#61 On The Run!

On the Run!
Patty Wilkinson

Thanks to Suzanne Ganim for Title page Screen shot.

(Some strong language, adult themes and violence)

Chapter 1

“Ahchoo! Ahchoo! “
The sound of sneezing heralded young Mike Williams barging into the Sherman Ranch kitchen.
He stopped on the threshold wiping his nose on his sleeve, just as Daisy Cooper the ranch housekeeper spun around from the stove, where she was busily putting the finishing touches to supper.
“Why Mike dear do you not have a handkerchief?” she asked throwing him a look of exasperation, tempered with concern.
“No Aunt Daisy, least ways I did….but it kinda got used for somethin’,” he said vaguely.
“I can imagine,” she said dryly, not wanting to hazard a guess as to the whereabouts of yet another perfectly good handkerchief.
Just then Slim Sherman strode into the kitchen, from where he had been working at his desk in the large living room and leaned his lanky figure against the door frame.
“Hey Mike are you OK?” Not getting a cold I hope?” he asked throwing his young ward a concerned glance.
“I’m fine,” said the boy with a friendly grin before running off to wash up for supper.
Slim and Daisy exchanged a smile.
“That boy has been around my pard too long,” Slim said. “Jess always says he’s’ just fine,’ even if he’s real sick, or stopped a bullet…always the same. ‘I’m just fine, quit frettin’”, he said chuckling and shaking his head in despair at the ways of his best buddy and partner in the Ranch and Relay.
The front door slammed and a moment later Jess Harper joined them in the kitchen looking bright eyed and slightly flushed after his ride from town in the chilly evening air.
“What are you grinning about pard?” he asked, sniffing the seductive smell of cooking and taking a peep in one of the pans rattling on the cook stove.
Slim repeated the conversation he’d just had with Daisy and was surprised when Jess didn’t join in with the joke.
“What’s up Jess? I’m just joshing you.”

“It ain’t that. So is the kid sick then?” he asked, his deep blue eyes troubled.
“Nope, just a cold I reckon,” although he’s playing it down, Slim replied.
“Umm, I hope that’s all it is Slim. I saw Doc Sam in town and he says influenza is doing the rounds again. It’s taken old man Johnson already and a few kids from the school are sick too… I sure hope it ain’t that!“
Daisy gave a little cry of shock, “Oh dear me, poor Mrs Johnson, I must pay her a call….and the school children are sick too you say Jess?”
He nodded, ”Just one or two Sam said, but we need to keep an eye on Mike.”
As it happened things seemed to be fine with their young ward and he had a good evening playing checkers with Jess after supper and went off to bed happily enough, but with the usual pleading for ‘just one more game.’
The following day he was up in time to catch the early Stage to school. A little later Daisy set off for the Johnson spread to pay her respects to her good friend Jane Johnson and Slim and Jess set to work on their chores.
When Daisy still hadn’t returned by noon the men prepared a quick meal of cold cuts before Jess rode the few miles over to the Johnson place to check on her.
He rode into the rather run down Johnson yard, hitched Traveller to the rail and made for the front door. But he stopped in his tracks when Daisy hurried out looking anxious.
“Oh Jess dear I’m so sorry I didn’t make it back home to prepare your dinner, but Mrs Johnson is so upset and far from well too. I do fear she may have succumbed to this awful bug just like her dear husband.“
“Heck Daisy, are you sure you should be here? I don’t want you getting sick,” Jess said unhappily.
“Oh I’m quite alright dear; I had it last year, just after you and Slim were so poorly, so I’m quite immune.”
He nodded at that, ”I remember now, so are you staying put then Daisy, to care for Ma Johnson?”
“I think I must dear, at least until her daughter can be contacted. You and the others will be alright?”
“Sure we will and I’ll check a wire’s been sent to Amy Johnson. I reckon the doc will have already told her about her Pa passing; she may be on her way right now.”
“I certainly hope so. Dear Jane is no spring chicken and if it is the flu, well…..she may not make it either,” said Daisy looking saddened.
“I sure hope it don’t come to that Daisy. Tell Mrs Johnson not to fret, I’ll make sure her daughter gets here real soon and I hope she’ll be feelin’ better before too long.”
“I will dear, take care,” and the diminutive elderly lady disappeared briskly back into the house.
Jess smiled after her for a moment, thinking not for the first time, what a very special lady she was.
He sighed deeply, supper….who was gonna cook supper? We’d better toss for it he thought….and wondered idly where his double sided coin was, as he ambled back to Traveller.
Jess was to comment later that iffen Daisy had been around; well maybe she would have picked up on young Mike’s illness sooner. As it was when the boy left half his supper the young cowboys just put it down to Jess’s cooking.
The youngster had gone off to bed soon afterwards and it wasn’t until he emerged from his room the following morning looking bleary eyed and sneezing again that the alarm bells started ringing.
He didn’t want any breakfast and Jess sent him straight back to bed promising some warm milk and yes Buttons, his dog, could bunk in with him.
“Daisy wouldn’t approve of that,” Slim said with a raised eyebrow, ”a dog in the bedroom.”
“Yeah, well she ain’t here is she?” came the gruff reply. “Heck Slim do ya think I should ride over and bring her home iffen Mike’s sick, huh?”
“We don’t know he’s got this influenza, could just be a cold. And anyway, Ma Johnson needs her more right now.”
“Yeah, you’re right, I’ll go make his milk and then one of us should stay around the place within hollerin’ distance, just in case he wants us huh?”
It was later that day after Mike had refused dinner and looked real hot and sickly, that Slim rode for Doc Sam.
Later Jess was to say he just couldn’t believe how quickly the youngster went downhill.
When Slim had ridden for the doc the boy had been out of sorts sure. A little flushed and feeling a tad sorry for himself maybe. However by the time the doc landed a few hours later the child was feverish, had developed a nasty cough and was really tearful, complaining of hurting all over.
Doc Sam straightened up from listening to the child’s chest and shook his head sadly, before gesturing for Slim and Jess to leave the bedside and accompany him back to the living room.
He walked over to the crackling fire and warmed his hands for a moment before turning to face his good friends.
“I’m sorry, but the boy definitely has the influenza and a really bad case by the looks of things too I’m afraid.”
Jess looked down cussing softly and Slim walked over to the fire and slumped down on a chair before glancing up to the doc.
“He will be OK though Sam, he’s a strong little fellah isn’t he?“
“Sure he is….and I sincerely hope so, but he will need very careful nursing.”
At that Jess marched across the room making for the door.
“Where are you going?” cried Slim looking irritated.
“To fetch Daisy home of course, she’s needed here,” was the equally fractious reply.
“No,” said Sam.
“Huh,” Jess threw him a questioning glance.
“I mean no need. I’ve seen Ma Johnson and she’ll be OK. I saw Amy Johnson and her cousin in town too. They were on their way to the Johnson spread to see her Ma and said they’d send Daisy home directly, she should be here real soon…so just relax Jess.”
“Relax! How can I when the boy’s so dang sick!” Jess spat, looking furious. Turning away he thrust his hand in the pockets of his denims, and glared moodily out of the window to the yard, where dusk was already falling.
“Look I’d better be off,” Sam said turning to Slim.
He snapped his case shut and made for the door, before pausing and turning back.
“I’ll pay a visit tomorrow see how he’s doing.”
“Thanks doc,” said the lanky blond rancher, following him out onto the porch.
A moment later Jess joined them.
“I’m sorry Sam, there was no call for me to sound off that way….I’m just real worried.”
Sam leaned over and squeezed his shoulder, “I know buddy, I understand,” he said softly before tipping his hat to both men. He mounted up and rode out of the yard at a brisk trot.

Chapter 2
Daisy drove her little buggy into the yard just a few minutes later and Slim ran out to meet her, helping her down and taking her arm to escort her into the house.
“How is Mrs Johnson?” he asked with concern.
“A little better and I think she’ll make it. At least Amy is home. So how about Mike, I’ve just seen Sam and he said the child was sick?”
Slim just nodded, “I’m afraid it’s our worst fear Daisy, he’s got the influenza too…and really badly.”
The elderly housekeeper shrugged off her coat and went to the sickroom at once, looking ashen.
As she entered quietly she saw a small tableau by the light of the nightstand.
Mike was lying with his eyes closed and groaning softly, whilst Jess sat on the edge of the bed tenderly wiping the child’s hot face with a cool cloth.
He dragged his gaze away from the boy as Daisy entered and gave her a relieved smile, “Gee Daisy, I’m glad you’re home,” he whispered.
“How is he dear?” she asked going and taking her place on the other side of the bed and running a gentle hand across the child’s forehead, wincing softly as she registered his high temperature.
Jess just shook his head, but said nothing.
As always when the youngster was sick or afraid it was always Jess he wanted. Although Slim and Daisy did their fair share, it was the young, dark haired cowboy who took on the brunt of caring for him.
Daisy came in to relieve him one evening a few days later. She stood in the shadows for a moment, amazed, as she always was, at the tenderness and devotion the young cowboy showed whilst caring for the child. Totally at odds with his usual persona as a rough, tough ex gunslinger with a fast draw and unpredictable temper. As far as the youngster was concerned he showed infinite patience and a depth of care and devotion to equal any natural parent in Daisy’s opinion.
Now as she watched him, unobserved, she could see the strain in his face and her heart bled for him. Earlier that day Doc Sam had visited yet again and as he left Daisy had seen that tell-tale look of worry in his tired grey eyes and her heart pounded in fear. Then her suspicions had been confirmed when he said he would visit again first thing in the morning.
Now as she watched the two boys that she loved as dearly as her own dead son, her heart again lurched and she prayed that the youngster would be saved. Knowing instinctively that Jess would never get over the loss if he was not…Indeed would any of them at the ranch?
She watched as Jess ran a weary hand across his face, his eyes never leaving the sleeping child’s still form.
After a moment she came forwards and put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Go and get some rest dear and have some supper, I’ve left it on the cook stove for you.”
“I ain’t hungry Daisy.”
“I know that dear, but you have to eat, what earthly use will you be to young Mike here if you get sick too?”
He just shrugged, but after a moment stood up stretching.
“Ok,” he said softly, “but call me when he wakes up huh, I promised him another story.”
She smiled at that news, “You know Doc Sam says your stories are probably the best medicine the child could have.”
“He did?” asked Jess looking surprised.
“Umm…he said it was all about keeping his interest in life alive. If we keep his imagination working he will want to get better and be off having adventures himself,” she mused. “Apparently if the brain is stimulated that way it helps the body to fight infection….so he says anyway.”
“Sam has some pretty highfalutin', strange ideas with his studyin’ of the mind and all,” Jess replied thoughtfully.
“I suppose so dear, but I wouldn’t dismiss his theories. After all what do we have to lose….and maybe anything that could help him should be tried?”
Jess sighed deeply and flicked an anxious glance over to his beloved housekeeper and surrogate Ma.
“He’s real sick ain’t he Daisy…does Sam think he won’t make it?”
Daisy hesitated just a second too long.
“He does, don’t he?” Jess said in a shocked whisper, before looking back down at the child he loved so dang much, hell, the kid had become part of his life.
“He didn’t say as such, but I know he’s worried,” she said honestly, knowing there was no point in trying to lie to Jess.
He bowed his head and took a deep breath before looking back at Daisy. “He won’t die,” he said softly, ”I dang well won’t let him….and iffen stories are what the doc prescribes, then that’s what he’ll get.”
He stood up and after one last lingering look at his charge he slowly left the room.
Slim was at the table finishing his coffee but his head shot up when Jess entered.
“How is he?“
“‘Bout the same, maybe the cough’s a tad worse…made him throw up earlier.”
“Hell, that doesn’t sound too good,” said Slim as he stood up and disappeared into the kitchen.
He returned a moment later holding a plate of stew and set it down before his friend.
Jess merely stared at it before pouring a coffee and taking a warming sip.
Slim returned to his chair and slumped down opposite his buddy.
“Come on Jess you’ve gotta eat.”
Jess sighed deeply before taking a couple of mouthfuls, then pushing the plate away…
“I can’t,” he whispered.
Slim said nothing, just replenished both their cups.
After a long pause Jess looked up and met his friend’s concerned gaze.
“The doc don’t think he’s gonna make it you know,” he said after a moment, his tone almost matter of fact, although Slim could see the anguish in his eyes.
“That can’t be true,” said Slim looking shocked to the core…”there must be something we can do!”
“Oh there is,” said Jess looking cynical, ”the good doc reckons my story tellin’ is the answer, well part of it, along with the nursin’ care he’s gettin’”
“Umm…some crack pot theory he’s got that story tellin’ helps the mind sort out everythin’. Will give him the will to live so as he can get up out of bed and into mischief again….”
“Well doc Sam has done a lot of studying back East around the brain, the power of the mind and all that stuff. He must put some store by it, if that’s what he’s saying?“
“Maybe,” replied Jess morosely…”anyway I reckon it can’t hurt, I’ll get to it just as soon as he wakes up again.”
Slim smiled encouragingly across at his pard at that.
“So what are you going to tell him about Jess? One of your famous escapades on the wrong side of the law…huh?” he asked with the ghost of a smile.
“Nope, one of your famous escapades…whatever that dang well is when it’s at home,” he said with a faint grin… “One of your escapades on the wrong side of the law… “
Slim’s face was a study, “Huh me….I haven’t ever been…” then he stopped. ”Oh no…no Jess you’re not telling him about that!“
“Just watch me,” Jess grinned….and then sobering slightly, ”If anything’s gonna really hold the kid’s attention it will be old straight as a die, honest upright citizen Slim Sherman in trouble with the law……“
Daisy and Slim were drinking coffee in the parlour, leaving Jess sitting with the youngster.
He finally awoke and had a drink before turning his full attention to Jess.
“So will you tell me a story Jess? Please, it takes my mind of all the aches and pains,” the child said with a pleading look.
Jess smiled indulgently down at the boy and puffed up his pillows and pulled the blanket more securely around him.
He made himself comfortable on the old armchair pulled up close and smiled at the youngster, “Sure I will Tiger,” he said softly, ”sure I will……”

Chapter 3

As Told by Jess

“See it all happened this way Mike….”
I sat back and remembered, that time way back when it was just me, Slim, his kid brother Andy and old Jonesy around the place.
Gee Andy was a good kid. The reason I stayed, tried to make a go of things iffen I’m bein’ real honest. We had some laughs together and he brought out the kid in me. And there was something else too. He made me feel needed, really wanted about the place and it was a powerful long time since I’d felt that way….like I really belonged.
There was old Jonesy who rode shot gun over us all. Did all the domestics like Miss Daisy does for us now and patched us up some too iffen we were beat up or shot. Looked after us iffen we got sick too. And I’ll tell you this, his lookin’ after was way different to Miss Daisy’s, yes siree!
See Jonesy believed that everything from foot rot on a steer to a chest cold in us poor human critters could be cured by his special liniment. Jeez that stuff stank something fierce. I figured you were just too dang scared not to get well real quick with Jonesy threatening the dreaded liniment. Or worse still, his elixir. He reckoned it was a restorative. So if anyone of us was lookin’ peaky we’d find Jonesy standin’ there with a spoonful of this evil potion and woe betide ya iffen it weren’t swallowed down real quick.
Anyway we were all pretty well content. I’d been around for a good while and decided I’d make the place home and things settled down real good…with me and Andy larkin around and tryin’ Old Jonesy’ s patience some.
Me and Slim had finally really managed to shake down together OK too. It had been hard at first, real hard. I reckoned that was partly down to the fact that Andy kinda hero worshiped me and that didn’t sit any too well with Slim. I reckoned he had his nose put out of joint some, feeling that he’d been replaced in Andy affections by me… But it weren’t that way, not really and before too long Andy came to his senses and realized what a real good brother he had in Slim. I reckon Slim was sort of worried I’d lead the kid astray too. With my ‘wild Texan ways’ as he called my drinkin,’ cussin and occasional womanizing, not to mention gambling.
Well that was before I educated him up some in the finer things in life. See once I’d got him into the saloon and introduced him to the Red Eye bottle, poker table and a few of them real pretty saloon girls, well I imagine he saw things kinda differently.
But it weren’t that which was to make us real close…..as close as brothers I reckon. You see me and old Slim there have a real strong bond and although we’d never say it…. We’d put everything on the line for the other…even our life… well that sort of trust and friendship comes hard earned.
See our friendship really started when I had just landed here and I helped Slim out some when he was having some trouble with a guy called Bud Carlin and his gang. Then he spoke up for me another time when I was in a spot of bother in the town and got me in good with the Sheriff, vouched for me…Another time I helped him out, killed a bushwhacker before he could kill Slim and later he did something similar. I reckon all these years later we’ve stopped keepin’ count on the number of times we’ve seen the other out of a fix…
But out of everything, well it was what happened that summer a year or so after I landed, that really sealed our friendship forever.
It was hot as Hell up in Wyoming, even by Texas standards, with tempers gettin’ kinda short all round. So me and Slim were both real relieved when a good excuse came up to get off of the ranch for a few weeks.
Slim got a wire from a guy down in Salina, Kansas just west of Abilene sayin’ as how he had a couple of hundred head of cattle going real cheap. Said he owed Slim a favour and if he came and fetched them, he’d get a deal he just couldn’t refuse.
“We’ll I don’t like it,” said Jonesy, lookin’ real put out as we sat around the supper table discussing the wire Slim had received just that day. “In my opinion, if something looks too dang good to be true then it is”…and he sighed deeply. “For what my opinion’s worth that is,” he finished casting us a melancholy look.
“You’re just sore because you’ll end up runnin’ the spread iffen me and Slim take off down to Kansas,” I said, never missing the opportunity to rib the old guy.
“Well that’s where you’re wrong you young hooligan. Anyway, who’s to say Slim won’t ask me to ride down with him….huh?“
I laughed out loud at that.
“Err, because you sit a horse like a bag of taters, and that ol’ sacroiliac of yours would be playin’ up afore you reached the Laramie road.“
He looked even more miserable at that.
“Well that’s right mock the afflicted. Why Jess Harper you ain’t got one compassionate bone in your body,” he spat back.
“Yeah, well at least all my bones are in good working order,” I batted back at him.
“If anyone goes I thought it should be me, huh Slim? After all, I am kin and got a say in runnin’ the ranch, don’t I?” asked young Andy looking real hopeful.
“Haven’t I,” corrected Slim vaguely.
“That’s what I said, ain’t it!” said the youngster in frustration…”So can I Slim, can I huh?”
“Nobody is going right now,” said my buddy looking harassed, “not until I think it all through.”
“So who is this character Slim and why does he owe you?” I asked.
Slim scratched his head looking puzzled.
“His name is Josh Lawrence, used to be a neighbour, and he knew Pa better than me I reckon. He was a surly old cuss, weak too, henpecked by Ma Lawrence. I can’t say that I took to him too well.”
“Iffen he was henpecked like you say, maybe she made him that way?” I pointed out, feelin’ a tad sorry for the guy. “So why did he move?”
“Ma Lawrence, had kin down there. So they just upped and moved to be with her Ma, when her Pa passed. My Pa bought his land, what’s now the North pasture.”
“Well maybe that’s the favour he was takin’ about, your Pa gave him a fair price and he appreciated it?“
“So…are we goin’ then?”
We rode out two days later.
Like I kept tellin’ ol’ Slim there, it really was too good a deal to miss and if this Josh Lawrence wanted to pay back a favour, then why not?
Old Jonesy weren’t any too pleased about the notion and Andy even less so. But hell like I reminded Slim it was his darned outfit and it should be him as called the shots, not his kid brother or some old coot like Jonesy.
Ok well maybe I was a mite hard on ‘em. But I was still a little rough around the edges in those days. I was missin’ the big open too…had a real itch to get out on the trail again.
In the end Slim had his financial head on and he knew it made sense to buy the critters at the knock down price. Even after we’d paid a couple of drovers to help us out we’d still turn a pretty damn good profit in the end.
We set off headin’ due south for Denver and spent a couple of nights in the town after having met two real pretty and willing saloon girls. I’d have been happy to stay a mite longer, but ol’ Slim, he reckoned iffen we didn’t turn up when we was expected Lawrence would sell to the highest bidder. So we set off the next day and pushed on bearing east and making for Salina, a good couple of weeks ride away.
It was a tough old ride in the unrelenting heat of the day and bitter cold nights, but heck we were free of the binding responsibility of running the ranch and relay and that felt good…real good.
We talked a lot on that journey.
About how it was for me on the drift, the good times as well as the God awful ones. Slim told me about growin’ up on the ranch in Wyoming, the hopes and plans his Pa had for the place and how he felt honour bound to try and see ‘em through, same with carin’ for young Andy. He was tryin’ to bring him up straight and true, just like his Ma and Pa would have wanted. That explained why he was always worryin’ about me bein’ a bad influence on the kid….I figured.
“I reckon, now I know you better Jess I can see you’d never do anything to harm the boy. It’s just that, well with there just being me and him for so long and……” he paused awkwardly, searching for the right words.
“You weren’t too pleased when some ol’ drifter rode in off the trail with a greased holster and trouble in both pockets, “I said chuckling.
He grinned at that, ”You could say so yeah.”
“Could say,” I echoed, ”that’s exactly what you did say about me…and not so long ago either!”
We both laughed some at that.
We finally rode into Salina a few days later and it was just another dirty old cow town.
Least ways that’s the way it seemed at first appearance. But it was different, real different. In that it was run by…Hell no more than that, was owned by a real bastard, Sheriff Abe Cady.
See he’d gotten that whole damn town runnin’ scared. There weren’t a man, woman or kid who weren’t either in his debt, or terrified as to what he’d do if they stood up to him. He was clever, that’s for sure. Had a real strong group of henchmen watchin’ his back and when he said jump, they said how high sir? Same with the Town Council, every dang one of them backed him, no matter what.
At least Cady was his own man with his own ideas, but those others they were just phoneys through and through. No backbone…..
Of course we didn’t know any of this when we rode in on that fateful afternoon. No siree, all we knew was that we were beat and mighty dry. So after we’d put our horses up for the night we made straight for the saloon.
“Do ya think he’ll be in here waitin’ on us?” I asked Slim as we entered a sleazy looking joint that Lawrence had mentioned in his wire.
“Doubt it,” Slim said briskly, ”I didn’t give an actual day, just said we’d make it before the end of the month. Mr Lawrence said to get directions from the barkeep in here.”
I glanced around me at a motley crew of drinkers all looking miserable as sin. There were also a couple of shady lookin’ saloon girls eyeing us up…But I sure wasn’t thinkin on pushin’ any of my hard earned cash in their direction, both lookin’ like they’d seen better days.
“Huh?” I dragged my gaze away from the more buxom of the two, who was displaying her ample assets for all to see. The way her dress was cut so dang low, it left nothing to the imagination that was for sure.
“I said do you want a beer?”
“Thanks pard.”
I looked around me again, once we were supping a beer apiece.
“This sure is a lively little ol’ place ain’t it?” I said sarcastically. ”What do they do for fun around here wait for a good Wake?”
“Hush Jess, the natives don’t look any too friendly to me,” he replied out of the side of his mouth.
After a moment the barkeep who had been watchin’ us with narrowed shifty eyes wandered over.
“Not seen you around here before,” he drawled.
“That’s probably because we ain’t been around here before,” I said scowling at him and ignoring Slim’s elbow digging me in the ribs.
“So you’re strangers then,” he continued in a doom laden voice.
I just rolled my eyes at that and cast Slim a pained glance.
“Well he don’t like strangers,” the barkeep continued in the same tone.
“Who in Hell is he I asked gettin’ pretty sick of this ol’ town already. The beer was warm, the women homely and the locals definitely unfriendly.”
The barkeep didn’t answer but glanced behind me, suddenly looking nervous.
“He is me,” boomed a deep harsh voice,” Sheriff Abe Cady, so who’s asking?“
I spun around, my hand instinctively moving towards my gun and looked into the eyes of the most evil lookin’ hombre I’d ever seen. He had iron grey hair, although I reckoned he was only in his early forties, he looked world weary and had deep soulless eyes.
“Don’t even think on trying it son,” he said flicking a glance to where my hand was clenching and unclenching above my iron.
“I ain’t your son,” I spat, but Slim shouldered me aside and gave the Sheriff a hesitant smile.
“I’m Slim Sherman, this is my partner Jess Harper and we’re here on cattle business with Mr Lawrence, Josh Lawrence that is. You know him Sheriff?”
The Sheriff grudgingly shifted his gaze from me to Slim….”Lawrence you say?”
“Sure, he was an old friend of my Pa’s and…..”
“Dead,” he said unemotionally.
“Huh?” asked Slim looking bewildered.
“The man’s dead, had an unfortunate accident, just last week, real sad,” the Sheriff said looking anything but.
“Well that can’t be,” Slim floundered. “We had a deal. We’ve ridden all the way from Laramie to pick up a couple of hundred head of cattle he’d offered us.”
“No cattle either,” he smirked.
At that I pushed past Slim and confronted him.
“What the Hell are you talking about? The guy wired us. Two hundred head of cattle can’t suddenly disappear into thin air.”
“Well go look for yourself, boy, the spread’s half a mile outside town just past some standing pines by the roadside, can’t miss it. Maybe there’s cattle maybe there ain’t, but they sure aren’t waitin’ in line for a cattle drive,” he said smirking again.
“We will,” Slim said quickly, ”come on Jess.”
“I said come on Jess,” and he grabbed my arm and hustled me out of the bar.
We stood out on the sidewalk in the dusk and I turned on him.
“What are you playin’ at Slim? I ain’t ridin’ anywhere tonight, I’m bushed and so is my good old horse.”
“I know. Come on,” he said tipping his hat towards a rundown looking hotel across the street. “Let’s get some supper and an early night, head out first thing huh?”
I looked longingly back towards the saloon…”I was thinkin’ on another beer,” I said plaintively.
“Oh no,” he said quickly, “the less you’re around that Sheriff the better, I get the feeling he isn’t any too keen on you Jess.”
“Jess, will you behave I’ve gotten enough to worry about without you getting into trouble too.”
I sighed deeply and we made for the hotel.
And what a dump it was, I’d been in cleaner barns, but Slim was all for us keeping our heads down and me outer trouble, so that’s where he stayed.
“No, no dining room facilities, the chef was shot just last week,” said the stuffy lookin’ manager.
“Cookin’ that bad eh?” I muttered but Slim shushed me.
“I could make a sandwich, have it sent up,” the manager said rather unenthusiastically.
“You do that,” I said, ”and a bottle too huh?”
“A bottle?” he asked his eyebrows arching, like he’d never countenanced the notion before. “Of what would that be sir?”
“Anythin’ you’ve got that’s cold and wet and comes in a whiskey bottle will do just fine,” I said sarcastically.
“As you wish sir,” he said throwing me a patronizing look down his nose, which I ignored.
“Stuck up little bastard,” I said conversationally to Slim as we traipsed up the dirty stairs to a room on the top floor back.
The room was as I’d expected, dirty and unwelcoming, but I was past caring and stretched out on the bed, throwing my hat on the nightstand.
“Boots and spurs?”
“Oh yeah, I reckon they may get kinda dirty….state of this bedding, but figure I’ll risk it.”
He just shook his head with a grim smile.” It’s not that bad.”
I nodded to a particularly unpleasant looking stain on the carpet and the surrounding cobwebs and dust…
“Should have bunked down with Traveller,” I said shortly before closing my eyes and falling instantly asleep.

Chapter 4
The next morning I couldn’t wait to brush the dust of that ol’ town off of my boots.
The sandwiches, that Slim had woken me up for the night before were made of beef as tough as leather and the whiskey was watered down. Then breakfast had consisted of weak coffee and burnt biscuits.
We were both in kind of a grim mood when we finally rode on to the Lawrence spread.
The whole place looked completely deserted. But then after we’d hollered some and banged on the door for a good five minutes this frail old biddy finally hauled the door open and stood blinking up at us.
She peered out at us short shortsightedly and looked real nervous.
“Are you Cady’ s men?” she asked….”I’m not ready…not packed up yet…I….”
“Hey no ma’am,” said Slim quickly, ”it’s Slim, Slim Sherman, Matt Sherman’s son from over the hill, back in Laramie remember?”
She peered at him and then her old face relaxed into a welcoming smile.
“Slim, dear, how are you and your Ma and Pa….young Andy?”
Slim flicked a glance over to me, but continued manfully.
“Ma and Pa passed over some time back,” he said, “but Andy is real well. He’s back holding the fort for me with Old Jonesy right now.”
“Oh yes, Mr Jones, a nice man…very keen on his homemade remedies,” she said with a brief smile. “Your poor Ma and Pa though, I’m sorry….”
“Yes, well that was a while back,” I said, trying to be business like. “I’m Jess Harper Ma’am and we’re both real sorry to hear about your sad loss.”
She looked rather bewildered at that.
“Loss you say dear?”
“Your husband,” said Slim kindly, thinking maybe the shock had unbalanced her mind.
“Oh, Josh you mean, bless you yes….but that was….” and then she clammed up…”that was very sad,” she concluded.
“Well sure it is and so the funeral and everything is over already?” Slim asked.
“All finished…was it the cattle you were here for then Slim dear?”
“Yes Mrs Lawrence, I’ve the money here and we can take them today, if that suits you?”
She looked flustered at that…”Oh no, he said not today…you must wait…a little while…”
“He, who’s he?” I asked scanning the deserted yard.
She opened her mouth “Mr Ca….. “
Then a moment later the barn door crashed open and a tough looking dude strode over.
“It’s OK Ma, I’ll deal with this,” he said gruffly.
“And you are?” I asked spinning around and fixing him with the Harper glare.
“The foreman around here,” he growled.
Slim and I both turned back to Ma Lawrence, “Yes,” she said vaguely, “the foreman…this is….err”
“Archie, Archie Dunn….so shall we do business gentlemen?”
Slim turned to him. ”My business is with Mr Lawrence or his widow as far as the cash is concerned, but you can show us the merchandise sure.”
“Umm,”…he said looking uncomfortable, “I’m afraid they ain’t all rounded up yet…what with Mr. Lawrence passin’ and all…it’ll be a week before we can get ‘em all together.”
“Well come on let’s get to it,” I said, ”what are we waitin’ for?”
Slim and I mounted up and I threw Dunn an exasperated glance.
“No need for you to go frettin’,” he said looking even more anxious, “got some of my best men onto it. You just get on back to town, rest up some. You’ll be having a real long hot ride back to Laramie, come the end of the week.”
I sure didn’t trust this guy for all his reassuring.
”We can manage an hour or two, just to check ‘em out,” I said and cast Slim a glance expectin’ for him to back me up.
Then I noticed how pale and sickly he was looking. He’d hardly said anything on the ride over and I wondered if he’s got a sore belly after the less than appetising meal of the night before.
“We can leave it to Mr Dunn here to make a start, we could call by later in the week check ‘em over huh Jess?”
Something in the way he looked. The way he was holding himself too, sort of ridged in the saddle, made me begin to relent some. Then I saw the expression in his eyes telling me to agree for once in my goddamn life and that made me cave in.
“Sure, if that’s what you want Slim,” and touching my hat to Ma Lawrence and casting the foreman a less than friendly glance we rode out.
Once we were down the track some I reined in Traveller and cast Slim a questioning look.
“What’s up?”
“Like the man said, he’s got it covered.”
I shook my head and was about to argue when he gasped and grabbed hold of his side…
“Slim, what’s up? Has that god awful supper we had done for you?”
He shook his head, ”I dunno Jess, got a real bad pain in my side, doesn’t feel like indigestion…more like a knife cutting through me,” and he grimaced in pain again.
“Let’s get you back to the hotel pard,” I said softly, ”rest up some huh?”
When Slim suddenly started writhing in agony on his hotel bed a couple of hours later I knew it was far worse than just a belly ache from eating tough beef.
“Where does it hurt?” I asked as I sat on the side of his bed, looking into his pale sweating face.
“Here,” he gasped putting a hand just under his ribs…”and moving down…arrrg,” he cried…”down here…sort of all over…my back too….goddamn it!”
“I don’t like the look of this, I’m gonna go find a doc,” I said peering down at him, but he didn’t answer just bit his lip and groaned, turning on his side and bringing his knees up.
I tracked down the doctor’s office and knocked on the door, hollerin’ up at the windows but nuthin’. Then a little later a neighbour peered out from his front door, lookin’ real irritated.
“He ain’t there …be over in the saloon,” he said before slamming his door again.
It was still early, just mid-morning when I strode into the low dive of the night before and saw my ‘friend’ the barkeep. I peered across at him, my eyes slowly adjusting to the dim light.
“Is the doc here?” I asked finally, not wanting any of his sarcastic backchat.
He looked worse than he had the night before, a smoke dangling from his lips, his bored eyes lifeless and dull.
He nodded to a table at the back, “Over there with the judge,” he said grudgingly.
I marched over and looked down at the two elderly men.
One was dressed in the unmistakable garb of a judge with a worn frock coat, his battered top hat on the chair next to him.
The other I presumed was the doc. He was again suited up, but he too looked shabby and kinda down at heel. The whiskey bottle and two half empty tumblers on the table in front of them made me even less impressed.
I cleared my throat and they both looked up from the game of checkers they were playing.
“Doc?” I asked addressing the more elderly of the pair, who had long snowy white hair and eyeglasses.
“Who wants to know?” he asked frowning up at me, obviously annoyed at being disturbed.
I ignored the question.
“My partner’s real sick, at the hotel. Can you come over….please?” I added, with an imploring look.
“Surgery isn’t open right now,” he said after glaring at me again and returning to his game.
“Oh, I think you’ll find it is doc,” I said frighteningly quietly as I stepped back, my hand hovering over my iron.
I now had the men’s full attention and as they looked up I realized they were both pretty inebriated even at this early hour.
“Better go with the…. err….gentleman Chas,” the judge said throwing me a frosty look.
The doc sighed lustily, before getting to his feet and staggering a little he fixed me with an unfriendly stare.
“Have to call by my office, pick up my bag,” he grunted before lurching off in the general direction of the saloon batwing doors.
The doc straighten up from where he’d been listening to my pard’ s chest. The old man’s eyes watering and the stench of stale whiskey emanating from him filling the room.
“Well?” I asked glancing down to where Slim was again rolling in agony as wave after wave of burning pain radiated down from his belly to his groin.
“Stones,” the doctor said succinctly.
“Kidney stones young man…agonizing, but hopefully not life threatening….time will tell…..but he should recover.”
“Should?” I echoed.
“Lots of water, encourage him to drink as much as he will take…the stones are in the kidney, they’ll pass along and out in time, fear not.”
“Ain’t me as is fearful, it’s poor ol’ Slim here with the sore belly,” I muttered.
Then more loudly, “Can’t you give him something, for the pain doc?”
He sighed again. “It’ll cost you more you know. Are you sure?”
I wondered momentarily at the ethics of a doctor who would expect a friend to withhold pain relief for the sake of a few bucks…but then dismissed it.
“Yeah, we want pain relief,” I said slowly and clearly, my expression hard as granite.
He finally gave Slim an injection, which even to my uneducated eye looked a pretty much hit and miss affair and I just hoped to God that neither of us needed any surgery whilst in town.
“That should ease the pain. I’ll leave you some medicine too.” he said handing me a small bottle and an invoice. “Pay at the office, within twenty four hours, good day,” and was gone.
I sank down on the other bed and eyed my buddy sadly, regretting bitterly the day we’d ever ridden into Salina Town.
Slim was in one hell of a lot of pain all through the night and I was all for goin’ and battering’ down the old doc’s door and fetching him back. But Slim said no.
Apparently an old Uncle had been similarly afflicted and it seemed he just had to ride it out as none of the pain remedies helped too much anyway.
I nursed him pretty well as much as I could, swabbing him down when he was burning up with a fever and encouraging him to drink glass after glass of water.
Eventually the pain eased some after a few visits to the bathroom and we thought the stones had finally passed through. But old Slim sure didn’t look any too good and really needed to rest up some.

Chapter 5
It was late the following afternoon before either of us could stomach anything to eat. I wandered down to the reception desk and fixed the manager with my best glare.
“So where do folk go to eat around here?” I asked. “Them as don’t want poisoning that is.”
He ignored my sarcasm and said, “We have a perfectly good restaurant here sir….”
“Sure, sure you have,” I said glancing across to the rather dingy looking dining room,” just a shame you ain’t got a cook.”
“Well that’s where you’re wrong sir. My sister has kindly stepped into the breach, so we are open for business again.”
Just then the buxom hooker from the saloon, who had been making sheep’s eyes at me on our first night, ambled in. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me and smile suggestively.
“Well hello stranger,” she drawled as she advanced on me. “So what can I do for you?”
I took an involuntary step backwards and clearing my throat said, “Supper….for me and my buddy, in the room maybe? He’s sick ya see and…..”
“Supper, is that all,” she asked looking crestfallen, ”are you sure?”
“Well you’re the cook ain’t ya?” I asked turning to her brother for confirmation.
“Yes she is. Now get about your business Betsy, no more of your nonsense.”
“Steak and taters do you sir?
I just nodded my thanks and made myself scarce.
As I walked back towards the stairs I glanced idly out of the door and was just in time to see the Lawrence foreman, Archie Dunn deep in conversation with the ornery Sheriff of the night before. I wondered why Dunn wasn’t out on the range rounding up our steers and also why the Sheriff had lied about their existence. There was something not right about this whole set up and I aimed to find out what. However right then Slim was my priority and I ran back up the stairs to check on him.
When Betsy, the curvy hooker, cum cook arrived with our supper I soon realized it came with a side order of gossip. She stood leaning on the door, arms crossed over her ample chest as she chatted.
“So you been visiting old Ma Lawrence then, family are you?”
“Old friends,” Slim supplied, now sitting up in bed and enjoying his supper, the pain having subsided some.
“Shame about the old man,” she said thoughtfully, ”I imagined she’d have moved out sooner, a big place like that must be real lonely.”
“Well she’s only just buried the guy,” I said casting her a dark look, ”you can’t hurry these things ya know.“
“What? But old man Lawrence has been dead and gone these last six months, New Year it was I remember it well…and…..”
“That can’t be true,” said Slim looking perplexed, “he wired me just a few weeks ago, saying he’d got stock to sell.”
She shrugged, “It’s true as I’m standing here, you ask anyone, ask Ma Lawrence.”
Slim and I exchanged a puzzled glance.
“I don’t like this Slim, not one little bit.”
“So where does the Sheriff fit into all this?” I asked Betsy, suddenly remembering him deep in conversation with Dunn.
Her face suddenly took on a closed look.
“I really couldn’t say,” then she turned, “Oh well, dishes to wash,” and made to leave.
I put my plate down on the nightstand and was over by the door barring her way in a split second.
“Hey, there’s no rush,” I said smiling down at her. “So what about Sheriff Cady, I get the impression folk are afraid of him?”
She looked down and then sighing deeply finally looked me in the eye.
“Well who wouldn’t be?” she said softly.”He’s a murdering bastard.”
“Those are mighty strong words.”
“It’s true, if someone gets in his way he just kills them, or more likely has them killed by one of his paid lackeys.”
“And so doesn’t anybody object?”
She shook her head.
“Nope, he’s got the whole town sewn up tight.”
“He has?” I asked looking shocked.
She nodded firmly.
“He’s got a judge who will do as he’s told for a bottle or two, old Judge Sanders…He should have retired long ago…the way his mind is pickled with the drink. He is retired officially, not licensed to be a judge no more, but that doesn’t stop the Sheriff having him preside at every trial. Then find the defendant guilty iffen that’s what Cady wants.”
“The Hell he does?” Slim whispered looking furious.
She looked over and nodded again, “Oh yes. He surrounds himself with two or three Deputies as well, to watch his back. Nobody dare cross him or they find themselves on his hit list.”
Slim had sat up and was listening to all this attentively.
“So aren’t you afraid of him then Betsy?” He asked.
She just shrugged, ”I haven’t got anything to lose….I’m, pretty much at rock bottom. Time was I had a future, thought I’d be Wed….have a new life, but I guess it wasn’t to be….just like him.”
“Huh, what do ya mean?” I asked.
“The Sheriff….everyone says he’s the way he is because of the war.”
“Yes, he was betrothed….but when he came back, all shot up….his girl walked out. That’s the way the story goes anyway,” she said shrugging again. ”Sure must have been something real bad that happened in the war to turn him into the prize bastard he is. He’s still got the physical scars …to his face and limps real bad from a leg wound….But the worst was his girl’s kid brother was killed. Apparently Abe promised to keep him safe….and when he came home without the kid then his woman just walked away. I guess that turned him a little bit crazy.”
She turned to go again, but at the door stopped and faced me. “You’re a real nice lookin’ boy, popular with the ladies huh?”
I just smiled, but said nothing.
“I thought so,” she said throwing me a wistful smile. “Take my advice, ride out…just as soon as you can….don’t take on the Sheriff….he’ll kill you.”
Then she raised a hand and gently caressed my cheek.
“And that would be a real shame,” she finished before letting herself out of the room and closing the door quietly behind her.
“You’ve made a real hit there,” Slim said his eyes laughing.
“Never mind about her; what’s this all about Slim? We’ve come all this way on a dadgum wild goose chase, but why? What does that Sheriff want with us?”
“I dunno Jess and right now I don’t care, all I want to do is get better and ride for home.”
I sank down on the other bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Better, I think. I should be OK to ride in another couple of days I just need to rest up some.”
“Sure,” I said kindly, ”you rest Slim.”
Then I stretched. ”I’ll just take a stroll before I turn in.”
“What are you up to huh?”
“Nuthin’,” I said casting him a look of pure innocence.
“You get yourself some shut eye pard. I’ll see ya later,” and I slipped out of the room and down to Main Street.
It was almost dark and I could hear the tinny sound of a honky- tonk piano playing across the street in the saloon and after a moment I crossed over and went in.
As I entered the hum of conversation slowly faltered and died and the pianist stopped playing, his hands frozen above the keyboard as he stared open mouthed at me. I walked on towards the bar, ordered a whiskey and threw it down feeling the bitter liquid hit the back of my throat. Then I called for the bottle, poured a second and turning surveyed the bar.
“You folk really ain’t used to strangers,” I said, tryin’ to break the ice, but it got me nowhere.
I turned back to the bar…and that’s when I spied him, sitting in the corner, feet up on the table, his dark soulless eyes never leaving mine…. Sheriff Abe Cady.
I tipped my hat to him, ”Sheriff,” and turned back to my drink.
A moment later he was beside me at the bar as I knew he would be.
“Thought you’d be on your way by now Harper,” he said harshly.
I turned to face him, and gave him the benefit of a long hard stare before replying.
“I’m holdin’ out for these cattle that you reckon don’t exist….Only it’s a funny thing Sheriff…see Archie Dunn seems real convinced that they do. He’s out rounding ‘em up as we speak. But of course you’d know all about that, seein’ as you’re such close buddies.” I said with a sneer.
He flushed up and growled, ”Don’t you get smart with me son….I told you before your friend’s dead and there ain’t no steers.”
“And I told you before I ain’t your son,” I snapped back harshly, my words causing a sharp intake of breath from the bar flies who were now hanging on our every word.
He took one last look at me and marched out, limping badly, leaving the bar deathly silent, before finally everyone started talking at once. The piano player commenced murderin’ a decent tune again and someone bought me a drink.
It was later that night when I’d had a couple more drinks that a florid looking guy came in and made a beeline for me and roughly elbowed me aside, spilling my drink as he made for the bar.
“Hey,” I yelled, wiping my drink from my shirt front, ”watch what you’re doin’.”
He turned and stared at me….”You got a problem Mister?”
“Yeah, I like to drink my whiskey not wear it,” I said bitterly.
“Is that a fact friend?” he asked with an evil glint in his eye, before grabbing hold of my glass and emptying the remains over my shirt.
Well that just did it.
“You’re really askin’ for it ain’t ya?” I growled.
I took a swing at him and sent him sprawling and then when he came back for more I really came up swinging. A right and left to the chin sending him crashing into a table and finishing off in an untidy heap on the floor.
I marched over and dragged him up, ready to finish the job when I saw it, the Deputy Sheriff badge on his shirt, which had been well hidden by his vest.
I let go and he sank to the floor as if in slow motion….
Then I heard the unmistakable voice of Sheriff Abe Cady, ”Put your hands up son, you’re under arrest.”

Chapter 6
When I awoke I was lyin’ on a hard jail bunk, sunlight filtering through the barred window. I made to sit up, but then my head seemed to almost explode with pain as I sank back down again.
A moment later a shadow fell across me and Sheriff Cady stood sneering down through the bars.
“You’re awake then.”
I put an exploratory hand to the back of my head feeling a huge bump and then it all came flooding back. How he’d frog marched me over to the jail, opened the door to roughly push me inside and then pistol whipped me.
“Why did ya do that?” I asked now throwing him a hurt look.
He knew exactly what I meant and laughed bitterly, “You were resisting arrest I had to discipline you some.”
“The Hell I was,” I spat angrily.
He laughed again at that.
“Well there’s only you and me who know that son, isn’t there?”
I sighed deeply, ”So when do I get out?”
“Disturbing the peace, attacking a Deputy Sheriff…oh I believe I can hold you for a good while on that…unless…“
I knew it was useless arguing that I’d been provoked by his deputy, so I kept quiet.
“Unless what?” I asked just knowing I’d regret it.
“That is unless you’d like to pay the $500 fine owed maybe?”
“What, you’re kidding me” I yelled. “I damn well roughed up your deputy some; I don’t wanna buy the dadgum town.”
The Sheriff chuckled at that, “Not for sale boy…..see I already own it, lock stock and barrel.”
“So I heard,” I said morosely, my head throbbing something fierce and a feeling of nausea gradually getting worse and worse.
“Come along now Mister Harper, you must have plenty of cash on you, after all you’ve come to buy a herd of cattle…so I guess you can afford it.”
I stared at him and then it suddenly dawned on me.
“Hell, is that what all this is about? You gettin’ your Deputy to pick a fight with me so I’d end up in your jail. You thought you could get a fortune off of me just to get out…that’s extortion ain’t it?” I asked glaring at him.
“Ah, a man who knows something of the law, maybe you’d like to argue that out with Judge Sanders?“
“What that old soak? Oh I don’t think so, I think he’s in your pocket same as every other poor bastard in this town.”
“I should be very careful as to what you say Harper.”
“I’m right though ain’t I….you’re just trying to make money off me.”
He limped over and stood staring down at me, his eyes suddenly full of bitterness.
“Oh no boy, it’s more than that, much more than that.”
Then he seemed to pull himself together and wandered back over to his desk.
“You’ll find out all in due course. Now simmer down and give me some peace.” With that he picked up the local paper and ignored me.
Slim turned up later that day, still lookin’ peaky and I felt real bad at giving him more worry.
“I’ve come to pay bail on my buddy,” he said to the Sheriff.
“And so what makes you think I’m offering bail?” asked Cady throwing Slim a black look.
My partner sighed lustily, and I thought he was probably still feeling pretty rough at this obvious display of impatience.
“Well are you or not?” he asked casting the Sheriff an equally dark look.
“As a matter of fact I don’t want him cluttering up my jail, so yes you can take him. But Mister Sherman, you are responsible for him and I want him kept in town for the next few days.”
“Huh? But we’ve got a cattle deal to settle and then we’ll be out of your hair,” Slim protested.
“That’s as may be, but this man is to stay in town until my Deputy recovers. He may want to press charges, for the inconvenience, lack of earnings etcetera.”
“What are you crazy?” I burst forth. “He’s probably down the saloon now, drinkin’ and having a good old laugh at my expense!
“Do you want out Harper or not?”
“Jess just shut up will you,” said Slim in a hoarse whisper, ”you’re really not helping matters here.”
Slumping down on my hotel bed half an hour later I fixed Slim with a questioning look, “There’s something just not right about this whole set up Slim. Why did he let me go?”
“Because I paid up and he’s a busy man you heard what he said.”
“Yeah busy bein’ up to no good. And you didn’t hear what he said to me Slim, he’s really got it in for me…and I just dunno why!”
“You’re imagining it Jess, come on…”
“So why did he say he was gonna charge me a 500 bucks fine, and then suddenly decided to let me go on a $20 bail? I’ll tell you why because he wants me out of his jail so he can stitch me up somehow! Another set up like with that dang deputy.”
“Jess you’re just being unreasonable. OK I agree he’s a nasty piece of work and I don’t like the way he’s got this whole town held to ransom either, but it’s none of our business. So let’s just do as he says right now and make for home as soon as we can. He was just winding you up about the 500 bucks, tryin’ to get a rise out of you is all.”
“But don’t you think it’s odd? That foreman from the Lawrence spread is in league with the Sheriff? So why would Dunn, or indeed the Sheriff, lie about the cattle that are allegedly for sale? And lie about when old man Lawrence died too. Hell Slim you’ve gotta see there’s something fishy about that.”
He sank back on his bed and closed his eyes for a moment and I felt bad about pestering him…knowing he was still feelin’ sick.
He opened his eyes after a few minutes and glanced across at me…”So what are you saying, the wire about the cattle was some sort of a trick to get us down here?”
“Not us, just me.”
“But why?” he asked looking frustrated.
“I dunno do I, but I sure aim to find out.”
It was the following day before I managed to get Slim out of the hotel and into the saloon because that’s where I figured I might find out a bit more about what our good Sheriff had on his mind.
Slim and I took a bottle over to a quiet corner and settled down to a leisurely drink or two. As I’d imagined, it only took Betsy a few minutes before she wandered over.
“Good evening gentlemen, can I do anything for you tonight?” she asked casting me a hopeful look.
“Sure,” I drawled, ”why dontcha sit down and have a drink?“
She looked kind of surprised by that, but did as she was asked and Slim moved around the table to make room for her, throwing me a quizzical look as he did so.
I just chatted to her about this and that, hoping the drink would relax her some so that she’d open up and tell me all she knew about the Abe Cady.
Everything was going to plan, until after about half an hour the Sheriff himself marched in accompanied by a simple lookin’ guy I’d noticed in the bar before.
“The drinks are on me,” the youngster said looking real cheerful. ”I ain’t ever had a chance like this before Sheriff, and I won’t let ya down, I promise,” he said glancing down at a shiny new badge pinned to his vest.
“I don’t believe it,” whispered Betsy lookin’ really shocked, ”now why the heck has he done that? “
“Made young Jody Hodges a deputy, he’s hardly the sharpest knife in the drawer,” she said looking at me in concern, ”always been kinda slow you know….and hardly the usual type of gunslinger he surrounds himself with either.”
We looked on as the Sheriff knocked back the whiskey bought by his latest recruit and then turned to throw Betsy an irritable glance and a raised eyebrow.
“Uh-uh,” she whispered, “I guess I’m in trouble.”
“How come?” Slim asked looking surprised.
“I’m supposed to make you buy a bottle of the best whiskey and then take you upstairs,” she said, starting to fidget and looking anxious.
“So what happens if you don’t?” I asked.
“Abe gets real mad,” she said softly.
“Well what the hell’s it gotta do with him?” I asked angrily.
Her gaze flicked from the Sheriff over to her girlfriend Lindy seated at the bar and laughing with a fat old rancher as he knocked back drink after drink. Then back to me….”He owns us,” she said quietly, “he’s our pimp…we do as he says or pay the consequences.”
“Which are?” asked Slim.
She looked down sadly into her drink, ”I reckon you don’t want to know about that Mister Sherman.”
Then she peered over at me…”So how about it…Mister Harper…err Jess?”
To Slim’s amazement I just nodded.
“Sure, ol’ Slim here was fixin’ on having an early night. You were just about to turn in weren’t you pard?”
“I was?”
“Sure, you’ve been sick ain’t ya…need your beauty sleep.”
Betsy beamed up at me, “I’ll just go tell Lindy I’ll need the room,” and sashayed off across to the bar.
“What the hell are you playing at Jess, you don’t go with hookers and especially not over the hill ones like that, she’s the wrong side of forty if she’s a day,” Slim spluttered
“I know,” I whispered back, ”but it’s the only way I’m gonna get the lowdown on that bastard Cady….so….”
“So you’ll make an exception in this case,” he said, grinning broadly now.

Chapter 7
The Sheriff glanced over as Betsy and I left the bar and I suddenly had a real bad feeling, although I wasn’t sure why.
When we entered her room it was pretty much as I expected. Cheap and gaudy, the lighting dim and bed covered in black and scarlet silk sheets. There was an overwhelming smell of cheap perfume too and I swallowed hard, feeling slightly nauseous.
Once we were inside she turned the key in the lock and then reached up to kiss me.
I kissed her back, just lightly and after a moment she pulled away, looking thoughtful.
“Why do I get the impression your heart isn’t in this honey?” she asked me raising a well groomed eyebrow.
“Maybe because it ain’t,” I said honestly…”but I do wanna spend some time with you…talk to you maybe?”
She shook her head, “No…no Jess you’re not a talkin’ kinda man…I could see that right off….You like the ladies alright…and you sure ain’t shy. So what’s this all about? Maybe you feel kind of sorry for a beat up old whore like me…thought you’d take pity on me huh?” she asked bitterly.
I took a pace forwards and kissed her again, real thoroughly this time.
“Does that feel like a man who’s sorry for ya?”
She looked at me anew after that, ”I think not…but I don’t think you’re the sort of man that needs to pay for it either….so what is it you really want Jess?”
I slumped down on her bed and pulled her down beside me and still holding her hands looked deeply into her weary, cynical eyes.
“No foolin’ you eh? Ok the truth is what I’m after. I want the low down on Abe Cady and you’re the lady to tell me…huh?“
“What do you want to know?” she asked, resigned to the lack of bedroom action now.
“As to why he should lie to me and my partner, about when old Josh Lawrence died. Why he’s gotten old Ma Lawrence running scared and why he wanted me here?“
She sighed deeply for a moment, ”It’s Lindy you should be talking to, she’s close to the Sheriff, real close…..but then again she tells me everything.”
“So, you do know something?”
“Sure honey, me and Lindy were just awaiting on ya comin’….see it’s this way. Remember I told you the Sheriff had been unlucky in love?”
“Yeah, sure I do, his girl threw him over after the war, something about he didn’t look out for her kid brother?”
“That’s right. It’s blighted his life. He’s hated you ever since the war… I don’t know why, but seems you have something to do with him losing Caroline, Caroline Peak his fiancée. And then there are the injuries he received, still limps to this day and that’s made him real bitter too.”
“Hell I don’t know any Caroline….”
“Hush, just listen….he was looking for you, for whatever reason, I don’t know…something to do with Caroline and the war. Then he struck real lucky. He was in Cheyenne a few months back on business and saw an old copy of the Laramie Sentinel left on the Stage coach seat. The headlines were all about how ‘brave Jess Harper of the Sherman Ranch and Relay, near Laramie had brought in the outlaws who robbed the local bank’……remember?“
“Sure I do, I was acting deputy for Mort Cory our Sheriff.”
“Anyway, Abe remembered Ma Lawrence was from there and was just in luck that she remembered the Sherman family from years back.”
“She would,” I said thoughtfully, ”according to Slim the Lawrence and Sherman families were two of the first to settle in the area.”
Betsy nodded, ”So Abe sent the wire saying there was cheap stock up for grabs, knowing he’d made an offer you couldn’t afford to miss.”
My eyes narrowed and I cussed softly.
“So what about Ma Lawrence, was she in on the deception?”
“Yes, she’s an old woman on her own since Josh died last year. But she has a daughter and family over in Abilene. Abe threatened to hurt them if she didn’t do as he told her. She led that poor old husband of hers a merry dance. He was henpecked terrible, but she’d do anything for her girl and with Abe threatening to harm her…...well…”
“And would he have done?”
She gave a bitter laugh.
“Life is cheap to Abe he really just doesn’t care anymore who he hurts or even kills.”
I sighed deeply, “He needs to be stopped. I just wish I knew what it was he’s got against me…and what he’s gonna do about it too.”
“You could try asking Caroline Peak?”
“Huh, you mean she’s here?”
“Yes, she’s got a small house just on the edge of town, moved here after her husband died a while back.”
“Why would she do a dang fool thing like that, move here, iffen she’s thrown Cady over like you say…ain’t she worried he’ll bother her?”
“I imagine she was yes, but she came home to care for her elderly Ma…. so that had to be her priority.”
“On the edge of town you say?” I asked standing up and picking my hat up from where I’d thrown it on the nightstand.
“Yes, heading east it’s the small clapboard house, green picket fence, can’t miss it,” she said looking up at me sadly. “You’re going then?”
I just nodded, ”I’m sorry Betsy, you figured me right, I don’t pay for it….ever.”
“I thought not.”
I reached into my vest pocket and pulled out some coins and placed them on the nightstand….”Thanks.”
“What’s that for?”
“The information….and besides, Abe will expect some money won’t he? We better hadn’t disappoint him, I wouldn’t like to think he’d take it out on you.”
“Thanks, that’s so thoughtful, “she said tears suddenly springing to her eyes.
“Hey,” I said striding over and taking her shoulders, ”what is it sweetheart?”
“I’m just not used to anyone looking out for me.”
I leaned in and kissed her gently before moving to the door.
I paused and looked back touching my hat in a little farewell salute before turning and leaving.
I went out into the dimly lit corridor and never saw Jody Hodges, the Sheriff’s new deputy, shrink back into the shadows from where he’d been listening at the door for the last ten minutes.
I stood out on the sidewalk wondering if it was kinda late to go callin’ on this Mrs Caroline Peak….But then I figured I wouldn’t sleep until it was all sorted out so turned left and marched purposely down Main Street.
I found the place real easy, just like Betsy said and was pleased to see that although the drapes were drawn there was still a light on in the parlour.
I tapped on the brightly painted front door and a moment later a pretty, blond woman answered peering out at me, yes?
“Mrs Peak, Caroline Peak?”
“Yes, but it’s rather late to be calling….er Mister?”
“Harper Ma’am, Jess Harper.”
She turned deathly pale and I saw her knuckles turning white as she gripped the door tightly.
“Ma’am… Mrs Peak, you OK?”
“I…yes, I am you’d better come in Mister Harper.”
She showed me through to a smart parlour, with a crimson sofa set before a blazing fire and gestured for me to sit.
“So you’re Jess Harper,” she said quietly almost to herself.
“Do you know how long I’ve waited for this moment?” she asked, suddenly looking almost flushed with what…passion, excitement…..no anger, she was furious.
“Do I know you?” I asked, wondering how a stranger could be so all fired mad at me.
She just shook her head.
“No, but I believe you knew my little brother, in a way, that is.”
“Jimmy Jones, a Private in the Union Army…..and you Mister Harper were in the Confederacy were you not?”
“Yes Ma’am, Confederate Army of Northern Virginia”
“And were you at the Battle of Chancellorsville?“
My head shot up and my eyes opened wide in shock, “How did you know that?”
“Were you?”
“Yes I was and proud of it too. It was probably the finest battle of the war as far as we were concerned. I remember General Robert E Lee rode in to congratulate us….they said you could hear the cheering a clear mile away.”
I sank back on the bright comfortable couch in that smart little room back in Salina and was suddenly transported back to the early summer of ’63. When we took on the mighty forces of the Union Army, lead by General Joseph Hooker, against our much smaller outfit of Confederacy soldiers commanded by General Robert E Lee. And boy did he sure come up with the goods. Strategy after strategy as we out foxed and out fought the Union, until finally on the third day victory was ours.
I remembered the bitter taste and smell of war in my mouth and nostrils, the air thick with cordite and the stench of death all around us… But even so we were victorious, if bloodied and weary.
It was when the cannons had ceased to fire, the fife and drums were silent and men were starting to lay down their arms that it happened.
Out of nowhere came a volley of shots, just going wide of me and my few fellow soldiers who had paused for a rest on the way back to the main platoon.
We exchanged fire with the snipers for a few moments and then the perpetrators showed themselves. A youngish boy, I guessed he was about the same age as me, just about to turn 19. There was also an older man. It was as though they knew they would die, but had decided to go out fighting. Then everything happened at once, the boy shot me in the left arm….then my buddy came from behind me took him out. It was then that the older man sprang forwards and would have shot me dead, if I hadn’t blasted him, almost at point blank range through the leg….
He fell cussing and moaning and then all was silent.
My good friend, Davy came running over fussin’ about the wound to my arm, but it was only superficial and no cause for worry.
He made a makeshift bandage from his bandana and then we wandered over to our attackers.
The boy was obviously dead, but the older man jerked when I touched him and swore at me. I ignored that and ripping up part of his shirt made a dressing for his leg which was bleeding something fierce.
Then I suddenly remembered it. Not the face or the eyes…but the look in the eyes one of utter disdain and hatred…that look I had witnessed just a few days ago when I first looked into the eyes of….Abe Cady.
I came out of my daydreaming and peered up at Mrs Caroline Peak….”It’s him ain’t it, the guy I shot in the leg, it’s Abe Cady…..and the kid that Scotty shot, he was your kid brother? “
“Scotty shot him you say?”
“Sure, the best darn buddy I had in the war Davy Scott. He took your brother out, directly after he’d winged me… he was watching my back. Then it was me as shot Cady, hands up to that. But you have to know Ma’am, iffen I hadn’t done shot him, he sure as hell would have killed me. I’m afraid that’s the way war is Ma’am, kill or be killed.”
She nodded, ”I suppose so,” her anger seemingly to have left her.
“So how did Cady know it was me anyway?”
“Your CO rode up, saw you tending his leg….”
“Yes, he did, told me to get back to the platoon, the medics were on their way, and they’d tend my prisoner.”
“Yes and then he said well-done Harper, didn’t he?”
I gave her the ghost of a smile, “That he did. Then Davy came over and said, ’come on Jess lets go’….Jess Harper, guess he had it all then didn’t he?
“This is crazy I’ve spent all these years hating a man I didn’t even know, save his name and now it seems I’ve been hating the wrong man, if it was your friend that shot Jimmy.”
“It seems to me the only person who suffers is the one holding the grudge. The dead don’t care no more and mostly them that were involved have moved on…got on with their lives. All that happened in the war and that is the way of wars. People die, and good men on both sides… Sure there was real bad stuff that happened ….But you can’t go back and change anything, so you just have to move on…live your life the best you can….. “
“I don’t think Abe can do that. He’s invested too much of his time hating you, and blaming the fact that we never married on you too.“
“I heard something about that, so is it true?”
She shook her head looking profoundly sad at that.
“Partly, I was furious that he couldn’t keep Jimmy safe yes. But I suppose I realized after a while that I wasn’t being fair. Like you say it’s just the nature of war to lose men. No…maybe I blamed that, but really….well I just fell out of love with him, when he returned. If I ever really loved him at all,” she whispered sadly.
“So all this time he’s blamed me for you walkin’ out on him and really, you were just kinda fickle?“
She hung her head at that….”It sounds so weak and capricious, but yes I suppose so.”
I said nuthin’ but the look I threw her spoke volumes because she flushed up and looked real sheepish.
I sighed deeply having had enough of all this nonsense.
“Maybe you’ll get around to tellin’ him sometime then huh?”
“Oh, I did way back….tried to explain. I told him it wasn’t him, the fact he was disfigured, or even so much losing Jimmy, just that I’d grown, changed. I just fell out of love. But he wouldn’t listen. Then I met Joe Peak….and it was the real thing, we were married and happily until he died last year.”
“And you moved back to care for your old Ma?”
She nodded, suddenly looking worried, “Oh yes, her room’s just next door, she’ll be fretting, wondering as to who is calling so late.”
I stood up and moved towards the front door.
“I’ve said all I came to say….I’d hoped you’d be able to talk some sense into him, but it doesn’t look that way.”
She just shook her head, “I’m sorry I don’t think anyone can…or would even dare to try the way he is….”
“He sure has gotten this old town sewn up real tight,” I agreed.
I opened the front door and then paused on the step….”By the way, my best buddy, Davy that shot your brother….?“
“Yes, what about him?” she said looking bitter.
“I shouldn’t hate him too much; he was killed later at Gettysburg…. And iffen your Jimmy was just a kid…well so was Davy, just seventeen,” and with that I walked out leaving her staring after me…tears in her eyes.
When I landed back at the hotel room Slim was still awake.
I slumped down on my bed and adjusted the night light some so, I could see him better to talk.
“I thought you’d still be enjoying Miss Betsy’s many charms,” he said with an evil grin.
“Aw Slim don’t, you know dang well I just wanted to get some information out of her.”
“And did you?”
I nodded and filled him in everything, including Mrs Peak and the truth for her callin’ off the Wedding.
“There isn’t much you can do about it if he won’t listen to her Jess…..But there’s one thing for sure.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“Now we know why he conned us into coming down here we’re riding for home tomorrow….”
“No arguments Jess, this guy is gunning for you and he’s the town Sheriff. With the weight of all the town council and a tame Judge behind him, you just wouldn’t stand a chance if he set you up again.”
I sighed deeply, ”You’re right pard and anyways I’ve had it with this old town, yup, we’ll ride for home after breakfast.”
Then a thought struck me, “Hell Slim what about those beeves though, do you think Cady made them up too?”
He looked upset at that. “I’m afraid so yes. I bumped into Ma Lawrence at the Stage office. It seems Betsy was telling the truth. Her husband died six months ago and all the stock were sold off. Then once Cady found out about our connection he threatened her family. Gee Jess, she was just so sorry she’d lied to us that way.”
“It weren’t her fault, if the entire dang town can’t stand up to the man how can one little old lady?”
“I reckon you’re right. Anyway she’s on her way to live with her family in Abilene, once she’d served her purpose Cady was happy to let her go.”

Chapter 8
The next morning when we went down for breakfast the place was in turmoil. The assistant manager, Mr Fisher, a harassed looking little man was at the desk trying to pacify an elderly couple who were creating because there was no breakfast.
I turned to Slim and rolled my eyes about to throw my two cents worth into the argument, when something the man said made me stop in my tracks.
“I’m truly sorry folks but our temporary cook had a nasty accident last night and I’m afraid she died of her injuries…she was our Manager’s sister and so that’s why he isn’t here to attend to you personally.”
I elbowed the elderly couple, who were still griping, gently out of the way and turned on Fisher.
“Betsy’s dead?” I asked feeling real shocked.
“Yes sir, but we are trying to find a cook as soon as we can, I can offer you cold cuts and coffee?”
“To hell with breakfast,” I yelled, “So what happened? “
“I really couldn’t say sir, “he replied suddenly clamming up.
Then Slim came over and gently pulled me away, “Easy Jess leave him be, he doesn’t know anything I reckon.”
“Well I know someone who will,” I said and strode out of the door and across the street to the Saloon, Slim following me.
It was still very early and the street deserted, but the person I was looking for was sitting on an old rocker just outside the saloon, her eyes puffy from crying.
“Lindy,” I said hunkering down beside her,” is it true?”
She just nodded sniffing and wiping her nose with a soggy handkerchief.
“What happened?” asked Slim softly.
“Not here,” she said peering anxiously up and down the street.
Rising she took my hand and dashed down the alley beside the saloon pulling me after her. We went in the back door and straight up to her room, Slim close behind.
She closed and locked the door before turning to face us.
“Well?” I asked.
“It happened last night, not long after you’d left her,” she whispered.
“Go on.”
“The poor girl fell top to bottom of the stairs, “she whispered looking distraught.
“Fell?” I echoed.
She shook her head and tears welled up again, ”No Mister Harper, she was pushed, by Jody Hodges.”
“What the Sheriff’s latest recruit, you’re kidding me?”
She shook her head.
“Abe saw you leave, then a while later there this was this tremendous crash. I ran to the stairs and Jody was standing at the top looking so frightened….and Betsy was sprawled at the bottom. Abe was there behind me and gestured to Jody to vamoose. Then he turned to me and said real quiet, ‘You didn’t see that half-wit, he wasn’t here right!’”
“But you did Lindy…you did see him, you’ve gotta speak up!” I said fiercely.
“I can’t,” she cried,” I’ll end up the same way don’t you see that?“
“Jess, leave it,” Slim said quickly, ”the girl’s got a point.”
Then I remembered what Betsy had told me, ‘If someone gets in his way he just kills them, or more likely has them killed by one of his paid lackeys.’
“So you think this Jody was listening in….heard Betsy giving me the lowdown on the Sheriff?”
“I’m sure of it. He sent Jody off just after you took Betsy upstairs, then Jody came down just after you left…had a quick discussion with Abe and then went back up again…next thing, I heard her falling!”
Then I remembered the Sheriff watching me take Betsy off…and that real bad feelin’ I’d had, hell they were never wrong. This was my fault I shouldn’t have put her at risk that way and I felt bad…real bad.
“Look you should leave before he finds you here,” she whispered.
We turned to go,” You’ll be alright?” I asked.
She nodded, “Oh yes, you know what they say, keep your friends close…but your enemies closer. I’ll be fine….but you won’t Mister Harper, if you’ve any common sense you’ll ride out today.”
Slim gave a derisory snort at that, knowing I hadn’t any common sense to speak of.
I threw him a black look and then turned to Lindy, “Oh no, I ain’t goin’ nowhere until Betsy’s death is avenged and this goddamn town is turned around.”
We marched down Main Street, me madder than a wet hen and Slim lookin’ real anxious.
“Jess don’t go rushing into anything…please.”
“Rushing into anything?” I exploded. “Some poor defenseless woman just got herself killed for tryin’ to help me out and you expect me to do nuthin’ about it?”
He grabbed hold of my arm and pulled me around, ”Jess just stop and listen to me, can’t you see this is all a set up?”
I pulled angrily away, looking down….trying to make sense of it all, but too goddamn mad to try too hard.
“This is what we thought would happen, he’s set you up, hoping for some gun-play…..will have a sniper hidden someplace to down you….or…”
Then I heard him, taunting me, the deputy with the shiny new badge, swaggering down the centre of the street….Although early a crowd already gathering.
My head shot up and I walked towards him and just glared.
“Word on the street is you’re saying I had something to do with Miss Betsy’s death,” he called out.
Even from a distance I could smell the drink on him.
“You’re drunk,” I spat, turning away.“I don’t face up a man who’s incapable, go sober up and we’ll discuss it later.”
“Don’t you turn your back on me Harper,” he yelled, the drink makin’ him real brave.
“Look kid, go sober up!” I yelled back, but he was having none of it.
Then in the front of the crowd I saw the Sheriff standing with a bitter smile on his face.
“I do hope you’re not giving one of my deputies a hard time Mister Harper,” he called out, ”I shouldn’t want to have to arrest you again.”
I turned my back on Jody Hodge for a second time and started to walk away.
That’s when he drew on me.
Slim called a warning and I swivelled and threw myself down as I returned the fire shooting him in the left arm…He stood staring at me for a split second before a second shot caught him dead centre in the chest and he fell to the ground, dead before he hit the dirt.
I glanced up and behind me and was just in time to see a red headed gun man, up on an adjacent roof, quickly dodge back out of view.
Then I looked over to Slim and saw he’d seen it too as had most of the crowd.
The next thing I knew the Sheriff had hauled me up and was snapping on some handcuffs, a triumphant smile on his face.
“Well now son, I don’t know how things are done down in the State of Texas, but in these parts we hang a man for murdering a deputy…….”

Chapter 9
I lay on the jail bunk, my face to the wall….
Everything had happened so dang fast, it was hard to take it all in.
I guess I lost it when the Sheriff said that about hangin’ me and all.
“It weren’t me as killed him, Goddamn it you know that! Go on, go take a look Sheriff one shot from a Colt .45 in his arm….and the other in his chest from that damn sniper’s rifle. He was up on the roof, way behind me,“ I said pointing towards the shop roof, just down the street. “He had bright red hair too, dang it he was a dead ringer for one of your deputies!“
“Sniper, what sniper, you’re crazy,” he spat…..”Anyone here see another gun man?” he asked surveying the crowd with a forbidding glance.
They shook their heads and turned away, embarrassed at their betrayal.
“I did,” said Slim marching up, ”just the top of the Barber’s shop, go look Sheriff.”
“Ha, you would say that wouldn’t you Sherman? Nope this young man’s death lies fair and square at your partner’s door, so let that be an end to it.”
“And end to it!” yelled Slim lookin’ madder than I’d ever seen him. “That so called deputy of yours was blind drunk. Jess refused to fight him and turned his back. Hell he’d have back shot my partner, iffen I hadn’t warned him.”
“Out of my way Sherman, nobody else saw it that way…or do you want a jail cell too?“
“Slim leave it,” I said, ”just go find a good lawyer will ya, wire Benson, maybe he can help?”
It was later when Slim visited me in jail that he dropped the bombshell that he couldn’t get the help we needed.
Sheriff Cady had reluctantly allowed Slim to sit a spell and he explained all that had happened that day.
“What do ya mean all the lines are down and you can’t send a wire?” I asked throwing my buddy an incredulous look.
“That’s what they’re saying in the telegraph office, wires down until further notice, said the storms had brought the poles down.”
“What storms?”
“So iffen you can’t get hold of Mr Benson, there must be a lawyer here in town?”
Slim shook his head, “No, nearest is Abilene, I could ride out but….well I won’t have time pard.”
“Huh, why not?”
“Trial’s set for tomorrow….”
“What! You’re kidding me Slim, how so?”
“They don’t have to wait on a circuit judge. Judge Sanders is going to preside.”
I cussed loudly , “That old soak? Don’t tell me, they’ve started building the scaffold already.”
It was when Slim couldn’t meet my eye, that the enormity of the situation really hit me.
“My God they have. I’m really done for ain’t I Slim?” I whispered.
He jumped up from where he’d been sitting on the other bunk and started prowling around the cell.
“How can this be Jess? How can one man get away with such…such atrocities?” he growled.
I weren’t real sure what he was sayin’, but got his general drift.
“He gets away with it because the whole goddamn town is shit scared of him Slim that’s why. Look what happened to Betsy. Then that poor sod of a deputy he was just brought in to be used and slaughtered for Cady’ s own ends…how can you go up against a man like that?”
He shrugged looking completely desolate, “I don’t know Jess, I just don’t know.”
The hearing at the kangaroo court lasted all of five minutes before I was found guilty of murder in the first degree and ordered to hang by the neck until dead two days later.
When the sentence was given by Judge Sanders , he slurred the words and was obviously two parts drunk. But when I pointed that out, I was told I was in contempt of the court.
“So what are you gonna about it?” I yelled? “Throw me in jail, fine me….huh? How the hell do you sleep at night judge?”
“Take the prisoner down,” the judge said, but not before I’d seen a look in his eyes. What was it…guilt, embarrassment, no more than that…… self-loathing. Yup that was it….But I figured he weren’t feeling guilty enough to overturn the judgement anytime soon.
Slim said it was the same when he visited old Doc Chas Walker, the guy who had fixed him up when he was so sick earlier in the week.
“Doc you’re a professional man and you pronounced the deputy dead, surely you must have seen that massive wound to the chest was what killed him?”
“I don’t really recall, I see a lot of patients with gunshot wounds,” he had replied.
“Doc, it was just the other morning, the man’s still on the mortuary slab at the undertakers, come and take a look please. He was killed by a rifle shot to the chest. Jess just winged him, it was only a flesh wound…Hell doc you can’t lie about this!”
“I’m sorry I just can’t help you.”
Now Slim was back in my cell visiting and my time was running out.
Then I heard it, the unmistakable sound of men hammering out in the street. As they put the finishing touches to the scaffold.
Slim and I exchanged a look of barely concealed horror and the next thing was Abe Cady came crashing in.
“Visiting’ s over, come on Sherman out.”
Slim walked over to the door reluctantly before turning.
“I’ll see you tomorrow pard, and Jess don’t give up, it’ll be OK.”
“Sure, sure it will,” said the Sheriff when he returned a few minutes later a sly smile on his face.
I ignored him and just lay back on my bunk staring at the ceiling.
“So then Harper it’s time I told you why you’re here…off the record of course. I’ll just deny everything if you ever tell a living soul….Oh no, you won’t be able to will you…not come Friday anyways…save yer Maker and then it’ll be kinda late for you won’t it.”
“You’re not gonna get away with this you low life,” I spat, suddenly my temper taking over from the despair I’d been feeling since the trial.
“Shut it Harper and just listen. You single handedly wrecked my life. I went to war a happy fit man, with a loving woman behind me…and I came back a mess, scarred, and crippled to a woman who didn’t want to know anymore.”
“Oh save your goddamn sob story,” I yelled really furious now. “Your woman walked out because she darned well fell out of love with ya! Simple as that Cady…but you just ain’t man enough to face it.”
“What? You know nothing of my Caroline….I“
“Well that’s where you’re wrong,” I interrupted, ”because we’ve talked and she told me all about it….how she just didn’t love ya anymore, how you’d both changed after the war.”
“You bastard,” he bawled coming to the bars of the cell and gripping hold of them, his knuckles white and an expression of bitter hatred in his eyes.
It was later that night when I’d finally fallen into a restless sleep, that the cell door creaked open.
I lifted my head up squinting through the dim light filtering in from a lamp on the office desk beyond.
Then a fist hit me in the face and then another and another.
I tried to roll away, protect myself from the blows that were raining down on me and then firm hands grabbed hold of me pulling me to the floor where I was kicked repeatedly until eventually everything went black….
“Jess, Jess what in Hell happened to you?”
I groaned and eventually opened my eyes, the sunlight blazing in through the cell window making me wince.
“Sheriff Cady and his deputies, I guess that’s what happened to me pard,” I finally managed.
“What?” and he made to get up from where he was perched on the edge of my bunk, but I put a hand out and pulled him back.
“Leave it Slim, you start creatin’ and I’ll only get more of the same when you’ve gone.”
“You need a doctor Jess you’re black and blue…….”
I put a tentative hand up to my swollen throbbing lip and a painful cut to my cheek.
“Quit fussin’ Slim, I’ll be OK.”
“Sheriff, Sheriff!” he yelled going and standing by the cell door.
Cady ambled in a few minutes later, “What’s all the ruckus about?”
“The state of your prisoner that’s what it’s about, what the hell happened to him?”
“Oh, that,” Cady said peering across at me…”yeah, he had a bad dream in the night, fell out of bed I believe the deputy said.”
Slim didn’t even bother acknowledging that.
“He needs a doc.”
“Oh well there really ain’t much point is there?” said Cady now grinning nastily.
I could see Slim was gettin’ all fired up, so decided to wade in.
“Slim it’s fine leave it, we need to talk, make arrangements…..”
He half turned to look at me and then back to the Sheriff. “Can I have some clean water and cloths at least?”
He nodded and returned a few minutes later and grudgingly handed them through the bars. He turned to leave us and then paused, “Oh by the way, undertakers is just down the street on the right can’t miss it, be handy to know, if you’re making arrangements,” and laughing he moved off.
When Slim turned back to me his face was deathly pale and he couldn’t look me in the eye, merely sank down beside me. After ringing out the cloth he gently started to wipe the congealed blood off my face and clean out the deep gash to my cheek.
The night before I’d lain there, in agony, drifting in and out of consciousness and I had decided on my fate. I was out of there. I wasn’t about to hang for something I hadn’t done. And if going on the run was the only way then so be it. But there was one thing. I didn’t want Slim involved. There was no way that I was going to include him in my troubles and now I had to convince him of that.
He was lookin’ down at me, cleanin’ me up like he always did if I was hurt bad and I suddenly got this huge lump in my throat.
After a minute I pushed him gently away and sat up…”I’m OK now Slim, really just leave it huh? We need to talk.”
He raised an eyebrow but did as I asked, “What’s on your mind Jess?”
I swallowed hard and then said, “I’m jumpin’ ship Slim…goin’ on the run.”
He took a deep breath at that and then he completely shocked me.
“I thought you would be. So when are we going and how are we going to spring you?”
“Hey hold on pard. There ain’t no we…this is me that’s crossin’ the line in the sand between the law and the owl hoot trail…not you.”
“Don’t be crazy Jess, sure I’m going to spring you….though God knows how…..”
I just shook my head stubbornly, “Nope, I ain’t gonna let you do it Slim. You’ve got way more to lose than me…Andy, old Jonesy, Hell the relay business…… your Pa’s business….Not to mention your good name.”
He was silent for a few minutes and put his head in his hands and I knew, just knew how dang hard this was for him.
But when he finally looked me in the eye he was full of resolve, “I’m sorry Jess but I just can’t leave you here to die…..”
“Listen to me Slim you don’t have to…I’ve got me a plan.”
“Go on,” he said with a resigned sigh.
“I think Lindy will help me.”
“What that hooker from the saloon, I thought she was going with the Sheriff?”
I smiled at that, “Ain’t you ever heard the sayin’ keep your friends close and your enemies closer? Well she’s keepin old Cady real close…and she knows his every move. And there’s something else Slim, she hates him something fierce since he had Betsy killed.”
“So what’s your plan then?”
“She’s taken over from Betsy, cookin’ part time at the hotel and brings my meals over. I want you to ask her to smuggle a knife in….and the rest’s down to me.”
Slim threw me a look that said he doubted I’d have the strength to wield a knife, iffen I ever got hold of it, but he wisely kept his thoughts to himself, and I went on.
“The Sheriff always finishes at around ten in the evening and goes over for a little light relief in the Saloon. I can easy overpower that dozy deputy of his,” I said giving Slim a firm look,” and all you’ve got to do is have Traveller waiting out back for me. And talk to Lindy, make sure she takes Cady upstairs as soon as he goes across…then by the time he comes back down you’ll be sitting in the bar with a room full of alibis.”
He shook his head looking worried, ”I should be here to watch your back Jess, you’ve been pretty badly beat up and if you’re going to do this it has to be tonight, you’ve got a date with the hangman tomorrow you know.”
I threw him a challenging look, “I’m not likely to forget it am I Slim? But I ain’t goin’ nowhere unless you promise me to keep out of it, understand?”
“I understand,” he said eventually.
I smiled over at him, “Thanks Slim.”
“So where will you go?”
I shrugged, “They say Canada’s pretty good, a man can still find some land… I might settle down, get my own place eventually you never know.”
Then his face contorted with emotion…”Jess pard….I…”
“Hush Slim, just leave it huh?….Maybe we’ll meet up again sometime….When we’re old and grey eh….and we’ll look back and laugh about this,”…..and my voice broke as I jumped off the bunk and turned away for a moment to look out of the barred window. My heart beating ten to the dozen…suddenly realizing just how much the great galoot had come to mean to me….hell he was like kin, I thought, swallowing hard.
Then when I turned back he offered me his hand and we shook and then he pulled me into a big bear hug.
After a minute I pulled away, “Look Slim we’ve got to make this look real good. I don’t want you mixed up in this in any way. So I want you to yell at me…get real mad, for the Sheriff, make him think we’ve had a real bad row OK?”
“I don’t think I can right now,” he said with a weak smile.
“Sure you can, just remember all those times I bunked off swimming or fishing in work time…huh? OK here’s what you do…..”
After a few minutes Slim took a deep breath, “Here goes….”
“Sheriff, get in here!” Slim bawled.
“Garldarn it what now, I ain’t fetching the doc and that’s final.”
“Hell I don’t want the doc to him. Just let me out of here right now or I’ll kill the bastard before you get a chance to get a noose around his neck!”
The Sheriff came forwards quickly to liberate Slim, a spring in his step at this new turn of events.
“Hey I thought this guy was a buddy of yours?” he said barely concealing his glee.
“He was,” spat Slim, “before he went off with my woman behind my back…thinks he can confess on the day before he dies and I’ll dang well forgive him!”
“You’re not the forgiving type then Mister Sherman?”
“Would you be?” yelled Slim, as he followed the Sheriff out.
But at the door he turned and gave me a sly wink, before leaving.
“No, I’m not even staying for the hanging, he’s on his own from now on,” I heard him continue as he made to leave.” I’ll be riding out for Laramie at first light, goodbye Sheriff.”

Chapter 10
I lay back on my bunk; hands laced behind my head and sighed deeply. Even though Slim’s words were all part of our ploy to trick the Sheriff, they still stung. But at least it had worked and Cady had fallen for it hook line and sinker…Slim would get out of this safely with his honour intact, thank God I thought. Gee how could I ever have faced Andy again iffen I’d dragged his beloved brother down in the dirt with me, it was unthinkable.
I rested up until supper time feeling that every darned part of me was hurtin’ like hell and I suppose feelin’ real sorry for myself too. What was I gonna do if Lindy didn’t come through?
She was a little later than usual when she bustled in with a tray covered with a snowy white cloth and went over to Cady for him to check it.
He gave it a cursory glance and then grabbed her playfully around the waist. ”I might finish a little early tonight sweet thing,” he said pulling her close.
I’d swung my legs round off the bunk and stood up when she entered and now I stiffened, no…please God no don’t change your plans now I prayed, knowing it would wreck any chance of my escape.
“Uh-uh, sorry honey, but Mr Briggs from the bank is coming in tonight and you know how he asks for me special, you’ll just have to wait until you get off at ten as usual.”
He just grunted at that, ”OK, go feed the poor bastard,” he said patting her butt as she made her escape.
With her back to him the look of revulsion on her face was plain for me to see.
She caught my eye and winked as Cady came up behind her and unlocked the cell.
“Git back,” he ordered me and I did as he said, so Lindy could enter and place the tray on a nearby stool.
However as she came in she deliberately tipped the tray so the tumbler of water fell to the ground smashing into a thousand shards. We both instinctively bent down to pick up the pieces and quick as a flash she pulled a hunting knife from her skirt pocket and I grabbed it and transferred it into the top of my boot in one swift movement.
“Hey Lindy get away from there, what do you think you’re doing?” Cady stormed and we exchanged an alarmed glance as he strode over.
“What are you thinking of girl you’ll cut yourself, come away, the prisoner will sort it out,” and grabbing her elbow escorted her out of the cell.
I sank down on my bunk, almost light headed with relief, so far so good.

It was getting late, nearly ten when the office door opened admitting Caroline Peak.
Abe Cady ’s head shot up and he turned an unbecoming shade of red.
“Why Caroline what are you doing here?” he asked gruffly.
She stood on the threshold looking hesitant and then her gaze flicked to where I was lying on my bunk in the cell just beyond the office.
She seemed to make up her mind and entered closing the door behind her.
“I’m here to petition on behalf of Mister Harper.”
He swivelled in his chair to glare at me and then turned back to her, his eyes narrowing, “You have, have you? So why would you want to do that, my dear?” He asked, the added ‘my dear’ said with a sarcastic sneer.
“Because he’s innocent,” she said moving towards him and looking angry now.” We both know it, goodness me Abe the whole town knows it….you can’t go on doing this…”
“Doing what?” he growled angrily.
“Blaming Mister Harper for the fact that we broke up…it’s no more his fault, than it was yours. I was to blame Abe and I’m sorry, really sorry. I was young and foolish. I just didn’t know my own mind….even before you went to war I’d had my doubts….”
“I don’t believe you,” he said cutting her short.
Then his eyes narrowed with suspicion and he threw me another nasty look.
“Just a goddamn minute, I see it all now,” he said, glaring at her. “Harper here said he’d visited you…..and I figure you got kind of cosy. You’re in the market for a new man now your husband’s dead and this hombre fits the bill. That’s it isn’t it Caroline? Isn’t it!” he cried advancing on her and grabbing her shoulders roughly.
I jumped off the bunk and dashed across the cell, grabbing and shaking the bars in my anger.
“Let her go Cady, you’re crazy, it ain’t nuthin’ like that!”
“You keep out of it!” he spat, turning to scowl at me.
“Please Abe you’re hurting me,” she said struggling and after a moment he loosened his grip.
“Go Caroline, just go…please,” I implored her, as I watched the clock ticking relentlessly on, knowing all our plans would be scuppered if she didn’t leave there and then.
She threw me a heartrendingly sad look and I just nodded at her.
“Go on,” I said, “it’ll be fine, just go before he hurts you.”
At that she suddenly seemed to realize the danger she was in and fled, almost colliding with the deputy as he entered to spell the Sheriff.
“I’ll be in the Saloon if you need me Pete,” he said rising to leave, “watch the prisoner real good, make sure he gets his beauty sleep, got a busy day tomorrow,” and with that he left.
But not before he’d glared at me one last time….”Tomorrow son, you’ll git what’s owing”….and with that he limped off.
I ignored him and took myself off to the back of the cell and had a quick look out of the tiny barred window. I could just make out the rump of a horse tethered at the end of the ally and hoped and prayed that it was Traveller. Also that Slim was now sitting in the saloon with a whiskey, surrounded by the good folk of Salina as his alibi.
The deputy who was not a bad sort wandered over.
“Can I get you anything?” He asked.
I shook my head, “No thanks, I ain’t feelin’ any too good, think I’ll get my head down,” and I went and slouched down on my bunk.
After a minute he went and sat at the desk, feet up and started to read the local rag.
It was a good fifteen minutes later that I started putting my plan into action, feeling pretty sure that the Sheriff would be upstairs with Lindy by now.
I lay on my side, knees up and let out a monumental groan and Pete’s head shot up.
“What’s wrong Harper, you sick?”
“Yeah, real bad,” I gasped, “Arrrgh,” and let out another cry of pain.
He sauntered over and peered at me through the bars and suddenly realized the slop bucket wasn’t in place. I’d deliberately knocked it over earlier and the Sheriff had forgotten to replace it, as I knew he would.
“Hey, you’re not gonna chuck are you?” he asked desperately looking around for the bucket.
I sat up and held my belly again doubling over, ”I am yeah,” I replied.
Within moments he had the keys, fetched the bucket and was in the cell advancing on me…
As soon as he was in striking distance, leaning down to place the bucket near me, I threw myself at him and grabbing him managed to get the knife to his throat, holding him from behind.
“Don’t make a wrong move Pete and you’ll be OK,” I growled….
It was then that I realized I was practically as weak as a kitten after the vicious beating of the night before and Pete knew it.
It only took him a moment to elbow me in the ribs. I flew back onto the bunk. Then he followed through, his full weight on top of me and we wrestled for command of the knife. I still held it in a vice like grip, but slowly and surely he was forcing it down towards my throat…. I felt my muscles shudder and begin to give way…..Then just as it seemed the knife would plunge into my neck, his grip loosened and he fell across me.
I stared up in astonishment and straight into Slim’s friendly blue eyes.
“What in hell are you doin’ here?” I yelled as I pushed the unconscious Deputy off of me.
Slim returned the iron he’d pistol whipped Pete with back in his holster before leaning over and grabbing the unconscious man.
“I thought you might need a hand, now help me tie and gag him before he comes round.”
We dragged him into the adjacent cell used by overnight staff and bound and gagged him real good, pulling a blanket over so at a quick glance he would appear to be sleeping….. But not before he’d come around and seen Slim.
“Garldarn it Slim, he’s recognised you,” I cried in fury, “I told you to stay away….”
“Look, get mad later. Let’s just get the hell out of here before someone comes,” he replied and I guess I could sure see the logic in that. But it didn’t stop me from continuing to cuss softly under my breath.
I went over to the desk and found my rig and spent a moment or two reloading while Slim peered out of the door at the deserted street. I dimmed the light on the desk, hoping if Cady decided to return he’d think the deputy had turned in and would leave again.
I finally grabbed my hat and jacket and made for the door with Slim getting real hot around the collar now, just wanting to git out of there. We dived outside onto the deserted sidewalk and down the alley at the side of the jail where Traveller and Alamo were waiting patiently.
“OK Slim we ride out real slow and easy.“
“We don’t wanna attract attention iffen anyone’s around, trust me on this.”
Once we reached the edge of town we continued for a mile or so at a brisk trot until I reined Traveller in.
As Slim reined in beside me I fixed him with a stony gaze.
“What the hell were you playin’ at back there? You said….hell you promised me you wouldn’t get involved Slim!”
He shook his head and grinned at me, ”I didn’t actually pard. I said I understood that you didn’t want me riding out with you, but I never promised I wouldn’t do it.”
Well that made me even madder.
I felt like jumping off my horse and landing one on him. Of all the dang fool stupid things to do…..And iffen he hadn’t stood by you you’d be lyin’ on the cell floor in a pool of blood with a slit throat a little voice in my head reminded me.
I looked over to that eager open face…”Goddamn it Slim,” I said shaking my head wearily. “OK let’s ride.”
I insisted we split up, sending him on ahead to a landmark we’d both seen on the ride into town, whilst I doubled back and removed our tracks.
It was almost dawn by the time I finally caught up with him, staring anxiously across the open terrain lookin’ out for me.
“Hell Slim, get under cover, there could be a posse ridin’ out anytime iffen the Sheriff found out I’d gone last night.”
“I thought maybe you’d lit out on your own,” he said quietly.
“What and leave a greenhorn outlaw like you to fend for himself, hell no,” I said with a cheery grin. Then the realization of what I’d just said hit me… “God Slim I’m so damn sorry I’ve gotten you caught up in all this mess.”
“Well don’t be, it was my decision Jess, I know what I’m doing.”
I just shook my head, he didn’t though. He really hadn’t thought it through. Had no idea of the consequences I figured.
“Come on pard let’s get out of here,” I said after casting an anxious glance back to the way I’d come, as the first fingers of dawn lit up the trail.
We didn’t even have time for a coffee and that sure didn’t suit me I can tell you. But I knew the truth of it. Bein’ on the run was uncomfortable, tedious and mostly darn right terrifying. Constantly on the alert, never letting your guard slip for a single moment was plain exhausting, I knew only too well.
I saw that Slim noticed the change in me that first day. I was edgy, mean and real short with him. Almost barking orders and yelling at him when he wanted to light a fire as dusk fell and the air turned chill.
“Are you crazy? They could be right behind us Slim and see the smoke, hell even smell it. Do you see the way the wind’s blowing, southerly, back way we’ve come?”
Once it was dark we hunkered down for the night and I found some jerky in my saddle bag, so at least we had that to chew on and plenty of water.
Slim was quiet for a while and I guessed he was beat and feelin’ plain wretched same as me.
He finally looked over and said, “So where are we heading?”
“Smokey Hill Trail, fastest way out of Kansas,” I replied, “due west towards Denver. We can hole up in the Smokey Hills for a while, until they give up on us anyway.”
“You think they will?”
“I sure hope so Slim. As long as they haven’t found any tracks I figure they’ll go looking down south, thinkin’ I’ll be headin’ for the Texas border.”
“Isn’t the Smoky Trail in Comanche territory?” he asked looking anxious.
“I reckon, but they’ll leave us alone, if we give ‘em a wide enough berth. I’d rather take them on anyway, rather than a posse with a rope waiting at the end of my ride,” I replied.
“Then what…. Canada?“
“For me yes…. But once we hit Denver we’ll carry on into Wyoming. I think iffen you explain everything, talk to Benson and Mort, then maybe you’ll be able to get off lightly Slim.”
He thought about that…”And you too…heck you were set up Jess. The whole town knows it; they’re just too darned scared to say so.”
“We’ll see,” I said quietly, knowing that with my reputation there would be no chance of a reprieve….but Slim; well that was a different matter, or so I thought.
It was the next day that I spotted the posse approaching.
We’d made it as far as the foothills and climbed quite a way up so that we had a good view of the plain, back towards the town, and it was as good a place as any to hunker down and sit it out.
There were huge rocks for cover and we’d ground hitched the horses in a small valley back of us, well out of sight of the trail thank God.
I saw the cloud of dust way before they got anywhere near and alerted Slim, so we were well hidden in the dense brush way before they got close.
They came within a few hundred yards and then rode off back towards the town, heading due south and I realized we’d both been holding our breath as they disappeared into the distance.
I looked over to Slim. He was pale and sweating, and I really began to understand what all this was doing to him then.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
He nodded….then threw me a troubled look, “Hell Jess what would we have done if they’d opened fire?”
I just shrugged, ”I dunno, fired back.”
He sucked in a deep breath and looked even more troubled.
“That’s about the size of it Slim. You walk that fine line and get on the wrong side of the law, its dang hard to cross back again. So do you see now why I didn’t want you along?” I asked sadly.

Chapter 11
It was just a few days later when Slim’s principles were tested yet again. We passed a few ranches and most of them looked pretty well-to-do. So I believed maybe I could liberate a few much needed goods from one of them.
We’d made camp, feeling pretty sure we were off and free as far as the posse was concerned. However I was real aware that Cady wouldn’t give up that easy and there would be Wanted posters with our faces splattered across them the length and breadth of Kansas and doubtless Colorado too. That’s why I knew I couldn’t merely knock at a door and do a bit of bartering, or offer to pay for goods. But equally I didn’t want to say anything to Slim. I figured the thought of Wanted posters hadn’t occurred to him, yet anyway. Then another thought struck me, what if they’d got as far as Wyoming and Mort, or worse Andy and Jonesy had seen them?
“What’s up Jess you’re look real troubled?” asked Slim glancing across to where I was just finishing some of last night’s stew for breakfast.
“Nuthin’ pard, I was just thinkin’ I’m gettin’ sick of rabbit stew, I might just call in at that ranch we saw a mile back. Buy us some steaks, trail grub, coffee and the like, iffen they can spare them, what do ya say?”
“Sure, I’ll come with you…”
“No,” I said quickly, ”that is….I’ll be quicker on my own, you stick around here, see what fish you can pull out of the creek yonder huh?”
It was still pretty early when I arrived at the small spread and I stayed hidden in a copse overlooking the house for a while until a man came out with a pretty looking woman. They embraced and then he mounted up and with a farewell wave made off. Probably to check out his stock I reckoned.
I waited until I saw the woman come out and start feeding the chickens and doing the yard work before I made my way down to her.
She looked real fearful when I rode up and made to run in the house, but I jumped off Traveller and caught up with her before she could lock me out.
“Hey, it’s OK Ma’am I mean you no harm,” I said giving her what I hoped was my most charming smile.
“What do you want?” she asked, lookin’ real pale and scared now.
“I’m just passin’ through and got caught short. I’ve run out of trail grub, coffee that sorta thing, I wondered if I could trade with you Ma’am? I’ve got me some money.”
She came a little closer and peered at me intently, before backing off towards the door again. “You’re one of them aren’t you?” she cried, “one of the men that murdered that poor young Deputy back in Salina.”
I laughed at that, “Me ma’am? Heck I’ve never been there; look I just want some supplies that’s all.”
She let out a little whimpering noise and made a dash for the door again, but I was too fast for her and grabbed hold of her, drawing my gun.
“Look Ma’am, we can do this easy or hard, but either way I need some food and ammo. I’m willing to pay, but I can’t leave without it, you understand?”
She nodded and gestured for me to follow her inside where she started collecting stuff and throwing it in a gunny sack, shaking and crying softly.
I felt so dang bad I almost lit out and left her, but I knew I couldn’t. I hadn’t said much to Slim, but our route was a long punishing one and we needed extra canteens, ammunition and staple food supplies too. Without it we didn’t stand much of a chance of getting through. Days on the drift with little water or good nourishing food had taught me their importance to survival , and sure as hell I didn’t want Slim getting sick on top of everything else.
When I finally had everything I needed including some medical supplies and a couple of warm blankets I turned to go.
“Will you be ok?” I asked, ”your husband he’ll be back soon?”
She just nodded looking petrified and I realized she thought I’d asked because I was going to hurt her in some way.
“Heck, I ain’t gonna harm you Ma’am,” I said quickly, “I’m just concerned for you is all.”
I passed across more cash than the items were worth from the untouched cow money and then backed off.
“I’m sorry I frightened you, really I am,” I said softly. “And just for the record, I’m innocent. I didn’t kill that deputy….”
She just stared back and after a moment I took off, kneeing Traveller on to a gallop, wanting to just get the hell out of there.
When I got back we broke camp and moved off deeper into the Smoky Hills.
We rode hard all day with barely a word spoken between us. It wasn’t until we were camped and had enjoyed some decent trail grub and were sipping our coffee that Slim enquired about the trade.
“So were they happy to sell the stuff Jess?”
“I guess.”
“Nice folk were they?“
“Huh? Err yeah.”
He looked over at me questioningly, suddenly aware of my less than forthcoming replies.
“Jess…..hell did they ask any questions…about…..”
“Look Slim it was OK, now just ease off will ya I’m dead beat.”
He looked into my troubled eyes and realization dawned. ”Hell they knew didn’t they Jess….what happened, please tell me you didn’t rob them?”
“No I didn’t rob ‘em,” I growled, ”got all the dang cow money we never used haven’t I?”
“But they didn’t give it willingly, did you have to use force?”
“Some I guess…now just leave it will ya. Nobody was hurt and I left her the money, so that’s it…..we needed the stuff Slim, to survive, or I’d never have done it.”
“Done what Jess?” he asked ominously quietly.
I looked down and then finally met his accusing gaze.
“Turn my gun on her. I had to else she’d have locked herself in the house. I’d have had to break in and that would have been worse for her. God knows she was scared enough as it was,” I finished quietly.
Slim looked deeply shocked and then put his head in his hands, “Jeez what’s becoming of us?” he whispered.
I figured there was just no answer to that and lay down on my bed roll and stared up at the stars….What’s becoming of us he’d said. I couldn’t do this, couldn’t drag him down with me….but what choice was there?
The following morning we barely spoke. After a scratch breakfast we took off climbing higher and higher in the Smokey hills. It sure was pretty and teaming with wildlife and under different circumstances we’d have a real good time, huntin’ and fishin’. But now with the burden of guilt and worry weighing us down we both felt just plain miserable.
There was something else that had been nagging at me all day long too, a feeling we were being followed. I reckoned the posse wouldn’t have made it out this far and thought maybe it was the irate husband of the pretty young woman back at the ranch. I didn’t want to say anything to Slim, knowing he was spooked enough already. However after the fourth or fifth time I’d reined in and sat raking the open countryside behind us with anxious eyes he noticed something was up.
“What is it?” he said quietly, looking back too. “Please tell me that darned posse isn’t back again?”
“Nope, nuthin’ like that, just got a feelin’ is all.”
“Oh,” he said throwing me the ghost of a smile, “you and your feelings eh?”
I shook my head, ”I’m never wrong Slim, you know that…”
“Oh no, of course you’re not,” he said his face relaxing into a genuine grin now. “Except that time you said you had a real bad feeling about that woman in the saloon in Cheyenne, Janie, that’s her…turns out she really liked ya.. I mean really liked you Jess.”
“Uh, yeah and she forgot to mention she had a husband due home that night, so my bad feeling was kinda justified huh?”
“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about him. Big hombre wasn’t he,“ said my buddy sniggering.
“What about that bad feeling you had over that new teacher of Andy’s, now she turned out alright didn’t she? “
“Oh sure ‘cept she wanted the banns readin’ after our first date.”
“Yes, but she was real cute. You can’t deny that pard?”
“OK, OK, you’ve made your point, but it don’t stop me havin’ a real bad feeling right now…come on Slim, let’s get out of here.”
I sure wish that Slim had proved me wrong….But nope my real bad feeling was spot on as it always was and trouble hit us just a couple of hours later.
We’d made camp in a real good spot, near a river and with plenty of tree cover and even grazing for the mounts. I took a look around while Slim made a start on the supper and found there were deer tracks all around the river bank. If we got lucky the following day we would be dining on venison for a change.
I stood looking out beyond the river to the distant plain and then back to the surrounding rocky hills. It sure was a peaceful spot, but there was something not right… A shiver ran down my spine and I turned back to Slim and the camp fire.
They came out of nowhere, a small band of Comanche. Young, braves with bloodlust in their eyes.
There were just a few of them, but they had the surprise element on their side.
They rode in hard as we sat by the campfire. Their horses trampling everything in their way, which would have included us iffen we hadn’t moved damn quick.
They were too fast and close for us to even think of getting a shot in and it was hand to hand combat from the start, as they leapt from their ponies, throwing themselves down upon us.
Armed with tomahawks and knives they had the look of frenzied killers about them, wild eyed and deadly. Their faces and even ponies daubed in war paint.
I was immediately set on by two of them and no sooner had I pitched off one punching him hard in the face, than another attacked me.
I reached for the hunting knife, in my boot and faced the second assailant who was wielding a tomahawk. It was decorated with feathers and had a long handle giving him the advantage of a longer reach. I ducked and dived and threw myself down grabbing his legs and bringing him down with me as we rolled over and over ending up in the river.
Somewhere along the line he lost his grip on the tomahawk and I was able to throw a punch as we splashed about in the icy river. After exchanging several blows I finally managed to overcome him and held him below the water, until I felt him go limp and I knew he was dead.
I glanced up and saw that Slim had dispatched one of the braves and another two were laying into him as he manfully tried to parry their attack with a spear he had liberated from his first assailant.
I waded out and tore over to him, grabbing one of the braves by the shoulder and spinning him around to face me before landing a haymaker that sent him flying backwards. He hit a projecting rock and fell badly and it didn’t take me long to stick him with his own knife.
I staggered up and wiped the blood from my face with my sleeve a deep gash to my forehead bleeding so dang much I could barely see.
Slim was still grappling with a huge tough looking hombre whilst another brave, who I’d already, tussled with, turned and made a beeline for me. There was a look of bitter hatred on his young face as he came in for the kill. He had a large lethal looking hunting knife and we circled each other like a pair of prowling big cats.
He was the first to lunge and managed to slash my left arm, and I looked in shock as a crimson ribbon of blood ran down my shirt sleeve.
Well iffen I was mad before I was doggone furious now.
He was a good few pounds heavier and a good head taller, but I had the advantage of speed over him…and stamina too. I ducked and lunged but could get nowhere near him, the long knife he was wielding making it impossible.
I finally managed to trip him, he fell heavily and then I pounced on him using all my strength to wrestle his knife out of his hands….We rolled again and he was on top, the knife poised above me hovering for a moment before he brought it down almost as if in slow motion….. At the last second I managed to struggle free and to roll away .But not fast enough and I felt the knife pierce my side, the white hot burning pain making me cry out in pain.
Sometime about then my survival instinct kicked in and I seemed to have the strength of three as I brought my knees up and jerked forwards throwing him on his back. Then I plunged my knife deep into his chest.
I pulled my knife out and got shakily to my feet, staring down at the dead brave, the pain in my side making me almost fall to my knees again… That was until I saw something that made me forget it.
The last brave had straddled Slim, who looked almost out of it. He had a hank of Slim’s hair in his fist and his tomahawk raised ready to smash it down on my buddy’s head.
I instinctively just hurled my knife at the Indian and it slammed into his back right between his shoulder blades with a sickening thud.
He stayed motionless for a good few seconds before the tomahawk finally clattered to the stony ground and the Indian fell forwards across my pard’s prostrate body.
Slim was pretty much unhurt, but deeply shocked and it took us both a few minutes to come to our senses.
He had managed to push the dead man away and lurched over to me, now on my knees, one hand pressed into the wound in my side.
“Jess, I owe you,” he finally managed, panting and wiping a sleeve across his filthy, bloodied face.
I looked up and gave him a weak smile, “What for getting you into this goddamn mess in the first place?”
He just shook his head, “You know what I mean,” Then he hunkered down beside me, “let’s take a look pard, is it deep?”
He fixed it up with a clean rag for a bandage and then I insisted we break camp and move on, not knowing how many more renegades might be waiting to pounce. Good ol’ Slim kindly fished around in the river for my colt, lost in the fight, and once I had my iron back, we broke camp.
We’d led our mounts on up the rocky terrain through the falling dusk and didn’t stop until we’d reached a high vantage point, where I was pretty convinced we wouldn’t be caught napping again. It had been hard, real hard and a couple of times I really thought I wouldn’t make it.
Once we made camp I insisted Slim didn’t light a fire and kept real quiet, until I was sure we were safe. Hoping the Indians were just a rebel group of youngsters separated from the main tribe.
Later that night we lay on our bedrolls, still listening out for any tell-tale sounds of further trouble. My side was throbbing like Hell from the knife wound and Slim looked sickly in the pale moonlight too.
“I thought a treaty was signed back in ’67?”he finally whispered, glancing over at me.
“Yeah, and broken again in ’68,” I said bitterly. “We had raids down in Texas, trouble in this part of Kansas too. But you know Slim I feel sort of sorry for them. The way some folk tell it, the Indians were pushed onto a small Reservation and promised that the white man would cease Buffalo slaughter. When they figured that it hadn’t happened, they’d been lied to, well that’s when trouble broke out again.”
“So how do you know so much about the Indians Jess?”
“Got myself a mess of real good Indian friends,” I said quietly, ”in the Arapaho tribe.”
“Really, so tell me about it?” he asked his interest sparked.
But I weren’t about to fill him in. Tell him all about my past living with the tribe. I still didn’t know him well enough, thought maybe he’d judge me. How could I ever explain my deep friendship with a people, who in Slim’s books had just tried to kill us? * See #15 Blood Brothers
“Nuthin’ to tell,” I said gruffly, “there’s good and bad in all peoples ain’t there?”
He just nodded, knowing that once I clammed up that was that. So he tried another tack.
“What do you mean when you said those kids back there were rebels?”
“I just think they were…Comanche’s don’t tend to attack that way….we didn’t have much stuff, only the two horses, it didn’t make sense. I guess they’re a bunch of youngsters who had split away from the main tribe and just wanted to get in trouble….Did you smell the drink on them… that fired them up some too…they ain’t used to it.”
“So, the Comanche’s you rate them too do you?” he asked giving me a shrewd look.
“Good horsemen,” I said succinctly and then pulled my blanket over, “Night Slim.”
It was the following morning before we both realized how bad hurt we were. I reckon I came off pretty much the worst. The slash down my arm wasn’t too deep. But the one to my side was just above my belt, the knife going in under my ribs and I was worried although I made light of it.
Slim had gone through the basic medical supplies handed over by the young rancher’s wife, but there was no whiskey or spirit of any kind to clean out our wounds, which was worrying too. Slim had a nasty gash to his cheek and another cut to his thigh although not too deep.
I looked over at him after our scratch breakfast of cold left over biscuits and water and shook my head sadly, “Look at the state of us.”
He threw me a rueful grin. ”It’s times like these old Jonesy and his liniment don’t seem too bad.”
The mention of the folk back at the ranch was like a like a kick in the belly and as I looked over at Slim I could see he was upset too. Was he regretting his decision to spring me I wondered…Hell how could he not. Damn it, he had so much to lose and I felt just terrible.
We decided to rest up some before we moved on and it wasn’t until the following day that it became clear that I was in real trouble with the knife wound to my side. Slim had cleaned it out as best he could, but I decided the hunting knife would have been real dirty and the way the wound was looking I guessed I had a nasty infection coming.
“Hell Jess,” Slim said with a gasp when he checked it, “you really need a doc to check this out.”
“Oh sure,” I said sarcastically, “well we’ll just go ask for a house call huh? Hell Slim have you forgotten we’re on the run garldarn it…how am I gonna see a doctor?”
“I’m hardly likely to forget am I Jess, when you keep reminding me every five minutes! But hell there’s no point in cheating the rope, just to get real sick and die anyway.”
But like always I made light of it and we rode on through the next day although I was beginning to feel real sick.
The pain in my side had gone from a dull ache through to burning and throbbing and sitting a horse was pure agony. I tried hard not to show it, but I reckon Slim knew how bad I was feeling anyhow.
There was no further sign of hostiles and by the following evening we’d headed on down the Smokey Hill Trail that had opened out some and I knew we were heading towards a small town.
“How about I ride in, get some supplies, whiskey, coffee and stuff.” Slim suggested.
“Are you crazy,” I spat cutting him short, ”you can’t just go off shoppin’ Slim, there’ll be posters out on us by now…a price on our heads…dontcha understand!” I cried in bitter frustration. Hating to say those words, hating the fact that I’d dragged him down to this…..
“I understand you’re getting sicker and weaker as each day goes by!” he yelled equally loudly, ”I’m not going to sit back and see you suffer this way Jess. I’m heading into town whether you like it or not.”
As it turned out matters were taken out of my hands because by the following day I was too sick to ride.
I remember Slim lifting my head and helping me drink from the canteen.
Then he’d propped the water up beside me along with my rifle and promised he wouldn’t be long.
I opened my mouth to protest and struggled to sit up, but I just couldn’t make it and a little while later everything went black and I must have passed out.
I tossed and turned most of the day in a fitful sleep, but it wasn’t until dusk that something awoke me.
I tensed in the semi dark, taking a moment or two to remember where I was and the old familiar ache of sadness hit me. I was back on the run again, with everything that meant.
Then I heard it again, the sound of an approaching rider.
Was it Slim? Hell he’d been gone a long time. Maybe he’d been captured, was languishing in a filthy stinking jail at that very moment, the oncoming horseman a member of a posse.
I dragged myself up and grabbed the rifle as the sound came closer and closer and then…..I saw the dim shape of a rider approaching. He reined in, swung down from the saddle and with those great long legs of his strode over to me, a grin on his weary face.
“Howdy Slim what kept ya?” I asked tipping my hat back and giving him a cheeky grin.
He smiled down at me, ”You’re feeling better then?”
I nodded, “The rest’s done me good yeah….so did ya get coffee?”
It was later that night that I heard the full story.
He had acquired some whiskey and clean dressings. He’d cleaned out my wound well and now we sat by a small fire with a glass a piece relaxing as well as we were able.
“So, what happened? You were a real long time.”
He sighed deeply and gave me that honest open look of his.
“It was terrible Jess, you were right. There are posters and a Bounty on your head too.”
“Go on,” I said quietly.
“I went to the livery first, got that shoe of Alamo’s patched up and a sack of feed and it was fine.”
“It was when I went to the mercantile. Folk were gossiping about us…that you were a known criminal who had already jumped bail. They were saying as how you were now wanted for murdering an innocent young deputy. How folk can believe this sort of crap beats me Jess. Why do they listen to it?”
“Because they’re bored and want somethin’ exciting to gossip about. And because bastards like Cady and his men are darned convincing too.”
“Maybe you’re right. Anyway the old guy in the mercantile was chatting away to me and all the time,”….he swallowed hard before continuing…”All the time Jess, your poster was looking down at me from the wall just behind him.”
“Not yours though?“
“Nope that’s the thing…there was one on me though… I spotted it on a tree just outside town as I was riding out.”
His expression was one of utter shame and humiliation.
”Slim, I’m real sorry.” I felt so dang bad.
He looked up at that.
“Hell I don’t blame you for any of this Jess. I made my decision and I stand by it OK?”
I just nodded, ”OK pard,” I said softly.
We were silent for a while and then he carried on.
“So I was real worried maybe someone had recognised me, although I guess I look different now,” he said fingering his growth of blond beard.
“What did you do?”
“I holed up just outside town so I could see if a posse rode out…and nothing. Then I made my way back here, but covered my tracks real good.”
I gave him the ghost of a smile, “We’ll make an outlaw of you yet buddy.”
He reached over and cuffed me gently, the bad joke making him smile in spite of everything.
I was pretty sick for a couple of days and Slim looked after me real good. Wiping me down with cool water when a bad fever hit and tending the wound to my side.
It was when I had the real high temperature that I got to feelin’ even more troubled. I was pretty much out of it, but I remember sayin’ how sorry I was time and again, and Slim’s kind patient answers, telling me not to fret so. But hell I really couldn’t help it. All I could think of was old Jonesy and Andy trying to run the ranch single handed and what would become of them both. I guess Slim was thinking pretty much the same, but he never said anything. In fact he refused to talk about them at all.
By the evening of the third day I was feeling much better.
I watched Slim across the camp fire as he settled down for the night and was startled to see the difference in him in just a couple of short weeks. He’d visibly lost weight and he looked real drained and scruffy with his beard and trail worn clothes. But it was more than that. He had an almost haunted look in his eyes, was edgy and pretty irritable too. Hell he was beginning to remind me of well…the way I was I guess. Strung out and ornery…. I just hated to see the change in him and know it was all down to me. I wracked my brains over and over to think if there was anything I could…no should have done different… Hell I tried to walk away from that crazy drunken deputy…..but in the end it was him or me. And then that bastard Cady had stitched me up.
I suddenly knew exactly what I had to do.
I had to go back and face him, to call him out and finish him. Then turn myself in to the town and just hope and pray that they would come to their senses once the Sheriff was dead. If I could just get a retrial, then maybe I could clear our names.
But I knew what Slim would say. How he’d be dead against it…so I had to be a total bastard to him….thought it was the only way to make him see sense.
“So what do you think will happen to the ranch?” I asked conversationally.
It was almost dark now, but I could see his expression clearly by the light of the fire.
His head shot up and he threw me an agonized glance.” What do you mean?”
“Well I don’t reckon old Jonesy and Andy will be able to manage, ”I continued, “not without you that is…or me come to that, it needs us all on board to run the place proper.”
He gave me a look like he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, how could I be so dang insensitive?
“Just leave it Jess,” he finally growled.
“And you,” I continued…”what are you thinkin’ on doing? For a living that is , once we hit Canada. I hear they’re real big on logging up there. Or we could try our hand at fur tradin’ maybe?”
“Goddamn it Jess I’m a rancher!” He yelled, looking as mad as all get out.
“I know,” I said real softly, “and that’s what I want you to carry on bein’ with Andy and that old coot Jonesy too.”
“And how do you think that’s going to work out huh? Me with a price on my head and you facing the gallows! I’ve already told you Jess, I can’t go back to Laramie, can’t shame Andy that way! How are we supposed to ever be ranchers again, tell me that!”
He was just where I wanted him now and I played my trump card.
“Because I’m going back Slim,” I replied. ”I’m going back to Salina and face down Cady…kill him iffen I have to and get justice for us.”
“The Hell you are Jess! Isn’t it bad enough the way things are now? But at least we’re both still alive. What is it with you……. have you got a death wish?”
“No I ain’t got a death wish!”
“Well it sure looks that way, are you crazy, you know what that dang Cady is like, he wants you dead Jess and he’s got a whole town backing him up.”
“That’s the whole point Slim, has he? Once I take him out the good people of Salina will breathe one huge sigh of relief. Hell he ain’t top dog there because he’s popular, it’s because everyone is dadgum terrified of him!”
For the very first time since we lit out of that darned town as fugitives he had the faint light of hope in his eyes. “Go on then,” he said warily, “what’s your plan?”

Chapter 12
It took us longer to return than our initial journey out and that was partly because I was still pretty weak after the Comanche attack. And partly because we had to take a back country route avoiding any settlements as they were now plastered with wanted posters. But mainly because we had to carry out the first part of my plan, to get Cady out of town and us back in.
I knew dang well iffen we just rode straight in we’d be cut down by one of his paid assassins before we had a chance. Nope we had to box real clever and to do that we had to send off a couple of wires.
“And how in hell are we going to do that?” asked Slim when I told him that part of my plan.
“By heading back down the Smoky towards Denver and call in at Hays,” I replied with a wicked grin.
“Garldarn it Jess I’m not going there, they don’t call it Hell on Wheels for nothing, do you know how many folk died in shoot outs there just last year alone?”
“That’s the whole point pard, there are so many dang outlaws there we can slip in unnoticed, do our bit of business and hightail it out again before anyone’s any the wiser.”
“So what are these telegrams you want to send so badly then huh?“
“First of all I want to send a wire to our good buddy Cady, allegedly from the Sheriff in Denver. Sayin’ as how he needs to attend a real important meeting there regardin’ the apprehension of one Jess Harper!”
“OK so that gets him out of town for a few days…what next?”
“We wire Mort, your lawyer Mr Benson and whoever else we can think of in Laramie that will give a testimony as to your good character and the fact that I’ve reformed.”
“And you really think Cady is going to take any notice of that Jess? He just wants you dead, plain and simple.”
“Oh no, not Cady, but the rest of the town, the town council and any others who have a right to make decisions about our future, I guess.”
“That’s all very well, but we both know they’re all in Cady’ s pocket, the judge and doc too!”
“That’s why we’re gonna take advantage of his absence to change their minds.”
“You think we can really do that Jess?” asked my pard looking real uncertain.
“We can try Slim and then when he returns….”
“Yeah, when he returns, so what then?”
I’ll be waitin’ for him with my greased holster and lightenin’ draw,” I said grinning at my buddy.
“You’re going to call him out?”
I shook my head, ”Nope he’s gonna call me out and then I’ll finish him.”
“It’s as simple as that is it, so then what?”
I shrugged, ”Try and clear our names I reckon.”
“There’s a lot of if’s and buts in this scheme Jess.”
“So you got a better idea?”
We finally rode into Salina a couple of weeks later. It was early evening and we’d watched Cady and one of his deputies’, Pete, ride out earlier that afternoon.
When we arrived most folk were either home having their supper or else in the Saloon and so that’s where we made for.
I told Slim to stay well back as I expected some gun-play and soon found I wasn’t wrong either.
I had a feeling like I’d been here before when the honky tonk piano player ground to a halt and all eyes were upon us.
Then from the back of the bar my good friend the carrot headed deputy lurched forwards.
The crowd around the bar shuffled back warily as he advanced on me.
“What’ re you doin’ here Harper?” he spat, lookin’ real surprised.
“Come to show you up for the murderin’ coward you are,” I sneered, ”and clear my name.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked looking real shifty now, his gaze desperately scouring the crowd for some form of back up.
“What’s up, you ain’t so brave havin’ to confront a man face to face are you?” I spat…”Prefer to do your shootin’ from a nice safe roof top don’t you…huh?”
“I was just following orders!” he yelled before snapping his mouth shut, realizing he’d just given him self away.
That’s when he went for his gun, but I’d drawn and shot him in the arm a split second later, before turning an icy gaze on the rest of the bar.
“OK so who’s up next? Let’s get this over with shall we?” I asked my tone bitter.
There was a lot of foot shuffling’ and nobody seemed to be able to meet my gaze.
I glanced over to the table in the corner where the doc and judge had been playin’ checkers and I wandered over.
“No takers here then gentlemen?” I asked. ”You were fast enough to condemn me weren’t you judge…huh?”
“And you doc, lied through your teeth at the trial didn’t ya? You knew dang well that poor bastard was shot through the heart by a .22 rifle not a colt 45.”
I spun around, ”And that was all down to you weren’t it deputy?” I growled, moving back to where the man was still sprawled on the floor holding his shoulder, blood leaking out from between his fingers.
I kicked his leg hard, “Well weren’t it….I’d recognise that hair anyplace…just like all the other folks out there that witnessed you slaughter that young deputy.”
He grimaced in pain at the blow to his leg and muttered, “Yes OK so it was me, like I said I was just following Cady’s orders.”
There was a mass intake of breath from the onlookers.
He turned furiously on them at that.
“There ain’t anyone of you here as wouldn’t have done the same. You all know my sick old Ma lives in one of Cady’s properties and he threatened to throw her out on the street iffen I didn’t toe the line.”
All the time this was going on Slim was at my back cradling his rifle and ready to use it, if need be.
Now he strode forwards and addressed the deputy.
“Goddamn it man, have none of you any guts in this town? Cady’s one man, surely if you all stood up to him?”
The judge staggered up and weaved his way over to us at that.
“It’s not as easy as you think gentlemen, there isn’t one person in this town who isn’t either in debt to or scared of Cady…he’s a mighty powerful man.”
“And you’re dang well corrupt!” I yelled turning on him. “Corrupt and dishonourable using your powers to wreck innocent folks lives. Hell you know dang well I didn’t kill that poor kid Jody Hodges when he was playin’ deputy. But you were sure gonna let me hang for it,” I said my eyes blazing in fury now.
“I’m sorry,” he gasped staring at me, defeat in his watery old eyes. “I’ve been weak, but we just don’t know how to deal with him.”
“Well ain’t this your lucky day then!” I responded, still feelin’ mad as hell, ”Because I know how to deal with him real good.”
By now everyone in the dang bar was sittin’ up and takin’ notice. But it weren’t until Lindy came over and asked me outright what we had in mind, and real importantly what they could all do to help, that I thought we might really stand a chance.
I’d laid it on the line when I’d wired Mort, sayin’ the town was completely out of control and all about the corrupt Sheriff and judge. He’d wired back saying he was happy to vouch for us. Also as how we had deputized for him many times and we were totally trustworthy and suggested maybe we could be of some help in that role.
Slim and I shared the wire with the great and good in the town council and I figure they were so dang relieved to have the problem of Cady taken from their hands that nobody objected. In fact they duly elected us and swore us in on the spot. And seeing as the only law in town was the injured and discredited deputy they were sorely in need of someone. Anyway I figured they would grab anyone who could use a gun and show some guts.
We set up shop in the Sheriff’s office and arrested the red headed deputy as he’d admitted murder of one Jody Hodges, the poor sucker who’d been conned into taking me on in a gunfight. As to the bogus trial and various acts of perjury that went on that day, well me and Slim figured that was down to a real judge to sort out.
Slim and me spent our time gettin’ to know the folks of Salina pretty darned well.
Some had been blackmailed into complying with Cady’ s wishes. Others were paid in kind for supporting him, free whiskey for the hopelessly addicted Doc. for example and free bed and board for the likes of Lindy and the other saloon girls. More than that, he offered protection for them as any pimp would, but his came at a price as he required the girl’s favors on a regular basis.
In fact the more I got to know about Cady the more I came to hold him in contempt. He was not only a manipulator of the weak and defenseless but was also depraved and completely indifferent to all the misery he caused.
There was an uneasy feeling in the town. Everyone wondering just how me and Slim aimed to take Cady out. His innocent victims praying we’d succeed. But those who were dependent on him, like the doc and Judge, well they just didn’t know which way to jump… Stick with what they knew with the unpredictable harsh Sheriff? Or throw their lot in with us and just hope the law would be lenient on them.
One evening Slim and I were sitting in the Sheriff’s office, drinking coffee and cleaning our irons. Well I was, Slim had holstered his long since, but I carried on checking and re checking….
“You’re real worried about taking on Cady aren’t you Jess?”
My head shot up and I opened my mouth to deny it….and then snapped it shut again.
“I guess I am….yeah.”
“Why? I reckon he’s not that fast, surrounds himself with sharp shooting youngsters as his deputies doesn’t he….I guess he’s not needed to out draw anyone for many a year.”
I sighed deeply, “No it ain’t that Slim, it’s……well it’s just that it feels kinda bad to take on a lawman, even one as corrupt and evil as Cady. I’ll still be shootin’ at a tin star and that just don’t sit right with me.”
He sighed with understanding, ”But it sure beats the alternative,” he said nodding towards the street, where the gallows still dominated the far end of town.
I threw him a bitter smile at that, “I guess you’re right pard.”
All I had to do was finish him and then hopefully the law…the real law that is, would set the record straight.
Me and ol’ Slim had been careful since we hit town. Real careful, being on the lookout for trouble, seein’ as how the jury was still out as to who was gonna end up takin’ control of the place. Well the smart money was on me and Slim, but some of the less than upright citizens were hedgin’ their bets and holding out to see what happened when Cady rode back in.
And then there were a few who decided to stick with the devil they knew…and I can sort of see their point. They didn’t know me and Slim from Adam, didn’t know iffen they could trust us or not. So like I say we’d been watching each other’s backs. That was until I let my guard slip….fool that I was.
It all happened that evening….the last one before Cady landed back in town.
Lindy came over to the office just after supper and seemed upset about somethin’.
“What’s up sweetheart?” I asked as she barged in looking flushed and tearful.
“There are a couple of drunks making trouble in the saloon,” she said.” Been pushing the girls about some and now I think there could be a fight.”
“I’ll go,” I said quickly grabbing my rifle.
Slim rose to join me, but I shook my head.
“I figure you’d better stay guard the prisoner Slim, there are folk out there just waitin’ on an opportunity to spring the guy,” I said nodding to where the red headed deputy, Roy Harris, was still languishing in the cells.
“You’re right, but take it easy Jess….huh?”
“Sure,” and taking Lindy’s arm we hurried out.
By the time we got there a fight had indeed started and I stood on the threshold taking in the scene for a moment before discharging a single shot from my rifle.
Well that sure had the desired effect as every man stopped in his tracks and peered over at me.
“OK…I figure we’re all done in here for tonight ain’t we?” I growled glaring at the amassed company.
When there was no response I yelled, ”Well…ain’t we?”
There was a muttered reply to that and the men started to wander off home, with just a few die hard drinkers returning to the bar.
The barkeep raised a questioning eyebrow in my direction, should he serve them. I nodded, “But keep it real peaceful.”
Lindy shouted me a drink and I stood at the bar with her chatting for a little while.
“You must be missin’ Betsy,” I said quietly.
He eyes brimmed with tears at the mention of her friend, Betsy the curvy hooker with the kind heart.
“I am…the only thing that is keeping me here is to see justice for that bastard Cady,” she replied bitterly.
“Oh, he’ll get what’s owing,” I replied, my eyes narrowing with resentment at the thought of all the pain and fear he’d caused.
She looked over and said softly, ”You must be feeling the same way after what he’s done to you?”
“Yeah…but not just me, my pard Slim I said…I can’t ever forgive him for that.”
She raised a perfectly arched eyebrow, ”What do you mean?”
I sighed deeply and taking the bottle she had bought took it over to a quiet table gesturing for her to join me.
“See I’m used to falling foul of the law…ain’t the first time I’ve been on the run, got me plenty of history, some of it not too law abidin’,” I said honestly. “But not Slim. This has been hard for him real hard….I figure iffen I don’t sort things out it’ll break him,” I said almost to myself.
“That’s too bad,” she said softly. “But you’re different I guess? Like you say you’ve got some experience of that ol’ owl hoot trail huh?”
“Oh yeah,” I said with feeling, “you could say so….”
She just smiled, ”You’ve gotten the look of a man who’s been around a bit.”
I threw her a questioning glance at that comment.
“The iron you wear, low slung and tied down…the way you are…. kinda edgy…a touch of danger about you….Oh yeah I had you down as a gunslinger first time I saw you…But that’s OK honey, you’re my kind of guy.“
I grinned at her then, “Well reformed gunslinger, I am acting Sheriff around here ya know.“
She smiled back and then put out a finger and gently ran it down my cheek.
“Well then Acting Sheriff, would you like to take the bottle upstairs and continue our chat up there, where it’s a mite more private?”
I knew dang well what she was saying and there would be precious little chatting involved.
I held her gaze for a good minute, being sorely tempted….and then I remembered Slim back guarding the prisoner on his own.
I sighed deeply, ”I’m gonna have to take a rain check on that sweetheart, left my partner mindin’ the shop and we’re a tad worried about trouble, ya know?”
“Some other time then,” she said hiding her disappointment. ”I’ll walk you to the door,” she replied as I finished my drink and stood up to leave.
We sauntered out onto the sidewalk and I glanced down the now deserted street before turning back to her.
She had moved in real close and I gazed down at her upturned face, looking younger and prettier in the soft moonlight.
She ran a finger down my cheek again and I felt a sudden stab of desire. Her lips were very full and red and her eyes had a dreaminess about them that was irresistible.
I leaned in and brushed her lips gently with mine, before moving in for a passionate embrace… holding her tightly in my arms and kissing her intensely.
Boy could she kiss….I was just thinkin’ maybe I’d been kinda hasty in turning her down…… when a shot rang out and I felt an agonizing pain in my left shoulder.
I was catapulted forwards into Lindy who screamed hysterically before grabbing hold of me and taking my weight as I slid to the ground.
I rolled when I hit the deck and turned my colt on the perpetrator, but he was already running off and disappeared down an alley.
Then everything started to go dark, I collapsed onto my back and my last vision was of Slim’s anxious face peering down at me.
When I came to I was in Doc Chas Walker’s office and he was leanin’ down breathin’ whiskey fumes over me.
I gagged and then Slim’s face came into view beyond the doc.
“It’s OK Jess the doc’s going to fix you up,” he said calmly.
The old timer turned on my pard at that piece of news.
“The Hell I am…I told you young man, my operating days are long gone….I just don’t do surgery anymore!”
“And I told you, you’re going to!” yelled Slim equally aggressively….
I just cussed under my breath and wondered fleetingly iffen this was some sorta nightmare before I felt that old familiar black cloud creepin’ up on me and I finally descended into unconsciousness again.
The way Slim told it to me later was that it took nigh on three pots of strong black coffee to sober the doc up enough to pick up a scalpel and git that old bullet out. Then another few cups before he was able to sew me up again…and I still have the scar to this dang day….but the old coot saved my life.
When I came to next time I was back in my hotel room and Slim was sitting peering down at me.
My eyes flicked open and I tried to sit up, before falling back down and groaning loudly…
“Take it easy Jess,” he said gently pushing me back down.
“Take it easy!” I spat, “Some bastard back shot me and he’s probably runnin’ around out there waitin’ to have another go.”
“It’s OK I brought him in. Lindy identified him as the Deputy’s kid brother….hell he’s only just turned 15 Jess.“
“So that makes it OK does it Slim, he’s just a kid so hey let him get away with attempted murder!”
“That’s not what I said or meant. But his Ma’s real sick and his big brother will hang for the murder of Jody Hodges as sure as night follows day .He believed if he could get rid of us, then maybe he could save his brother….he just wasn’t thinking straight.”
I sighed and sank back on the pillow, figuring I’d got more to worry about than some trigger happy kid.
“Doc says you’ve lost one heck of a lot of blood gotta rest up some Jess…you hear me?”
“Well sure I do,” I whispered, ”so you gonna tell Cady that? And this whole damn town…hell they’re relying on us Slim!”
“I said take it easy Jess…just let me worry about that huh? Now you go back to sleep, I’ll come check on you later,” and with that he marched off before I could argue with him.
I seem to remember him stopping by later and giving me a drink, saying he had to get back to the office to check on the prisoner. When I awoke next time the first light of dawn was just creeping in through the grubby hotel window.
I tried to sit up and groaned again as a burning pain shot through my shoulder. But dad burn it I wasn’t gonna let that stop me. I had one of my bad feelings…was real worried about Slim.
I managed to drag myself out of bed, pulled my clothes on and finally my gun belt and boots. I wandered over to the window, lookin’ out at the chill dawn light, scratchin’ my head and wonderin’ if Slim had gotten the coffee pot on…when a movement made me stand stock still.
As I watched, Cady and his Deputy Pete rode slowly down the street towards his office just opposite the hotel. Then a moment later the office door opened as Slim emerged holding his rifle and lookin’ just about as mad as I’d ever seen him.
I didn’t wait to see more…just dashed out the door and down the stairs two at a time before practically falling out onto the street.
I heard raised voices and then Cady spun around to face me….a sneer on his grimy face.
“So there you are son, your partner here was trying to tell me you were sick. And he seems to have some crazy notion that you two have taken over my town?”
“It ain’t a notion it’s true,” I said backing off a little, my hand flexing over my gun. ”You’re through here Cady.”
“Is that so?” he said turning to face me….”so do you really think you can take me on with that hole in your shoulder? “Not to mention the added handicap of being tended by that drunken excuse for a doctor…. I’m surprised you made it this far to be frank.”
I took a deep breath to try and steady myself, swaying slightly and feeling the palms of my hands wet and sweat running down my back.
Then everything started to dim slightly and I took some more deep breaths before Cady ’s voice echoed as though from a long way away.
“You’re looking real peaky Harper….I figure you just ain’t man enough to take on this town….or me either come to that.”
“Try me,” I growled. ”Because iffen you don’t I’m arrestin’ you for every damn thing you care to name…including perjury and incite to commit murder….for starters.”
“What…you…you can’t prove a dang thing,” he blustered.
“Oh, but I reckon we can,” Slim said wandering over…..”See we’ve got witnesses who will swear in court as to your, err shall we say, less than law-abiding ways, over the years. Not one of your Kangaroo courts either. A circuit judge is on his way, be here by the end of the week along with a Federal Marshall.”
Cady turned pale at that news but recovered quickly.
“That’ll only happen if you and Harper here are around to make sure the town’s folk testify. With you two out of the picture there’ll be no case to try, I’ll see to that.”
He flicked his attention back to me then…”So come on then Harper, do you really think you can outdraw me?” he scoffed. He turned back to his deputy who had backed off and was lookin’ kinda uncertain now.
“Doubt iffen the poor bastard can even lift a gun least ways fire it straight,” he said with an amused laugh…..
Then with lightning speed he had turned back towards me and drawn…
But I was ready for him and before he’d hardly had time to slap leather I’d drawn and downed him with a bullet through the heart…..a look of utter astonishment on his face as he crashed into the dirt.
I turned my gun on Pete, the deputy then.
“Drop it!” I drawled, but Slim had beaten me to it and was already relieving him of his weapon.
Then the last thing I was aware of was Lindy running over and a small crowd cheering, before I felt my knees buckle and I joined Cady down in the dirt out cold again.

“So that’s about it Tiger….you wanted a story and that’s a humdinger huh?”

Chapter 13
Jess looked down at his young charge and realized he’d been asleep for most of the story and smiled grimly. Maybe it was for the best. Mike was probably a little young to hear about their exploits back in Salina, what with the friendly hookers, shootings and bein’ back on the old owl hoot trail again…..
Then after a minute Mike’s eyes flickered and opened…”You stopped,” he said accusingly.
“Got to just about the end Tiger,” Jess said kindly.
“Huh? It seems like you only just started. You and Slim were goin’ down to Salina to fetch some beeves back….so did ya Jess did you fetch ‘em back?“
But Jess never replied.
He looked at the youngster’s bright inquisitive eyes and then reaching over felt his forehead, as cool as a cucumber.
“So how’re you feelin’ then Mike?”
The child stretched languidly and after a moment said, “Swell…I feel real good Jess.“
Then after a moment, “Can I have some milk and cookies please?”
Jess leapt up and made for the door calling out as he went, ”Slim, Daisy get in here…he’s all right….the kids gonna be OK!!!”
It was much later when Slim and Jess sat in front of the dying embers of the parlour fire a whiskey apiece.
Daisy had deemed Mike sufficiently improved to be left to sleep, with just the occasional check throughout the night.
Now Jess sat back in his rocker a relieved smile playing around his lips, “maybe the doc had a point,” he said with a little chuckle, ”could be my story helped some.”
Slim raised a disapproving eyebrow from where he relaxed on the other side of the fireplace.
“I really am glad he’s better Jess, but I don’t know as how you should have filled his head up with all that stuff that went on back in Salina. After all it was a long time ago and hardly suitable for a young ‘un you know.”
“And after all you wouldn’t want your squeaky clean character damaged any, either would you Mister Sherman?” Jess teased him.
“It’s not that,” Slim said quickly and then raised sheepish eyes to his buddy. ”OK maybe it is that a bit…I just wouldn’t want the boy getting the wrong idea about us being on the wrong side of the law and all.”
“And would he?” Jess asked throwing his buddy a speculative look, his relaxed manner suddenly tensing as he sat up straight, waiting for Slim’s reply.
“What do you mean?”
“Well was it really so wrong what you did…standing by me that way….springing me and all?”
Slim looked down flushing up some before replying, “Well of course it was Jess. But I had no other choice. If I hadn’t whacked that deputy over the head he’d have slit your throat….or you’d have hung, either way it wasn’t a good outlook for you.”
“Uh, you can sure say that again,” Jess said with feeling, a hand going gingerly to his throat at the thought of the rope.
Then he looked over at his friend, ”That business was real hard for you I know that Slim….and maybe I didn’t thank you properly at the time. I realized, even back then that it was a real big thing for you to have to do. Now I know you better I can see exactly how bad it was for you.”
“It sure was Jess….but like I say I really had no choice.”
Jess nodded at that knowing the truth of it.
“You know you never did say what happened after the shootin’, I was out of it for quite some time, with that real bad infection I got in my shoulder.”
“Like I said Jess it was all a really long time ago, best forgotten eh?”
Jess’s head shot up at that, “Hey Slim what aren’t you telling me?”
The tall rancher stretched his long legs out towards the fire. After a moment he stood up and threw another log on before replenishing their whiskey glasses.
“As bad as that eh?” asked Jess with a twinkle in his eye, nodding at the now half empty whiskey bottle.
Slim sighed deeply and turned concerned eyes to his pard, “It sure seemed that way at the time yes.”
“Go on…..”
Slim picked up the narrative.
“Well like you said pard it sat really badly with me all that business….But I’d gotten used to having you around….and anyway I wouldn’t have been able to face Andy if I’d come back here without you.”
Jess chuckled at that, but said nothing.
“Then when I saw you fall that way, after you’d dispatched Cady I thought at first you’d been shot…But once I’d checked you over I realized it was just that you were suffering really badly from the shoulder wound. Someone from the crowd helped me carry you back to the hotel and then the doc visited and reckoned you were really sick…might not make it….after all that …I just couldn’t believe it.”
Jess sucked in a deep breath, never having been privy to this before.
“But then Lindy turned up. Said there was no way you were going to die on her watch and she nursed you Jess real well, night and day.”
“I never knew; don’t even remember her being around.”
“You wouldn’t. As soon as you woke up and started taking notice she high tailed it out of town, saying she had a new life to make for herself. She said to thank you for giving her that opportunity Jess and she left that day.”
“That’s a shame would have been good to see her, say thank you, ya know?”
“I think maybe she didn’t want you to feel beholden to her…said just getting her freedom back was all the thanks she wanted.”
“Uh, she was a good woman.” Then Jess gave a huge yawn, ”I’m sorry Slim, I guess I’m just tired, what with Mike and all….”
“Sure partner, why don’t you hit the hay, Daisy and I will keep an eye on him tonight.”
Jess picked up the somewhat depleted bottle of Red Eye and gestured to his buddy, “One for the road?”
Slim nodded and they sat back in companionable silence for a spell….Slim casting his mind back to those difficult days when they had been on the run.
He knew Jess thought it had been hard for him. But did he really know how hard it had really been falling foul of the law that way, even if the ‘law’ was in the guise of Cady and his renegade deputies.
All the time Jess had been languishing in Cady’s jail Slim had been desperately trying to deal with the situation in a law abiding manner, but his every move was barred and hindered by Cady and his men.
The night after the trial when Slim had decided his only course of action was to spring his buddy, he had lain awake remembering the distant past of his childhood. The stories his Pa had told him of his paternal great parents. Great granddaddy had come from Stockholm in Sweden and his wife from Edinburgh in Scotland. Both had been brought up as Calvinists and had exceedingly strict moral opinions and values. This way of life had in turn colored Slim’s grandparents, who had very high moral standards. To the extent that any form of pleasure was frowned upon. Slim’s own parents were slightly more relaxed, but they too had very high standards and values.
Slim sometimes wondered if that was why he’d taken to what he saw as Jess’s ‘wild Texan ways’ with such alacrity and delight, if not a little guilt. Just the ways of typical young men like drinking a little too much, playing a hand or two of poker and romancing the pretty saloon girls had seemed almost sinful to his strict parents. But now the young Slim needed to kick over the traces and live a little. It had taken only a little persuasion from Jess to convince him that he wouldn’t be fast-tracked to Hell if he enjoyed himself occasionally and he’d never looked back.
But the other teachings of his parents he still held dear. To be true to one’s self and one’s beliefs. To take religion and moral duty seriously and of course to uphold the law on all occasions He’d remembered the talk he’d had with his Pa the night before he’d set off to war as a fresh faced, innocent young man.
“There will be things you’ll see out there and things you’ll be called to do for your country, that will be hard, real hard for you son. But I expect you to hold your head high and do your duty.“
“Yes Pa….“
“You’ll be called upon to kill and that doesn’t sit comfortably on any man’s shoulders but there’s a job to be done,” he said sadly. Then he sighed deeply. “So you go out there and make me proud son.”
And Slim had gone off to war a boy and marched home a man, having done his duty and hopefully made his Pa proud…..
God what would his Pa have thought of him now if he was looking down….his beloved son about to help a prisoner escape and maim or even kill an officer of the law in the process.
He had tossed and turned on the hard hotel bed….visions of Jess lying in despair on the cell cot alternating with memories of his parents and his youthful upbringing.
“I raised you to be a gentleman Mathew and don’t you forget it,” said tartly one day when his Ma had caught him and a friend eyeing up the pretty girls.
His Ma….the sweetest darling he had ever known. Sure she was strict with him, even to always calling him Mathew and not his given nickname, Slim as all his friends called him. ”It’s good enough for your father and should be for you too!” But she was always there for him if he was sick or unhappy….always until that fateful day.
The day she had lain on her sickbed.
“Mathew, Pa is long dead and I fear my time has come too….It’s up to you now son…You must bring up young Andy straight and true….to be a good boy, just as you have been….promise me Mathew.”
“I promise Ma……“
“Make him proud of you boy, give him something to live up to…”
Then remembering those words he lay in the seedy hotel room in Salina and wept…”I’m sorry Ma…..so sorry but I have to do this I just have to….”
The next morning he had made his plans to help his pard escape and started his first and last foray on the wrong side of law and order.
Looking back on it all now though, he had no regrets, as he sat stretched out in front of the crackling fire, back home at the ranch, all these years later.
They had vindicated themselves and saved a town from tyranny. Then he wondered what would have happened if his partner hadn’t made the decision to go back and face Cady…would they still be on the run even now? He sighed deeply. What had Jess said to him once…’never say what if…for there lies the road to madness’…. He chuckled lightly. Jess sure had a powerful lot of sense where it really mattered he thought.
Then he wondered what if he’d not helped him escape, walked away with a clear conscience as far as the law was concerned but had betrayed his best friend….left him to hang for a crime he’d not committed….what would his old Pa have made of that behaviour? He had put the incident firmly behind him once they had returned to the ranch and life there had taken on its familiar pattern…
But now…now that he had looked at it all again he could see clearly what his Pa would have thought. He would have backed him one hundred percent…of course he had done the right thing. Life was never black and white as he had been brought up to believe he pondered. There were so many shades of grey in between…and telling right from wrong sometimes difficult.
He suddenly needed to share these inner thoughts with his best friend.
He looked deeply into the fire and took a sip of his whisky before saying softly.
“You know Jess, I was right to help you out that time…I can appreciate that now. I really shouldn’t have felt so bad about it. OK seeing my face on a poster…going on the run and all…that was real hard to take…but basically I did the right moral thing and I can see that now. Pa would have seen it that way too. I’m glad you brought it up again, gave me time to think it through…..Hell it sure was tough at the time though wasn’t it pard?”
He peered over at his buddy and let out a snort of soft laughter. Jess was fast asleep in his rocker.
Slim got up and gently removed the whisky glass form Jess’s grasp and then lightly shook him awake.
“Wha….? Mike?”
“It’s OK, he’s feeling better remember?”
“Huh? Oh yeah….right,” and his drowsy friend smiled happily.
Then looked blearily up at Slim, “Why’d ya wake me then?” he said suddenly irritable at being woken up.
“Because it’s time to go to bed pard”
The ridiculousness of the situation hit them both simultaneously and Jess guffawed loudly, ”You’re crazy, you know that?”
“I know it,” Slim agreed, ”but you’ll get a stiff neck sleeping the night on that rocker pard, come on get up and get to your bed…busy day tomorrow…lots to catch up on you know.”
“Well while you’ve been nursing young Mike I’ve been running this place single handed you know….works piled up, fences to mend, the barn to paint…not to mention that old buggy of Daisy’s needs a new wheel…and…..”
“Aw Slim, give me a break will ya….knew I should have gone and been a fur trader up in Canada like I suggested.”
Laughing both men turned in.
Yup tomorrow was just another day at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, thank goodness.
What if…..Jess thought for a moment, his flippant comment about going on the run to Canada making him think back to that difficult time.
“Nah, don’t even go there Harper,” he said to himself as he stretched out in his comfy bed….
Five minutes later all that could be heard was the gentle sound of snoring…all was well.
The End
Thank you for reading!

Email Address:
If you have enjoyed this story, please send me a comment!

This contact form was created by Freedback.