dang long way before you put one over on old Hannibal.”
“I can imagine, so what did you do?”
The old man tapped his nose and chuckled.
“Gave him more than he bargained for that’s what.”
“Sold him first cup off of the batch didn’t I?”
I just looked kinda puzzled, so he elaborated.
“See son, you never use the first pourin’ off the batch, ‘tis tainted, wood alky….don’t do a body no good.”
“Oh yeah,” I said remembering my old Pa telling me about how lethal that stuff could be.
“That’d make him real sick,” I surmised, “Jeez can blind a man can’t it?”
“Sure can…but I just mixed a little into his jar….won’t kill him.”
“That would sure slow him down some though,” I said a huge grin spreading across my face.
“Oh sure, sure,” he agreed.
“Here, have a top up Hannibal,” I said passing the coffee pot and suddenly feeling full of goodwill.
It looked like my luck had just changed and at last I had Carlos in my sights….
I set off on my quest early the following morning heading for a line cabin a few miles to the East where old Hannibal said Carlos was allegedly holed up. Apparently waiting on his brother and I put all my faith in the old Mountain Man, knowing he had no reason to lie to me.
We’d done some good trade the night before, with him offering his ‘Morning Dew’ in return for some of my Best Arbuckle’s and I reckoned it was a fair exchange. I grinned to myself as I packed it away safely in my saddle bag, imagining Slim’s face and the good time we’d have sampling it out on the porch one night……when I remembered……
I sighed deeply and after a moment swung up into the saddle and pointing Traveller due east set off for my quarry.
It was another freezing day, with the threat of more snow and I upped my pace, really wanting to find Carlos and get back to Laramie before there were any further snow storms….knowing how lethal they could be iffen they caught a man out in the open. Cold, the ruthless…stealthy killer I thought wryly. Better maybe to be gunned down cleanly than suffer that dang way I mused as I rode on, light snow flakes once more beginning to float down around me fluttering gently against my cheek, like so many papery white butterflies.
By the time I had the line cabin in sight the wind had gotten up. The snowflakes had stopped their idle skittering around and were now stinging my face and eyes, their sheer volume practically obscuring my view of the distant cabin. The wind shrieked and groaned and the sky turned as dark as dusk as I rode on, Traveller’ s ears back and his manner edgy as the storm increased around us.
By the time I eventually reined in close to the isolated cabin, on the banks of a small stream, I was cold wet and just about as mad as I could remember in a long time.
Everything that had happened to me of late was suddenly placed squarely at the door of Carlos Lopez.
It was his fault my girl had died, his fault one of my best buddies was languishing in the Laramie jail, and somewhat perversely I also saw it as his fault that I had lost my goddamn job! My fragile friendship with Slim and my whole new start in life at the ranch and relay completely lost to me….
Garldarn it, by the time I burst into the cabin I was ready to rip the guy’s head off……
He was sitting in front of a sulky lookin’ fire a cup of coffee in his hand. The look of pleasant surprise he had on his face, expecting to see his kid brother, abruptly changed to shock. Then horror as he desperately half rose, making a useless grab for his rifle, propped up nearby.
In one swift movement I kicked it out of his grasp and followed through with a vicious blow to his chin, which sent him flying across the small room. He fell heavily sliding down the wall opposite before slumping in an untidy heap on the floor.
I was across the room in two strides. Grabbing him by his shirt front I hauled him up and threw another couple of punches, but there was no satisfaction in fighting a man incapable of retaliating. So after a final punch to the belly I left him doubled up and whimpering in fear and pain as I went back to my mount to fetch a length of rope.
When I returned he was still cowering in the same position a look of total terror on his swarthy features.
Older than Juan and with the puffy face and bloodshot eyes of the perpetual drunk, he had blood running down his chin from a busted lip and was not a pretty sight.
I just tied his hands and feet and left him alone, suddenly feeling that if I started laying into him again, I might very well forget to stop. Having his blood on my hands would make me no better than him I figured as I turned my back on him.
I threw some more wood on the fire and stripped off my soaking jacket, before helping myself to a drink from the bottle on the hearth.
Then I finally turned and addressed Lopez for the first time.
“OK you lousy murdering bastard what have ya got to say for yourself?” I spat….feeling my anger rising again and my heart pounding fit to burst.
He just shook his head and then goddamn it his eyes filled with tears.
“I never meant it senor,” he whispered, “little Gina, I never meant for it to end that way. Please senor, you have to believe me when I say it was an accident.”
My jaw dropped and I just stared at him, disbelief mingling with rage.
“She had a bloody knife through her heart,” I thundered, ”and you say you didn’t mean it!”
“Si, si it was a terrible accident! She was struggling, turned the knife on me, I was just trying to disarm her…..I didn’t want her dead she was my sweet little girl cousin.”
“Sure, sure,” I said my voice laden with sarcasm, and I was suddenly unable to stomach his lies anymore.
“We’ll let a judge and jury decide that one….now shut up,” and I returned to the whisky bottle.
Chapter 8
I took another drink before suddenly remembering that the bottle was tainted and throwing it aside helped myself from the coffee pot beside the stove before going out to tend to Traveller.
There was a good sized lean to stable abutting the cabin and I soon had the old fellah bedded down nice and snug with an extra blanket I found and an extra helping of rations too.
Then I ventured back outside and cast an eye over the increasingly bad weather conditions from the shelter of the stable porch. The wind was blowing the flakes almost horizontal now, blowin’ up something fierce and I hoped and prayed it would stop soon, without leaving too much depth of laying snow. However, whatever happened we had to start heading back to Laramie in the morning because we sure couldn’t stay here for any length of time.
There were only scratch rations left for us and the horses too and little hope of bagging any game under these atrocious conditions. So unless we wanted to starve to death we had to make tracks in the morning and I turned wearily back into the cabin to inform my prisoner.
The following day when I went out to tend the horses I had difficulty opening the stable door as the snow had drifted during the night with several feet blown up against the stable and cabin.
None the less I insisted on us moving out as soon as we’d finished our basic breakfast of bacon and biscuits washed down by some strong coffee.
That’s when Carlos pleaded to have some whiskey in his drink, even though the sun was only just up.
“Bit early in the day fer the strong drink ain’t it?” I asked throwing him a censorious look and wondering idly what old Jonesy would make of the request.
He was already shaking and looking kinda sick and when he begged me again saying he was in desperate need of what he referred to as medicina, I caved in. Hell it would be easier to transport a fully functioning prisoner than one layin’ around with belly cramps and shakin’ fit to bust, which was what would happen if this addict was denied his needs I figured.
I raised an eyebrow, “Es esencial?” I asked.
“Esencial, si…si senor Harper, lo neccesito… I need it!”
Then hopefully, “You speak my language, si?”
“Some,” I said gruffly, “but don’t go gettin’ your hopes up Lopez. I ain’t about to become your best buddy and I’m only lettin’ you have this stuff so you’ll be well enough to travel…But you just get enough to function…you understand? Entender? We ain’t about to start partyin’ on the trail,” and with that I poured him a measure before taking off to saddle up the horses.
It was when I came back in that I saw something that made my blood boil.
The whiskey must have made him feel kinda warm and he’d managed to undo a couple of buttons on his shirt, even though his wrists were still loosely tied….then I saw it….a flash of gold.
I marched over and tore his shirt open revealing Gina’s gold and ruby amulet glistening on his chest, the look in his eyes again one of fear as he saw just how dang mad I was.
I nearly ripped it from around his neck and then I paused…..
“That’s about as big a piece of evidence as we need to hang you Lopez,” I said bitterly. ”I reckon we’ll leave it there nice and safe for Sheriff Cory to find when we get to Laramie.”
Then I glanced out to the white world beyond the window.
“If we ever make it back to Laramie, that is….” I whispered almost to myself.
But we had to….I still needed to get Billy off the hook. Juan couldn’t be trusted, I knew that and he might have changed his statement already implicating Billy. No I had to get back with Carlos…knowing he would confess…as he already had done to me.
What if we didn’t make it though, we were still a good couple of days ride from town…Another storm like yesterdays could be the end of us… Then I remembered that Doug had wired Mort saying I would hopefully be bringing the culprit in shortly. So even if we didn’t make it maybe…just maybe Mort would come looking and our bodies would be found.
I mooched over to my saddle bags and dug about .Then after a while wandered back over to Lopez bearing some paper and a stub of pencil.
“Git writing,” I said chucking them at the Mexican…
“I’ll tell you ‘what’…your confession that’s what. Just like you told me, how you knifed Gina…then sign it entender?”
“Confession….si, I understand senor,” and he took the paper and wrote what I’d asked for and signed it.
Well that was darned easy I thought, but there again, way I’d busted in on him and treated him kinda mean I figured that he just felt lucky to still be alive so he’d do pretty much anything to keep me sweet.
I took it from him and placed it carefully in my wallet and put that in my vest pocket…If old Slim had to identify my body maybe he’d look in there…I sure hoped so anyway.
Then dragging my mind away from the worst scenario I pushed Lopez roughly outside and we mounted up and headed for the distant Laramie hills.
The snow had stopped in the night and now bright sunlight illuminated our way and my spirits rose some too. I was nearly home and dry. My prisoner had signed his confession and that in turn would hopefully free my buddy from jail.
But then what? I pondered. It sure weren’t a good time of year to be planning any long journeys. I’d just have to try and find some work locally until the snow was melted in the spring, seeing as how I’d just been fired from the ranch. There was no way on God’s earth I was goin’ cap in hand and beggin’ for my job back….I thought bitterly and the way Slim had looked when I rode out I doubted he’d give it me anyway.
Maybe old Bert at the Livery would take me on, we’d always gotten along real good.
Then I reckoned I’d head out with Billy come the spring. It would be like old times I mused…on the drift again. The open road and excitement around every corner….that was the life….so why was I feeling somewhat less than ecstatic about it all I wondered.
However I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my less than prosperous future as two things suddenly happened that made the notion of even getting back to town in one piece start to fade some.
We were heading down a steep hill to a wide river valley below when the usually surefooted Traveller missed his footing and scrabbled desperately on the slippery surface before going down, taking me with him…..
Had I had my wits about me I’d have managed to roll free, but as it was I was feelin’ kinda rough after imbibing a glass or two of old Hannibal’s ‘mountain dew’ the night before and my reactions were way too slow to save myself.
Trav rolled on me, before scrabbling to his feet, shaking his mane and standing blowing, looking real spooked. Meanwhile I was lyin’ on my side, curled up and holding my chest as the agony spread across my rib cage and down my arm…I cussed long and hard and felt everything begin to dim around me…
I took several deep breaths. No I couldn’t pass out…
So far Carlos was still sitting his mount peering down at me…. But given half a chance he’d be off, hightailin’ into the blue yonder. Hell, so who wouldn’t, with the business end of a rope awaitin’ on them I thought fleetingly.
From somewhere deep inside I rallied and gradually pulled myself up into a sitting position. My good arm snaking protectively around my busted ribs and stared up at Lopez, my eyes hard as granite.
“Iffen you’re thinkin’ of doin’ somethin’ stupid…well don’t. You’re wanted dead or alive…and dead would be a dang sight easier from where I’m sittin’ right now, you hear me?“
“Si, senor Harper, loud and clear,” he confirmed.
I dragged myself up and staggered over to Traveller. Then I gave him the once over and other than being kinda skittish after his fall, he seemed none the worse for it. So I just thanked God that he hadn’t come up lame, or worse broken a leg.
Once I was satisfied that he was OK I moved my arm kind of gingerly, but it wasn’t busted, just bruised real bad I figured. When I felt around my ribs though, that was a different story and I knew I’d either cracked or busted at least two. Bein’ pretty much practiced as to how bust ribs felt, it not bein’ my first time….Or probably the last I thought grimly, way my darned life was. I could barely breathe the stabbing pain in my chest making me sweat and all but pass out….I cussed lightly and grabbing hold of Traveller’ s reins just started walking down the track towards the valley bottom, gesturing that Carlos should follow me.
I wasn’t gonna risk Trav slipping again on the steep incline and to be honest I didn’t think I’d make it into the saddle right then anyway.
Then the second thing happened…..the wind started howling again and a moment later those old clouds rolled in blotting out the sun and within five minutes we were slap bang in the middle of a full blown blizzard.
By the time we reached the river we were both soaked and frozen to the bone……then we had to cross the water.
It was never too deep there and thank God today was no exception. But we still had to wade across leading our mounts as the ground below water level was full of slippery stones and larger rocks making it difficult to negotiate in the saddle.
By the time we’d crossed over the wind was howling even louder and our teeth were chattering with the cold and it was time to call it a day.
We pushed on down the valley a little way and then struck upwards again and were soon in a dense forest that even the snow had hardly penetrated as the huge trees were closely packed together, letting neither light nor extreme weather in…
There in the heart of the woodland I finally called a halt and we slumped down onto the relatively dry forest floor, both too exhausted to move another inch.
I finally came to my senses and realized that we had to get a fire going and some form of shelter iffen we were going to survive and I sent Carlos off to collect the wood and I pulled some larger branches over to form a barrier against the worst of the wind. Then I tended to our mounts and ground hitched them nearby.
When I returned Carlos had a fire going and the coffee pot on and I figured that once we’d warmed up some we’d be in with a chance again.
It was a long hard, cold night and neither of us got much sleep, what with the wind howling like some wild banshee and the constant need to keep the fire alight, it’s warmth the only thing between us and death. That was pretty much up to me as Carlos seemed to have taken a turn for the worse since our river crossing and was shaking and cussing, but whether from withdrawal or a chill I wasn’t too sure. I’d allowed him small amounts of alcohol during the day, but I guessed it was way less than he was used to…But I didn’t have unlimited supplies and I figured he’d just have to put up with it. Anyway I was feelin’ none too good myself, what with my ribs achin’ somethin’ fierce and I was real cold and miserable as well. We both sank a couple of glasses of whiskey in the early hours and then finally slept a while.
When I awoke the following morning the wind was still howling through the pines and the fire was nearly out…but worse still I felt goddamn awful. My head was aching, my fingers and toes numb with the cold and I felt sick to my stomach from the pain radiating across my ribs. Now as I peered across at Carlos I could see he was feelin’ even worse and so I dragged myself up and made a start on tending the horses and stirring up the fire.
After a coffee apiece, liberally laced with whiskey we finally got on our way. The whiskey having given us the kick start we needed. ‘OK Jonesy, so what are ya gonna do about it?’ I thought with the ghost of a smile… But then I suddenly felt real sad and even the thought of old Jonesy’s liniment seemed kinda appealin’ right then.
It became obvious almost right away that Carlos was in a bad way, he could barely sit his horse, but I was determined to carry on because I knew for sure we couldn’t stay put as that would have been an instant death sentence for us both.
We set off with the wind all but blowing us out of the saddle once we broke from the cover of the forest, but at least the snow had stopped, so we could see where we were goin’ pretty much.
I headed out towards the Laramie range before turning due south at noon and thought we might just make it back to town that night as I sure didn’t relish another night out in the bitter cold. As for the way Carlos was lookin’ it was touch and go as to whether he’d even make it to the hangman’s noose, or the grim reaper would take him on the way there.
Then my worst nightmare came true.
We were out in open county, three, maybe four hours ride from Laramie when the storm hit again, hard…real hard…The sleety snow was blowin’ horizontal into our faces, stinging bitterly and after continuing for another half mile or so we just had to rein in being unable to see a foot or so ahead. Our mounts were also in a bad way and slipping down from the saddle I turned both horses with their rumps to the weather while I considered what we should do.
I knew the area pretty well and knew that all we could do was to push on in a dead straight line and we would eventually reach an outcrop of rock with some standing pines about a mile out of town and decided we could hole up there and sit out the worst of the storm before pushing on into Laramie.
The going was real rough, with deep drifts and I decided to lead both the mounts and walk the couple of miles to our destination.
By this time Carlos was clutching onto his saddle horn for dear life and had turned a horrible grey colour and I figured he’d better stay up in the saddle as he wouldn’t last five minutes on foot.
I talked softly to Traveller, stroking his muzzle and encouraging him on….But my heart bled for the critter as he stumbled along, his ears back and eyes showing the whites as the storm raged around us and he battled on, the snow now up to his hocks making the going real hard.
The first time I fell in the deep snow I dragged myself up and out, shaking with the cold. I was clumsy, as I had long since lost all feeling in my feet and my hands only holding onto the reins through willpower alone.
Then I fell again and again, each time the effort to drag myself up and keep walking harder and harder.
“Hell we must be there soon!” I yelled up to Carlos against the storm, but he appeared to be unconscious now, just staying in the saddle by good luck alone.
As I staggered on, just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other it slowly dawned on me that we weren’t gonna make it. We should have hit the tree cover long since I reckoned, and I realized in horror that we were now completely lost in the white eerie landscape where nothing looked real anymore.
I ploughed on…… Sometimes sensing the company of some Rebel soldiers….. old friends, at my side…..marching along with me…The distant sound of Dixie blowing in the wind…and then the sound of a far off drum….coming and going…or was it just my heart beating? I smiled grimly, so my old comrades of the war had come to escort me in on the last journey….
This ain’t real Harper, I told myself in moments of lucidity and then at other times I joined in with the singing, laughing and talking with them….my imaginary companions.
It was nearly dusk when I fell for the last time….and I really just couldn’t be bothered dragging myself up again…It just didn’t seem worth it no more…Even if I carried on I’d never make it back before dark and I was now too weak to strike camp even if we made it up to the standing pines…..
Then as I watched, Carlos tipped from the saddle and fell, almost as in slow motion….down…down, the thick layer of snow cushioning his fall to a dull thud.
I peered over at him lying on his back and could see right away that he was already dead…probably had been for the last hour or so I thought grimly.
There was one last thing I had to do….and dragging myself painfully up again I tied the reins of both the horses so they wouldn’t stumble and gave both a hefty whack on the rump with my last ounce of energy.
Just because I was gonna perish, it didn’t mean my good old horse had to as well.
Carlos’s mount trotted off and soon disappeared out of sight into the gloom of the stormy afternoon, but Traveller went a few yards and then stopped.
“Git outer here, you no good bag of bones!” I cussed at him, but after a moment he put his head down and walked determinedly back towards me, reaching over and blowin gently in my face……
In the end I had to whack him real good again and then let off a couple of shots, which really spooked him and he tore off after Carlos’s mount as I sank back down into the icy snow……
Somehow now it was here, my last few minutes on this earth, it was kinda comforting….I’d just about had enough. I always thought I’d fight tooth and nail to stay alive…grasping desperately on to life. Like I had done in the prisoner of war camp…and those times I’d been hurt real bad and even the doc had given up on me… I still held on to life with grim determination….but now? I was way past shivering and suffering the agonising pain in my limbs from the severe cold. Now there was no more pain, I was at peace and strangely warm as I snuggled deeper into the welcoming white feather mattress made of snow….
I thought of my Ma waitin’ on me….the little ones beside her. All perished so long ago and now I was within a breath of being reunited with them….and it felt good….oh so good…..
But then, just before the end I suddenly rallied…..
“No,” I cried…my voice a mere whisper lost in the howling wind….”Slim……Slim?” And then nothing but blackness…….
Chapter 9
Slim Sherman sat in Mort Cory’s office sipping a coffee and chatting quietly.
When the weather had closed in during the late afternoon he had left Jonesy and Andy to run the Relay and ridden into town to see if Mort had any news of his friend.
“If all went to plan and he picked this Carlos Lopez up as expected he should be well on his way back by now Slim, but we’ve no way of telling, he could be out the other side of Cheyenne still looking.”
“Surely even he wouldn’t be stupid enough to carry on searching in these conditions,” said Slim casting a jaundiced eye out of the window, to where the snow was now coming down thick and fast, the winter light fading, leaving Main Street deserted.
Mort shook his greying head and threw his friend a bitter smile.
“Well, you know the boy, stubborn as they come, he’d do pretty much anything to help out a good friend, like Billy,” he said quietly.
Slim’s eyes swivelled to the closed cell door, ”So how is the prisoner….or should I say prisoners?“
“Well young Billy Daniels is fine, real philosophical about his lot… He says Jess will come up with the goods to get him off, prove his innocence…and I have to say I kinda like the kid…...he’s real straight, you know Slim?”
The blond rancher just nodded.
“Jess sure seems to hold him in high regard…. So how about the other guy, this Juan?”
“Tricky customer, he’d do or say anything to save his own skin. He’s signed a statement saying his brother did it, killed the girl and stole this family heirloom; amulet thing… said it was all his idea too…. But I don’t know Slim, we still need more evidence to convince a judge and jury.”
“Like what?”
“Oh, for Jess to bring Carlos in and him write a signed confession or at least have this neckless thing on him that would be pretty damning evidence. It’s all up to Jess to come up with the goods just like Billy says… then …“
“Then…. what Mort?”
“Well then he’ll be free to go. Jess too and young Billy seems pretty convinced that Jess will go with him… He says he’s decided to go back down to Mexico though,” Mort finished with a chuckle, ”can’t stand our Wyoming weather apparently.”
“Uh…I reckon Jess is of a similar mind,” said Slim lugubriously.
Mort shot his friend a perceptive glance, ”It sounds like you’ll miss him when he goes?”
“If he goes Mort, I’m going to tell him his job’s still there, if he wants it…”
Mort just shrugged, ”It seems young Billy was offered work on a cattle drive going south, at the end of the month….good money too. He’s going as long as he’s free by then…all down to Jess like I say, whether he’ll make it or not.”
Slim stood up and started pacing about the small office.
“Dang it Mort, where do you think he is? The way you said Sheriff Doug Masters was talking it sounded like it was going to be easy pickings to find this Carlos hombre and bring him in….So Jess really should be back by now.”
“Come on Slim, stop your fretting. Jess can look after himself and it’s pointless you going out there getting your butt froze off looking for him. He’ll land when he’s good and ready you know what he’s like.”
“Uh, I guess,” said Slim, still looking worried. ”I think I’ll go get a room at the hotel tonight though and iffen this weather blows out I’ll go take a look on the old Cheyenne trail at first light.”
“Huh, the old trail, you say?”
“Yup, I thought he’d ride that way. All that tree cover through Jenson’ s Acre, gives some protection in this kind of storm.”
“Yeah, makes sense, so how about I shout you supper at Miss Molly’s place and we sink a few after, keep the cold out huh?”
“Sounds good to me I….”
But Mort was never to hear what Slim was about to say as the office door suddenly banged open admitting a very wet and anxious looking Bert from the Livery.
“Hey Bert what brings you out on such a filthy evening?” asked Mort throwing the old timer a questioning glance, ”have you got trouble?“
“Not me Sheriff, but I think someone has… I’ve just had a rider-less horse land at my place, in a real lather, cold and wet, been runnin’ free for a while by the state of him.”
“Do you know who he belongs to Bert?” asked Mort looking concerned.
“Yup”, said Bert, turning to Slim…”it’s your ranch hand’s mount Slim, its Jess’s Traveller.”
“What! Are you sure Bert?”
“Sure I’m sure I’d know that old horse anywhere and I’m telling you, something else. Jess must be hurt, real bad too…..because he wouldn’t loose his horse off like that iffen he weren’t. Reins were tied, so looks like he’d deliberately sent him home but I don’t know why, unless he can’t ride?”
He sighed looking over to Slim, remembering the angry exchange of words between Slim and Jess last time they were in the livery.
“Some folk may not have a good word to say about the boy, but he sure loves that old horse of his. Looks after him real good too….you can’t help but like a boy who cares for his horse,” he said with a toothless grin directed at Mort.
But then he sobered, “You mark my words Sheriff young Jess Harper’s in trouble of some sort.”
Slim immediately made for the door, but Mort called him back.
“Where in the blue blazes are you off to in such a hurry?”
“To find him of course!”
“What in the pitch dark and in the middle of a blizzard, are you crazy Slim? You wouldn’t have a chance in hell of finding him in this weather. See sense and I’ll ride out with you at first light huh?”
Slim had Alamo saddled and ready to go, plus a couple of hire horses from the livery, by first light and couldn’t wait to be off.
When he had arrived at the livery to collect his mount, Bert said another horse had wandered into town, again rider less and Slim surmised it must belong to Jess’s prisoner and was at least heartened that he’d found Lopez and was bringing him in.
As Mort wandered out onto his office porch to meet his old friend he was pleased to see the storm had finally abated, the wind dropped with just the odd snow flake drifting down.
They rode off in the general direction of the old Cheyenne trail which started about a mile from town and Slim pointed out a rocky outcrop flanked by a dozen or so standing pines in the far distance.
“When we get up to the bluff we’ll have a good view of the plain below all the way to Jensen’s Acre, I’m pretty sure this is the way he’d be coming Mort.”
The going was tough and they had to take their time and so it was mid-morning by the time they crested the ridge looking down to the white winter vista laid out below them.
Slim had been taciturn throughout the journey and now as he scanned the distant landscape Mort could see the strain in his friend’s face.
Sure Mort knew the relationship between Slim and Jess was sometimes volatile, to say the least. But it was also really special. The young ranchers seemed to spark off each other, their dissimilarities making for a lively and stimulating bond. There was often as much laughter generated as exasperation as they tried to come to terms with these differences, Mort thought, remembering times when he’d seen the pair crying with laughter over some shared joke.
Heck Mort had known Slim since he was a young whippersnapper and had been greatly saddened to see him experience the sad loss of his parents, at a young age. Then the subsequent roles of parent, to Andy, and business man were thrust upon his young shoulders and Mort had watched him having to mature beyond his years. All this added responsibility, eventually taking its toll and making him often way too serious and staid.
Then just over the last few months he’d seen him begin to shrug off the overwhelming burden of duty and really begin to enjoy life once again…As all young men should and that was firmly down to Jess’s influence Mort knew.
He also knew that the young drifter had lost a lot of his edge and had slowly begun to relax, trust again and set down some roots. What’s more after Mort had called upon him to ride posse on several occasions, he had quickly learnt how trustworthy the young man was. Real good to have around when in a tight spot. Yup iffen you had Jess Harper at your back it sure was a reassuring feeling, he reflected.
Then he was suddenly jolted from his reverie as Slim gave a little gasp.
“There, over there Mort to the left of those bushes…there’s something dark in the snow….” and without more ado he had spurred Alamo down the hill towards the distant object at a reckless pace.
Mort followed slightly more sedately and arrived just as Slim threw himself down from the saddle and tore over to the crumpled figure lying prone in the snow.
He knelt down and gently turned the body over giving a low groan as his worst fears were confirmed, it was indeed Jess.
Mort was by his side in seconds.
“Slim, is he OK?”
The moment the words were out of his mouth he knew he was not…..
The young cowboy’s face was a ghastly white, with a blue tinge to the lips and his body lay ridged and unmoving.
Slim was desperately feeling for a pulse in his neck and then abandoning that quickly unbuttoned his sheepskin jacket and shirt, thrusting a hand on his chest, ever hopeful of feeling a beat….but nothing.
He looked up at Mort, his eyes anguished….and shook his head.
“He’s gone,” he whispered harshly.
Mort leaned over and squeezed the young cowboy’s shoulder.
“Jeez Slim, I’m so damn sorry.”
“He can’t be though,” Slim said, unable to accept the dreadful truth and he leaned down and put his ear to his buddy’s chest, desperately trying to hear a heartbeat, no matter how faint.
After a moment he felt Mort’s hand on his shoulder again, this time gently pulling him away from the body.
“Leave it Slim,” he said softly, ”the boy’s frozen to death out here. If he’s been layin’ this way all night he didn’t stand a chance buddy….come on let’s get him back to town huh?”
Slim still squatted beside the immobile body of his friend, making no move, but when Mort went to cover the body with a blanket Slim sprang to life.
“Leave him!” he yelled furiously.
Mort stood back looking shocked.
Eventually Slim turned his distraught countenance up to Mort.
“Sorry,” he whispered, ”but I need to do this Mort. It’s down to me to look after him…..”
“Sure, sure it is boy, I understand.”
Mort stood back and surveyed the immediate area and that’s when he saw it. The body of another man, half hidden in the snow a few yards away and he went off to investigate leaving Slim with his grief.
Slim sank down in the snow beside his pard, not heeding the bitter cold and bowed his head.
He reached out a tentative hand and rested it lightly on Jess’s chest again as though hoping for some sort of miracle…it was all a mistake and any minute his buddy would be cussin’ and complaining about the dang Wyoming weather….
But nothing, he just lay there immobile, his face as white and cold as marble.
“I’m sorry Jess,” he finally managed, “I’m so dang sorry…..”
Meanwhile Mort had been investigating the other body and after checking for any sign of life he began the gory task of dragging him across to one of the horses and hauling him over the saddle, before he tied him down and threw a blanket over the corpse.
Then he returned to where Slim still squatted in the freezing snow, just staring at his buddy as though unable to move.
Mort could see he was feeling real shocked and so he patted him gently on the shoulder again to get his attention.
“I’ll go fetch a horse, let’s get him back to town huh Slim….?”
When they arrived back in town a small group of bystanders quickly formed watching the Sheriff and Slim as they rode in at a sedate walk, leading the two mounts bearing the bodies of Jess and Carlos. Then word got around and by the time they finally arrived outside the Fairfax Undertakers a small jostling crowd had gathered all agog to see what was going on.
Slim was furious and cussed loudly, calling them a load of vultures.
“Get back and afford the dead some respect,” he spat angrily.
The town’s folk looked surprised at the usually calm, placid Slim Sherman acting so aggressively. All the more shocking for being so out of character.
Then word got around that one of the victims was Jess Harper and all became clear and the crowd slowly thinned out, leaving little knots standing around shaking their heads in sorrow and disbelief.
Jess still might have had a long way to go to prove his gunslinger days were well and truly behind him, as far as a few of the town worthies were concerned. However most folk liked and respected him. They had seen him in the company of Slim Sherman a highly esteemed member of the community. Also seen him helping the Sheriff out and doing a darned good job to boot. So now there was a strong feeling of sorrow and commiseration with all at the Sherman Ranch and Relay at this sad news.
Once inside the Undertakers Slim and Mort laid Jess gently down on a table and turned looking for old Charlie Fairfax the owner, but instead were greeted by Denny his callow young nephew and apprentice.
“Where’s Charlie?” asked Mort briskly looking around him. “I’ve got some business needs attending to here.”
“I…I’m sorry Sheriff stuttered the young man, my uncle’s taken to his bed, got this flu as is doing the rounds. I told him yesterday we needed a little warmth when we’re working in here, but he wouldn’t have it. Not good for the err…preservation,” he said looking somewhat embarrassed and refusing to meet Slim’s eyes.
“Quite so,” said Mort briskly, ”so are you up to the job boy, got another outside needs your attention?”
“Oh yes sir,” said the youngster, standing tall and looking purposeful. “Uncle Charlie said as how I was to be in complete charge, the highest of attention and respect at all times, same as usual.“
“Umm, you’d better do a real good job,” growled Slim, this being the last straw for him, not even having Charlie there to receive his friend, not to mention the laying out.
Slim then insisted in calling the doc out to confirm the deaths.
“Are you sure about this Slim,” said Mort kindly, ”there really is nothing to do now and this locum guy…standing in for old Doc Johnson, well he ain’t the best you know?”
Slim had heard all about the stand in doctor’s drinking habits, but still insisted on a proper check-up and the doc eventually arrived, looking something the worse for wear as predicted.
He duly confirmed the status of both men to be deceased and shuffled off back to the saloon.
“God help anyone that’s real sick,” muttered Slim angrily, having seen the cursory examination the Doc had given the men.
“Yeah, well Doc Johnson is due back on the early Stage tomorrow, thank goodness,” said Mort with feeling.
Slim and Mort eventually convened to the Sheriff’s office and Mort poured them both a stiff drink, before subsiding down into his chair, Slim across the desk from him.
He took a sip of his drink and regarded his old friend over the rim of his glass.
“Nasty business,” he said at length.
Slim, who had knocked his drink back in one and uncharacteristically helped himself to another, just threw Mort a stony glance before sighing deeply.
“You know all this is my fault, I shouldn’t have got so dang mad at him.”
“Well you had cause Slim, him riding off at the drop of a hat again….leaving you to pick up the pieces back at the ranch… Hell you needed him there, can’t run a spread like that with just an old man and a boy to help you out.“
Slim’s head shot up at that comment.
“Goddamn it, I’ve got to break it to Jonesy…and young Andy. He’ll never forgive me for this Mort…never and I guess I can’t forgive myself either.”
“Slim, will you stop being so dang hard on yourself. Jess knew what he was doing when he took off after that guy. It was just bad luck he was caught out by the weather, nuthin’ more. Nobody could have done anything about it.”
“What if I’d ridden with him….instead of losing my temper and firing him?” said Slim, refusing to be comforted.
Mort sighed and took another slug of his drink before topping up their glasses.
”Life’s full of ‘what if’s’ Slim, you just have to accept it and move on. Like I say this wasn’t anybody’s fault… and what we now really need to be thinking on is giving him a decent funeral.
Slim just sank his head in his hands, not wanting to even think about it.
After a while Mort said, ”At least he brought that Lopez hombre in look Slim, he was even wearing that amulet,” he said pulling it out of his vest pocket.” That should be enough to convict him, and let young Billy off the hook. So Jess did what he set out to do.”
A moment later there was a tap on the door and young Denny Fairfax stood there a paper parcel under his arm.
“Come along in boy and shut that door, you’re letting a powerful draught in,” said Mort testily.
The young man came in and thrust the parcel towards Slim.
“Mister Harper’s effects sir, I thought you’d want them?”
Slim turned pale and just nodded his thanks before the young man turned and fled.
Slim just stared at the roughly tied parcel before looking over at Mort.
“It isn’t much to show for a man’s life is it?”
Mort shook his head sadly.
”It’s what you leave behind in folk’s memory, their hearts and minds that is a man’s legacy, not goods,” he said quietly.
Slim flushed a little.
“You’re right of course….I just meant…..well, he never had a chance Mort. To make something of his life that is…. He was just turning it all around, making a fresh start. He was a dang good rancher, when I could get him to work that is,” he said with the ghost of a smile. ”He could have amounted to so much. He was a real talented horse breaker. Might have even been a partner iffen he got all that dang wanderlust out of his system and settled down some.”
“Slim, don’t do this to yourself, he’s gone,” said Mort, with a look of deep compassion.
Slim put the parcel down and drained his glass.
“I should be going, better let them know back at the ranch before some do gooder rides by to tell ‘em first.”
Slim stood to leave ….
“So Billy will be OK, he’ll get off like Jess wanted?”
“I hope so, with Juan’s statement and Carlos in possession of that amulet, should be enough, just a pity there isn’t a signed confession that would really win the day.”
Then he looked thoughtful, “I wonder…..“
“What Mort?”
“Just that …well iffen Jess thought he might not make it through, he may have got a confession signed?”
Slim rode for home half an hour later.
Finding the signed statement in Jess’s wallet had meant that Billy Daniels would be promised a full pardon and should be able to join the cattle drive and make for home as he had wanted …..But alone Slim thought bitterly.
Hell he wouldn’t have wanted to see Jess go. If he’d just been alive and well….then he’d have faced it….but this…
He rode into the ranch yard late that afternoon and after tending to both Alamo and Traveller, none the worse for his ordeal in the snow, he slowly made his way indoors.
He had been a little surprised, but relieved, when Andy hadn’t come tearing out to greet him at the sound of his arrival in the yard.
Now as he entered the house he saw the reason why. The youngster was sitting before a blazing fire, a blanket around his shoulders, looking real sick.
However he turned as Slim entered and beamed at his big brother.
“Slim, you’re back, is Jess with you…You did make it right with him, like ya promised didn’t you?” he asked his big brown eyes shining trustingly up at his elder brother.
Before he could answer Jonesy wandered in from the kitchen bearing a steaming mug of broth and gave it to the youngster.
“Here get this down you Andy and then it’s bed for you, that’s a real nasty cold you’re a comin’ down with there.”
Then turning his old eyes to Slim, ”So did you fetch that no good drifter back home where he belongs then?” he asked with a wheezy chuckle.
Slim just stood there as if frozen to the spot staring at the pair, unable to speak.
“Come on then boy,” said Jonesy impatiently, “cat gotten your tongue?”
Then when there was still no response he threw Slim a dark look.
“Please don’t tell me you’ve had another spat? Garldarn it Slim, cut the boy some slack….whatever your differences I’m sure we can iron them out once he comes home.”
Slim licked his lips and sucked in a huge breath and finally looking slightly dazed he said quietly….”He won’t be coming home Jonesy…..not ever.”
The shake in his voice and tears welling in his eyes suddenly alerted the old man and the boy to the truth of the matter.
“What…what do you mean Slim….he ain’t coming home…he’s not……?” blurted out Andy, unable to add that unthinkable word.
Slim just nodded.
“I’m real sorry Andy……He didn’t make it….he…perished in that storm last night.”
Andy just stared for a long minute before emitting a raw cry of pain…..
”No”, he cried, “Slim no…it ain’t true…...it ain’t!”
Slim just nodded and cast Jonesy a saddened glance before striding over to his little brother and holding him close as he sobbed like his heart was breaking.
It was much later that evening before the boy would settle down in bed and he finally fell into a restless slumber after drinking a cocoa laced with a spoonful of Jonesy’s medicinal whiskey.
Once Slim was sure the boy was fast asleep he re-joined Jonesy in front of the fire and was surprised when the old timer passed him a good measure of the fiery spirit.
Slim raised an eyebrow and was rewarded by Jonesy giving him a concerned smile.
“Get it down you boy, you look like you need a pick me up and then you can tell me all about it.”
Slim haltingly did as asked but Jonesy could see how upset his young friend was so kept his questions to the minimum.
“We sometimes don’t appreciate folk until they ain’t there no more,” said Jonesy sagely, throwing Slim a saddened glance.
But Slim could stand it no longer and made for his bed after tossing the last of his whiskey down.
He entered the room he shared with Jess and lit the light on the nightstand, before peering around him like he’d never seen the place before. It seemed strangely empty and cold without Jess’s good natured teasing .Or his moaning about being hauled out of bed in the morning. Slim threw himself down on his own bed filled with sorrow and pain. Even Jess’s doggone ornery ways seemed somehow appealing now.
He glanced over at the chest of drawers on the far wall, the bottom draw being Jess’s and somehow found himself drawn to it and kneeling down he wrenched the drawer open and stared down at the meagre contents.
The drawer contained Jess’s Sunday best shirt and neck tie, a couple of clean work shirts and a spare pair of denims, plus some assorted underwear and socks.
Then Slim pulled the clothes out and looked below…feeling almost as though he was invading his buddy’s privacy, but being unable to stop himself.
There was a tin box containing a selection of small items. There was an engagement ring, which he knew to have belonged to Jess’s Ma, a small knife with Indian carving on the handle and a piece of aged cloth torn from a Confederacy flag. The only other item was a dog-eared Bible belonging to Jess’s Ma with her name and those of Jess’s siblings printed on the inside cover. Along with their date of birth and in three cases of their deaths too….Jess had been part of a big family then, four other children had survived….until that dreaded day when the Bannister gang had fired the family home killing Jess’s Ma and Pa and several of his siblings ….
Slim remembered Jess opening up and telling him a little of that horrific night once….but how much more was there to tell of his past trials and tribulations Slim wondered. How many more things might he have shared if their friendship had a chance to mature and strengthen?
He flicked idly through the Bible and saw it was a well read tome with many passages underscored and the occasional comment penciled in the margin, by Jess’s Ma he imagined. Although he had caught Jess reading the Good Book upon occasion and knew it sometimes helped him in times of need.
Then just as he was carefully replacing it, an envelope fell out addressed to Jess from someone called Millie. Then on closer inspection he found nearly a dozen more closely written letters. He didn’t open them though assuming Millie to be a lady friend….Who was she he wondered…Jeez there was so much about his pard that he just didn’t know…and now he never would.
Feeling sick at heart he carefully replaced all the items in the drawer and went and lay on his bed…But sleep was a long time coming that night…the dark hours seemly dragging on and on as he tossed and turned. Remembering all the good times he had shared with his buddy, which would be no more.
Chapter 10
At about the same time that Slim was tossing and turning back at the ranch, I finally woke up.
It was dark….so dang dark I couldn’t see my hand before my face…there was an over whelming smell of fresh cut pine…..I was in pain, all over and lyin’ on something solid and cold….I put a hand out and felt something hard at my side…then reached up and it was there too…I was confined…I had a terrifying feeling of panic! I was hemmed in…hell I was in a dang box… No, not a box, I felt more carefully, reached out my toes, my bare toes to the end of the box, felt with sensitive finger tips…no it wasn’t just a box, it was a coffin…God help me I was lyin’ in a coffin!
I scrabbled at the lid, desperately trying to lift it, although I was weak as a kitten and hurting real bad.
Then I started hollerin’ as loud as I could, but even that came out as a feeble croak as my throat was so dang dry.
Then there was the terrible burning in my fingers and toes, the agony of my busted ribs…..and then it all came flooding back to me….Being in that snow storm, bringing in Carlos Lopez….and then getting lost, the snow lashing my face…falling to my knees……then the end.
So where was I, in a coffin, I was pretty sure. So I must have been found….and believed dead…but how long ago….? Then a thought suddenly struck my befuddled brain….Hell maybe I really was dead and buried and this is what happened? This was what Hell was like then?
Or had they simply made a mistake and thought I was really dead and buried me….buried me alive!
Even as the thought struck me I panicked unable to get my breath.
I gasped and panted and I reckon it was that terrible fear that gave me the strength to really yell, and thump the hard coffin lid with my fists….screaming in terror now.
It was old Charlie Fairfax lying in his sickbed directly above the funeral parlors chapel of rest who heard the faint noises first.
The dawn light was just filtering through his worn drapes and he sat upright, at first pleased that he was once more feeling quite well after his nasty flu attack. Then he heard the noise that had woken him again, and a distant rhythmic banging.
“Den…Denny, is that you?” he called as he threw his legs out of bed and shrugged on a threadbare robe before making his way to the door.
“What’s that fool boy been up to now?” he muttered as he hauled his bedroom door open.
He was greeted in the dimly lit corridor by a white faced frightened looking Denny.
“What’s going on boy,” the old timer asked irascibly, ”who’ve you got down in the chapel? We don’t allow visitors at this ungodly hour boy…you know better than that!”
“There are no visitors Uncle. I’m only just up and dressed…there’s nobody there but the dead.”
“Who did we have in, you never told me?” he asked looking exasperated, and wondering who the dawn visitors could be.
“You were asleep all yesterday Uncle Charlie, I didn’t want to disturb you. It was the Sheriff brought them in. A Carlos Lopez, wanted for murder and Mister Harper from the Sherman place, perished in that snowstorm we had.”
“Well whoever it is they sure don’t sound any too dead to me,” replied Charlie as the banging and now clearly heard yelling increased in volume and fervor from below.
They rushed downstairs and entered the usually peaceful chapel of rest where the cadavers were prepared for their last journey and then laid ready for viewing by relatives prior to the funeral service and interment.
The first thing Charlie noticed was the wave of heat which hit them as they entered the usually chilly room.
“What on earth,” he asked glaring over at the paraffin heater set near one of the coffins and then back at his now blushing nephew.
“I’m sorry Uncle, I got so cold in here last night when I was preparing Mister Harper I put the fire on and I err…. must have forgotten to turn it off again before bed.”
“Have you no sense boy,” cried the undertaker how many times must I tell you……
But he was never to complete his sentence as fresh banging started from one of the coffins, followed by a weak cry…
Meanwhile back at the ranch Slim Sherman was making his way out onto the porch when old Jonesy waylaid him from the kitchen.
“So where are you sneaking off to at this hour,” he asked as he came in from lighting the cook stove for breakfast, “What is it with you two boys out of your beds so dang early this morning?”
“What do you mean Jonesy?” asked Slim as he snagged his gun belt from the hook by the front door and buckling it on, turned to peer at the older man.
Jonesy cocked his head towards the window.
“Young Andy said he had some business up on the Family Plot….and I decided I’d better let him go up there. He’s that dang upset. I reckon he needs to do this, it may help some and his cold seems better today so….”
Slim bent down and glanced out of the window and was just able to see Andy up on the family burial plot on the hillside, busy working away at something. Then he turned sad eyes on Jonesy.
“Maybe you’re right at that, he’s well wrapped up?”
“Sure, sure and I’ll go fetch him back down as soon as breakfast’s ready.”
Slim just nodded and pulled his hat down before making for the door.
“So….where are you going boy, you never said?”
“Town, I have to see him Jonesy. I couldn’t yesterday, had no stomach for it….make all the arrangements too,” he said softly, tipping his head back toward where Andy was up on the hill.
Jonesy put out an old weather beaten hand and patted the younger man lightly on the shoulder.
“I understand, get the best for him Slim, we’ll do the boy proud huh?”
Slim, just nodded unable to answer and a few minutes later he disappeared out of the yard on Alamo at a fast trot.
It was about nine when he finally landed in town and he decided to call in at Mort’s office first. For a fortifying cup of his gut rot coffee, before his ordeal of viewing Jess and making the arrangements for the service and subsequent burial.
Mort’s head shot up and he beamed across at his old friend as he marched in.
“So you’ve heard then….old Mose told you this morning, on the early run I suppose?”
“Huh, told me what Mort?” asked Slim looking puzzled. ”It’s Mose’s day off, ‘twas that new guy this morning, uh Sam Peters …real taciturn he is.”
Now it was Mort’s turn to look perplexed, “Say what?”
“Taciturn he’s real quiet, he doesn’t have much to say for himself,” replied Slim wandering across the office and helping himself to a coffee from the pot on the stove. He gestured to Mort with the pot and when he received a nod poured out a second cup and took them both over to the Sheriff’s desk and sat down heavily.
Then he took a sip and looked at his old friend.
“I needed something before going over to old Charlie’s place,” he said quietly, casting his eyes down to his cup as he felt the familiar sting of unshed tears behind his eyes once more.
“You really ain’t heard have ya?” asked Mort looking momentarily bemused before grinning widely again.
Slim sighed deeply.
“No I haven’t heard anything Mort and I’m not really in the mood for gossip right now. I’ve got a burial to plan, or maybe you’ve forgotten that?” he said rather waspishly, finding Mort’s inane grin kinda offensive under the circumstances.
“Put your cup down and take a deep breath buddy,” said Mort looking serious now.
“Slim, just do it, I don’t want that dang cup broke, ‘twas my Ma’s favourite.”
Slim just gaped at him for a moment and then did as he was asked.
“OK, now listen up, real good. It’s Jess….you won’t find him at Charlie’s place. He’s over at Doc Johnson’s…and thank the Lord the good doc arrived on the early stage and that drunken old Quack left on it.
Slim took this in slowly and then turned questioning eyes on his friend….
“Why is he there then?”
Mort took a deep breath and then said jubilantly, ”Because your pard ain’t dead Slim, the boy’s alive and kickin’. Making a real good fuss too, he’s on the mend already!”
Slim’s jaw dropped and he just stared at Mort for a full minute before responding.
When he finally spoke it came out as a hoarse whisper….
“He’s alive…Mort, how can this be? We both saw him, white, stiff, cold as ice….hell he wasn’t breathing. He had no heart beat either, he was dead!”
Mort just shrugged, ”I guess we got it wrong.”
Slim just stared again, not believing that to be possible.
“So what about the undertaker, and the doc, they both certified him dead.”
“Well that was down to a young inexperienced undertaker and a drunken old fool of a doc…Jess got passed ‘em both.”
Slim looked furious for a second, thinking how much young Andy had suffered over this. Hell how they’d all suffered…
“Garldarn it!” he spat angrily, “just wait until I get hold of that young Denny Fairfax! “
“Now hang on Slim, don’t be too hard on the boy. It was down to him it was discovered Jess was still alive before…well before it was too late.”
“Young Denny, was real cold in the prep room and put an oil heater on and forgot it…. Apparently it was that , that warmed Jess up sufficiently to start hollerin’ for out.
Slim who had leapt up and been pacing the room sank back down into his seat and turned white.
“My God, he might have been buried alive.”
Mort nodded looking equally distraught at the notion.
“So how is he bearing up?”
Mort sighed deeply.
“He was in a bad way when they found him….hands bleeding with scratchin’ to get out…and he’s still real weak…but like I say last I heard he was getting back to his usual ornery self.”
Slim lurched up from his seat.
“I’ve got to see him for myself,” he gasped, “I just can’t take it in….can’t believe it.”
Mort shrugged.
“The doc will have a rational explanation, but it sure seems like some kinda miracle to me.”
Slim finally smiled for the first time.
“Me too,” he said diving for the door.
When he arrived at old Doc Johnson’s place he was shown into the elderly gentleman’s study by his house keeper and a few minutes later the good doctor bustled in.
“Why Slim, my dear boy, how are you?” he asked beaming.
Slim uncharacteristically had no time for such pleasantries.
“How is he doc, can I see him?” he asked anxiously.
The doctor sat down in his arm chair and gestured for Slim to take the other.
“Ah, yes young Harper, an interesting case,” he said looking thoughtful.
Then he took in Slim’s worried expression.
“Err, not right now Slim, he’s sleeping, I fear his other visitor earlier has tired him somewhat.”
“Other visitor?”
“Yes a pleasant young man Billy? Billy something is his name err…..Daniels? Billy Daniels that’s it. He’s a good friend of young Harper by all accounts. Anyway they got quite animated organizing some cattle drive I believe….but it’s quite out of the question for him to ride out so soon.”
“Yes of course he’ll need a week or so convalescence. I’m not too sure where though?” he said looking vague.
“Well, back at the ranch of course Slim blurted out, heck where else? That’s his home.”
The doctor looked a little confused by that.
“I was under the impression from Jess that he no longer worked for you? ’Been dang well fired,’ I think his words were,” said the doctor raising a quizzical eyebrow. “That’s why he’s going on this cattle drive I assume.”
“That was just a misunderstanding, so he is still of a mind to go then?”
“Certainly, he plans to join them down in Denver in a few weeks that should give him time to get his strength back I think. Young Billy rode out today to secure them both places as far as I know.”
Looking across at Slim’s woebegone expression the doctor took pity on him.
“Look Slim he’s still in quite a bad way, so I don’t want you upsetting him….but you could go sit with him a while if you’ve a mind to? Chat some when he wakes. I think this whole business has shaken him up more than he’d admit and he could do with a good friend right now.”
“Then he’s got one,” said Slim softly.
“Good man,” said the doctor reaching across and patting his shoulder affectionately.
Slim sighed.
“I feel kinda responsible, for the reason he rode out alone that way and then later it was me as told young Denny Fairfax he was dead. Hell he really looked that way Doc.” he said turning troubled eyes on the elderly man.
“Oh don’t beat yourself up Slim, it’s easy to miss, the term we use is apparent death occasioned by excessive cold….If the body gets too darned cold everything starts to shut down little by little. It’s a bit like one of those old Grizzly Bears when they hibernate; everything slows right down, breathing, heart rate. Like I say it’s really easy to miss even for a professional.”
“It might have helped if that doctor had been sober,” Slim said bitterly.
Doc Johnson immediately looked contrite.
“Indeed, I’m afraid the town and I made a very bad error of judgement hiring that fellow!”
Then he smiled, “No matter I’m back for good now Slim…..so shall I take you to see how young Harper is fairing?
Chapter 11
I’d worked myself up into some kind of a state by the time old Charlie heard me hollerin’.
See I really didn’t know where I was. In some kinda limbo a waitin’ on St Peter or the Devil maybe? The smart money being on the Devil I guessed.
Or I was still drawin’ breath and maybe dang well been buried alive. Well iffen that was the case I figured if I didn’t git out of there real quick, then I really would be in the devil’s waitin’ room.
I heard someone banging down the stairs and muffled conversation, then next thing as happened was young Denny had jemmied off the lid and old Charlie was swinging a lamp in front of my eyes.
Jeez that hurt. I closed my eyes real quick, cussin and frettin’, but that changed into a coughing fit and next thing I knew they’d somehow hauled me out of the coffin and laid me down on Charlie’s sofa in his parlour and were offerin’ a cup of water.
It were a good few minutes before I could speak and then I let ‘em have it with both barrels I can tell you. Jeez I was so dang mad.
“What in Hell are you thinking, buryin’ a man who’s just sick, are ya crazy! And where’s that dang doctor? By God I’ll sober him up. Heard all about that guy he….” and then I started coughin’ again and kinda lost my head of steam.
It was then that I noticed I was wearin’ this snowy white shroud….only it weren’t no more, the front splattered in bright red blood and finally I realized it was coming from my hands. They were bleeding real bad from me tearing at the casket lid……and that’s when I must have passed out again.
Next time I woke up I was in old Doc Johnson’s hospital room at the back of his office. Well I recognised that real good havin’ spent more time than I’d like in there in the past. So I hollered some, thinkin’ to give that replacement doc the full benefit of the Harper temper. So felt kinda wrong footed when ol’ Doc Johnson himself marched in wantin’ to know what all the dang fuss was about.
I shut up some then and just said real quiet, ” What happened doc?”
So he told me everything. Then explained as how my hands were bandaged because I’d hurt ‘em real bad tryin’ to break out of the coffin. And how I was still real sick and weak and had to relax. Behave myself iffen I wanted to get better any time soon.
Later Billy landed wanting me to go on a cattle drive with him….But of course the doc weren’t havin’ any of that, said I needed to rest up real good and how he’d tell them back at the ranch to come and fetch me in a day or two.
Well I sure told him where to stick that notion, knowing full well that Slim had washed his hands of me.
Nope, I was on my own and just as soon as I could get under the wire I’d hightail it down to Denver and pick up the drive there.
I hadn’t figured on going back down to Texas, but right now it seemed kinda appealin’ after my skirmish with the Wyoming weather. I’d spend the winter down south and then make plans…maybe Canada…still plenty of land up for grabs there, make a fresh start.
Well to be honest with you I couldn’t wait to brush the Laramie dust off of my boots and head for the hills. I knew there were a fair few folk in town as were judging me because of my friendship with Billy, even though I’d proved myself a few times now working with the Sheriff to keep the town’s folk safe. Well seems that didn’t account for much. As to Slim….well like I say, I figured he’d had enough of me and would be happy to see me go. So I guess that’s what made what happened next so dang hard for me.
It was later that day. I’d been asleep, suddenly feeling kinda down and real wore out too after Billy left to ride out to sign us up for the cattle drive, when I suddenly awoke to the feelin’ I wasn’t alone.
I turned my head on the pillow and saw Slim was sitting by the bed peering down at me. Then as soon as he saw I was awake he grinned and let out a sigh of relief.
“Garldarn it Jess, I know you sail pretty close to the wind, but this is a tad too much, even for you. We all thought you were dead pard.”
I just stared at him for a full minute and saw he was real genuine….but I just couldn’t accept it. He’d really hurt me, the way he’d been about me riding out to help Billy. Hell he’d even fired me!
“Like you care, you’re like the rest of the folk in Laramie,” I muttered throwing him a belligerent look, “the way folk think of me around here. The company I keep like Billy, I figure they’d have buried me outside the graveyard wall, know that Slim? They’re thinkin’ once a no good gunslinger always one…and an injun lover to boot. Just about makes me pretty much the lowest of the low don’t it…huh? In fact I’m surprised you even want to bother with me,” I finished, my words sounding unnecessarily bitter even to my own ears. But like I say, I was hurtin’ real bad and guess I didn’t bother too much iffen Slim hurt some too.
“Just leave it Slim,” I rasped really firing myself up now, ”it was never goin’ to work you know that. Me always looking out for my old friends, takin’ off for days…… weeks at a time. Not to mention leading young Andy astray….you always havin’ to pick up the pieces, make everythin’ right.”
“Suppose I say I don’t mind picking up the pieces? Hell someone’s gotta look out for you Jess. Look at this last stunt you pulled!” he shot back angrily.
I just sighed and closed my eyes suddenly feeling real vulnerable, heck , close to tears if I’m honest and hurtin’ all over, feelin’ real sick and just wanted ……what? I dunno. A fleeting image of my bed back at the ranch came to mind, young Andy bringing me some broth and old Jonesy scoldin’ and fussin’ in equal measures.
“It weren’t my fault some drunken doctor pronounced me dead and a dang fool kid undertaker near buried me, ”I spat back angrily.
We stared at each other with angry eyes for a minute and then very gradually his expression softened. I felt myself relax too…then after a minute the craziness of the situation hit us and we were laughing and laughing uncontrollably.
After a few minutes we finally sobered and he said seriously, “So are you really taking off on a cattle drive then…leaving me in the lurch?“
“I guess so,” I replied, ”anyways you fired me remember?”
“And you quit!”
“Yeah, well that makes it pretty undisputed then don’t it,” I said evenly.
“It doesn’t have to be Jess…… your job is still there if you want it…huh?”
I shrugged, “I can’t Slim, for the all the reasons I said before. I can’t promise you I won’t take off again sometime, an’ I come between you and Andy too. That ain’t right, he’s kin and you’ve gotta put him first.“
“Why don’t you let me worry about that? At least come home until you’re well enough to ride. You owe that much to Andy don’t you? Have you any idea how upset the boy’s been about all this? I haven’t seen him so distressed since Ma and Pa died.”
“Don’t Slim,” I almost shouted, ”that’s kinda below the belt ain’t it?”
“I’m just telling you how it is Jess. It’s up to you to decide. But you’re not the man I thought you were if you walk away now, that’s all…….”
I closed my eyes. I couldn’t do this. I’d already accepted I had to move on. I was no good for the kid or Slim either. I’d only bring them heartache and trouble. Hell I already had done…… in spades.
“I’m not going to beg you Jess,” he said getting up and looking down at me sadly.
Then I realized how much it had cost for him to say that….to even think that…and I relented.
“I’m sorry,” I said softly, “sure I’ll come back iffen you want me too. Just until I’m better you understand? I’ll explain it all to Andy…. huh?”
Even as I was saying it I was surprised. This was the exact opposite to what I’d intended to say and do, what was happening here? I figured maybe those stakes were driven a mite deeper than I thought and it was going to be tougher to ride out than I had ever imagined.
It was another couple of days before the doc reckoned I was well enough to travel and Slim picked me up in the buckboard, Traveller tethered behind.
“How did he take the news?” I asked as we drove along the Laramie road at a slow pace in deference to my still weakened condition.
Slim instinctively guessed I was talking about Andy as I knew he would.
“Darned near hysterical with delight when I told him you’d survived, not quite so happy when I told him you weren’t sticking around,” he said casting me a sorrowful glance.
I just pulled my sheepskin jacket more tightly around me and looked out to the white snow clad hills surrounding us and narrowed my eyes against the bitter wind, but said nothing.
When we finally arrived, Andy came charging out of the house and straight into my arms. He was looking real emotional and even old Jonesy had a welcoming smile on his face for once.
“So the Prodigal returns,” he laughed. “Well I dunno iffen we’ll be killin’ the fatted calf for you son, but chicken and dumplings might just hit the spot huh?”
“Now you’re talkin’,” I said grinning back at him and ruffling Andy’s hair before slinging a friendly arm around his shoulders and marching into the ranch house.
It was a few days before old Jonesy would let me out of bed and it was nearly a week later before I ventured outside, suitably wrapped up against the cold.
For some reason I will never know I had a notion to go up the hill, where Slim’s folks were laid to rest. I made my way slowly around the yard and then took the well-worn track up to the hill overlooking the ranch. What I saw there made me change my mind about one hell of a lot of stuff.
In fact it totally turned my life upside down. But it was something I was never to talk about…..least ways not for a very long time.
I turned and made my way thoughtfully down to the yard and then went off to the barn to check on my old horse.
Slim found me there an hour or so later, sitting mending some harness.
He put his horse up and then ambled over and stood watching me, leaning against the wall, his hat tipped back and a twinkle in his eyes.
“You don’t have to do that Jess, you don’t work here anymore…remember?”
“Gotta pay my way,” I growled, “don’t want charity from you Slim. I’m eatin’ at your table, I should pay for it in kind.”
“So when ever did a friend have to pay, to be cared for? I……we all want to look after you pard, want you to get better…and you really don’t have to do this.”
I felt kinda choked at that and embarrassed too. Here he was offering me friendship and all I could do was throw it back in his face. Hell what sort of mean bastard had I turned into?
I looked down, feeling real bad and then looked over at him.
“I’m doin’ it because I want to,” I said eventually, ”I mean……aww heck Slim this is real hard for me.”
He came closer and took the straw bale opposite me.
“Go on I’m listening,” he said quietly.
I looked up into that kind, open, honest face and could bear it no longer.
“What I’m saying is…well I wanna stay Slim, if you’ll have me?”
“So that’s the way it was,” I said looking across at my pard, still sitting by the fire sipping his whiskey……all these years later.
He smiled across at me and after a moment topped up our glasses.
“Funny the way something like old man Jackson’s funeral has sparked off all these memories,” he said after a moment, ”different time eh Jess seems almost like we were different people huh?”
“In a way we were,” I replied thoughtfully.
Then I looked sadly into the dying embers.
“You know I wonder sometimes what would have happened iffen I had ridden out like I’d planned,” I said softly.
Then I sighed deeply, ”Hell I’m sure glad I didn’t.”
He grinned across at me.
“Me too pard,” he said quietly.
Then raising a quizzical eyebrow he said, “So why did you stay, you never would tell me.”
I was silent for so long I guess he thought I still wasn’t gonna say, but I was really just thinkin’ back on it all…and even now I got kinda choked thinking on it.
Then I looked over at him and said in a husky voice, ”It was that first day I got up. After I came back to the ranch…like you wanted, to get well…before I rode out. You were out riding fence. Andy and old Jonesy in town…. I climbed up the hill and saw it.”
He just stared at me, waiting for me to go on.
I took a deep breath and continued.
“I saw it Slim, the freshly dug grave….in the family plot. Well I reckoned that any folk that would do that for me. Lay me to rest like I was kin, well I just couldn’t turn my back on them and walk away.”
“Well, I’ll be,” he said softly. ” ‘Twas Andy that dug it. I saw him up on the hill as I was going into town to make the arrangements for your funeral. I remembered thinking how alike we were in some ways, me and young Andy. You see I was gonna tell him I’d arranged for you to be buried up there when I got back from town. But he jumped the gun a bit,” he said with a gentle smile.
“Always was impetuous,” I said looking intensely at my pard. “So why’d you do it Slim?”
“Because I couldn’t bear the thought of you being laid to rest so far away. We just wanted to keep you close. Andy thought of you as kin anyways. It took me a while longer……but I reckon we got there in the end,” and he turned that smile of his on me and it lit up his whole face.
“I guess we did,” I said softly.
Then after a moment, “I’m sorry…… you know Slim.”
“Huh, you’re sorry for what pard?”
“Well I weren’t the easiest back then I know.”
“You can say that again,” he laughed.
“Hey, now hang on, you could be kinda difficult too you know,” I retaliated.
“Yes you, way you were so darned particular about every dang thing. All the damn chores had to be done the Sherman way, from tyin’ a rope to cleaning the barn….and picky,” I rolled my eyes.
“Well at least I didn’t spend half my time up in the hayloft sleeping and the rest bunking off fishing…..or going romancing the women…. not to mention getting in trouble all the dang time. In fact …..”
“In fact ….what?” I asked grinning across at him.
“In fact I take back what I said before I figure you haven’t changed all that much after all!”
“And you wouldn’t have it any other way would you Slim? It would be real quiet and boring around here without me and my trouble now wouldn’t it, huh…..huh Slim?”
The End
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