#67 The Haunting

The Haunting

Patty Wilkinson

Many thanks to Quickdraw Jess (Bel) for the screen shot
(Some strong language, adult themes, violence and disturbing scenes)

Chapter 1
Jess Harper sat back in the saddle surveying the empty grassland around him, before tipping his Stetson back and running a hand down his weary face.
He’d been riding fence over in the far flung south pasture for most of the day and had become increasingly aware of the lack of stock, animals that should be grazing peacefully in their winter quarters were just not around.
“Garldarn it, where the heck are those critters,” he muttered to himself.
It was only ten minutes later when he had his answer, a gaping hole in the boundary fence.
He spurred Traveller on and a few minutes later dismounted and investigated the damage. It appeared that several of the posts seemed to have rotted with age. Jess remembered his partner in the Ranch and Relay, Slim Sherman, telling him it had originally been erected by their neighbours. However, he’d seemed unforthcoming as to who they were and when the land had originally been fenced off.
Now looking at the damage Jess figured the fence was real old and he knew for a fact that whoever had once lived there was long gone. Heck just that morning he’d asked Slim again about the possibility of buying the parcel of land, but Slim had seemed reluctant to discuss the matter.
“Look Jess just quit jawing will you and get over there, we need to be sure those prime beasts are safe and got shelter before the snows down…and it won’t be too long either by my reckoning.”
“Oh stop fussin’ Slim”, he’d returned as he’s mounted up. “It’s still early fall and those critters will be just fine.”
Now as he stood surveying the overgrown land on the far side of the fence his heart sank. Heck it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack searching this overgrown and hilly landscape before him. Then if the other fences hadn’t been properly maintained, well the animals could be anywhere. Maybe even heading back up the mountain, as he stood there, he thought ruefully.
Spurred on by that thought he quickly remounted and trotted off towards the overgrown pastureland, now a mixture of cottonwoods, pine and low-lying bushes and shrubs. The further he penetrated the dense foliage the more his stomach churned with unease. Even though there was an abundance of undergrowth and woodland there was no birdsong or sign of any wild creatures at all. Not one deer or even a lowly jack rabbit crossed his path.

Off in the distance he suddenly saw a plume of smoke curling lazily up into the clear, late afternoon sky. Wondering who could be about in such a deserted place he spurred Traveller towards it, hoping that the camper might be brewing up coffee and would be willing to share, the afternoon having turned chilly since he’d entered the bordering land.
It was some ten minutes later when he came to a large clearing and saw what looked to be the remains of the original homestead…the furl of smoke still high in the sky above it.
He sat in the saddle staring in shock at the building that had obviously been badly damaged by fire. The stone walls had just about remained intact and the roof was pretty much OK save for a large hole near the front door. But the place was blackened, charred timbers telling of a terrible conflagration. Probably many years ago Jess figured, from the undergrowth that now almost smothered it.
He suddenly had a flashback to that horrific day back on the Texas panhandle when his home had been fired by the Bannister gang, killing the majority of his family.
He took a deep breath and realized he was shaking as the horrific memories engulfed him.
After a moment he looked skywards and remembered his quest for coffee and leaving Traveller ground hitched he strode forwards towards the apparent source of the camp fire.
But he just couldn’t find it.
From where he stood the smoke appeared to be directly above the ruins of the ranch house, so steeling himself he marched over and entered its eerie portals.
He stood stock still in the large room, expecting to see a hobo, or traveler by the hearth…but nothing, the fireplace was empty and the room bitterly cold.
He peered around him at the charred ruined walls, a kitchen area in one corner and the remains of a badly burnt table and chairs.
He wandered over to the kitchen and looked around him. The only thing still intact seemed to be a marble topped, large kitchen cupboard. He pulled open the sturdy cupboard door revealing a metal chest within. With some difficulty he pulled it out and lifted the creaky lid, the noise as shocking and loud as a gun shot in the deathly silence of the old house.
He peered inside and recoiled as he saw a rag doll peering back up at him from its cold button eyes. His heart suddenly pounding and he felt the sweat running down his back.
“Git a grip Harper,” he said angrily to himself, before reaching down and picking up the doll.
Yup, he was right it was similar to his little sister’s doll. He remembered his Ma sewing it, late into the night before his sister’s Birthday, his Pa away at the saloon. He had known instinctively that his Pa would have had something to say about it, telling his Ma not to spoil the child with silly toys. A Birthday was just another day and she should not expect anything good from life as she’d be sorely disappointed once she grew up. But of course, she never did grow up…that Birthday had been her last before she perished in the fire.
Now Jess wondered fleetingly about the owner of this doll, before placing it carefully back in the trunk. There were some other toys including a red ball, then some picture books and stuffed down the side was a leather-bound journal…Jess opened it and looked quickly at the closely written pages, maybe belonging to the kid’s Pa he thought.
However, before he could ponder further he heard a whinny of unease from Traveller still waiting patiently outside. He quickly replaced the stuff, closed the trunk and placed it back in its hiding place in the cupboard before returning to his mount.
Surprisingly Traveller seemed really spooked and Jess looked around him for the source of his ill ease. There was no sound or sign of a big cat or indeed the drifter who Jess had assumed had made the fire. Then he looked skywards again and saw nothing but clear skies above the ruined house…there was no sign of smoke at all.
Jess removed his hat and ran a hand through his hair and glanced back to Traveller who was now beginning to stomp about, showing the whites of his eyes and Jess felt a shiver of apprehension running down his spine.
“You’re right big fellah,” he said softly as he jumped athletically into the saddle, “we’re out of here, figure we’ll come back tomorrow to find those ornery critters.”
It was nearly dark by the time he returned to the ranch and after tending his horse he marched over to the house eagerly anticipating his supper.
However, as he walked in chucking his hat on the peg by the door and sniffing the air he was sadly disappointed.
On further investigation he found Slim in the kitchen just making a start at peeling some potatoes.
“Where’s Daisy?” Jess asked looking less than happy, “and where’s supper?”
“Well good evening to you too pard,” Slim said with a sarcastic smile.
“Evenin’ Slim, so where’s Daisy huh?”
“Been called to the Patterson place, seems the baby’s coming early and they need her midwife skills,” Slim said succinctly.
Jess rolled his eyes, “Number of young ‘uns she’s had it’s a wonder she needs any dang help. I thought it would be second nature to her.”
“I think Jed Patterson needs her help with all the other kids as much as the birthing,” Slim said thoughtfully.
“Well I reckon ol’ Jed should learn to keep his pants on and…”
But before Jess could continue Slim shushed him.
“Huh, what, I’m just sayin’ he’s gotten enough young ‘uns fer a baseball team and enough is enough…”
“Exactly,” Slim said nodding to where their young ward Mike Williams had just joined them, “so just hush up OK Jess?”
“I think Mr Patterson must really like kids don’t you Jess?” The boy said conversationally.
Jess just nodded, absently ruffling the youngster’s hair, “You set the table Tiger, I’ll give Slim a hand with supper, I imagine we won’t be seein’ Aunt Daisy for a few days.”
It was over supper that the subject of Jess’s day was discussed.
“So how did you get on, find the cattle all safe and sound?” Slim asked with a hopeful grin.
However, his happy demeanour was soon to change when he heard of the escapees.
“So, didn’t you track any of them down?”
“I didn’t have any dang time, did I? It was near on dusk when I discovered the fence was down and then by the time I’d had a quick look see in the old homestead it was time to get home. I’ll go out early and…”
Slim’s head had shot up at the mention of their neighbor’s ranch house.
“What the hell did you go there for, what were you doing?” he said suddenly breaking in and looking flushed and angry.
“I saw some smoke, looked to be coming from there, I thought there might be a coffee in the offing,” he said with a sheepish grin.
Slim just tutted and then said, “So was there…anyone about that is?”
“Nope, in fact me and Traveller thought it was kinda spooky,” he said turning and winking at Mike.
Slim said nothing just bent his head over his supper.
“You never told me the old place nearly burned down,” Jess persisted, “was any one hurt?”
When Slim still didn’t respond Jess said, “Well, were they?”
At this Slim pushed his plate away and leapt up from the table now looking furious, “I really couldn’t say,” he replied stiffly, “and I reckon it’s none of your business anyway,” and with that he stormed off, heading for the barn.
Mike looked anxiously over to his hero, “Gee Slim’s sure mad at you Jess…why is he so angry?”
Jess shook his head, “I dunno Tiger, probably just worried about the missing stock.”
Then smiling at the boy, “Why don’t you go fetch the dessert and then after we’ve washed the dishes there should be time for a game of checkers before bed huh?”
It was sometime later before Slim returned to the house.
Jess had washed the dishes, won one game of checkers with Mike and lost two and had put the boy to bed with a story.
Now as he returned to the main room he saw Slim sitting by the fire, looking pensively into the dying embers.
He came and sat down in his own rocker and after a moment glanced across at his buddy.
“Wanna tell me about it Slim?”
His partner’s head shot up and he looked over at Jess, his gaze unsteady and after a moment he looked down. “Talk about what?” He muttered.
“You know dang well what I’m talkin’ about, that old homestead near the south pasture. Heck I don’t even know what to call it. You’ve never even said who used to live there and they must have been one of your closest neighbours. It’s a good ride across the pasture, but what…only about fifteen minutes down the Laramie road, real close by. So why is there all the secrecy Slim?”
“I told you,” Slim said harshly, “I really don’t want to talk about it. Now what are you going to do about mending the fence?”
“What am I gonna do about it?” he said suddenly looking annoyed, “Heck that’s a two-man job Slim and we’ve gotta find those dang strays first too.”
“Well that’s down to you as well Jess. I’m going to be far too busy around here to go across to the south pasture.”
Jess threw him an incredulous look, “What yer kiddin’ me! What’s so dang important that you can’t help round up some of our prime stock…Hell Slim this ain’t like you.”
Slim flushed up, looking embarrassed, “Someone’s got to be here to change the Stage team you know that.”
“Yeah well one of us will just have to ride back to do the noon Stage, damn it Slim it ain’t that far away. We’ll make a temporary repair to the fence…find those darned dogies and then I’ll go down next week and make the repairs good once we’ve bought some timber in OK?”
Slim opened his mouth to argue, but then saw the look in his buddy’s eyes and backed down….
“OK, you win,” he said quietly, “we’ll go as soon as we’ve seen Mike off on the early Stage.”
He got up abruptly and marched off to their shared room. “Night,” he called over his shoulder, before he closed the door firmly behind him.
“Night,” Jess replied to the already closed door, a frown on his handsome features, what the heck was biting Slim he wondered?
Chapter 2
The following morning once they arrived at the adjoining spread Slim suggested they split up, one riding west and the other east, following along the fence
“That way we can check for any more damage and look out for the cattle as well.”
Jess nodded and turned Traveller to the west, before Slim quickly stopped him.
“No, you take the eastern boundary,” Slim said quickly.
Jess opened his mouth to argue, but then saw a strange look in his buddy’s eyes…what, fear, anxiety? He wasn’t sure.
He sighed, “OK makes no difference to me,” and spurred Traveller off to a brisk trot.
He’d only been riding for ten minutes or so when Traveller began acting up, head nodding and sidestepping, Jess having his work cut out to keep his mount heading in the right direction.
“Hey old fellah, what’s eatin’ you?” he said as he reined him in, patting the horse’s neck affectionately. Then looking up he saw the clearing and the old homestead before him. So that’s why Slim didn’t wanna come this way he said to himself. But he was soon jogged from his thoughts as Traveller snorted and started pawing the ground, obviously desperate to be on his way.
“Ok come on, let’s go find those darned longhorns,” he said, moving off away from the old house and towards the eastern boundary.
By the end of the afternoon most of the beasts were accounted for having been found pretty much in the same place. They had wandered off to the far eastern boundary of the spread and were happily settled by a small creek. It didn’t take the men too long to herd them back on to Sherman land. There were just a few cattle missing, but they figured they could be rounded up later.
On their way back, they had again passed the burnt-out ranch house and Jess noted that Slim averted his eyes, unwilling even to look at the ruins of the old place.
Once they had hustled all the stock back into their own pasture land they swung down from the saddle, Jess suggesting they take a break before tackling the temporary repairs to the fence.
However Slim looked less than enthusiastic.
“Let’s just get the job done and get home,” he said casting an anxious glance around the wooded area beyond the fence.
Jess had just about had enough now, “Hang it all Slim, I ain’t had a break all day. At least you had coffee with Mose when you rode back to fix up the noon Stage, now just simmer down, I’ll git the pot on.”
They sat and had their drink in silence, Slim looking edgy and refusing to engage in conversation and Jess was beginning to feel more and more curious as to his friend’s odd behaviour. But it wasn’t until he threw the dregs of his coffee on the fire and made a move to start work that he discovered the extent of Slim’s anxiety.
Jess stretched, easing his back muscles and glancing up at the sky saw what looked like a black cloud of smoke hanging in the air, off to their right, in the vicinity of the ruined old ranch house.
“What in Hell?” he gasped, “Hey Slim what’s that?”
Slim glanced up and suddenly turned deathly pale, before turning away, “I can’t see anything,” he mumbled.
Jess glared at him before marching over and grabbing his arm, “Sure you can look!” He cried pointing up at the black haze.
Slim turned and looked up, “It’s just a cloud Jess, it’ll be raining soon, or worse snowing so can we get this job done huh?”
Jess peered at him and was surprised to see how alarmed his buddy looked, what was going on he wondered for the umpteenth time.
Jess shook his head and marched off to get the tools and by the time the work was done the black cloud, whether it be of rain or smoke, had disappeared. A chilly wind had got up and the men hastened back to the ranch, just in time to meet Mike from the afternoon Stage.
Again, Slim disappeared off to the barn directly after supper, on the pretext of mending Alamo’s bridle. Then on his return said he was dead beat and having an early night.
Therefore, it was breakfast the following day before the subject of fence repairs out on the south pasture came up again.
“I reckon we’ve got enough timber to replace the posts and mend that gap in the fence, Jess said, but I’ll need to go to town to fetch some more for the other couple of places we found damaged, quite a bit of work there Slim.”
“Yes, well you’ll manage,” Slim said dismissively.
“Hey, I thought we agreed replacing those posts was a two-man job.”
“Oh come on Jess you’re perfectly capable of doing it alone,” Slim said briskly.
“Sure and so are you but it will take twice as long with just one.”
“Oh, you’ll cope,” said Slim, getting up and starting to clear the table.
Jess grabbed his coffee cup back from an overzealous Slim.
“Hey I ain’t finished that yet and I might want another cup!”
“Well you haven’t got time have you Jess? I can’t come out with you today, got the end of month figures to tally for the Stage line boss, and you know I’ve got to get that done on time. So, if I were you I’d get moving buddy. Oh, and Jess you might take a look for those couple of beeves that are still missing, once you’ve fixed the fence.”
Jess rolled his eyes and downed his coffee dregs before slamming his cup down and heading for the barn to saddle Traveller.
“Well it’s your turn to fix supper and wash up,” Jess said crossly. Then as an afterthought, “if I get through in time I might go to town, git the timber and see Millie,” he yelled over his shoulder, before slamming the door behind him.
“And take your rain slicker,” Slim called after him, “it’s going to snow before the day’s out,” but Jess had gone.
He spent the morning working on the damaged fence, replacing the rotten posts with new and stringing the wire across. It was tiring work and by noon he was ready for a break. He’d made a fire and enjoyed a coffee and some cold cuts before deciding to spend a little time checking for the strays again. The weather had turned decidedly chilly with the threat of rain and he decided to postpone his trip to town until the following day. Luck was on his side as it turned out and he found the recalcitrant pair of young long horns about a mile away and started driving them back towards the south pasture.
The ground on their neighbour’s land was however very neglected and difficult to negotiate in places. It was when Jess was herding the critters down a particularly steep shale bank that the usually sure-footed Traveller started slithering and sliding on the wet stones and gravel and moments later fell hard, tipping Jess off and rolling before gaining his feet again. He shook himself and then walked over to where his beloved master lay deathly still at the bottom of the bank.
He stood over him blowing gently in his face, but when Jess didn’t react he wandered off a little way and started cropping the grass, alongside the two long horns.
It was the icy sleet that finally revived Jess. He groaned and opened his eyes squinting into the dim, late afternoon light.
After a moment he put a hand up to his forehead, his fingers coming away sticky with blood. Then, as he tried to sit up he fell back clutching his ribs. After a few deep breaths he persevered and finally sat up. Moments later he was joined by Traveller as he ambled over, again blowing down his nostrils in welcome and gently nuzzling Jess’s hair.
He grinned up at his good old horse and after a few slow deep breaths finally managed to pull himself up by the stirrup and clamber into the saddle. But they had only gone a short distance when it became clear that Trav had come up lame.
Jess immediately slid down from the saddle and examined his mount, finding his left foreleg to be quite swollen and hot. Then he leaned up and patted his neck. “You’ll live old boy, but you’re in no state to make it back to the ranch tonight.” Then as a wave of dizziness struck him added, “Me neither I reckon.”
By now the sleet was fast turning to snow and the wind had got up, blowing it into his face, the stinging cold flakes making him feel even more wretched. He looked around him trying to get his bearings and realised he was only a matter of yards from the clearing surrounding the old homestead and so reluctantly he started leading Traveller in that direction.
As they advanced on the house his horse started acting up again, dragging at his reins in an attempt to pull away, but Jess was too quick for him.
“Oh no you don’t fellah, you’re staying close by where I can tend that leg of yours,” and he firmly led his horse onwards.
It was nearly dark by the time they reached the ranch house and gazing around him Jess was just able to make out the outline of a small barn across the yard from the house. He hadn’t noticed it before as it was almost completely covered in greenery, but as he advanced he saw a door hanging open on its hinges and on closer inspection saw stalls and some straw bales inside.
Once Jess got Traveller inside he seemed much calmer, maybe the faint scent of past horses helping him to overcome the nameless fears he seemed to have around the ranch house.
Jess unsaddled him, rubbed him down and fed him with the small sack of feed he always carried, before carefully tending the bruised leg.
He looked around the barn and for two pins he’d had settled down in the stall with Traveller. However, he’d been lying in the freezing cold rain for over an hour and he was soaking wet and now shivering uncontrollably. He sighed deeply knowing that unless he wanted to get real sick he had no choice but to light a fire and dry off. Reluctantly, armed with some dry logs from the barn and an old oil lamp he found in there, he made his way across the yard towards the charred remains of the old house.
The snow had stopped and a brisk wind had now cleared the clouds away. A huge moon shone down making the whole area almost as light as day, the silvery, almost ghostly light somehow adding to Jess’s apprehension though.
He pulled the creaking front door open and stood on the threshold looking in. It felt almost as though the house was holding its breath, just waiting for him to enter. He stood there, still undecided, when a blast of wind suddenly slammed the door shut behind him.
He jumped, but the sudden gust of wind had propelled him inside and now his teeth were chattering and his body shuddering violently with cold.
He marched across the room and threw the pile of logs down in the fireplace and suspended the lighted lamp from a beam above.
It was when he was hunkered down setting the fire that he had a feeling he was not alone.
It was almost as though someone was right behind him, watching him intently and he had the feeling he got when he was teaching Mike something new. The child would give Jess all his attention, watching avidly as Jess showed him how to splice leather or gut a rabbit.
Then he felt it, a soft breath on the back of his neck.
He spun around, expecting to see a child, or stooped adult watching him …just inches away…but nothing.
The room was empty and deathly silent, save for the sound of the wind in the trees without.
He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry and his heart pounding. He stood up and retraced his steps to the door, checking it was securely fastened, thinking maybe it had just been a draft that had tickled his neck…but no the door was tightly shut. In fact, it took him several attempts to open it and he figured the wood had swollen in the damp weather. He finally managed it and peered around the moonlit yard, but all was quiet and peaceful.
He wandered over to fetch his bedroll from the barn and do a final check on Traveller before returning to the house. However as he re-entered the old homestead he heard a rustling noise and then quite clearly the infectious giggle of a young child.
“Hello who’s there?” he called out, peering into the darkest recesses of the one room that was left of the house…but nothing, he was completely alone.
He shrugged, “I guess I hit my head harder than I thought,” he muttered to himself, before striding over to the now roaring fire in the grate.
He stripped off his jacket, shirt and undershirt and hung them nearby to dry and then sat real close to the fire to dry off his denims.
Once he was dried out and feeling a tad warmer he wandered over to where he’d dumped his saddlebags and the makings for coffee and was surprised that just feet away from the fire the air was icy cold. Normally a fire like this one would have warmed up the whole of the ranch house back home by now. Yet this place was as chilly as old Charlie Fairfax’ s morgue, at the Laramie undertakers. He shivered again, figuring such thoughts would not be conducive to a restful night. So, removing all such unhappy thoughts from his mind he concentrated on the prospect of seeing his girl, Millie, the following day.
If this dang headache clears up he thought morosely, not to mention his sore ribs. He ran a hand over his torso, reckoning that they were just badly bruised and nothing broken. Then he shivered again and replacing his now dry clothes finally settled down on his bedroll by the fire with a whiskey laced coffee.
Eventually he tried to sleep, but as he lay back he again heard what sounded like a giggle. Then felt warm breath, this time on his face….
He shot up again peering all around him, but nothing, merely the faint moonlight filtering in from the damaged roof and the sound of trees sighing in the wind.
It was a long time before he drifted off to sleep, exhaustion finally taking over.
It was the smell of acrid smoke that awoke him. Black clouds of it swirling around the room making him gag and cough. He turned to the fire but it was practically out, just the embers glowing dimly in the old fireplace.
He sat for a moment, still half asleep shaking his head to clear it and that’s when he heard the crackling sound of a fire burning and seconds later the whole room was alight burning timber cracking and exploding like gunshot and falling around him, sparks flying.
He was instantly transported back to the terrible fire back in Texas where he had been trapped inside the blazing inferno….
He was on his feet in seconds and tore across the room, the flames making ghastly shadows on the charred walls. As he ran to open the door he found it stuck fast, refusing to budge an inch. He threw himself at the solid door in a blind panic, the roof timbers now falling all around him…the flames crackling and licking at the remaining, already charred, sticks of furniture.
Then he heard it, the heart stopping sound of children crying out in terror, begging for help.
He turned from the door and headed back into the room, desperately searching for the youngsters, stumbling about in the smoky darkness. Then just seconds later he fell over something and crashed headlong to the ground knocking himself out cold.
When he came around the first fingers of dawn light were just filtering in through the hole in the roof.
He sat up cautiously and peered around him. There was little evidence of the fire of the night before. In fact, the room looked just as it had when he had turned in.
Then he remembered the children’s screams and jumping up searched the room…but nothing.
He staggered back to the remains of the fire and threw on a few logs now feeling chilled to the bone and he slumped down with his back to the wall, surveying the large room, trying to make sense of everything.
Then he saw something out of the corner of his eye…
He watched in horror as the small red ball, that he’d previously found locked in the old chest in the kitchen, rolled gently across the floor stopping at his feet.
Chapter 3
When Jess didn’t land home for supper Slim wasn’t particularly worried. He just figured his pard had gone off to town to buy the lumber and then had decided to stay over with the delectable Millie. And who could blame him Slim thought.
He shook his head as he remembered how downright ornery he’d been with Jess about the old Jenson spread. He could have told him about it…no he should have done, he knew that. But even now after all this time the memories were just too raw. Besides he told himself, Jess really didn’t need to hear all the details of the horrific fire. Not after he had suffered so much in the past from a similar event himself.
No, far better they let sleeping dogs lie. Once the work was finished on the boundary fences they could move on and forget all about the place with its macabre history and ghosts from the past.
It was when Mose drove the early morning Stage in that Slim had the first twinges of worry about his partner.
He’d lifted Mike up and thrown him into the Stage for the trip to school as usual, like ‘a bag of old taters’ as Mike used to laughingly remark, and then Slim turned to Mose.
“So, did you see my lazy wastrel of a partner in the saloon last night?” Slim asked grinning up at Mose.
“Huh? No Jess weren’t in town last night Slim, least ways he never visited Miss Millie and I was in there until closing time.”
Slim looked surprised, “Well I guess he wasn’t in town then,” and he waved the old timer off.
Word had come through that Daisy would be home from the Patterson’s place in another day or so and Slim was relieved that her calming presence would soon be back with them. But his first priority was to find out what had happened to Jess. If he wasn’t in town he must have camped out over in the south pasture, but why would he do that? Reluctantly Slim went off to saddle up Alamo and find out.
The first thing he saw as he rode over to the fence repairs were the two stray longhorns calling out piteously to their buddies on the other side of the fence and Slim wasted no time in opening it up and ushering them back onto Sherman land.
So, what was keeping Jess he wondered? The fence was repaired, the cattle found and so all that was needed was a trip to town for the lumber…so why hadn’t Jess taken that trip?
Slim suddenly had a very bad feeling and against all his instincts he headed Alamo towards the old Jenson place.
As soon as he got into the yard Alamo whickered and had an answering whinny of welcome from Traveller in the barn.
Slim dismounted quickly and averting his eyes from the charred homestead, instead made directly for the barn. His instincts weren’t wrong…there lying in the straw in Traveller’s stall was Jess.
He was rolled in his blanket and looked to be deeply asleep and on closer inspection Slim saw that he looked far from well. He was flushed with his dark hair sticking to his forehead, where there was also a nasty gash.
After a moment Slim entered the stall, hunkered down by his pard and shook him gently awake.
Jess’s head shot up, his eyes open wide and Slim thought he had never seen his friend look so darned frightened.
“Jess, buddy it’s me,” Slim said leaning over and resting a hand gently on his chest.
When Jess winced in pain Slim quickly withdrew his hand.
“Jess are you hurt badly?” he asked softly.
He shook his head, “Nope, I took a tumble off of Trav, he fell when we were herding those dang beeves…tipped me off, banged my head and ribs some, but I’m OK.”
Slim didn’t ask why Jess was out in the barn as he had a pretty good idea, and just said, “You coming home now then pard?”
Jess nodded, “But I don’t wanna ride Traveller until I’m sure that leg is healed, we’ll ride double huh?”
They said little on the journey back to the ranch and when they arrived Jess tended to Traveller before excusing himself to go and wash up, change and shave.
When he returned to the kitchen sometime later Slim had the coffee pot on and they sat down at the table.
Jess took a sip from the cup Slim had handed him and then peering at his buddy over the rim said, “So are you gonna tell me all about it now Slim?”
Slim said nothing for a moment and then, “The spread belonged to a guy named Jenson, James Jenson; he perished in a fire in the house, that’s it.”
Then he got up abruptly and started digging about in one of Daisy’s cupboards before returning to the table with her medical basket.
“That head wound looks nasty, needs cleaning up,” he said
Jess argued as usual but Slim simply ignored him, cleaning the deep gash out and then applying a dressing.
“Doc Sam should take a look,” he said once the wound was tended, “it could need a stitch.”
Jess just shrugged, “OK.”
Slim’s eyebrows shot up, “What no argument?”
Jess ignored him and said, “So what about the children that died?”
Slim turned pale and looked away, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Sure you do,” Jess spat angrily, “they died in the fire. I heard them last night Slim!”
He went on to tell his partner everything that had happened. He described the feeling of being watched, the sensation of breath on his neck and face and the childish giggles, then later the terrible fire and the screams of the trapped children.
Once he’d finished he said quietly, “So are you going to tell me Slim?”
His partner stood up.
“There’s nothing to tell Jess. You just had one of your bad dreams about your cabin being fired by the Bannisters. Hell, it’s not like it’s the first time is it? I guess being in a house that had been burnt that way just brought back the memories… Heck Jess that’s why I didn’t want you going in there in the first place.”
Jess shook his head, “I don’t buy that. If you’d been that dang worried about it you’d have offered to do the fence repairs yourself. Oh no Slim, there’s more to this than you’re letting on and I aim to find out what.”
At this Slim was incensed with rage, “Leave it Jess…if you know what’s good for you just let it lie,” and with that he stormed off.
Sometime later Jess strolled out to the yard, fetched old Betsy and Tam and harnessed them up to the buckboard.
“Where the heck are you going now?” Slim asked as he came over.
“Town to get the lumber for the fence repairs, where else?” Jess replied coldly.
“You don’t have to do that today,” Slim said now sounding sheepish, “you’re hurt Jess why don’t you rest up some huh?”
“Sooner I get this dang job done the better,” he said briskly, as he jumped up onto the buckboard seat. “Don’t make me dinner, I’ll eat in town,” and with that he hustled the team out of the yard.
When he got to town he disappeared into the lumber yard and once his order had been taken with a promise to load up the buckboard for him, he stepped down Main Street to Doc Sam Baker’s office.
His knock was answered by Mrs Braddock the doctor’s kindly housekeeper.
“Why Mister Harper, what a lovely surprise,” Then she noted the dressing to Jess’s head and said,” Oh you’re in need of the doctor I see,” and ushered him inside right away.
Sam was relaxing in his study with a pre- luncheon glass of sherry and offered Jess a whiskey.
Once both men were seated he smiled over at his friend and said, “It looks like you could use a pick me up Jess you’re looking a tad peaky.”
Jess explained about his recent fall and once the doc had checked him over and cleaned and re-dressed his injuries they sat back again.
Sam regarded Jess quizzically, “So what’s this visit really about Jess? It’s not like you to come in and get wounds checked, even if it was the right thing to do in this case.”
Jess took a sip of his drink and then said quietly, “Do you believe in ghosts Sam?”
The doctor took the question in his stride and looked thoughtful for a minute.
“Well if you mean do I believe that the spirit lives on after death, then I have to say yes I do. I know I am at odds with many of my learned colleagues over this, some of whom say once life as we know it is extinguished, then that is the end. But no, I have seen so much believable evidence to confirm, in my view, that the spirit goes on. So yes, I do believe in life after the body dies. Does that help you?” He asked throwing Jess a concerned look.
“Kinda, so these Spirits either go to Hell or Heaven, so they say in the Church?”
Sam nodded, “I believe so, yes.”
“But what if they don’t?”
“Huh? What do you mean Jess?”
“What iffen they’re earth bound…never made it up to Heaven, what then? And why would that be?”
Sam shrugged, “I really don’t know Jess, but I do believe it happens sometimes. Maybe some unresolved issues the spirit is trying to deal with?” Then he smiled at his old friend, “You seem pretty sure these earthbound spirits of yours are assured of a home in Heaven and not the warm place then?”
Jess gave him a thoughtful smile, “Oh yeah they’re bound for Heaven alright Sam…see they’re little children,” and then he told him the full story.
Sam took it all very seriously and Jess felt mighty relieved.
“So, you don’t think I was dreaming, or hallucinating after a drop too much Red Eye?” he said with a grin.
Sam shook his head, “No I believe you alright, so what are you going to do about it Jess, maybe this is one for Joshua?” he said referring to their good friend the Reverent Joshua Wesley, the local parson.
“Maybe I will tell him,” Jess said thoughtfully. “The thing is though, Slim’s being really funny about it, really don’t want me digging the past up.”
“Well maybe you should heed him,” Sam said looking worried, “if he’s that upset about it all?”
Jess shook his head,” I guess I should but the thing is Sam... well, you’ll think I’m crazy, but I kinda get the feeling they need my help, need me to do something to help move them on…otherwise why would all this have happened?”
“Maybe…so what will you do?”
Jess shrugged, “Go back maybe…see what happens.”
“You really want to, after that terrible experience?”
“Hell no…but I feel like I’ve got to,” he said quietly.
“Oh well you’ve chosen the right time of year to communicate with the Spirits, what with Halloween and All Saints Day coming up soon. They do say the fine veil between earth and the hereafter is really thin at this time of year…so maybe you’ll be able to resolve things for them.” Sam said kindly. “And Jess…”
“I’m here for you… Slim too, if this all gets…well out of hand you know?”
Jess nodded, “Thanks Sam.”
His next port of call was the saloon and Millie beamed at him as he strode in.
“Well howdy stranger,” she said with a winsome smile. Then she noted the white lint dressing on his temple and looked dismayed, “Oh Jess are you OK?”
“Sure,” he said quickly giving her a gentle kiss on the lips as she joined him on the other side of the bar. “I’ve just come from Sam and he says I’m just fine… So, can you spare a battered ol’ cowboy ten minutes then?”
“Better than that,” she said grinning up at him, “I’m just about to take an early dinner break. We’ll have to stay in the bar in case it gets busy, but we can sit over at a back table and talk yeah?”
They had finished their meal and were sitting holding hands across the table.
“I really don’t like the sound of it all,” Millie said with a little shudder, “messing with Spirits and all, it’s not safe Jess.”
“Oh come on Millie, they’re harmless little children what can they do to me?”
“It’s not them it’s old man Jenson that might do something.”
“Well haven’t you heard all the stories about the haunting up in Hell-Gate Woods?”
“No…where’s that?”
“They call it Hell-Gate Woods…that land across the Laramie Road from the old Jenson place. Seems he used to go hunting there and folk say they see him still, right in the middle of the forest crying for the lost young ‘uns. Yelling and cursing too…some folk say he’s a harbinger of death, you see him and you’ll be next.”
“How do you know all this, you ain’t been around these parts any longer than I have?”
“Ah,” she said tapping her dainty nose, “it’s amazing the tales you hear behind that bar.”
“So, who are the kids his children?”
“Nope grandchildren I do believe, a boy and a girl twins…ever so close they were.”
Jess shook his head, the realization that his softly breathing, giggling little ghosts had once been lively much-loved children. But they had screamed in terror too and his stomach churned when he thought of what they must have endured.”
“Are you alright, you’ve gone awfully pale.”
He ran a hand across his now perspiring face and nodded, “Yup, I’m OK sweetheart.”
Then she looked up to the saloon door. “If you want to know more I figure Mose will be able to tell you, he’s just come in,” and she rose to go.
“Do you have to go already?” he asked grabbing her hand and throwing her his best lost puppy dog look.
“I’m afraid so honey, I’ve taken too long already and it’s getting busy… I’ll see you soon huh?”
“Sure, and I’m sorry I ain’t been around much Mill, we’ve only just brought all the stock down and then some of the garldarn critters made a bid for freedom,” he said with a depreciating grin.
“Sure, I understand, I’ll see you at the weekend though yeah? And Jess you just mind those ghosts now…leave well alone huh?”
A few minutes later Mose drifted over. “Miss Millie said you were askin’ about the Jenson tragedy,” he said in his usual forthright manner.
Jess looked up at him expecting Mose to sit down and indulge in a good old gossip telling him chapter and verse.
But no, he looked far from happy.
“Yeah, I was askin’,” Jess agreed.
“Well don’t son, take my advice and leave things alone. There’s a lot of folk around here who’ve got long memories and iffen you don’t want to upset your partner just forget about the Jensons…OK?” He said almost aggressively.
“I hear you,” Jess agreed, but that was as far as he was prepared to go.
Chapter 4
When Jess landed home later that afternoon Slim strode out of the barn to meet him as soon as he heard the buckboard clattering into the yard. Jess jumped down and started dealing with the team and Slim was at his side in moments.
“Daisy’s home,” he said with a quick glance towards the house.
Jess beamed, “Well that’s great, and so what did Ma Patterson have then Slim?”
He just shook his head, “Heck I don’t know…a boy, maybe a girl?”
Jess let out a hoot of laughter, “Well dadgum it Slim it’s gotta be one or the other ain’t it?”
However, Slim ignored his buddy’s mirth and grabbed hold of his jacket, pulling him around from where Jess was unharnessing the team. “Never mind about that, I want you to promise me you won’t say anything to Daisy about this business over at the Jenson spread.”
Jess looked up into his partner’s eyes and saw naked fear there.
“Hell Slim what’s the matter, what are you so afraid of?”
“Nothing, I just don’t want her upset, or the boy either for that matter so just keep your fantasies to yourself Jess,” he said with a hard look before marching off back to the barn.
If Daisy was aware of some tensions around the supper table that night she said nothing, knowing from experience that these things tended to work themselves out eventually.
Although Slim and Jess were particularly quiet throughout the meal Mike more than made up for it.
It appeared that his new friend Georgy was the best girl he had ever met and he desperately wanted her to be allowed to come over and play.
“Georgy, that’s a boy’s name ain’t it?” Jess said winking over at Daisy, “And real pretty huh?”
“Oh Jess,” the child said in exasperation, “Georgy is short for Georgina, she’s a girl alright and yeah real pretty I guess, smart too!”
When Daisy finally marched the youngster off to bed, Slim grinned at the closing bedroom door. “That kid sure is a chip off the old block, if I didn’t know different I’d swear he really was yours Jess, the way he’s taking to the pretty girls.”
He clipped Slim around the head and they grinned at each other and Jess immediately felt better than he had since he’d seen that dang burnt- out house. Heck maybe he should leave well alone if it meant that much to his pard… Maybe he had imagined it all. Slim was right with his bad memories of the fire on the panhandle it was hardly surprising all this stuff had got to him.
No, tomorrow he’d go fix the fences and that would be an end to it, he would have no need to set foot on Jenson land again.
The following morning as the men made plans for the day over the breakfast table Slim suggested he ride over to the Jenson place with Jess and help him finish mending the fences.
Jess sat still, his coffee cup suspended halfway to his mouth as he gaped in surprise, then he suddenly felt Daisy’s eyes on him and just said, “OK pard if you want to?”
“Sure,” Slim said getting up from the table, “it’ll be quicker with the two of us and by the looks of it we’ll have some snow before supper.”
“Well you boys wrap up warm and come home if the weather breaks,” Daisy said predictably and the men exchanged a smile and assured her they would.
They were right over on the far side of the Jenson land, when the snow started falling thick and fast, a nasty little breeze blowing it around them stinging their eyes and making the work difficult.
After a while Jess turned and glared at his buddy, “Hell Slim, why are we doin’ this anyway? It ain’t even our land and this isn’t a boundary fence, so what are we doin’ here?”
Slim looked surprised for a moment and then remembered Jess didn’t know anything about the Jenson family.
“Well actually it is our land Jess; Pa just leased it to old man Jenson.”
Jess looked around the uncultivated and now totally wild landscape and said, “Well he sure didn’t make much of it.”
“He didn’t buy it to work the land he just wanted a spread to retire to after working in the city back east. He just wanted to keep a few chickens, house cow and a veggie plot. Pa reckoned the land wasn’t worth much so let him have it for a really low rent.”
“That still don’t explain why we’re workin’ our butts off in a dang blizzard to fence the place,” Jess said churlishly.
“Stop anyone else moving in of course, we need to keep it well fenced so folk know its owned land and anyway….”
“Anyway, I wouldn’t like to think of anyone riding roughshod over the place, there’s a burial ground Jess and that deserves some respect.”
“So, who’s buried here?” Jess asked with interest, but Slim looked like he’d said too much already and ignored the question.
“Quit jawing will you Jess let’s just get the job done and get home, I’m freezing here.”
“You’re freezin’?” Jess muttered, but none the less did as he was bid.
They finished up pretty soon after and were halfway across the Jenson spread when they realised they wouldn’t make it home.
The wind was now practically gale force, ripping off branches and hurling the snow in their faces, until it was practically impossible to see where they were heading.
It wasn’t until they came to the clearing with the old house and barn that they got their bearings.
Jess didn’t even wait to discuss the matter he merely slipped from the saddle and led Traveller towards the barn.
Casting a glance over his shoulder he was relieved to see Slim was following him, albeit very slowly.
Once their mounts were cared for Jess started picking up some logs, from the woodpile in the corner.
“What do you think you’re you doing?” Slim asked.
“Going over to the house to make a fire,” he said glancing across at Slim, “I dunno about you but I’m kinda chilly.”
The typical understatement would usually have made Slim laugh, but now he just looked plain horrified. “I’m not setting foot in that place,” he said staunchly.
Jess stared at him, hell he knew the place spooked his pard some, him too if he was honest…but this was crazy.
“Yes, you are,” he said quietly, “you need to get warm and dry off Slim or you’ll get sick.”
He just stood there shaking his head and looking undecided, “I can’t,” he whispered.
“Sure you can…Hell Slim do you recall that time we rode down to Albuquerque and on the trip we came upon my old homestead?” * See #29 The Road to Albuquerque.
Slim just nodded.
“And I went in didn’t I, confronted my fears…and felt a damn sight better for it too. So maybe you should do the same. I don’t know what bothers you so much about this place, but I guess we can face it together, huh?”
Jess soon had a cheerful blaze going in the old fireplace, the flames making dancing shadows on the walls.
It was almost dark inside as the windows were grimy and little light filtered through the hole in the roof.
Jess had lit the lamp and put the coffee pot on the fire and both men sat up close to the comforting warmth steaming gently.
After a while Slim turned to Jess, “It must have been awful hard for you visiting your old home that way, after everything that happened there.”
Jess looked down, “You’ll never know how hard,” he said softly. Then looking up at his buddy, “I guess I couldn’t have done it without you by my side ya know Slim.”
Slim acknowledged that, “Well that’s what friends do isn’t it?”
Jess nodded, “They try to, but I guess you won’t let me in to help you Slim.”
They sat in silence, Slim just resting back against the wall watching the shadows, unable or unwilling to reply, Jess wasn’t sure which.
The place had a strange odor, a mixture of charred wood and musty damp. The whole house seeming to creak and groan as the full force of the wind hit the old stone walls.
After sitting listening to the storm raging for a while Jess tried again, “So is this old place the way you remembered it?”
Slim looked around him and shook his head, “Ma Jenson had it done up real pretty when they moved in. There were two big bedrooms at the back, but they were timber built, burnt to the ground. The kitchen was over in the corner, with her rocker, a purty rag rug on the floor and neat as a new pin. She made real good cakes,” he added gazing sadly into the fire.
“The sorta lady who would let a young ‘un lick out the bowl?” Jess asked with an encouraging grin.
Slim nodded a genuine smile on his face now, “I was just a little kid, six or seven when they moved in, often came visiting.”
“And later when the grandchildren came to live here, you played with them too?”
Slim’s kind, open features suddenly looked hard and uncompromising, “Yes,” he finally whispered.
“It must have been hard on you then, the fire and all,” Jess said gently.
Slim turned agonised eyes on him and suddenly leapt up and Jess thought he might well hit him.
“You just don’t get it do you? It was all my fault, everything that happend. The fire and afterwards, it was all my damn fault!” With that he turned and fled from the house to the sanctuary of the barn.
Jess sat on in a state of bewilderment, “Well what does that dang well mean?” he muttered to himself.
He looked around him again and once more had that eerie feeling that he was not alone. He peered over to the door through the dim light, and it seemed to be shaking… in the wind?
“Slim, is that you?”
Then he felt it… on his cheek a touch almost as light and fleeting as a butterfly wing and a tiny sigh…again warm breath on his face.
He sat ridged holding his own breath and then he heard a whisper, so soft he could barely hear it… “Matty, I want Matty…”
Jess’s heart was beating like it would jump clear out of his chest, but he held his ground…. “Matty Sherman,” he whispered back… “are you his friend?”
But there was nothing, just the wind in the chimney and after a few minutes Jess decided he was mistaken. It was just the wind sighing and he figured he’d picked up on Slim’s angst making him fanciful.
Then the thought of Slim spurred him on and he hurried off to the barn to check on him.
The storm had lessened and a little later the two men made their way slowly home.
Daisy picked up on Slim’s distress the minute he walked through the door. His whole persona was one of ill ease and her thoughts were confirmed when he snapped at her.
She had fussed and fretted around them as she tended to do when they came in looking like a pair of drowned rats, obviously chilled to the marrow. But when she suggested they change immediately whilst she made a restorative hot toddy, he curtly told her not to fuss and threw her an angry look.
She immediately glanced to Jess for guidance and he shook his head almost imperceptibility.
“Very well dear, you do as you think best,” she said quietly and went off to put on the coffee, whilst Slim disappeared into the bedroom.
Jess joined Daisy in the kitchen moments later and she turned hurt eyes on him.
“Why whatever is wrong with Slim, I don’t ever remember him being so short with me.”
Jess went across to her and leaning down kissed her tenderly on the top of her head, “Cut him some slack huh Daisy he’s kinda edgy right now.”
“Well I can see that dear, but what’s troubling him so?”
“Er…I guess the bad weather, it can be difficult for the stock an’ all,” he said vaguely.
“Oh really, is that so dear?” She said throwing him a skeptical look.
Jess flushed up, “Remind me never to lie to you Daisy,” he said quietly. “The truth is I ain’t too sure myself, he won’t discuss it. All I know is that it’s real private Daisy and he don’t want us to know, so I figure we’ve got to respect that huh?”
“Of course,” she agreed with alacrity. “Poor Slim, I’ll make a Blueberry Pie that’s his favourite,” and she started bustling around looking for the ingredients. Jess watched her affectionately, gee she was so dang kind, but he really thought it would take more than a pie, no matter how good, to ease his partner’s aching heart.
It was just five minutes later that a very sheepish looking Slim joined them in the kitchen.
He strode over to Daisy and took her in his arms hugging her close for a moment before pushing her gently back so that he could look into those wise old eyes.
“I’m truly sorry Daisy,” he said quietly, “I guess I’m just not myself right now.”
She patted his cheek gently, “It’s alright dear. But please Slim, if you think Jess or I can do anything, don’t shut us out. We just want to help, you know that don’t you?”
“Thanks Daisy, Jess,” he said nodding across to his pard, “I appreciate it.”
Chapter 5
However, it didn’t look like Slim was about to confide in them anytime soon. In fact, he became more and more withdrawn, taking himself off to work alone, mostly riding fence. That’s when he actually did any work. Unlike Jess who tended to try and dissipate any angst or worry by throwing himself hard into work, Slim was the opposite. He took to lying in late in the morning and retiring early and as Jess said bitterly to Daisy one night, he was doing dang little in between.
“I know he’s hurtin’ Daisy and I’m sorry for him really I am…but we can’t keep on this way. I’m practically running the place single handed and there’s chores to be done before winter sets in proper.”
“I think we must just try and be as understanding as we can,” Daisy said sagely. “I’m worried too Jess, he’s hardly eating and I’m so afraid he’ll get sick. You know he didn’t even bother shaving this morning either and that’s just not like him.”
Then there were the nightmares.
They had started the night of the storm, when they had returned from sheltering in the old Jenson house.
Jess was awoken in the early hours of the morning with Slim screaming in terror at some unseen daemons. Jess had thrown himself out of bed and was at his buddy’s side when the bedroom door opened, a shocked looking Daisy, her arm around Mike, standing on the threshold.
“Whatever is the matter?” she whispered.
“It’s just a nightmare Daisy, I’ll tend to him.”
“Is he OK?” asked a frightened Mike, staring in shock as Slim writhed and shouted as though fighting with some unseen enemy.
“He’ll be just fine Tiger, you get off to bed, school in the morning.”
It had taken him a good hour to calm his buddy down, but in the morning, he seemed to have no recollection of events. However, they continued on an almost nightly basis and he slowly became aware of what was happening. Until one morning about a week later when Jess awoke late to find his pard fully dressed and sitting on the edge of his bed watching him.
Jess stretched lazily and then yawned deeply, “I guess I overslept,” he said dragging himself up.
Slim nodded, “That’s down to me waking you isn’t it Jess…I’m so dang sorry.”
Jess shook his head, “I reckon all this is my fault; I should never have made you go inside the Jenson place. I just thought it would help if you confronted it all head on.”
“I figure you were wrong. But nobody is to blame Jess. I do think that maybe I should move out to the bunk house though, so I don’t disturb you all, huh?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope you ain’t doin’ that Slim.”
“Why the hell not Jess? You’re exhausted and I know I’m, spooking Daisy, young Mike too.”
“You ain’t movin’ out because you’ve started sleep walkin’ Slim. I found you out in the kitchen fixin’ to make coffee in your sleep the other night… you could have burned the whole dang place down.” Then he closed his eyes and sucked in his breath as he realised what he’d just said.
“Hell, I’m sorry Slim, I didn’t mean to say that, but I’ve had to keep our door locked to keep us all safe.”
Slim looked totally devastated.
“Dear God, as though it’s not bad enough being responsible for one fire, without another,” he said before dashing from the room.
He finally ran his partner to ground sitting out on the big fishing rock out by the creek that ran along the boundary of the home pasture.
“Thought I might find you here,” Jess said hunkering down beside Slim, “a good place to think ain’t it?”
Slim nodded and then looking up at Jess said, “I’m really sorry about all this Jess.”
“I know buddy and you ain’t got nuthin’ to be sorry for. Let’s just sit it out huh…things will be better soon.”
Then he slapped him on the back, knowing full well there was little point in trying to get him to talk it out.
“Come on Slim, Daisy’s got the breakfast on and she’s made you some Blueberry jelly to go with the biscuits so you look real pleased huh?” He said with a faint grin.
“Sure, sure I will,” Slim said scrambling up and giving Jess the ghost of a smile, “she’s a good woman,” and they made their way slowly back across the misty morning pasture to home.
However, things were not about to get any better, as Slim finally succumbed to illness, just as Daisy had predicted.
He had started overcompensating for leaving Jess with all the work and had consequently got soaked to the skin when he insisted on finishing the repairs to the lean to roof in a cold sleety rain. He then caught a chill that in turn developed into a nasty chest infection.
When Jess awoke one morning to hear Slim wheezing badly he knew he must ride for the doctor.
He finally tracked him down at the Patterson place checking on the new baby and promised to ride over directly.
Doc Sam Baker sat across the table from Jess, “Things are not looking too good,” he said quietly, “and I’ve a feeling this whole business about the Jenson spread is at the bottom of it all you know. So, have you told Daisy about everything that happened there?”
Jess shook his head, casting a quick glance towards the bedroom door where the housekeeper was ministering to her patient.
“Slim was adamant he didn’t want her to know anything about it…me neither, he still hasn’t talked about it all, I guess he’d feel better if he did.”
“We certainly need to try and find out what’s bugging him,” the doctor agreed, “maybe try and sort it out in his head. This thing he’s told you about the fire being all his fault, it can’t possibly be true, goodness he was a ten-year-old child when the tragedy struck by my reckoning.”
Jess shook his head looking sorely tried, “So how is he doc…he’ll be OK?”
Sam nodded his head, “I hope so Jess…physically it’s just a nasty chill and bad chest…but mentally I believe he’s quite sick, very down and I’m really concerned about that. If only we could get to the bottom of all this business, find out why he feels so terribly guilty.”
Jess shrugged, “I asked Mose about it, but for once he didn’t seem to want to gossip. Anyway, Mose’s version of events tends to be at odds with what actually happened most times. He sure don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Sam chuckled, “Yes, I guess you’re right there.”
Then he snapped his fingers, “Of course I know who you can ask, Mort Cory. He would have been a young deputy at the time and if there were fatalities at the fire, the law would have been called in to rule out foul play that’s for sure. Go and check it out with Mort,” he said now beaming.
Chapter 6
Jess rode into town later that day and found the Sheriff in his office feet up on the desk, perusing the local paper, the Laramie Sentinel.
He looked up and tipped his hat back as Jess entered.
“Well howdy stranger,” he grinned, “pour yourself a coffee and pull up a chair,” he said putting his feet and the paper down and giving Jess his full attention.
Jess did as requested and bringing the pot over topped up Mort’s cup before taking a seat.
“So where have you been hiding?” Mort asked jovially, “I haven’t seen hide or hair of you or Slim since you rode posse with me what four, no five weeks ago.”
“Been busy Mort, bringing all the stock down, fence repairs, makin’ the buildings good before the weather hits, you know.”
“Sure, so how’s Slim?”
Jess dropped his gaze before looking back at Mort, “He ain’t too good Mort. In fact, I’m kinda worried about him.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that son anything I can do?”
“Well yeah, that’s why I’m here,” and he outlined briefly all that had happened over the last few weeks. From the spooky happenings he’d experienced first-hand at the old Jenson place, to the terrible state his partner now found himself in.
“He’s talkin’ crazy Mort, saying how the fire and the old man and kids dying that way was all down to him, that can’t be so can it?”
Mort sighed deeply and looked gloomy, “That was a nasty business Jess, real nasty. I was but a young Deputy in those days and yes, I rode over with Sheriff Owen. Identified the bodies and brought them back to old Charlie Fairfax’s place. I can tell you I don’t think I’ve ever been more upset, before or since, those sweet innocent little children, just eight years old they were Jess. Twins, Jimmy and Dori died along with their grand pappy, James Jenson…”
Jess hung on Mort’s every word and was surprised to see the glint of tears in the tough Sheriff’s eyes.
“Well it sure is upsetting Slim,” he said after a moment, “he feels responsible like I say, so you got any idea why that might be Mort?”
Mort took a reviving sip of his coffee and sat back in his chair, looking off into the distance. “I guess you need to hear the whole story Jess and then you can be the judge.”
“The Jensons moved over here from New York when Slim would be about five or six. His Pa Mathew Sherman knew them slightly. James was a friend of Harry Sherman, Matt’s brother back in New York. So, when James looked him up Matt offered him that land adjacent to the south pasture to rent and build a small house on. He said the patch wasn’t worth cultivating, kinda stony in parts.”
Jess sighed, “OK I get the drift, go on Mort.”
“So, they built a small homestead and cultivated quite a big plot. I think old James enjoyed growing stuff, used to provide potatoes and the like to a few folk in town, even Tom at the saloon was a customer. Used to make real good tater pies in those days…”
Jess sighed again, “Garldarn it Mort get on with it will you?”
“OK, keep your hair on…I’m just telling you how it was. Anyway, him and Ma Jenson…er…Maud, that’s it Maude Jenson, they settled in real well. In fact, so good he suggested his son, daughter-in-law and their young ‘uns move across too…That’s when tragedy struck. Their wagon turned over and the son and wife were killed outright, just a few miles from town.”
Jess shook his head, “Gee that’s too bad…so the grandparents took the young’ un’s in?”
“Yup, they were great little kids, considering what they’d been through. They settled in well and were forever playing at Slim’s house or he’d be round at their place, inseparable those three were. Jimmy and Dori were a couple of years younger than Slim, well Matty as he was called back then and he kinda looked out for them as well as being real good playmates.”
Jess took a deep breath, “I can see why he’d be so upset at what happened.”
Mort nodded. “All was just fine until Maudie suddenly upped and died, her heart old Doc Johnson thought,” Mort said, referring to Doc Sam’s predecessor.
“So, what happened?”
“Well James Jenson carried on looking after the kids…but I’m afraid the death of his wife took a real toll on him and he started drinking…not looking after himself, even neglected the young ‘uns.”
“Poor old guy,” Jess said softly.
“Yeah and this is where Slim comes in and why he might be feeling kind of guilty.”
“Go on…”
“Slim was round there one day and the old man was out of it, sleeping off the best part of a bottle of Red Eye and young Dori decided to cook supper for her brother and Slim. Only things didn’t quite go according to plan and she near burnt the house down. According to Mathew Sherman if it hadn’t been for Slim’s quick action with the water bucket the house would have gone up. As it was he emptied the bucket on the burning pan and disaster was averted. But you know what a worrier Slim can be.”
“Don’t I just,” Jess said with a grim smile.
“Uh, well he went home that night and told his Ma and Pa everything, about the old man suddenly taking to strong drink and the fire too. Well his Ma and Pa were real concerned. So, they took the Sheriff and the priest around with them next day and told Jenson that iffen he didn’t sign the Pledge then for safety’s sake the children would have to be fostered someplace as they were in danger.”
“Well that makes sense I guess, so did he…give up the drink that is?”
“Well yes absolutely…He never touched another drop…that is until the fire. Folk speculated that maybe he’d gone back on the drink. Apparently Slim’s Pa saw him in the saloon the day before the accident. He didn’t wait to see if he was drunk or not, just went straight home and said Slim wasn’t visiting the following day. You see they’d arranged that Slim should stay over as his Ma and Pa had some business over in Denver. As it was they cancelled their trip and Slim stayed home.”
“I bet ol’ Slim was mad at that,” Jess said quietly.
“Sure was, because when the news broke that the house had burnt down and Dori, Jimmy and old man Jenson had all perished Slim felt awful. He said it was his fault, he should have defied his Pa and gone anyway and he’d have kept them safe. His Pa felt bad that he hadn’t intervened in the saloon, checked on James, tried to make him see sense. Even Slim’s Ma felt bad, thought she should have insisted the children were removed as soon as they knew about the problems.”
Jess shook his head, “Jeez what a goddamn mess,” he muttered.
“So, do you think Slim is guilty?” Mort asked with a quizzical smile.
“Hell no, of course not…why do you?”
Mort shook his head, “Nope absolutely not…it wasn’t anyone’s fault…I believe. As far as I can remember it was never proved that Jenson was drunk anyway. But, I seem to recall the death certificates said death by misadventure though…that means accident due to dangerous risk. So, looks like they blamed him in some way. Maybe they didn’t investigate it too thoroughly though because the day after the fire the bank was robbed. Three people shot dead and that kinda took the Sheriff’s attention.”
“I imagine it would,” Jess agreed. “So, Tom was the barkeep back in those days you say?”
“Yup, best tater pies in town,” Mort confirmed with a smile.
“Uh, maybe I’ll go sound him out see if he remembers selling the old man any strong drink…thanks Mort I owe you.”
“You’re welcome and try and talk some sense into that partner of yours huh Jess. He’s really got no need to reproach himself. I guess it hit him hard, I figure he was kinda sweet on that little Dori she was a cute little thing, all smiles and blond curls,” and he shook his head at the memory.
“It’s kinda hard Mort he doesn’t know that I know everything now. He’s been refusing to talk about it all and the bit he has shared he don’t want me to tell Miss Daisy, it’s makin’ life real difficult back at the ranch that’s for sure.”
“Uh, it really would be good if Daisy knew everything too, she’s one smart lady, could be a good help to Slim, maybe help him see things different.”
Jess nodded in agreement before giving him a little salute and leaving.
When Jess marched into the Laramie Saloon sometime later he was surprised to find it almost deserted for a Saturday, just a few barflies passing the afternoon in desultory conversation.
Tom came over at once and gave Jess an uncertain smile, “I’m sorry son she ain’t here.”
“Huh?” Jess was baffled for a moment and then said, “Oh you mean Millie, is she upstairs in her room then Tom?” he asked hopefully.
“No Jess that’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you, she ain’t here period. She’s gone to help out her Ma at the Boarding House for a week or so. We were real quiet and her Ma’s sorely pressed, what with Millie’s Aunt Betty being sick and all…so I let her have the time off.”
Jess’s head was so full of the mission to try and piece together the last few hours of Jenson’ s life that it took some moments for this news to sink in and then he looked totally downcast.
“She did leave a message though, “Tom said quickly.
“Oh?” Jess said brightening some.
“Yeah, she said if you eventually were to notice she was missing then to tell you she’d see you when she came back.
Jess looked shocked, “Ouch, that’s tellin’ me ain’t it.”
“Uh, well you have neglected her some lately Jess, she was expecting a visit last week end you know?”
Jess sighed, “I know it, I did send a note with Mose though, we’ve had…well kinda a difficult time lately back at the ranch.”
“Oh yeah, she got it, but a note, well it’s really not the same is it son…huh?”
“I guess not.”
Tom wandered off and came back with a large whiskey, “On the house, to keep your spirits up,” he said with a friendly grin. “Don’t fret Jess she’ll get over it.”
Jess knocked back his drink, “Thanks Tom and it was you I wanted to see, as well as my Millie of course.”
“Yup, so what can I do for you?”
Once Jess had explained, the old barkeep looked thoughtful.
“Yes, I remember the day well, the last time I saw the old man alive, sad that was Jess real sad, beautiful children they were.”
“So, Tom, was he back on the drink…was he drunk that day?”
“What? Well no of course not, he’d signed the Pledge, what… it would be a good year before he died.”
“So, you didn’t sell him any strong drink?”
“No, I’ve told you he was stone cold sober. That day was real warm for October and he asked for lemonade. He was only here because he’d delivered a sack of his best taters. He had the one lemonade and then went home. I do remember him saying that he thought Mathew Sherman was thinking the same as you’ve just said though. He said he’d go around the following day and put the record straight…but I guess he never made it,” he finished sadly.
“So, did you tell the Sheriff all this and the judge at the inquest?”
“Huh, nope, they never asked me before the inquest and I was away for the actual court session, missed it… at my sister’s wedding.” he said proudly. “But others might have done. I do recall he was chatting with Denver James. They’d struck up quite a friendship together during old Jenson’ s drinking spell, used to go out hunting together. In fact, I think they’d planned on going over to Hell- Gate Woods the following day.”
“Well gee thanks for that Tom; it’s hardly a testimonial to a man’s sobriety to be standin’ at the bar with Denver James, the biggest Moonshiner in these parts.”
“I guess not Jess, but to give ol’ Den his due, he wouldn’t ever try and force drink on a man as had signed the Pledge that I do know. Nope they were just hunting buddies that’s the long and the short of it.”
So, would you be prepared to make a statement about all that now Tom? If I can get the Sheriff to contact the powers that be and get the Inquest reopened…in the light of new evidence.”
“Why sure I will son, if that’s what you want.”
It was later when the bar had filled up some and Tom had wandered off that Jess was joined by Mose, enjoying a rare day off.
“So, are you still sniffing around asking questions about that no good drunk James Jenson?” He asked.
“What makes you say that?” Jess asked angrily.
“Why everyone knows he was drunk as a skunk when those poor little ‘un’s burnt to death. That’s why Slim don’t want it talked about see, the whole town blamed his Ma and Pa for not doing something. They should have taken the children away as soon as he was found drunk while he was supposedly lookin’ out fer ‘em,” Mose said. “If there’s any blame attached then I guess it’s on their doorstep. Like I say that’s why Slim don’t want it all dredged up again…I did warn you Jess. Folk around here have got dang long memories.”
Jess was furious, “Why you silly old goat, he weren’t drunk, that’s just a malicious rumour and probably started by you too!”
“OK you think what you like, but thinking is one thing… proving it is another,” Mose said now getting equally heated.
“Oh, I’ll prove it alright,” Jess said throwing back his whiskey and marching out of the bar.
Chapter 7
He decided to go straight home, not stay in Laramie as he’d planned, as it hardly seemed worth it with Millie being away.
He strolled down Main Street and entered the mercantile to buy some candy and a comic for Mike’s Saturday treat and was served by Ezra the rather forbidding and miserable old storekeeper.
Jess had made his purchases and was just leaving when Ezra called him back.
“Mose tells me you’ve been raking up all that business about the fire at the Jenson place,” he said quietly, his beady eyes glancing quickly around the store, before fixing back on Jess.
“Yeah, so what’s it to you?” Jess asked irritably, beginning to get heartily sick of people telling him to back off.
“It’s probably best to leave it alone Jess…no good ever comes of raking over the past you know.”
Jess turned suspicious eyes on him, “You know something about this dontcha Ezra?”
“No, no of course not,” he said guilt written all over his face.
Then he turned away to serve another customer.
“You’ll keep,” Jess muttered under his breath as he marched out of the shop.
He rode home and stabled Traveller before striding over to the house…but he paused when he reached the porch, standing stock still and staring in horror at something lying on one of the old rockers.
He swallowed hard and looked down into the cold button eyes of Dori Jenson’s rag doll. Last seen locked in the trunk in the old homestead’s kitchen cupboard. He swayed a little and grabbed one of the porch uprights to steady himself.
Just minutes later Daisy came out of the house carrying the washing basket and stopped in her tracks.
“Why Jess, whatever are you doing back so soon?”
Then she looked more closely and saw his eyes glued to the rag doll, his expression fearful and on closer inspection his complexion pale and clammy, like he might well faint.
“Jess dear whatever is it?” she said putting the basket down and taking his arm. When he still didn’t respond she led him to the other seat and pushed him gently down, before picking up the doll and taking a seat herself.
“Jess say something dear, you’re frightening me,” she said when he still sat there transfixed.
After a full minute he finally pulled himself together, “Where did that come from?” he asked.
“It’s Georgy’s dear, Mike’s new little friend, you remember she’s come over to play this afternoon.”
Jess nodded, “Sure I remember now…but where did she get it Daisy?”
She looked mystified as to why Jess would be so interested but decided to humour him seeing as he looked so anxious.
“I do believe it was her Mother’s doll, she seems much attached to it, had it since she was born she was telling me,” Daisy said cuddling the old doll to her. “I’d better take it in she’ll be upset if it gets lost.”
“You’re sure?” Jess said still looking really drawn and sickly so Daisy thought, “She couldn’t have found it someplace when she was playing?”
“I’m positive Jess, why are you so concerned my dear?”
He shrugged, “It just looks like one I saw the other day…could swear it was the same one, with that yellow colour hair and little apron an’ all.”
“Well maybe the one you saw was purchased from the same shop? This is a shop bought doll. Here look and Daisy lifted the little bonnet so Jess could see a scrap of cloth attached with a maker’s name and the place of manufacture New York.”
He gave a sigh of relief, “Yup, that’ll be it,” he agreed. “I didn’t know you could buy ‘em, Ma always made them for my sisters.”
She patted him gently on the arm, “I imagine she did Jess,” she said a hint of sadness in her tone, knowing full well the awful poverty in which he had been raised. She rose to go back inside to return the doll to its rightful owner, “Are you coming in dear, it’s turning chilly.”
“Not right now Daisy, I’ve just got to go out again, something I need to do, I won’t be late.”
Once she had gone Jess took a deep shuddering breath. Of course, the dang doll couldn’t have made it from the chest at the Jenson house over here on its own accord, or even with a little ghostly help he thought. But then the memory of the chest reminded him of something else, the journal that he had found that first day. Maybe that would hold the answers to this whole sorry business. He stood up and made his way back to the barn to saddle up, he had to fetch the journal back and find out the truth.
The sun was just setting as he entered the yard of the Jenson place and the house looked eerie and uninviting in the twilight.
Jess swung down from the saddle and hitched old Charlie, one of the ranch horses, to the rail and hurried in. The old paint didn’t seem to be as spooked by the place as Traveller had been. Jess reckoned the critter wasn’t nearly as smart as his good old horse, now taking a break and chomping on his supper back at the ranch.
He suddenly wished with all his heart that he was back there too. Garldarn it iffen he had to come back to this scary old house at least he could have had the sense to do it in daylight.
He took a deep breath and pulled the old door open, the creaking sound enough to wake the dead he thought with an ironic smile.
As soon as he entered he felt it.
An almost tangible black fog of despair and deep sadness, such as he had not witnessed before. Yes, he’d been pretty dang disturbed on his earlier foray, with the feeling he was not alone, but the presence had not been an evil or wretched one. On the contrary, the whispering and soft breath and little giggles had told of childish pranks and innocence.
Now what he felt was much, much darker and he made his way quickly across the room to the dim recess of the old kitchen area and knelt down to pull the cupboard open. The chest was still there where he had left it and he hauled it out, digging down the side for the old leather-bound journal.
He pulled it out, placed it on the counter above and then shoved the chest back in its place before picking up the diary and turning to leave…
But then he stopped in his tracks, feeling almost as though some unseen presence was pushing him and he staggered backwards. He peered around him for the unknown source of this new phenomenon, but nothing… he was alone in the now suddenly icy cold room.
He stood still, one hand clutching the journal and the other flexing above his gun butt, although the ridiculousness of trying to kill some already dead entity was not lost on him.
Moments later he was aware that a mighty wind had got up from nowhere. Heck just minutes ago, all was calm as he rode in. Now the trees all around the house were being lashed by a gale force storm. Then he heard it… above the storm he heard a roaring sound, almost like some giant beast in pain…and as he looked on in shock, black clouds of smoke started curling up to the ceiling…All the time the front door banging in the gusting wind.
As the smoke got denser so the crying and wailing continued…now an unearthly sound…but Jess recognised it for what it was…
It was the sound of a poor wretched human being howling with grief. He had heard that unnerving sound of keening only once before in his life, when an old and well-loved Indian Chief had died… The whole village were in mourning and that terrible sound was all that could be heard throughout the long dark night.
Now the very walls of the old homestead started shaking and trembling like they might crumble around him at any moment…But it was when the flames started licking at the walls that enough was enough; the place seemed to be afire, just like it had been on his previous visit.
He was still forced into the corner as though some great unseen giant was holding him back…and all the time the smoke increased and the flames leapt higher. The hairs on the back of his neck rose and he began shaking but he refused to lose his nerve.
All his instincts were to blast his gun off and try and force his way out, but he knew that for once in his life his gun would not see him out of this danger alive. So, he did the only thing he could think of that might preserve his mortal soul.
He fell to his knees and started reciting the 23rd Psalm.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters…”
As the intensity of the storm rose around him so did Jess’s voice…loud and strong….
“He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness. For His Name sake,” he declared his voice firm and never wavering as the cloud of smoke now swirled around him and he felt the heat of the flames encroaching…
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me….”
Suddenly everything changed in the blink of an eye….
The storm ceased outside and calm prevailed.
He stopped praying…and looked up and around him.
The house was empty, the flames quenched with merely a faint curl of smoke rising to the ceiling, nothing to be heard, the storm had completely abated and silence reined.
Jess got shakily to his feet and peered around him…nothing. It seemed that nobody was there. But he knew better.
“I know how it feels,” he said quietly addressing the silent room, “I’ve been there…lost loved ones this way…I understand…But you’ve gotta believe me I ain’t here meddling, I’ve come to help you…You and those young ‘uns…Help you go where you need to…”
He took a pace forwards but now there was no resistance merely the sound of a deep sigh, as of one suffering unbearable pain.
Jess felt like the house was holding its breath waiting for him to speak…or someone unseen in its midst.
“I promise you I’ll find a way and I’ll be back…Tell the young ‘uns…I won’t let ‘em down…or you Mister Jenson,” and with that he left.
Charlie was still tethered outside where he had left him and Jess swung up into the saddle and spurred him on to a brisk trot.
After a while he reined in and tipping his hat back looked up to the starry sky.
“Thanks Ma,” he said softly, “you always said learnin’ those Bible verses would hold me in good stead one day and I figure you were right.” He grinned and gave his head a little shake before steering his mount for home.
Chapter 8
By the time Jess returned to the ranch he had calmed down some but was still feeling shaky and kind of bewildered at all he had witnessed during his brief visit to the Jenson spread. At least he had thought it a brief visit but when he finally rolled into the ranch house he was surprised to find the room quiet and empty. Then after a moment Daisy came in from the kitchen.
“Oh, there you are dear,” she said trying to hide her anxiety, “I’ve kept your supper hot.”
“Why what time is it Daisy?” He asked looking surprised knowing that it had been just dusk when he entered the Jensen place and assuming it was still early evening.
“Gone eleven, I was just going to bed, but I’ll sit and have one of my herbal teas with you, keep you company whilst you eat,” she said going off to dish up his meal.
They sat together in companionable silence whilst Jess ate his meal and tried to figure where the last few hours had gone.
Once he’d finished and thanked her he asked after Slim.
“Much better dear I think he can probably get up tomorrow, as long as he takes it easy and doesn’t get upset,” she added giving him a searching look.
“Well I ain’t gonna upset him,” Jess said irritably, then, sighed, “Sorry Daisy.”
“Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you instead,” she said kindly as she poured them both another hot drink and took them over to the fireside.
Jess followed her and sat down. As he took the cup from her he was embarrassed to notice his hands were shaking.
It wasn’t lost on Daisy either and she said softly, “I think you need to tell me what happened tonight, don’t you?”
Jess hung his head, heck he’d promised Slim he’d keep Daisy out of this sorry business, but he was sorely tempted.
Then Daisy reached across and squeezed his hand. “It’s alright Jess you won’t be betraying a confidence. Slim broke down and told me everything tonight, whilst you were out. You see he saw Georgie’s doll too and when I mentioned that you were so curious about it, well I think that was just the last straw. The doll was like one you’ve seen over at the Jenson place isn’t it dear?”
Jess nodded looking dumb struck, “He told you everything?”
She nodded, “And the experiences you have had there too. So, I’m guessing that’s where you’ve been tonight?”
Jess finally capitulated. Heck there was only so much a guy could take and yes, the evening’s events had seriously unnerved him.
It was one thing feeling the presence of young innocent souls… But what he had experienced earlier, the pent-up pain, rage and desolate wretchedness of a tormented spirit? Well that was another thing altogether.
When he told her about feeling physically trapped whilst the angst and physical embodiment of the tormented soul’s pain was all around him, in the guise of fire and storm, Daisy was moved to tears. “The poor, poor man…and you too, Jess, it must have been terrifying, you really mustn’t return there my dear, it isn’t safe.”
“I have to Daisy I have to try and release him from this dang earthly torment, he should be at peace.”
“But how dear, how can you do that?”
“According to Sam a Spirit might hang about because of unfinished business. I figure ol’ man Jenson wants to clear his name, to prove it weren’t his fault that they all perished in the fire.”
“But Jess dear how on earth do you propose to do that? It was all so long ago and with Mr Jenson and the children dead, who can tell us the truth?”
“I reckon it’s all down in here,” he said hoisting the journal up from the side of his chair. This is old man Jenson’s personal diary, going back to about five years before he died. I reckon there must be something here to help. Plus he was supposed to be goin’ hunting with Denver the day of the fire. So maybe he went…I aim to go visit Den and find out…and I reckon Ezra from the mercantile knows something too.”
“Jess do be careful dear I really think it is unwise to dabble with the spirits of the dead, who knows what might happen?”
“Look Daisy iffen he wanted me dead I guess he could have finished it tonight…I reckon he just wants help and I aim to get it for him and those poor little ‘un’s too.”
When she still looked uncertain, he said softly, “I can’t do anything for my own kin Daisy, but maybe I can help these poor folks out huh?”
“Yes, of course you are right my dear. So how can I help?” she said with her warm smile, feeling if she couldn’t stop him then at least she should be aware of what was happening so she could help if needed.
“Maybe help me pull the wool over ol’ Slim’s eyes, just until I’ve figured everything? I need to go see Denver maybe you could agree that a huntin’ trip would be a good notion, you need some fresh meat maybe?” He asked pleadingly.
“You mean lie?” She said looking hesitant. “There is plenty of meat laid down as you well know Jess and so does Slim.”
“Yeah but we’ve not got venison, so how about some nice juicy venison steaks, huh Daisy?”
She had to smile then, “Alright dear you win, I’ll back you up.”
It was a few days later that Jess suggested he take himself off on a short hunting trip.
“After all you’re feeling fit again now ain’t ya Slim and we’re pretty much up to date with all the chores around here. Everything patched up and ready for any winter storms. So how about I head off before the snow’s down huh?”
“The stores pretty much filled isn’t it Daisy?” Slim said turning to their efficient housekeeper.
“Well…. um yes dear, but Jess thought we might like some nice fresh venison for a change, maybe?”
“Uh,” said Slim thoughtfully. Something wasn’t right he knew that. The way Daisy had immediately looked away and Jess’s rather too laid back casual suggestion, when he was usually passionate in arguing his case to take off hunting or fishing. Almost as though he was playing it all down, covering something up, but what? But there again if this proposed trip took his pard’s mind off the goings on at the old Jenson place, well maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea.
“OK Jess, I’m fine with that,” he finally said grinning over at his friend, “just don’t take off for days on end, still a few chores to get done before the snow’s down you know.”
“Sure, sure Slim, I’ll be back before ya know it,” Jess said patting him on the back.
It wasn’t until the following day that Slim’s suspicions were proved true.
Jess was saddling up Traveller ready to ride out when Slim came up behind him.
“So, Jess are you going to tell me where you’re really going, because I don’t buy this hunting trip story?”
Jess froze with his back to Slim as he was putting his saddle in place. Then he bent down to fiddle about adjusting the cinch and finally turned back to face his buddy.
“I guess I can’t fool you,” he said with a rueful grin. “See thing is I didn’t wanna say anything in front of Daisy, but I plan to go up the mountain too. Catch ol’ Denver and put an order in for our Thanksgiving moonshine.”
Slim’s face relaxed into a happy grin, “I knew it…just knew you were keeping something from me. Good idea Jess and get a couple of extra bottles for Christmas huh?”
A little later Jess waved a fond farewell to Daisy and Slim as he trotted Traveller briskly out of the yard.
Yup my old Pa was right, iffen you’re gonna lie, add a hint of the truth into the mix, always sounds more believable he thought to himself and with that he headed for the mountain and Denver James’ camp.
As he rode along he thought back to the previous nights when he had sat up late reading old man Jenson’s private journal.
It had started with a joyful entry telling of the proposed visit by his son and family and then even more excitement when it became clear that they intended to move there from New York. But that was quickly followed by the tragic news of his son and daughter-in-law’s sad demise. Then he read of the trials and tribulations of becoming ‘parents’ again as they took over the responsibility of rearing two high spirited youngsters. Jess sometimes laughed out loud and at other times felt close to tears as he read all about Dorie and Jimmy. They had been so full of life and fun, always getting into mischief, but also filling their grandparent’s life with love and laughter. Slim was mentioned often with affection by James Jenson who frequently welcomed him into his home.
It was when the second tragedy struck, with the death of his wife Maudie that things seemed to go badly wrong for Jenson. The regular diary entries became less and less frequent, some of them barely legible and Jess surmised that this must have been during his drinking days. Then there was a large gap, with no entries at, finally followed by one written in a clear, bold hand, telling of a new phase in Jenson’ s life. He told of the terrible accident when Dori was attempting to cook supper, whilst he was drunk in his bed. Then the repercussions when the Sherman couple, Sheriff and local priest had visited, followed by Jenson signing the Pledge. He had again made the solemn promise in print that he would never touch a drop of strong drink again. There followed more anecdotes around the young children, until Jess finally came to the last entries. About meeting up with Denver in the saloon and seeing Mathew Sherman casting him a disapproving look as he put his head around the saloon door, but then left again.
He had turned to Denver, “What’s eating Sherman, surely he doesn’t think I’m on the grog again? After what nearly happened to the children…Hell Den, I’ll never touch a drop again, you know that dontcha?”
“Sure I do James, but maybe you should call in on Sherman and tell him too huh?” Then with a chuckle, “I figure maybe he don’t like the company you’re keeping.”
Jenson had merely rolled his eyes, “So are we still on for a spot of hunting first thing tomorrow?”
“Sure, I’ll meet you over in the Hell-Gate Woods at dawn and then you can be back home before the young ‘un’ s wake up huh?”
“Sure, sure and they’re good kids, know not to go anywhere near the stove now when I’m not around,” he’d said with a sheepish grin. “I figure those young ‘un’s sure learnt their lesson…me too.”
So, Jess had been right, Jenson was sober, no matter what the general consensus of opinion from gossip mongers like old Mose he reflected.
Now he kneed Traveller on into the sunny fall morning heading for the Laramie mountains just impatient to finally get to the truth.
Chapter 9
“Sure, I remember it like it was yesterday,” old Denver James said turning his toothless grin on Jess.
The young cowboy had ridden into the Mountain Men’s camp as the sun was setting. As expected Denver’s sons, Cody and Mick had materialized from the shadows of the dense woodland, wielding their rifles as he approached. However, they quickly lowered them and came forward in welcome as Jess reined in, standing there in their disheveled old buckskins grinning up at him.
Jess had raised his hands in mock surrender, “Hey I come in peace,” he chuckled.
“Sorry Jess, but Pa always says you can’t be too careful with riders coming up the trail. You never know iffen it’s the Law, see.”
Jess just nodded, knowing the truth of it.
“So, is your Pa around?”
“Sure, come on into camp,” Mick had said winking at his old friend, “we was just gonna start supper, you’ll stay.”
It was a statement rather than a question and Jess knew better than to refuse an offer of hospitality from a mountain man.
“Sure, that would be great,” he said, then looking a tad wary, “So what have you got on the menu tonight then boys?”
He knew that the men had somewhat unusual tastes and not always the same as his own, truth be known.
“Only got us some plain ol’ rabbit stew tonight,” Cody admitted sadly, “nuthin’ exciting like ‘Coon, or snake, sorry Jess.”
Jess gave a sigh of relief and then tried to look slightly disappointed. “Well that’s OK boys,” he said, “and I guess you can’t live high on the hog every night huh.”
Now the meal was over and Jess sat before a roaring fire in their winter quarters of a large old cave and enjoyed a glass of Denver’s best brew. The old timer was pulled up close to the fire and the usual faint aroma of animal skins, whiskey and chewing baccy emanated from his battered buckskins.
“So how come ya remember the day so well?” Jess asked looking puzzled, “It was about twenty years ago. Heck I’m hard put to it to remember where I was last year never mind twenty years ago.”
Denver grinned, “Well I’ll tell ya Jess boy. I’ve cause to remember it on two accounts. See I recall drinking in the saloon with ol’ James and Sheriff Owen walked in. Young Mort Cory was his Deputy back then. Well the Sheriff seemed to think I was doin’ some illegal tradin’ in spirits,” he said looking hard done by. “He kinda suggested I leave town.”
Jess chuckled, “So were you?”
“Tradin’ ?”
“Well yeah, I guess so, but hell a man’s gotta earn a buck or two you know Jess…most unfair I thought he was that day,” and he looked woeful at the memory.
“So, what was the other thing that happened to make you remember everything?”
“Huh…oh yeah I recall that day real clear and that’s down to young Cody here.”
“See I met up with Jenson as planned at dawn and we bagged a couple of deer, were in and out of the Woods within the hour. I recall him sayin’ as how the children would still be abed. Then this dang storm broke. It came from nowhere, the thunder crashin’ all around and lightnin ’ somethin’ fierce. Well we split up and both headed home.”
Jess looked surprised, “So you remember it because of a storm?”
“Heck no boy, but when I landed back home later that day the Misses had produced young Cody here…see it was his Birthday,” he said grinning from ear to ear. “And I’ll tell you what boy the Misses was real glad of that ol’ deer…made us a nice venison stew I do recall.”
Jess just stared at him speechless, wondering which was worse, being left alone to give birth halfway up a mountain or having to set too making supper directly afterwards.
He shook his head, “Hell Den, you didn’t make her cook supper did ya?”
“Dadgum it no boy,” he said slapping his thigh and hooting with laughter. Then he sobered, “Heck no, she cooked it up the next day.”
Jess decided to leave well alone.
“So, what happened when you heard about the house burning down, did you attend the funeral?”
Denver shook his head, “Nope I was keeping my head down see Jess. That ol’ Sheriff Owen decided to try and make an example of me. He figured if he could find my still or catch me trading he’d sling me in his jail in the hope it would kinda deter others, if you get my meaning?”
Jess nodded and the men brooded on the unfairness of life for a few minutes.
“So, I upped sticks and we went over the other side of the mountain. Didn’t show my face back in Laramie until the following spring when Sheriff Owen had retired. Mort Cory was the new Sheriff and he’s a far more reasonable man as well you know,” he said with a grin.
“So, you didn’t know about Jenson dying then, didn’t attend the hearing or anything?”
“Nope I never did. In fact, this is the first time I’ve thought about it in years, ‘twas sad, real sad, they were lovely youngsters…real lovely.”
Then looking mystified, “So what’s it to you Jess, this was way before you landed here weren’t it?”
Jess told him the bare minimum. About how he had stumbled on the remains of the old Jenson ranch house and how in turn that had brought up such bad memories for Slim. Also, how folk like Mose had said that some town’s folk blamed Slim’s parents to this day for not removing the children to a safe place when Jenson started drinking.
“That’s crazy,” said Denver stoutly. “Jenson was as sober as a judge that day…it surely weren’t his fault that fire.”
Then looking reflective, “Could have been a lightnin’ strike though Jess boy, it sure was a bad storm.”
“So, would you be willing to ride into town with me, swear a statement for Mort saying as how Jenson was sober and all…so we can set the record straight?”
Denver looked somewhat nonplussed. “Well Hell boy why all the fussin’ and frettin’, it was a powerful long time ago…so why should you care?”
There was no way Jess was going to explain about the haunting and how he had felt the presence of the dead and just knew it was down to him to help release them from their purgatory and give them peace.
Heck no, Den might think Jess had lost his marbles or had been over indulging in the moonshine.
“Like I say Den, Slim still feels kinda bad about it all….so will you help me out huh?”
As it happened Denver and the boys were getting kind of twitchy because Denver’s distant cousin Kate Munroe, who usually resided with them, had been away for far too dang long. She had been over in Laramie for several weeks according to Denver and he had already planned to go fetch her home.
Kate was her own woman though and just stayed up the mountain with Denver and the boys because that’s exactly where she wanted to be, she had once told Jess.
Jess and Kate were old friends, Kate having been a friend of Jess’s parents. At nearing fifty she was still a remarkable looking woman with her white blond hair and clear tanned face and neat figure. After the death of her husband Charlie down in Texas she had sold the saloon that they ran together and had moved up to Wyoming to her distant relatives. But there was absolutely no romantic connection with Denver, their relationship was totally platonic and one of mutual benefit. Kate was savvy enough to know that it would be unwise for a single woman to reside alone in the harsh wilds of the Laramie Mountains and Denver was happy to lend his support in return for her good home cooking and medicinal skills. Kate was an accomplished herbalist and was well versed in all things medicinal and had saved Jess’s bacon more than once and Denver and the boys too.
Just a few years ago she had met Mort Cory and a mutual attraction had sprung up between the couple. However, whereas Kate professed she would never marry again and just enjoyed Mort’s attentions occasionally, the Sheriff had other ideas. He would have made an honest woman of his sometime lover in a New York minute.
Now that Kate had been gone for nearly three weeks Denver was beginning to worry. What if she had decided to throw her lot in with the Sheriff? Where did that leave Denver and the boys as far as good cookin’ went and not to mention good nursing?
“OK Jess, I’ve a mind to come to town with you and make that thar statement…on one condition.”
“Oh, so what’s that then Den?”
“If our Miss Kate is havin’ foolish notions about shakin’ down with the Sheriff you dang well dissuade her huh Jess?”
Jess made a non-committal grunt and hoped that would suffice, secretly hoping that Mort and Kate had finally got it together. And anyway, he figured Den had managed before Kate landed and he could manage again, his poor long-suffering wife having been in her grave some years now. But Mort…well his old friend was truly besotted with Kate and they’d make a good team, so Jess thought.
Remembering his alleged reason for the trip the two men spent the next morning hunting, Jess bagging a good size deer. They were only half way back to town at sunset when they decided to break their journey and make camp down by the creek.
It wasn’t until they had ridden down towards the slowly meandering water that they realised they weren’t the only people to make that decision as they saw the soft curl of smoke from a camp fire off downstream a little way.
“Might as well check ‘em out,” Denver said, always wary of strangers, “iffen we’re gonna be murdered while we sleep I’d kinda like to know who’s goin’ to do it.”
Jess scratched his head at the old man’s logic and raised a quirky eyebrow, but none the less rode on down and into the stranger’s camp with him.
Jess recognised the big old paint before he even saw Kate Munroe and he jumped down from the saddle advancing on her as she stood by her brightly crackling fire, a rifle trained on him.
Kate had jumped up and grabbed her rifle as they approached but now she put it aside and grinned at the two men. She was attired in her usual buckskins and exuded good health and energy, looking trim and fit belying her age.
She advanced and shook Jess’s hand firmly before flicking a little salute up at where Denver still sat his horse.
“It’s been too long Jesse boy,” she said beaming at the dark-haired cowboy. In her pleasure at seeing him again forgetting he hated the use of his old childhood name. “So, what are you doing in the company of this old ne'er-do-well?” She asked chuckling now and casting Denver a cheeky smile.
“We’ve got business in town, or we did have, “Jess said ruefully. “I figure Denver won’t wanna be coming with me now you’re on your way home.”
“Ah, so you came lookin’ did ya, you old fool?” Kate said pleasantly. “Thought I’d gotten my feet under the Sheriff’s table did ya? “And she gave a shout of laughter.
“Somethin’ like that,” Denver agreed now looking a tad embarrassed.
But Kate ignored him and turned back to Jess, “Business you say?”
“Uh yeah, I just wanted him to come and see the Sheriff about somethin’, sign a statement, ‘tis all.”
Kate looked wary for a moment, “He ain’t in trouble is he Jess boy, you ain’t deputising for Mort are ya?”
“Hell no, nuthin’ like that Kate, I wouldn’t see ol’ Den in trouble you know that. Nope just a personal favour I was after that’s all.”
“Oh well that’s alright,” she said looking relieved, “sure Den will help you out won’t you…huh?” She said turning to the old man.
Denver looked unhappy, “Well I dunno, got me stuff to do…”
“Sure you will Denver,” Kate said firmly, “unless you want me to turn tail and go back and spend the winter shacked up with the sheriff, because the notion is looking real appealing to me right now.”
Denver sighed deeply and waved a hand at her in capitulation and turned to Jess, “Sure I’ll help ya out Jess boy I was only funnin’ ya.”
“Besides didn’t you say you were heading for town pretty soon anyway to get some orders in for Thanksgiving brew? May as well get to it Denver,” Kate finished.
Denver still looked hard done by but had to agree.
Then his face brightened, “We’ve got us some mighty fine venison steaks Kate, iffen you’d like to do the honors?”
It was later when Denver had turned in for the night, snoring softly after an overindulgence of whiskey, that Jess and Kate had a chance to talk properly. Having known each other for so long no time was wasted on an idle preamble and Jess got straight to the point.
“So, what have you been up to Kate? Den thought you might have decided to make a go of it with Mort at last,” he said with a hopeful glint in his eyes.
Kate let out an un-lady like snort and then threw him a mock glare.
“Why you young whippersnapper, show yer elders some respect, I reckon what goes on between me and the Sheriff is our darned business.”
Jess just chuckled at the reprimand, “OK have it yer own way, but I’ll just ask Mort when I see him anyways.”
She rolled her eyes at this and then said, “Alright iffen you must know I’ve been over to Cheyenne to visit with Peggy and Millie.”
Jess immediately straightened up from where he’d been lounging back on his saddle sipping his coffee.
“Huh, are they alright, is Millie comin’ home soon?” He asked eagerly.
“So you’re bothered then boy?” she asked raising a censorious eyebrow.
Jess frowned, “Well Hell of course I am Kate, why wouldn’t I be huh?”
She shrugged, “It don’t seem to be the way young Millie’s figurin’ it. She seems to think you wouldn’t notice iffen she was around or not.”
“What she said that?” Jess asked looking dismayed.
“Nope she’s too dang loyal, but I reckon that’s what she thinks, says you haven’t been visiting too much these last few weeks.”
Jess looked down and flushed, “Been real busy gettin’ straight fer the winter, bringing the stock down, fencin’ and stuff you know how it is Kate.”
“Oh sure I do boy and spending some time visiting over at the Jenson place too so I hear.”
Jess’s head shot up again, “She told you that?”
“Yup, she was worried about you Jess.”
“So, you know everything?”
She nodded, “Yup she told me all about it.”
“I suppose you think I’m loco, seeing things…ghosts huh?”
“No, that I don’t son, not at all. Seen more than a few things I can’t account for myself, so no I don’t think you’re crazy…just kinda out of your depth maybe?”
“You can say that again,” Jess muttered. “So, you believe in all this then Kate…Heaven and Hell, earth bound spirits an’ the like?”
“Well sure. The good Lord in His wisdom didn’t make us sorry folk to come on earth, learn life’s lessons and then nothing, we die and that’s it? No, I believe the Spirit goes on and at the end gets the just deserts that they should have. Heaven for some and the warm place for them that deserves it,” she said with a wink.
“Uh, that’s it Kate. I have a feeling that Jenson thinks he’s destined for Hell and that’s why he’s hanging around. I figure if I can clear his name and somehow tell him, then he’ll be at peace.”
Kate sighed, “And those poor young ‘un’s are all caught up in it too. Don’t want to leave him I guess.”
Jess impulsively reached over and squeezed her hand. “Thanks Kate.”
“Whatever for?” she asked looking flushed with pleasure at the affectionate gesture.
“For not thinkin’ I was plumb crazy,” he said with a grin.
“Um…well I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jess.”
“I reckon you are crazy if you let that purty little Millie slip through your fingers.”
“Hell, I ain’t gonna do that, I’ll make it up to her sure I will,” he said suddenly looking anxious.
“Well I just hope you haven’t left it too late Jess,” she said with a sigh, before draining her coffee cup. “I guess I’ll turn in,” she said pleasantly.
“Too late, huh what do you mean?”
“Uh, oh nothing… nothing at all boy”
“I just think she could do with a little spoiling from you, she’s been… er working real hard at her Ma’s place, with Betty having been so sick and all.”
“She has, they’ve been busy then?”
“Um? Oh yes pretty busy a lot of business men passing through, some on long stays too.”
“Oh really, long stays you say?” Jess said wondering where this was leading.
“Um, yes one of them was a Snake Oil salesman, stayed a while. In fact, you may know him Jess, Billy-Joe Styles from back on the panhandle?”
Jess turned pale, “What Billy-Joe the womanizer, the guy that messed with my Millie and broke her heart…that low life? Hell, Snake Oil salesman, well that would be about right, he’d know all about dang snakes wouldn’t he.”
Kate stretched and yawned, “Sorry Jess I must bed down, I’m plumb wore out. I expect she’ll tell you all about it when you see her,” and with that she snuggled down on her bedroll by the fire, turning away to hide a wily smile.
Jess just stared at her back open mouthed…before laying down himself. But it was a long time before he finally slept… That no good bum and his Millie? Goddamn it if he’d so much as touched a hair on her head…But there again, he hadn’t been around much lately had he, so who could blame her…but Billy-Joe?
Chapter 10
The following morning Jess was up at first light and chivvying Denver on to shake a leg and git the hell up as he wanted to ride for town shortly.
“Well dadgum it boy, what’s yer tearin’ hurry?” Denver exploded as Jess snatched his coffee cup away the second it was drained.
“I thought you said you needed to get some orders in and that’ll be easier done without the Sheriff breathin’ down your neck. So, I figured we’d see him first thing. Then afterwards he’ll be over at Miss Molly’s café for breakfast, so you can do the rounds in peace see?”
“Well I suppose that makes sense, but let a body wake up first will ya Jess?” Denver grumbled.
It was still really early when they arrived in Laramie and hitched their mounts outside the Sheriff’s office.
Mort looked surprised to see Denver with Jess and threw the old mountain man a wary glance. He really hoped Denver James wasn’t in town to do any trading. Sure, he turned a blind eye when he could for Kate’s sake, but if things were going on under his nose he could hardly ignore it.
“Howdy Jess, Denver,” he said, “So what brings you here so bright and early?”
“Take it easy Mort Jess said with a grin, Den’s here just to give that sworn statement about all that business with Jenson I told you about.”
Then with his back to Denver winked at Mort, “Ya know how I was sussing it all out because Slim wanted to kinda draw a line under all that happened?”
“Uh, yeah I recall you saying something of the sort,” Mort said picking up on the fact that Jess didn’t want anything of the strange events he’d witnessed over at the old Jenson place mentioned in front of Denver.
Their business was quickly concluded with Denver having confirmed the day and time he was with James Jenson, his state of sobriety and the fact that a fierce storm had suddenly curtailed their trip and both men had headed home barely an hour or two after dawn.
Once Denver had made his farewells, promising to call in and visit at the Sherman spread prior to Thanksgiving. Mort turned questioning eyes on Jess.
“So, what’s that old rogue up to, I hope he ain’t tradin’ in my town Jess.”
“Relax Mort, he’s only takin’ a few orders, be back on the road by the time you’ve finished your breakfast.”
“The old reprobate, I catch him peddling he’s in trouble though Jess.” Then he chuckled, “But he sure makes darned good whiskey doesn’t he though?”
“That he does Mort,” Jess agreed.
Then shaking his hand said, “And thanks for your help with all this, I appreciate it and Slim will too, I know that.”
“OK, you’re welcome son, so you joining me over the street for some breakfast?”
Jess’s face clouded, “Nope can’t Mort, got me some business at the saloon,” and with that he turned and marched off.
He hammered on the salon door for a good two minutes before a bleary-eyed Tom finally hauled the door open.
“Dadgum it we’re closed,” he growled, before focusing on Jess.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said and jerked his head towards the interior, “you’re in luck she came back yesterday and she’s just tidying the bar.”
Jess hurriedly pushed in passed Tom, who closed and locked the door again, muttering, “Come in why dontcha.”
As Jess entered the dimly lit room he saw Millie standing behind the bar, putting glasses away, but she turned as he strode in.
He had intended on asking her what the Hell she thought she was doin’ hanging around Billy-Joe, but the moment he saw her the words died on his lips.
He stood stock still for a moment their gaze locking before he exploded into action, vaulted the bar and took her in his arms kissing her passionately.
When they were still in an amorous embrace a good few minutes later Tom went over and coughed discretely.
They sprang apart and turned sheepish eyes on him.
Tom sighed and then grinned at them, “Go on I guess you’d better take this upstairs, we don’t open for a couple of hours, have a break Millie dear. But be back down for opening,” he called after her retreating back.
They stood on the threshold of Millie’s comfortable room, neither of them knowing how to broach the subject uppermost on their mind.
Jess divested himself of his gun belt and boots and left them near the door as per Millie’s house rules, before the pair made for her comfortable squashy couch, still hand-in-hand.
They sat and Jess turned troubled eyes on her.
“Millie, I think we need to talk. See I saw Kate back on the trail and she, well she told me about her visiting you and Ma, about everything that’s been going on there too.”
Millie looked down quickly and turned pale, “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “so sorry. I just needed someone to confide in. Heck Jess you’ve not been around and I was just so…well so lonely with nobody to talk things through with, you must understand,” and she turned pleading eyes on him.
He leapt up and paced around the room for a minute, trying to get his head around what was happening. Millie…his Millie had been confiding in that low life Billy-Joe and so what else had they been getting up too, he wondered. But even as he had the thought he dismissed it…Millie wouldn’t cheat on him he just knew it. But she could well have gotten close to Billy-Joe again, real close and the thought of it made him feel sick to his stomach.
He turned on her his eyes blazing with pain and hurt, “How could you?” he spat.
The threatening tears now spilled over and ran freely down her face, “I’m sorry Jess, but I really didn’t think you’d take it this way, be this mad.”
“Are you crazy,” he snapped. “You’ve been gettin’ real close to that low life Billy-Joe again and you thought I wouldn’t be mad? Hell, I love ya Millie, you’re my girl of course I’m dang well mad!”
“What did you say?” she whispered.
“I love you,” he said…now very softy.
“No, what did you say before? You said something about Billy-Joe?”
“Well you’ve been seeing him ain’t ya? Confiding in him, sharing stuff…hell I dunno what you’ve been doin’ with him, you tell me,” he yelled furious again.
Now it was Millie’s turn to be the injured party.
“Billy –Joe are you stupid, I haven’t been doing anything with him, how could you think that of me Jess?”
Jess shrugged, “Somethin’ Kate said.”
Millie shook her head, “She was just trying to make you jealous I guess. I happened to mention you hadn’t been around much, but Billy-Joe? Have you seen him lately?”
Jess just shook his head and collapsed back down beside her on the couch.
She giggled, “I swear he uses that snake oil on his hair, he’s got a bald patch too, he’s terribly overweight and has bad breath. Heck Jess iffen I was going to try and make you jealous I’d choose someone a darn sight more presentable than Billy–Joe.”
Jess shook his head in bewilderment, “You loved him…you told me, heck when he threw you over you cried for a week, nearly drove us all nuts with your fussin’ and frettin’.”
“Jess I was twelve and Billy–Joe was thirteen, it was hardly the romance of a lifetime.”
He grinned at her then, “Hey I thought you loved me when you were just seven?”
“Oh, I did,” she agreed, “I was just making sure. I thought I’d kiss a few frogs to be certain you were my prince.”
He stroked a gentle finger down her cheek wiping a tear away, “So was I?”
She leaned in real close, “You know you were and still are,” she whispered before kissing him.
It was much later when they were lying in Millie’s large comfy bed drowsy and satiated that he turned puzzled eyes on her.
“So, who were you talkin’ about before, said you’d betrayed a confidence or something,
needed someone to talk to?”
She again looked a tad sheepish, “It was Kate of course…I was just so worried about you messing with these Spirits over at the Jenson place I needed some wise advice, so who better than Kate?”
“Who indeed,” he nodded. “But I wouldn’t take any advice from her about our love life Millie, gettin’ me all fired up that way weren’t a good idea.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said and giggled coyly, “I guess you’ve just showed me exactly how much you do care.”
He looked shocked for a moment and then gave a hearty laugh, “You’re a wicked woman Millie Johnson, come here,” and she shrieked with laughter as he commenced tickling her.
Chapter 11
Much later there was a hesitant tap on the door and Millie slid out of bed to answer it, pulling her robe on as she went.
Lily stood there looking sheepish.
“I’m sorry honey, but Tom says you’ve had ample time to make it up with Jess and can you get down as we’re real busy?”
As the couple entered the bar a little later Millie said softly, “Oh no not again.”
“Huh what’s up sweetheart?” Jess asked.
“It’s Ezra,” she said pointing to the elderly owner of the mercantile, who was sitting at a table at the back, hunched over a glass of whiskey.
“Hey it’s not like old Ezra to shut up shop at dinner time, he likes to chase every cent he can get,” Jess said looking surprised.
Millie shook her head, “I don’t know what’s come over him, he’s never been a big drinker, but these last few weeks he’s in here all the time. Tom even had to carry him home one night.”
“Like me to have a word with him?”
“Could you, I know Tom’s really worried about him.”
Jess slid into the seat opposite Ezra, but it was some time before the grey-haired man noticed he had company.
“What do you want Harper?” he asked slurring slightly.
Jess gave him an encouraging smile, “I thought you might like someone to talk to; tell me what’s botherin’ you maybe?”
“Why should I tell you?” he said sitting up a tad straighter and fixing Jess with wary, bloodshot eyes.
“Because maybe I’m the cause of it,” Jess said quietly. “It seems to me this drinkin’ began at about the same time as I started asking questions about the fire over at the Jenson place.”
Ezra seemed to shrink back in fear and he turned very pale, “I don’t know nuthin’,” he said quickly, before knocking his drink back and starting to scramble to his feet.
But Jess was too fast for him and grabbing his arm pulled him back down again and fixed him with the Harper glare.
“Look Ezra, we can do this the easy way or the hard way,” he said giving this information a few seconds to sink in, whilst Ezra dwelt on what the hard way might entail, before Jess continued, in a friendlier way.
“I can see you’re real upset about all this business. But I really need to know what happened that day at the Jenson place, and I think you know something don’t you.”
Ezra opened his mouth to deny it and then saw the hint of menace still in Jess’s dark blue eyes although his tone was more consolatory.
“Yes,” he eventually whispered, “but I can’t say really, I can’t… don’t make me Jess, please.”
“I’m sorry Ezra, but I really need to know, it’s important.”
Jess refilled the older man’s glass from the bottle on the table and pushed it across… “So?”
Ezra knocked back the whiskey in one, closing his eyes and grimacing before looking back into Jess’s eyes.
“Alright boy you win,” and he started his tragic tale.
“I wasn’t always a grumpy old store keeper you know,” he said with a sad smile. “Twenty years ago, I was happily married and making a good go at ranching. Had a little spread adjacent to old Jenson’ s place, down the Laramie road a mile or so beyond his place. It was a good life and all me and my Ellie wished for was a young ‘un of our own. Ellie loved kids, especially those Jenson children,” he said shaking his head. “Taught ‘em at the Sunday School, real live wires they were.”
Jess waited patiently for him to continue.
He sighed deeply and then carried on, “So we were in our thirties when we were finally blessed and my Ellie caught pregnant,” and as he looked over Jess saw tears in the old man’s eyes.
Ezra took a deep breath and then said, “All was fine until about the eighth month. Then real early one morning the baby started coming. October it was and her not due until Thanksgiving. Ha,” he said bitterly,” we were so looking forwards to that first Thanksgiving with the baby.”
“What happened?” Jess whispered.
“She was in pain, terrible pain…begged me not to leave her to get the doc, so I did the only thing I could. I wrapped her up real warm and put her in the buckboard and set off for old Doc Johnson’s place in town. Gee it was a terrible morning, as soon as we set off this dang storm blew in from nowhere, thunder crashing around us, lightning ripping through the clouds making it bright as day and all the time my poor Ellie screaming in agony,” and he shook his head, tears now welling up in his eyes again.
Jess too felt deeply moved, but he had to know… he just had to.
“So, you set off for the doc’s place?”
He nodded and then carried on talking, now in a toneless whisper.
“It was when we passed the Jenson place that it happened,” he said raising agonised eyes to Jess… “The lightning struck, set the house ablaze. I wanted to stop, try and help them, but I couldn’t Jess, the baby was coming and I just had to whip the team on through the storm.”
Jess gaped at him, as the full horror of what had happened hit home.
“I carried on and made it to the doc’s, but by the time I got there Ellie and my son were both dead,” he finished, the tears now running freely down his lined old face.
“I’m so Goddamn sorry,” Jess whispered.
Ezra nodded in acknowledgement.
“So, you see Jess, it weren’t Slim’s fault, or his folk, like some people claimed, or indeed Jenson himself…but it was my fault … all my fault.”
Jess was silent for several minutes before he leaned over and squeezed the old man’s shoulder.
“No, it weren’t Ezra, it weren’t anyone’s fault. I guess it was just one of those things. Even if you’d stopped you wouldn’t have been able to get ‘em out of a blazing house. Believe me I know,” he said with feeling. “But you have to make a statement for Mort, exonerate Slim’s folks and Jenson huh?”
Ezra just nodded, “I guess I can do that.”
“There’s something else as well, I think you need to make your peace with Jenson too, huh?”
Ezra’s jaw dropped and he looked at Jess in utter shock, “You’ve seen him too then boy?”
Jess shook his head, “Not exactly, but let’s just say he’s been around, yeah.”
When Ezra stood up a little later it was obvious he wasn’t going to make it home on his own.
Tom came around from behind the bar, but Jess just shook his head and taking the older man’s elbow safely steered him from the saloon and over the road to his shop. However, Ezra gestured for Jess to take him around to the back entrance.
“The boy will open up, I guess I need a coffee before I can show my face,” he said ruefully.
Jess helped him to a comfy armchair and returned a few minutes later bearing two cups of Arbuckle’s best.
Ezra gestured for him to sit and took the proffered drink, “Thank ye kindly Jess.” he said quietly.
“So, you’ve seen him?” Jess asked looking expectant.
Ezra nodded, “It was a few years back. Old Davy Lloyd talked me into going hunting with him. He said he’d seen a whole mess of wild turkey and I’d make a killing selling them in the mercantile as it wasn’t long before Thanksgiving. So, I went along with him, but I sure wish I hadn’t.”
“Oh, why was that?”
“What he didn’t tell me was that he’d seen ‘em over in Hell-Gate Woods, right by my old spread. Anyway, was too late to back out so we went over real early and shot a good few…it was afterwards…” and he swallowed hard.
“Go on,” Jess said gripped by the tale.
“We were making our way back when we suddenly heard this god-awful wailing, like someone was in pain, or suffering some torment, you’ve never heard anything like it,” he said turning anguished eyes on Jess.
“Oh, I think I have,” Jess said softly, “so what happened?”
“We came to this clearing and he was there on his knees, just weeping…I couldn’t stand it…turned and hightailed it out of there.”
“You saw him though, his face, you’re sure it was Jenson?”
“It was him alright. All I saw was this kinda smoky image, shiverin’ and flickering, never seen the like before…but poor old Davy saw him OK.”
“Why do ya call him poor old Davy?”
“Because he dropped down dead the following day…cursed by Jenson see…me too I reckon and he’d have got me too iffen I’d hung around.”
“So, I guess it was you that put the rumour around that if you see Jenson then you’re doomed to die huh?”
“Ain’t no rumour Jess, it’s the truth dang it, the truth!”
Jess left the old timer to sleep it off and a little later made his way back to the saloon, wanting to spend as much of the day as he could in Millie’s company.
It was early Saturday evening by now and pretty packed, with no chance of talking to his girl, who was run off her feet. But Jess was pleased to spy doc Sam Baker at one of the back tables.
He mooched over and sat down, “Not often we see you in here Sam?”
The doctor smiled at him, “Good to see you Jess. No, that’s right, but I was called in to treat one of the girls, young Gina took a nasty tumble down the stairs.”
“Oh, is she OK?” Jess asked looking concerned, being fond of the young barmaid.
“Just cuts and bruises, she’ll be just fine in a day or two. Anyway, Tom insisted on buying me a drink on the house,” he said nodding to the glass of beer before him.
“Want another?” Jess asked as he rose to go to the bar, but the doc declined. “Better not Jess, never know when I might be called out, Saturday night and all.”
Jess returned with a glass of beer for himself a few minutes later and settled down for a chat.
“So, what’s been happening about those Spirits of yours over at the Jenson spread?” Sam asked throwing Jess a concerned glance, “Anything else happened?
Jess quickly updated him on everything that had occurred since he last saw his friend. From the terrifying experience when he had felt the presence of Jenson himself, to the support he’d received from Tom and Denver, both signing statements as to Jenson’s sobriety.
Then Jess told him about the recent revelations from Ezra and how he too had agreed to write a statement saying that the fire had been due to lightning strike and nothing Jenson or the children had done.
Sam shook his head and grinned at his friend, “Well you certainly have done a good job Jess. That should be plenty of evidence to reopen the inquest and change the verdict from Misadventure to Act of God, I would have thought.”
Jess agreed, “Yup, Mort thinks the same. So, I guess now I’ve just got to tell Jenson and the young ‘uns…and maybe they can be at peace at last.”
“You don’t look any too happy about that Jess?”
He was silent for a while and then said, “Well I’m beginning to think it might not be any too good for my health Sam,” he replied with a bitter smile.
“Oh, why is that?”
Then he went on to tell Sam what had happened to Ezra and especially Davy Lloyd in Hell-Gate Woods.
The doctor smiled and shook his head. “I shouldn’t pay too much heed to that Jess. You see old Davy Lloyd was on borrowed time. Apparently, he had a real bad heart condition. It could have given out on him at any time. Sure, the shock of seeing some sort of apparition in the woods might have been the catalyst…part of the cause that is. But it wasn’t due to any sort of curse from beyond the grave, trust me.”
“Oh, I trust ya alright Sam,” Jess said with a wicked grin, “but I guess it ain’t gonna be you confronting those ol’ spirits.”
However, Sam sobered at that comment.
“No Jess you’re right and I shouldn’t be dismissive and underestimate the power of the spirit world,” he said looking suddenly very serious. “For that reason, I really feel you should take Reverend Wesley with you. Josh is versed in this sort of thing, can maybe help them to find peace?”
Jess nodded, “I sure hope so Sam, see I kinda promised I’d help ‘em, but I’m just not sure as to how to go about it…what to do next I guess.”
Sam looked thoughtful. “Well I’m no expert, but as you’ve already made some sort of contact in the old ranch house I imagine that would be the best place to go and take some sort of evidence with you…Would Ezra go with you, tell them he saw the lightning strike and how he had set the record straight?”
Jess shrugged, “I doubt it, he’s as scared as all get out and who can blame him? Heck he’s an old man too and we sure don’t want him keeling over from shock like Davy.”
“Good point, so I guess it’s down to you and Josh…and maybe …”
“Maybe Slim would he accompany you? I’m sure Jenson would trust him.”
Jess just shrugged, “I really dunno Sam.”
“I know how deeply all this has affected him Jess, but maybe this is what he needs to draw a line under it all, forgive himself and move on. From what I’ve seen he’s taken this business very badly, he really needs to face his daemons.”
“That’s what I thought when I pushed him into going in the house with me that time and that sure didn’t help him, he’s had those dang nightmares ever since.”
“Yes, but things have changed since then Jess. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. What I mean is, if Slim is so hung-up about it all, then maybe Jenson will pick up on that and make some sort of contact with you. I seem to recall that spirits can pick up on feelings, pretty much the same as animals can. Then if you can get Slim to communicate with Jenson maybe finally he’ll be able to move on and find peace huh?”
“You could be right Sam,” he said with a grin, “after all you usually are…you and Miss Daisy.”
“Heck Jess don’t put me in the same league as Miss Daisy, she’s way more astute than I’ll ever be,” he said with a bark of laughter….
“So Jess another beer huh?”
Jess had met up with his old friend Reverend Joshua Wesley later that afternoon and told him the whole tale and was gratified that Josh took it all in his stride and was eager to help in any way he could.
“You’ve seen for yourself the depth of emotion these entities can possess, especially if they are tormented by grief or guilt. And yes, you are right to be wary; it seems to me you had a lucky escape when you felt Jenson’ s presence.”
“You can say that again,” Jess said with feeling.
“The fire itself is so much to do with his depth of anguish that it is summoned up when he manifests or shows himself. He wasn’t deliberately trying to harm you, but it is almost a part of him now as he has lived with its horror for so long.”
“So, what can we do about it?” Jess asked looking perplexed. “I sure don’t wanna be burnt to a crisp tryin’ to help the guy out.”
“No, no my boy, I can’t see it coming to that. And we will deal with it, just as you did. Your recitation of the psalms certainly did the trick and hopefully the presence of a man of God will calm things down too.”
Jess had thanked him and the parson had agreed to be there when he was needed.
Later that night Jess helped Tom, Lily and Millie collect up the glasses and tidy the bar, figuring that the quicker the task was completed, well the sooner he’d have his girl to himself.
He’d noticed that Lily had been particularly quiet, even for her, and so as they stood behind the bar washing glasses together, while Millie brushed up, he questioned her.
“So, everything OK with you Lily,” he asked with a friendly grin, “I guess it ain’t just Millie I’ve missed these last few weeks, but the gossip from all you gals too.”
She sighed deeply and cast doleful eyes on him, “Have you really Jess…so what about Slim, has he missed us too?”
The penny dropped and Jess was suddenly aware of her displeasure.
“Why sure he has honey, he’s missed you something fierce.”
“Well he’s not here now is he?”
Jess looked down and then abandoning his task took her arm and guided her over to a table and they sat down. “I guess you need an explanation,” he said.
He told her everything, just knowing that his pard would rather she understood the situation, than think he was merely neglecting her.
“So you see,” he finished, “I reckon old Hardrock ain’t been feeling too much like socialising of late. Didn’t wanna burden you with it all either I reckon.”
“I can understand that,” she said looking more cheerful, if concerned. “But you know Jess they are all talking about it around the bar since Mose mentioned it. I have to tell you a lot of folk are still thinking that it was Jenson’ s fault too. That he was drunk and caused the fire. Also, that Slim’s parents being the nearest neighbours should have done something before the tragedy happened.”
“The hell they are?” Jess said angrily. “That’s dang typical of half the barflies in here, iffen a story don’t suit them they dang well make it up.”
Millie had wandered over and joined them, “Well isn’t that just the truth,” she said bitterly. Then more thoughtfully, “You’ll just have to convince them of the facts Jess.”
“Uh, so how do you reckon I do that, other than knock their doggone heads together?”
“Oh, there’s a much easier way than that. As soon as all the paper work is completed on the inquest, get the Editor from the Sentinel to write a story on it. If it’s in the paper it must be true,” she said triumphantly, throwing Jess a teasing glance.
“Sure it is,” he said his eyes twinkling; “I guess we all know that.”
Then when Lily looked puzzled Millie explained.
“Jess had a run in with the Editor, Burt Gates a few years ago. He had to threaten him with a liable suit iffen he didn’t retract stuff he’d written about Jess and that sure did the trick. Old Burt has been a pussy cat ever since. So I reckon we can all thank Jess for the Sentinel’s true and accurate reporting.” See #21 The Persecuted.
“Yeah, saying I was gonna call in the Sherman family solicitor helped,” Jess agreed. “But I think it was when I threatened to shove his paper down his throat and make him eat his words that clinched it.”
The girls giggled at that and then Tom came over and asked plaintively iffen they were thinking of finishing off tidying up, as he for one wanted his bed.
Chapter 12
Jess left for the ranch early Sunday morning, knowing that he had been away too long. He was feeling guilty about leaving Slim with all the work, especially in his rather depressed condition. He was happy to be on the way home, but he really wasn’t looking forward to trying to convince Slim to join him and Josh in exorcising the spirits over at the Jenson place.
He was about a mile from home when he heard a buggy coming down the road at a good pace and moments later Daisy and Mike came into view.
Daisy quickly slowed old Betsy to a standstill and Jess reined in Traveller and grinned at the pair.
“Howdy, so where are you off to looking so smart?” He asked taking in Daisy’s floral bonnet and Mike’s best suit.
“Oh Jess, I’m so glad you’re home dear,” she said ignoring his initial question. “So, did you get all your business done? Er… the hunting that is and everything?” She asked with a meaningful look.
“Yup, got a real fine deer,” he said nodding to the bulging gunny sacks hanging behind the saddle. “I um, talked through that business with Denver too,” he said hoping Mike wasn’t paying too much attention. “He came though good Daisy, has signed a statement, Tom and old Ezra too…but I’ll tell ya all about it later…So where are you off to?” He asked again.
“Church dear and then this afternoon there is a Church Social that Mike and I are attending. As it finishes late we are staying over at Miss Davies’s house and so I’ll see you boys tomorrow.”
When Jess looked less than happy she beamed at him. “There’s a stew in the slow cooker for supper and pie in the larder.”
He brightened at that, “OK have a swell time then.”
“Oh, we will,” Mike confirmed, “there’s gonna be cake and ice cream after the hymn singin’ Jess!”
“Are you sure we can’t tempt you?” asked Daisy with a teasing smile.
“Sorry Daisy, lots to catch up on, have fun,” and he spurred Traveller off at speed.
When he rode into the yard a little later Slim came out of the barn to greet him and Jess was concerned to see that his pard seemed to have lost weight even in the short time Jess had been away and he was looking kind of peaky too.
However, he looked pleased enough to have Jess back and welcomed him with a huge grin.
“So, did you bag a deer then?”
“Sure did,” Jess confirmed, tipping his hat towards the gunny sacks, “pretty much butchered, just needs tidying up a bit and putting in Daisy’s cold store.”
Slim took the meat from him and marched off to the kitchen and Jess joined him a little later after he’d tended to his mount.
“So, you had a good trip?” Slim asked from where he was already setting about cutting the meat into neat steaks.
Jess threw his hat on the back-door hook and mooched over to the stove to put the coffee pot on.
“Sure did,” he replied, “all OK here?”
Slim just nodded absently, “So did you catch up with Denver, get that bit of business sorted out?”
Jess paused with his back to Slim, the coffee pot suspended in mid-air, before he remembered his ruse about meeting Denver to order their Moonshine.
“Uh, yeah,” he said now turning and grinning at his friend, I ordered extra for Christmas too. He’ll deliver in the usual place, in a couple of weeks, I paid up front.”
“Was that wise?” Slim asked frowning.
“Sure, you can trust ol’ Den iffen he says he’ll deliver, he will.”
“OK, if you say so.”
By the time the coffee was ready Slim had dealt with the deer and Jess poured them both a cup and sat down at the table opposite his buddy.
“That’s real good meat,” Slim said,” I’m glad you went, it was a good idea of yours, seeing Denver too.”
“Um, yeah…but that weren’t the only reason I went Slim.”
“Oh?” He asked his brows knitting.
“Nope, I went to try and find out more about what happened, over at the Jenson place, the day of the fire.”
Slim’s face clouded and he looked annoyed, “I thought I told you to leave well alone Jess and you know why. I don’t want all that raked up again, folk talking and bad-mouthing Ma and Pa…me too probably.”
“Well I’m sorry Slim, but it’s too late for that, they already are, thanks to Mose and his gossiping ways.”
“Mose!” Slim yelled, jumping up and really getting mad now. “Oh no, you can’t blame that old fool it was you that brought it all up again Jess. Nothing would have been said if it wasn’t for you nosing around.”
Jess looked down knowing the truth of it.
“I’m sorry Slim, I guess you’re right. But this whole business had really spooked me and I needed to try and make some sense of it all.”
“Spooked you,” Slim spat, “how in hell do you think I feel, huh?”
“I know pard, and that’s why I’ve been trying so dang hard to sort everything out.”
“Oh you have? So how do you aim to do that then Jess huh? Because I really don’t see as how you can,” he finished sadly, slumping back in his seat and looking defeated.
“By finding out the truth like I said and I already have Slim. Mort is seeking to get the inquest reopened and a fresh verdict made. It weren’t, Misadventure at all. Weren’t Jenson’ s fault or your parents or even yours, it was an Act of God.”
Slim just stared at him looking astonished, “Well how do you make that out?”
So, Jess explained everything to him, including the new evidence gleaned from Ezra.
“Yes,” he said at the end, “I think I remember the storm and Ezra’s wife losing the baby. It would be a few weeks after the fire. I was in the kitchen and Ma and a neighbour were talking about it, saying how sad it was, but they clammed up when I came in. Ma would never discuss it. I mind Ezra went away for a year or so and then came home and bought up the store.”
“He’s in a bad way,” Jess said quietly, “real upset, drinkin’ and carrying on, says he felt real guilty that he couldn’t help them.”
“I can imagine,” Slim said bitterly, “I know how he feels.”
Jess bowed his head and then looked back into Slim’s troubled eyes.
“That’s why I want you to come back to the Jenson place with me. Talk to the old man, set the record straight. Explain about the lightning strike and how he couldn’t have done anything to save them.”
Slim looked at him in horror, “Are you crazy? I’m never setting foot in that place again as long as I live!”
“I guess you won’t be visiting town any time soon either,” Jess said quietly, “way folk are all gossiping about you.”
Slim shrugged, “Maybe not, no.”
Jess just shook his head, “Well that’s a real shame.”
Slim just threw him an enquiring glance.
“See I was talking with Lily last night and she’s feeling neglected Slim, real neglected and I figure iffen you don’t git your butt over there pretty soon she might just give up on you.”
Slim looked shocked, “She said that?”
Jess shook his head, “Not in so many words, but she’s none too pleased with you, same with Millie and me. I guess we’ve been so dang busy keeping this place afloat that we’ve forgotten we’re blessed with two of the best girls we’ve ever known. So, what’s it to be then Slim, face up to the gossips and your fears or lose your girl huh?”
There was a long pause, before Slim looked up at his pard, a slow grin spreading across his face. “We’ll ride in next Saturday, take them dancing, paint the town red huh Jess…and to Hell with the gossips!”
It was just a couple of days later when Jess received a note from Mort Cory, via Mose, saying that the Inquest had been reconvened and the original verdict overturned in favour of Act of God. It stated that James, James Jr and Dori Jenson had all perished in a severe and instantaneous blaze caused by a lightning strike and unfortunately would have died shortly afterwards. There was even a note confirming the deceased’s sobriety and it was confirmed that he had indeed been teetotal for some time.
Jess shared it with Slim later in the privacy of the barn and was delighted to see that his partner looked like the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders.
He sank down on a straw bale and read and re read the note again.
“That’s pretty conclusive,” he said quietly. “Even if old Ezra had stopped to help, he wouldn’t have been able to get them out, I sure hope he feels better about everything now.”
Jess nodded, “And if you’d been there, like you felt you should have been, gone against your Pa’s wishes and stayed the night as planned, then you’d have perished too Slim.”
Slim’s head shot up and he looked shocked, “Hell I never thought of that, I figure you’re right Jess.” The he smiled at his friend, “Thank you. I know I’ve been pretty hard on you for meddling. But you did the right thing. Now I’ve faced it all and found out the truth too, well I just feel so much better.”
“Good, I’m real glad pard,” Jess said slapping him on the back.
“I don’t suppose it’ll stop Mose and the like from gossiping and thinking the worst, but at least I know the truth now,” Slim said, wandering off to start cleaning out the barn.
Jess stood there looking thoughtful for a few minutes and then went over to Slim.
“Uh, I’m just riding into town Slim, we need some nails.”
“We do?”
“Yup, completely out and I really need to mend that hen house door before the fox gets in.”
“Um…this isn’t a ploy to go and spend some time with Millie is it Jess?”
“Hell no, we’re seeing the girls come Saturday and that’s only a few days away, nope I need to get it sorted Slim, unless you want our best layers ending up on Mr Fox’s dinner table?”
Slim chuckled at that shaking his head, “OK, but you just ride there and straight back or I’ll set that dang Mr Fox on you Jess!”
Jess went directly to the Sentinel Office as soon as he arrived in town.
He pushed his way in through the swinging door and noted that Burt Gates, the Editor looked slightly wary.
“‘Morning Jess what can I do for you?” he asked, putting his pencil behind his ear, standing up and coming around from behind his desk, giving Jess his full attention.
Jess smiled inwardly at the little man’s rather obsequious attitude and marvelled at what a dose of the Harper temper could achieve.
However, he smiled pleasantly at the balding rotund man and stated his needs.
“A full and unbiased account of the new evidence regarding the tragedy at the Jenson place you say? Yes siree, that should be no problem Jess, I can do that for you. Front page in Saturday’s edition, yup consider it done!”
Jess thanked him and then made his way across to the mercantile for the nails and was delighted to see Ezra back to his normal ornery self, ordering the poor shop boy about and generally ruling the roost.
However, he stopped chastising the boy for some misdemeanor and gave Jess a rare smile as he entered.
He quickly took him to one side away from the other customers and dealt with his purchase before saying quietly, “I can never thank you enough for sorting all that business out Jess. I feel so much better now it’s all finished with. Knowing that there was really nothing I could have done is such a relief.”
Jess returned the smile and decided not to push him into visiting the Jenson place with him. As he had said Ezra was no spring chicken and the experience might just prove too much for the old timer.
“I’m real glad you’re feeling better,” he said, “you look like a different man.”
“I feel like it,” Ezra said positively beaming now.
“Well iffen you’re feelin’ that chipper, maybe you could cut the boy some slack huh?” Jess said tipping his hat to where the young lad was disconsolately hauling grain sacks about.
Ezra looked puzzled for a moment and then looked over to the boy, “Uh, maybe I am a tad hard on him at times,” he agreed.
“Hey Jethro, go take a break boy, I’ll finish off the grain order,” he yelled across the store.
The youngster looked flabbergasted but found his voice and with thanks leapt up and disappeared in the back room.
Ezra and Jess exchanged a smile and Jess went on his way.
He marched down Main Street and turned into the saloon. Heck did Slim really think he’d ride all this way and not even say a quick howdy to his girl? It was still early afternoon and he’d have ample time to sink a couple of beers and still make it home before supper.
He breezed in and was delighted to see that it was quite quiet and Millie was behind the bar just polishing glasses and looking into space.
“Hey sweetheart, Tom left ya all on your lonesome?” he said with a big smile.
She beamed when she saw who it was, “Gosh Jess visiting twice in one week, you are spoiling me.”
“Heck Mill, you know I’d be here all the dang time if it weren’t for that slave driver back at the ranch,” he said leaning over the bar and giving her a long lingering kiss.
“So, how is he?” Millie asked as she went to pour Jess a beer.
“Feelin’ better I guess, now the inquest’s been overturned and he knows there was nuthin’ he could have done to save them. Sure, it still hurts, but he don’t feel guilty no more that’s the main thing.”
“I just wish you could convince Mose and some of the others,” she said, “they’re still bad mouthing poor Mister Jenson and casting him as a drunk, it’s so unfair.”
“Well not for much longer, I’ve got ol’ Burt Gates to make it Saturday’s front-page headlines that’ll shut ‘em up pretty good.”
“Oh, well done, yes that should do the trick.”
“I sure hope it will. So, can you have a copy on the bar for when we come in on Saturday night? I really want to see ol’ Hardrock’s face when he reads it. If you have it in here maybe Mose and his buddies will read it too.” he said dryly.
Just a few moments later Lily joined them, from where she’d been taking her break in the back room.
“Slim’s coming in on Saturday?” she asked looking hopeful.
“Sure,” said Jess grinning at her, “he’s takin’ you to the dance, we’re all going.”
“We are?” asked Lily and Millie in unison, looking far from pleased Jess suddenly noted.
“Well I don’t know about that Lily, do you?” Millie said, suddenly looking exasperated. “I mean we might have other plans.”
“Well that’s right,” Lily agreed, casting Jess a cool look. “We had decided to wash our hair hadn’t we Mill?”
“You know I think we had,” Millie agreed, now struggling to keep a straight face as Jess looked more and more perplexed and uncertain.
“Hey, Millie, you do wanna come with me don’t ya?” He asked sounding slightly woebegone and turning his lost puppy dog gaze upon her.
That did it and she exploded with laughter as did Lily.
“Well do ya?” He asked now looking completely dumbfounded.
“Of course I do,” she laughed, “it’s just nice to be asked though you know Jess?”
It suddenly dawned on him that he’d been a tad overconfident.
“Gee, I’m sorry sweetheart, I weren’t thinkin’. And Slim did say for me to ask you Lily, said he really hoped you’d forgive him for not being around too much of late.”
Lily turned pink and smiled prettily, “Of course I do, and tell him, yes I’d love to go to the dance.”
Jess turned to Millie then, “Would you do me the honour of escorting you to the dance, Miss Johnson?” he asked formally.
That caused another ripple of girlish giggles and Millie agreed with alacrity and sealed the deal with a kiss.
After some more banter and another beer Jess finally left, with the promise of seeing the girls the following Saturday night.
He was just about to mount up when he was aware of some commotion down near the bank and just moments later, Mort Cory followed by his Deputy Lon, tore up the street towards him.
“Bank’s just been dang well robbed,” Mort yelled, “the bastards have just ridden out, you riding posse with me Jess?”
It was only minutes later before a small posse set off at speed down the Laramie road heading in the general direction of the Sherman Ranch. However, after a few miles the outlaws left the road and headed overland a faint cloud of dust on the horizon being the only guide the posse had.
Then they seemed to go to ground and Mort reined in looking to Jess’s expert tracking skills.
He dismounted and wandered around for a while, before picking up the trail again, the men heading straight for Hell-Gate Woods.
Again, they stopped on the edge of the dense woodland, to regroup and formulate a plan.
“Jeez, this will be a dadgum difficult place to try and find ‘em,” Jess said looking hot and irritable after the wild ride over.
“It might not be too bad,” Mort said, “Lon figures he winged one of them and the other is just a kid, so they’ll probably try and lay low…”
“So, if we go in slow and quiet we might flush ‘em out.” Jess finished.
“Exactly,” Mort said with an evil grin, “just gotta bide our time.”
It was over an hour later before they finally came across the couple deep in the interior of the dense woodland. As it happened the whole business ended in an anti-climax as the two outlaws gave themselves up almost at once.
One minute the small posse were making their way slowly through the almost impenetrable undergrowth and the next they came to a clearing and found the younger man on his knees, beside his older brother who had succumbed to the gunshot wound and was unconscious and bleeding profusely.
It was only a matter of minutes before the younger man was cuffed and his brother revived and the wound tended enough to stem the bleeding.
“So, what do we have here?” Mort said looking stunned. “I don’t believe it, Carl and Ted Dexter, what the Hell do you think you’re doing robbing the darned bank?” He barked, “Heck I know you get into more than your share of mischief, petty crime even, but bank robbing?”
“I’m sorry Sheriff,” said the younger man, Carl, looking near to tears, “It was a sorta bet. Charlie Statham said we wouldn’t dare do it and so Ted got real mad…and …”
“And ended up bein’ shot and the both of you lookin’ at a spell in Mort’s jail,” Jess broke in angrily, “So was it really worth it huh?”
Now Lon came over from where he’d been checking out their horses.
“So what did you do with the money bags Carl, they aren’t in your saddle bags?”
The youngster flushed up, “We dumped them, just after we left the Laramie road, under some rocks in Jason’s copse,” he whispered.
“You did what!” Mort erupted.
“We thought iffen we didn’t have the money on us then we’d get away with it,” he muttered.
Mort rolled his eyes to Jess, “Oh no boys, it just doesn’t work that way. Come on, you show me where you stashed it and then we’ll get back to town, see what your Pa makes of all this.”
As the posse got ready to ride out Mort strode over to Jess, who was looking around him and trying to get his bearings.
“No need for you to come all the way back to town with us Jess. I figure if you head due north a mile or two you should come out just by the old Jenson place and then you’re not too far from the ranch. There’s an old injun trail yonder,” Mort continued tipping his hat towards a gap between the trees. “Kind of overgrown, but you should be able to follow it OK.”
Jess looked slightly wary. It was crazy but as close as the place was to the ranch he had never penetrated its depths before as Slim always vetoed the place. Saying it was so dang overgrown that it was difficult to hunt there. But now he wondered if Slim had heard the gossip about Davy Lloyd’s encounter in the allegedly haunted woods and subsequent death and he felt a shiver run down his spine.
It was now late afternoon and had turned real chilly and so Jess wanted to get home as soon as he could, plus he’d promised Slim he wouldn’t be too long and he was already running late. Nope there was nothing for it he told himself, the short cut home it was.
He gave Mort a little farewell salute and kneed Traveller off through the dense forestation in the general direction of the Laramie road and the ranch, but feeling none too happy about it.
The further he rode on into the unknown woodland the more anxious he became, with one of his ‘real bad feelings’ suddenly making his guts churn and shivers once more running down his spine.
“Git a grip Harper,” he muttered to himself, but it wasn’t long before Traveller started showing signs of distress too.
Jess took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, knowing that his dark mood of foreboding was doubtless being picked up by his good old horse.
“Easy boy,” he said softly patting Trav’s arched neck, “there ain’t nuthin’ to worry about.”
Traveller snorted and shook his head vigorously as if in disagreement and quickened his pace a little.
The trail was very overgrown and the vast canopy above them let little light filter through, making it difficult to see where they were heading. Jess instinctively slowed his mount down, not wanting him to lose his footing and stumble on the narrow uneven pathway. The going was also impeded by low branches and he had to frequently duck to avoid being hit in the face or chest.
It was just a few minutes later that he heard it, the distant rumble of thunder.
“Dang it,” he muttered, “and here’s me without my rain slicker.” He squinted up through the branches above him and was surprised to see a blue cloudless sky peeping through the foliage.
However, the sounds of the storm increased with the rumbles turning into mighty crashes and sheet lightning illuminating the shadowy woodland landscape around him.
Traveller was becoming increasingly nervous and Jess considered turning and retracing their steps as the path seemed to become more and more narrow and overgrown. Then just moments later the pathway opened up into a large clearing and Jess thought he must be nearly at the road that would lead him home. He gave a huge sigh of relief and once more gave Traveller an encouraging pat to the neck.
It was when he started riding across the open space that his horse really began acting up however, sidestepping and blowing loudly through his nostrils in displeasure. The storm was now raging around them, a fierce wind blowing the trees on the edge of the clearing and the ominous sound of thunder all around them.
But then as he rode on the thunder receded a little and was replaced by a terrible wailing lament.
It gradually got louder and louder until it seemed to reverberate around him, sending icy shivers of fear down his spine. His mouth was dry and his hands shook a little as he gazed around him, dreading coming upon the cause of the unearthly noises. But there again part of him was morbidly fascinated to discover what sort of entity could be making these spine chilling sounds.
He looked all around again for the source, but the place seemed devoid of all life, as it had been since he first entered the woodland, no birdsong or animal noise or indeed any sign of life to be seen.
It was Traveller who finally alerted him to the apparition.
The horse reared up and let out a shrill whinny of terror and Jess had to fight to keep his seat.
Then he saw it.
A ghostly figure kneeling with its head bowed and the dreadful keening sound issuing forth from it.
Jess stared in horror. Bluish grey smoke seemed to curl around the outline of a man, but the figure was indistinct as it seemed to shiver and shake with emotion. At first it appeared very dark, and then faded to a ghostly pale shimmering outline. But it was Jenson, he just knew it.
Jess observed all this in mere seconds before Traveller almost exploded with terror and bolted for the far side of the clearing and the Laramie road somewhere beyond.
He’d never bolted before and Jess just couldn’t hold him as he galloped at breakneck speed through the dense vegetation. He desperately tried to gain control, but when his horse dived under a low branch Jess was unable to duck in time. The branch caught him full in the chest and he was catapulted back out of the saddle and thrown several feet away, slamming into the trunk of a large pine tree, hitting his head badly as he fell. Then he slithered to the ground in an untidy heap of splayed out arms and legs.
The last thing he saw, Traveller crashing on through the forest away from him and then everything went black.
When he finally came around sometime later he cautiously opened his eyes a crack and then closed them again quickly as a searing pain stabbed the back of his head and he cussed softly.
Then he felt something else… sweet breath on his face and the softest touch on his cheek as though being caressed by a butterfly wing.
His eyes again flickered open and this time he was stunned to see a beautiful little girl, with wide blue innocent eyes peering intensely back at him.
The child had golden hair curling around her cherub like face, but the angelic illusion was shattered when she gave a little snorting giggle at the look of shock on Jess’s face.
He gave a gasp and tried to sit up, but an agonising spasm in the back of his head made him fall back again and squeeze his eyes tightly shut in pain.
When he looked back up again a second child had joined the first, again with golden hair, and the same blue eyes, but both children now registering concern.
“He looks sick, Jimmy,” the little girl said in strange lilting melodic tone, the sound of her voice seeming to echo and come from all around him rather than from the child herself, Jess noted in bewilderment.
He shook his head imagining that it was the fall that was causing the curious sensation.
Then as he watched them he was aware of the strange shimmering effect he had fleetingly glimpsed previously when Jenson had manifested. He just stared at the two images before him, vaguely wondering if they were merely a product of his head injury and would shortly disappear into thin air. Their childish forms seemed to be made up of thousands of tiny pinpoints of dancing golden light. Making them appear to be almost radiating sunshine, he thought, with a grim smile at his fanciful notions. Dadgum it, you just couldn’t make this up he mused, it was beyond crazy.
He licked his lips nervously and then said, “So are you Dori?”
She nodded vigorously, “You’re Matty’s friend, you came to our house,” she said in that beautiful almost flute like voice. Then she looked sad, “But Matty didn’t play with me, he’s all grown up now isn’t he?”
Jess nodded, “I’m afraid he is yes sweetheart.”
She sighed deeply and then said, “Why was he so mad, he said something was his fault?”
Jess wondered again if this was all in his imagination or a vivid dream maybe…but he persevered none the less. He had to get his message over and if there was the slightest chance that this was real, then he had to take the opportunity.
“He felt kinda guilty, like he should have been there to help you when the fire burnt your house,” he said gently.
Then young Jimmy, who had been silently looking on spoke. Again, his voice seeming to echo all around Jess, “Matty is wrong Mister it was the storm set the house afire nobody could help us.”
Jess again struggled to sit up and this time managed to rest on his elbow and look intently at the youngster, “Does your grand pappy know that Jimmy?”
“Uh, no he doesn’t… he says he was to blame, that he must have done something, but he just can’t remember what.”
“Well that’s too bad,” Jess responded, “because I guess that’s making your grand pappy real sad huh?”
Dori again nodded vigorously, “We have to stay and keep him company, but it’s no fun here anymore...and anyway I miss my Mama and Pa,” she said looking suddenly terribly sad, “I want to go home to see them again, but we can’t, not without grand pappy.”
Her brother put a protective arm around her, “Don’t cry Dori,” he said as a tear ran down her cheek.
“It’s OK honey,” Jess, said softly,
“Can you help Mister?” Jimmy blurted out, obviously distressed by his sister’s tears.
“Sure I can,” he whispered, “and it’s Jess OK, call me Jess?”
Then he suddenly began to feel terribly tired and queasy. “So, do ya think grand pappy would listen to Slim…er Matty that is, if he explained what happened that night? Told him that it wasn’t your grand pappy’s fault; do ya think he’d take you home to your Mama and Pa then, huh?”
The children nodded, “Grand pappy likes Matty, says he’s a real sensible boy. He’d believe him I guess,” said Jimmy.
“That he is,” Jess agreed, with a faint smile, “real sensible. I’ll go ask him huh…just got to have me a little sleep first though….”
He lay back on the cold damp forest floor, totally exhausted, his head throbbing something fierce.
As darkness finally fell a huge moon shone down, whilst somewhere off in the distant hills a wolf howled mournfully, but still he slept on.
Chapter 13
Meanwhile back at the ranch Slim was fuming when Jess didn’t show up for supper.
“I told him,” he said across the supper table to Daisy, “come straight back, but does he listen?”
“Well you know I do think he was feeling badly about neglecting Millie dear. Maybe he’s just spending a little extra time with her, he’ll be home first thing I’m sure.”
However, Mike wasn’t as easy to reassure.
“He didn’t say he’d be stayin’ out,” he said throwing Slim an anxious glance, “do ya think he’s in trouble maybe Slim?”
“No, I don’t,” Slim said firmly, and then muttered to himself, “but he dang well will be when he lands home.”
It was later when Daisy returned from putting Mike to bed that she noticed Slim looking pensively out of the window to the dark yard, where it had begun to sleet.
“Are you worried?” She asked coming over and peering out herself.
He turned to face her, “No, not really Daisy, just kind of mad. He sometimes acts so darned irresponsible, it gets my goat,” he said sighing.
She wandered off to the kitchen and returned with two fresh cups of coffee, passing one over and taking a seat by the fire.
After a moment Slim joined her, sinking down in Jess’s rocker.
“Why does the place always feel so dang empty when he isn’t around?” he said casting her a half amused half irritated glance.
She shrugged and said thoughtfully, “He’s the sort of person who is never still or completely relaxed, always got a sort of restless energy about him, I suppose.”
“Well that’s the truth,” Slim said with a grin, “never any half measures with Jess he’s either on the go, or completely spark out and you can’t wake him, awkward cuss.”
“Oh, but you wouldn’t have him any other way,” she said with a little chuckle. Then she looked more serious, “Don’t be too hard on him Slim. All this business with the Jenson fire has been difficult for him too you know and at least it’s all resolved now.”
“Uh, but is it? I just don’t know,” he said sadly, “Will it ever be over if those spirits are still abroad the way Jess figures they are?”
When Jess had still not arrived by the time the early Stage had come and gone, bearing an anxious Mike off to school, Slim was again very angry.
“Good grief Daisy, he’s no right to worry us all this way, poor Mike was really upset when Jess didn’t turn up for breakfast.”
“I’m sure he’ll have a good reason dear, maybe Millie is sick, or Traveller lame, there could be numerous explanations.”
“Excuses more like,” Slim muttered stomping off to start the yard chores.
It was an hour or so later when he was just contemplating going in to see if Daisy had the coffee pot on the go when he heard a horse clattering down the rise and into the yard.
“About time too,” he muttered as he marched out of the barn to confront his partner.
But then he stopped in his tracks as Mort Cory swung down from the saddle and hitched his big buckskin to the corral fence.
“Howdy Slim,” he said grinning at his friend. II just thought I’d call by and thank Jess for his help yesterday and tell him what happened to those two trouble makers. So, where is he?” he asked glancing around the yard.
“Huh?” Slim asked looking vacant.
“Jess, I thought I’d just have a word and maybe get a coffee if there’s some going,” he said looking hopeful.
“Well he’s not here Mort, probably still holed up in Miss Millie’s room and forgotten where the dang door is,” he said bitterly.
Now it was Mort’s turn to look surprised, “Huh?”
“Well he’s not here Mort; I haven’t clapped eyes on him since late yesterday morning. He rode into town for some nails, said he’d be back before supper.”
Mort looked anxious, “There’s something wrong here Slim, I left him in Hell-Gate Woods yesterday afternoon, less than three miles from the road, he should have been back by supper easy.”
Slim just stared for a moment and then said, “I’ll saddle up,” and tore off to the barn.
They had only gone a mile or so down the Laramie road when they saw a horse standing by the road side, head bowed and looking really sorry for himself. As they approached Slim turned shocked eyes on the Sheriff, “Garldarn it Mort, it’s Trav!”
He reined in and leapt down from the saddle and was surprised that the usually calm mount gave a whinny of fear and rolled his eyes at Slim’s approach.
“Hey, easy, easy there, old boy, it’s OK,” he said softly.
“Is he alright?” Mort asked peering over.
Slim made a quick examination looking concerned, “He’s got a nasty gash to the nearside front leg and he’s been sweating real bad too, he really needs to get home and have that wound cleaned.”
Mort shook his head, “He’ll have to wait a while longer, I reckon Jess must be in a bad way, he’d never have loosed his mount off that way without tying the reins at least, I figure he’s taken a nasty fall, or been bushwhacked maybe.”
Slim did a hasty patch up to Traveller’s leg, bandaging it as best he could and then ground hitched him, promising to return real soon and giving him an affectionate pat.
Mort sat watching him and shaking his head sadly, “Jess will be real upset, he loves that critter,” he said softly.
Slim said nothing but looked pretty distressed himself.
“Come on Mort, let’s just go find him. Garldarn it, if there was ever a magnet for trouble it’s my partner.”
It had been many a year since Slim had entered Hell-Gate Woods and it was just as dank and forbidding as he remembered it.
It has been a bitter cold night with rain turning to sleet and a brisk easterly blowing and Slim was dreading what he would find as the two men penetrated the dank depths of the overgrown woodland.
It soon became clear that there was a new pathway that had been trampled through the undergrowth made recently by Traveler and so the two followed it, believing that it would lead them to where Jess had fallen.
As they made their way through the dense vegetation Slim became more and more uneasy. It was bitterly cold and there was no sign of life around them. They rode in single file and every so often Mort would turn in the saddle and throw him an encouraging glance, seeming to know how hard this was for Slim.
The further they rode the worse he felt, his pulses were racing and he felt almost dizzy with fear, remembering all the rumours that abounded of the haunting that had been reported over the years. But more than that, much more than that, he remembered the time he’d come here as a youngster. For a dare and been terrified to within an inch of his life. Don’t think about it he said to himself, just find your pard and get the hell out.
It was just a few minutes later that Mort reined in, leapt down from the saddle and ran towards a figure sprawled in the undergrowth, Slim hot on his heels.
Both men stopped and stared down in consternation at the sight before them.
An ashen faced Jess lay motionless on his back, his face splattered with blood and his eyes tightly shut. The rest of his lower body obscured with a huge heavy buffalo pelt. Beside him was an Indian deerskin water canteen and his gun was still gripped in his hand, although he appeared to be deeply unconscious.
Slim hunkered down beside him before gently removing the gun from Jess’s grasp. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and was relieved to find that he was quite warm beneath the weight of the buffalo hide and his heart beat was strong and regular.
He gently turned him on his side and revealed that he was lying on an Indian blanket that was badly bloodstained. On closer inspection he saw a makeshift bandage that had been wrapped around the wound had now come away exposing a nasty gash to the back of his neck.
Mort bent down and looked at the dressing, “That looks like one of Kate’s herbal dressings,” he said, referring to their old friend Kate Munroe, as he saw the leaves and some pungent smelling herbs on the bandage.
Slim glanced up at him, “Except Kate wouldn’t have left him out, laying in the cold all night. No this looks to be the work of Cheyenne, although I haven’t seen any in these parts for years.” He looked anxiously around him as though expecting some old witch doctor to suddenly materialize out of thin air.
“Well whoever it was is long gone,” Mort said, “so try and wake him Slim, he needs to get back home and see the Doc. he doesn’t look any too good to me.”
It was a good twenty minutes later before they finally managed to rouse him and as he came around he jerked up, his eyes open wide in fear, a slick of sweat covering his face. He was shaking and muttering indistinctly as he peered all around him in trepidation.
“Jess, pard it’s me Slim, it’s OK you’re safe,” Slim said flinging a protective arm around his shoulders.
He finally focused on Slim and after a moment swallowed hard and asked for a drink. Then he looked around him again, asking after his horse.
“Trav…did he make it home?”
Slim shook his head, “He’s on the road yonder,” he said tipping his hat towards the trail, “come up lame Jess, but he’ll be OK,” he added quickly when he saw his friend’s obvious distress.
“Come on then, git me up.” Jess growled, “Let’s go find him.”
It took the Sheriff and Slim all their time to get Jess up into the saddle as he was as weak as a kitten, but they finally managed it and Slim jumped up behind him and gently kneed Alamo towards home.
Mort had ridden directly for the doc and now Sam looked down at his patient and tutted.
“You’d be in a far better state if you hadn’t insisted on doctoring that dang horse of yours before you’d rest,” Sam said irritably. “As though it’s not bad enough laying out in the cold all night, you’ve also got a serious wound to your neck and head Jess, and a nasty dose of concussion if I’m not mistaken.”
“I’ll be right,” Jess said dismissively.
“So, who applied that herbal poultice to the wound to your head?” he asked with interest.
Jess shrugged, “Some Squaw who was just passin’ by. Hell, I dunno Sam,” and he put a hand up to his aching head, closing his eyes in pain.
“OK, OK keep your hair on Jess, it really doesn’t matter but whoever it was did a darned good job, that’s for sure. Stopped the bleeding, probably saved your life too, so don’t waste their efforts huh. You just stay put and do as Miss Daisy tells you OK?”
Jess just grunted and Slim and the doc exchanged an amused glance before leaving him to sleep.
It was later that night as Slim was turning in, that Jess was to tell him the full story about the Indian Squaw.
“So, have you remembered any more about what happened to you then Jess?” Slim asked.
He looked over to where Slim was sitting on the edge of his own bed and nodded, “I guess I have yeah. Jeez, that’s one Hell of a scary place though,” he said with feeling.
“Don’t I know it,” Slim agreed.
“Oh, so you have been in there? I thought it was a no-go area as far as you were concerned?”
Slim nodded, “It sure is now, but yeah I went once, for a dare when I was about thirteen, maybe fourteen. It was after Ma had taken me out of school and was teaching me at home. I kind of lost touch with some of my old friends, then one day we met up and they were all talking about the haunting over in Hell-Gate Woods, sayin’ as how they bet I wouldn’t dare ride in at night.”
Jess looked shocked, “So did ya?”
Slim nodded, “I wanted to show them I wasn’t a Mama’s boy I guess. Lots of them thought that. Or I was suddenly too good for them not going to regular school, so yeah I wanted to prove something.”
“So what happened?”
Slim shook his head, “You wouldn’t believe me.”
Jess gave him a thoughtful look, “Oh I dunno, try me.”
Slim sat back and thought back to that awful time. How he’d waited until everyone was abed and then let himself out of the house, saddled up Sandy his buckskin pony and walked him quietly out of the yard. As soon as he reached the edge of the woods he knew he was crazy and nearly turned back. The look of contempt in his alleged friend’s eyes the only thing spurring him on.
It was as he approached the clearing that he’d heard it…The mournful crying as of some tortured soul and then soft drumbeats followed by the almost sweet sounds of a death song lament played on the flute. The music sending shivers down his spine. It was when he heard the sound of a heartbreakingly sad lament sung by a young woman, her voice crystal clear on the night air, that he could stand it no longer and turned his pony for home.
“It was all true what folk said. That Hell-Gate Woods were haunted by the spirits of the ancient Cheyenne, from times past,” Slim said now looking over at Jess, “and I experienced it that night, so you see why I’m so dang scared of this haunting thing at the Jensons, huh? I believe in it all and it scares me to death Jess, it really does.”
His partner nodded, “I guess I can understand that yeah, but sometimes there’s a logical reason you know Slim.”
“Huh, this coming from someone who keeps trying to tell me he’s seen all these ghosts and the like over at the Jenson place?”
“Look Slim, just hear me out, sure I believe all that stuff…at least I think I do. But last night with the Indians was different.”
“So, you heard the same thing, the drums, flute … unearthly singing?”
Jess nodded, “Yes and it spooked me up something fierce. But Hell Slim where do ya think that buffalo hide came from, the blanket, water and herbal medicine…ghosts?”
Slim shook his head, “I had wondered, but it seemed like you didn’t want to tell us.”
“Yeah, well I’ve had a kinda bad crack on the head you know Slim, I guess I ain’t been thinking too good since you brought me home, but I remember it all real well now.”
“So are you going to tell me?”
Jess grinned, “Yup I figure it’s time you were put out of your misery. That place, the clearing in the woods was the site of an old Cheyenne camp, right?”
“Yeah,” Slim agreed.
“And it was almost completely wiped out when the Indians got real ill from the white man’s sickness?”
“That’s what Pa told me yes. They nearly all died of the Small Pox and the few that survived moved away, set up another camp…I guess they’re mostly on the Reservation now, any surviving ancestors,” he said sadly.
Jess nodded, “You’ve got it…except they ain’t.”
“Apparently according to Little Deer, they come back every few years and have this sorta mourning service for their dead.”
“Really, I didn’t know that?”
“Well yeah, it was her and her daughters that patched me up real good. Then she explained, “She’s one of the last survivors now and she gets some sort of comfort from visiting the place. See it’s a burial ground Slim.”
“I thought the Cheyenne laid their dead to rest up in the air, a tree or above ground, so the spirit could be set free?”
“Yeah, that’s right, but then they’re buried on the fourth day. That’s when they were thought to have gone to Seana, at the end of the Milky Way…their kinda Heaven I guess you’d call it.”
“Go on,” said Slim in fascination.
“They believe that some of the essence of the person actually stays in the body and can be a dream visitor, giving good advice and helping the living. That’s why Little Deer and her daughters make the journey… just to be close to their ancestors and maybe even dream and get advice iffen they need it.”
Slim looked thoughtful, “That’s all very well, but what about all that dreadful crying and lamenting, that didn’t sound like they were just on a visit to me, it was real scary Jess…mystical, that’s for sure.”
Jess grinned at him then. “Some of it like the singing and flute playin’ is all part of the way they try to communicate with the sprits, sort of try and let them know they’ve come visitin’. But all that other stuff is them tryin’ to keep people away. They know all the rumours of haunting, so they play along to protect the place from the white man trespassing on their sacred burial grounds. I figure it’s worked real good over the years.”
“Well I’ll be,” Slim said shaking his head in wonder, “all these years I’ve been terrified of the dang place and it was all just one big hoax?”
“That’s about the size of it pard, Jess said making himself comfortable and settling down to sleep.
Plenty of time to tell old Hardrock about the real haunting he’d experienced in Hell-Gate Woods tomorrow, he thought and closing his eyes was asleep in seconds.
However, the following morning Daisy’s news made him change his mind. Talking Slim into visiting the Jenson place with him would just have to wait.
“So, who is this wire from…Mary Darcy you say?” Slim asked peering across the breakfast table to a tearful looking Daisy.
“My oldest and dearest friend,” she said. “We were at school together and we correspond regularly, I’ve been meaning to visit now she’s moved to Denver.”
“Oh that Mary,” he said. “I know, so heck of course you must go and visit if she is so sick Daisy.”
His good housekeeper turned tragic eyes to Slim, “But how can I? The minute I leave, you know Jess will be up and doing too much and he really is quite poorly after that nasty head wound Slim.”
“You just let me worry about Jess, you get off and pack and you can be on tomorrow morning’s Stage huh?”
The following day when Slim went out to meet the Stage and change the team he grinned up at Mose. The old-timer had a strong aroma of hair oil about him and his dentures sparkled in a winsome grin.
“So, is Miss Daisy ready? I’ve swept out the coach and even put a nice warm blanket in there for her, strikes a tad chilly these mornings,” he said, his excitement obvious.
Daisy finally marched out a few minutes later a pretty floral creation on her head, the blue flowers perfectly matching her suit and Mose looked totally captivated.
He leapt into action and opening the door, handed Daisy up and had her comfortably installed in moments, where she sat calling instructions through the window to an ever patient Slim.
“…And be sure to make Mike do his homework before supper, or it never gets done. Also, Slim dear, it’s Wednesday and the doctor specifically said Jess wasn’t to get up until Saturday at the very earliest and no riding for another week,” she trilled as Mose slapped the reins and the team took off at speed.
“Don’t you worry Daisy, all in control,” he called after her, waving and smiling, until the Stagecoach disappeared over the rise, moments later a dust cloud all that remained.
Then he turned and made his way purposefully over to the barn to make a start on the chores.
Once Jess had heard the Stage rolling out of the yard he got up and pulled his denims on and shambled slowly out of the bedroom making for the kitchen. Here he put the coffee pot on the stove and then looked vaguely around him, before ambling over to an old coat hanging on the kitchen door and searched in the pockets. He withdrew a pack of cigarettes and lit one before wandering back over to watch the pot boiling.
That was the way Slim found him some time later.
He stood by the kitchen door taking in Jess standing barefoot, his red undershirt hanging untidily outside his denims and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Jess stood as if in a daze staring at the stove, squinting through a haze of blue cigarette smoke, but he turned as Slim entered.
“What the hell are you doing?” Slim spat angrily.
“What does it look like, makin’ coffee, you want one?”
Slim ignored the offer.
“I leave you for a minute and you’re up out of bed, making coffee…and smoking too I thought you’d quit?”
“I have, mostly, just felt the need, after everything that’s happened,” he said shrugging.
“Honestly Jess!”
And then he saw his bare feet, “So where the heck are your boots?”
Again, Jess shrugged, “Daisy hid them I guess.”
They exchanged a glance and then they both chuckled.
“Oh well I reckon that will keep you in,” Slim said with a smirk.
“Uh, not really see I’ll be wearing my Sunday boots when I go to the dance come Saturday.”
“Forget it Slim, we’ve gotten more important things to worry about than my health and disposition.”
Again, they chuckled remembering that had been one of old Doc Johnson’s favourite phrases, the disposition, or temperament, being key to his diagnosis and usually finding Jess’s doggone ornery.
“Come on let’s go sit a spell we need to talk,” Jess said as he poured out two cups of his gut rot coffee.
Once settled by the fireside Slim turned on his buddy again, “Really Jess you don’t have the common sense of the cat,” he said referring to Jasper, who was now stretched out in front of the crackling fire. “At least he licks his wounds and holes up someplace until he’s better when he’s hurt.”
“Yeah, well I don’t have that luxury,” Jess snapped, “see I need to get up on my feet and back on track by the 31st and that’s Friday of next week.”
“Oh, so why would that be?” Slim asked.
“Because it’s Halloween and that’s when it’s a real good time to meet up with the Spirits, accordin’ to Josh that is, and I guess a Padre should know huh Slim?”
“So why would you want to do that?” Slim asked looking wary.
“Not me…us, to set everything straight with Jenson and the little ‘un’s of course,” he said.
“No, oh no I told you already there is no way I’m setting foot in that house again Jess.”
“Not even iffen your old friend Dori was beggin’ you to?”
“Huh, what nonsense are you talking now?” Slim asked looking exasperated.
So, Jess settled back and told him all about the bizarre happenings in Hell-Gate Woods, from the dark scary haunting by old man Jenson, to the sweet ghostly presence of the children.
He listened intently and then said, “Look Jess this is all very well, but do you not think maybe you just imagined it all, concussion can do strange things to a man’s mind you know that. Or it could have been one of those vivid dreams you’re so prone to…huh?”
Jess shook his head, “Except that I saw Jenson before I even took that dang fall from my horse.”
When Slim didn’t answer he continued.
“If I dreamed up seeing those kids how do I know exactly what they look like, because I ain’t ever seen them.”
“But do you? All this talk of their voices echoing around you and sparkling light shining from them, well it all sounds kinda fanciful to me Jess.”
It was when he described young Dori in detail that Slim had to back down.
“Golden wavy hair, with this little curl, falling down on her forehead, a cute dimple on her cheek and a tiny scar above her right eye…that enough detail for you?” he asked belligerently.
Slim had turned pale and was speechless for a good minute.
“She wants to see me?” he finally gasped.
“Yup, to convince the old man he was in no way to blame for all their deaths…I figure that’s the only way they can rest in peace Slim and that’s all up to you.”

Chapter 14
Jess figured the best way to play it was to leave Slim to think things through. He was never one to make snap decisions about anything, from whether or not he’d like a second piece of pie, to should he really get to thinking about making an honest woman of Miss Lily. Nope Slim needed time and Jess respected that.
He spent the next couple of days taking Slim’s advice and convalescing like Jasper would. Sitting up by the fire and taking it real easy. But the more spare time he had, the more time he had to dwell on something he usually thought little of…death.
He remembered one of his long talks with Reverend Joshua Wesley, when they were out at the lake fishing. Josh had brought up the subject of death and the afterlife and Jess had said quite brusquely, “It’s not a thing I care to dwell on too much Josh, way my life was once, livin’ by the gun… well the way I was it could have happened any time. Even now, well I guess there are a few times I’ve come a dang sight closer to meeting my Maker than I’d like.”
Josh had turned to look at this rough tough ex gunslinger that he now counted as a good friend and said, “Well maybe you should sometime Jess…it’s going to come to us all. Maybe if you look it in the face it won’t be so worrisome.”
Jess had turned back to him and said, “Heck Josh I ain’t afraid of dyin’, figure I’ll see my kin again. Iffen I make it to Heaven that is,” he’d said with a depreciating grin. “Maybe see my Maker too…I guess it would be real good to talk things through with him, maybe try and make sense of my life …huh?”
Now he thought back to that conversation, Gee Josh sure was a good friend and Jess felt better knowing that the man of the cloth would visit with them. Maybe that fact would convince Slim too?
He had divided his time up to the weekend behaving, in that he sat and rested mostly. However, he also spent a fair amount of time out in the barn tending Traveller’s leg wound and it had healed well. He’d found his old boots without too much trouble, in the cupboard by the front door. They’d had a note attached in Daisy’s bold handwriting saying, Jess: Go Back to Bed!
Both men had chuckled, with Jess shaking his head, “Gee, she can petticoat boss us when she ain’t even here!”
Slim had grinned back, “And we wouldn’t have it any other way, would we?”
“I guess not. I wonder how that friend of hers is,” Jess said thoughtfully. “I’m real sorry for this Mary, but I sure hope Daisy will be home soon.”
“Hey my cooking’s not that bad is it Jess?”
“I guess not,” he said without conviction. “Anyway, it ain’t that, but have you forgotten Mike gets the week off school from next Monday, a fall holiday or some such crazy idea.”
“Oh yeah, well we’ll cope Jess, don’t worry.”
But he did worry. Who was gonna mind the boy while they were in town at the dance? Never mind during Jess’s proposed visit out to the Jenson spread on Halloween. Heck they couldn’t take the boy with them there that was for sure.
However, their dilemma was solved the following day. On Friday morning Mose brought a letter from Daisy, saying her friend was out of danger, but she would really like to stay at least another week if that was alright? As dear Mary had only recently moved to the area she had nobody else she could turn to.
“Well that’s it,” Slim said philosophically, “we’ll just have to toss for who goes to the dance,” and was met by a stony stare from Jess.
However, all was not lost as they were to find out at the eleventh hour.
Mike came bouncing in from school looking more than a little excited on the Friday afternoon.
“Hey what’s up Tiger, you look like a dog with two tails?” Jess said grinning down at the boy and mussing up his hair.
“Well ya know how I was going to stay at Georgy’s house this week-end?” He said breathlessly.
“Huh?” Jess said looking surprised, “News to me,” and raised a questioning eyebrow to Slim, who had just walked in.
“Er, now you mention it I think Daisy did say something about it,” he replied vaguely.
A broad grin spread across Jess’s face at the news, “Well that’s swell Mike,” he enthused, seeing a romantic night in the arms of his girl once more restored to him.
“Oh, it’s better than that,” the boy said now bursting with excitement. “Georgy’s Pa has written this note for you saying can I go visit all week in the school holiday to keep Georgy company? See with her bein’ new to town she don’t know too many people and her Pa said I would be real welcome to visit…so can I… can I …Jess, Slim huh?”
And so it was that the three of them rode into town on the Saturday afternoon.
Jess’s presence was however much against Slim’s better judgment.
The fact that Jess had been behaving himself, sitting around most of the day and having early nights set off alarm bells ringing for Slim. Either his buddy was feeling pretty bad or he was desperately trying to get himself ready for some unspecified ordeal that he needed to be on his metal for. Either way Slim wasn’t happy about things.
Then just before they rode out his suspicions were confirmed when Jess was saddling up Traveller. He seemed to stagger under the weight of the saddle, almost falling. Then he’d grabbed hold of his horse’s mane to steady himself, resting his head against Traveller’ s neck for a moment.
Slim came up behind him and clapped him gently on the back, “Hey are you alright Jess?” He asked looking concerned.
“Just dandy, why shouldn’t I be?” Jess returned straightening up and glaring at his friend.
“Well you sure don’t look it, you’re real pale and sickly-looking Jess. Daisy wouldn’t let you ride out if she was here and you know it.”
“Yeah, well she ain’t is she?” he said bending to secure the saddle and then giving his mount a final pat on the rump.
“Jess see reason, why don’t you? Millie will understand, you’ve had a really bad concussion and I reckon you’re still not right.”
“Oh quit yer fussin’ dadgum it Slim just back off will ya!”
As Slim marched away Jess watched his retreating back and wished he could take the unkind words back. Hell, it was just that he was kinda worried about how things were between him and Millie, if he was honest.
He knew that she was feeling a tad neglected and in need of his reassurance. And although he was aware that the situation between her and Billy–Joe was not a concern he also knew there were others waiting in the wings to take his place should she tire of him. Heck she knew as well as he did that it was unavoidable that sometimes the ranch had to come first. It was his livelihood for goodness sake. But there again how long would a girl stay home and watch her friends off having fun before she might look for a far more attentive beau?
Nope he had to go to town and try and make it up to her, because he’d promised and no matter what, he aimed to keep that promise.
Anyway, he also wanted to see Slim’s face when he read that article in the Sentinel. Finally redeeming Slim and his family from any blame attached to the terrible tragedy experienced by their close neighbours. If truth were known Jess was kinda looking forward to Mose and the likes being forced to eat their words too.
When they arrived at the Owen household, a neat property on the edge of town, it was Georgy herself who threw the door open and welcomed them in.
“Papa’s in the front parlour,” the pretty dark-haired girl said, “he asked that you join him for a drink?”
Jess ran a finger around his freshly starched collar and was glad they were attired in their Sunday best for the dance and he followed Slim into the large brightly lit room.
As they entered the tall distinguished figure of Malcolm Owen came forward smiling and offering his hand. “Good to see you again gentlemen,” he said smiling broadly.” I hope you don’t mind me borrowing your ward for a few days, he and Georgina seem to have hit it off really well.”
“You’re welcome to him,” Jess said winking at Mike and ruffling his hair affectionately.
Then Owen turned back, towards the fireplace, “May I introduce my wife Hilda and eldest daughter Rosie.”
Mrs Owen was a plain rather vague looking woman with mousey brown hair. Rosie on the other hand was very pretty, aged about sixteen and seemingly dumbstruck by the presence of the two handsome young ranchers.
They enjoyed a glass of fruit cordial and made polite conversation for a little while before finally escaping to enjoy their Saturday night at the dance.
“Best behaviour huh Tiger,” Jess had whispered as they left and the child nodded vigorously.
“I will Jess, promise!”
Rosie trailed after her father and watched with a dazed look in her eyes as the men made their farewells.
“Well that went OK,” Jess said cheerfully as he mounted up and started walking Traveller slowly down Main Street towards the Livery. “Nice guy so what does he do fer work?”
“Uh, he’s the new Deputy Bank Manager,” Slim replied.
“Huh?” Jess asked doing a double take, “Well that’s kinda handy for next time we need a loan.”
Slim snorted with laughter, “Um, yeah but I don’t really think it works that way.”
Then he peered more closely at his pard, “So tell me Jess, how do you do it?”
“Huh, do what?”
“Turn the heads of pretty young girls and I do mean young!”
“Huh, what’re you talkin’ about now Slim?”
“That Rosie, the big sister, she was practically drooling over you Jess.”
“What? You’re crazy you know that.”
“Nope, she was besotted, just like Hannah Wesley was with you,” he said smirking and referring to the crush the Rev. Wesley’s daughter had on Jess when she first arrived in Laramie some years ago. See #40 The Secret Admirer.
“Aw come on Slim she weren’t that young.”
“Um, only just turned twenty wasn’t she, but real young for her age, inexperienced too, attending that Convent school and all.”
“Yeah, well she never gained any dang experience from me,” Jess said darkly.
“I reckon she got over you eventually…then there was Carrie of course,” he continued referring to Doc Sam’s beautiful young daughter, “You can’t deny she was young, er about fifteen, wasn’t she?”
Jess just grunted, “OK, so just leave it Slim.”
“Oh come on I’m just joshing you,” Slim said as they dismounted and entered the livery.
“Well don’t,” Jess whispered angrily, “and don’t you go talkin’ that way in front of Millie. I reckon she’s pretty fed up with me right now, so don’t you go making matters worse!”
“OK, no need to get mad,” Slim said surprised at his pard’s overreaction.
He looked more closely and noted Jess looked exhausted just after the ride over from the ranch. Then he surprised him yet again when he merely passed Traveller’s reins over to the young stable boy for him to deal with his mount. Heck Jess would usually unsaddle and rub down his own horse. However, Slim noted that he tossed the boy an extra few coins and said quietly, “A real good job, huh boy.”
“Yes sir, Mister Harper,” the lad said beaming at his benefactor, before leading Traveller away.
As they retraced their steps down Main Street to the saloon Slim again cast a glance at his buddy and noted how pale and drawn he looked but decided to keep his thoughts to himself when he also saw the brooding look in Jess’s eyes.
It was still late afternoon when they entered the bar and there was the usual lull between the afternoon drinkers and card players leaving and the arrival of those intent on a good Saturday night out.
Jess said he’d get the drinks in and Slim wandered over to a nearby table. He nodded to a couple of old timers before taking a seat, noting that one of them was Ezra from the store, playing checkers with an old friend.
Jess came over shortly afterwards bearing a beer, lemonade and copy of the Laramie Sentinel, that had been waiting for him on the bar as promised.
Slim raised an eyebrow at the lemonade, but Jess made light of it.
“Keepin’ a clear head for later,” he said with a wicked wink.
Slim cast him a disbelieving glance and secretly thought his buddy must be feeling pretty bad iffen he didn’t want a customary beer or whiskey on a Saturday night.
However, his thoughts soon disappeared as Jess thrust the local paper under his nose, bearing the large headlines Ghosts Finally Laid to Rest…and then underneath a sub heading, Local People Vindicated after Hearing Reopened. Slim read the article over twice and then grinned across at his pard, “Thanks Jess, you sure did a real good job at convincing everyone to speak up I really appreciate it.”
Then he was surprised to see the pensive look in Jess’s eyes, “Um, except they ain’t, are they?” he said jabbing a finger at the heading.
“The Ghosts, they ain’t laid to rest are they Slim and we both know it.”
Slim sighed deeply, “You’re not still on about that are you Jess…just let it lie huh.”
Jess took on his stubborn look, his mouth in a tight straight line and his chin puckered, “Yup I’m still on about it and I will be until you dang well up and face ‘em Slim, do what you know you should.”
Then his head shot up as he heard someone clearing their throat and looked up into Ezra’s troubled eyes peering down at him.
“Excuse me for butting in,” he said apologetically, “but I’ve gotta say something. I’m sorry Jess, real sorry to say this, after you’ve helped me out over this Jenson business and all, but….”
Jess looked up at the older man his expression curious, “What’s up Ezra, spit it out.”
He shook his head sadly, “Mose told me you’d been found hurt real bad over in Hell-Gate Woods and so I figure I know what happened, you saw him didn’t you boy?”
Jess just nodded, narrowing his eyes, “So what if I did?”
Ezra turned pale and took a step back… “You’re a marked man then Jess, it’s only a matter of time before he takes you…it’s the curse, he did for old Davy and you’ll be next.”
Jess gave a snort of derision, “You’re crazy, been listenin’ to too much darned gossip, there ain’t no curse.”
The old timer just shook his head sadly, “Have you looked in the mirror lately boy, you’re lookin’ sick, real sick…Best you can do is make peace with your Maker and hope and pray for an easy passing.” Then he turned to Slim, “And iffen you’ve gotten any sense Slim you won’t have anything to do with meddling with the Spirits, it will all end in misery and loss, you mark my words,” he said bitterly before marching off.
Once he’d left, Jess chuckled and rolled his eyes at his buddy, “He’s plumb crazy,” he said, but Slim just looked thoughtful.
However, before he could voice his worries their girls advanced upon them and all thoughts of the Jensons was lost in the flurry of welcoming them.
Jess tried, he really did, but by the time the dance was only halfway through he could barely stand. For the last few days he’d been suffering occasional double vision and dizziness, but now after his recent exertions he felt ten times worse. His head ached and he felt sick to his stomach, hence the abstinence from strong drinks. He’d hoped that nobody would notice and he nearly made it…until the Ladies Excuse me was announced.
He had been brought up by his Ma to be a polite young man, always to particularly honour the fairer sex so he felt he couldn’t really refuse the plethora of females vying for his attention when the excuse me came up, whilst Millie sat back smiling, knowing her place in Jess’s heart was secure.
However, as the whirling and swinging continued she noticed that Jess was failing and eventually went over to liberate him, gently tapping his current partner on the shoulder.
He greeted her with a relieved grin.
“Want to sit the end out?” She asked noting the slick of sweat to his forehead and pale countenance.
“You know I think maybe I would,” he agreed, leading her back to their table…but it was then that he faltered and would have fallen if she hadn’t grabbed hold of his arm and supported him.
Then Slim was there holding him up and they sat him back down in his seat viewing him with concern.
“Jess?” Millie gasped, resting an arm along his shoulders and looking fearful.
It was when he sank his head on his arms that Slim knew he was really sick. There was no usual cheeky grin and “I’m OK quit yer frettin’’…no this time Jess looked completely done in.
Slim looked around and then saw Lon, Mort’s Deputy sitting nearby with his wife and asked for his help.
Lon wandered over grinning as Jess still sat with his head on his arms, “Gee Jess really tied one on tonight,” he said cheerfully.
“He’s not drunk,” Millie said angrily, “he’s had nothing but lemonade all night, he’s sick Lon!”
Lon quickly apologised and between the two of them and Slim they helped him, half carrying him up to Millie’s room.
Once he was finally laying on her large comfy bed Slim turned back to Lon.
“You’re sure Doc Sam is out on a call?”
“Yup, it’s to a friend of mine Jamie Stewart’s wife, expecting twins, the Doc and Carrie are both out at the Stewart place until tomorrow, maybe longer.”
“Don’t worry Lon, I’ll look after him,” Millie said quickly, “you just go and enjoy the rest of the dance” she said as she showed him out.
Slim had sunk down on the edge of the bed, Lily at his side, looking down in consternation at his semi-conscious pard as he lay very still and deathly pale.
Millie came back from showing Lon out and looked down in concern, “What’s brought this on, he seemed OK in the saloon earlier?”
Slim shook his head, “He was just putting on a good act I guess Millie, he hasn’t been too well all week, I really didn’t want him to ride out tonight.”
“So why did he?” She asked a look of frustration mixed with sympathy in her deep brown eyes.
Slim shrugged, “I guess he didn’t want to let you down, he figured he’s been a tad less than attentive these last few weeks, wanted to make it up to you.”
Millie looked down, “Crazy man,” she muttered quietly.
Whilst Lily and Millie went off to her little kitchen to brew some fresh coffee and give Jess a little privacy, Slim stripped his buddy of his Sunday best clothes. Knowing he wouldn’t want them to be slept in. Once he was down to his undershorts he pulled the blanket over and gently tucked him in.
After a few seconds Jess’s eyes flickered and opened staring straight into his friend’s.
“Wha…where am I, what happened to the dance?” He asked plaintively glancing around him.
“You’re in Miss Millie’s bed,” Slim said with a faint smile, “I thought you’d have recognised that pard. I guess the dance got a tad too lively for you, what with all those young ladies vying for your attention.”
Jess raised a hand to his aching head, “Huh…oh yeah, ladies Excuse Me,” he said with the ghost of a smile, “I guess I weren’t quite up to it.”
“No, you dang well weren’t, in fact you weren’t up to this whole darned trip, but would you listen to me?”
“OK, no need to give me a hard time, I’ll be fine in a minute,” he said struggling to sit up.
“Sure, you will,” Slim said sarcastically, easily pushing him back down on the pillow.
“Just accept it Casanova you won’t be doing any romancing tonight, on or off the dance floor, so you just get your head down and rest up and I’ll see you in the morning.”
Shortly afterwards Slim and Lily left for her room just down the corridor.
“Give me a call if you’re worried about him,” he said softly to Millie as he left. “I’ll try and get Sam to visit tomorrow, maybe he’ll be able to talk some sense into him,” he said casting his partner a rueful look from the door, before turning to leave, “Good night Millie.”
“Night Slim and thanks…”
A little later she curled up beside Jess taking him in her arms and tenderly kissing his wavy hair, “You get some sleep honey and we’ll talk tomorrow,” she whispered, but he was already dead to the world, sleeping deeply.
When she awoke at dawn he had gone.
Chapter 15
Jess made his way through the early dawn light down a deserted, chilly Main Street towards the Church at the far end.
He knew the Padre’s habits of old. How he always went to his Church as dawn was breaking and spent some time in solemn daily prayer. But he came especially early on the Sabbath, before preparing the Church for the morning service.
Today was no exception Jess was glad to see.
He entered the Church softly and took a pew towards the back, watching his good friend kneeling at the altar saying his Daily Morning Prayer.
After some time, Joshua rose and sauntered down the aisle tidying a hassock here and placing a hymn book there, before he suddenly spied Jess and hurried over.
“Why Jess my dear boy, what are you doing skulking here at the back, in fact what are you doing abroad at this hour?”
Jess grinned up at him, “Well I’ll tell ya Josh. See I really wanted a quick word with you…only I wasn’t sure if I’d make it through the Service.”
“Oh,” asked Joshua now really looking closely at his old friend and noting how pale and ill he looked.
“Why Jess, you really don’t look too well, why not come back home with me and have a hot drink to revive you um?”
Once back in Josh’s study, next door, Jess relaxed back in a large comfortable armchair and sipped his coffee appreciatively, before opening his heart to his old friend.
He admitted that he was feeling none too well and knew that Sam would confine him to barracks once he saw him, hence the early morning meeting. Then he went on to explain the reason for his visit.
“Well of course I’ll accompany you to the Jenson home my dear friend,” Josh said at once. “If there are tormented Spirits abroad in need of redemption then I will stay with you until our work is done. But Jess I’m not sure you are in good enough health to accompany me?”
“I’ll be just fine Josh, I figured we’d go the end of the week, on Halloween, you said that was a kinda good day to meet up with the Spirits?”
“Indeed I did…and have you convinced Slim to join us? His presence could well be instrumental in our succeeding if he had as good a relationship with the family as you say.”
Jess shook his head sadly. “Nope and I really don’t think I should push it, iffen he’s so dead set against it all. I sure don’t wanna upset him.” Then he went on to tell about the terrible dreams Slim had suffered recently after entering the old homestead.
Joshua had looked thoughtful, “Um, but maybe it would help heal his soul too. It seems to me that much of his ill ease is born of guilt, maybe if he could communicate with them one last time that would help?”
But Jess just shook his head, “I dunno…guess I’ll leave it to him to decide.”
Jess knew he would be in big trouble from, Millie, Slim and Doc Sam when the truth came out. He had returned to the saloon just as Millie and Slim were calling up a search party for him and then Doc Sam arrived on the scene and read him the riot act.
“I specifically left instructions with Miss Daisy that you should have bed rest for a week at least and not ride for a further week and you knew that Jess,” he said in frustration, “So what do you do, ride into town and then go dancing…I despair of you I really do!”
Jess took Sam’s ranting on the chin like a man and apologised unreservedly to all his friends for worrying them.
“Well there’s no need to be so darned agreeable about it,” Slim said bitterly. “That won’t wash Jess; you’ve just pushed things too dang far this time.”
Jess sighed deeply, “What else can I do, I’ve said I’m sorry ain’t I?”
“I’ll tell you exactly what you can do buddy,” Sam said more kindly. “You can come back over to my office where I can examine you properly and then I think you should be sedated for a good twenty-four hours, give that old brain of yours a chance to heal properly. Then bed rest to the end of the week.”
Jess’s head shot up, “Huh…what did you say?”
“I mean it Jess you really are pushing your luck. I don’t have to remind you of the far-reaching effects a bad concussion can have do I?”
Jess shook his head remembering the time he’d suffered convulsions after a nasty blow to the head.
“Heck I ain’t that bad Sam,” he protested.
“Jess, please do it for me,” Millie suddenly blurted out… “huh, please.”
He looked into her anxious caring eyes and realised what a jerk he was being and took her hand, “OK sweetheart, I guess a few days rest wouldn’t hurt at that.”
“Good man,” Sam said clapping him on the arm and turning to leave, “my office five minutes.”
“Alleluia, he’s seen sense at last,” Slim muttered gruffly, but winking at his buddy all the same.
He gave him a little punch on the arm, “I’ll take Traveller home you catch a ride on the Stage when Sam gives you the all clear OK?”
“Thanks, and look after him real good won’t ya Slim, that fore leg is still a tad stiff, I’ve been rubbin’ in liniment every night.”
“Sure, sure don’t fret. Just grab a lift with Mose when you’re ready and I’ll see you end of the week huh?”
Jess nodded, “I’ll be home Saturday Slim and Josh will give me a lift.”
“Huh? Joshua you say why?”
“Because I’ve arranged for him to come over to the Jenson house come Halloween, got some unfinished business there.”
Slim stared at him looking aghast, “You’re not still going ahead with that nonsense are you…just leave well alone Jess. It was messing about with those Spirits that got you in this state in the first place if you remember? It was Jenson that spooked Traveller wasn’t it, according to you. Who knows what he’s going to do next time? Maybe there is some truth in old Ezra’s predictions of a curse. It’s just not worth the risk Jess.”
“Well I reckon they are,” Jess said quietly, “and I aim to help ‘em and that’s an end to it Slim,” he said firmly.
Slim shook his head, “Have it your own way,” and turning left for home.
Millie held him close and kissed him fondly before he left.
“Just take care of yourself,” she whispered, “Do everything Doc Sam says and I’ll see you when you can make it huh?”
Jess had searched her compassionate, loving eyes, “I’m real sorry about Saturday night…me fallin’ asleep an’ all…I’ll make it up to ya, I promise,” he’d said urgently.
“Shh,” she whispered, tracing a finger down his lips, “it’s alright, maybe next week huh?”
He nodded, “See ya sweetheart,” and he kissed her long and hard before turning to go.
“And Jess, whatever you decide to do about the Jenson place, I understand, OK?”
“Thank you, that means a lot,” and giving her a little farewell salute, he set of for the doc’s place.
By the time Jess was settled in the doctor’s office he again felt real shaky and sick, just after the short walk he’d made up to the church earlier and it didn’t go unnoticed by Sam.
He reverted to his usual kind, concerned self and didn’t scold Jess again however, merely helped him up onto the examination couch and started checking him over.
He spent several minutes on his reflexes and then shone a light in his eyes, checking his pupil reactions.
“Am I OK?” Jess asked anxiously when Sam seemed to be spending an inordinately long time on meticulously checking him over.
Sam finally straightened and gave his old friend a smile.
“I reckon you’re the best one to answer that Jess, how do you feel…and honestly now?”
Jess shrugged, “Kinda shaky I guess, a little sick…been seeing double too.”
“Uh, I thought as much,” Sam said quietly. “Well the good news is there doesn’t appear to be a bleed on the brain…”
When Jess started to sit up looking relieved, Sam merely pushed him back down.
“That’s not to say you’re out of the woods yet Jess. I am very concerned about your current condition. You have severe concussion as I thought. The best way to treat it is to put you out completely for a while. That way your head will be kept absolutely still and the healing can commence.”
“So how long will it take?” Jess eventually asked.
“For you to be sedated about twenty-four to forty-eight hours and then we’ll revue the situation. If I’m happy with your progress, then complete bed rest for a few days.
“But I’ll be OK to go home by Friday?”
“That’s really up to you Jess, if you behave, then I can’t see any reason why not…but light duties only for another week, understand?”
It was later that afternoon when Sam had been called out to an emergency that Carrie came into his room to administer the first dose of the sedative.
The two got along well and there was always a certain amount of banter between them, but it was when Carrie poured out some dark liquid into cup and passed it over that Jess’s demeanour subtly changed.
He’d just been teasing her about her cheery bedside manner, but now his face looked almost fearful.
“What is it Jess?” she asked softly.
“This…er it ain’t you know….”
“Um, what Jess?”
It ain’t laudanum is it?
“She looked puzzled and then light dawned in her eyes as she remembered back to the dark time when Jess had become way too fond of the drug. It was after it had been administered to combat severe pain after an injury. He had finally overcome his addiction, but now he was always fearful when Sam gave him drugs of any sort.
“Oh, I see,” Carrie, said and then patted him gently on the arm, “it’s quite safe Jess, just a strong sleeping draught, similar to Scott’s Coca Elixir only Pa makes his own. If you like we’ll wait until he comes home and you can ask him about it yourself?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope your word is good enough for me sweetheart, so it will knock me out real good huh?”
She nodded, “Yes it will give you a very deep restorative sleep and stop you moving around too much as well, just what that old brain of yours needs Jess.”
“Uh, well if you say so,” he replied with a cheeky wink and threw it back in one, grimacing at the bitter taste.
“Hey you never mentioned you were goin’ to poison me,” he spluttered handing her back the cup.
She chuckled, “Oh you.” Then smiling down at him, “Would you like me to stay with you until you fall asleep?”
He nodded and then wiped a hand across his face, “Gee it’s real warm in here ain’t it?”
She smoothed a hand across his forehead and then looked relieved, “You are a bit warm, but I don’t think you’re running a fever I’ll open the window for a little while.”
They were just idly chatting when Mrs Braddock, the doctor’s housekeeper, knocked and entered the room.” I’m sorry to bother you my dears, but there is a lady over at the haberdashers that’s fainted, they wondered if you could slip over Carrie dear?”
Once the women had both left Jess pulled the covers down some, relishing the cold air wafting across his naked torso from the open window and shortly afterwards he fell into a deep slumber.
It was a little while later that the housekeeper once more hurried down the corridor to answer the front door and this time saw old Ezra from the mercantile standing there looking sorely tried.
“Why Ezra what is it my dear?” she asked pulling the door open wider to admit her old friend.
“I…um I would like to see young Harper if I may, pay my respects, while I still can.”
Ma Braddock raised a questioning eyebrow at the strange request fancy talking as though the dear boy were practically dead she thought to herself.
“Well I don’t know my dear, I don’t think the doctor wants him disturbed and he and Miss Carrie are out so I can’t ask them.”
But when she saw the stricken look on her old friend’s face she relented.
“Just for a minute then, he’s in the hospital room at the back, “she said leading the way.
She carefully opened the door and then put a finger to her lips, “He’s sleeping, so just for a few minutes.”
Then she suddenly sniffed the air,” Oh lord the suppers burning,” and she marched away at speed. “See yourself out my dear,” she threw over her shoulder as she went.
Ezra advance slowly on the bed removing his hat and staring down at the deathly still, pale figure on the bed. After a moment he put out a hesitant hand to Jess’s chest, but pulled it back, recoiling in horror as he felt the icy cold skin beneath his touch.
He leaned forwards but could ascertain no sign of a heart beat or breathing.
He reeled back in distress before making the sign of the cross and dashing from the room.
He entered the saloon across the street a few minutes later and made straight for the bar ordering a large whiskey.
Tom poured it for him and then watched with interest when the old man spilled some, his hands were shaking so much.
“Hey Ezra, what’s up, not seen a ghost have you?” Tom quipped turning to wink at Millie at his scintillating wit.
Ezra shook his head sadly, “This ain’t no laughing matter Tom, the boy’s gone and died… I warned him God help me I did. I told him about that dang Jenson curse, but he wouldn’t listen and now he’s paid the price.”
There was the sound of shattering glass in the ensuing silence as Millie dropped the tumbler she had been polishing and a hand went up to her mouth as a shrill scream escaped her. Lily, was immediately at her side throwing a comforting arm around her, but Millie jerked free and rounding the bar tore off towards the door.
Tom looked deeply shocked for a moment and then turning to an equally bleak looking Lily said, “Go with her girl.”
Millie dashed across the street heedless of the passing traffic and narrowly missed being run down by a passing cart. She arrived at the doctor’s door panting, just as Carrie was putting her key in the lock as she returned home from the haberdashers.
“Why Millie whatever is the matter?” she asked greeting her old friend and then glancing behind her as Lily ran over to join them.
“It’s…it’s Jess, he’s dead,” Millie blurted out looking distraught.
Carrie turned deathly pale, “What…who says?”
“Ezra, he just visited and he said the Jenson curse had taken him,” Lily supplied.
“That’s nonsense,” said Carrie stoutly, “he’s just deeply sedated that’s all.”
But then a little voice in her head reminded her of her father’s words to her before he left that afternoon. ‘Be sure to double check the dose carefully my dear, that elixir is mighty strong stuff, too much could be harmful.’
Harmful, or deadly she thought now as she opened the door and the girls charged down the corridor to Jess’s room.
Lily ran to fetch Ma Braddock as the others entered the room.
Millie stood back in horror looking down at the ghostly pale figure of Jess as he lay on the hospital bed, the blankets pushed away exposing his chest and the top of his white cut off undershorts.
Carrie put a hand to his chest and feeling it icy cold bit her lip, tears forming in her eyes, “Dear God no,” she whispered.
Millie’s eyes were huge as she saw her friend breaking down. The ever-efficient nurse suddenly looking like a lost child…
“Carrie, God, do something!” she shrieked.
Millie’s heartrending plea hit home and Carrie was suddenly catapulted back into her professional persona.
She took Jess’s wrist between her fingers feeling for a pulse…and yes there it was strong and steady, if a little slow. She leaned her head down to his chest and heard the steady thump of his heart, his torso rising and falling, but almost imperceptibly.
Then she felt it. The cool breeze on her cheek and realised the window was still wide open, emitting the now bitterly cold evening air, blowing in and chilling her patient.
She turned to her friend, the tears now spilling down her cheeks, “It’s alright Millie, he’s fine, just got a little cold.”
She quickly closed the window and pulled the blanket over, before rushing to fetch another one and a stone hot water bottle to put at his feet.
“He’ll be fine,” she said once more casting her friend a reassuring look. “He’s just deeply sedated and that slows everything down, his breathing and heartbeat, plus he got a little chilled from the window. That was my fault, he said he was too hot, I was going to close it and then I was called away…”
Moments later Mrs Braddock bustled in followed by Lily, “Whatever is all the fuss about dear?” she said looking askance of Carrie.
“Nothing Mrs Braddock, just a false alarm,” she said smiling at the older woman. “You know Jess, he can get us girls all in flap even when he’s fast asleep,” she said with a thankful giggle, which was soon echoed by Millie, both girls almost dizzy with relief.

Jess awoke at first light and rolled his head on the pillow and tried to remember where he was. Oh yeah, good old Sam had got him hogtied in his hospital room and been dosing him up with that strong sleeping draught, he remembered now. It had worked real well too. He’d been out like a light since the previous afternoon. He knew Sam would be in shortly to give him another dose and he stretched luxuriously, finding it kind of nice having nothing more taxing to worry about than getting back to sleep.
Then he smelt it, the unmistakable smell of burning.
He sat bolt upright peering anxiously about him, but nothing…. the room was empty.
It was just Mrs Braddock up early and lighting the cook stove in the kitchen down the corridor he decided.
He was about to lie back down again when something caught his eye. It was the doctor’s copy of the Laramie Sentinel that he had been reading the previous afternoon. It was on a table across the room and the pages seemed to be flipping over as though someone were reading it. Jess automatically looked over to the window that Carrie had opened for him the previous afternoon, expecting to see it still open and a breeze responsible for blowing the pages about, but no it was tightly closed.
He looked back to the paper and then could just discern the faintest curl of smoke wafting around.
His stomach tightened and his mouth went dry as he stared with a look of horror as the smoke undulated up towards the ceiling.
He swallowed hard, licking his lips and then said faintly, “Mr Jenson?”
There was no reply, but again he had that feeling that had spooked him so much at Jenson’s house, like the room was holding its breath waiting for something to happen.
Suddenly his anger overtook his fear. Dang it all, it was Jenson who’d upset his old horse and caused Jess to be in this mess. Not only feeling real sick but having missed out on a night of passion with his best girl too.
“OK, look I know you’re dang well there, so quit messin’ me about huh! I wanna help you, well those poor little ‘uns anyway. The truth’s all there in that darned paper Jenson. It weren’t you who started that fire…and there was no way on earth you could have stopped it either. ’Twas a lightning strike and according to your old neighbour Ezra the place went up like a gunpowder keg had exploded. It was a fire in seconds. So no it weren’t your fault and you ain’t destined fer Hell either. But you’ve gotta leave, take those little ones back to their Ma and Pa…you understand?”
Then he heard it, the sound of a deep throaty sigh as though a soul had suddenly been relieved of some unbearable sorrow.
The heavy atmosphere in the room lightened and the smoke simply faded away.
Moments later Sam marched in a cheery smile on his face.
“What’s this Jess, talking to yourself now. Well I sincerely hope you’re not trying to talk yourself out of staying because….”
And then he stopped in his tracks, “Jess, buddy…what is it?”
Jess who had been staring fixedly at the table bearing the newspaper struggled to come back to the present and turned startled eyes on Sam.
“I weren’t,” he whispered, “I was talkin’ to Jenson, he was here.”
Sam gazed back and then wandered over and took a seat on the edge of Jess’s bed and the cowboy lay back down again.
“Look, Jess that sedative is mighty strong, do you not think that maybe it was…well a dream of some kind?”
Jess shook his head stubbornly, “Nope he was here alright, I didn’t see him, but I felt his presence. The same smell of burning as before and the smoke haze, I just know OK?”
“Uh, well if you say so Jess, but that’s a really bad knock on the head you’ve suffered and it can cause all sorts of things, hallucinations, seeing strange things even smelling things that aren’t real.”
Jess looked furious, “Are you sayin’ I’m crazy, seein’ things? Hell, I thought you told me you believed in all this kinda thing Sam?”
Sam looked suddenly contrite, “You’re right Jess, I did…and I do, it’s just kind of hard to swallow, finding something like that in your own home you know?”
“Yeah, well I wasn’t expecting it either,” Jess said looking slightly appeased. “I thought these spirits just stayed around the one place, where they passed usually, so Josh said anyways.”
“I guess we’ll never know why he came here,” Sam said gently trying to humour his friend. Then he offered the next dose of the sleeping draught.
Jess looked stubborn like he might refuse it and then seemed to think better and swallowed it down, before looking back up at his good friend.
“I ain’t crazy Sam,” he said softly.
The doc nodded, “I know that…now get some rest buddy,” and he quietly left the room.
Chapter 16
It was late afternoon on the Friday before Jess and Rev Wesley finally drove out of town making for the Jenson spread.
Whilst Joshua had been held up needing to sit with a dying parishioner Jess had spent some time with Millie. Unfortunately, she was run off her feet as both Lily and Gina were unwell so eventually Jess left promising to visit the following evening.
He mooched off down Main Street deciding to call in on Mike for a few minutes just to check all was well with him. He had made Slim promise not to tell the youngster that he’d been detained at the doc’s but now he had the need to see him and check the boy was happy and enjoying his visit with his new friend Georgy.
When he arrived, he was surprised to find a children’s party in full swing.
A rather disheveled looking Mrs Owen opened the door to him and then gave a little cry of pleasure, “Why Mister Harper how good to see you again. Oh, I do hope you aren’t here to collect Mike he’s having such a good time.”
Jess removed his hat and smiled at her, “No Ma’am just come to make sure he’s OK. Has he been behavin’?” he asked cocking a quirky eyebrow.
“Oh certainly,” she enthused, “exemplary behaviour. Do come in Mister Harper,” she said pulling the door open wide.
He cast her a quizzical glance. But guessing that exemplary probably meant OK he wiped his feet thanking her and followed her down the corridor from where childish shouts of glee were emanating.
The room was full of children laughing and playing a game of apple bobbing, most of them soaking wet, but enjoying every moment.
Hilda Owen turned to Jess and saw the surprise in his eyes.
“You must forgive our strange ways. My husband originally hailed from Scotland and over there they celebrate Halloween by playing games such as this and then later telling ghost stories by candle light,” she said smiling at him.
However, at the mention of ghosts Jess had flinched and she gave him a little frown, “You object Mister Harper?” she asked, wondering if he was maybe very religious and didn’t approve of the childish fun.
The irony of the situation was not lost on Jess, here he was off on a venture trying to lay Spirits to rest and these little innocents were about to make light of the whole ghost scenario. However, he quickly pulled himself together.
“Heck no Ma’am I don’t object it sounds like real good fun and please call me Jess.”
She nodded happily at his response, “It’s just a good excuse for a party really to introduce the girls to the local children so they can make friends. I can’t thank Mike enough for helping my Georgy to do that…Jess,” she said smiling up into his remarkable blue eyes.
At that moment Mike suddenly spied Jess and hurtled over throwing himself into his hero’s arms. The two exchanged news. Then Jess confirmed that Mike could travel home on the afternoon Stage after school on the following Monday, before the youngster was hauled back into the game.
Moments later Rosie drifted over and offered Jess a glass of fruit juice which he took smiling kindly at her, “Gee thanks honey,” he said winking at her, which made her flush deeply looking down at her shoes.
Her mother smiled fondly at her eldest daughter, “Poor Rosie is having trouble finding friends her own age, it’s difficult to know the best place for her to socialize, Mrs Owen,” said archly.
“Um,” Jess replied noncommittally, “I imagine so,” his attention still on the lively apple bobbing game.
“She’s very mature for her years, very sensible,” her mother continued as poor Rosie flushed an even deeper shade of red and Jess wondered idly if that was how she’d come to be named
When she didn’t get the response she was hoping for, Hilda Owen forged on. “She said she saw you and Mister Sherman heading for the local dance from her bedroom window the other night. We thought that might be fun for her to attend some time?” She said throwing him a speculative glance.
Jess suddenly became vaguely aware that he was being pushed into a corner hell did this woman really want him to accompany her sixteen-year old daughter to a Laramie dance? Was she crazy?
He turned and gave her his full attention then, “Er no Mrs Owen I really don’t think that’s a good idea, those town dances can get a mite rough, you know strong drink and the like, the occasional fight. Nope I reckon somewhere like Reverend Wesley’s Sunday School would be far more fittin’, for a young lady that is. I do believe there are a few youngsters of Rosie’s age that attend,” he said brightly.
“Oh, I see,” replied Mrs Owen looking slightly disappointed.
Jess tried to avoid Rosie’s sad gaze and said he really should be getting along, the mention of Josh’s name reminding him that there was a job to be done.
“Of course, Rosie dear do show Jess out,” she said pleasantly, playing her last card as regards her attempted recruitment of Jess as her daughter’s potential beau.
Jess hurriedly made his leave, but not before Rosie had turned her doe like eyes on him at the door, “Goodbye Mister Harper, please do visit again,” she said formally, but her eyes full of passion.
Jess nodded and touched his hat, “Bye Rosie,” and marched off towards the Church, feeling her lovelorn eyes boring into his back.
“When you’re a good few years older and courtin’,” he whispered to himself, “an’ not before.”
Slim could dang well deliver Mike over next visit he decided. What was it with these young girls and even worse their dang mothers?
However, all thought of forward young girls was dismissed from his mind as he entered the Church and found Josh pottering about getting ready to leave.
“Ah, there you are my dear boy, good timing. Now Jess tell me honestly are you sure you are up to this, it can be quite demanding you know, communicating with the dearly departed.”
‘Don’t I know it,’ Jess muttered to himself and then grinned at his friend, “I’m fine Josh, don’t fret. Got everything?”
Joshua pulled a small Bible from his jacket pocket and then lifted up the silver cross he wore around his neck, “These are all we will need and a good helping of courage and determination.”
“Oh well I guess we’ve got enough of that between us,” Jess said, “come on let’s git it over with.”
So it was that they finally drove out of town in the late afternoon and as they went Jess enlightened Josh regarding the latest visitation from Jenson.
“I reckon ol’ Sam was in two minds as to whether to believe me or not,” he said, “he thought I might have been dreamin’…but I weren’t Josh it was real alright. I just can’t figure why he would land at the doc’s house though?”
Joshua looked thoughtful for a time and then said, “The Spirits are very sensitive to heightened emotion and I believe he must have picked up on Ezra’s terrible distress.”
“Huh, so why was Ezra troubled, I thought he was fine now I’d made it obvious he couldn’t have saved them? He seemed real happy after he’d read the article in the Sentinel clearing his name.”
“Oh, it was nothing to do with that, it was when he visited you at the doc’s place and thought you were dead, he felt terrible, went to the saloon and virtually collapsed, and that’s when Tom sent for me.”
“Huh, hang on what’re you talkin’ about Josh? I didn’t nearly die, I’ve just been out of it for a few days while my head injury healed, why did he think I was dead?”
Joshua explained everything. “I believe the Doc and Carrie didn’t say anything to you as they didn’t want you upset.”
Jess shook his head in disbelief, “So you think Jenson picked up on Ezra fussin’ and frettin’ and came to see what was happening? “
Joshua nodded, “It’s a rational explanation and then you explained that he was totally free from any blame and he left, you felt a lightness and peace in the room, when Jenson’s spirit had left you?”
Jess nodded, “Yup it was really strange, like a dark blanket had lifted, the smoke went and then nuthin’ just peaceful and real quiet, like you say.”
Josh turned to his friend, “My goodness you know I think you may already have laid him to rest Jess, let’s just hope our journey is unnecessary,” he said with a warm smile, urging his old grey mare on through the gathering darkness.
However, as they entered the Jenson’ s yard a little later they could just make out a pall of dark smoke hovering above the ruined building and Jess felt the same old familiar stirrings of unease as he unhitched the horse and led her into the barn.
Joshua offered to take some logs in and set a fire while Jess dealt with feeding and watering the horse. As he made his way off towards the ruined house Jess remembered that Josh also had a bag containing the makings for coffee and one of his wife’s apple pies and he brightened slightly.
It was dark by the time he followed the Reverend over and he was pleased to see the lamp lit and a blaze crackling in the hearth. But even so the room felt decidedly chilly as he entered.
Josh was kneeling by the fire deep in silent prayer as Jess entered so he just crouched quietly down by the fire warming his hands until his friend whispered, “Amen,” and looked up.
Jess was surprised to see a look of deep sorrow in the padre’s eyes, “Such terrible wretchedness,” he said softly, “can you feel it Jess. All around us like a shroud, the very walls seem to exude melancholy.”
Jess cast him a faint smile, “Well that’s real poetic Josh, just feels dang well creepy to me.”
Josh smiled back, “Yup that too, how about some coffee to warm us up huh?”
Jess rested back against the wall sipping his coffee and listening to the wind getting up outside and then the rattle of rain on the cracked window panes. There were other less overt sounds too, soft sighing close to his ear and then the clear sound of childish footsteps seemingly running around behind them, where the bedrooms had once stood.
Once or twice Jess thought he felt soft breath on the back of his neck and then both men stared at each other in consternation as they clearly heard a childish giggle.
“Dori…Dori, is that you?” Jess called softly, but nothing. His heart was once again pounding twenty to the dozen and he felt a wave of dizziness, even Josh’s presence not alleviating the deep-rooted fears of the unfamiliar spirit world.
Moments later there was a tremendous crash of thunder rattling the window panes and a flash of lightning ripped through the night sky, making both men practically jump out of their skins.
“Dad blame it, that’s just great,” said Jess dryly, “I sure hope it’s true what they say, that lightning never strikes twice in the same place.”
Joshua chuckled shaking his head, always appreciating Jess’s sense of humour.
But just moments later neither of them were laughing as the storm raged above and the very walls seemed to shake as a mighty wind blasted against the structure making it creak and groan.
“I think maybe now would be a good time to have a word with the Man Upstairs,” Jess said quietly, “I really don’t think this place is gonna be standing much longer the way this storms goin’.”
Just seconds later the door burst open, almost blasted off its hinges by the wind and a large dark figure stood there staring balefully at them, its face hidden in the shadows.
Jess was the first to react and instinctively drew his gun, but aware it would be little use to him against this spectral vision before them. He stared in terror, just wanting to run, but knowing there was no place to go, save past this horrendous entity.
He could hear Josh’s rasping breaths and out of the corner of his eye saw him grab hold of his crucifix and hold it up as though to ward off the spectre.
It stood there seeming to shake and writhe as the storm buffeted around it howling and screaming without, the rain still lashing down.
The shadowy apparition slowly advanced upon them….
Then it removed its hat shaking it and peering over at the shocked faces before him.
“Garldarn it, that’s one hell of a storm,” Slim spluttered.
The two men stared in disbelief before leaping into action, Jess pumping his buddy’s hand and helping him remove his large dark rain slicker. Whilst Joshua wrestled with the door, before returning and pouring Slim a welcome cup of coffee.
Once they had relaxed back with their drinks Jess turned to Slim and said, “This is a genuine storm then, not just ol’ Jenson soundin’ off again?”
“Oh it’s genuine alright,” said Slim as he wiped a sleeve across his soaking wet face, “it started just as I left the ranch.”
“Well we’re really pleased to see you,” said Josh beaming at his friend, “but what made you change your mind, Jess said you were dead against, ‘messin’ with the Spirits’,” he said with a passable imitation of Jess’s deep Texan drawl.
Slim looked down for a moment and then replied honestly, “It wasn’t that Josh, I was just plumb fearful if I’m honest, the whole business of seeing some sort of ghost really terrifies the pants off of me but I guess I had to come.”
“Oh, you did?” Josh asked encouragingly.
Slim looked across to where Jess was lounging back against the wall once more, savouring the strong coffee.
“Yes, it was my partner here,” he said, “the way I figured it if he could come out here after having been so sick and all. To help folk he’d never even met, well I reckoned I should come too. After all young Jimmy and Dori were my best friends once. Truth is I was feeling kinda ashamed.”
Josh smiled back at him, “There’s no need and I’m really glad you made it. No need to feel bad about being a tad anxious in the face of the unknown, I guess we’re all a little scared of what we cannot see or fully comprehend.”
Jess grinned over at Slim, thinking Josh’s words were probably the understatement of the year, “Yeah, all except me…and we all know what a liar I am,” he quipped.
The other two men chuckled.
“Have you seen anything?” Slim asked after a few minutes of glancing warily about him.
The men filled him in on the strange sounds of children at play, running around and giggling.
“But I figure this storm has upset them, ain’t heard anything since it got real wild out there,” Jess said, not knowing whether to feel sorry or relieved.
After an hour or so of idle chatter, as the storm raged without, Jess suggested getting their heads down for an hour or so, believing nothing would happen whilst the thunder still rumbled overhead.
They settled down to sleep in front of the fire as best they could. Using some old horse blankets Jess had dug out of the barn as bedding. Before too long they were all sleeping, albeit somewhat restlessly.
Jess didn’t know what woke him. He sat up his heart pounding as he peered around the room, now dimly lit by a shaft of moonlight filtering through the hole in the ceiling by the door.
Everything seemed peaceful, the storm over and a cloudless sky above.
As his eyes gradually became accustomed to the gloom, he could just make out the figure of Joshua, fast asleep and wrapped in the musty old blanket, on the other side of the fire. But something wasn’t right… And then he suddenly remembered Slim’s unnerving entrance earlier that evening, but where the hell was his pard?
Then he heard it, the sound that must have awoken him, a mumbling sound as of a muffled conversation, but it appeared to be coming from the fireplace. He leaned closer and could definitely make out the sounds of a man’s voice and then a familiar tinkling giggle, “What the….?” He muttered to himself.
Getting up he peered around the room and then wandered over to the kitchen corner where a door had once led to the wooden lean to that had housed two bedrooms, the old doorway now bricked up.
Except it wasn’t…
Jess stared in shock, tinged with fascination at the old wooden door in the wall, a strip of light showing beneath it.
He swallowed hard, his legs feeling weak and shaky as he reached for the handle and gradually pushed the door open.
It made a slight creaking noise and as he stood on the threshold three pairs of enquiring eyes turned to look at him.
The walls were whitewashed and bore many childish paintings of horses, dogs and ships. There was a colourful rag rug on the floor and two cots were pulled up to a small stove, the flames crackling and making shadows on the walls. A small lamp stood on the mantle casting its light upon the two children sitting up in their beds and the tall blond man close to them in an old armchair.
Jess looked straight into the eyes of Slim, Jimmy and Dori.
There was a pregnant silence and then Jimmy got up and ran towards Jess, “Hello Mister Jess,” he said in the strange flute like tones that seemed to echo around the room, “Are you better, grand pappy said you were real sick?”
Jess’s jaw was slack and he stared back trying hard to speak and eventually he answered, “I’m just fine Jimmy, just fine.”
The boy returned to his cot and Jess followed him over and looked down at his pard.
“You OK Slim?” he asked softly.
Slim turned his ashen countenance up to Jess, “I dunno,” he said quietly, “I can’t figure as to how this can be real…but it is. This is Jimmy and Dori Jenson,” he almost whispered, “my good friends.”
Jess began to slowly lose his initial fears, “Yup we’ve met,” he said quietly.
Again, he was amazed at the beauty and purity of the children, light issuing from their childish forms, now dressed in nightshirts, hair brushed and just like two regular young ‘un’s being tucked up for the night.
But they weren’t… God knows they weren’t Jess thought forlornly.
Dori had just sat there smiling and smiling at Slim as though she was trying to commit every feature to memory.
Then she turned to Jess, “Thank you for helping grand pappy Mister Jess, we’re going home…at least we were,” and then she suddenly looked like she might cry.
Jess turned to Slim, “Huh?”
“It seems he just doesn’t know what to do, how to move on from here. It’s like they’re stuck in some kind of limbo Jess.”
“What after all that’s happened he wants to go, but can’t?” Jess replied looking sorely tried.
Then both men looked up as a faint sound drew their attention to a shadowy corner of the room and they felt the presence of old man Jenson. First, they heard his raspy breathing and then a faint shadowy outline became more solid and revealed a stooped grey haired old man.
Slim jumped up shaking and muttered, “Mister Jenson, is that you?”
“Matty my dear boy, he whispered, the sound barely discernible, “I need some help…we should not be here. You should not be witnessing this, the children they need to go from this place.”
Jess nodded, “You too Mister Jenson, you can go now too.”
Jenson’ s gaze turned to incorporate Jess, “Just so, thanks to you my boy,” he replied, his frail old voice trembling.
Moments later there was a discreet cough from a figure standing on the threshold, “Maybe I can be of service,” said the Reverend Joshua Wesley, as he came forwards bearing his crucifix and Bible.
Later when Jess was to recall the happenings of that Halloween night it was as though everything happened in slow motion. Every aspect had made a profound impression on him and Slim, Joshua too, as they helped to liberate the poor tormented souls from their earthbound constraints.
Josh had come forwards and after a nod of assent from Jenson he started to speak firmly and clearly, raising his crucifix as he intoned: “For the highest and best good I require these earthbound Spirits cross over into the Light and leave this space for ever in peace…”
Jess and Slim looked on as the youngsters rose from their cots and ran to their grandfather, taking a hand each… But then little Dori broke free and blew a kiss to Slim, looking tearful again, before returning to her grand pappy who threw a comforting arm around her.
It was on the second reading of the prayer that the walls of the room slowly started to shiver as aspen leaves in a strong breeze, before turning to a hazy mist and moments later they were all standing in the back yard on the charred remains of the old bedroom.
It was a heartrendingly beautiful, still night. The silvery moonlight occasionally casting its magical light as it peeped out from behind clouds that scudded across its face.
Joshua held his Bible and crucifix up to the heavens and once more proclaimed, “Cross over to the Light and leave this place, go in peace,” he added softly.
It was the children that saw them first, the wraith like figures of a young couple standing a few yards away in a clearing in the cottonwoods.
Then they cried out in joy, to their Mama and Pa.
They ran towards the figures, the moonlight now shining brightly on the very spot where they stood, as the clouds suddenly parted.
Moments later the old man made his way slowly towards the family and was embraced lovingly by his son. He turned back and gave a little salute of farewell and thanks to the three men now watching in wonder this little tableau play out before them.
Then as they watched the Spirits just faded away as a sudden gust of wind buffeted the trees, making them bend and sway… then all was calm, silence and perfect peace.
It took the men a few minutes to pull themselves together before they advanced towards the spot where the family had seemingly disappeared into thin air. Jess looked down and then glanced across at the others, “Well I’ll be… “He said softly.
There before them were six graves, four adults and two smaller ones, the headstones all professing them to be members of the Jenson family some of who had died in tragic circumstances. They were the graves of Maudie and James Jenson, their son and his wife and grandchildren, all now resting in peace.
Jess shook his head and looked up into the clear moonlit sky and said softly, “I guess they finally made it home,” and turned to see Slim looking deeply moved.
“Come on pard let’s go,” he said gently throwing a comforting arm around his shoulders.
They returned to the house to get a few more hours sleep before dawn, but Slim found it hard to drop off and spent the rest of the night sitting by the fireside just drinking coffee and remembering that last precious hour with his dear Dori.
Jess had sat with him talking softly for a little while before finally succumbing to sleep as did Joshua, both men drained.
The following morning they were all feeling tired and quite emotional after the night before and really just wanted to get home. However, Joshua had one more task in mind.
He led them back to the graves and said some prayers for the dearly departed.
“I guess we can finally send them on their way now,” he said smiling at his two good friends, but Slim still looked really upset.
Jess and Joshua exchanged a worried glance.
“Slim, what’s up?” Jess asked softly, “you’re glad they’re resting in peace now ain’t ya?”
He nodded, looking surprised, “Heck of course I am, it’s just… look at this Jess it’s a disgrace.”
“The family plot, it’s so neglected, overgrown, no proper railings and these headstones need a good clean up too.”
Jess grinned over at him, “Is that all pard? I’m goin’ to town later on today, I’ll order some nice iron railings from Ezra and we’ll come by next week and fix it up real good huh?”
Slim looked relieved, “That’s swell thanks Jess.”
Jess punched him lightly on the arm, “You’re welcome,” and he marched off to catch up with Joshua and hitch up the old grey mare.
Slim stood quietly looking down at the graves and then his head shot up, “Town?”
He hurried off after his buddy, “Hell Jess you’re not going to town today, there’s work to be done. Miss Daisy’s due home soon and we’ve got to clean the place up and you never did fix that lock on the hen house door and…Jess, garldarn it Jess are you listening to me!”
As it happened both men went to Laramie the following day. Slim having been persuaded that exactly what he needed to calm his nerves was a night out with his best girl, especially after the recent unsettling events of the night before.
They spent the day cleaning and polishing everything in the ranch house and doing various chores, before they set off mid-afternoon, in time to catch Ezra before he closed up for the night. When he heard what had taken place over at the Jenson homestead he was so relieved that he gave them the railings as a gift and Slim and Jess went off to the saloon feeling pretty chipper.
Sure, it had been a difficult time and the night before had been distressing, but heck all the more reason to seek solace in the arms of their girls so Jess argued.
It was at first light the following morning that he addressed a problem that had been on his mind.
He was lying in Millie’s big comfortable bed and they had been chatting softly. Jess leaning on his elbow looking down into her beautiful face.
“Millie, why didn’t you tell me that Ezra told ya I was dead?” he suddenly blurted out.
She paused for a moment and then said, “Umm, well doc Sam didn’t want you to know, he thought you’d be really upset that I’d been frightened that way and he needed to keep you calm.”
“Too right I would have been,” Jess said a flash of anger crossing his handsome features, “garldarn it what was old Ezra thinkin’ worryin’ you that way?”
Millie shook her head, “Sam said it was probably all in his mind. He believed in the curse and expected you to die, so when he saw you so cold and pale, looking to be dead, then he assumed you really were.”
“I suppose that makes sense.”
“And anyway….” Millie continued.
“Huh, go on?”
“Anyway, I didn’t want you to worry about that silly curse. If Ezra believed it then I thought he might convince you if you knew about that scare. Goodness knows it must have taken all your courage to go back and face those…Spirits, without the fear of being cursed too,” she said looking deeply into his eyes.
“You know it was a mite daunting,” he said with typical Harper understatement, “but I guess I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
“Really?” she asked looking amazed.
“Uh, yeah, see it sorta confirmed everything that I’d always believed… that I’ll see my kin again. But well now I know for sure.”
Millie nodded, “That’s a real nice thought Jess, is Slim as happy about it all as you are?”
He shook his head, “Nope but he will be once we’ve fixed up their last resting place and he has some time to grieve properly too.”
“Yeah, see he was so dang upset about the whole business that he just never thought of it when he was a youngster. He just locked it all away. I think that’s why he was so mad at me finding the place and dredging everything up again. Now he just needs time to come to terms with everything and then move on.”
“She meant a lot to him didn’t she, little Dori?”
Jess nodded, “You know I figure he really loved her, childhood sweethearts just the way we were.”
“Still are, sweethearts that is,” she whispered moving in for a kiss.
Later in the week Jess and Slim took the new railings over to the Jenson place and spent the day clearing and tidying the plot before erecting the new fence around the graves.
As they sat back and reviewed their hard work at the end of the day Jess turned to his pard and said, “Ok, happy now. Do ya think that will do ‘em justice?”
Slim stood back, hands on his hips, hat pushed back and surveyed their hard work.
Then he turned back to his buddy and gave him a huge smile that lit up his whole face.
“Yes, I sure do Jess, it looks just swell, thanks for helping…well thanks for everything. If it hadn’t been for you, things would have been a lot different and I guess I’d never have faced my demons.” He looked down.
“She meant a lot to me, Dori…you know?”
Jess nodded, “I figured as much kinda like me and Millie best friends as kids?”
“Yup we were and now, I can finally let her go,” Slim said softly. Then he punched his buddy lightly on the arm, “Come on pard let’s go home huh?”
Today if you take the main highway out of Laramie, some twelve miles out of town you will come across a large smart ranch, the name clearly displayed, Sherman & Harper Cattle Ranch & Morgan Stallions at Stud.
When Slim and Jess finally retired and gave the running of the ranch over to their offspring, and in turn, future generations there was one stipulation. Sure, they could buy more acreage and extend and modernize the main ranch house and also the one over in the south pasture that had been built when the men married their partners and raised their families. But one place was sacrosanct, the land fenced off around the remains of the old Jenson homestead and the burial plot.
Now if you drive on a few miles past the Sherman & Harper Ranch you will see a turn off down an old tree lined track. Leave your car at the side of the highway and make your way down the ancient pathway until you reach the old Jenson yard. The house walls are smothered with ivy now and the cotton woods surrounding it overgrown. But there is a tranquil atmosphere and as you pause you will hear birdsong and the rustle of small animals in the undergrowth.
Make your way around to the rear of the property and here in a clearing in the cottonwoods you will see a burial plot enclosed by railings, the headstones polished and clean, the whole area weeded and kept immaculate by the descendants of Slim Sherman and Jess Harper.
Spare a moment to view this everlasting testimony to their belief that the veil between this life and the next is very fragile. Our loved ones are only a step away and when our time comes they will be waiting to carry us home.
As Jess said to Slim, his blue eyes twinkling, “You know pard, I find that notion kinda comforting.”
The End
Thank you for reading.

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