#66The Day of Reckoning

The Day of Reckoning

By Patty Wilkinson

(A series two story with some strong language, violence and adult themes.)

Jess Harper was plumb wore out. He turned Traveller into the ranch yard, slipped down from the saddle and led him into the barn…
Emerging sometime later he ambled over to the ranch house, pulling off his hat and throwing it on the peg by the door before calling out,” Daisy I’m home….”
His beloved housekeeper peered out from where she was busy in the kitchen, “Hush dear you’ll wake Slim, he’s sleeping, and Mike’s abed too, you’re very late.”
Then she came into the room and observed the man she secretly regarded as her middle and most difficult, but very greatly loved surrogate son.
“Why Jess dear you look done in, come and sit by the fire and I’ll fetch you a coffee. I’ll warm up your supper in a minute too.”
“Thanks Daisy,” he said with an exhausted smile,” I am kinda beat. Ain’t no fun rounding up dang strays on yer own on top of all the other stuff I have to do around the ranch. I’ll sure be glad when old Hardrock gets over this nasty chill. How is he?”
“Oh much improved today dear, I’m glad to say. I really thought it might progress to lung fever. But no, he’s been the perfect patient and should be back on his feet within the week.”
“Oh well one out of two ain’t bad,” Jess said with a slow grin.
“What dear?”
“Perfect patients…well I sure ain’t…. and Mike never gets sick, so the odds are pretty good. Out of me and Slim there’s fifty percent of us that are perfect patents.”
“Well nobody could accuse you of being a perfect patient,” she laughed.” But what you lack in being the most difficult ornery patient I have ever nursed you more than make up for in other ways,” she said with a loving look.
“Gee Daisy we sure are lucky to have found you,” he said wearily as he relaxed back in his rocker a little later accepting a coffee from her, remembering a different time and a very different housekeeper.
He cast his mind back to the time before Daisy and Mike had joined them. A time of conflict and frayed tempers…..a time of compromise and adjustment…..but mostly a time of understanding and forgiveness .He sat back reveling in the warmth from the fire and the reviving coffee and remembered back to that time…….
Chapter 1
“Garldarn it Jess can you not wash out a saucepan, for goodness sake look at this!” Slim yelled from the kitchen holding up the offending item.
Jess poked his head round the door from where he’d been feeding the chickens in the yard.
“Well what was I supposed to do, dang well use gunpowder to shift it? Iffen you hadn’t burnt that god awful gravy in the first place there wouldn’t be a problem anyway!” he replied equally furiously.
“I’ll have you know that was my Ma’s recipe for gravy,” said Slim looking deeply insulted.
“Well I bet she never served it up burnt that way.“
“Hell Jess it wouldn’t have been burnt if you’d come in for it when I called you.”
Jess came in and sank down on a kitchen chair, rolling his eyes.

“Listen to us we sound like a pair of ol’ widow women gripin’ and moanin’,” He said with a wry smile.
Slim threw the pan down in the sink and joined his buddy at the table.
“You’re right Jess, but it’s such dang hard work. I never realized how much old Jonesy did around the place, Andy too, gee I sure miss them.”
“Me too,” agreed Jess and the men fell silent. Remembering Slim’s younger brother Andy, recently gone back east to get ‘all educated up’ with their old family friend Jonesy ridin’ shot gun on the lad.
Jonesy had been the mainstay of the rancher’s domestic arrangements, moving in to watch over the young Sherman boys after the sad demise of their parents. His skills ran from cooking and cleaning to doctoring the two and four legged critters around the place.
When Jess had first joined them on the ranch he was amazed that Jonesy’ s special rubbing liniment was used for strained muscles on the horses as well as a cure for a chesty cough in the human critters, Jess saying that the smell of the dang stuff alone was likely to kill ya, before it was as much as applied. But now even Jonesy’ s unorthodox nursing skills were sadly missed by the men.
As to young Andy he had been the beating heart of the ranch. With his menagerie of orphaned critters to his child like enthusiasm and raucous sense of humour and devilment, life was never dull with young Andy about. From the moment Jess had drifted onto the scene the youngster had hero worshiped him, thinking the young ex gunslinger to be way more exciting and fun than his staid older brother. That had caused many an argument. However Jess had finally settled in and was able to find a way to engage with both brothers. Often playing pranks with young Andy and acting like a big kid himself so Jonesy would mutter. To taking Slim in hand and teaching him all about playing poker to win, drinking Moonshine and romancing the ladies. Slim was a fast learner and the men had enjoyed many a good night on the town together.
However recently without the support of Andy and Jonesy they had just been too busy to even make it to town on a Saturday night or too darned wore out as Jess was to tell it.
Now he fixed Slim with his deep blue eyes, “You know what our trouble is dontcha Slim?”
“Yes,” he said,” too much wretched housework.”
“Exactly and not enough fun, dadgum it Slim when was it either of us had a date with a pretty girl huh? No wonder we’re cussin’ and fightin’ all the dang time. It ain’t natural livin’ this way, we need us some good lovin’, we’re just dang well frustrated that’s the thing.“
“Uh, that’s all very well Jess, but you know what it’s been like ever since Jonesy left. Every time we so much as look sideways at a pretty girl she thinks she’s in line to come and take one of us on as a wife. Well sure I want me some good lovin’ too, but I’m not in the market for a wife just yet a while!”
“Come on Slim it ain’t that bad.”
“No really? Well what about that Widow Lister the other day? She caught you asking for some mending thread in the mercantile and offered to come over and sew on your buttons, made those sheep’s eyes at you and all.”
Jess looked wary, “Heck I’d forgotten about that…. Jeez she must be fifty if she’s a day.”
“Uh, yeah, makes real good pastry though so they say,” replied Slim looking thoughtful.
“Garldarn it Slim I ain’t about to get hitched just to fulfill your likin’ for light pastry,” Jess snarled.
“I suppose iffen we’re really desperate there’s always the Last Chance Inn,” Slim said referring to a sleazy dive on the edge of town where ladies of the night were available at a price.
“Dadgum it, have you seen those women,” Jess asked looking horrified, ”there’s rough and then there’s Bawdy Bill’s place,” and he shuddered dramatically, “no thanks.”
It would be nice to say things got better between the two men after their heart to heart…..but they did not.
Jess had a go at Slim for forgetting to bring the washing in when it rained and consequently he had no clean underwear, having stockpiled the lot to be washed in the one go.
“It’ll be down to you iffen I get a real bad chill goin’ out with nuthin’ under my pants,” he moaned.
“Well if you had more than two pairs of everything it might be a good start,” Slim replied angrily, ”who only has one good pair of under draws anyway? And the other pair looks like they should be in the rag bag.”
“Look who are you to go criticizing my underwear my Ma?”
They finally decided to divide the chores up more evenly, one doing the yard chores, feeding the chicks, milking the cow and pegging out the washing and the other doing the cooking, washing up and laying the cook stove indoors.
That worked just fine until indoors met outdoors and things really came to a head one morning when Jess was trying to bring in the clean washing from the line. However Slim had just mopped the floors and wouldn’t let Jess and his muddy boots inside.
The two men finally squared up to each other and would have fought if the ridiculousness of the situation hadn’t suddenly hit home and they had collapsed in laughter…
That night they decided to get duded up in their Sunday best and attend the Laramie Spring Dance.
“After all it can’t be every dang woman in the town that wants to get wed,” Jess had said earlier in the saloon fortified by a couple of slugs of strong whiskey, ”I mean there must be a few that just want a good time huh Slim?”
Slim grinned at his buddy, “If you say so…lets go check it out shall we?”
After his fifth dance partner earnestly asked’ How are you poor boys managing in Mr Jones’s absence’ Jess was beginning to feel kind of hounded.
“Well heck Cindy we’re managing real well. But we could do with some female company. Me and old Slim get kinda lonely stuck out at the ranch all alone. So iffen you and your friend….er Rose that is, wanna visit sometime?” he asked raising a hopeful eyebrow.
“Why whatever are you implying….. that we should visit alone?”
“Well sure we could er…go on a picnic, to the lake,” he improvised,” And Slim would be there too….for Rose that is…so you wouldn’t be alone…not really.”
“Oh I don’t think Ma would like that,” she replied, “not unless we were walking out all proper and above board like. Tell me then Jess, how many bedrooms do you boys have at the ranch, room for a nursery is there?”
They were riding home later that night feeling mighty lonesome and frustrated.
“Jeez Slim what is it with these small town girls? All they want is the sound of wedding bells and a cot in the spare room, ain’t they gotten any sense of fun, no dang romance in their souls…huh?”
“I guess not Jess. Well not since old Jonesy left anyway. I figure they never fussed and fretted before. They were happy to just have a dance and maybe a few kisses, or more. But now all they seem to be thinking of is looking after us, being Mistress of the ranch and relay, I just don’t get it.”
“I do,” said Jess wearily, “they can see what they figure is some kinda vacancy and they want to fill it…. But say if it was already filled huh?”
“What are you talking about now Jess?” Slim asked impatiently.
“Well what iffen we get us a housekeeper, like old Jonesy was, someone to do all the domestics? Well then the girls might back off some and just have a laugh with us again. Forget about all that match makin’ and the like…what do ya think pard…huh?”
What Slim thought or did not think was never discussed, as at that moment the heavens opened and they made a sprint for home…getting a through soaking on the way.
Jess did mention it to old Mose Shell one day as he was changing the team, but then he forgot all about the idea as life got pretty hectic.
The following weeks were filled with Overland Stage inspections, a roundup of their prime stock for market and repairing damage to the ranch after me bad spring storms.
So it was that when Mrs Evelyn Braithwaite stepped from the Stage the following month, looking around her with interest, the last thing on the cowboy’s minds was engaging a housekeeper.
“Howdy Ma’am, would you care for a coffee and a rest, “asked Slim kindly as he helped the older woman down from the Stage.
“Oh I would,” she agreed,” is it Mr Sherman?”
“Indeed Ma’am yes.”
“Oh well it is you I need to speak to. I hear you are maybe on the outlook for a housekeeper?”
“Huh?” Slim asked looking puzzled.
“Yes the driver Mr Shell he said maybe you were looking for a suitable candidate, and I do have experience.”
Slim squinted up at Mose and then vaguely remembered the notion being discussed by Jess some time back.
“Well sort of Ma’am, I’m not too sure really, we had thought about it but….”
“Er yeah me and my pard at the ranch, Jess Harper, we were kinda thinking about it a while back.”
Mrs Braithwaite’ s face suddenly lit up at the name of Jess Harper.
“Well I do believe I may be able to help you gentlemen.“
“Please come inside coffees already, why don’t you sit awhile?” Slim said.
“I really dunno,” Jess said in a whisper as the two men discussed the matter out in the yard later under the pretext of harnessing up the new team.
“But it’s what we decided,” Slim said looking annoyed, ”we said that this could be how we’d be able to get back on track with the local girls. If they think there’s someone like Mrs Braithwaite riding shot gun over the ranch then maybe they’ll relax some huh? And hey Jess she’d take all the workload off of us too!“
Jess looked hesitant, “I dunno, she looks kinda spooky to me…way too well turned out for a housekeeper anyways.”
“Jess that’s called fashion and she’s just a nice well-dressed middle aged lady, what’s so wrong with that huh?”
Jess just shook his head,” I dunno…but there’s sumthin’ don’t add up…. I’ve got me a bad feeling Slim. But go ahead you just do what you want, like you usually do,” he said sarcastically.
“Well I will then,” Slim replied with feeling, “I’ll tell her she can start right now!”
He had returned to the house and addressed the grey haired matron there and then and received an affirmative on the spot.
“Why thank you Mr Sherman, I’m sure you will find me efficient. Now I’ll just wash up the coffee cups and think about your mid-day meal yes?”
So it was that widow Braithwaite also known as Mrs Evelyn Braithwaite started work at the ranch. At first it seemed as though the tall smart lady would be a great asset. Her pastry and dumplings were light, her chicken and gravy tasty and her professional attitude was exemplary, if a little unfriendly.
After a day or so of Mr Harper this and Mr Sherman that Jess had grinned at her and said, “Hey you’re living here now, why dontcha relax some and call me Jess huh?” He asked with his most charming smile…
“Oh dear me no Mr Harper that would never do, it would be much too informal. I do like to keep things business like….if you understand me?”
Jess threw her a rather hurt look, “I guess Ma’am, if you say so.”
“And you can call me Mrs Braithwaite,” she said with a chilly smile.
“Yes, Mrs Braithwaite, Ma’am,” Jess said tongue in cheek before mooching off to do the yard chores.
“Well I think she’s a real cold fish,” Jess said to Slim a week or so later, “Heck she’s been here ages and we still don’t know any more about her now than we did on day one.”
“Uh, she sure isn’t one for the small talk,” Slim agreed, ”But I reckon she’s doing a good job huh?”
“I guess,” Jess muttered and went to saddle up as he was riding fence that day.
Slim looked after his buddy thoughtfully. He’d noticed the way Ma Braithwaite looked at his pard sometimes… almost with loathing….what was all that about? Heck Jess was popular with women of all ages, could charm the birds off of the trees as Sheriff Mort Cory often proclaimed, but it sure didn’t wash with their housekeeper Slim noted. He felt a slight shiver of apprehension run down his spine at the look in the older woman’s eyes just that morning as she had observed Jess enjoying his breakfast. Then he shrugged and turned back into the barn to start mucking out. You can’t win ‘em all pard he said to himself and dismissed the thought from his mind.
In the meantime Jess’s theory of having a live in housekeeper would change the attitude of the women folk in town had proved true. The elderly matrons looking on benignly, glad the young men were being well cared for again. Whereas the younger element quit their matrimonial plans and saw the young men as fancy free bachelors once more and treated them as such. They had found a couple of fun loving girls working at the Laramie Saloon and for awhile they enjoyed long romantic spring evenings, picnics by the lake and even the occasional night of passion with Betty and Gina.
However one day when the boys returned home from their Saturday night out early Sunday afternoon, they were to see the first signs of real displeasure from their usually quiet, respectful housekeeper.
Jess was the first to wander nonchalantly into the ranch house his mind still dwelling on the many attributes of the gorgeous Gina. But he was quickly dragged from his reverie as Mrs Braithwaite appeared from the kitchen, arms akimbo and a face like thunder.
“Mr Harper at last, well I hope you aren’t expecting Sunday lunch because it’s ruined!”
“Huh?” Jess asked flinching slightly at the unexpected outburst.
“Your dinner is in the dog,” she said succinctly, gesturing to a rather bloated and smug looking Buttons.
Then Slim barged in having just heard the end of this conversation.
“Something wrong Mrs Braithwaite?” He asked pleasantly.
“Yes there is since you ask Mr Sherman. I think it is most unseemly for two young, unmarried men such as yourself and Mr Harper to stop out in town all night. Getting up to all sorts of shenanigans with young flibbertigibbet women who are no better than they should be too, so I hear.”
Slim and Jess exchanged a baffled look, “Shenanigans…flibbertigibbet?” Jess whispered to Slim looking both annoyed and puzzled at the same time, “What’s she sayin’ Slim?”
“What I am saying young man,” replied Mrs Braithwaite icily,” is that fornication is the work of the devil and you’d do well to remember it. Unless that is you’ve upped and married that Gina since last week?” She asked sarcastically.
Jess finally got her drift,”No I dang well ain’t and it’s none of your business what me and Slim do either,” he yelled looking furious before turning on his heel and marching out.
Mrs Braithwaite turned white with fury, her eyes flashing ominously as she glared at Slim, “Well I never, how dare he speak to me that way!”
“Er, I reckon he didn’t mean it,” Slim said placatingly,”But he’s got a point Ma’am. It really isn’t any of your concern as to what we do or don’t do is it? I mean you are in my employ and as such, well it really isn’t your place to judge us.”
Of course she had to back down then and apologise, although Slim noticed she didn’t offer the same courtesy to Jess.
“It was the ruined meal,” she said the following day, “that’s what really annoyed me,” she lied.
They were all sitting around the breakfast table, Jess just drinking his coffee, having decided it wiser to completely ignore Mrs Braithwaite’ s presence where ever possible.
However Slim had gone to great lengths to try and find out what had riled the hereto seemingly unemotional woman so much.
“Well if that’s the problem, why don’t you take Sundays off?” The blond rancher suggested smiling at her,”You could go to Church or something,” he faltered as he saw the challenging look in her eyes once more.
“Oh no I don’t hold with that branch of the Church at all, I am of a different persuasion altogether,” she announced, but refused to elaborate.
Jess finding the idea of Sundays sans Ma Braithwaite kinda appealing joined in the debate.
“Well how about the Women’s Group, they often meet up on a Sunday afternoon and talk about…cookin’ and er…patchwork and the like,” he finished vaguely.
“No, no, “Mrs Braithwaite said even more forcefully,” I don’t hold with women’s groups. A hotbed of gossip I always think,” she said nodding her head sagely and going off to the kitchen to start washing the dishes, “No I’ll just sit around the house waiting on you gentlemen to return from your…capers,” she said with the sad smile of a martyr.
“Capers?” Jess echoed looking bemused, ”At least Jonesy didn’t clock us in and out and tell us how dang sinful we were if we were out romancin’ the ladies.”
“Shush,” said Slim,” she’ll hear you.”
“Good,” said Jess loudly as he got up and marched off to start the day’s chores.
Things would doubtless have continued in a similar vein, if Gina’s Ma hadn’t got sick leading to the girl moving back east to care for her and therefore finishing her dalliance with Jess.
So Jess mooched around like a bear with a sore head for a few weeks, until one day his luck changed.
Chapter 2
Jess wandered into the Laramie saloon one Saturday evening in search of his pard and saw him leaning on the bar deep in conversation with Betty his girl. He gave them both a grin before ordering a beer from Tom the barkeep. Then turning with his back to the bar surveyed the dimly lit room. After a couple of minutes his chin came up , his eyes sprang wide open in amazement, his expression almost as though he’d been slapped. His gaze resting on the most beautiful creature he’d seen in a long while.
He gave a low whistle of appreciation as Tom returned with the foaming glass of beer.
“I see you’ve noticed my new croupier Ruby, but don’t waste your time Jess. A real cold fish that one, won’t give the clients the time of day.”
“Really?” asked Jess taking a pull of his beer his eyes never leaving the vision of loveliness before him. She could be any age between thirty five to even forty maybe, but with her classic good looks, impeccable turn out and makeup she looked younger. It was just her self-assured manner that gave her an air of gravitas and sophistication that Jess found irresistible. From her honey blond hair carefully arranged in a chic style to the toes of her golden high heeled slippers she was perfection.
Jess had watched as she worked the table, effortlessly swatting off the attentions of various would be suitors as though they were mere flies. Her mind on the cards or the roll of the dice only.
Then she must have felt Jess’s intense gaze upon her and looking up their eyes met across the room.
Jess gave her his slow lazy smile, the blue eyes twinkling with mischief and for once she acknowledged a customer with the briefest of nods.
After a moment Jess drained his glass and made for the gaming table.
Slim nudged Betty and tipped his head towards where Jess was now seated and being dealt in. The tall rancher exchanged a grin with his girl, ”Uh-uh, that’ll end in tears,” he chuckled,” but the boy can dream.”
“Yup and that’ll be all he’ll be doin’,” said Tom laconically. “She’s turned ‘em all down. The woman just don’t do datin’, shame what a waste eh,” he said with a wry smile before moving off to serve another customer.
Towards the end of the evening Jess returned to his partner a cheeky grin on his handsome features.
“How’d you do buddy?” Slim asked.
“Won a few lost a few,” he said guardedly.
Slim sighed and rolled his eyes at Betty,” I meant with that ice maiden did she fall for your ‘boyish good looks and irresistible charm’ then…huh?”
This was a family joke and the way a certain old biddy had once described Jess, and Andy and Jonesy never failed to remind him of it, as it drove him mad.
However for once he didn’t rise to the bait merely looked kind of smug but said nothing.
A few minutes later the last bids of the evening were placed and then Ruby called it a day and made her way up the wide stairway to her rooms on the top floor above the saloon.
“Never mind Hotshot,” Slim said with a rueful grin at his pard,”Let’s get home shall we? Betty’s working late and so I’ll get me an early night.”
However Jess didn’t move and just gave his buddy an enigmatic smile.
“Well you do that Slim and don’t wait up, I’ll see you tomorrow…..er sometime.”
Jess gestured to the staircase that the beautiful lady had so recently mounted.
“Ruby said to give her five minutes and then go around the back said she’d let me in. See ya Slim.”
With that he marched off out through the batwing doors, a definite swagger in his stride and Tom and Slim exchanged a look of disbelief.
“Lucky son of a gun,” Tom muttered and poured a stiff whisky for both himself and Slim.
The door at the top of the fire escape was hauled open at his first knock and Ruby stood there, now attired in a smoky grey negligee, made of some diaphanous material.
Jess took one look his heart beating ten to the dozen and his eyes opening wide at this vision before him.
“So are ya coming in or are ya just gonna stand there gaping?” she asked in a Texan drawl, her voice deep and sexy.
“Oh I’m definitely comin’ in,”Jess said quickly, following her along the passage, up a flight of steep stairs and into her large room spread over the top floor of the saloon.
“Nice place,” he said as she lit the lamps, their orange glow illuminating a good sized sitting room, with bedroom and kitchen off…
“It’ll do me for now,” she agreed, wandering over towards a sideboard laden with bottles, “I never stay anyplace too long. Drink?” she asked turning to face him.
Jess accepted a large whiskey and they took them over to a sofa pulled close to an ornate fireplace, with a good blaze crackling away.
“So you’re from Texas too,” she said as she sat, pulling the brief gown around her, and exposing a shapely leg.
Jess sat too and directed his gaze back up to her face, “Yeah, panhandle and you?”
“Dallas. So panhandle…kinda tough down there huh Jess?”
“I guess.”
“And what’s your second name?” she asked suddenly peering over at him and really focusing.
“Harper…Jess Harper Ma’am.”
She gave a little shocked gasp at that information.
“I knew it! I thought I recognised you .Well , well Jess Harper gunfighter, who’d have thought it.”
“You know me?”
“Sure I do…sorta. Saw a wanted poster once…good likeness,” she said with a grin. “Well I know your reputation anyways, met a man once who’d seen you in a shoot-out said it was the fastest darned thing he’d ever witnessed.”
“That so,” said Jess sounding bored, never impressed by his own prowess in that direction or others views of it either.
“So is it true what they say about your reputation?”
Jess’s eyes suddenly twinkled, ”Which one, my fast draw or for kissin’ real good?” He asked cheekily.
“Either,” she said licking her lips and casting him a challenging look, the light of passion now flickering in her dark violet eyes.
“Well now, I reckon the draw’s pretty fast, so folk say. But the kissin’, but you’d have to be the judge of that huh?”
Her eyes seemed huge as he leaned in and gently cupped her heart shaped face between his large hands and very softly caressed her luscious lips with his own before kissing her long and slow.
Then he pulled back a little and gave her a quizzical look,”Well?”
“It’s all they say and more,” she said dreamily before caressing his tumble of dark hair with one hand and pulling him in close, their lips meeting once more Jess drawing her soft body even closer to him and giving a soft groan of desire.
It was nearly supper time on the Sunday when he finally rode into the ranch yard and entered the barn to put his horse up for the night.
Slim strode across the yard and into the barn as soon as he heard him and stood by the door watching his pard for a moment.
He had slipped from the saddle and now just stood leaning on his horse as though exhausted, Traveller the only thing holding him up.
Slim gave a little cough and Jess spun around and then grinned,”Oh it’s you.“
“So who did you think it was Ma Braithwaite come out to say welcome home?”
Jess shook his head,” I guess not….did she start rantin’ again?”
“Yup, apparently you’re going straight to Hell. So I should be real careful Jess, don’t go takin’ any risks if you don’t want to be visiting the warm place any time soon.”
Jess chuckled and Slim advanced upon him, noting the fatigued, almost dazed look in his eyes.
“So, you had a good night then?”
Jess just nodded, “Yup…”
Slim sighed knowing he’d get nothing else from him. Jess’s mantra always being, ‘what happens in my lady’s bed stays there’.
But he still persisted.
“So was she as good as she looks?”
“What do you think?” Jess grinned.
“Seeing her again then?”
He just nodded and turned to deal with his horse.
Slim turned back to the house,” I’ll tell Ma B you’re coming in for supper, oh and Jess…. “
“You might want to pull up your bandana some, that’s a nasty looking bite on your neck and it wasn’t done by a mosquito either,” he said laughing as Jess flushed up and then flapped a hand at his buddy.
“Git out of here Slim.”
It was a few days later that Ma B, as the men termed their housekeeper behind her back, learned the true nature of Jess’s new amore.
Mose was sitting around the table enjoying a coffee and a good old chin wag as he termed it.
“Well Jess boy I’ve gotta hand it to you, beddin’ the finest lookin’ woman Laramie’s seen in many a day .You’re the envy of every red blooded male in town, that’s for sure!”
“Shut up Mose,” Jess said urgently,” Ma B’s just in the kitchen she’ll hear you.”
“Oh right you are,” he said with a broad grin and a wink. Then a tad more quietly, “So what’s yer secret then Jess? Good looks, those blue eyes of yours…or somethin’ else?” he asked with another theatrical wink.
“Well I’ll tell ya Mose, it’s all in the kissin’,” Jess whispered back, tapping his nose, just as the housekeeper entered and from the look in her eyes the men figured she’d heard every darned word.
She banged a fresh coffee pot down on the table and then strode out the back with the washing basket banging the door behind her.
“Uh-uh,” said Mose,” I’d better be a goin’.”
Then turning to Jess said playfully, “Iffen I didn’t know better I’d think that lady was jealous,” and cackling he wandered off back to the Stage and moments later they heard him leaving the yard at speed.
Jess turned incredulous eyes on his pard, ”Jealous is he crazy, garldarn it Slim, she’s old enough to be my Ma.”
“Well there’s something real strange about her Jess, she doesn’t make all this song and dance about me seeing Betty now, what’s her problem I wonder?”
“Search me, but she’s beginning to give me the creeps Slim. I caught her lookin’ at me the other day like she was figurin’ the best way to chop me up into little pieces and serve me up for supper.”
“Oh well you win some you lose some,” Slim said philosophically,”Just you be glad you won the heart of the lovely Ruby, so when are you seeing her again…..huh?”
That was to be the start of a very intense, passionate relationship between Jess and croupier Ruby Knight. At first Jess wasn’t sure if he was in love or just lusted after the enigmatic Ruby. But before too long he knew he was truly smitten and spent as much time as he was able with her. Sure he knew in his heart of hearts that this would be a fast burning…short lived affair. Believing as he did that Ruby would soon tire of small town Laramie and want to move on to pasture new. After all that had been practically her first words to him when he had admired her rooms, ’They’ll do for now…..I never stay any place too long.’
However as the affair progressed in its intensity, so did Ma Braithwaite’ s irritability.
After keeping ‘herself to herself’ as she called it for the first few weeks of her employment. She had now buddied up with an elderly lady who was renting the old Benson spread at the back of the Sherman ranch, one Edith Baines. And a ‘right old gossip’ according to Mose, ’Who should know one when he saw one,’ Jess had added as an aside to Slim, with a wicked wink.
Edith had moved out of town after a rather distressing incident when a neighbour had threatened to poison all her twenty cats if they didn’t stop fouling his front yard. Widow Baines had immediately sold up and found sanctuary for herself and her ‘furry family’ as she referred to the animals on the old Benson ranch. She and Evelyn Braithwaite had met in the mercantile one day and found themselves to be kindred spirits, both cat lovers and avid gossips. Although Evelyn would strenuously deny the latter trait.
It was however Edith’s insider knowledge of the goings on at the Laramie Saloon that really forged their friendship as far as Evelyn was concerned. Edith’s niece Annie worked at the saloon and also had the room directly below Ruby’s and was glad to give a blow by blow account of the goings on between Jess and the lady croupier and Edith and Evelyn Braithwaite were more than happy to listen.
It was a couple of weeks into Jess’s affair, on a Monday morning that Sheriff Mort Cory called on them at the ranch.
He rode into the yard and tethered his old buckskin conveniently near the water trough and moseyed on over towards the barn where he could hear someone whistling. He called out ‘howdy’ and moments later Slim emerged; rake in hand and a welcoming smile on his face.
“Hey Mort, it’s good to see you the coffee pot should be on for the mid-day Stage shortly. So are you here on business or pleasure?”
Mort grinned,”A bit of both actually, time for a coffee and a natter and I’ve a favour to ask one of you too, Jess around? Or should I say Casanova?” he asked with a chuckle.
“Oh he’s around some place,” Slim said,” doubt iffen you’ll get much sense out of him though, he was out courting all week-end, only rode in at breakfast this morning. Used to be he’d stay over just the Saturday night. Now well dang it, he’s practically moved in,” he said with a bark of laughter, but with an edge to it,” She’s wearing the boy out, shadow of his former self he is,” he said now his eyes twinkling in merriment.
“He sure is the talk of the town,” Mort mused,” and the envy of all the men folk that’s for sure. Jeez, she sure is a cracker and a cool one too.”
“Um, that’s what worries me,” Slim said sobering,” I can’t help but think Jess is going to fall pretty darned hard once she moves on.”
“Well that’s love for you,” Mort grinned, ”women folk are equally entitled to love ‘em and leave ‘em just like us men folk have a tendency to do and that Ruby sure is her own woman. But there again she looks pretty smitten with Jess, who knows maybe she’ll stop around after all.”
Just then Jess rode fast into the yard and swung down from the saddle.
Mort grinned over at him and saw the young cowboy was looking decidedly the worse for wear. He had dark rings around his eyes, looked like he’d lost weight and had a slightly edgy look about him, like he was in need of a good feed and about a week of sleep. Yup Slim was right the boy looked plumb wore out.
Jess greeted him warmly and the three men went into the house calling out for Ma Braithwaite, but there was no sign of her.
“That’s funny,” said Jess returning from the kitchen with the coffee pot and cups, “she’s left it all ready, but there ain’t no sign of her.”
“Probably out back, she said she might dig over the vegetable plot,” Slim said,” I’ll fetch her in a minute and introduce you.”
“So how is she panning out?” Mort asked.
“OK,” said Slim quickly, “she’s mighty efficient, business like you know. But she’s not one to chat or have a laugh with.“
“Uh,” said Jess morosely, “you can say that again and she dang well hates me.”
“No she doesn’t Jess, she just disapproves of your er…lifestyle that’s all.”
Mort and Slim exchanged a grin.
“So, how is the delectable Ruby then?” Mort asked smirking at his friend.
“Aw Mort don’t you start,” Jess said irritably.
“OK,” said Slim quickly changing the subject, knowing Jess was more than fed up at being teased about his relationship with Ruby, “what can we do for you Mort…you said you wanted a favour?”
“Um…oh yes,” he said , ”I need to go over to Cheyenne on business next week for a few days I was wondering if one of you could cover for me?”
“Well I’ve got the Overland boss landing one day next week, not sure when, but Jess here is free.”
“So how about it Jess could you mind the town for me? I’ll be away Wednesday through Friday, back in time for you to have a nice er…relaxing week-end with your lady friend,” he said hiding a smile, but twitching an eyebrow at Slim.
Jess seemed to think about it,”Uh, just the day shift….7 to 9 and then Lon takes over and sleeps in for the night-shift like last time yeah?”
“That’s it…”
Jess’s handsome features relaxed into a broad grin, ”OK Sheriff you’ve got yourself a deal I’d be glad to help you out!”
“Thanks buddy,” Mort said draining his cup and standing to leave.
“I’ll just fetch Mrs Braithwaite, introduce you,” said Slim and he strode out the back door calling for Evelyn.
It was sometime before he located her squatted down behind the garden shed. He chuckled when she jumped, “Sorry,” he said quickly,” I didn’t mean to startle you…but I’ve been calling you.”
“Oh, really I didn’t hear,” she said vaguely,”I was er…. just looking for my trowel I dropped it somewhere around here.”
“Well never mind that now, come on in I want to introduce you to Mort Cory. He’s our local Sheriff and a good friend.”
“Oh no Mr Sherman I couldn’t possibly, I’m really not attired for company.”
Slim threw her a quizzical glance, seeing the gardening apron over a perfectly respectable grey dress, ”Sure you are,” he said confidently, “ you look just fine,” and he hustled her off towards the house giving her no chance to argue.
When she entered Mort came forwards to say howdy and smiled at the tall plain looking middle-aged woman,”Mrs Braithwaite is it, pleased to meet you,” he said kindly.
However Evelyn barely met his eye and kept her head down, in a rare display of shyness.
Mort peered more closely, “Haven’t we met,” he asked after a minute,” in Cheyenne maybe?”
“No,” she said quickly, “I don’t believe I’ve been to Cheyenne I’m from a small town south of Denver.”
“Oh… I could have sworn. You’re not related to Jack Braithwaite of Cheyenne, passed over a few months back, left everything to a grandson so I believe?”
“If I was to have come into the Braithwaite fortune I would hardly be working as a housekeeper now would I Sheriff?” she said briskly.” Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve lunch to attend to,” and she turned on her heel and darted off to the kitchen without a backwards glance.
Slim and Jess walked the Sheriff out to his horse and Mort stood for a moment before scratching his head looking thoughtful….”She’s a strange one ain’t she?” He said.
“Yer not kiddin’,” Jess agreed….
“Um, well you just keep an eye on her,” Mort replied,”I’ve definitely seen her someplace, I never forget a face and another thing, I never mentioned anything about the Braithwaite legacy being a ‘fortune’ did either of you?”
The men shook their heads.
“Uh, well I’ll see you next week then Jess, take care,” and he rode off up the trail.
The following week Edith was able to report to Evelyn Braithwaite that Deputy Sheriff Harper may have spent his days defending the town and good people of Laramie, but his nights had been spent looking out for one Ruby Knight.
“It’s disgusting it really is,” she said with relish,”Our Annie says it’s like he’s almost moved into the place and all the girls there love him. Even Annie’s a tad smitten I think but she won’t admit it, although Mr Harper only has eyes for that Miss Ruby at the moment. But I expect that’ll all change if she goes.”
“If …I thought you said she was only to stay for a few weeks?”
“Um, but it looks like Tom’s got her to agree to stay longer. I figure she’s pretty smitten with Mr Harper and you can’t blame her Evelyn dear. Even if you don’t care for the boy you must admit he is handsome and well…. got a certain charm about him,” she said with a misty smile.
Chapter 3
The next week was a revelation to Jess. Sure he’d had a real good time with Ruby up to then. But meeting up with her every night after work brought a whole new dimension to their relationship. Instead of just having a laugh and fun at the weekends, culminating in passionate lovemaking, now they really started to open up and talk properly and get to know each other on a much deeper level. They didn’t just discuss their day to day work. The drunks Jess had rounded up or the fight in the livery. Or the annoying punters she had put up with, wanting to paw her or arguing about the losses they had made on the tables. But they talked about their past, growing up in Texas and even thoughts for the future…maybe one together. Or so Jess thought.
The weekend after he had finished covering for Mort, proved to be the most passionate and intimate time he had spent with Ruby to date.
Tom had given her the time off. The first weekend off since she arrived in town and the two made the most of their time together. It was now early summer and the weather balmy and so Jess hired a buggy from the livery and they took off for the lake.
Now as they batted along in the early morning sunlight he cast a glance at her beautiful profile and saw a trace of sadness there.
“Are you OK sweetheart,” he asked,”you’re kinda quiet?”
She seemed to jump and then pulled herself together smiling warmly at him, ”I’m fine,” she said impulsively putting a hand on his knee, ”why wouldn’t I be?”
Jess just shrugged, “I dunno…I thought maybe there’ d been some bad news in that letter you got this morning?”
She flinched, but then regained her composure,”No, just from my sister boring family stuff no bad news. Now tell me all about this lake, I’m longing to see it, “she said with a winning smile.
They spent the morning like two kids paddling and splashing in the lake laughing and talking until they finally collapsed on the blanket Jess had spread out in the shade of a huge pine, exhausted after all their horseplay.
She lay on her back, the brief sundress she was wearing doing little to hide her womanly attributes and Jess lay propped up on his elbow smiling down at her…and eventually moved in for a kiss. It was much later when he reached over to his discarded denims, looking in the back pocket for the protection he needed that Ruby’s hand rested upon his own. He glanced at her his expression puzzled.
“No need to use anything,” she said quietly.
“There’s no need for that, you see I can’t get pregnant Jess, I should have told you sooner.”
He looked totally shocked, but quickly pulled himself together.
“How so?”
“I …well I’m not proud of it, but I got pregnant as a very young woman and I lost the baby, but it damaged me Jess real bad and I can’t have anymore, I’m sorry,” she whispered looking near to tears, ”so sorry.”
“Hey, sweetheart it’s OK,” he said softly,”it don’t matter…nuthin’ matters ‘cept us huh? “
Then he tenderly, oh so tenderly made love to her….
At that kaleidoscope moment of release at the finish she did finally collapse in tears sobbing as though her heart would break.
He tried his best to calm her, but she just looked sadly at him and said softly, “Always remember I love you Jess…. whatever happens.”
He looked mystified, but merely held her close,”Nuthin’ s gonna happen sweetheart. This don’t make no difference to anything I promise you.”
After that moment she seemed to relax back into her old self and the rest of the weekend was like a wonderful dream and never had Jess felt so much in love, or so loved.
He kissed her goodbye early on the Monday morning. But she had pulled him down to where she still lay in the warm bed pleading with him to stay a little longer and he had finally given in and returned to the ranch at lunchtime. Much to the annoyance of both Slim and Ma B.
“Garldarn it Jess I’m as much in favour of some good lovin’ as the next man. But dadgum it I’ve done all the chores around here best part of a week and I need you on side pard…. we’ve fences to mend and stock to check…. I can’t run the whole darned outfit on my own you know!”
“Look I’m sorry OK…I’ll work extra hours this week make up for it.”
“Um…and Ma Braithwaite’ s been breathing fire all darned weekend…. anyone would think you were the devil incarnate.”
Jess just snorted and set about the yard chores whistling and with a spring in his step.
Slim grinned after him. That Ruby sure was making his buddy happy and that was the main thing he figured, time old Hotshot had the love of a good woman.
It was the following Saturday evening before Jess got to town again, as he kept his word about making up for his prolonged absence.
Slim was staying home as Betty was off visiting kin and so Jess mooched into the saloon on his own and ordered a beer before looking over to the gaming table where he imagined Ruby would be starting work shortly.
Then he did a double take as sitting in her chair checking the decks was a complete stranger, a middle aged dapper little man with a goatee beard and bored expression.
Jess turned back to where Tom had just delivered his beer and said,”Where’s Ruby?”
Tom looked slightly uncomfortable and then said,”Well didn’t she say, she lit off first thing Tuesday… I thought you’d know?”
Jess stood there his heart thumping in his chest and for a moment he felt so dizzy that he thought he might actually pass out, ”What?” He whispered, “What you sayin’ Tom?”
“Oh hell…she didn’t tell you did she garldarn it. I felt sure she would have done. But then when she left the note, I did think maybe she hadn’t,” and he finally ground to a standstill,”sorry,” he muttered.
“She left a note?”
“Yes it’s here someplace,” and he dug about under the counter for a few minutes before triumphantly holding an envelope up on high,”There you are Jess.”
Jess took it from him and turning away ripped it open reading the brief contents over several times before stuffing it in his pocket. Leaving his beer untouched on the bar he marched out without a word, his face like thunder.
All the way home as he rode Traveller hard along the Laramie road, the brief sentence was going round and around in his mind.

Jess, I’m so sorry…. I’m only leaving because I love you too much not to…..forgive me, Ruby x

What did she mean…’loved him too much’? Hell how could she love him and leave him this way, without even a goodbye, without an explanation for goodness sake?
Was it his fault? Had he pushed it too far, talking about a possible future together? Darn it she was a feisty independent woman, used to coming and going as she pleased…maybe she felt stifled, tied down. Heck how many times had Jess cut and run in similar circumstances.
Or maybe it was her inability to bear him children. Sure he’d told her about his big family and the desire to have a whole mess of kids himself, but surely they could have talked it through? Come to some compromise…adopted maybe? The thoughts went round and round his mind like rats in a barrel.
Where had she gone? On close interrogation Tom had merely said to the Railroad, first car out on Tuesday, headed south.
By the time he arrived back at the ranch it was late evening and he was relieved to think that at least Ma Braithwaite would have retired early with a book which was her usual habit.
He put Traveller up for the night, spending ages grooming and feeding him, putting off the moment when he would have to share his news with Slim.
As it was Slim himself had been engrossed in a new book and he hadn’t heard Jess ride in. So he jumped when the door opened just after ten and Jess slouched in, throwing his hat on the rack.
“Hey pard what are you doing home?” He asked looking surprized, “Don’t tell me you and Miss Ruby have had an argument?”
Jess just shook his head, his dark blue eyes desolate, “No,” he whispered, “she done run out on me.”
“Huh?” Slim asked in disbelief,”She what?”
“You heard,” he said and headed for the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind him.
Slim gave it ten minutes for Jess to collect himself, having seen how near the edge he looked and then putting his book down he went into their shared room.
Jess was lying in bed, his torso naked as it was a warm night, but his eyes looked icy cold as he stared up at the ceiling, his hands laced behind his neck, his expression bleak.
“Hey Jess…pard, I’m real sorry. So why did she go, did she say?”
Jess reached out to the nightstand and fumbled for an envelope before passing it across, “Your guess is as good as mine,” he muttered, shrugging.
Slim read the brief note and whistled softly,”It doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s what I thought,” Jess agreed,”but women who can figure ‘em?”
“So what are you going to do?”
“What can I do? ‘Gone south’ is a hell of a big area Slim and anyways what’s the point, she obviously don’t want me no more. It’s over…. “
“I can’t believe it,” Slim said quietly, “the way you two were together what the heck can have made her act this way?”
“Well you’d better believe it,” Jess replied angrily and turning on his side feigned sleep. But Slim heard him tossing and turning all night long. Knowing how betrayed and troubled his friend must be feeling.
The following day he was taciturn, barely bothering to be polite to Ma Braithwaite and after breakfast he headed off to check fence saying not to wait up.
“My, my, young Mr Harper has woken up in a bad mood,” she said as she cleared the breakfast things from the table.
“Er I figure maybe you should know Mrs Braithwaite, he’s not seeing Miss Ruby anymore and he’s kind of upset about it. Maybe best if you don’t mention her and just cut him some slack huh?”
Was that a fleeting look of triumph in her eyes Slim thought, but it was gone before he could be sure.
“Of course rely on me Mr Sherman I shall be the soul of discretion as always.”
Over the next few days as Jess’ mood plummeted to the depths of melancholy, so Mrs Braithwaite’ s seemed to soar to the heights of joyfulness. She hummed and smiled as she went about her duties and drove Jess mad with her upbeat manner, whilst he just felt as miserable as all get out.
How could Ruby do this to me, a voice in his brain said over and over, but there was no answer.
He couldn’t eat or sleep and spent all his time working himself into the ground, rarely speaking to Ma Braithwaite if he could help it. He too had picked up on her attitude and once or twice noted a look of almost gloating in her scheming old eyes but he’d let it go , being in no mood for confrontation.
One morning Slim caught up with Jess in the barn as he was just finishing mucking out.
“How are you doing?” Slim asked casting his buddy a quick glance and noting he was unshaven and looking decidedly rough.
“OK,” was the taciturn response.
Slim sighed in frustration, ”Hell Jess will you talk to me; it’s been two weeks now with you acting this way. And look at the state of you…..you’re a mess pard.”
“Well thanks,” he said sarcastically, glaring at his buddy, ”excuse me iffen I don’t meet with your high standards Mr Sherman…but right now I really couldn’t give a damn.”
“Well that’s plain enough,” Slim said with asperity.
Then seeing the hurt look in his eyes said softly,” Jess please, just talk it through huh?”
Jess looked suddenly furious and throwing the rake he’d been using down, he marched out of the barn without a backward glance.
Slim watched him as he strode over towards the big corral, kicking viciously at a stone as he went. The ghost of a smile hovered around Slim’s lips as he watched him stomp off…. acting so…well so typically Jess. When he reached the corral fence though he stopped and resting his arms along the top rail he lowered his head down and stood there. A lonely figure looking so tragic that the smile faded from Slim’s face and his heart went out to his buddy. After a moment Traveller walked over and getting no response from his beloved owner gently nuzzled at the thatch of unruly dark hair.
After a moment or two Jess finally raised his head and stroked Traveller’ s velvety muzzle talking softly to him, before finding the inevitable sugar lump in his shirt pocket.
Slim wandered over and stood watching man and horse for a moment before giving Jess an uncertain grin, ” I figure that old horse of yours knows how to handle you better than I do huh? “
Jess turned at that and gave his partner a genuine smile,” I’m sorry Slim I know I’m being a pain in the butt right now….but I will try and snap out of it I promise.”
It was the following Saturday afternoon when he finally got the answer as to why Ruby had left the way she did.
Ma Braithwaite was spending the afternoon with her new best buddy, as Jess referred to Ma Edith Baines.”Doubtless hatching up new ways to make my life a misery,” he had said to Slim. They had watched as the older woman had made her way purposefully across the home pasture to the short cut across the creek to the old Benson spread. Slim grinned at his pard’ s improved humour, ”I reckon she really doesn’t like you and your charming boyish good looks,” he chuckled, receiving a sharp jab in the ribs from Jess.
Taking advantage of Jess seeming return to good mood he said, “So you coming to town this afternoon play some poker, sink a glass or two, huh?”
“Watch you and Betty canoodling…like a pair of lovebirds no thanks.”
“Aw come on Jess, there’s a new girl just started Megan, real cute and cuddly she is you’d love her and…”
“No,” Jess said quickly interrupted, “no I wouldn’t Slim now just leave it huh,” and he wandered off, leaving Slim looking sadly after him.
As it worked out Slim was back later that afternoon and found Jess sitting out on the porch idly whittling a piece of wood.
“What’s up Hardrock, she thrown you over,” he asked with his cheeky grin.
Slim sank down on the other seat, “Nope she’s sick.“
“Aw, I’m sorry Slim.. I was just kiddin’ ya,”
“I know, she’ll be OK just something she ate I think. Anyway she’s tucked up in bed and Megan says she’ll keep an eye on her, call the doc iffen she’s no better in the morning but she’ll be fine.”
Jess studied his partner and saw he was looking sorely tried and kinda troubled too.
“Really, I mean you could have stayed with her, if you’re worried. I don’t need babysitting you know. Or did you think I might be forced to shoot Ma B and hide her body in the well?” He said with a wicked grin.
“No it’s not Betty I’m worried about, she’ll be just fine. Or Ma B,” he said with a faint smile….”it’s you I guess…see I’ve got something for you.”
“Yeah, and I reckon it might set you off feeling bad again, it’s to do with Ruby you see.”
Jess turned pale, “Ruby you say?”
“The new guy, croupier has taken over her rooms. Well it seems he found the mattress kinda lumpy and decided to turn it and well, he found this underneath gave it to Tom and he figured you should have it.”
Slim passed over a small package wrapped in brown paper.
Jess quickly ripped off the wrappings revealing a small red book, the title embossed in gold lettering, ‘An Anthology of Romantic Poetry.’
Slim raised a quizzical eyebrow and was about to make a facetious comment when he saw Jess’s hands were shaking and he had a look of desolation in his deep blue eyes.
He glanced across, ”This was hers, her favourite…said she’d get me readin’ the romantic poets iffen it was the last thing she ever did,” he said his voice breaking on the last words.
When Slim said nothing but merely looked incredibly moved, Jess continued, ”She wasn’t just about playin’ the cards and rollin’ the dice ya know Slim. She was a real well educated woman, real smart too. Could even quote whole bits of that English guy….er Shakespeare…that’s it, his plays, she knew some bits word for word ya know.”
“She was quite some woman,” Slim said softly, “you’ll have to tell me all about her someday pard.“
“Uh…maybe someday.”
Then he looked puzzled, “Why would she leave this, it was one she read all the time like I said.”
“Well maybe she figured it would be found sometime and Tom would give it to you…her way of making sure you finally read it huh?” He said with the ghost of a smile.
Jess just shook his head as he flipped through the book, ”Maybe.”
Then, as he continued flicking through the pages an envelope dropped out.
He leaned down and picked up the pale blue envelope with Ruby’s name written in dark violet ink in a bold hand, the writing vaguely familiar to Jess but he couldn’t place it.
“What’s that?” Slim asked with interest.
“The letter she got that last Saturday we spent together,” and he looked off to the distant mountains, “She was in a real funny mood Slim, real emotional, cryin’ and takin’ on about…. stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
Jess remembered about her revelation of her being unable to bear children and shook his head sadly, “Just personal stuff,” he said quietly.
Slim let it go, ”So maybe something in the letter upset her? “
Jess shrugged, “She said it was from her sister, just some family business.”
“Well that’s it Jess don’t you see, maybe this sister was sick or in trouble, needed Ruby home and she’s left the letter for you to find out.”
Jess just shook his head in bewilderment, ”I dunno…why didn’t she just tell me outright?”
Slim shrugged, “I don’t know, maybe she thought you’d try and stop her going or something? You won’t know what it was all about anyway unless you read that dang letter,” he said suddenly feeling impatient, wanting an answer as much as Jess did.
“You’re right,” and he slowly opened the envelope and perused the contents.
Slim studied his pard’ s lean handsome features as he read the closely written page, his expression swinging from mild curiosity to astonishment and then plain fury, his eyes flashing dark and dangerous.
“God damn it Slim,” he yelled,” what’s goin’ on, this ain’t from her sister. It’s written by a crazy person,” and he threw the note over to Slim.
Slim read the closely written, but legible text several times, before turning back to Jess.
“Looks like someone threatened to put a contract out on you, but simply for dating Ruby, that just doesn’t make sense?”
“Like I say it’s written by a crazy person but they sure meant business Slim. It says that iffen Ruby didn’t leave town within twenty four hours then a paid assassin would take me out.” Then he gave Slim a faint grin, “and I bet there were a good few bounty hunters standin’ in line just waitin’ for the privilege of back shootin’ me too,” he said with irony.
“Whoever it is must have plenty of cash,” Slim said thoughtfully, “those guys don’t come cheap.”
“Never mind about that, why in hell didn’t Ruby just tell me, I could have dealt with it.”
“Because she was shit scared of course,” said Slim,” this guy wasn’t messing about, he meant business. Maybe it was an old flame of Ruby’s or something, whoever it is like you say they’re crazy alright. Crazy with jealousy and that’s a powerful strong emotion Jess. Ruby was just frightened for you, like she said in that note she loved you too much not to leave.”
Jess closed his eyes tightly and took a deep breath at the memory of the note that he still carried in his wallet.
“You’re right Slim…Slim?”
The tall rancher was again scrutinizing the letter once more, ”Hey Jess is this writing kind of familiar?”
“Well now ya mention it yes I guess it is…”
Before he could continue Slim shot out of his seat and entered the ranch house returning seconds later triumphantly waving a note in his hands…
Jess stared in total shock as Slim waved the note that had been pinned to a kitchen cupboard for the last month. The list of jobs Evelyn Braithwaite declared needed doing around the ranch, from buying a new cook stove to painting the house inside and out. The men were supposed to tick off the jobs as they were completed ,but up to now the page was tick free.
They compared Ma B’s handwriting with that of the evil letter writer and it was identical down to the shade of note paper and ink and the broad nib of the pen used to write both.
The men stared at each other looking totally perplexed.
“Why,” whispered Jess, ”and more to the point what in hell are we gonna do about it?”
“Oh there’s absolutely no doubt about what we’ll do,” said Slim staunchly, “at the bottom of her list…next item…fire Housekeeper…tick!”
Jess grinned, “Deal, but put it at the top of the list huh Slim.”
It was late afternoon when Evelyn Braithwaite wandered across the home pasture and into the yard after visiting with her friend Edith.
She frowned slightly as she saw the two ranchers sitting out on the porch and hoped they didn’t expect feeding. For goodness sake it had been agreed that she would take Saturday and Sunday afternoons off. Now she just wanted to make herself a cup of tea and retire to her room.
“I do hope you gentlemen aren’t expecting me to start cooking,” she said briskly as she mounted the porch.
“Nope,” said Slim dead pan, ”we don’t expect that Ma’am. But we would like you to pack your bags and leave. I’m giving you notice to quit as of now…wages are here,” and he passed an envelope across to the now bewildered looking woman.
“What…why…whatever do you mean Mr Sherman?”
All this time Jess had been slumped in his chair. To an outsider passively watching the scene unfold .But Slim was aware that he was sitting quietly coiled, like a rattler waiting to strike and almost as deadly. He could almost feel his pard’ s waves of anger and he just wanted this stupid woman to go…preferably before Jess erupted.
But it was too late…
Jess suddenly leapt up from his chair and towered over the deeply perplexed woman.
“I’ll tell yer why you miserable old witch,” and he waved the letter in her face, “So just one question before you go, why? Why did you do this to me, goddamn it woman why do you hate me so blamed much?”
She looked from the letter he now thrust in her face up into those icy blue eyes and flinched in fear and trepidation. But then something inside her seemed to rally.
“Revenge,” she said firmly, ”pure revenge Mr Harper. I set out to hurt you and I did, so yes I can leave now with pleasure.”
Jess looked completely nonplussed, ”Why I never even clapped eyes on ya up until you landed here, revenge for what?”
“Because you are a popular man. One who can snap his fingers and have any woman he pleases. Oh you and your oh so handsome looks and those teasing eyes. So, out of all the men in town of course that tramp Ruby chose you to have an affair with. The ever so charming Jess Harper!” she screamed, her voice rising in a crescendo of bitterness.
“You’re crazy you know that?” Jess countered, ”Garldarn it I ain’t ever struck a woman, but I’m getting pretty dang close right now! “The snide comment referring to his Ruby as a tramp, nearly pushing him over the edge.
He stood there his breath coming in harsh gasps and his right hand clenching and unclenching above his gun butt.
“Easy pard,” said Slim jumping up and resting a gentle hand on his buddy’s chest, ”just simmer down huh?”
Then turning to Ma Braithwaite said acerbically,” I should go and pack Ma’am, while the goings good. I want you off of my property within the hour.”
“As you wish Mr Sherman,” and she turned on her heel and marched off to her room.
“You OK Jess?”
“I guess so, but I still ain’t no wiser as to why though Slim.”
He shook his head sadly, “I dunno maybe she’s been crossed in love and just couldn’t bear to see you so dang happy…who knows. Anyway she’s going.”
“And good riddance,” Jess said darkly, ”I’m goin’ to tend Trav tell me when she’s gone huh?” And he strode across the yard and disappeared into the barn.
Ma B emerged some ten minutes later carrying the small suitcase she had arrived with.
“I shall be staying with dear Edith,” was her parting shot,” you can contact me there Mr Sherman when you come to your senses and realize you can’t manage this place without me.”
“Hell will freeze over first,” Slim whispered to himself before turning for the barn with a spring in his step to tell his pard the good news, the coast was clear, Ma B had left.
Chapter 4
The days turned to weeks and Slim and Jess reverted to their previous management of the domestic chores. But now older and wiser. And if Slim was occasionally irritated by Jess’s somewhat relaxed attitude to cleaning the house and Jess groaned at Slim’s nagging, then both men took a deep breath and said nothing. They were just glad to be rid of that harridan as Slim referred to Ma B, whereas Jess had much more colourful names for her.
As luck would have it none of the town’s women had seemed to hear of the housekeeper’s departure. So the ranchers were not tormented by a plethora of woman folk seeking to be the next mistress of the ranch house. It had also suited Ma Braithwaite to keep the matter of her sacking quiet too, feeling somewhat embarrassed by the whole business.
“Ungrateful they were,” she had told Edith,” just not used to a properly run home. I told them straight I couldn’t stand it anymore. I just couldn’t put up with Mr Harper’s wild behaviour and darned right messy ways. You should see the state of his clothes my dear,” she had said with an exaggerated shudder. ”He seemed to spend all his time rolling around in the dirt instead of breaking those mustangs as far as I could tell. Whereas Mr Sherman was much more refined. Begged me to stay he did. But Edith my dear, not a word of all this in town, our little secret yes? I should hate for Mr Sherman to be embarrassed, better if folk think I am still in his employ.”
And so it was that Evelyn Braithwaite became friend and companion to Edith Baines and seemed to be leading a happily fulfilled life, just over the hill from the Sherman spread, along with Edith’s ‘furry family’, of now nearing thirty cats.
“Garldarn it I swear you can smell those critters when the winds in the right direction,” Jess said one bright morning in midsummer. He sniffed the air theatrically, “Yup definitely fragrance of Tom cat,” he said grinning at his buddy.
“Jeez said Slim with feeling, what must it be like living in that place? It got pretty down at heel when old Benson had it but goodness knows what the place must be like nowadays.”
“Uh, well I fer one ain’t about to find out,” Jess said firmly, ”So harness mendin’ or fence ridin’ wanna toss for it?”
“OK said Slim but with my coin alright?”
“OK, OK keep yer hair on,” Jess said looking hurt and putting his double headed dollar back in his pocket. What the hell they were equally borin’ jobs anyhow he figured.
Maybe it was the mundane jobs at the ranch right then, or the fact that he was finally getting over Ruby. But later that week when Slim suggested they attend the Midsummer Dance in town that Saturday night Jess agreed with alacrity for once.
“So thinking of getting back in the saddle then Jess?” Slim had said with a wicked wink, ”One thing that old harridan got right, you sure are popular. I figure the women folk of Laramie have been missing you something fierce these last few weeks.”
“Is that a fact?” asked Jess a twinkle in his dark blue eyes.
The Midsummer Dance, held at the outdoor dance floor on the edge of town was the highlight of the social calendar for all the Laramie young folk. Many a lasting match was made there. The venue was very romantic with a tiny dance floor surrounded by tables and chairs and lit by romantic coloured lanterns strung amongst the surrounding trees. Nearby, folk parked their buggies beneath huge pine trees, which also offered some privacy for courting couples. The main reason for the location being so popular.
Now Slim and Jess stood at the small bar, a beer apiece and surveyed the happy couples cavorting across the dance floor. Both men were attired in their Sunday best. Long frock coats over a striking waistcoat, with pristine white shirts and dark string ties. Together with dark pants and their highly polished best boots they were indeed very easy on the eye as one Jenny Stark professed to her friend Iris Jackson.
Unbeknownst to Jenny and Iris, Edith Baines and Evelyn Braithwaite were sitting in the shadows, at a small table just behind them, and were privy to the young girl’s conversation.
“My friend Cindy went out with Jess,” Jenny continued,” and she said he was just wonderful. Not like some of these boys that maul you around and just want to get you into bed. She said Jess was a real gentleman, so charming and kind. He talked to her like she was real bright too.”
“Well she is isn’t she? She sure did well in school as I remember her?”
“Oh yeah, she’s bright enough but not that clever, she let Jess Harper slip through her fingers,” she said with a little giggle.
“But her Ma was sick,” said the kind hearted Iris, “she had to go back home.”
“Yeah, but she could have come back, her Ma’s just fine now and poor old Cindy is stuck back home again. She’ll probably end up marrying a sod buster where they live,” and the couple sat silently mourning their poor friend’s fate.
“So what was he like…you know?” Iris asked with a girlish giggle.
“She wouldn’t say. Jess told her he never bragged about what he got up to and she figured she should be the same. But she said it was special …I mean real special. Said as how she’d never felt that way before, he sure does have something about him doesn’t he?” She said sighing and drinking in Jess’s dark good looks once more. Now he was laughing at a joke made by a cute blonde girl who had joined him and Slim at the bar.
“That Suzy Morgan is such a flirt,” said Jenny bitterly as she watched Jess waltz off across the dance floor with the diminutive blond on his arm. She was laughing up into his handsome face and Evelyn Braithwaite scowled and tutted to her friend.
“Look at him trifling with that young woman, has he no shame?” Edith personally would have given her eye teeth to be trifled with by the good-looking young man even if she did have a good thirty years on him, but wisely kept her mouth shut.
Suzy remained Jess’s partner for the next few dances until a Ladies Excuse Me was announced and then there was a rather unladylike rush as many of the young women made a bee line for Slim and Jess. Jenny was the first to approach Jess and tapping Suzy on the shoulder, took her place and was born off across the room in Jess’s strong arms. She in turn was replaced by another eager girl until after a dozen different partners the music changed and Jess was able to retire to the bar for a rest. Laughing at Suzy and shaking his head when she tried to entice him back onto the dance floor once more.
Meanwhile Jenny had returned to her shy friend Iris who had sat out being way too reticent to dare ask for a dance. Her friend made a mock swooning gesture as she sank back down in her seat.
“Oh that was wonderful,” she sighed, “ he’s so strong and yet so light on his feet…and those eyes… I do declare I thought my heart would beat clear out of my chest when he looked at me that way.”
“What way?” Iris asked, hanging on her friend’s every word.
“He looks at you like you were the most special person in the room. He said my hair was real purty too,” she said self-consciously primping her curls. “Oh Iris I could have danced all night with him.”
From her seat behind the girls Ma Braithwaite’ s face was set in a hard mask of fury. It was so unfair.
Meanwhile back at the bar Jess had slaked his thirst with a glass of beer and was once more chatting to Suzy.
“So are we dancing or what?” She asked giving him a petulant glance. Slim winked at Jess over Suzy’s head knowing how mercurial the tiny blond could be….but Jess knew how to handle her.
“Well I’m kinda beat after all those female’s dancin’ me off of my feet,” he said looking down into her pretty elfin features, ”So how’s about a walk to kinda cool off some….it’s real warm here.”
Suzy’s attitude changed at once, the slightly sulky look she had worn since Jess had been hijacked by half the Laramie women, gone and replaced with an eager smile, ”I’d like a walk too,” she agreed and taking his hand the couple moved off to the privacy of the trees just beyond the crowded dance floor.
Their progress did not go unnoticed by the women sitting out though with a little gasp coming from Jenny, “Will you look at that, she’s shameless that Suzy.”
“Where are they off to?” Asked the rather naive Iris
“Where do you think,” Replied her friend scornfully, ”to the woods for some kissing and cuddling, lucky cow,” she whispered bitterly.
“Oh well, that’ll be all he’ll get up to,” said Iris suddenly the sensible one, ”Suzy’s Pa always collects her from these dances, so Jess won’t be taking her back any place.”
Behind them Ma Braithwaite gave a little gasp, these young women did they have no shame, talking of these private matters so boldly she thought, exchanging a shocked look with dear Edith, ”Young women today,” she whispered, “ disgraceful.”
It was quite some time later when a rather flushed Suzy and Jess returned to the dance floor. He now with a protective arm slung around her slender waist. For the last few dances the tempo had changed to slow smoochy numbers. Jess holding Suzy close her head resting on his chest and his strong arms holding her close as they dreamily circumnavigated the dance floor. Slim stood at the bar watching his pard and feeling happy that he seemed to be over Ruby at last. Now if Betty had been there life would have been perfect he thought wryly. But unfortunately his best girl had been called home to care for her ailing widowed Pa and Slim felt bereft.
Jess held Suzy even closer inhaling her sweet perfume and absently kissing the top of her cute blond head…. when it suddenly shot up and a very unladylike curse tripped from her pretty lips.
“Huh… wha?” Jess asked peering down at the diminutive figure now pulling away from him.
“Pa in the buggy, he just pulled up. Sorry Jess I’ve got to go, see you around, next dance maybe?” And she was gone.
Jess took a minute or two for the sudden change of tempo to hit home. One minute his mind and body were all geared up for a dalliance of the very nicest kind later that evening…and then his hopes were suddenly dashed and he was waving his amore goodbye.
Mr Morgan had jumped down from the buggy to assist his daughter up and then threw Jess a friendly wave before driving off into the night, taking all Jess’s dreams with him.
“Garldarn it,” he spat sometime later as he leaned on the bar with Slim sipping a whisky,” I really thought I was on a promise with Suzy tonight, she was real accommodating when we went off before.”
“Win some , lose some,” Slim said philosophically, ”Anyway pard I think our luck might just be changing,” and he nodded to where the dark haired beauty Jenny and her cute blond friend Iris were approaching them.
Jenny made a big fuss about searching in her purse and then loudly proclaiming to her friend that they were out of funds, both women turning away from the bar…albeit slowly.
Slim being ever the gentlemen smiled at the girls, ”Maybe I can help, buy you ladies a drink that is?”
“Well that would be uncommon kind of you…er Mr Sherman isn’t it?” Jenny said as though unsure, ”I’m Jenny and this is Iris.”
Howdy he said smiling at the girls. “Yup Slim Sherman from the relay and I think you know Jess…you had a dance earlier?”
Jenny looked momentarily puzzled as though she could barely recall the event and then her face cleared into a beautiful smile, “Why yes of course…hello again … Jess.”
Jess wasn’t fooled by her attempting to play it cool for one minute, but merely gave her and Iris a friendly smile.
“Hey girls take a seat, I’ll get ‘em in, what are you having lemonade? “
“Yes please,” said, Iris
“No,” replied Jenny at the same time, digging her friend in the ribs, “A whisky like you please…two.”
Jess raised a quizzical eyebrow, “You sure about that?”
“ Not really,” whispered Iris.
“Quite sure thank you,” said a beaming Jenny.
The proceedings were drawing to a close and Evelyn and Edith had already made their way back to the hotel where they were staying the night, in the hope of a pot of tea, in the dining room, before bed. Earlier Evelyn had noticed the girls approach the bar and had nudged her friend.
“Well no good will come of that…brazen little hussies,” she whispered as they made their way from the dance floor.
The band were playing softly in the background and a few late night revelers were laughing loudly as they made their way home.
The way Jenny had sunk her whisky and asked for another made the alarm bells ring a little for Slim as he watched the girl cuddle up to Jess. Making her desires more than obvious…whilst Iris looked on embarrassed her drink hardly touched.
“So where are you boys staying tonight?” Jenny asked brightly.
“Booked in at the Hotel,” Jess replied, ”and we should be thinking of making a move,” he continued as the barkeep pointedly started clearing glasses away.
“So how about you,” asked Slim, “do you live in town?”
“Uh…yes…just on the road out but Iris and I thought we might stay in town a while. Maybe have a nightcap in the Hotel bar?” She suggested throwing Jess a smouldering look.
Jess felt suddenly uncomfortable. Sure he liked the company of women. But the one that was currently throwing herself at him was a mite young and slightly drunk and that combination didn’t sit well with him. He raised an eyebrow at Slim before turning back to the eager young woman.
“Well I dunno honey,” he said quietly, “I figure maybe Slim and I should just see you young ladies home. It’s kinda late and your folks may be worried huh?”
Just then a figure loomed over where they sat at the table.
“You’d better listen to the man my girl,” a deep voice boomed, “your Ma is worried sick, sent me to fetch you home.”
Slim and Jess looked up into the angry face of one Charlie Stark a difficult man at the best of times and now looking darn right ornery.
Jenny leapt up at once flushing and hauled up Iris, ”We were just talking Pa, honest.“
“Uh…. come on then girl, you too Iris, I’ll drop you off.”
Then touching his hat, “Sherman…Harper ‘night,” and the trio made their way off towards the waiting cart.
Jess gave a huge sigh, “Jeez so that was little Jenny, Charlie Stark’s girl…she sure grew up some.”
“You can say that again,” laughed Slim.
Jess shook his head, “Good job we were behavin’,” he said with a wicked grin.” I sure wouldn’t wanna be found messin’ with Charlie Stark’s daughter. Way he is he’d shoot yer brains out first and ask questions later!”
“You’re not wrong there Jess. Come on let’s call it a night, quit while we’re ahead huh… .go have that nightcap in the hotel bar and turn in.”
By the time the men got to the Laramie Hotel both Edith and Evelyn were ensconced in the dining room, with their pot of tea. Supplied by the bartender without missing a beat, used as he was to the eccentricities of elderly ladies.
As they arrived Evelyn Braithwaite had observed a person she really didn’t want to speak to sitting at the bar, so had quickly bustled Edith into a corner seat in the shadows of the dining room. This was separated from the bar by a waist high wooden divide topped with a glass screen, making the bar area visible from the dining room.
The elegant red head with the shapely figure and classically beautiful features was currently sitting at the bar sipping a whiskey and wishing she was any place else other than Laramie.
“You know that woman?” Edith asked as they settled down with their tea.
“Yes, she works for the Denver Bank,” she said dismissively, “she did some work for my late father in law….but I never particularly took to the woman.”
It was sometime later that Slim and Jess landed and exchanged some banter with the barkeep before scanning the room. Then Jess spied Jackie Soames sitting all on her lonesome at the other end of the bar.
Jess dug Slim in the ribs, ”Well I’ll be darned if that ain’t Jackie, what in heck’s she doin’ here?” and he marched down the bar.
“Why Jess Harper!” the woman cried in delight, “How lovely to see you!”
“Well it’s great to see you too Jackie…so what are ya doin’ here, a tad far north for you ain’t it?”
The immaculately dressed attractive woman smiled, “It really is but Pa wanted me to have a meeting with your Laramie Bank Manager and you know the way it is….“
Jess knew all too well. Jackie was the youngest and most successful Bank executive in Wyoming. Sure she’d been given the chance by her Pa who owned the Denver bank. But over the years she had more than proved herself to be a strong and efficient business woman. Holding her own in a man’s world…which was ground breaking. But as she was so often to tell folk, Wyoming had votes for women now and she was determined to forge a way forwards for other strong women.
She had first met Jess a couple of years back when he had deputised for the Cheyenne Sheriff, Doug Masters and then more recently when Jess had ridden guard on several large bank payrolls bound between Cheyenne and Laramie.
Now she sighed dramatically, “You’ll never know how good it is to see you Jess. I’ve just had the most boring evening of my life dining with that dreadful little toad of a Bank Manager you have here…..he’s totally repugnant.”
“Huh?” asked Jess looking puzzled.
“Obnoxious …heck Jess truly awful.”
“Oh yeah right…um he’s that and then some,” Jess agreed grinning at her.
Then Jackie cast her glance over to Slim, ”Well hello good looking,” she crooned, ”so who’s your friend then Jess?”
“Just some no account rancher,” Jess said quickly, grinning over at Slim.
“Well howdy,” she giggled, ”but you guys are friends right?”
Slim raised an eyebrow, but then agreed, “Sure we are, I’m Slim, Slim Sherman and Jess is working at my ranch right now.“
“Um well I figure you’ve got really good taste in friends,” she said, “because Jess here is one of the best.”
As Jackie Soames had chosen the end of the bar nearest the dining room partition all of this banter was easily heard by Evelyn and Edith. The former looking scandalised whereas Edith had a gleam of interest in her old eyes, chuckling to herself. That young man surely was popular with the ladies. She turned to her friend to share this observation, but quickly changed her mind when she saw the look of pure hatred in Evelyn’s eyes as she watched the little tableau before her.
“Why Evelyn dear whatever’ s the matter? She asked.
“That…that boy has no shame,” she said between clenched teeth, ”all those girls simply throwing themselves at him and now this hussy is doing the same….it really is too much.”
“But I don’t understand why you are so upset my dear. I know you said Mr Harper was rather difficult to work for, but surely you can’t be bothered about his private life, after all it’s nothing to do with us is it really?”
Evelyn chose to ignore this comment and merely asked if Edith would care for another cup of tea.
“No, I think not,” said Edith quickly rising, seeing that her new friend looked to be working herself up into one of her inexplicable rages.
“I think I’ll go up it’s very late, are you coming Evelyn?”
“Er… .no I think I’ll just have one more cup, goodnight dear,” she said dismissively.
Edith looked from Evelyn over to the trio at the bar and back again before sighing softly, whatever Evelyn’s problem was she certainly wasn’t going to share it. So the mousey little woman wandered off to bed, just glad to be away from the highly charged atmosphere of her friend’s unexplained bitterness.
A few minutes later Evelyn Braithwaite saw Slim make his goodnights and amble off to bed leaving that Soames woman as she thought of Jackie and Harper alone at the bar.
She was perfectly concealed in her seat behind the screen but even moving a tad closer she was unable to hear their conversation clearly, as they were now talking in softer tones.
They had both drunk several more whiskies and feeling quite mellow had slipped into their usual flirty, but light-hearted banter.
Evelyn tried to get closer and peered through the glass partition as Jess laughed at something and Jackie joined in with her deep throaty chuckle.
Then she saw Jackie sober, lean forwards and run a finger down Jess’s cleanly shaven handsome face.
“I sometimes wonder what it would be like to seduce you,” she said huskily…”have an affair….but then….”
Jess too had suddenly dropped his frivolous expression and looked deeply into her stunningly beautiful eyes.
“But then?” He whispered.
She gave him a lazy smile, “But then I come to my senses and realize it would never work.“
“Uh, we’re too much alike you and I Jess, both strong, stubborn characters. Won’t back down…on anything and I can hardly see you wanting to be in my shadow. That’s how it would be … I’m married to my work and anything or one would always come second.
He thought about that for a moment and knew in his heart it was the truth.
“I reckon you’re right,” he said softly, ”but it’s kind of an appealing notion though ain’t it?”
She giggled then, “Oh yes,” she said in her deep sexy voice, ”very.”
Evelyn had been straining to hear the conversation, but all she was privy to was their body language. The look in their eyes and the way Jackie had caressed his cheek and their soft intimate murmurings.
She could hardly bear to watch anymore, but then they stood up. Taking Jackie’s elbow Jess had escorted her from the bar and she saw through the open door them making their way slowly upstairs together.
“Well really!” She said to herself before taking another sip of her tea, her eyes full of malice.
Upstairs Jess halted by Jackie’s door and smiled down at her, before leaning down and kissing her chastely on the cheek, ”Night then sweetheart,” he said softly, before drawing back.
“Goodnight Jess, thanks for the drinks…and Jess… “
“What I said before, I really am sorry that it wouldn’t work. I figure we’d have been really good together.”
He gave her his slow charming smile, “Me too,” he agreed, ”but you’re right it wouldn’t work…shame,” and giving her his cheeky wink he mooched on down the corridor to his own room.
Five minutes later Evelyn Braithwaite slowly climbed the stairs and walked down the same corridor, thinking the very worst of that womanizer Jess Harper and the hussy Jackie Soames. This being the last straw as far as Evelyn Braithwaite was concerned.
Chapter 5
It was some days later when the two men had cause to think about Ma B, or Mrs Evelyn Braithwaite as she preferred to be called, again.
Slim was working on the yard chores early one morning in late summer when he spied Mort Cory riding in. He reined in, tethering his big boned buckskin before ambling over to where Slim had just finished collecting the eggs.
“Howdy Mort what brings you here so early of a morning?” asked Slim with a raised eyebrow.
“Oh I had some business over at the Patterson place and needed to see you too, thought you might have the coffee pot on by now?” He asked hopefully.
“I doubt it,” muttered Slim darkly, “but come on in anyway Mort, I reckon we can soon rectify that.”
Mort looked somewhat puzzled but followed his good friend inside none the less.
As they entered they heard a loud banging and crashing coming from the kitchen and peering into the room Mort saw Jess, Jonesy’ s old apron slung around his hips, standing at the sink banging pots around.
“Hey what’s up Jess?” Asked Mort lightly, “What are you doing that for? You’ve got that housekeeper ain’t you?”
Jess turned to him, up to his elbows in murky water and glowered moodily, ”Well do ya think I’d be dang well chained to this goddamn sink iffen we had?” he replied.
Slim rolled his eyes,” Oh come on Jess it’s not that bad.”
“Not that dang bad?” Jess exploded, ”It ain’t you that’s had his arms up to the elbows in greasy water tryin’ to get your burnt supper of the dang plates half the blessed morning,” he retorted angrily.
Slim sighed again, “How about you put the coffee on huh, take a break?”
Jess just grunted but filled the kettle up whilst Slim and Mort took a seat at the table in the big room.
A while later Jess marched in. Banged some cups down on the table and then stomped off to fetch the coffee pot.
Mort watched him go, still wearing the low slung apron and chuckled, turning to Slim.
“I guess there’s only Jess that could get away with wearing an apron and still look darned right menacing,” he said with a wicked wink.
Slim nodded,” You don’t wanna rile the boy when he’s washin ’the dishes Mort, probably not a good time to ask any favors. So what kind of business?”
Then Jess returned with the coffee, “Business you say, so what’s up Mort?”
“Well it’s your Mrs er…. Braithwaite? I want to speak to, so what have you done with her?” He asked grinning across at Jess.
Jess just glanced down looking mutinous and didn’t reply.
“She doesn’t work here anymore,” Slim supplied calmly, ”there was a bit of trouble between her and Jess, I fired her.”
Mort’s head shot up at this news and he looked more closely at Jess before turning back to Slim, “Fired you say, well it must have been some real bad trouble?”
When neither man spoke he turned back to Jess.
“Well Jess, so what did she do to upset you so dang much that you’re happy to take on all the domestics again, huh? “
When Jess just growled,” She was a dang meddling old witch, ”Slim felt he should intervene.
He just explained the basic facts of how she had warned Ruby off, by writing a note threatening to have Jess killed if she didn’t move on. Then when the ranchers found out what she’d done they had fired her on the spot.
Mort sucked in a deep breath, then gave a low whistle, ”Jeez I sure don’t blame you for that, I thought it was real strange, the way that Ruby upped and left so sudden. So you must have been as mad as all get out then Jess?”
“So what do you think Mort?”Jess asked looking belligerent.
“What did you want to see her for then Mort?” Slim asked quickly, trying to defuse the situation.
“Um…well it’s a funny old thing, remember how I said I thought there was something fishy about the woman when you introduced me a while back? “
Slim nodded.
“I asked her if she was related to that Jack Braithwaite of Cheyenne and she said nope…never been there?”
“I do,” confirmed Slim.
“Well she was not strictly telling the truth. It seems old man Braithwaite was her Pa in law and her son, Charles, is heir to the Braithwaite millions. He inherited the ranch outside Cheyenne, the business and everything.”
Jess looked amazed,” So what in hell was she doin’ working for us as a housekeeper?”
“Um…exactly and that’s what I’m going to ask her when I find her and also why she lied,” Mort said looking serious.
“So why are you looking for her originally Mort?” asked Slim.
“Uh? Oh I see, I got a wire from Sheriff Masters over in Cheyenne. It seems the boy Charles, and his fiancée are real worried about her. He said he was getting engaged to this girl and his ma wasn’t any too pleased about his choice. Next thing she’s walked out. Well they’ve looked high and low. Then they found something in her room, made them think she might be in these parts and Doug Masters asked me to look into it. If I can find the dang woman that is,” Mort said looking sorely tried,” Not like I ain’t got more important stuff to deal with,” he grumbled.
“Well that’s no problem,” said Slim quickly, “she’s moved in with Ma Baines at the old Benson place I guess she’s still there though truth to tell I haven’t seen her in a few weeks.”
“Oh well I’ll check it out,” said Mort draining his cup and standing up.
“You do that,” said Jess gruffly,” and make sure she goes off back to Cheyenne and tell her to take some of those dang cats with her too.”
Mort chuckled and then regarded Jess’s apron closely before saying, “OK and er…thanks for the coffee…Ma’am,” before winking at Slim.
“Don’t push it Mort…git outer here,” Jess said, never the less grinning at the taunt.
As Jess had said the smell of Tom cat was all pervading as Mort rode into the shabby yard of the old Benson place a multitude of skinny, sick looking cats diving for cover as he advanced.
He dismounted and strode onto the porch, knocking loudly on the rusty old door knocker.
After several minutes the door was scraped open a few inches and Edith Baines poked her head out.
“Howdy Ma’am,” Mort said removing his hat respectfully and smiling at the elderly woman, “I was wondering if I might speak with Mrs Braithwaite.”
“Gone,” squeaked Edith looking even more like a frightened mouse than usual.
“Er, pardon me Ma’am, but Mr Sherman was sure she’s moved in here with you.”
“She has…oh…I mean she DID, but she’s gone…gone right away from here…far away I do believe.”
Mort sighed deeply having had enough of Ma B to last him a lifetime already.
“Well could you give me a clue as to where she went please Ma’am?”
“No…well not really…we had a bit of a falling out actually,” she confided, “so she just stormed off, she could be anywhere I suppose.”
“So when was this?”
“When…oh dear me let me see now…a while ago I think Sheriff,” she said vaguely.
“So you don’t know where and you don’t know when?” asked Mort beginning to lose patience.
“That’s right Sheriff,” she said starting to pull the door closed. But Mort was too fast for her and put his boot in the way.
“One more thing please Mrs Baines, should she come back would you tell her to contact her son, young Charles Braithwaite over in Cheyenne urgently, he’s real worried about her OK?”
“Son? Cheyenne?”
“Yes Ma’am.”
“Of course, good morning Sheriff.“
“Ma’am,” he said, touching his hat and turning with a sigh of relief, just wanting to get off of the property and away from the overpowering smell of way too many cats.
Edith closed the door firmly and wandered back to the sitting room where Evelyn Braithwaite was standing by the fireplace looking pale and ill at ease.
“So Evelyn dear are you going to tell me what all this is about?” Edith asked anxiously.
Jess was standing at the bar of the Laramie Saloon a week or so later chatting to Annie the saloon girl, when Slim strode in looking unhappy.
Jess ordered him a beer and then peered at his buddy more closely.
“What’s up Slim, so what did old man Harrington want?” he asked referring to the Stage line boss.
“Well you’re not going to like it,” Slim said after he taken a reviving swig of his beer.
Jess looked suddenly wary, ”Go on….”
“Mr Harrington has asked me to go over to Cheyenne to help him draw out some new routes and offer advice on one or two other things around security as well. It means I’ll be gone a couple of days next week and the week after that as well. It looks like we’ve got a lot to get through,” he said.
“Garldarn it Slim what am I supposed to do, run the whole damn place on my own?” Jess asked suddenly looking furious. ”It’s bad enough havin’ to do all the domestic chores, but now I’ve gotta do all the ranching and the Stage line stuff alone, too? Hell didn’t ya know Lincoln had freed the slaves Slim!”
“I know it won’t be easy Jess and I feel real bad about it. But what can I do? Harrington is the boss… I can’t tell him to go take a running jump now can I?”
“I guess not,” Jess muttered taking a pull at his beer, ”so when do ya have to go?”
“Next Monday early stage, I’ll be back Tuesday night and the same the following week.”
All the time they’d been talking Annie had been listening in, ready to share the latest gossip from the Sherman Ranch with her Aunt Edith and her friend Evelyn. She had nearly said something about Evelyn to Jess and then remembered that she was under strict instructions from her Aunt Edith not to mention that her friend was still living out at the Benson place. Funny that she mused. Then all thoughts of her aunt were driven from her head as Jess called for another couple of beers.
She smiled at him batting her eyelashes, but knew in her heart she was way too old for him. At nearing forty he doubtless regarded her as an old spinster lady she thought as she watched him drink his beer and she sighed. Sure he was always pleasant enough. Charming indeed, with that easy way he had with every female from eight to eighty. Yes he sure was a flirt she thought with a little smile. But now he was doing anything but flirting, still clearly unhappy about this latest Stage line business.
“What about those dang mustangs? I’ve still got that last one to gentle ya know Slim, can’t do that on my own without back up, Jeez I sure miss ol’ Jonesy and Andy.“
“I know pard, come on let’s get back to it huh? We’ve got us nearly a week before I head out, I figure you’ll have that old buckskin near saddle broke by then.“
“Uh… I guess so,” Jess said grudgingly before emptying his glass.” One good thing though with you away that’ll mean less washin’ up and cookin’,” he said with a cheeky grin.
Slim chuckled, ”Shame you aren’t going then. Now that would make a real difference to the budget iffen we weren’t feeding you for a couple of days!”
Jess looked over to Annie in hurt exasperation, “Hey that ain’t true.”
“It so is,” Slim replied winking at Annie and making his way out of the saloon, followed by a loudly protesting Jess…. Annie smiling fondly after them.
Chapter 6
The following Monday Slim left bright and early on the first Stage out leaving Jess muttering to himself about the unfairness of the situation…. However once he’d done all the indoor chores collected the eggs and seen to the stock he settled down with the coffee pot and a copy of the Laramie Sentinel for the rest of the morning.
He was disturbed from his ease by the noontide Stage and then he groomed and fed the team, before having a scratch lunch and finally settled down to some hard work mending the lean to roof and shoeing one of the Stage line horses.
He was hot and tired by the time the last Stage had gone through. With the late evening summer sun beating down on him he was glad to take refuge in the dim cool barn as he fed and watered the horses for the night.
He thought how things would be different if Slim was home. He’d be getting supper ready as Jess finished tidying up for the day. Jeez he was so tired he wondered if he could be bothered firing up the cook stove. Maybe he’d just make do with some cold cuts and an early night. Times like this he hated to admit it, but he kinda missed Ma B’s cooking. Yup she was a miserable old harridan, as Slim called her, but she sure could dish up a good beef stew.
Maybe it was because he was thinking about his supper, or he was just kinda beat after a busy afternoon…but whatever it was he didn’t react to what happened next with his usual lightning speed.
One minute he had just walked out of Traveller’ s stall and was about to water one of the other horses, a water bucket in his hand. The next a dim figure emerged from the shadows and threw a bucket of water over Jess, soaking his head and shoulders.
Although it wasn’t water… it was something else. Something foul smelling…. acid…. no bleach maybe , or even a mixture and then seconds later he felt like his face and torso were burning his eyes stinging as he cried out in agony. With great presence of mind he realized he was still holding onto the half full water bucket and downed the lot over his head, before making a dash for the water trough.
By now he was virtually blinded, his eyes stinging and watering so much he could merely see vague shapes and shadows and of his assailant there was no sign. Once at the trough he dived in head first the blessedly cool water giving him relief for a moment before the pain hit home again hard.
He ripped off his shirt and immersed himself again….his whole body feeling like it was on fire, the agonising pain shooting through him. He was cussing and yelling out in distress feeling nauseated and light headed thinking he might well pass out.
‘Come on Harper get a grip.’ he said to himself. What if his attacker was still out there, just waiting to pounce again, he had to get into the ranch house and lock himself in.
His eyes were now swelling up even more and streaming with tears as he peered anxiously around him…but the yard was deserted no sign of human or beast, as far as he could tell. He hadn’t heard anyone ride in, were they on foot, who would do this to him and why?
He staggered back to the barn and checked that the door was secured for the night as well as he could. Then he lurched back towards the house stopping briefly by the pump to fill a bucket with icy water to bathe his burning face and body once more. The smell and vapors from the strong bleach mixture now making him gag.
By the time he was inside and had secured back and front door he collapsed on a kitchen chair. He was now almost completely blind. He wasn’t sure if it was because his eyes were so terribly swollen or the effects of the caustic substance, either way he could no longer see at all and panic set in.
He sat there rocking and shaking, alternately whispering curses and praying. All the time…why? Who? Going round and around in his brain.
After a while the temperature in the room started dropping even though it was late summer the nights struck cold and Jess figured he must have been sitting there for over an hour.
He made another effort to force his eyes open a crack and could just make out the embers of the fire in the big room. Staggering over, he felt about in the basket and threw on several more logs before collapsing down on the old leather couch. He felt around for the bucket of freezing water he’d brought in earlier and piece of rag he’d used to bathe his face and once more covering his face and chest with the rags soaked in water he lay back exhausted…. the pain in his eyes, face and chest unremitting.
Somewhere in the dark reaches of the night he had fallen into a restless sleep, but then was shocked into wakefulness just after dawn with someone hammering on the door.
He groaned and tried to sit up peering around at the pitch black that now enfolded him and then it came flooding back .He put a hesitant hand up in front of his face…but could see nothing. Then very tentatively he touched his eyelids. No wonder he couldn’t see anything, they were incredibly swollen and so, so painful.
Then he heard the impatient loud knocking on the door again and Mose called out, ”Dang it Jess if you’ve been on the Red Eye so help me I’ll tan yer dratted hide. I’m a runnin’ late boy, git yer butt out here!”
Jess dragged himself up and moved towards the voice, but walked into the rocker, painfully barking his shins .Cussing loudly he moved forwards more carefully feeling his way towards where Mose was getting more and more ornery.
“Slim leaves you to your own devises for five minutes and the whole dang place is fallin’ apart why I think….. “
But Jess was never to hear what Mose thought as at that precise moment he finally located the door, slipped the bolt back and threw it open.
Mose stood there in horror as he surveyed his friend’s appearance.
His usual dark quiff that fell across his forehead seemed to have turned white overnight…but that wasn’t the most shocking thing…..Jess’s face and chest were red raw and blistered and his eyes and face so badly swollen he was barely recognizable.
“God love us what in Hell happened to you?” Mose finally managed.
“Never mind that,” Jess barked,” are the stock alright? Check the barn will ya Mose, make sure the critters are all there. Trav and Alamo…should be six Stage line horses and old Betsy, the rest are out in the home meadow…look see there too will ya?”
“OK boy simmer down I’ll go check the barn and grazin’ here you sit huh?” And he led Jess to one of the porch chairs.
He was back sometime later.
“All OK son, I’ll just sort you out and then feed and water the beasts before I head out. So when’s Slim due home?”
“Tomorrow…. last stage in I think.”
“So why don’t I take you into town, see old Doc Johnson huh?”
Jess shook his head stubbornly, ” I ain’t goin’ any place until Slim lands home.”
Mose knew better than to argue, ” I’ll call in at the Jackson spread, get one of the boys over to tend the stock do the yard chores. So Jess you can’t see anything?”
Jess just shook his head, “Can’t open my eyes Mose.”
“What was it ammonia…lye?” He leaned forwards and sniffed at Jess, ”Nope bleach maybe huh?”
Jess just nodded.
“How in hell did you manage to tip that over yourself?”
“Goddamn it Mose I didn’t, some bastard threw it over me…caught me out…. chucked a pitcher of the dang stuff in my face. By the time I’d washed it off they’d high tailed it away. Then my eyes got all puffed up an’ now I can’t see a dang thing.“
Mose shook his head sadly, heck he didn’t want to leave the boy this way, but he’d a Stage to drive and he was running late already.
“Look I’ll go fetch you help OK and Slim will be back before you know it.“
“Yeah…thanks Mose I owe you.”
Mose patted Jess on the shoulder,” Take it easy huh.”
He was still sitting on the porch later that day. Young Davy Jackson had ridden in, helped Jess wash up and made him coffee, although he said he couldn’t stomach anything to eat. Then he’d done the yard chores promising to return in time for the Noon Stage.
Jess felt he was probably safest out on the porch, fewer things to fall over than in the house. But then after a while he felt the presence of someone nearby.
“Who’s there?” he barked, getting to his feet, desperately trying to open his eyes.
He lurched forwards and walked into the porch upright, cussing loudly as pain jarred his knee and then there was a steadying hand on his arm.
“Take it easy Mr Harper I really think you should sit down again.“
“Huh…That you Mrs Braithwaite, what are you doin’ here?” he asked angrily.
“Mose Shell called by, said that you’d had an unfortunate accident, could do with some help around the house, so I am here to offer my services again.”
“No,” Jess yelled, “no way, not after what you did to me and Ruby.”
“Look Mr Harper….sir, I’m truly sorry for what I did. I really don’t know what came over me. But now I have a chance to make it up to you. Please let me, after all you’ve nothing to lose. Just until Mr Sherman returns at least and you really are in need of some nursing care, you’re very badly burnt you know?”
Jess put a cautious hand up to his face and felt the raw blistered flesh. Wondering for the first time what he must look like.
“Please,” she said again, “why don’t I make you a nice cup of coffee and something to eat, what do you say?”
Jess’s belly growled, he’d had nothing to eat in over twelve hours now and he felt his resolve weakening, suddenly feeling ravenous. But then he remembered what an evil woman she was.
“I say git off of Sherman land Ma’am. I can manage just fine… .just go will ya!” And turning he groped his way back into the ranch house.
Somehow he managed to get through the day, but the longer he went without being able to see, the more the panic set in. He’d spent most of his time napping by the fire, just wanting to escape the pain and fear, hoping upon hope that when he awoke his eyes would be rested and the swelling reduced some. But no, if anything they were worse. Weeping a sticky discharge and smarting all the time. Every time he awoke he groped his way out to the kitchen and bathed his eyes head and chest. Before collapsing back down on the couch a wet cloth covering his eyes, the cold water reducing the pain a little.
He must have slept the night away and then through the early morning Stage the following day, also young Davy Jackson’s visit to tend the stock. So it was mid -morning when he was rudely awakened by someone banging about in the room. He’d been lying curled up on the couch by the fire, the damp rag across his eyes once more.
“Garldarn it Jess! I manage to get home early to help you out, feeling kinda bad for leaving you with all the work and I come back to this! You lying about the place with a hangover. The yard looks a mess and as for the house. Hell Jess wake up and look at me will you!” Slim said in exasperation, ”I can’t leave you alone for a min…..”
Jess slowly sat up, the blanket covering his naked torso and the rag over his face falling away….as he peered blindly over to where the sound was coming from.
Slim stopped in mid-sentence and gaped at his friend in shock.
”Jess, pard…. what in Hell happened?” He finally managed.
“Slim…Slim, that you…thank God,” Jess sighed, leaning back down on the couch.
Slim strode over and sat down on the edge and looked closely at his face.
“Jess….you can’t open your eyes can you?” he said quietly
Jess shook his head, “Someone jumped me in the barn and threw a bucket load of bleach or somethin’ over me.”
“What the hell…..who, goddamn it Jess why!” Slim exploded.
Jess shook his head, “Your guess is as good as mine. I reckon you can’t live life the way I have in the past without makin’ a few enemies…..but this,” and he just shrugged.
“We need to get you over to Doc Johnson’s place,” Slim said decisively jumping up from the couch.
Jess shook his head, “Aw Slim, I don’t wanna be seen this way, I can’t.”
“Sure you can. Look Jess you’re burnt bad pard. Real bad, you need professional help and no arguments, I’m going to go hitch up the buckboard I’ll be back in a minute OK?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, just strode from the room.
Out on the porch he stood taking deep breaths, Jess’s appearance having hit him hard.
His eyes swollen and puffy, sticky yellow matter encrusted around them. His face was blistered and raw looking and his chest almost as bad…. who could hate his pard so much to do that to him?
It was nearly noon when Slim helped Jess down from the buckboard outside old Doc Johnson’s office, the street busy with town’s folk. Soon there were several onlookers, all gasping in consternation at the appearance of the handsome, popular young man.
Slim didn’t notice Edith Baines and Annie from the saloon see him support his buddy up the steps to the doc’s front door, or hear the comments from a couple of young women, who had also witnessed the scene.
“Oh my goodness did you see that?” Jenny asked, turning to her good friend Iris, ”It’s Jess Harper and he looks to have been hurt really badly did you see his poor face?”
Iris nodded looking upset,” I did, I wonder what happened to him?”
Both girls looked quite distraught so Edith noted and Annie too.
“Bless him, “Annie said softly, ”I wonder if there’s anything we can do?”
Edith shook her head looking equally upset. Maybe dear Evelyn would stop saying such dreadful things about the young man now she thought. Really she couldn’t understand why her friend disliked the charming young man so much and she decided to hurry home, after her trip to the mercantile, and tell her all about the poor boy’s misfortune.
The news travelled like wildfire and it took Annie and Edith longer than usual to be served because of all the gossip and hearsay being exchanged by the good women folk of Laramie.
Edith smiled sadly to herself as she made her way home. Well she thought there couldn’t be many young men who had been so badly disfigured as young Mr Harper had been and yet have the hearts of all the women in town. Instead of them being repelled by the terrible injuries they seemed to have made him even more desirable. Many of the young women vying with each other as to how they could help him. Um thought Edith that will rile Evelyn even more.
Meanwhile back in Doc Johnson’s office.
“Tsk…just keep still young man. I need to check out your eyes and yes I can see its uncomfortable Jess….but just try and take it easy, relax huh.”
Jess sighed deeply, hell uncomfortable? That was nowhere near the mark he thought but persevered with typical Harper stoicism.
After a while the old doc sat back down on his chair behind the desk and cast Slim a worried glance before turning his attentions back to his patient.
“Well the good news is that you acted quickly washing the burnt skin and that means that the burns to both your chest and face are relatively superficial.“
“Well that is it’s not too severe. The bleach didn’t penetrate too deeply and so the burns are just on the surface.”
“Sure they look pretty bad right now,” he said turning back to where Slim was looking anxious, “but he’ll heal up OK in a matter of weeks and shouldn’t leave any scarring at all, I’m glad to say.”
“So you’ll still have all those pretty girls falling at your feet Jess,” he said chuckling.
However Jess wasn’t fooled by the doc’s cheerful banter.
“And the bad news?” he asked quietly.
“Uh, right” and the doctor seemed uncomfortable as he steepled his fingers and looked at his patient with compassion, “So at the moment you can’t see because of the extensive swelling to your eyelids. Even when I managed to retract them and shine a light, well it was hard to see the damage. You were in so much pain I didn’t want to put you through more suffering. But the very fact that they are still so swollen isn’t good news Jess. At the moment it’s impossible to say how much damage has been done. If you managed to wash them out real good…well it will be minimal and your sight should be just fine once the swelling goes down in a week or so.“
“And if I didn’t?” Jess asked holding his breath.
“If not, you could have impaired vision…or in the worst possible scenario…well be permanently blind.”
The room was deathly silent save for the sound of Jess exhaling his held breath and the ticking of the clock on the doc’s wall.
Jess hung his head and then taking a deep breath looked over towards the doc, “Thanks,” he said.
“For being so honest with me….so what happens now?”
Doc Johnson and Slim exchanged a startled glance at how well Jess was taking the news.
No yelling, stomping about or cussing?
“Um…well let me see,” the doctor said having been taken by surprise.” I think we must keep them bandaged for a couple of weeks Jess, that will give them the best chance to heal. Light will be very painful at first anyway, as you experienced when I was examining you. Then once it looks like they are healing you’ll need to wear dark eyeglasses for another week or so. Then hopefully back to normal within a month to six weeks.”
“I see,” he said quietly.
“Jess are you OK?” Slim asked resting a gentle hand on his arm.
Jess just nodded but said nothing. Then,” OK doc you gonna bandage me up then, we can’t sit around here all dang day.”
Slim winked at Doc Johnson then. That was more like it maybe his buddy was going to take all this in his stride after all.
Slim knew how uncomfortable Jess felt having to be helped to walk out of the office and across the street to Mort Cory’s office. So he tried to make it as inconspicuous as possible, just resting a guiding hand on his buddy’s elbow. Even so folk stopped and stared. The women folk especially looking distressed at the bandages covering Jess’s eyes. But there was another, one Jethro Brown who looked smug, thinking that Harper had got his comeuppance at last.
Brown had been fired from the ranch the previous year for stealing after he’d been taken on to help out while Jess was busy horse breaking. Since then he had never missed an opportunity to rile Jess, secretly hoping for a shoot out to satisfy his need for revenge. However Jess had swatted him aside like some annoying fly, knowing that the much younger man was no match for him.
Now he deliberately stood in Slim’s path, but the tall rancher was taking no messing from Brown and roughly elbowed him aside and marched on.
If Jess had noticed the small altercation he gave no sign, just walked on and into Mort’s office.
The Sheriff stood up looking shocked when the two ranchers entered and quickly moved around his desk and pushed a chair out for Jess. Slim guided him into it and then perched on the edge of the desk nodding his thanks to Mort.
“Well say somethin’ can’t ya,” Jess growled as Mort just continued to stare, his face a mask of concern.
He cleared his throat and returned to his seat, “Er sorry Jess. Mose said as how you’d been in the wars, but dadgum it, I’d no idea it was this bad,” he said peering more closely at the burns to Jess’s face and the snowy bandages covering his eyes.
“So uh, how are you?” he continued, feeling on rocky ground, knowing how volatile his friend could be.
“Am I blind do ya mean?” Jess asked harshly
“Well….” and Mort left his reply hanging in the air.
However Slim jumped in, seeing that Jess was probably working himself up into one of his tempers, and who could blame him he thought privately.
“We don’t know anything for sure yet Mort,” Slim said quickly.”It’s early days, but the doc did say there would be no permanent scarring to his face and chest as Jess washed up pretty good right away. So there’s a good chance his eyes will be OK too, in time that is, could take a while.”
“Uh, I see,” said Mort and then decided the best course of action was to change the subject slightly.
“So tell me exactly what happened Jess did you see anything at all of the attack? “
A good fifteen minutes later the matter had been well and truly thrashed out. Jess told him all about the unexpected violence. No he hadn’t heard or seen the perpetrator any too well. He was just a shadowy form slightly built and shorter than himself. No he couldn’t pin it down to anyone who might have wanted to hurt him that way.
“Garldarn it Mort it could be anyone of a dozen folk or more. Someone from my gunslinger days wanting revenge, someone I’ve helped you put in jail, could be any dang person.”
“Could be Jethro Brown,” Slim said thoughtfully,” he sure looked dang pleased with himself when we came in just now, and he’s got a motive with us firing him that way too.”
“I’ll have him in and talk to him later,” Mort replied, “check and see if anyone you’ve been involved with has been released from jail recently too. So you’re sure you didn’t catch a glimpse of him?” Mort insisted…
“Uh maybe for a split second, seems he was kinda small in stature, like I said and light on his feet that’s for sure I never heard him creep up on me.”
“Could it have been an Indian, wearing moccasins?” asked Slim thoughtfully. “You did tussle with Red Fox last fall as I remember.”
“Aw Slim I caught him taking one of our prime heifers, but we dealt with all that at the time, you know that. Chief Grey Wolf sorted all that out. Besides it ain’t the Indian way to do something like this. If he had a grievance with me he’d be open about it. Nope this is some dang coward, who just wanted to make me suffer without takin’ any risks themselves.”
Mort thought hard, then, “Small in stature you say, could it have been a woman then Jess?”
Slim snorted at that notion, “Old Hotshot here? The Casanova of Laramie, I doubt any female would want to harm him, kill him with kindness maybe,” he chuckled.
“Casanova… huh?” Jess asked looking bewildered.
“Means a man that, well….er…. gets on real good with the women folk Jess,” he said winking at Mort.
“Uh,” Jess grunted, but didn’t rise to the jibe.
Slim frowned, figuring his buddy was feeling real low and who could blame him.
“Well there’s only Ma Braithwaite,” Jess said, “She hates my guts, but nah, she actually came around and offered to help yesterday.”
“What?” Slim asked, “You never said.”
“Huh? Oh I sent her away I ain’t havin’ that ol’ witch back in the house. It would just give her a chance to make my goddamn life a misery again, no thanks.”
“It was good of her to offer though Jess,” said Slim, “and we might be glad of her help, just until you’re better that is,” he added quickly.
“Mrs Braithwaite you say?” Mort asked looking surprized, Mrs Evelyn Braithwaite that worked for you?”
“Yeah,” Jess replied,” I guess there’s only one, thank God,” he said sotto voiced.
“But her companion, the one that’s crazy about dang cats er, Ma Baines, that’s it, well she swore blind Mrs Braithwaite had moved on.”
“Well she ain’t, unfortunately,” muttered Jess.
Mort scratched his head, “Well I sure haven’t got time to go chasing after her. I’ll just wire her son and tell him where she is, he can come fetch her home iffen that’s what he wants to do.”
“Good riddance,” muttered Jess under his breath.
The following weeks were about as challenging as any the men had experienced since Jess rode in off the trail years ago, with a greased holster and trouble in both pockets.
Right from the start Jess refused to be helped, just trying to carry on as best he could. But it was soon obvious that things were impossible. From washing in the morning, to eating his breakfast through to the chores he still tried desperately to perform, his whole life was thrown into chaos.
He spilled water all over the bedroom floor when he misjudged where the basin was and practically slit his throat trying to shave. Then at breakfast he spilled food all down his shirt front, before knocking his coffee cup flying, narrowly missing scalding Slim. Then to crown it all, after painstakingly searching blindly about for the eggs in the hen coop he walked into the chopping block on his way back to the kitchen and fell badly smashing the lot.
Slim who had been the embodiment of patience thus far finally snapped and lost his temper.
“Garl darn it Jess will you just get out of the way, go sit on the porch for heaven’s sake where you’re out of harm’s way! “
The moment the words were out of his mouth he regretted them and put out a tentative hand to where Jess had now scrambled up from his fall. Taking his arm he said more gently, “Hell I’m sorry pard, I didn’t mean that, come on lets go take five minutes I’ll make us some coffee huh?”
Jess had a face like thunder, but he took a deep breath and allowed himself to be led to the porch and settled in one of the rockers.
By the time Slim returned with the coffee Jess was in no mood for a quiet chat and went off at a tangent yelling and cussing everything in his ‘miserable bloody life’ until he finally ran out of steam.
“Better now?” Slim asked quietly after Jess finally subsided and sat sipping his coffee moodily.
After a few minutes Jess hung his head, “Sorry ‘bout that,” he finally muttered, “I’m just feelin’ kinda mad yer know?”
“Um, I had guessed,” Slim said with a wry smile. “It will be OK you know Jess, you’ve just got to learn to be patient and sit it out huh?”
“I suppose,” Jess replied gruffly,” and you know what they say, don’t get mad, get even.”
“Yeah, well you just take it easy and plan your revenge huh and accept my help. You were lucky today, it was just the eggs you smashed it could have been your dang head Jess. You might have fallen and crashed into the corral fence post, or worse wandered in front of one of the horses. I’m real sorry, but while you’re like this you’re just going to have to stay indoors or here on the porch, I can’t watch out for you all the time.”
Slim cast his buddy a worried glance and realized just how much he relied on looking into Jess’s eyes to try and figure him. Now without that it was like trying to read a book without opening it, he was lost.
“OK I heard ya,” he growled back angrily. Then sighing deeply, “You’re right Slim, you don’t need any more dang work babysitting me, I’ll behave.”
However over the next week Slim saw a whole spectrum of emotions from his friend. Denial as he continued to carry on as usual regardless of the fact that he could see nothing, followed by frustration when he inevitably failed. Then rage as he called the perpetrator of the cowardly act all the worst names he could think of. Starting with son of a bitch and growing more and more colourful and descriptive, none of them to be found in the dictionary.
Hoping to lighten the atmosphere, Slim said jokingly, “Well it’s a good job Andy can’t hear you cussing that way Jess, you sure are turning the air blue,” said with a chuckle.
But that seemed to have an adverse effect on his buddy and he suddenly went very quiet and slumped down on a porch chair, after first feeling his way to it.
“Jess, what is it pard?”
Jess had sunk his head in his hands, but finally raised it and looked in the general direction of Slim, “I can’t let him see me this way Slim. If I ain’t right by the time school’s out for Thanksgiving I’m out of here.”
Slim winced at the pain in his friends voice and strode over to clasp his shoulder warmly. “Heck Jess that’s months away, of course you’ll be better by then. “
“Yeah, but what if I’m not!” Jess yelled shrugging off the comforting hand and lurching out of his chair to lean on the porch support. Then more softly, “What if I‘m not, I sure as hell can’t stay here, I’m a liability Slim and we both know it.”
“Jess, please……please don’t talk that way,” said Slim feeling choked.” There ’ll always be a home here for you pard, no matter what I…. “
“No!” Jess cried, raw emotion in his voice,” I don’t want yer damn pity Slim. I don’t wanna be the tragic Jess Harper. Hear folk say,’ such a Goddamn shame.’ Hell I’d rather be dead,” and with that he turned and fumbled for the door handle before disappearing inside.
From then on he was silent and brooding. As though that final showdown had knocked all the stuffing out of him Slim thought sadly and it broke his heart seeing his buddy that way.
The worst thing was the way Jess had finally given up and let Slim guide him around the house, help him to wash and even cut his food up for him, as though he’d already totally given up on life.
He didn’t want to see anyone and if fellow ranchers called wanting to offer their sympathy and help Jess retired to his room saying he wasn’t feeling too good.
This finally got to Slim and they had another argument. It was the night after Jess had point blank refused to come and chat to old Ma Harris who had arrived with a pot full of homemade stew and an apple pie for ‘the poor dear boy’ as she had referred to Jess.
Once she had gone Slim stormed into the bedroom and gave Jess both barrels,” Garldarn it Jess, it wouldn’t have hurt you to just thank the old dear she was real worried about you. Everyone is you know. All the women folk in town ask after you when I go in…. Jess, Jess! Are you listening to me?”
Jess was lying on his bed turned away from Slim, but he finally rolled on his back and said in a dead pan voice, “ Yup I hear ya, there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with my hearing Slim.”
“Well good, so listen up good,” Slim said now furious. “Will you stop feeling so dang sorry for yourself? Sure it’s bad what’s happened to you and I guess this waiting to know either way is real hard. But hell Jess will you spare a thought for me huh? I’m running this damn outfit on my own as well as looking after you all the hours God sends. I guess He knows I don’t resent that, not one little bit. But I sure wish you’d make life a tad easier for me! It’s pretty darned hard for me too you know seeing you suffer this way and not letting anyone close to help either.
“Huh what do ya mean?” Jess asked suddenly turning to Slim and really listening.
“You know dang well what I mean Ma B has been round twice offering to help me out some and you point blank refuse to have her in the house.”
Then Slim paused, his voice now thick with emotion, “Hell pard I don’t know how long I can keep going this way without help. There’s stuff I need to do out on the range, but I daren’t leave you alone for too long…can’t you understand that?”
Jess was silent for a long time and then he finally sat up on his bed and looked in Slim’s direction. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, “sure tell her to start tomorrow and I’ll behave from now on I promise Slim.”
Slim walked over and punched Jess’s arm gently, “Just until you’re back on your feet Jess huh, it won’t be so bad, she’s a changed woman. She really was upset about what happened to you, you know.”
Chapter 7
Slim rode over to the old Benson spread the following day and returned with Ma Braithwaite in tow, seemingly happy to be back caring for the young cowboys.
“And I can promise you Mr Sherman there will be no animosity towards Mr Harper as far as I’m concerned. All that business with that harlot Ruby is water under the bridge and we can start afresh.
Slim looked slightly startled at poor Ruby being labelled a harlot, but thought it better not to rock the boat so early in their fragile truce.
“Yes well probably the least said about all that the better,” he said briskly.
“So we just need you to clean and cook as before. All Mr Harper’s… er… personal needs will be dealt with by me.”
“Oh really, I am quite happy to offer nursing care and personal attention Mr Sherman, I nursed my dear Pa to the end, so I am quite well versed in all that side of things, washing, dressing and the like.”
“No,” Slim said rather loudly, before moderating his tone, “no thank you Ma’am, just the cooking and cleaning is all that is required thank you.”
He took a deep breath, shuddering at the thought of what Jess’s reaction to that conversation would have been.
When they arrived Jess made a concerted effort to be coldly polite and Slim figured that was as good as it was going to get.
For her part Ma B seemed much quieter and less confrontational than her previous behaviour and Slim breathed a sigh of relief, maybe things would be OK after all.
She had even been reasonably amenable to the prospect of her reinstatement being a temporary measure.
“So Mr Harper will make a full recovery, get his sight back?” she had asked with a concerned frown.
“Well we sure hope so Ma’am, the doc seems reasonably hopeful and he has said that Jess won’t be permanently scarred either, his skin’s beginning to heal already,” he said with a smile.
“Oh that’s good, I’m pleased,” said Mrs Braithwaite, returning the smile.
“Er, so what if things don’t work out, regarding that, you’d want me to stay on and care for him? I mean he’d be completely helpless if he couldn’t see I suppose,” she said.
“Yes, well let’s just hope that doesn’t happen,” Slim replied emphatically.
It then crossed his mind as to why she was so hell bent on acquiring a lowly housekeeper’s post if she was in fact related to the wealthy Braithwaites of Cheyenne…and if so why had she lied to Mort about it? But he decided to just keep everything business like. He desperately needed a housekeeper and he surely didn’t need anything muddying the waters. Time enough to find out all Ma B’s guilty secrets, he decided, once Jess was on the mend and her services no longer required.
During the second week of what Jess referred to as his ‘house arrest’, he became very moody and silent and Slim knew he was dwelling on the outcome of the visit to the doctor planned for the Friday morning.
As had become her habit, whilst working at the ranch before, Evelyn always retired to her room with what she called an improving book, after supper and so the men had some peace and quiet to themselves.
On the Thursday evening Jess was like a coiled spring, prowling around the room, unable to settle and looking ready to explode.
“Jess for goodness sake will you sit down,” Slim said in exasperation, after Jess had collided with the table rattling the coffee cups and banging his knee painfully.
He slumped down on his rocker as requested and then after a moment was up again and feeling his way slowly in the direction of the door.
“Now what are you doing?” Slim asked as he looked up from his desk where he was trying to total up the end of month business figures.
“To the barn, check on Traveller.”
Slim sighed deeply, ”Are you crazy, it’s pitch dark out there.”
Jess turned on him then looking furious, ”Well I guess that won’t make any damn difference to me will it!”
The room was deathly silent for a good minute, save the ticking of the clock on the mantle and then Slim’s chair scraping back.
“I’ll walk over with you then,” he offered.
“No,” Jess bawled, “for God’s sake Slim. What if I really have lost my sight, what am I gonna do, spend my whole life waitin’ on folk to take me places? I’ve gotta learn to do it myself, be independent and I guess now’s as good a time to start as any,” and with that he made his way slowly to the door and disappeared outside.
Slim watched him go, his heart breaking for his good friend. But he was right, he had to learn if he was to stay there on the ranch and reluctantly Slim turned back to his books.
The following morning they set off for town in the buckboard for Jess’s appointment with Doc Johnson. Slim made one or two abortive attempts to engage Jess in light conversation, but it was obvious he didn’t want to talk, or especially speculate on the outcome of the visit, so they lapsed into silence.
It was still quite early when they arrived with few folk out and about as Slim gave Jess a hand alighting from the buckboard, then took his elbow to guide him onto the side walk to the doc’s office.
The door was opened immediately by his elderly housekeeper, Mrs Hudson, and they were shown into the waiting room.
Jess collapsed down in a chair and sat head bowed. His mouth set in a firm line being the only sign of his inner turmoil.
Moments later Doc Johnson came in and nodding to Slim took Jess’s arm to guide him into the office.
“Come along young man let’s see how you’re doing huh?” He suggested kindly.
Jess was sitting on the couch in the office, the doctor about to start his examination when the young cowboy stopped him.
“Where’s Slim?”
“Uh, in the waiting room, do you want him in here Jess?”
Jess just nodded, yeah.
Once Slim had been called in the doctor snapped his fingers, “I nearly forgot,” and he went over to the window and lowered the shades.
Slim threw him a questioning look.
“I think our patient may be rather intolerant of light for some time,” he said. Then gestured to a pair of eyeglasses with dark green lenses on his desk,” for later,” he said, and then sotto voiced, ”hopefully.”
Well good luck with that one, Slim thought privately.
“What are ya saying?” Jess said impatiently, just wanting the whole thing to be over and done with.
“Nothing important my boy, I’ll just remove the bandages and inspect your eyes now.”
“Slim…..you here?”
“Yeah, I’m right beside you pard.”
Jess took a deep breath, “Go ahead then doc.”
Doc Johnson carefully unwound the bandage and then looked closely at Jess’s eyes and gave a little nod, “Good, the swelling has completely gone. Alright Jess open your eyes really slowly for me.”
Jess’s head was bowed, but he did as he was asked and then looked down at his hands clasped in his lap…..and gave a soft moan.
“Jess, pard, what is it?“ Slim asked placing a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“I can see it,” he whispered holding up a hand and following its progress with his clear blue eyes. Then more loudly, “Dadgum it Slim I can see it.”
Then he blinked his eyes, “It hurts like Hell and it’s all kinda blurry still, but I can see.”
“Thank God,” Slim whispered, collapsing back onto his chair.
“It’s early days yet young man,” said the doc. “I don’t want you running before you can walk. They will be painful for the next week or so and that’s why it is imperative you wear these darkened eyeglasses at all times.”
To Slim’s amazement Jess seemed to accept that without turning a hair.
“I’ll give you some eye drops which must be put in your eyes three times a day and also a bottle of eye wash to use as often as you wish, that will ease any smarting or watering. But it looks like you’ve been incredibly lucky Jess your sight should be back to normal within the month, maybe sooner.”
Then he leaned in and fixed the young cowboy with a hard look, “But only if you follow these instructions to the letter young man. Bright daylight could set you back months, so eyeglasses all the time savvy?”
“Oh I’m gonna behave real well trust me doc,” Jess said the relief in his voice clearly audible.
When they had landed home Ma B’s initial reaction seemed very positive.
“Well I’m real pleased for you Mr Harper sir, I know it’s been very worrying for you, for you both,” she said turning and including Slim in her broad smile.
“You could say,” Jess agreed gruffly. Then remembering his manners said, “Thank you Ma’am,” before excusing himself to go and check on Traveller.
Mrs Braithwaite turned away to go to the kitchen to start preparing the meal, but not before Slim caught a look of what…sadness? No suffering in her eyes and he called her back.
“Is everything alright Ma’am?” He asked politely.
“Yes, of course I’m delighted by the good news, it’s just that…. well I imagine I won’t be required here any longer Mr Sherman?”
Slim suddenly felt a wave of pity for the woman. There must be some reason why she was estranged from her son, maybe she really needed the work, whatever the reason he could see that she was sorely tried.
“Well I figure we could maybe keep you on to the end of the month huh?” He said kindly. That would give her nearly three weeks to make her plans at least. He mentally decided he’d deal with his pard ’s wrath later. Hell he was so relieved about his eyesight being restored maybe he wouldn’t be too mad anyway.
“Oh Mr Sherman that would be a help really it would,” she gushed.
“That’s settled then,” he said turning to go.
“Oh and maybe I can do something to aid his recovery?” She asked hopefully.
“Well not really, except maybe reminding him to use these,” he said nodding to where Jess had left the large bottle of eyewash and smaller eye drops bottle on the kitchen table.
“Of course,” she smiled, “it will be my pleasure,” and she marched off with a decided spring in her step.
Earlier that evening Slim had broached Jess about keeping Ma B on a little longer and although at first he made a fuss, he eventually agreed.
Now as they sat out on the porch Slim studied his buddy, noting how distant he looked.
“It’s only for a couple of weeks,” he said after a moment or two.
“Keeping Ma B on, that’s what you’re brooding about ain’t it Jess?”
“Hell no, I can live with that, I guess,” he said throwing his buddy a sheepish grin, before sobering and looking out to the distant snowy mountains.
After a while he turned back to Slim, his eyes now suspiciously bright, as he removed the eyeglasses as darkness began to draw in.
“I guess there was a time I thought I’d never see that again,” he said softly, nodding back towards the incredible view before them. As they watched the dying sun turning the distant snowy peaks to fire, red, gold and purple hues all clamoring to make the sunset spectacular.
“I reckon we all take things for granted until we lose them,” Slim agreed, looking on the scene with renewed pleasure.
Jess nodded.
“I kinda thought, when it was all over, iffen I was OK, I’d feel better about it you know Slim. But I guess I don’t. I’m so fired up with hate for the guy that did this, I think it’s gonna take me over. I’ve gotta find him Slim, find out why and, well get even I guess. Otherwise it’s just gonna eat away at me…you know?”
“I can understand how you’d feel that way pard.”
“Do you?” Jess asked suddenly angry.
Slim bowed his head, before looking across to where Jess still sat watching the sun go down, his expression cold and aloof.
“No, no I guess I can’t,” he said quietly,” but it was pretty bad for me too you know pard, watching you suffer that way, so I guess I can understand some, if not completely.”
Jess’s head swivelled to his friend and he immediately looked contrite, “Sure I’m sorry Slim. I guess I’m being a real jerk here. It’s just that I’m so dang mad. Some guy is wandering around out there Scot free after all we’ve been through. It just ain’t right and I aim to get justice iffen it’s the last thing I do”.
Slim sighed deeply, “So how are you going to do that then pard?”
“Go to town of course. I figure who ever it was is gonna be dang upset that their little plan to blind me didn’t work, so I guess they’ll have another go, only this time I’ll be ready for him.“
“Huh?” Slim asked looking amazed.” You said there was no way you were going to town wearing those, er what did you say? Oh yeah, those ‘dang sissified eyeglasses.’ You said you’d be laughed out of the saloon.”
Jess grimaced, ”Yeah I figure I did say that Slim, but I reckon now ain’t the right time to be so darned vain. If folks think I look foolish that’s their problem, I’ve gotten more important stuff to deal with than that.”
Chapter 8
They rode out the following day, Slim insisting on riding shot gun on his pard.
“Come on Jess, see sense, your eyesight still isn’t back to normal, what are you going to do if you do find this guy and it comes to a stand-off huh?”
“I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Jess drawled, “gotta find him first don’t I?”
They called in on Mort first and he was delighted that Jess was on the mend and the damage to his eyes wasn’t permanent. When they first entered Jess had kept his hat pulled down low, but eventually removed it and glaring at his buddy through the tinted glass said, “Don’t even think of making any wise cracks Mort!”
“As though I’d dare,” replied Mort, flicking an amused glance over to Slim and then rearranging his features to reflect sincerity.
“So what brings you boys to town? I thought you’d need to rest up some after all this business Jess.”
“What I need to do,” said Jess brusquely,” is find the son of a bitch that did this to me. So you got any ideas who it could be Mort, heard any rumours?”
“Can’t say as I have Jess, nope, everyone I’ve spoken to seems really sorry for your troubles though.”
“Um, well, there’s someone as ain’t and I aim to find him,” replied Jess looking mutinous.
Mort again glanced over to Slim, who merely gave a small shrug.
Slim could tell Jess was getting impatient and doubtless about to berate Mort for not looking for the culprit more thoroughly, so changed the subject.
“So did you hear back from Ma Braithwaite’ s son then Mort?”
“Indeed and apparently he’s coming over on tomorrow’s noon stage. But he expressly asked that you didn’t tip her off, he’s worried she’ll refuse to see him and he really wants to talk to her, try and mend the rift.”
“Well good luck with that one,” Jess said rising to go,” that’s one unreasonable woman.”
“Oh come on Jess, she’s not that bad, and she’s been real good to you while you were sick,” Slim interceded.
“Maybe,” Jess muttered.
Then turning to the Sheriff, “Let us know if you think of anyone that fits the bill will you Mort, real slight build, shorter than me and walks real soft.”
“Well that’s not a lot to go on Jess, how the hell do ya think you’re going to find him based on that?” asked Mort looking exasperated.
“I guess he’s gonna find me. Try and finish the job maybe,” Jess replied before striding out of the office, one hand raised in a gesture of farewell.
“Good luck,” Mort said rolling his eyes to Slim.
Slim nodded and grinned at his old friend, “I figure it’s the guy who did it that needs the luck. Jess is as mad as all get out I sure wouldn’t wanna be in that hombre’s boots.”
It was late morning by the time they had been to the mercantile and then they headed to the saloon.
Jess entered slowly as the dim light along with the dark glasses made it difficult for him to see clearly and once at the bar was greeted by a subdued Tom, the barkeep.
“Morning Slim, Jess,” he said, the dark eyeglasses noted, even though Jess again had his hat pulled well down.
Imagining the news from the docs was the worst Tom just asked for their order and the saloon girls, Annie and Betty stood anxiously by, unsure as how to deal with the situation.
Jess had taken a slug of his beer and glanced into the gloomy depths of the bar, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. Then he suddenly saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and turning, there he was, a slight young man, a good few inches shorter than Jess and moving quietly into his line of vision.
“Well, well if it ain’t the high and mighty Jess Harper,” sneered Jethro Brown, now coming to stand at the bar by Jess. Taking in the dark glasses and the way Jess seemed to be peering blindly at him. “Deary me, how the mighty have fallen,” he said with an insincere smile. “I guess you ain’t quite so brave are you, now you’re blind, huh?” He spat, obviously reveling in the moment.
Jess finally focused clearly on the slight, pale youth, who had stepped so lightly across to the bar.
“Goddamn it! It was you weren’t it!” He exploded furiously. “You were trying to get yer own back just because we fired you, you ungrateful little bastard! We took you on when nobody else would, said we’d give you a chance and then you robbed us. So what did you expect us to do huh?” He yelled.
“Steady Jess,” Slim said putting a gently restraining hand on his arm,” let it go huh, Mort will deal with it.”
But Jess merely shrugged him off.
“That’s good advice Harper, I guess you can’t settle matters with your gun no more, so I should just pipe down and start acting like the poor sad blind man you are now,” Brown said with a bitter laugh.
“Oh, is that so,” Jess said frighteningly quietly, before throwing the dark glasses onto the bar, backing off from Brown and assuming the gunfighter stance, his hand hovering over his gun, his exposed eyes now black and dangerous.
There was a scraping of chairs as those around the men prudently removed themselves from the line of fire, but watched in fascination as this new, unexpected turn of events unfolded.
Brown too backed off looking slightly uncertain now.
“You can see?”
“Well enough,” Jess nodded.” I guess my draw is as fast as ever, but my eyes aren’t 100% just yet. See a snotty; wet behind the ears kid like you… well I’d usually aim to just wing ya. “He paused, the look in his eyes now even more deadly,” but right now, I figure I may not be able to do that, may just blow your goddamn brains out Jethro, but hell I wouldn’t mean to, not really.”
Jethro Brown had gone even paler than usual and now he licked his lips, a sweat breaking out on his forehead as his hand flexed indecisively above his gun.
“Well go on then kid, what are ya waiting for?” Jess taunted.
“Jess!” Slim whispered urgently.
“It’s OK Slim, I know what I’m doin’,” Jess muttered.
Then a second later the boy went for his gun, but Jess had drawn on him in the blink of an eye, before the youngster was even halfway to drawing his gun.
There was a shocked gasp from the onlookers and then silence before the sound of a single person applauding broke the stillness as Mort Cory wandered over from where he’d been watching the proceedings from the door.
“OK Jess I figure you can put the iron away, you’ve made your point,” drawled the Sheriff.
Jess immediately did as he was told but still stood glaring at Brown.
Mort turned to his old friend,” I’m sorry Jess, but you’re barking up the wrong tree with this one. He’s got a rock solid alibi for the time of the crime. He was drunk as a skunk in here, Tom called me over and he spent a few days in my cells, sorry.”
Jess hung his head and then turned back to his beer, garldarn it he’d been so dang sure.
“As for you, I should get off home son and let this be a lesson to you Jethro. Don’t mess with Jess Harper or anyone else in town for that matter. I don’t wanna to see you back here until you can learn some respect, now git.”
Brown bolted like a startled rabbit. But Jess’s lesson had been well learned and he never did face off another man with his gun again. In fact after that scare he stopped carrying one all together and was a better man for it, finally settling down to prove himself a good worker.
But all that didn’t help Jess in his quest for the perpetrator and he felt sorely tried as he sat by the fire discussing the matter further with Slim later that evening.
“At least the word on the street will be that I’m gettin’ better and itchin’ for revenge,” Jess said with a grim smile, “maybe that will bring this lowlife out of the woodwork huh?”
“Maybe Jess, maybe not. It could be that they figure you’ve suffered enough and will just back off.”
“Oh so I’m just supposed to forgive and forget am I?”Jess asked casting his friend an angry look, before hanging his head and rubbing his tired eyes.
“Hurting?” Slim asked with concern.
“Some, I guess I shouldn’t have taken those eye- glasses off earlier, I’ll go use that eyewash the doc gave me,” he said disappearing off to the bedroom.
He returned five minutes later looking defeated and slumped down in his rocker again.” Maybe you’re right after all Slim. I should just be grateful I’m getting my sight back. Things could have been so different.”
Slim looked surprised, “So what’s made you so dang reasonable all of a sudden?”
He just shrugged, “I dunno, I figure I’ve gotten a lot to be thankful for, like the way you stood by me Slim.”
He paused for a moment looking reflectively into the fire, then gazing over at his pard, he said, “Did ya really mean it Slim, that I’d always have a home here?”
“You know I did.” Slim said softly, leaning over and giving Jess a gentle punch on the arm.
After a minute he got up and left the room returning with half a bottle of Red Eye and two glasses.
“I reckon all this deserves a celebratory drink,” he said, pouring them both a shot and then chinking glasses with Jess, ”To good health and friendship,” and Jess returned the toast.
Both men settled back down in their seats looking and feeling more cheerful than they had in a long while.
Then Jess turned to Slim, “I guess we’ve something else to celebrate too.”
“Yup, didn’t Mort say Ma B’s son is due tomorrow afternoon? Well iffen there’s any justice in the world he’ll take her home with him,” Jess said with a happy grin, knocking back his drink and refilling their glasses.
Chapter 9
The following day was spent round and about the yard catching up with mending the corral fence and general chores. As was Jess’s way when he was working in the yard he popped into the kitchen for a reviving coffee on a regular basis, much to Ma’ B’s obvious displeasure.
“Dear me Mr Harper, I’m amazed you manage to get anything done at all the amount of time you spend cluttering up my kitchen,” she said sharply.
Jess was about to retaliate in kind , when he suddenly remembered her son, Charles was due on the noon Stage, so she would be out of his hair soon enough. Well it won’t be your dang kitchen much longer he thought to himself, before throwing her an enigmatic smile and removing himself and coffee cup out onto the porch. However shortly afterwards she followed him out with the cookie jar.
“I’m sorry my dear,” she said sincerely,” I’m just busy trying to clean in there before I …er…. have to go, I want to leave it tidy for you. Mr Sherman has agreed that I stay to the end of the month,” she finished with a dramatic sigh.
Jess figured this was his cue to say, “Aw its OK Ma’am why don’t ya stay huh?”
He hid a smile, nice try Ma.
“Thanks,” he said accepting the offered cookie before wandering off to the barn, leaving Evelyn Braithwaite looking sadly after him.
It was nearly noon and Slim had collected the replacement team and tethered them to the corral fence ready for the Stage that was due shortly.
“Why don’t you go and check Ma B’s got the coffee on,” Slim said turning to Jess, “make sure she’s around for her son arriving, I guess she’ll be real surprized,” he said happily.
“Good idea Jess responded, I need to put those dang drops in my eyes too, forgot earlier.”
There had been a violent summer storm in the night, turning the yard to mud, so Jess paused on the porch and removed his boots before entering. He was conscious that their housekeeper had recently washed the floors and didn’t want to be on the receiving end of her harsh tongue yet again.
He padded softly through to his room in his stocking feet, but paused for a moment noting the door was ajar. That’s strange he thought, as both men always kept it shut to prevent Jasper the ranch cat getting in. Or the cat from Hell as Jess had dubbed him, the critter seeming to take great delight in leaving dead rats or mice on Jess’s bed.
Now he advanced cautiously and stood in the doorway for a moment, puzzlement in his deep blue eyes as he surveyed the scene before him. Then he removed the dark eyeglasses all the better to observe their housekeeper who was busy with something in the room.
The movement must have caught her eye, and she suddenly glanced in his direction and froze, still holding the bottle of eye drops in one hand and a small measuring jug in the other.
They stared at each other for a good minute, both looking equally shocked, before Jess eventually found his voice and said in icy tones, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
She put the drops down quickly on the nightstand and tried to conceal the tiny jug, before saying shakily,” I thought you were getting the team ready?”
“I asked you a question,” Jess said angrily not about to be side lined.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she blustered, pushing past him out of the room.
Jess made a dive for the eye drops and sniffed them, yup just as he’d thought the bitter acid smell of bleach.
He tore out of the room and grabbed hold of Evelyn’s arm dragging her around towards him, his face a mask of fury.
“It was you weren’t it…you who threw that bucket of bleach over me and now you figured you’d finish the job didn’t ya!” He exploded.
There was no way out she knew that and suddenly she didn’t care and all the hate and animosity she felt towards him came to the fore.
“Yes,” she screamed,” yes it was me and you deserved it, deserve to be disfigured and blinded, in fact I want you to rot in Hell Jess Harper!” she yelled hysterically.
At this the ranch house door suddenly burst open admitting Slim looking startled, ”What the heck’s going on in here?” He demanded.
“Ask her,” Jess said dead pan, “I just caught her messin’ with my eye drops Slim,” and he passed the tiny bottle over, “she’s put bleach in, just trying to finish what she started in the barn.”
Slim looked shocked to the core and just gaped at Evelyn Braithwaite, who was now looking flushed and almost manic.
“Why? He whispered.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Jess said staring coldly at her,” why, why did you do that to me?”
The room was silent for a moment and then she started yelling at him again, “Because of what you did to my boy, my dear son, you ruined his life!”
“What? I never met your dang son,” Jess spat angrily.
“The War,” she cried bitterly, “you met him in the war, but I reckon you wouldn’t recognise him now, not with half his face blown away.”
Jess’s head shot up and he suddenly looked deeply shocked.
After a moment he swallowed hard before saying quietly, “Shiloh, spring of ’82…that was your boy?”
She nodded,” I sent him off to war the handsomest, most popular boy in town; he could have married any girl he wanted. He returned a cripple, barely able to communicate; a broken man and I lay the blame firmly at your door Mr Harper.”
Jess just shook his head, “No,” but she ignored him.
“You did that to my son and the Good Book says an eye for an eye and so that’s just what I aimed to do.”
Jess cast Slim a look of askance, was she crazy, but she continued to berate him.
“I’ve sat and watched you! Oh so handsome, so popular with the ladies, living your life without a care in the world, women falling at your feet. Like that Ruby, well I certainly put a stop to that,” she said with a smug smile, but then sobered. “But my poor boy had to make do with a plain little mouse of a girl. All he could get because of the way he looks now and that’s all thanks to you! And here you are so free and easy with the girls. You doubtless survived the War without a scratch too, it’s so unfair!”
Jess just shook his head, “That ain’t true we all suffered in that goddamn war. Sure I was wounded, imprisoned twice and escaped. We all lived through Hell, but that’s the nature of war and I guess we just have to deal with it all and move on.”
“Ha,” she said derisively,” you don’t know the meaning of suffering, not like my poor, dear boy. At least you’re not scarred for life!”
Jess moved over to the fireplace and stood leaning on it for a moment, head bowed, before he turned back to her with his level gaze, his blue eyes full of pain, “Maybe I am scarred, but just not where it shows.”
For a fleeting moment she looked almost sympathetic, but then took a deep breath. “That may be so, but nothing changes the fact that you are responsible for damaging my son in that terrible, brutal way.”
“No! No Mama, that just isn’t true!”
He had been standing there for some time and had heard everything.
They all turned to see a young man of about Jess’s age and build, standing on the threshold, a plump young lady beside him, clutching his hand and looking close to tears. They both wore eyeglasses and the man’s face was badly scarred, but they were well dressed and personable.
Charles Braithwaite advanced into the room and glared at his mother.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” he said bitterly, “it was Jess here who saved me on that day, I owe him my life!”
Jess gaped at the young man he hadn’t seen for so long and was suddenly catapulted back to April 1862.

His platoon under Johnson had attacked Grant’s forces where they were camped on a riverbank down in Tennessee. They had struck early one morning and the bloody fighting lasted all the day. Then they had withdrawn to rest. The following day Union reinforcements had arrived and there was a counter attack, the Confederates finally forced to retreat. It was to be one of the bloodiest battles of American history up to that time, with thousands slaughtered and injured on both sides. During the confusion of retreat Jess and his buddy Davy Jones had got separated from the main platoon. They were running low on water and supplies as they made their way to where they hoped they would join up with the other soldiers from their outfit.
Then it had happened, out of nowhere a gunshot rang out, the bullet grazing Jess in the upper arm. Both men fell to the ground and rolled before Davy returned the fire. He was shooting almost blind the late afternoon sun in his eyes. But both men heard the cry of pain and saw the rifleman fall from the rocks where he’d been hiding, hitting the ground several feet below with a sickening thud.
Jess was the first to arrive and stood for a moment transfixed by the gory scene before him. The bullet had hit the man in the face, his left eye and half his face a mask of blood. Jess gagged, before taking a deep breath and kneeling down by the man, who was still conscious, crying out in fear and pain.
“It’s OK, it’s OK buddy, I’ve got ya,” Jess said putting a comforting arm around his shoulders and offering his canteen of precious water. The boy drank thirstily before sinking back.
“Thanks,” he whispered.
Davy now stood beside them looking down in horror, “Dear God did I do that?” he whispered,” I never meant to. Hell the sun was in my eyes,” and he looked distraught. Sure there’ d been a whole mess of killing in the battle they’d just survived and both men knew it was kill or be killed. But here, now…. seeing the bitter consequence of war at close hand, both men felt appalled.
Jess glanced up at his buddy.
”Weren’t your fault Davy, he would have picked us off like a pair of prairie dogs iffen you hadn’t stopped him,” But then he looked back down at the wounded man, “but I guess no-one deserves to suffer this way.”
Removing his bandana he soaked it in water and tenderly began to clean the wound as best he could. Once he’d finished he tied it tightly around the man’s face and told him to keep pressure on the wound. “That should hold the bleeding,” he said, “I guess that’s the best I can do.”
“Come on,” said Davy urgently, “we’d better git going Jess, if he’s gotten buddies around, they’ll have heard the shooting and we’re dead meat.”
They rose and turned…to look straight up the rifle barrel of a Union captain, an unpleasant smile on his weary face.
“Oh how true young man,” said Captain Frank Brady with a bitter laugh, “you two are dead meat alright.” See #41 The New Sheriff.

Slim glanced over to Jess who had been standing as though frozen to the spot for over a minute, having turned deathly pale and shaking slightly.
“Jess, are you OK?” He asked in concern.
Jess shook his head as if trying to remove some terrible image from his mind, before dragging himself back to the present and replying.“Sure.”
Charles Braithwaite advanced into the room and taking Jess’s hand shook it warmly, “Thank you,” he said sincerely. “The MO said later if it hadn’t been for you tending the wound and halting the bleeding I’d have died for sure.”

Then he turned a less than friendly look on his Mother.
“And you Mama are wrong on both accounts. Dear Grace here is the love of my life, it just took me a while to realise how special she is,” he said giving the young woman a loving smile. “When I returned from the war it was me who chose to lead a quiet life. I’d come to realise that all those young women were so shallow, merely falling for my good looks. But Grace could see more deeply, saw the real man beneath and that is why we love each other. Why we married last week,” he added. Again smiling at the prettily blushing young woman, who now looked truly beautiful Jess noted.
Evelyn Braithwaite opened her mouth to object, but her son silenced her with a dark look and raised hand, commanding her silence.
“Let me finish,” he said brusquely. “The other matter you are completely wrong about is Jess here. Sure I mentioned his name to you and Davy Jones’s too, but I didn’t know which name belonged to which man and I really didn’t care I was in so much pain back then. I just knew one of them had shot me, the other tended me and saved my life. I know now that man was Jess Harper, I’d recognise that deep gravelly voice anywhere,” he said grinning across at Jess.
Then he turned back to his mother. “ I bore neither of them any animosity, you know that Mama. It was war, dog eat dog and that is just the way it was. In fact it was really my own fault, I should never have ambushed them that way and I told you that a hundred times, didn’t I?”
She just stared at him blushing with embarrassment now.
He turned back to Jess, “She just couldn’t accept her beloved son could be in the wrong I guess, so over the years the resentment has built up against you and Davy. Then when I inherited my Grandfather’s ranch in Cheyenne, Mother must have seen an article in the local paper about you helping out the Laramie Sheriff. That’s when I figure she lit out, bound on revenge. We found the paper in her room just the other day. Put two and two together and came over as soon as we could. Jeez I’m so sorry for everything Jess,” he said looking terribly guilty. “The Sheriff said she’d been difficult, but didn’t say more?”
Jess just shrugged. Difficult he thought, well there’s the dang understatement of the year, but it wasn’t this poor guy’s fault.
” I guess it weren’t any of your doing Charles,” and he glared over at Ma B, but said no more.
Moments later there was a commotion at the door and Mose strode in looking furious, “Garl darn it is anyone coming to help me change the dang team or what!” He exploded.
Jess went off to sort out the Stage, after suggesting the Braithwaites stay on a while and finally talk everything through. Hell Ma Braithwaite should really be thrown in Mort’s jail for what she’d done to him he thought bitterly and just wondered what he should do.
“Come on dang it Jess, shake a leg,” Mose grumbled and he went off to help him, putting his own problems to one side for the present.
He stood watching the Stage disappear up the rise and then wandered over to the corral fence and leaned over it breathing deeply. As he tried to ward off the feeling of nausea and dizziness that had suddenly threatened to overwhelm him.
Why bring this all up again he thought furiously, when he thought it was all buried so deep it couldn’t hurt him anymore.
“Dang the woman,” he yelled crashing a fist down on the fence rail.
“Whoa, take it easy pard,” Slim said taking a step backwards from where he had wandered over to stand by his friend.
Then he gasped at the look of raw pain and misery on Jess’s face.
“Hey buddy, what is it, “he asked gently, “all this talk of the war getting to you?”
“Some I guess,” he said sighing deeply.
“How about you?” Jess asked raising a quirky eyebrow at his friend.
Slim nodded, “I guess so, you think it’s all over and done with and then something like this happens, fires it all up again,” and he shook his head sadly.
“Were you there,” asked Jess softly, “ at Shiloh?”
Slim merely nodded again, looking bleak.
Jess sighed, “ I kinda figure it’s a good job we didn’t meet up any sooner then, huh?”
Both men appreciated the sentiment of that comment. Sure the war had never featured in their friendship to any extent. Yes they’d fought on different sides, yes it was a bloody war causing them both much pain and distress. But it was over and played no part in their relationship. Up until that moment that was.
Now Jess suddenly felt a stab of unease in his belly.
He looked deeply into the eyes of his good friend, “Slim, this won’t make any difference will it…..to us I mean. All this talk of the war, way it was at Shiloh an’ all?”
Slim looked shocked for a moment and then his slow warm smile lit up his face, “Hell no,” he said slapping Jess on the back. “Come on let’s go and sort that old harridan out once and for all huh.”
They returned to the house to see mother and son sitting opposite each other at the table and the way they shut up as the ranchers walked in Jess figured they’d once more been ‘having words,’ as Grace looked on, obviously upset by the whole business.
As they entered Charles leapt up from his seat,” I’m sorry we’re imposing on you, maybe we should have left on the Stage, gone directly to the Sheriff for him to deal with my mother,” he said, looking almost as angry as Jess was feeling.
“I just can’t believe it,” he said, looking pale and drawn, “how could you do that Mama?”
Jess flicked a glance over to Slim and raised his eyebrows in question.
“I told him,” Slim said softly, “ when you were out helping Mose. I told him exactly what she did to you and this latest stunt just now too.”
Jess looked down and then over at Ma B and was amazed to see her looking completely unrepentant.
He suddenly felt so angry he couldn’t bear to be in the same room as her.
“Excuse me,” he growled, flicking Charles and Grace an apologetic glance, “I’ve gotta see to the team, Slim will make you some coffee.”
Slim threw his pard an anxious glance before smiling at their guests, “Sure coming right up.”
As soon as the ranchers left the room Charles turned to his mother, his expression one of ill-concealed disgust.” I just can’t believe you could have done that,” he repeated.
She looked down,” I did it for you son, surely you can see that? “
He just shook his head, “Look mama unless you want to end up in the local jail you’d better go and try and make it right with Mr Harper, because he looks to be as mad as all get out and I guess I can’t blame him.”
“Nonsense,” she said briskly,” he wouldn’t press charges, would he?”
Charles sighed deeply, “Just go and talk to him, apologise huh?”

She stood at the threshold of the barn for a moment, watching Jess grooming his big bay horse, before entering quietly. However she had only gone a couple of paces before he swung around his gun in his hand in one fluid movement.
She stopped dead in her tracks, gasping in fear, but he holstered his gun immediately.
“Sorry about that I’m feelin’ kinda edgy. So what do you want?” He asked acerbically.
“Charles thought I should come and apologise to you.”
“Oh?” He replied staring blankly at her.
“Would it make any difference if I did.”
He surveyed her coolly for a moment, “Probably not, “ he said before turning back to his task.
“Good,” she said stoutly, “because I wasn’t going to anyway. I may have been wrong about who actually shot my boy, but I wasn’t wrong about you Jess Harper, the way you are. So sure of yourself and always a winner, always admired, while my poor boy is simply pitied, you can’t begin to understand hardship, the likes of you,” she spat angrily.
He just gave her a withering look before turning back to Traveller, but he could feel his pulses beginning to race, his heart pounding and he was getting real close to the jumping off place. Hell why didn’t the damn woman just admit she’d got it wrong and git off home?
“ Doubtless you had what they call ‘a good war.’ In fact my boy probably did you a favour. You had a nice soft billet in a prison camp and probably spent the rest of the war playing poker and relaxing with all the other no good Johnny Rebs,” she said nastily.
That was it, he could stand it no longer.
He threw the brushes down and marched out of the stall confronting her, his eyes blazing with fury.
For one dreadful moment she thought he would strike her. But no, he merely pushed her, non-too gently, down onto a straw bale.
“Sit and listen,” he spat, his voice low and menacing,” and don’t you dare move until I’ve finished.”
She sat paralyzed with fear, her mouth hanging open in shock, before she finally closed it, her eyes never leaving his face as she sat and listened.
“It took us a three day march to get to the camp, with virtually no rations, just the minimum to keep us movin’ I guess. Then when we arrived….” he paused and swallowed hard, before continuing “I thought we’d passed through the gates of Hell. The stench hits you first, rotting flesh…the smell of death. Then the stink of raw sewage, weren’t no proper latrines see….I guess that’s why half the prisoners had dysentery, no clean water to drink, or wash in either.”
All the time Jess had been speaking her eyes had been open wide in shock, now they were brimming with tears, “Please stop, I’ve heard enough,” she whispered.
He looked down at her, his eyes as cold and hard as marble, “Oh no,” he drawled, ”No you ain’t , I ain’t even gotten started yet.”
Then he continued in the same matter of fact quiet voice, that made his revelations even more horrific.
“But I guess the worst smell was the smell of fear. It surrounded the place, seemed to be in the very walls of the cells…in the burial plots, it followed you around like some dark evil cloud , fear and hopelessness walkin’ together,” he said looking off out of the barn door now to the distant hills beyond, his expression unfathomable.
Then he seemed to pull himself together and focused back on Evelyn. “So I expect you’d like to know what happened to me and my buddy Davy,” he asked conversationally.
She just shook her head, but knew she would not be spared. Not until this young man was through and she just prayed it would be soon.
“Well it weren’t long before Davy got sick with the dysentery.” He sighed deeply, “Hell that’s a real nasty sickness at the best of times. But there, in the prison where there was no outhouse. No place to wash up, no change of clothes,” he shook his head, “well I guess you can imagine. A man didn’t have much dignity left; he was humiliated ma’am, left in filthy stinkin’ clothes to die….
She looked down unable to meet his dark angry eyes.
“And that’s just what Davy did…eventually and I figure it was a blessin’ in a way. See it was so dang crowded that we were left to sleep outside, just given some off-cuts of wood, maybe an old tarp to make a shelter and it were so dang cold. We had snow that year in April…you know that?” He asked cocking an enquiring eyebrow, but of course she didn’t answer.
“So yeah, I guess he was better off dead. But, before that, when he was dyin’ he was so dang thirsty, kept callin out for his Ma and for water, but the guard wouldn’t let him have any. So that’s when I stole it for him,” he said quietly. Then he gave her a bitter smile, ”he lasted another day or two before he died. He was just seventeen Mrs Braithwaite, kind of a waste of a young life huh?”
She nodded, “What…what about you, what happened? “
He hung his head,” I was hauled before the commandant and ordered twenty lashes for stealing water. Then when I kinda made it known I weren’t any too happy about that, I was put in an isolation cell as well, for a month,” he said succinctly.
“But that’s barbaric,” she whispered, the tears now running freely down her face.
He nodded and then continued his narrative again, in that same deadpan tone.” Well I guess sleepin’ out in the bitter cold was better than the cells. See they were only about six foot square, real cramped and struck cold, the floor just made of earth. No light ‘cept what filtered through a little grill in the wall. I was manacled too. Strange that, as I sure as hell wasn’t goin’ anyplace,” he said with a grim smile.”I was fed once a day, but in a way I dreaded that because that’s when the rats and cockroaches came a visitin’.“
“No!” She cried, “Stop, please no more.”
He ignored her and carried on in the same low monotone,” I figure it could drive a man plumb loco bein’ locked up that way. I guess it was only the thought of escaping that got me through,” he said reflectively.“After a while ya don’t know what’s real and what ain’t,” he continued.” You see things that ain’t there, hear things too. I kept hearin’ Davy callin’ for his ma, just like he was there next to me, though I knew he weren’t,” he sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, then pulled himself together.
“So anyway, end of the month they dragged me out, I couldn’t walk too good for a while, I guess your muscles get kinda weak bein’ locked up that way. Couldn’t see any too well at first either, havin’ been kept in the dark so long. My eyes were real painful in the light, kinda like they are now,” he said giving her a resentful look.
That really hit home, the enormity of what she had done making her feel sick to her stomach. He should be wearing his darkened eyeglasses she thought fleetingly, the barn was quite dim, but was he in pain now she wondered. Then she squirmed inwardly at how close she had come to committing the crime once more and felt appalled at her behaviour.
She wanted to apologise, say how truly sorry she was now her eyes had been opened. But she was incapable of speech, a huge lump in her throat, the tears still running unheeded down her face. Her dear Charles had always tried to make light of the war to protect her feelings, but now she saw it in all its true horror. Jess had no qualms with telling her exactly the way it was though, and who could blame him.
“Garldarn it woman will you stop cryin’,” Jess growled never being able to stand a female wailing.
“Look I had to make you see, make you understand how it was. War is just that way, good people get killed, others have their lives changed forever, carry the scars for the rest of their lives like your Charles. But don’t ya see iffen you don’t let it go…put it behind ya then it carries on causing more and more pain and bitterness.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.” You’re right of course you are. I’m so very sorry,” and then she broke down weeping hysterically.
Jess sighed deeply, “I’ll go fetch Charles,” he said and marched off looking sorely tried.
When Charles and his wife had gone off to the barn to deal with Ma B, Slim turned wary eyes on his buddy, ”Hell Jess what have you done to the woman, she’s hysterical you say?”
Jess turned on him, “I just told her how it was, in the war, damn it Slim…in the camp, she needed to understand.”
Slim shook his head,” Jeez, no wonder she’s upset.”
“Well just hearin’ about it weren’t as bad as dang well bein’ there,” Jess retorted angrily. “She needed telling!”
Then his anger seemed to evaporate.
He slumped down in his rocker and Slim observed him closely, seeing how distressed he looked.
He shrugged, “I just dunno what to do Slim, I’m so dang mad at her fer what she’s done. Dang it, if it were a man I’d just deck him and forget it, but a woman?” And he shook his head, looking bewildered.
“Maybe you should just try and forgive her?” Slim suggested.
Jess’s head shot up and he peered at his buddy for a moment before shaking his head sadly.
“I don’t think I can Slim, not yet anyways. It ain’t just what she did to me. It’s that she’s brought the war an’ all back again. Hell I can smell the dang place Slim, hear those men cryin’ out in pain, see ‘em walkin’ around in rags, half-starved like dang skeletons. She’s done that Slim and I can’t forgive her for it!”
“Look Jess, take it easy huh. She’ll be out of here on the next Stage and you don’t have to see her again. It’s that young couple I feel sorry for. How’d you like to start married life with a Ma- in- law like that huh?”
Jess gave him a weak smile, “Hell don’t Slim,” but before he could say more there was a subtle tap on the door and Charles stood on the threshold with his Ma and new wife.
“We’ll be off as soon as the next stage arrives,” he said,” but I need to speak to you before we leave Jess.”
“Sure come in and relax a spell,” Slim said quickly, “it will be another hour before the east bound passes through. I’ll fix you ladies something to eat.”
“Why dontcha take Charles out on the porch, have a quiet word huh?” Slim said turning to Jess.
He just nodded heading out, as Slim ushered Ma B and Grace to the table.
Jess slumped down in a chair on the porch, nodding for Charles to take the other one.
“Well,” he said irritably,” if you’re gonna give me a hard time for upsetting your Ma, I have to tell you she dang well deserved it after what she did.”
But Charles put both hands up in a gesture of submission,” Hey Jess, I’m, with you on this, you did right to tell her how it was back then. In fact maybe iffen I’d been a bit more honest with her, none of this would have happened,” he said ruefully.
Jess just shrugged, looking marginally more amenable, “Can’t change the past,” he said gruffly,” I guess you have to just move on.”
“So what are you saying,” Charles said leaning forwards in his chair and fixing Jess with an intense stare from behind his thick eye glasses, “are you going to forgive Mama for what she’s done, not press charges?” he asked hopefully, hardly daring to hope.
Jess looked down and shook his head.” Charles, that’s a big ask. Have you any idea, how much this has troubled me?”
But he didn’t wait for an answer.
“I guess I can’t forgive her, at least not right now. But I won’t press charges either. I figure me talking to her that way is as good a punishment as the Sheriff could give her by locking her up. And maybe it’ll just make her think things through some too, huh? “
“Yes,” Charles agreed.” I haven’t ever seen her this way before. I don’t know what you said, but it sure hit home.” Then he beamed at Jess, “Thank you so much for not involving the law, I really appreciate it.”
Jess just nodded and then gave him a calculating look, before saying, “So how about you, is your Ma going to be moving in with you and Grace then?” Secretly thinking that would be a recipe for disaster for the newlyweds.
Charles looked anxious, “That was the plan, but now….”and he shrugged.” I really can’t see them sharing a kitchen can you? Unless….”
“There is another property on the ranch about half a mile away across the home pasture, my great grand pappy’s original ranch house. It’s nice enough, but too isolated for her on her own I guess.”
“Well why not invite Widow Baines to live with her?” Jess asked looking thoughtful. “Your Ma’s been living over at the old Benson spread with Edith Baines, I figure maybe she’d move in with your Ma, I figure they’re real good friends now.”
Charles looked delighted, “Why that’s an excellent idea Jess, I’ll sound out Mama right away,” he said jumping up and grinning at the dark haired cowboy, “Thanks, thanks a lot.”
“And get her to take those dang cats with her too,” was Jess’s parting shot.
Chapter 10
It would be nice to say that everything returned to normal after Ma Braithwaite and Widow Baines left to live in the old ranch house just north of Cheyenne, but it did not.
Jess was at first short tempered and taciturn and then the terrible nightmares began again, the like of which he hadn’t suffered in years.
The first Slim knew of it was when Jess became more and more restless one night, before finally screaming out in utter terror.
Slim jumped out of his bed and went and sat on the edge of Jess’s watching helplessly as he lashed about, beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead .Eventually he sat bolt upright, eyes open wide , scanning the room a look of abject terror in his deep blue eyes.
“Jess, Jess pard, it’s OK,” said Slim quickly slinging a comforting arm around Jess’s shoulders.
Jess turned and stared at him for a moment, like he’d never seen him before. Then he shook his head and peered more closely at his friend, “Slim, that you?”
“Yeah, bad dream huh buddy?”
Jess just nodded,” I guess, sorry I woke ya,” and lay back down.
Slim gazed at him for a moment and then decided that any explanations could wait for the morning. He pulled the blanket over him and said, “‘Night Jess,” before returning to his own bed.
The following day Jess said he didn’t want to talk about it and marched off to take out his ill temper on the wood pile.
However when it happened several more times over the next couple of weeks Slim insisted they sit down and talk it through.
They were out on the porch having a last coffee before turning in, the late summer nights now beginning to strike a tad chilly.
“Look Jess it’s not just these terrible nightmares you’ve been having, its everything else. You just haven’t been yourself since that incident with Ma Braithwaite have ya?”
Jess shrugged, but said nothing, just sipped his coffee and looked out to the snowy mountains in the distance.
“Jess will you talk to me?” Slim said looking exasperated.
He just ignored him, a faint sigh the only sign he had heard.
“Jess, garldarn it will you say something!” Slim hollered. “You’ve been as ornery as all get out lately. You won’t come to town, don’t even want to go to the dance next week what in hell’s gotten into you? “
Jess suddenly threw his cup down and lurched out of his chair, striding over to lean on the porch upright, looking off to the mountains again, “Just leave it Slim,” he muttered.
“I can’t do that pard, I just hate to see you hurting this way,” Slim said softly, “talk it through with me huh,” he said coaxing Jess to unburden himself.
Jess finally spun around his face contorted in anger, “You want me to talk it through? OK well I’ll tell ya. Ever since that old biddy brought everything up again I keep having these God awful nightmares. Damn it Slim I can see it all so clearly, see ‘em dyin’ again, smell it and hear every cry of pain and fear. Feel that Goddamn whip lashing into my back, then the blood. Hell the blood everywhere. And right now I could swing for her I really could,” he finished bitterly, before turning on his heel and marching off towards the barn.
Slim hung his head, he’d wanted to try and help, but it looked like he’d just made matters worse. “Damn it,” he muttered under his breath, when would this misery end for his good friend and what could he do to help?
From then on things seemed to go from bad to worse, with Jess cutting himself off from his buddy, Spending long hours in the saddle riding fence and checking on the stock, although much of it wasn’t strictly necessary and Slim knew it was just an excuse for Jess to be alone with his thoughts.
Well that sure wasn’t healthy Slim acknowledged, but the more he tried to get Jess to engage and spend time relaxing in town, the more he dug his heels in and refused.
It was when he started sitting up at night and falling asleep in the chair that everything came to a head and Slim knew his buddy couldn’t carry on this way.
It was obvious Jess was exhausted and so one night Slim poured them both a good measure of Red Eye and did some plain speaking as they sat before the crackling fire after supper.
“Look Jess things can’t go on this way. You’re either off on the range for days at a time, or sitting up ‘til all hours and sleeping in the chair, how’s that going to help anything huh? You’re still getting the bad dreams; in fact I guess they’re worse.”
“So what am I supposed to do? I feel bad wakin’ you all the dang time, and besides I’m getting to feelin’ real hemmed in here.” Then he swallowed deeply, and decided to be completely honest, “Hell Slim the only place I feel really safe right now is out in the Big Open.”
It was a few days later when Slim rode in from town with the solution.
He caught up with Jess in the barn, when he took Alamo in.
“Hey pard, guess who I met in town?”
Jess looked up from where he’s been grooming one of the Stage line horses.
“Lily Langtry,” he said with a straight face.
Slim rolled his eyes, “Nah, ‘twas Bert Hampson, the horse trader.”
Jess looked up a spark of interest in his eyes.
“Yup, he told me he’d seen some real purty looking mares up on Talbert’s ridge just North of Cheyenne, near Lodge-pole Creek, said as if we got our skates on we’d likely catch a few. Mighty fine looking he said they were Jess. I reckon that would be a real good way to spend your time too, once we bring the herd down for the winter, I figure you’d have plenty of time to break those old mustangs before spring.”
“Uh, hey whoa there Slim, I figure I’ve gotta catch ‘em first.”
“So you’re up for it then?” Slim asked looking enthusiastic.
“Well I guess, what about this place though?”
“I’ve thought all that through. You go over and catch those mustang and then wire me from Cheyenne once they’re corralled at say Dave Peters’ place and I’ll ride over and help you bring them back, what do you say Jess huh?”
Jess set off the following day, feeling optimistic for the first time since all the business with Ma B had kicked off.
He made good time and decided to stop over in Cheyenne for the night to catch up with his old friend Sheriff Doug Masters. Jess and Doug went way back to when Doug had been Jess’s CO in the war. Jess had saved his life during the conflict and after the hostilities were over they’d had met up at various intervals over the years. It was just a year or so ago that Doug had taken over as Sheriff, after the old Cheyenne Sheriff had finally retired, and now they met up reasonably regularly.
Late that afternoon Jess put Traveller up for the night in the livery and made his way briskly down Main Street and into the Sheriff’s office.
Doug swung his legs down from the desk and threw his paper to one side as the door opened. Then relaxed back again as he saw who the visitor was a broad grin on his handsome clean cut features.
“Why Jess you old son of a gun,” he said standing and offering a hand as Jess advanced into the room.
Jess shook it warmly.
“So what are you doing in my neck of the woods? That partner of yours hasn’t thrown you out on your ear has he?” He said chuckling at his own joke and nodding for Jess to take a seat.
Jess collapsed down into the offered chair and removed his hat, running a hand through his dark wavy hair.
“Nope nuthin’ like that Doug. I’m after some mustangs, been sighted north of town up by Lodge pole Creek, according to old Bert Hampson.”
“Uh, well he should know, good horseman that, but not as good a breaker as you Jess. I believe you’re making quite a name for yourself over Wyoming. I know the CO at the Fort thinks really highly of you.”
Jess grinned back, “He’s a good man, and we’ve done quite a lot of business with the Army recently.”
“So these critters you’re after, part of an army deal then?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope, I figure I’ll work on them over the winter, sell ‘em on privately. An idea Slim had, I guess I needed to get off of the ranch for a while,” he said honestly.
Doug cast his old friend a penetrating look.
“Uh, I saw Mort Cory the other day, delivering a prisoner for trial; he said you’d had a bad time of it lately?”
Jess just nodded,” I really don’t wanna talk about it Doug.”
They had been sitting at the back of the local saloon for a couple of hours, Doug now off duty and the whiskey, that was flowing freely, had loosened both their tongues.
“Mort told me everything,” Doug said casting his buddy a concerned glance. “What Mrs Braithwaite did to you and why,” and he shook his head sadly. “Young Charlie’s a great guy, if only his Ma would butt out and let him get on with life.”
“Yeah, well,” said Jess taking a swig of his drink and topping the glass up from a bottle on the table between them. He shrugged, “I figure even worse than her tryin’ to blind me, was that she brought it all back, the war and everything, ya know Doug?”
“Sure, sure I do,” said Doug,” Like we wanna be reminded of that goddamn awful time.”
“Yeah,” said Jess quietly looking down into his glass with empty eyes.
“At least you escaped from that Hell Hole,” Doug said quietly contemplating his friend. “Jeez, when you walked into camp that morning….” and he shook his head sadly. “The Medics didn’t think you’d make the night, what with those festering sores on your back after the beating, half-starved too,” and he shook his head sadly, “you sure were a mess buddy.”
Jess nodded,” I guess it messed me up in more ways than one,” he muttered, looking furious.” Hell Doug I could kill Ma Braithwaite for bringing it all up again. I thought it was over, done with and I could move on, “and he shook his head,” I guess I never will be over it, not completely.”
Doug shook his head, “I figure none of us will, but some of us got a rougher deal than others and you sure didn’t have it easy.” He shook his head sadly, “It’s a dang good job you made it back to camp and got fit again. Because as sure as God made little green apples, I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for you Jess.”
Jess grinned at his friend then, his mood lifting, “I guess this bottles on you then hey buddy?”
The following morning it was with a slightly muzzy head that Jess had made his farewells to his good friend and wandered off to the livery to collect Traveller. Ben from the stable grinned at his old friend as he mooched over to where he was mucking out the stalls.
“Gee you look like a man that could use a coffee,” he said with a broad wink. “Been tryin’ to match our sheriff drink for drink have ya then Jess?”
Jess smiled at the old timer, “Somethin’ like that Ben yeah.”
“Uh, well come in the back I’ve got a brew goin’ as it happens, the boy will saddle up your mount for ya presently.”
He called out for the youngster, “Joe, hey Joe, customer!”
Then he turned back to Jess, “Dang no account kid. I dunno, you take ‘em on and they spend half their time asleep in the dang hay loft, he’ll be getting’ his marchin’ orders iffen he don’t shape up!”
A moment later a scruffy, skinny looking youth ran over, “Sorry sir,” he muttered.
“You will be,” threatened Ben, “now get to it. Mr Harper’s horse needs grooming and then saddle him up, pronto boy!”
A half hour later Jess rode out heading for the creek north of town.
Doug had filled him in on where the mustangs had last been seen, up to the west of the Braithwaite spread.
“They’re not on Charlie Braithwaite’ s land are they?” Jess had asked looking concerned, “ I don’t wanna take what ain’t runnin’ wild.”
“Nope, definitely not, his boundary is a good mile back and all well fenced. In fact if you get up onto Talbert’s ridge you should be able to make ‘em out, iffen they’re still around that is. You’ll see the old Braithwaite place where Ma B and Widow Baines are living to the west, and the creek just beyond. Head due west for a couple of miles and the critters will be there to welcome you,” Doug had said with a laugh.
“Uh, well I won’t be payin’ Ma B a call, that’s fer sure,” Jess said bitterly.
Now as he crested the ridge he saw the plain stretching out before him, the creek in the distance, just beyond the old Braithwaite ranch house as Doug had described it. But of the wild mustangs there was no sign.
However Jess wasn’t unduly perturbed knowing that they would have moved on by now. But were hopefully still hugging the banks of the creek, where there was plenty of good grazing and water.
He turned Traveller away from the distant ranch house and made for the silver ribbon of river off in the distance.
He’d only been riding a little while before a rider came into view from the direction of the ranch house and after a moment Jess was able to make out the figure of Charles’ young wife, Grace Braithwaite. Moments later she reined in beside him, smiling shyly.” I thought I recognised you,” she said,” have you come to visit Ma- in- law?”
Jess grinned in welcome, but then sobered quickly, “I guess I ain’t,” he said firmly, “just here Mustanging Ma’am.”
“Oh, I see, yes there were some here a few days ago I believe, probably further down the creek by now,” she said nodding towards where the river was snaking lazily through the verdant pasture. “We don’t deal in mustangs, Charles’ grand pappy bred Morgan Quarter horses and Charles is doing the same.”
“Really,” said Jess looking impressed, “they’re real good horseflesh, I guess I’d love one of those, iffen I ever make that kinda win at cards,” he added ruefully.
She smiled at him then, “Well I hope you do one day and good luck with the Mustangs, I hope you find them,” she said.
“Thanks said Jess returning the smile, “so how’s married life?” He asked.
She beamed at him then, “Just wonderful and made even better with Ma living down there,” she said gesturing to where smoke was now issuing from the cook stove chimney.
“I’ll bet,” he said exchanging a knowing grin.
They chatted on a little longer before parting, Jess tipping his hat to her and offering his best regards to Charles, before kneeing Traveller on at speed towards the distant river bank.
He spent the rest of that day and the following one searching and although there were obvious signs that they had passed by recently, he didn’t get a sighting until late on the second afternoon. Then cresting a ridge he saw the small herd way off in the distance, looking to have settled for the night near the riverbank.
“Gotcha,” he whispered to himself, but time enough to catch up with them in the morning he figured. Right then he was tired and real hungry and decided to make camp back from the river’s edge well away from the herd.
He tended to Traveller before making a fire, shivering slightly as the sun went down and a chilly little wind got up. Where in Hell was that jacket he wondered? He’d had it when he rode out from the ranch. Of that was for sure, he remembered tying it on behind the saddle with his bedroll. Then he’d left it at the livery when he hit the town with Doug. Jess frowned deeply that was it. It was back at the livery dang it. Sure he’d been meaning to buy a new one for winter, what with all the darn bullet holes and rips in his old one, but even so he was kinda attached to it. He shrugged and throwing another log on the camp fire, pulled his bedroll around his shoulders and settled down for the evening.
Chapter 11
The following morning he was up at first light and climbing the ridge behind him was pleased to see the small herd of mustangs still in view. Although they had wandered on downstream a way and he figured it would take him an hour or so to catch up.
He made his way slowly along, keeping well back from the river and downwind of the herd, so they would neither see nor smell him or Traveller as they approached.
He was in easy reach of the herd and had just decided to make his move when he saw the critters suddenly raise their heads, sniffing the air. Then, giving warning whinnies of fear they took off as one, hurtling away from him in a cloud of dust.
“Garldarn it what the Hell’s goin’ on?” He muttered as he swivelled in the saddle turning to where a bunch of riders could be seen tearing hell for leather along the edge of the river bank.
But then instead of perusing the mustangs the small group reined in and looked around them. Eventually their lead rider pointed over to Jess and the group turned to ride quickly in his direction as Jess looked on angrily.
Just a few minutes later Sheriff Doug Masters reined in beside his old friend throwing him an apologetic glance.
“Sorry about that Jess, but I’ve got to talk to you and it’s real important.”
“Well it better be!” Jess exploded, looking furious,” I’ve been trackin’ those critters these last two days, so what’s yer game Doug? “
He cast a glance from Doug to his young Deputy Jake West and back, then at the small posse of local business men and town council officials.
“What’s goin’ on Doug,” he asked warily, “huh?”
“There’s been an attack, on Ma Braithwaite, she was shot Jess and it doesn’t look like she’s going to make it,” Doug said looking troubled.
Jess’s head shot up and he looked profoundly shocked, “Jeez, I’m sorry to hear that,” he muttered.
“I er…I have to ask you buddy, have you been anywhere near the Braithwaite place, visiting Ma Braithwaite maybe?”
“What!” Jess exploded, “Are you asking me iffen I shot her, hell Doug are you crazy?”
At that the leader of the council a portly gentleman by the name of Herbert Potts, came forward reining in beside the Sheriff.
“You just show the Sheriff some respect young man,” he said curtly.
“Hell, I’ve gotten more respect for this man than you’ll ever know,” Jess yelled angrily, “but he’s talkin’ rubbish and he knows it. Knows I’d never hurt a woman, let alone shoot one for God’s sake!”
“Well I challenge that statement son, because we’ve got a reliable witness that swears that you did just that,” Potts returned with a nasty smile.
Jess threw Doug and stunned look, “Huh? “
“He nodded, I’m real sorry Jess, but Mrs Edith Baines says she recognised you and is willing to swear to it in a court of law.”
“Also Grace Braithwaite admits that she saw you earlier on the day in question, just near the ranch house, so do you deny that too?” Barked Herbert Potts.
Jess shook his head, “Nope, sure I was there. Me an’ Grace exchanged the time of day and then I headed off towards the river, she saw me go.”
“Um, and what was to stop you doubling back huh? It was just an hour later that the woman was shot and God knows you had the motive. Several folk have said there was no love lost between you two,” replied Potts looking dour.” I’ve been making inquiries and according to Mose Shell, it seems you fired her as housekeeper after she meddled in your personal life and then later she tried to blind you.”
“Oh well if yer listen to anything Mose tells ya,” said Jess sarcastically.
But Potts was not to be deterred. “He also heard you yelling at her, sounding real crazy with anger, so he said. Others have said you wanted her dead and we all know about that temper of yours,” he finished triumphantly.
“That’s all hearsay and gossip,” said Doug staunchly.
Then turning to Jess, “But I will have to take you in Jess, until we can get to the bottom of this business,” he said regretfully, “come on buddy.”
Jess sighed deeply, but just nodded.
“Well aren’t you going to cuff him?” Potts asked in disbelief.
Doug threw him a hard look, “No,” he replied and joining Jess the couple rode off at a brisk trot, the rest of the posse following a discreet distance behind. Knowing the Sheriff was not a man to be crossed and right then he looked pretty near the jumping off place.
A couple of hours later they rode back into town, the posse dispersing as Doug led Jess into his office along with his Deputy Jake.
“Put the coffee on will ya?” he muttered to his Deputy before leading Jess towards the end cell.
He hauled open the door and stood to one side to allow Jess to go in, unable to meet his eyes.
“I’m so dang sorry about this,” he muttered as he clanged the door closed behind his old friend.
“Not half as sorry as I am,” Jess said with spirit. “Hell you don’t really believe any of that stuff Potts was spoutin’ do ya Doug?”
“No of course not, but you can’t be seen to be above the law Jess. I have to do this by the book, more so because you’re a good friend, you have to see that.”
“I guess.”
“Look I know this is hard for you, real hard being locked up this way. Especially right now after… .well after that old biddy shook everything up for you again, but I really don’t have any choice.”
“Yeah, I know that,” Jess said quietly. “So how is she?”
Doug shook his head sadly,” Doc Lloyd doesn’t hold out much hope I’m afraid Jess. It seems she was hit in the shoulder, but not badly, whoever it was had a real bad aim,” he said with a grim look,” so it wasn’t you that’s for sure. But as she fell she hit her head and hasn’t come around yet, longer she’s out, well the less hope I guess.”
Jess shook his head, “Jeez, she sure weren’t my favourite person, but she didn’t deserve that.”
Then Jake came in with the coffee and passed a cup through to Jess, with a look of kindly concern, “I’ll go fetch you some dinner in a minute,” he said glancing at his boss for agreement.
It was later that night that matters really hit home with Jess. If he’d been feeling kinda uncomfortable and hemmed in back at the ranch, well now he was almost claustrophobic. Feeling like the walls were closing in on him and he dreaded night fall.
He began pacing around the cell like some caged animal and Doug could hardly bear to watch him, when he strolled in to light the lamp as dusk fell.
He opened the cell door and entering went and sat on the other bunk.
“Why dontcha sit a spell, we could have a game of checkers,” Doug suggested.
Jess just shook his head and went and stood by the barred window peering bleakly out to the alley behind the jail, “I can’t settle,” he said quietly.
Then he turned round to face his friend, “What’s gonna happen Doug, how long am I gonna be stuck in this place?”
Doug shrugged, “It’s kinda difficult right now, there aren’t any other suspects, she was liked well enough in town and Charles is one of the biggest employers around here. I guess there isn’t anyone that would wish him or his Ma any harm, in fact the reverse. I have to tell you Jess, I’m glad you’re in here because I can keep you safe. There was some talk of a lynching mob earlier in the saloon, if she doesn’t make it that is.”
“Oh that’s just great,” said Jess with irony, “Hell Doug you must have something to go on?”
He shrugged,” I’m interviewing Widow Baines again tomorrow, she was in such a state the Doc sedated her today. But yesterday she was adamant it was you buddy, said she would know you anywhere and she’s the only witness. You don’t have an alibi, so it’s not looking great.”
Jess sank down on the other bunk sinking his head into his hands for a minute before looking over to
his buddy.
” Get Slim,” he said quietly, “tomorrow Doug, please wire for Slim to come.”
“He’s sleeping right now, the doc gave him something to knock him out,” Doug said offering Slim the coffee pot.
“He’s in a bad way then.”
It was a statement rather than a question.
Doug just nodded looking defeated.
“Being locked up this way, it’s the very last thing he needs,” Doug said sadly. “This is a bad business Slim real bad.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Slim said with spirit.” He was in a bad enough way back at the ranch, that’s why he made this doggone trip, said the only place he felt OK was out on the range…..and now this,” and he shook his head sadly.”Hell can’t you do something Doug?”
“I’m doing my best Slim, really I am, but Mrs Braithwaite still hasn’t recovered consciousness and her pal Ma Baines is in such a bad state the docs sedated her again, I still haven’t had a proper statement.”
“And Jess?”
“He’s taken it real bad like I say, having those terrible nightmares again.”
“You know about those?”
“Oh yeah and I witnessed the reason for ‘em too Slim, I saw first-hand what those bastards had done to him, in the prison camp.”
“Yeah, you know I was his CO back in those days?”
“Yup Jess has always spoken very highly of you.”
“Yeah, well I guess that’s a two way street Slim. See he saved my life, nearly died himself because of it and I’ll always be in his debt for that. I guess that’s why all this business is stickin’ in my craw so bad, Jeez I hate to see him this way.”
“So you were there, saw him when he escaped from the prison camp?” Slim asked, needing to hear the full story at last.
Doug’s face darkened, “I was yes, I guess I’ll never forget it.” He sat back in his seat and stared into the middle distance as he recalled those terrible times.

It was his lieutenant who saw the man first. He saw a lone figure staggering out of the wilderness, miles from any form of civilization, wearing a bloody and ragged Confederacy uniform. The platoon had halted to get their bearings, on the way back to the fort after a skirmish with some Union soldiers. They had won the minor battle, but having suffered a great loss of their own troops and now they were limping home to regroup.
“What is it Manners a Union casualty?”
“No sir looks to be one of our men.”
“What out there. It can’t be all ours are accounted for,” said Captain Masters frowning at his Lieutenant before taking the field glasses from him.
“Goddamn it you’re right Lieutenant, send a detail out now to pick the poor bastard up, he looks half dead.”
It was later that day that Doug cast eyes on Corporal Harper as the rescue party rode in with him.
He was gently lifted from his mount and supported by two men, but when he saw the Captain he pulled free and stood up as straight as he was able.
“Corporal Harper, reporting for duty sir,” he whispered, saluting the officer.
Doug returned the salute and then stared open mouthed at the half starved, ragged man before him, looking more dead than alive.
“I don’t believe it Harper. You were taken prisoner after Shiloh weren’t you? One of the platoon was there, but escaped a while back, said he’d seen you.”
“Yes sir, escaped sir, been walkin’ back to the fort these last couple of weeks…nearly made it,” he said with the ghost of his cheeky grin, before collapsing to his knees and then keeling over in a dead faint.
Later Doug had watched whilst the medic had stripped the soldier of his filthy ragged uniform exposing the raw bleeding and festering wounds to his back, where he had received the twenty lashes. His ribs sticking out telling of near starvation conditions, the other multiple cuts and abrasions to his emaciated body.
Turning away Masters gagged. Who could do this to another human being he thought. And how in hell had he survived and made it back to his platoon? A journey of over thirty miles? Jeez the guy sure had grit he had thought then…and he still thought the same now.

“I guess that ornery streak brought him through,” he said turning to give Slim a sad smile,” and I guess it will now too.”
“I sure hope so. Can I see him?”
Even though Doug had said Jess was in a bad place, Slim wasn’t prepared for just how sickly looking his friend appeared.
He was still asleep when Slim went in and he just sat patiently on the other bunk waiting for him to wake. He studied his pard, watching the gentle rise and fall of his chest, the usual tangle of dark hair falling across his forehead. The way he lay sprawled across the bunk, one arm flung out, the other across his chest. But then on closer inspection Slim saw the dark shadows under his eyes and how the slender face looked pale and almost fragile in its slenderness.
After a few minutes Jess seemed to be aware of his presence, he stirred and opened his eyes, glancing around the cell, before turning his head on the pillow, his gaze coming to rest on Slim.
His eyes opened wider in surprise and then a huge grin covered his face, “Gee Slim, I knew you’d come,” he said sitting up and leaning over to shake his hand,” thanks pard.”
“So I leave you alone for five minutes and you land up to your neck in trouble,” said Slim jovially, trying to lighten the charged atmosphere.
“You got it,” Jess agreed, “shouldn’t be let out alone I guess,” he said with a rueful grin. But swiftly sobered.” I figure I’m in real big trouble Slim and unless Ma B wakes up I can’t see any way out of it.”
“There’s Widow Baines though. Doug reckons the doc says she should be well enough to be interviewed this afternoon, maybe she’ll change her statement, realise she’s just made a terrible mistake huh?”
“It was definitely Jess Harper I tell you Sheriff, I’d know him anywhere. He had that battered black hat on, pulled right down and that disreputable old jacket with all the holes. Dear Evelyn despaired of him wearing that she really did. She’d patched the sleeve and then he ripped the back I remember she said. Very hard on clothes was Mr Harper she always said,” she finished with a little sniff, wiping her eye with a crumpled hanky.
“Yeah well she ain’t dead yet,” said Doug dryly.
“Now will you just go over it from the beginning again Ma’am, for Mr Sherman here please.”
“Oh very well,” she said with a big sigh, “I was napping and I heard dear Evelyn cry out loudly. She seemed to be arguing with someone. There were raised voices and then this terrible sound of a gunshot. I ran out of my room and poor Evelyn was out cold on the floor, where she’d hit her head on the fireside chair. Mr Harper was just running out of the room and ….”
“Hang on Ma’am, running out you say?” Slim asked, “You didn’t actually see his face?”
“Well, er no,” she said flicking an uncertain glance at the Sheriff, before continuing.
“But I’m sure it was him Mr Sherman, I recognised the jacket. I even saw the mending Evelyn had done to the left sleeve. Then he ran over to the far corral. Jumped on that big brown horse he rides, with the white star, I’d know the animal anywhere too. I’m sure I would,” she finished turning to nod emphatically at Doug.
“Well I guess one bay looks pretty much like another at a distance Ma’am,” Slim said, quietly.
“You’re just trying to confuse me,” she cried,” it was Mr Harper and that’s an end to it, so who else wanted poor Evelyn dead, he’d said it himself, you know he had!”
Slim looked down knowing the truth off it, but also knowing that although Jess might have threatened, he would never have carried it out. He would stake his life on that, but how to prove it?
“Thank you Ma’am, we’ll be in touch,” Doug said, nodding for his Deputy to escort Edith back over to the hotel where she was currently staying.
“We need to talk to Jess,” Slim said lurching up from his seat and making for the cells.
Jess shook his head, “But I weren’t wearing that old coat I must have lost it someplace, maybe left it in the livery I thought. I missed it the first night the weather turned chilly,” he said turning to Doug.
“Lost it you say,” asked Slim surprised, as he knew how closely Jess guarded all his possessions, no matter how beat up.
‘Comes from never havin’ much, ya get kinda protective of what ya do have,’ he’d told Slim once.
“That’s not like you Jess?” he said now.
“Yeah, well,” he said looking a tad embarrassed, “it were the mornin’ after we’d been out to the saloon,” he said looking over at Doug and exchanging a rueful smile.” I guess we kinda tied one on.”
“Well that doesn’t surprise me,” Slim said with irony.
“Uh, so old Ben at the livery made me some coffee and the kid that works for him….er Joe that’s it, Joe saddled up for me. I think he may have forgotten to tie my jacket on along with my bedroll….so maybe he knows what happened to it huh?”
“Young Joe doesn’t work here anymore?” Asked the Sheriff impatiently, “So when did he go?”
“Fired him that same day that Jess was here last,” replied Ben scratching his head thoughtfully.
“The dang cheeky pup went off back to the hayloft for another snooze once Jess had ridden out. Well that was the last dang straw! I fired him on the spot. I told him to take his horse and get out, gave him a week’s wages too, never thanked me, ungrateful layabout.”
“Horse you say?” asked Slim who had thus far remained silent.
“Uh, oh yeah Slim, nice animal, it was a bay with a white star, too good for that kid. I wondered if he’d come by him legal or not to be honest.”
“So where’s the boy now and his full name please?” said Doug briskly.
Ben shrugged,” Said it was Joe Smith, if you can believe it, and he’s left town as far as I know. I do know he called in at the saloon and spent his wages on drink. Old Ivor said how he chucked him out on the street for being drunk, he left after that I believe.”
“He was a big drinker then?” asked Slim.
“Huh? Oh yeah, that was his downfall I guess. The reason he was always napping, sleeping it off see. All his money went on the drink. Kinda sad to see in someone so young,” he said shaking his old head sadly.
“So what if he couldn’t get a drink for some reason,” Slim persisted, “did that bother him?”
“Oh yes,” Ben said with feeling, “he’d be out of funds by mid-week asking for a sub, used to get real churlish when I refused.” I guess the boy would do pretty much anything for the grog,” he finished looking gloomy.
“Oh and just one more thing, ”said Doug,” What does he look like?”
“Look like… um and the old timer thought long and hard. “About your height Sheriff, very dark wavy hair, slim build, black hat. Kinda scruffy, regular duds, denims, blue shirt, that’s about it, just an ordinary looking kid I guess.
“Thanks,” said Doug, “you’ve been a great help,” and the two men turned to leave.
Then Slim said , “Oh by the way did Jess leave his jacket here?”
“Huh jacket, um…why yes, yes he did, I left it on the hook in the stall over here,” he said turning,” I figured maybe he’d be back for it.” Then he stopped in his tracks, “Now where the heck has it gone, I swear I left it here.”
“I think I’ve got a pretty good idea,” said Doug beaming at the old man, “thanks Ben, thanks very much, you’ve been a great help.”
“ Yes I threw the young wastrel out,” said Ivor, as the two men sipped a beer later in the saloon.
“He was drunk as a skunk, so I got hold of his collar and chucked him out in the gutter where he belongs. The kid will kill himself with the drink,” he mused.
“His collar,” Doug said pouncing on the word, “would that be a jacket collar then Ivor?”
“Huh, jacket…. shirt, what does it matter…. I don’t recall. Served its purpose though,” he said with a grin,” I got me a good grip on him that’s fer sure.”
“Think man, think,” said Slim eagerly, “was he wearing a jacket?”
Ivor stood for a moment looking into the middle distance and then beamed across at the men.
“Yes now you mention it he was, a real scruffy one I mind. Been patched some and a rip on the back too. I remember thinking at the time maybe it wouldn’t stand up to my rough handling,” he said with a huge belly laugh. “ So, same again gentlemen?”
It was an hour or so later when the two men turned and made tracks back to the Sheriff’s office, but even before they arrived they had the feeling all was not well.
There was an unruly mob outside, the office door flung wide open and more men inside, their loud angry voices easily heard from down the street.
“What the hell,” muttered Doug as he broke into a run, with Slim on his heels.
The two men elbowed their way through the crowd and into the office and stood stock still in consternation at what they saw before them.
Jess was lying on the floor, curled up in agony as a burly man kicked him hard in the belly and a motley crew of bystanders egged him on.
Jess’s hands were manacled and a rope was tied loosely around his neck.
Jake, the deputy, was standing behind the desk, arms up in submission, being covered by a rough looking man wielding a rifle in his face. Looking pretty much as though he’d use it given half a chance.
Doug stormed in, Slim behind him, both having drawn their weapons.
“What the hell’s going on in here?” he yelled, “Put that dang rifle down Bates.”
The rough looking cowboy with an evil glint in his eye, now lowered the rifle from Jake’s face and looked uncertainly around him.
Meanwhile Slim strode across the office and grabbing hold of Jess’s assailant by the shirt, dragged him around before decking him with a single vicious blow to the chin. It sent him reeling across the room where he slammed into the wall before sprawling on the floor, staring up in shock at the lanky rancher. Slim glared back down at him, his angry eyes just daring him to move.
“OK I’ll ask you folks again”, said the Sheriff sounding menacing, “what in God’s name is going on in here?”
The men shuffled their feet none able to meet his furious gaze, until Bates came forwards.
“We was just goin’ to meter out some justice Sheriff, give this murderin’ thug what he darned well deserves.”
“And that wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that we fired you for being a lazy good for nothing would it Bates?” asked Slim furiously.
Bates and Brown had been taken on at the same time, one stealing from them and the other constantly doing slipshod work and skiving off on the least pretext. That was when the men decided not to hire in help again.
“I’m just seeing justice done,” Bates replied, looking surly, but suddenly unable to meet anyone’s eye.
“So the rest of you would be lynching mob,” the Sheriff said sarcastically,” do you want to carry on and find a nice quiet billet in my jail for your trouble or have you had a change of heart, huh?”
There was now a deathly silence as the men studied their feet intently.
Slim had removed the cuffs from Jess’s wrists and was now kneeling down beside him, but he sure wasn’t going to let the mob get away with it.
“So does someone want to tell me why they thought my partner should be strung up from the nearest tree when he isn’t guilty of a dang thing?” He spat.
“He’s guilty of murder,” Bates yelled, seemingly getting his second wind. “ Ma Braithwaite died just an hour ago. Well we knew how thick Harper and the Sheriff are, figured he’d somehow get him off the hook, so we thought we’d get in first!”
“What utter rubbish!”
All the men turned to see the dapper little figure of the Cheyenne doctor, Doc Tom Lloyd standing in the doorway.
He pushed his way through and then addressed the amassed company.
“I can categorically refute that statement and inform you that Mrs Braithwaite is very much alive and well, sitting up and taking notice once more. In fact she was able to confirm that Mr Harper was not her assailant,” he said triumphantly.
“But…but we saw widow Baines in tears, just outside the docs place and assumed the worst,” said one anxious looking older man.
“She was merely upset by the whole business,” the doctor said, “they were tears of relief man!“
“We just assumed…” said the man again, now looking positively shamefaced.
“Well you dang well assumed wrongly,” spat Slim, a protective arm around Jess as he gave a low groan and clutched his belly.
Then the Sheriff took charge and tossing a rifle over to his rather embarrassed looking Deputy told him to escort the men from the premises. “Unless you want a taste of jail life,” he reiterated, throwing the crowd a hard look.
As Bates made his way to the door Doug barred his way, “Not you,” he growled, “you’re facing a charge of in inciting a riot and assault, git in the cells,” and he pushed the man roughly ahead of him, to the cell so recently vacated by Jess. Along with Jess’s semi-conscious assailant.
In the meantime Slim helped his buddy over to an old couch in the corner and Doc Lloyd wasted no time in examining him as Jess stretched out, cussing softly.
The doc tutted as he unbuttoned Jess’s shirt and viewed the damage.
Slim grimaced at the blood and dark bruising already beginning to appear.
The doctor cleaned the area with a swab soaked in alcohol, which Jess bore bravely.
He then gave him a full examination checking his heart and lungs, temperature and reflexes.
Once he’d completed the task the doc gave his characteristic harrumph, shaking his head and looking grave.
“What is it doc, he’ll be OK?” Slim asked looking anxious.
“Um….er yes, in time Slim all in good time, hopefully.”
Then he turned to Jess,” I think we need to talk young man.”
Slim excused himself and went to check on Doug and the prisoner.
“What!” Jess bellowed some minutes later, “Yer kiddin’ doc!”
It was to be much later when Slim was to finally learn what had riled his buddy so much however.
About half an hour after Jess’s initial outburst the doc called for Slim to come back in.
“I’ll be off now Slim and may I suggest you book a room at the hotel, Jess needs complete rest for a couple of days before he rides back to Laramie, I’ll come and see him at the end of the week.”
Then turning to Jess said gruffly, “And you behave young man, I’ll give you a full list of requirements on Friday as promised, good day,” and raising his hat left quickly.
Slim caught up with him on the sidewalk a few minutes later, “Hold up doc can I have a word?”
The shrewd elderly doctor turned around with a welcoming smile, “Surely Slim,” and he pointed to a bench on the sidewalk, “shall we sit a spell?”
When they were seated Slim turned anxious eyes on the medic.
“It’s just that I’m real worried about my pard doc. He’s not been himself these last few weeks, and now this….well you seemed kind of concerned about that beating he just took, he will be OK?”
“Yes I hope so dear boy.”
The doctor sighed,” As you know I am bound by medical ethics, but I think you are aware of the circumstances, so yes maybe some plain speaking is called for,” and he smiled encouragingly again.
“Yes I know Jess has been under considerable strain lately after Mrs Braithwaite resurrected all those terrible memories he has of the war, especially his time in the prison camp. To be honest with you, considering everything he has borne up incredibly well.”
His old eyes misted and he looked off into space before continuing. “I’ve seen many men in similar circumstances be completely broken, take to drink or even kill themselves when so many terrible memories come back to haunt them. But Jess there is made of sterner stuff I believe. This is just a sort of hic up…which he will get over. But physically…..” and he shook his head,” he’s not too well right now.”
“Go on,” said Slim, attentively, taking in every word.
“I get the impression he’s hardly been eating lately, he’s certainly got no spare flesh on him and that kicking he’s just taken could well have done some internal damage, to the stomach especially.”
Slim looked even more worried, “Go on doc,” he urged again.
“He has been warned to look out for any internal bleeding, vomiting blood etc and also to have a bland diet with no spirits or strong coffee for a month or two. I’ll write it all down for you.”
“Thanks,” said Slim looking somewhat wary.
The doctor grinned at him then, “Sorry, but someone’s got to keep him in order and I’m afraid that will be up to you.”
“Uh, yeah I suppose so,” said Slim less than enthusiastically, and then rallying,” I guess it will be worth it if he gets back to normal though.”
The doctor rose to go, “I’ll see you on Friday with the dietary instructions and some medicine.”
“Thanks doc, so was that what he was so all fired mad about, before?”
The doctor grinned then, “Nope that was something completely different, I guess you’ll have to ask him about that yourself, good day,” and he marched off humming to himself, while Slim gazed after him looking puzzled.
Chapter 12
Slim made his way back into the Sheriff’s office and looked over at his buddy who had now sat up on the couch, one arm protectively around his waist was looking mutinous.
“It’s OK pard, Doug’s got that no good son of a bitch Bates locked up for the foreseeable, the other guy too. So let’s get you over to the hotel, rest up some huh,” suggested Slim.
“OK,” he muttered standing up somewhat shakily.
Before they could leave they were joined by Doug and a rather shame faced deputy.
“Gee Jess, I’m so dang sorry,” Jake West said sincerely, “they just jumped me, I really wasn’t expecting any trouble.”
“Uh, so what am I always telling ya, expect the unexpected,” drawled Doug. He was actually feeling kind of bad himself for leaving the youngster in sole charge while he and Slim were drinking in the saloon, albeit in the furtherance of their inquiries.
Then his face lit up, “Hey Slim have you told Jess the good news?”
Slim shook his head, “Not yet……”
“Well I’ll be! It was the kid from the livery you think?” Jess said a little while later looking surprised.
“Absolutely,” agreed the Sheriff, he stole your jacket Jess, that was the clincher, but finding him, well that’s another matter altogether.”
Jess looked thoughtful, “He’s way too fond of the drink you say?”
Slim nodded, “Got any ideas?”
“I reckon if he’s that desperate he’ll be heading for the nearest saloon, and he got some money from Ma Braithwaite’ s place did he?”
The Sheriff nodded, “Some cash and jewellery before he made off.”
“I guess the trading post up at Chugwater is about the nearest place he’d be able to buy grog, or if he headed east over to Pine Bluffs, there’ a store there what with all the cattlemen that pass through,” he said thoughtfully.
“So which is it?” Slim asked.
Jess shrugged, “Either, or even down towards Fort Collins, but eventually he’s gonna have to get work, probably in a livery again, so I figure Laramie would be his best bet. Unless he decides to carry on with the life of crime,” he said with a bitter smile.
“Well he’ll get his comeuppance in that case,” said Doug dryly. “Any road I’ll wire the law officers at the Fort and Laramie, maybe one of them will have had a sighting, with any luck.”
Then turning to Jake said, “Mind the shop deputy, I’m going across to the doc to interview Ma Braithwaite, and er…. Jake try and stay awake this time huh?”
It was later that evening when the men were booked into the hotel and were settling down for the night when Slim suddenly remembered Jess’s angry outburst when the doc had been examining him.
Both men were stretched out on their beds, Slim reading by a bedside lamp and Jess lying curled up on his side, one hand protectively across his stomach and looking mighty pale so Slim thought.
“So what were you getting so all fired mad about with the doc earlier?” he asked innocently.
“You heard me Jess, why were you giving old doc Lloyd a hard time?”
Jess sighed deeply, “He wants me to go see Ma B and say I’ll forgive her everything.”
“Oh is that all, well would that be so hard Jess, huh? “
Jess’s head rolled on the pillow the better to see his buddy, “Hell Slim, you know what she put me through. Yeah, sure I’m real sorry she was hurt that way. But that don’t change what she did to me and I ain’t about to tell her I forgive her iffen I don’t mean it… You know me better than that.”
“Yeah, I guess, but come on Jess you’re the one that always says holding onto a grievance makes it fester and it’s better to just let it go huh?”
Jess lay very still for a few minutes, looking up at the ceiling with sightless eyes,” I guess you’re right Slim, maybe I’ll go see her…some time.”
However his decision was to be somewhat railroaded when there was a tap on the door early the following morning.
Slim was shaving and Jess still lying in bed after another night disturbed by nightmares, not to mention the deep ache in his belly and was in no mood for callers.
“Now who in hell’s that at this hour?” He muttered.
Slim merely raised a censorious eyebrow, before wiping his face and mooching over to open the door.
Charles Braithwaite stood there looking exceedingly nervous, but he accepted Slim’s offer to come on in with alacrity.
“I’m sorry to call so early,” he said, turning to encompass Jess in his shy smile, “but I wanted to catch you. I thought you might be heading back to Laramie now…er all that tedious business is settled.
“If by tedious business you mean me being slung in jail for the alleged shootin’ of ya Ma, then yup I guess it’s over,” Jess said dryly.
“You’ll have to excuse my pard,” Slim said with the ghost of a smile,” he tangled with a lynching mob yesterday and got kinda a bad beating I guess he’s not feeling any too sociable right now.”
“My dear fellow, I’m so sorry,” Charles said moving over to the bed. “I’d no idea. I did stand by you when you were first arrested you know. I told Sherriff Masters that no way would you shoot a woman….I’d have visited you in the cells, but I’ve been sitting with Mama, day and night.”
Jess sat up at that, his expression suddenly compassionate, “I am real sorry she was hurt,” he said sincerely, “how is she?”
Charles shook his head, “Not in a good place Jess, not good at all.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” said Slim, looking equally concerned.
“Um, Doc Lloyd is really worried about her.”
“But she’s over the shooting?” Jess persisted,” I thought the injury weren’t too bad?”
“Er, no not to her arm, but there are other repercussions I’m afraid, and not just physical. Mentally she is very fragile at the moment and I guess that is making matters worse.” He sighed deeply and turned his intense gaze on Jess.
“The bottom line is she really craves your understanding Jess and if possible your forgiveness, because without it I just don’t see her recovering properly.”
Jess bowed his head, before looking Charles in the eye, “I er, I dunno what to say,” he replied quietly.
“Look I understand,” Charles said quickly, “I can see you’re still in a lot of pain and the memory of everything she put you through still really raw….but could you do one thing for me, read this?”
He produced a small thick, rather dog-eared book from his pocket, “It’s Mama’s diary. She wants you to read it Jess, figures it will explain the way she was thinking, help you to understand some, even if you can’t forgive huh?”
Jess took it from him and nodded, “OK.”
“Thank you I really appreciate it,” he said, before turning to leave.
Slim turned back from where he’d shown Charles out, “So are you going to read it?”
Jess shrugged, “Can’t do no harm and I guess I ain’t got anything else to do right now.”

  1. Private Journal of Mrs Evelyn Braithwaite

Wednesday 1st May 1872 I cannot believe that I have been here at the Sherman ranch for over a week. Everything worked out perfectly since I found that notice in the Cheyenne paper about Jess Harper deputizing for the Laramie Sheriff and foiling a bank raid. I have found him at last after all these years of searching. Now I finally have my chance to pay him back for what he did to my dear boy. It was almost as though it was meant. With old man Braithwaite leaving everything to Charles, necessitating our move from Denver and then finding that press cutting in the house telling me of the whereabouts of Harper. When that old fool of a Stage driver asked me if I was the new Housekeeper well that was the perfect excuse for me to visit the ranch and offer my services. Just the thought of that man Harper leading a normal happy life made me practically shake with anger and when I met him for the first time I knew I had to carry out my vendetta.
I was even more incensed when I saw how handsome he is and so easy going, wanting me to call him Jess on just a few days acquaintance, with his oh so charming smile and twinkling blue eyes. It breaks my heart when I think of my poor dear ruined boy.
Sunday 5th May I am so furious I don’t know what to do with myself. Those boys have stayed the night at the saloon with that Gina and Betty, the little hussies. It is disgusting, I turned a blind eye before, but now they are flaunting their illicit affairs by arriving home mid-afternoon today, Sunday. Poor dear Charles has to put up with the likes of that little mouse Grace whilst Jess Harper has the pick of all the pretty girls in town, it is so unfair.
May 28th I have a good friend in Edith and even better her niece Annie works at the saloon. She will be invaluable for filling me in on that man Harper’s love life. It seems that Gina has gone and now he has taken up with some allegedly sophisticated and glamorous lady croupier and is the envy of all the men in town. This is just too much ,I must stop it. Why oh why should he have such a joyful life, when my poor boy has spent so much time alone and with his terrible disfigurement, it is so, so unfair. I could kill Harper for what he did to my dear boy.

At this Jess finally threw the book down on the bed in disgust.
“Well I sure as hell don’t see as how readin’ this is gonna make me feel any better about the ol’ witch…. Just read this Slim it’s all there. Everything she did to make my darned life not worth livin’ and I ain’t even got to where she tried to blind me yet, Goddamn it!”
Slim picked up the book and continued reading, all about the Midsummer Dance and how popular Jess was with all the ladies.
“Hey I didn’t know you bedded that woman from the bank,” he said looking up in surprise,” you never told me.”
Jess who had been lounging back on the bed sat bolt upright “Huh?”
“It’s here in black and white Jess. All about how we were in the bar with Jackie Soames, then I went off to bed and you were….um, what does she say, oh yeah, ‘ Canoodling brazenly for all the word to see before retiring upstairs together,” Slim quoted mischievously.
“Hell Slim I never!”Jess burst out looking badly done by. “Sure I wouldn’t have said no, but we both figured it wouldn’t be a good idea. I saw her to her room that’s all. And anyway we shared a room that night, so you know it was a lie, I turned in ten minutes after you did, if you remember?”
“Oh yeah,” said Slim looking disappointed, “shame she was real cute.”
“Yeah”, Jess agreed, both men looking off into space a dreamy look in their eyes.
Jess was the first to recover, “So she’s lyin’ as well as everything else,” he muttered angrily.
“Well mistaken anyway,” Slim said more calmly.
“Whatever,” Jess muttered and stretched out on his bed, deciding to take a nap
However Slim continued reading the closely written text, his features set in deep concentration.
He read how she had planned the first attack on Jess meticulously, even to leaving the prepared mixture of bleach and cleaning fluid concealed behind the barn. Where she could grab it quickly, commit the atrocity and then be back at the Benson spread before Edith had even missed her.
It was after this first attack that some slight remorse came into play Slim noted.

July 14th I carried out the planned attack yesterday and I really thought I would be feeling jubilant. I have finally metered out the punishment Harper so richly deserves. The Good Book says an eye for an eye! Well thanks to that man my dear boy lost an eye ,his handsome face devastated and his life ruined. It is only fair that Harper has a similar fate. So why do I feel so empty? Maybe it’s because he is some mother’s son…..But no I can’t think that way. I must be true to myself and my boy. I have cared for Charles on my own since he was a small boy, nurtured and strengthened him, tried to make a man of him after his dear Pa passed away. Then all my hard work was blown away in the blink of an eye and I have a permanently crippled son forever. No matter how often he tells me he is whole again and happy with Grace, I cannot believe him. My life ended when he was maimed and so did his.
Slim shook his head, this was one hell of a disturbed woman he decided. Heck she’d made revenge her whole way of life and the saddest thing was that it was all built on a lie. It was Jess who saved her boy, how ironic he thought to himself.
July 28th Today was my last chance to get even, I have decided I can stay here no longer and I must finish what I started. Mr Harper infuriated me, constantly in and out of my kitchen until I nearly lost my temper. He finally left and that was my chance to doctor the eye drops and make my getaway on the noon Stage. I believed he had applied the mid-day dose already so it would be bedtime before he administered them again. Why oh why didn’t I wait until I was sure the coast was clear? I have never felt so afraid or so angry when he caught me. Luckily my anger won and was equaled only by his…..and then my dear Charles arrived.
August 11th All that business with Jess Harper seems a lifetime ago, but at other times it seems just like yesterday. My one overwhelming feeling is that of self-loathing followed by terrible guilt at the way I have treated him. Nothing can ever make up to him for what I did that day. I know in my heart I am a truly evil woman, or maybe a very sick one. The way I let the urge for retribution take over my life for so many years cannot be normal.
I suppose it was that conversation I had with Mr Harper that has changed me forever. He was so very angry and yet so very eloquent as he described the horror that was his war. Never before did I realize that such atrocities existed nor did I understand the true meaning of war. It is not banner waving, victorious, handsome young men cheering in victory and sharing the bonhomie of comradeship as I had imagined. And as my dear Charles had described it to me. It is fear, pain and horror. It is terrible violence and cruelty, born with courage and determination. The way Jess described his time in the prison camp has left a devastating impression on me and I have suffered the most terrible nightmares ever since. Yes my poor boy suffered too, but maybe not to the same extent as some of the other soldiers. At least he was invalided out so spend the rest of the war at home with me. Oh dear what have I done to Jess, dragging the past up again. I have never seen a man look so totally distraught as the memories flooded back to him.
August 23rd As time goes on matters seem to be getting worse rather than better. Living out here on Charles’ ranch, with just dear Edith for company I have so much time on my hands to ponder on the past. We rarely have visitors. Occasionally Grace will come by, Charles less frequently. I fear he is deeply ashamed of the way I have acted, but not maybe so much as I am. I now truly understand poor Mister Harper’s plight which makes what I have done all the more hard to bear. I sometimes wonder if I can go on, maybe it would be better to end my life rather than live with this terrible guilt…..

Slim noted that was the last entry and from the date it was the following day that young Joe Smith had come calling and gunned her down. “Be careful what you wish for,” he said softly.
“Huh,” Jess opened his eyes stretching,” talkin’ to yerself now Hardrock?”
Slim flashed him a smile, “Feeling better?”
He shrugged, “What time is it?”
“About ten I think, you hungry, we could go down to the dining room get them to rustle up a late breakfast?”
Jess just shook his head,” I ain’t hungry, but you go on down.”
Slim’s head shot up and he peered at his buddy closely, “Not hungry that’s a first. You really must be in a bad way, that belly of yours still hurting?”
He just nodded, “Some yeah.”
“I’ll go then,” Slim said stretching.” I’ll get them to send you some coffee up, huh?”
Jess just nodded again, “Thanks.”
“And Jess, while I’m gone, read the rest of that Diary huh, I really think you need to.”
Jess raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Just read it pard,” Slim said punching him lightly on the arm before making for the door.
Jess sighed loudly, but lay back against the pillows took up the book and started to read again.
When Slim returned an hour or so later it was to find Jess still stretched out on the bed. But now he had his hands laced behind his neck and he was looking up to the ceiling lost in thought.
“Hey Jess, so you thinking of stirring today, or stopping there, I can get the doc to come over if you’re feeling real bad,” he added in concern.
Jess dragged his thoughts away from the problem he’d been debating since he finished reading the diary and glanced over at Slim’s kind open face.
“Nope I’m gettin’ up. Slim what do ya suppose she meant when she said she understood my plight and it had made her feel real guilty?
Slim smiled inwardly; maybe this was a chance for Jess to talk things through. Hell he just knew his buddy would feel better if he could draw a line under all this awful business.
Turning to his pard he said thoughtfully,” I dunno Jess, why dontcha just go ask her, huh?”
Jess looked at him for a good minute and then his face took on that well known determined look. He swung his legs out of bed and grinned up at his buddy, “You know I think I might just do that thing.”
Chapter 13
He was shown into Doc Lloyd’s hospital room by his housekeeper.
“Visitor for you Mrs Braithwaite,” she said cheerfully, ushering Jess in.
Ma Braithwaite looked up seemingly puzzled as she stared in the general direction of the door.
“It’s Mister Harper dear, you know him don’t you?” the lady said kindly.
At that news Ma B flushed up, looking uncomfortable, “Why yes of course, come in please Mister Harper, it’s good of you to come,” she stuttered her words belying her general demeanour of nervousness. “Er, take a seat,” she said vaguely gesturing to the room in general.
The housekeeper had withdrawn and Jess looked around him before spying a chair in the corner. He carried it over to the bedside and then looked carefully at his former housekeeper.
She was sitting up in bed, her arm swathed in a snowy white sling and a voluminous shawl around her shoulders guarding her modesty. She looked smaller than he remembered, her eyes sunken and dull, her complexion sallow and she appeared to have lost weight too.
“Err, how are you?” he asked solicitously.
She looked over in his general direction and gave him the briefest of smiles, “Quite well thank you,” she said primly. Then more honestly, “Well much better anyway, the wound is healing well the doctor says.”
“Good, that’s good,” Jess said awkwardly.
Something wasn’t right. Sure this was a difficult situation, for them both. But why in hell wouldn’t she look him in the eye? Guilt maybe he thought suddenly remembering what she had written in her diary.
He sighed deeply deciding to get straight to the point, “I read your diary like you wanted,” he said bluntly.
She jumped almost like he had struck her and looked down quickly, “I see,” she whispered.
“Well you wanted me to didn’t you?” he said with asperity.
She just nodded, refusing to look at him.
That suddenly infuriated him. Hell he’d come here to talk it all through and she wouldn’t even do him the courtesy of looking him in the eye.
“Garldarn it look at me can’t ya woman,” he growled.
Her head shot up and she looked blankly in his general direction,” I’m sorry,” she said quietly,” I didn’t mean to anger you it’s just…” and then she faltered unable to go on.
Jess stared at her in consternation as a fat tear ran down her papery cheek.
“Goddamn it you can’t see can you?” he said softly.
He put out a tentative hand and clasped her good one, “Heck I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “Do you want me to fetch the doc?”
“No, no I’m alright really. And yes you’re right Jess I can’t see, I believe this is what they call poetic justice,” she said with an ironic smile.
“Er right,” he replied sounding somewhat perplexed.
“It’s a literary term my dear, meaning in which virtue is rewarded and viciousness punished and I think I fall into the latter camp don’t you. After everything I did to you it is somewhat ironic that I end up the one blinded don’t you think?”
Jess squeezed her hand, “I wouldn’t wish that on you, sure you tried to do that to me, but I figure maybe you weren’t in your right mind,” he said charitably.
“Maybe I wasn’t,” she said,” but that doesn’t excuse what I did to you.”
“It’s OK,” he said quickly, “I’m fine now, my eyes are back to normal honestly.”
“Well that is a relief,” she said with feeling, “but I fear that wasn’t the only way I damaged you and I feel that maybe the other way was far worse.”
Just then the door burst open and Doctor Lloyd strode in.
“Ah, Jess, just the person I wanted to see,” he said jovially, maybe we could have a word.
Then looking over to Mrs. Braithwaite, “And time for your nap I think Evelyn, is it not? “
A little later in the doc’s office Jess turned his steely gaze on the medic, “So what was all that about huh?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said the doctor, casting Jess an innocent look.
“Sure you do, you didn’t want me talkin’ to her did you?”
The doctor met Jess’ deep blue angry eyes and capitulated, “Alright, I agree, I didn’t. You see she is in a very fragile state and….well any confrontation could set her back.”
“You realise she’s blind?”
He nodded.
“Well it is what we call hysterical blindness.”
“What?” Jess asked looking puzzled.
“It’s caused by some sort of trauma. Whether or not it was the attack and robbery…Or the distress of hearing your description of the war, it is impossible to tell, but she is certainly suffering from a kind of blindness brought on my mental trauma. As I say, we call it hysterical blindness and it can be transient….or occasionally permanent.”
“Hang on Doc, so you’re telling me, this blindness is caused through some kinda mental shock… and that could be caused by me soundin’ off?”
“That’s about the size of it Jess and to be honest my money is on the graphic description you gave the poor woman about your wartime experiences…. she’s had terrible nightmares ever since. Told me all about your more than vivid description of the war camps and what you suffered…well that’s a lot for any woman to take on board son, especially one as …well as disturbed as Mrs Braithwaite.”
“I guess you’re right,” Jess said looking deeply uncomfortable.” But dang it doc I was only tellin’ her my side if the story. She was thinkin’ war was some kinda game, I had to put her straight, explain the way it was…especially after…. “
“Especially after what Jess?”
He sighed, ”Well after the way she was blamin’ me for everything that happened to Charles and then even after that was disproved she was still getting at me. I just saw red I guess, needed to tell her the truth of how it was.”
“And that helped you did it Jess?” The doctor asked quietly.
“Hell yes it dang well did at the time!” Jess exploded. Then more quietly, “Nope I guess not…been feelin’ real low ever since. I guess it brought everything back, talking about it that way”
“Um, well I reckon what our folks told us when we were young about two wrongs never making a right is really quite valid.”
“Uh, yours might have,” Jess snorted, and then looking up at the doc said sincerely. “But I guess you’re right. And bitterness just eats you up, ruins your life….I reckon it did poor old Ma Braithwaite’ s life anyway. What a dang waste spending all her time plotting against me, instead of just bein’ happy her boy was alive and home with her.”
“I think she realizes that now Jess and she wants terribly to make amends, but just doesn’t know how to.”
“Do ya think if I were to tell her I forgive her for everything that would help her, with this blindness and all?”
“I really don’t know Jess, but I think it’s a darned good place to start, if she can believe you’re genuine that is. It’s hard not being able to see you know. You have to judge everything by voice alone instead of being able to see folk, look into their eyes, I guess that’s how we judge folks intentions…it’s very hard when you can’t do that.”
“Is that a fact then doc?” Jess said with irony.
“Oh, my dear chap, I’m so sorry, I’d quite forgotten for a moment,” he said flushing with embarrassment.
“That’s OK doc,” said Jess grinning at him. Then he looked more serious, “I guess she’ll have to believe I really do forgive her though.”
“Oh so how are you going to convince her?” asked the doc raising an enquiring brow.
“I’m going to find that no good bum as gunned her down and bring him to justice,” he said calmly. “I guess I wouldn’t be going to all that trouble if I didn’t genuinely forgive her…huh?”

Chapter 14
“For goodness sake Jess, you say you’re riding after that kid from the livery, where’s this all come from, why can’t you just leave the law to deal with it?” asked Slim in exasperation.
The two men had said their farewell’s to the doc and Sheriff Master’s earlier that day and were now in deep conversation in the Cheyenne livery.
“Because I nearly got myself lynched for something he did,” Jess replied hotly.
“Oh come on I don’t buy that. You never mentioned anything about going after him before when the Sheriff found out who it was that attacked Ma B, so what’s changed?”
When Jess said nothing and merely continued saddling up Slim really lost his temper.
“Hell Jess I can’t run the spread all on my own you know! The Jackson boys have been there nearly a week already, what do you think that’s going to cost us huh?”
“OK,OK quit ya moanin’ I’ll not draw any wages this month iffen that makes you feel better,” Jess replied bitterly.
“Well it doesn’t. It’s not just the money Jess I need your butt in the saddle riding fence and making sure everywhere is ready to bring the herd down later next month. Not to mention cutting out all the beasts we’re selling. That’s a two man job, you know that.”
Jess suddenly felt terribly torn between the promise he’d made to Ma Braithwaite and the loyalty he owed Slim and the business.
“Garldarn it Slim, alright I’ll tell you……”
Ten minutes later Slim stood there looking puzzled.” I haven’t ever heard of this what…hysterical blindness? But I guess the doc must know what he’s talking about. But he figures you forgiving the old girl will in some way magically cure her, sounds kinda far-fetched to me Jess.”
“Yeah, well if the doc thinks it might, then that’s good enough. Hell Slim I feel so bad for the way I treated her, all said and done she’s a woman and I shouldn’t have spoken to her that way. Told her all that horrific stuff about the war, I was out of order I guess.”
“No you shouldn’t but it’s kind of late in the day to think that Jess, the damage is done and she’s having nightmares and apparently blind as a result, if the doc’s to be believed.”
“I know that don’t I,” Jess said irritably, that’s why I wanna try and bring this guy in, prove she’s forgiven and also help her sleep better too. The doc says she’s terrified of him coming back again when she goes home.”
Slim sighed deeply,” OK you’ve made your point, so where are you going and how long will you be gone huh? “
Jess grinned at his buddy. “Well that’s more like it pard…. A week at the most, I’ll go check out Chugwater first, Doug said he’d just had a wire sayin’ he’d been sighted near there. It shouldn’t take me long to track down a wet behind the ears kid like Joe and he’ll probably be half drunk too, no problem, you’ll see.”
“Uh well watch your back pard, and I’ll see you in about a week,” Slim said reaching over and shaking Jess’s hand and the two men parted in separate directions, Slim due west towards Laramie and Jess north for Chugwater.
It was early evening when Jess reached the large sandstone bluffs that heralded his arrival at Chugwater. He descended down to the Kelly Tavern and trading post set on the edge of the creek abounding with willow, box-elder and cottonwoods. He dismounted and walked Traveller over to the stream where he drank his fill. Jess stared around the wild lonely place with its fantastic water worn bluffs eroded into weird shapes of turtles and seals so at odds with the hot dusty open landscape all around him.
After a while the smell of frying onions led him to wander over to the tavern.
He entered the small dark room and peered across to a makeshift bar at one side, a bank of shelves laden with merchandise of all sorts from foodstuffs to ammunition on the other. He frowned slightly. The word was that some contraband arms and ammunition were traded with the Sioux from this lonely outpost and the notion did not sit well with him. However he was on a mission to find young Joe Smith and that had to be his priority.
A tall, dark, slender man entered from a back room and gave Jess an enquiring look.
“I’m wantin’ a meal,” Jess said,” and some information.”
The rather dour looking man nodded curtly.
“Beef steak and tatters,” he stated rather than asked. But Jess was used to the manner of these out of the way traders, with their assumption that any traveller should accept what was on offer and gratefully. As the next hot meal was doubtless a good few days ride away.
Jess nodded back equally curtly, “Fine.”
The man returned from whence he had first appeared and as the door opened Jess saw two Indian women hard at work by the cook stove. He had heard tell of Kelly, his Indian wife and band of half-breed children. A few minutes later a small raggle- taggle group of the youngsters ran through the bar laughing and jostling before being reprimanded by their father calling from the back room and they disappeared off outside again. Jess hid a smile the riotous unwashed, barefooted little gang reminding him so much of his own family as a child.
Some ten minutes later Kelly returned with a surprisingly appetizing looking plate of food, whiskey bottle and glass. He slapped the plate down on the bar in front of Jess , poured him a large drink and then sat back to watch him enjoy the meal.
It was once the plate was cleaned and another couple of glasses of whiskey sunk that Jess addressed the matter upmost on his mind.
“I’m lookin’ fer a young man, about so high,” he said gesturing, ”black wavy hair similar to mine, likes a drink or three you seen him?”
“He kin?” asked the man suspiciously.
Jess shook his head, “So have you seen him?”
“Now why would I be telling you,” asked Kelly his eyes suddenly shrewd, “would it be worth my while?”
Jess sighed deeply. It had been a long day and he was tired and in need of his bed.
“Well let’s put it this way,” he said quietly, one hand dropping to the butt of his gun,” I might get kinda irritated iffen you don’t help me out some here.”
Kelly looked the cowboy over again, more closely this time and noted the low slung tied down holster and the way the man almost fondled his gun butt, as though he was just itching to draw it…and then he looked up and saw the glint of anger in the deep blue eyes and decided to err on the side of caution.
“Was here a couple of days back, went on a bender and slept around the clock, out by the creek there. Then third day when some more folk arrived he just took off. Loaded up like he was thinkin’ on a long trip, he bought plenty of grog, but I doubt that would last him too long, not the way he downed the stuff.”
“So you know where he was heading?”
Kelly shrugged. “He did say he knew some folk out Laramie way, thought he might find work there, but he was so dang drunk I guess he wouldn’t remember it the next day, so I shouldn’t put much store by it mister, he could be anywhere.”
Jess just nodded, “Well it’s all I’ve got, thanks,” and throwing some coins on the bar for his supper went to bed down beside the creek for the night.
It was to be just the following day when Jess almost fell over his quarry.
He had risen at dawn and decided not to part with anymore of his money to the somewhat surly barkeep of the night before. So after a scratch breakfast and coffee he headed Traveller south west across country along the edge of the Chugwater creek. Then down towards Horse Creek, Laramie and home.
He figured that as it was only a small place, if indeed the kid was heading that way he would be easy enough to locate…..if not well then he’d have to reconsider. Heck it hardly seemed fair that he should leave Slim with all the ranch work while he went rampaging about the big open on what could be a wild goose chase.
What he hadn’t anticipated however was that young Joe Smith should still be making his way to Laramie, in fact was only the matter of an hour or so away from him.
The day had turned inclement with a nasty little northerly blowing, promising rain and the harbinger of fall Jess figured. He sighed wishing he was still in possession of his jacket and holding that thought spurred Traveller on to a brisk trot. All the while keeping his eyes peeled for any sign of life on the horizon, or possible tell-tale smoke from a camp fire….but nothing.
It was getting on for noon when he hit Horse Creek and decided to stop and build a fire to warm up some and have a coffee whilst Traveller took a break. There was a rocky outcrop at the edge of the creek which he figured would offer some protection from the chilly wind. He slid down from the saddle and walked Traveller over to the creek to water him before leaving him to graze nearby. He’d wandered off down the stream a ways towards a small coppice of cottonwoods on the lookout for some kindling when he saw a large bay ground hitched beneath the trees.
He stopped dead in his tracks, drawing his gun and peering around him for sight or sound of the horse’s owner, but there was none. He moved stealthily across to the big horse and patted him gently on the rump, receiving a little whinny of welcome in return.
Thinking that would bring the owner out of hiding he again scrutinized the surrounding area for signs of movement, but nothing. He was pretty sure this was young Joe’s mount and figured he couldn’t have gone far and wandered closer to the tree cover…. That’s when he all but fell over a pair legs almost hidden in the long grass.
He stumbled and righted himself, but not before he’d bumped into the boy’s legs hard.
Looking down he saw the youngster lying face down in the dirt.
“Git up!” Jess growled and when there was no response he wondered if the kid had been shot, or had taken a tumble from his horse maybe? But no the animal was ground hitched and now grazing peacefully again.
Jess hunkered down by the boy and that’s when the smell of stale alcohol assailed his nostrils. Rolling the boy over onto his back he saw an empty bottle of whiskey lying on the ground beneath him. Jess pushed his hat back and shook his head sadly, “Drunk as a skunk,” he said quietly.
Then he noticed his jacket on the boy, looking even more ragged than when he had last seen it and he saw red. He grabbed hold of the jacket by the lapels and shook the boy roughly.
“Wake up you drunken bum!” He yelled angrily.
After a moment Joe’s eyes flickered open and he looked blearily around him and then up into Jess’s furious dark eyes.
“What…who…. who are you?” he finally muttered, licking his lips and looking terrified.
“I’m the sucker who’s jacket yer wearin’ and who took the rap for what you did to Ma Braithwaite,” Jess snarled,” and now it’s payback time kid.”
He squeezed his eyes tightly closed and then opened them again trying to focus on Jess and hoping upon hope that this was just some terrible nightmare….
Jess stood up, “Get up,” he said again and when the youngster didn’t move Jess kicked him hard on the leg, “I ain’t about to tell ya again boy…get up and get my jacket off.”
The boy finally scrambled to his feet and stood swaying for a minute before doing as he was told and passing the jacket over.
“What are you going to do with me?” He finally managed.
“Take you in of course; the Sheriff back in Cheyenne is mighty keen to have a word with you about shooting Ma Braithwaite and robbing her.”
“I never… I never meant to, I didn’t know she was there …I guess I panicked,” he said in a harsh whisper.
“Yeah, well go tell it to the judge I really ain’t interested,” Jess said impatiently.
The boy swayed again and looked like he might pass out and Jess sighed deeply.
Nodding over to the tree line he said slightly more kindly, “You go off and collect some fire wood and I’ll put the coffee on, I guess we need to sober you up some.”
They were sitting by the fire sometime later, Jess now in possession of his jacket again and with the hot coffee in him feeling a tad more charitable.
He gazed over at the skinny young lad and said, “So why do ya do it then?”
“Do what?”
“You know what I mean, tip the jug?”
The kid just shrugged looking moody and then threw his horse a furtive glance, that didn’t go unnoticed by Jess.
After a moment he gave the boy a calculating look, “So you got some more stashed away then?”
The lad shook his head and blushed a guilty red.
“Like hell you ain’t,” Jess muttered striding over to the boy’s horse.
He had dug down into one of the saddle bags and quickly found another two bottles of Red Eye, but seconds later Joe was upon him and grabbing hold of Jess’s arm tried to wrestle the drink off him. Jess just shrugged him off like he was an annoying fly, before hurling both bottles at the rocks where they smashed.
At this the youngster went crazy cussing and yelling at Jess before trying to land a punch. Again Jess easily deflected him and a strong right to the jaw sent the youngster flying and he fell badly, one of the shards of glass cutting his arm.
Jess stared down at him, feeling a tiny stirring of pity.
“You done?” He asked.
The boy nodded and Jess leaned forwards and hauled him up. “Come on lets go back to the fire I’ll fix up that arm,” he said quietly.
Once Joe was sitting by the fire, his arm cleaned and bandaged and a defeated look in his eyes, Jess gazed over at him again shaking his head sadly. “You’re a mess kid,” he said softly.
The boy sank his head into his hands,” I know,” he whispered.
“Why then?” Jess said more aggressively, “What are ya ruining your life this way boy. Bein’ dependent on the drink the way you are…well it’s gonna kill you Joe, one way or another.”
At the use of his name the youngster’s head shot up and he looked Jess properly in the eyes for the first time, “What do you mean Mister?”
“Well iffen the grog itself don’t kill ya, the getting of it will. I figure you’d do pretty much anything for a drink, so it won’t be long before you go on down the owl hoot trail and that’s a recipe for disaster boy, take it from one who knows.”
“Have you been on the wrong side of the law then Mister?”
Jess nodded, “Once or twice and it’s a mugs game… but what’s even dumber is sinking so much grog that you can’t function… What are you sixteen, seventeen…and the way you’re goin’ you won’t see twenty.”
The boy suddenly looked belligerent, “Well maybe I don’t wanna see twenty, maybe I just don’t give a damn anymore!”
“Hey whoa there boy, ain’t you kinda young to give up on life?”
For a moment anger flashed in his eyes and then he just looked like a sad defeated little kid, “Maybe life gave up on me,” he said softly.
Jess threw him a quizzical look, “How so?
“ I don’t wanna talk about it.”
Jess just shrugged, “Well from where I’m sittin’ I guess you just ain’t got any guts, nuthin’ is so bad as can’t be fixed…iffen you want to fix it that is.”
That seemed to anger the boy, “What would you know,” he said belligerently. “You don’t know anything about my life.”
“Well sure I don’t unless you tell me,” Jess said patiently.
The boy peered across at Jess as though trying to make his mind up and finally said angrily,” Pa was a drunk OK!”
“Oh right,” said Jess with a grim smile, “so that makes it OK for you to be one too then does it?”
“Oh you just don’t understand,” the boy cried.
“Sure I do,” Jess said more quietly, “my Pa was way too fond of the drink and using his belt on us kids too, but I don’t reckon that means I should be a drunken bully.”
The boy’s face contorted like he might cry and Jess was moved to pity again.
“Hey come on what can be so bad. OK your Pa was a drunk, but surely that’s a darned good reason not to go down the same road huh? “
“You don’t understand,” he yelled again…then more quietly. “My Pa wasn’t a bad man, not really. I guess he took a liking to the drink when it looked like we might lose the ranch, we couldn’t pay the mortgage….the bank was gonna take it.”
Jess knew all about that, hell they’d been in a similar position at the Sherman place once, so he just nodded,” That’s bad, “he agreed.
“Anyway, Pa got drunk, real drunk one night. He used to get these terrible tempers…”
Hell Jess knew all about that too he thought, wondering vaguely if that had been inherited from his Pa…. Then he realised the kid was struggling to continue, looking near to tears again.
“Go on,” he said gently.
The boy turned teary eyes on Jess and said in a low whisper,” He came home from the saloon and Ma had a go at him, asked how he could go drinking away the little money we had left and he just went berserk… .he… .God help me, he took his gun out and shot her.”
Jess’s jaw dropped and he looked shocked to the core… .but that was nothing compared to what the kid said next.
Then he turned the gun on himself and blew his brains out…
That’s when Joe broke down crying like he would never stop.
Jess waited until the outpouring of grief and pain was over and then pouring another coffee passed it over and threw the boy a compassionate look.
“I’m real sorry about that Joe,” he said eventually,” but you really ain’t helping yourself any the way you are right now.”
When the boy said nothing Jess asked, “So what happened, you lost the ranch, so did you go on the drift?”
He shook his head, “Not at once no. A good neighbour took me in, old Silas Holmes. He was like an uncle to me, real kind and he’d lost his wife a few years before so was glad of the company I guess.”
Jess nodded, “You had no other kin then?”
“Nope, so I moved in with Uncle Silas at fifteen and by sixteen I couldn’t get through a day without some grog.”
Jess’s head shot up…”What?”
“He reckoned it was the best thing for grieving, said how he’d been drinking real heavy since his Vera passed and it helped him cope, said it would help me too.”
Jess shook his head,” And so did it?”
The boy nodded, “At first yeah, it made me feel kinda warm and fuzzy, helped me forget seeing it…. seeing my Ma falling, the blood on her chest and then my Pa…” and he faltered unable to continue. “It sorta blotted it all out see?”
Jess nodded, “Yup I can understand how it would. But the thing with grief is ya have to face it up boy. Meet it head on, can’t side step it…because it’s always gonna be there…come back to haunt ya see.”
“You sound like you know something about it Mister.”
“Oh yeah, I know alright,” Jess said grimly. Then he sighed, “So what happened to this Silas then?”
“Upped and died, got real drunk one day and fell from the hayloft… I found him, his head all stove in.”
Jess grimaced at the grisly picture, ”And then?”
“I went on the drift, finding work with horses where I could get it, just enough to pay for the drink. It weren’t that I liked it by then, it’s that I needed it, can’t get through without you see?” He said looking ashamed.
“Oh you can kid,” Jess said firmly, “you can and you will, by the time I’m finished with ya.”
Then he leaned over and shook the boys hand,” Harper, Jess Harper and I’m gonna sort you out kid, iffen it kills us both in the doin’. “
That was to be the start of Hell on Earth for young Joe. But also his deliverance from his addiction and finally the start of a new life, culminating with him being eternally grateful to Jess later in life, if not at the time.
Chapter 15
That was to be the beginning of a period that was to sorely try both Jess and Joe almost equally.
It was the following morning that the shakes started, the boy unable to hold his coffee cup without spilling it. He was also very jumpy, constantly pacing, looking anxiously around him as though he expected help to come from some unseen source.
Once Jess had drunk his fill of coffee and fried up some bacon, which Joe refused saying he felt sick to his stomach, they finally set off along the bank of the creek, heading back up towards Cheyenne. However by lunchtime Joe started throwing up. So after they’d had to stop for a third time, the boy on his knees, retching and holding his stomach in pain Jess relented.
“I guess maybe we’ll make camp here, stay a while until you’re feeling better.”
“Please Mister Harper, get me some grog, I’m gonna die without it I swear,” the boy gasped, throwing Jess an agonized look.
Jess merely shook his head, “You just be dang glad I’m botherin’ with you,” he said with a hard glance at him. Then when the boy lay down looking so wretched Jess finally took pity on him.
“You just rest up boy,” he said more kindly, “it’ll be over soon enough and then you can get back on track huh?”
Wandering off to Traveller Jess returned a little later with his spare blanket and threw it over the now shivering boy.
“You just sit tight and I’ll build us a fire, things will look better real soon.”
But they did not.
By the following day the youngster was hallucinating, seeing huge black spiders covering his body and he cried out in terror trying to brush them away.
“It ain’t real,” Jess said shaking the boy to try and get through to him.” Joe, its yer mind playin’ tricks…trust me it’ll be OK I promise.”
But the boy just huddled up on the ground the picture of abject misery, shaking and muttering to himself, whilst Jess looked on sadly.
Jeez he’d seen a few men in withdrawal, but none as sick as this and he began to wonder at the wisdom of getting him to do cold turkey. Maybe he should be seen by a doctor. But hell they were still miles from town and the kid way too sick to travel now.
By the fourth day he started to rally a little and was able to keep down water at least.
To try and take his mind off things Jess started talking to him.
“So what made ya do it…shoot the old girl?” He asked one morning as they were sitting by the fire, Jess nursing a coffee, Joe sitting up looking pale and shaky, the blanket wrapped tightly around him.
The boy shook his head, “I dunno,” he whispered, ”I never meant to hurt her….”
“So why did ya?” Jess said hotly.
“I…I didn’t think there was anyone about, back door was open so I went in. I saw this purse on the kitchen table… .then in a little dish by the sink some rings and a bracelet thing, kinda sparkly…Well I got ‘em and was just going when this woman came in and started yellin’ at me something fierce.”
“That sounds about right;” said Jess with a wry smile, “so go on, then what?”
“I drew my gun, told her to get back, said I wouldn’t hurt her none, said I just wanted out…Well she got real mad then came towards me like she was gonna hit me, I backed off and tripped over this dang cat…. and that’s when the gun went off…I wasn’t gonna shoot her really Mister Harper, ‘twas an accident.”
Jess shook his head, now trying to control a bubble of mirth, might have known there would be a dang cat involved he thought.
“Go on,” he said softly.
“Well I was gonna help her, she’d fallen real badly, hit her head…then this other old woman came in yellin’ blue murder and well…. I was scared Mister Harper, real scared and I just made a run for it.”
Well I guess I can’t blame the boy for that he thought, but said nothing.
“Afterwards when I’d got to Kelly’s Tavern over at Chugwater I bought me some grog and was out of it for a while…. But then I got to thinking, maybe I should go back, say I was real sorry…see she was OK. “
“But you didn’t.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“No sir,” the boy said looking ashamed. “The following day some men arrived and were full of it, how the old woman was real sick and was dying…how whoever did it should be strung up…. Well I panicked, bought more grog and then the next day you found me. So… did she die Mister Harper, am I wanted for murder?”
Jess looked at him long and hard for a good minute before finally relenting.
“No, no you ain’t she’s alive, but God knows why I’m puttin’ you out of your misery, I should be blamed mad at you.”
The boy had given a huge sigh of relief, but now he looked troubled again. “What’ d I do to you Mister Harper?”
Jess explained about him being wrongly accused as Ma Baines had recognised his jacket. Jumping to the conclusion that he was wearing it and then about the lynching mob and the boy gasped in alarm.
“I’m so dang sorry,” he said, “I never thought anyone else would be troubled by what I did.”
“Well I was boy, sorely troubled,” Jess said with asperity,” not to mention Ma Braithwaite, the woman you dang well shot. So do ya see now how drinkin’ this way is gonna get you in big trouble…huh do ya?”
The boy nodded miserably,” I haven’t ever done anything like this before,” he whispered, “honestly.”
“So how’d you get by, for money that is?” Jess asked.
“Worked, with the horses, I surely do love the horses,” he said his whole face lighting up now.
Jess had noticed how the kid had looked after his mount, even when he was so sick earlier in the week and he had been impressed.
“I’ve worked livery, some breaking and even rode in a quarter miler a couple of times, before we had all the money troubles,” he said quietly.
Jess glanced over to where the bay was quietly cropping the grass near to Traveller.
“Nice horse,” he said, then raising a questioning eyebrow, “and he is yours huh?”
The boy nodded emphatically,” Sure he is I ain’t no horse thief sir.” Then scrabbling in his pocket brought out a dog eared paper.
“I’ve got the proof here sir, signed and sealed proof of ownership. My neighbour that took me in, Uncle Silas that I told you about, he gave him to me fair and square….It is all here,” he said pushing the paper over.
“OK kid, don’t go getting’ yer pants in a ruck,” Jess said grinning over at him, before reading the signed note and handing it back.
Then he shook his head sadly, “Hell boy what are we gonna do with you huh?”
It was a couple of days later when they finally rode into Cheyenne and reined in by Sheriff Masters’ office.
Jess gave the boy a cursory glance and a faint smile.
“Well you’re sure lookin’ better. You’ve scrubbed up pretty good and looking a dang sight healthier than when you were full of whiskey,” he said honestly.
The boy gave him a doubtful glance, “You will speak up for me won’t you Mister Harper?”
“Said so didn’t I kid,” Jess said,” but you’ve gotta convince folk you’re a reformed character too, that you’re off the drink for good huh?”
“I promise,” he whispered.
“That’s good enough for me. I can’t say as you’ll get off Scott free and I don’t reckon as you should, but maybe they’ll be lenient with ya, come on boy,” and he marched the youngster into the office.
Doug Masters glanced up from a report he was writing and then grinned when he saw his old friend.
“Hey, so where have you dang well been?” He asked offering his hand. “I’ve had your partner wire me a day or so ago wanting to know where the heck you were. Says he’s got stock to bring down, he wasn’t any too pleased.”
Jess shook hands and looked rueful, “Yeah well I guessed I wouldn’t be any too popular by now. Anyway here’s yer culprit Doug. Young Joe Smith….and yeah it is Smith,” he said with a chuckle.
Doug turned his attention to where Joe was standing hat in hand and head bowed, looking for all the world like a lost kid.
“Kinda ruthless looking ain’t he, so you managed alright did you Jess?” Doug asked with a chuckle.
Jess smiled back, “Oh he’s tougher than he looks Doug, just been through cold turkey and it sure weren’t easy for him.”
Doug turned back to the boy with new respect in his eyes, ”Well I guess that’s a step in the right direction boy. Come on let’s find ya a nice comfy cell huh?” And he strode off, Joe in tow looking mighty scared.
When Doug returned he threw the cell keys down on his desk and turned to Jess, “So, tell me what’s the story with the kid then? “
When Jess told him everything, all the trials and tribulations the boy had experienced down to the way he had become hooked on alcohol, Doug listened intently, before giving a low whistle.
“The poor kid, I guess he’s not quite as bad as he’s been painted then, let’s just hope I can try and persuade Ma Braithwaite to cut him some slack.”
“So how is she?” Jess asked at once.
“She’s right as rain according to Doc Lloyd. It seems that her sight returned just days after you lit off after the boy. I dunno if that had anything to do with it or not. She did tell me she was mightily relieved that he would be caught, that you’d gone after him that is…maybe that did the trick, the doc really couldn’t say.”
“Well that’s good, maybe I’ll call on her on my way home, put a good word in for young Joe.”
Doug smiled,” I reckon you quite like the kid huh?”
Jess nodded, “He’s had a raw deal Doug and maybe I see a bit of me in him too,” he said quietly.
Doug grinned, “Don’t tell me Jess Harper is going soft on me.”
Jess shook his head, “Hell no, I really think he should be detained for a while, maybe here with you. Sure he’s off the grog, but for how long? Maybe a few weeks in the cells will make him really think things through.”
“Well I agree, but then what?”
Jess threw him an enigmatic look, “I aim to try and get him work at the Braithwaite Ranch.”
Doug who had been leaning back in his chair fell forwards, the chair landing with a clatter. “You’re going to do what!”
“You heard, I figure it would be ideal. Well away from town and the temptation of the saloon, working with the horses which he loves and Ma Braithwaite around to be a constant reminder of his drunken past and keep an eye on him, perfect,” he said with a broad grin.
“Well good luck on that one buddy!”
It was Edith Baines that answered the door to Jess and looked embarrassed when she saw who it was.
“Oh, Mister Harper,” she said, flushing up,” what can I do for you?”
“Well an apology would be kinda nice,” he said getting straight to the point at once. “Seeing as it was down to you that I was arrested and then got beaten up by a lynch mob.”
She gave a little gasp, a hand flying to her mouth, “Oh dear I really am sorry Mister Harper, I could have sworn it was you, the jacket you see and everything happened so quickly.”
He sighed deeply, “Sure I guess I can understand that. So is Ma… B… err I mean Mrs Braithwaite around?”
“Yes, yes of course,” she said come through and she bustled off towards the large parlour.
Evelyn Braithwaite stood up from her fireside seat as he entered.
“Why Mister Harper, how good to see you,” she said quickly, “please come in, take a seat.”
Then turning to Ma Baines, “Edith dear, some coffee I think?”
Once the mouse like little woman had scuttled off Evelyn turned to Jess.
“Well did you apprehend him?”
He nodded and then said quietly, “So why didn’t you tell the Sheriff the truth about what happened?”
She looked quickly away,” I don’t know what you mean.”
“Sure you do…when the kid broke in he was scared, real scared and when you started yellin’ he just wanted to get away…but you went after him didn’t you?“
“Yes, yes I did I could see he was practically a child and I was protecting my property, what’s so wrong about that, you’d have done the same.”
“Sure I would, but I wouldn’t have lied to the law about what really happened.”
She looked down then, “He told you?”
Jess nodded, “He said you came at him with a broom, he backed off, was going and then fell backwards over one of your cats, that’s when his gun went off accidentally and a bullet caught you, am I right so far?”
She flushed up and nodded, ”Yes that is an accurate picture, but goodness why are you protecting him? He still tried to rob me and should be punished. By all accounts the boy is just a drunkard and deserves no mercy in my book.”
Jess sighed deeply, “You still ain’t learned have you?”
“What…what do you mean?”
“That things aren’t always as they seem, not always black and white.”
“What do you mean, are you talking about my belief that you maimed my son? Yes I admit I was wrong about that…. about you too. But I can’t see what that has to do with this out of control youth?”
Jess settled back in his seat and said quietly, “Well I guess I’d better explain then.”
It was a good hour later when he sat back studying Ma B and the effect his revelations about young Joe’s life to date had had on her.
At the disclosures as to how his parents had met their end she had gasped in horror. She tutted sadly, shaking her head when he had explained how the boy had been introduced to alcohol and encouraged to use it as a panacea to help him with the grieving process.
“The kid just got hooked on it in the end and couldn’t see a way out,” he concluded. “After his neighbour passed away he just went on the drift, working to support his drink habit. Until he lost his job that is and became desperate.”
“What will happen to him?” She asked now.
Jess gazed thoughtfully at her, “Well I guess that depends on you, whether you can forgive him…maybe even help him out some?” He said quietly.
Her head shot up and she looked shocked and then she gave him a beautiful smile.
“Forgiveness,” she said, rolling the word around her tongue and looking suddenly very emotional. “Now there’s something I think we have both had a wealth of experience with of late don’t you think?”
He just nodded waiting for her to continue.
“I …I know how very hard it was for you to forgive me after everything I put you through,” she said hesitantly. “And Doctor Lloyd explained to me how you had gone to find this boy, to show me you truly had forgiven me. I didn’t deserve that Mr Harper…Jess. I really didn’t after everything I did to you. You have a very generous spirit.”
“I just figure holdin’ onto grudges don’t help anyone.” he said quietly. “I thought it all through and figured you probably weren’t in your right mind to have done what you did to me.”
Evelyn nodded looking tearful, but said nothing.
“But then I can understand how a Ma would be like that, having seen her boy bein’ hurt, the way young Charles was too. And yeah, I’ll be honest it was hard for me to finally forgive ya, real hard. But I’m kinda glad I did, because maybe it’ll help you to make up your mind about young Joe huh? “He said with a cheeky grin.”Maybe find it in your heart to forgive him?”
“Why Jess Harper I do believe you’re blackmailing me,” she said returning the smile.
“No Ma’am just appealin’ to your better nature, that’s all,” he said.
She laughed out loud at that, “Alright, go ahead….so what do you want me to do? “
Slim shook his head in disbelief.
“You really mean to say that not only have you persuaded Charles Braithwaite to offer young Joe a job when he’s done his time, but Ma Braithwaite to take him in as a lodger?”
“That’s about the size of it,” Jess said grinning across the supper table at his pard.
Slim shook his head again, “Well, I’ll be. I’ll tell you Jess, iffen you put half as much energy into the business as you do wandering off helping lame dogs I figure we’d be millionaires.”
“Well maybe I just will,” Jess returned belligerently,” and then I’ll hire us a new housekeeper so I don’t hafta put up with your dang cooking no more.”
“So what’s wrong with my cooking, I’ll have you know that was my Ma’s recipe for beef stew and nobody in our family ever complained.”
“Well sure they didn’t because it weren’t you that was cooking it, was it Hardrock? Come on now admit it, you ain’t no chef.”
“And so you are I suppose?”
“We’ll, no I didn’t say that did I…….Oh hell Slim, we’ve just gotta get us a halfway decent housekeeper… .before we dang well starve to death!”
“Jess, Jess dear, wake up…you’ve been talking in your sleep were you dreaming?”
Jess roused himself from his rocker in front of the fire and stretching sniffed the air.
“Hey is that beef stew for supper Daisy?”
“It is indeed dear, I said I’d warm it up for you, now come and get it while it’s hot and then you can tell me all about that dream you were having,” she said with a chuckle.
Jess rose and wandered off to the table.
“Daisy have I told you lately how much I appreciate you …. huh, have I?”
She beamed at him, “Yes you have dear, why whatever’ s brought this on? “
“Well I’ll tell ya,” he said as he sat down and sniffed appreciatively at the plate she set before him…. “See I was remembering back to another housekeeper we had way back, a Ma Braithwaite… .and well I guess it’s kinda a long story.”
Daisy sat down opposite and poured them both a coffee before sitting back and taking an appreciative sip.
“Come along then,” she said with an encouraging smile,” tell me all about her, was she highly efficient and a good cook, do tell…and why did she leave?”
Jess grinned across, “Well see Daisy it was this way………”
It had been several weeks before Slim and Jess had received a wire from Doug Masters saying that young Joe had served his time, was a seemingly reformed character and had taken up residence at the home of Misses Braithwaite and Baines. He had also started duties as a stable boy at the main Braithwaite ranch under Charles Braithwaite’ s watchful eye.
It was several months later that Jess received a letter from young Joe thanking him sincerely for his help in turning his life around and recovering from the terrible alcoholism that had threatened to steal his life. That was to be the first of many letters telling of his progress and Jess was always mighty pleased to see how the boy had prospered.
Over the years he worked his way up to head stable boy and then jockey riding many winners for Charles Braithwaite on his highly acclaimed Quarter Horses. Then in later life, he became active in the Temperance Movement and helped to support many others with a drink problem.
All his life he was to remember a certain dark haired blue eyed cowboy who had seen the potential in him and given him that help and support he so desperately needed. That was why he had made it his mission to do likewise. Supporting and encouraging hundreds of people just as he had been helped and supported in his life.
Sitting quietly in the evening with his dear wife at his side he would sometimes marvel and reflect on the way things had changed for him. How one act of kindness and understanding had turned around his life and touched so many others…..
The End
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