#68 Love Thy Neighbor

Love Thy Neighbor – A Story for Christmas
By Patty Wilkinson

Thanks to Sally B for the screen cap

Chapter 1
Jess Harper found the man lying by the side of the Laramie Road, about a mile from the ranch and relay station.
It was a bitterly cold day just a few weeks before Christmas and Jess was hurrying home after checking on the stock over in the east pasture. The collar of his sheepskin jacket was turned up and his hat well down to try and keep the stinging wind out of his eyes.
He might well have passed by without seeing the old man. But just as he drew near the wind got up and caught the old-timer’s jacket, the material billowing out and making Traveller shy and sidestep.
Jess put a comforting hand to his horse’s neck and on peering down saw what looked to be a bundle of old rags by the road side. However, on closer inspection he was just able to make out the form of a man in the dim late afternoon light.
He jumped nimbly down from the saddle and kneeling by the grey haired, balding little man, deftly turned him over onto his back. Jess gave a little gasp of shock as he saw a deep gash to the man’s temple. His face was pale and pasty looking with a neatly clipped grey beard. At first he thought he was dead, but then moments later he groaned and his eyes flickered open.
“Take it easy,” said Jess kindly, and leaving him for a moment fetched his canteen and returning offered some water.
“Thank you, my boy, most kind,” the gentleman finally managed and he tried to sit up, failing miserably, gasping and falling back again.
“Easy,” Jess said. “What happened, did your horse throw you?”
The man shook his head a dazed look in his eyes, “I can’t remember… I think not, I seem to be on foot I believe.”
“What out here?” Jess asked looking slightly surprised, “Heck it’s no place to be afoot, in this weather too.”
The old man shook his head as if in an attempt to clear his mind, “I have a feeling I don’t ride. I have no great affinity for the animals I’m afraid,” he said casting Traveller a rather anxious glance.
“You have a feeling you don’t ride, dontcha know?” Jess asked looking decidedly puzzled now.
The old man fixed Jess with anxious brown eyes then, “To be perfectly honest with you young man I really don’t know. I also don’t know who I am, or what I’m doing here, I find myself in rather a quandary, I’m afraid.”
Jess looked down at the rather dapper little man, his clothes of good quality if somewhat threadbare and dusty now, he noted. He was kind of intrigued by his mode of speech too he sure wasn’t from around these parts he mused.
“Jess, Jess Harper,” he said offering his hand, then, “A quandary huh,” he said looking faintly amused, “I guess you’d better come home with me then and we’ll get Miss Daisy to clean you up some, maybe you’ll remember everything come the morning huh?”
“Miss Daisy you say?”
“Uh-huh, she’s our housekeeper back at the ranch. A real dab hand at treatin’ the sick and injured, ex-nurse ya see,” Jess said as he helped him to his feet.
“Well I don’t know, I don’t want to be a nuisance,” the older man said now looking up and down the road as if somehow, he could turn the clock back and be once more on his way…but to where?
“Ain’t any bother,” said Jess firmly, “and I dunno about you, but I’d kinda like to git out of this wind huh?”
“I agree on that account,” he said now smiling timidly.
“Come on then,” said Jess eager to be off, “I’ll give ya a leg up, we can ride double it ain’t too far.”

“All I’m saying is you’re forever bringing home waifs and strays Jess. We know nothing about this guy. It could be some sort of con…we leave him sleeping in the bunkhouse and wake up to find all the horses gone come morning.”
“Oh, come on Slim listen to yourself. He’s just a poor old man and hurt some too. Do ya think he banged himself on the head and waited for me to find him? As to stealin’ our stock he don’t even like horses. Anyway, what was I supposed to do, leave him by the roadside to freeze to death huh?”
The two men were talking in the barn as Jess rubbed down Traveller, their guest now fast asleep in the bunkhouse after Daisy’s ministrations.
Slim hung his head in shame, “Hell you’re right of course you are Jess and I’m sorry…it’s just...”
“Just what Slim, what’s eatin’ ya huh?”
Slim sighed dramatically before slumping down on a straw bale.
“I didn’t want to have to tell you or Daisy, but I guess I’ve no choice. That check from Peterson for the beeves we sold him…it bounced.”
“It what, bounced you say?” yelled Jess angrily, turning and giving Slim his full attention now, “You’re kiddin’ me.”
“Would I joke about a thing like that, left us high and dry Jess. Sure, I’ve spoken to him and he’s promised the cash as soon as he can get it, but it’ll be January at the earliest. Right now, we’ve only enough money left for the bare essentials.”
“At least most of the Christmas presents are ordered and paid for from the catalogue. The food all bought in or stored in the root cellar…we’ve even got the ‘mountain dew’ from Denver James,” Jess replied grinning now, “so that’s the essentials taken care of.”
“But even so things are going to be kind of tight. So, can you see why I don’t really want an extra mouth to feed huh?”
Jess looked down battling with his conscience and then looked his buddy in the eyes, “But we can’t throw him out Slim, he’s old and it’s nearly Christmas.”
Slim looked over to his pard and then his face creased into a rueful grin, “Nope of course we can’t. I figure there should be enough to go around somehow. Well if you hold back on third helpings of Miss Daisy’s pies that is,” he said with a chuckle.
Jess threw a gentle punch, “I guess I can but try,” he said cheerfully.
The following morning it was obvious that the old guy was none too well and still couldn’t remember even his name. So when Mose drove the early Stage in he was asked to give a message to Doc Sam, requesting him to call at his earliest convenience.
As Slim and Jess waved the Stage off Jess turned to his partner looking a tad sheepish, “There’s just one thing Slim.”
“Huh, so what’s that buddy?”
“Me and old er…grandpa, were talkin’ this morning.”
“Grandpa?” Slim said with a burst of laughter.
“Well you got a better idea, he don’t remember his name and we can’t keep sayin’ ‘hey you’. Beside he looks the part with that grey beard and twinklin’ eyes. I reckon he’s a real nice old guy. I’ve looked in a few times visitin’ with him and he kind of reminds me of my Ma’s pa…old Grampy.”
“Sure, sure so you were talking?”
“Uh yeah and it looks like he got that hit on the head courtesy of whoever robbed him.”
“Robbed…hey wait a minute robbed him, so he hasn’t any money?”
Jess shook his head “Not a brass nickel to his name nope.”
“So, who’s footing the bill then Jess because we sure can’t afford too much spending right now.”
“Well I know that don’t I,” Jess replied irritably. “I thought Sam might wait a little. I’ve nearly broken the last of the mustangs and I’ve been offered good money for that old buckskin, iffen I can get her gentled real soon. Old man Sutton was figurin’ to buy her as a present for his daughter for Christmas.”
“Are you crazy Jess that’s one hell of a ride? Jeez you’re still black and blue from the last time she threw you. What’s it going to take to make you realise she just isn’t going to be tamed…a broken neck?” he asked angrily.
“Well there ain’t one as has beat me yet,” Jess said stubbornly. “It’s just a matter of time, I’ve dang well near cracked her I tell you Slim, she’ll be sweet as a nut before you know it.”
“Famous last words,” muttered Slim wandering back indoors in search of the coffee pot.
“You did right to call me in,” said Doc Sam Baker sometime later as he was leaving. “That’s quite a sick old man, a reaction to the beating he received and the amnesia of course that can be most upsetting. Ah well let’s just hope he gets his memory and health back soon huh.”
“Amen to that,” said Slim dryly, giving the doc a little farewell salute before marching off to the barn.
“And Jess, there really is no rush for the fee, don’t worry OK?”
“You’ll get it, just as soon as I’m able Sam and thanks fer understanding,” Jess said looking a little uncomfortable.
“Hey, no need to fret about it Jess really, after all we’re buddies aren’t we.”
“That’s why I am,” Jess said quietly before making for the corral and his next session with the aptly named Crazy Horse as Mike had dubbed the buckskin filly.
He had spent all his spare time up on the recalcitrant animal and although she did appear to be slowing down marginally, she still had an angry look about her and a real wilful streak so Slim proclaimed.
The following morning Jess continued working the mare, up in the saddle for several hours, or as Slim said mostly out of it, when Daisy called them in for a much needed restorative coffee.
Jess spent a minute or so on the porch beating the worst of the dust out of his shirt and pants with his hat, before entering and giving Daisy a friendly grin, “Gee I’m ready for this,” he said taking a seat and accepting the coffee cup with alacrity.
“Oh Jess dear look at the state of your clothes,” she said more in sorrow than in anger, “however do you get in such a mess?”
“Spends far too much darned time down in the dirt rather than in the saddle, courtesy of that Crazy Horse” Slim supplied, receiving a black look from Jess.
“Oh dear,” said Daisy fondly, “are you hurt dear?”
“No place it shows,” Slim chuckled, referring to the fact that Jess had just taken a nasty fall on his butt.
“Oh?” Daisy said looking puzzled.
“Just ignore him Daisy, he thinks he’s bein’ funny,” Jess snapped.
Then the penny dropped and Daisy prudently changed the subject.
“I’ve been washing Mr… er Grandpa’s clothes and I really can’t salvage them. The underwear has almost completely dissolved in the wash, more holes than thread and as to his suit, well its little better.”
“Heck Daisy you ain’t left him stark naked have ya?” Jess asked looking anxious, “it strikes real cold at night in the bunkhouse even with the stove goin’.”
“Oh no dear don’t fret I gave him some of yours.”
“Don’t worry Jess dear only that red flannel Union suit that you dislike so much.”
“Heck Daisy that thing itches something fierce, he can keep it.”
“Very charitable of you dear, although it is a tad snug on him, it was all I could find that would fit. He’s somewhat wider in the girth than you are. Never mind it will have to do for the present, until I get him a full set of good clothes.”
“Heck Daisy I don’t think we can run to that,” said Slim in alarm.
“Don’t worry Slim dear it won’t cost you a penny. Now if you boys would be kind enough to hitch Betsy to the buggy I need to make a little visit to see a friend.”
It was after supper before they were to hear the details of Daisy’s day.
They caught up with her in the kitchen busily sorting through a large bag full of men’s clothing.
“Heck Daisy where did this come from?” Jess asked picking up a smart suit jacket.
Daisy beamed at him. “My friend Louisa Dunn, if you remember her dear Henry passed away six weeks ago. Well she asked me last week to help her clear out his chests and dispose of his personal affects. It just happened at the right time and grandpa may as well benefit, she was just glad they were going to a worthy cause.”
“Well he’ll certainly cut the mustard in this get-up,” Slim said noting the smart suit too.
“There are some work shirts and everyday pants too,” Daisy said, “and some brand-new underwear. This should set him up for the winter very well, it’s just lucky he’s a similar size to Henry Dunn. I’ll pop them across to him now and sit and visit a little while. I do believe he’ll be well enough to get up tomorrow too,” she said chirpily as she bustled off.
The following day was Saturday and so Mike was home and he had dashed over to the bunkhouse to call the old man for breakfast. He knocked on the door and put his head around, “Hey grandpa, breakfast’s ready,” he said cheerfully.
The old man sat up in bed looking surprised, “Pardon, what’s that you said boy?”
“Breakfast Grandpa…”
Mike flushed up looking uncertain, “Gee I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be cheeky. It’s just that Jess said seein’ as we didn’t have a name for you that was kinda fittin’, what with your grey beard and twinkly eyes, an’ all.”
The old man’s eyes softened and he gave the child an affectionate smile, “No you didn’t do wrong Mike, I rather like it, makes me feel like family. Thankee kindly and tell Miss Daisy I’ll be along directly.”
Later that morning found Slim, Mike and ‘Grandpa’, sitting the corral fence watching as Jess careered around on the high-spirited Crazy Horse.
The old-timer shook his head, closing his eyes every time it looked as though Jess would be tipped off.
“He enjoys this?” he asked peering across to where Slim was yelling encouragement from the side lines.
“Pretty much, likes the challenge,” Slim said, “but he tries not to work the horses this time of year, if he can help it.”
“Umm, when the grounds so dang cold and rock hard it ain’t easy, especially if he falls badly, more likely to break something I reckon.”
“Then why do it?” asked the other, looking mystified. “Why put himself through it and take the risk?”
“Needs the money,” Slim said succinctly, but avoiding saying it was for the doctor’s fees which hadn’t yet been mentioned.
Grandpa was very quiet for the rest of the day, but it was after supper before he voiced his concerns.
He had praised Daisy’s good cooking to the skies and chatted to Mike about his menagerie of pet animals, but it was after the child was abed and Daisy brewing the post supper coffee that he turned to Jess.
“I really can’t thank you enough for taking me in this way when I was sick,” he said including Slim in his genuine, warm smile. “But I mustn’t overstay my welcome, so if you would be kind enough to give me a lift into town when it’s convenient, I need to try and find some work there.”
“Hey there’s no need to go before you’re really fit,” Jess said quickly. “Besides it’s gonna be kind of tough for you out there until your memory returns.”
“Uh, that’s as maybe,” he agreed, “but I have debts to pay Jess. I realised just today that you must have settled the doctor’s fees for me. But whereas I appreciate your kindness, more than you can know, I really must reimburse you as soon as I can. I may have temporarily lost my memory, but of this I am sure…I am an honourable man.”
“I’m sure you are and it’s OK,” Jess said quietly, “Sam’s a buddy he’s happy to wait.”
“Even so I can see how you’re fixed here. This is a small business and you really don’t need another mouth to feed and especially one as useless as I am at the moment,” he said sadly.
It was Slim who spoke up now, knowing full well what his Pa would have said.
“You really are welcome here you know, until you’re better, we all want that.”
“Yes I know my dear boy,” the old-timer said reaching over and patting his arm gently. “But all the same I would appreciate your help in securing some employment if that it is possible.”
Jess and Slim exchanged a glance seeing that grandpa was becoming quite emotional and it was Jess who finally agreed, understanding his need to remain independent.
“I’m goin’ in tomorrow to do some marketing for Daisy, I can show you around see if there’s anyone taking on workers,” he suggested. Knowing that it would doubtless be a fool’s errand, but at least he would have gone through the motions. Then he could bring the old man back with him until he was really well again.
They set off in the buckboard after breakfast and their first port of call was the livery for Jess to order some feed stuff from old Bert.
Grandpa had remained in the buckboard whilst Jess went in search of Bert and finally ran him to ground out back. The two men walked back into the livery and glancing out the door Bert said, “So who’s your friend Jess, not Santa come early is it?”
Jess chuckled thinking that with that beard the old guy would make a good Santa for the Sunday School Christmas Party that Mike was so looking forwards to.
“Nope, I guess he ain’t,” Jess laughed and went on to explain about the way he had found him and that he was now seeking work.
“Uh, any good at shoeing and harness mendin’ is he?” Bert asked hopefully, always on the lookout for skilled help.
Jess shook his head, “Says he don’t have much of an affinity with the horses,” he said rolling his tongue around the new word carefully.
“Uh, you say so huh?” Bert said trying not to look dumb, but failing miserably. “That’s a bad thing then?” he finally asked.
“I reckon he ain’t none too keen on ‘em,” Jess agreed and shortly afterwards they concluded their business and Jess went on his way, still smiling to himself and marvelling at his new friend’s interesting vocabulary.
Jess decided he’d be quicker if he went off and did the marketing alone and then he’d be able to do a little asking around as to work for Grandpa too. Not wanting to see his eyes cloud with hurt when nobody wanted to employ him. Also thinking it would be less tiring for the old boy as he was still looking pretty shaky.
“Look how’s about you take a seat in the saloon for a little while and I’ll meet you back here in an hour or so?” Jess suggested as they came to the Laramie saloon. “I can ask around about work and get back to you if anyone’s interested OK?”
Grandpa looked slightly dubious but guessed Jess wanted to get on and would be quicker alone, so he reluctantly agreed.
“Hey you don’t look any too happy for a guy who’s gotten the opportunity to put his feet up and have a beer or two in the warm,” Jess said grinning at the old man. Gee he’d have been in there like a shot himself iffen he didn’t have messages to tend to…and if his girl Millie had been in residence too. However, he remembered sadly she was over at her Ma’s for a pre-Christmas visit and he’d have to wait until nearer Christmas to see her.
“Tom may be able to tell you if there’s anyone looking for workers too,” he said, “he’s the barkeep and a real nice guy and gets all the gossip in here. I’ll come and have a beer with you in an hour or so.”
With that they parted company and Jess marched off down Main Street.
If he hadn’t met old man Sutton then everything would have been alright, so he told Slim later. As it was he bumped into their neighbour just as he was leaving the mercantile.
“Harper, I’ve been meaning to come over and see you, how are you doing with that buckskin you promised my daughter?”
“Oh, pretty good Mr Sutton, should have her whipped into shape any day now,” Jess said with more conviction than he felt.
“Not literally I hope,” Sutton said raising a bushy eyebrow.
“Huh…oh yeah, I see. Nope I never use a whip, you know that. I’m more a believer in the carrot than the stick,” he said firmly. Although Crazy Horse was sorely trying his patience he thought.
“Look Harper I’d like to hear a bit more about this filly and what you’re doing to break her, how about a coffee at Miss Molly’s café?”
Jess would have preferred a drink in the saloon because he’d left the old man to his own devises for over an hour now. However, he knew Sutton was a fervent teetotaller, with the exception of the odd glass of homemade cider and he certainly didn’t want to endanger the negotiations regarding the sale of the buckskin.
It was an hour later before he had finally convinced Sutton that the horse would be broken to his satisfaction by Christmas and a mutually agreeable price was settled.
He made his way cheerfully down the street to the saloon, looking forward to exchanging some banter with Tom and having a quick drink with grandpa before driving back home. There had been no suitable work available for the old man, as Jess knew would be the case. However, now with the sale of Crazy Horse virtually guaranteed he could relax some, pay Sam and even have some left over to treat his girl he figured.
He entered the busy saloon and peered into the dim interior looking for the old man, but after a minute or so it became clear that he was not there. Jess wondered fleetingly if he had made his way back to the livery, but no he’d have noticed if he’d passed the café where he’d had a window seat.
Tom came over and grinned at his old friend, “She ain’t back yet you know buddy,” he said referring to the delectable Millie, his barmaid and Jess’s girl.
“I know that, I’ve just come in for a quick beer and to pick up the old man.”
“Old man?”
“Long story Tom, an old guy I picked up on the Laramie Road a week back, been beat up and robbed, we’ve been lookin’ out for him back at the ranch. Anyways I was supposed to meet him here?”
Tom looked thoughtful, “A little guy about so high, scar on his temple? Wearing real smart clothes and talks kinda classy?”
“That’s him,” Jess said, “so do you know where he went?”
“I sure do, I had to get Mort over to arrest him, drunk and disorderly! He was drinkin’ with the Parson. Well you know what he’s like Jess. Started doin’ one of those fire and brimstone sermons and drunk as a skunk, so I sent Lily over to fetch Mort and he took ‘em both in. He’ll be sleeping it off in the cells now I reckon.”
Jess looked stunned, “Really he were drunk, this time of day?” shaking his head in disbelief.
“As a fiddler’s bitch…now beer was it Jess?”
Jess declined the offer and made his way swiftly to Sheriff Mort Cory’s office.
The Sheriff’s brown eyes lit up when he looked up from studying a wanted poster and saw Jess.
“Well howdy Jess, good to see ya. So, how’s Miss Daisy’s Christmas cake coming along huh? Gee me and Kate can’t wait for Christmas at your place.”
“Huh…oh alright I guess Mort,” he said looking a tad distracted. “So, Kate’s down from the mountain and staying with you?” he asked referring to Kate Munroe, the Sheriff’s sometime lady friend.
“Yup, she’s staying for a week or two. Now look Jess, Slim told me about that business with Peterson being a little tardy with his payment for those beeves.”
“Tardy!” Jess spat angrily, “He dang well gave us a bad check Mort, left us with next to nothing in the bank right now.”
Mort shook his head sadly, “Well that’s just too bad. But rest assured buddy, Kate’s been cooking up a storm. Lily and Millie will bring a few extra bottles over from the saloon too, so don’t you fret any. There will be plenty of everything to go around and we’ll still have a good Christmas, you’ll see.”
“Heck Mort that ain’t what’s botherin’ me… It’s the old guy you’ve got in your cells, he’s really drunk huh?”
Mort looked surprised at the sudden change of subject. “The guy drinkin’ with the Parson, yup, dead to the world he is now, sleeping it off, why what’s it to you Jess?”
Jess had just explained all about, ‘grandpa’ as they were calling him, also how he’d been accosted on the Laramie Road and all his money stolen. “Any strangers in town, or some low life suddenly spending money they don’t usually have?” Jess asked.
“Nope, nobody that I can think of Jess. But we can certainly check with Tom. Only the Parson that is and I know for a fact the old reprobate had a win on the cards last night.”
Both men were still pondering the problem when they heard a disembodied voice calling out from the cells at the back of the office.
“Is that Brother Harper’s dulcet tones I hear?”
Jess rolled his eyes at Mort and replied, “Yup it’s me Parson.”
“Might I have an audience pray?” Came the plaintive reply.
Jess raised a questioning eyebrow at Mort, “Huh, what’s the old soak on about now Mort?”
“I think he wants a word buddy.”
Jess sighed, “Well why can’t he just say so,” and he mooched off to the cells.
“What’s on yer mind Parson?” Jess asked lounging against the door frame leading to the cells.
The tall rangy Parson was dressed in his usual attire of a dusty old black frock coat and pants. His mop of black hair dishevelled and his strange eyes staring with a slightly manic glint.
“Ah Brother Harper, it is my duty to inform you that your comrade here is a soul in torment, “he said in his booming voice, gesturing to where ‘grandpa’ was now reclining on the opposite bunk completely out for the count.
“Well sure he is,” Jess agreed, “thanks to you he’ll have the Ma and Pa of all hangovers when he wakes up.”
“No, no my friend you misconstrue my sentiments,” the Parson said rolling his wild strange eyes in exasperation.
“I do?” Jess asked his expressive eyebrows disappearing into the tangle of dark curls on his brow as he tried to understand the Parson’s ranting.
“Indeed, I fear he was in the doldrums before he finally acceded to my suggestion that a little wine might restore his spirits.”
“Wine,” Jess scoffed, “more like that devil’s brew Tom keeps under the counter just for you. Jeez Parson you could strip the paint off a barn door with that stuff and givin’ it to a poor innocent like him was just purely cruel.”
The Parson bowed his head, “You may indeed have a point Brother Harper. I agree the ratified whiskey is not conducive to all palates, but I was merely trying to console this poor lost soul. He knows not his name, nor place of origin you know?”
“Yup I know all too well,” Jess said, “and I was lookin’ out for him, until you dang well butted in that is. Sure, I know he’s feelin’ kinda down who wouldn’t? But he won’t find the answers in the bottom of a whiskey bottle. That’s why me and Slim aim to watch his back until he gets his memory back at least.”
“Alleluia Brother Harper that is most altruistic of you! The good Lord in His Mercy has seen fit to furnish our friend here with salvation in the form of all at the Sherman Ranch. I see that now. I can rest, my work is done, Alleluia!” He boomed, before returning to his bunk and collapsing down on it, asleep in seconds.
Jess returned to the main office looking dazed, “What in hell were all that about?”
“I get the feeling that our dear defrocked Parson thinks he’s talked you into looking after the old-timer, taking him home for Christmas maybe,” speculated Mort, throwing his buddy an enquiring look.
Jess just shook his head in bewilderment, “Heck I was gonna do that anyway, I’ll pick him up in the morning, OK Mort?”
“Sure, that’s fine.”
“Oh and Mort, there won’t be bail on him will there, ‘cos I’m kinda hard pushed ya know?” he said with a cheeky wink.
Mort chuckled, “I guess not…but just make sure Miss Daisy puts lots of frosting on that Christmas cake, I sure do like her frosting.”
“Consider it done,” Jess said with a cheerful smile. “Say thanks to Kate for all her cookin’ too Mort.” Then he threw his old friend a speculative glance, “So she’s staying at your place right now then Mort?”
The on, off rather volatile relationship between Kate Munroe and the Sheriff was a constant source of interest to all at the ranch. Jess knew Daisy would be interested to know the where abouts of Kate. Who usually resided up the Laramie Mountain with her distant cousin Denver James and his sons, the platonic arrangement seeming to suit them all. However, it seemed that recently she was staying more and more in the town with Mort.
“She is,” Mort agreed, but then gave Jess a sly wink, “but I guess that’s my business huh?”
“Sure, sure,” Jess said raising his hands in submission, but hiding a smile, “give her my best, see ya Mort,” and he was gone.
Chapter 2
Jess returned the following day as promised and found a very sheepish and pale looking old-timer waiting for him.
Once safely stowed up on the buckboard seat he turned to Jess and said, “My dear boy, how can I begin to apologise, my behaviour was shameful…no sinful.”
“Hey don’t beat yourself up too much grandpa; I guess the Parson lead you astray some huh?”
The old man nodded sadly, “Possibly, but even so…” and he sighed deeply. Then he said, “Parson, he’s surely not really a Minister, is he?”
“Not anymore he ain’t,” Jess said with a grin, “defrocked, I heard the Church threw him out. Oh, but his heart’s in the right place I reckon. Mort always says he’ll save us all from our sins even if he has to kill us in the process.”
The couple exchanged an amused glance, “Come on let’s go home,” Jess said slapping the reins.
The elderly gentleman looked away to the distant horizon marveling at the kindness he had received from this young man and thought how extraordinary he was. Before he had ‘over indulged’ as he preferred to think of it, the Parson had been happy to fill him in on the life and times of all at the ranch and relay station.
It was Slim Sherman who was the solid, dependable, serious one, Daisy the epitome of motherhood and young Mike the plucky survivor of a tragedy. Then finally there was Jess. Who was a reformed gunslinger with a chequered history containing loss, pain, imprisonment, conflict and untold traumas. But here he was today, close friends with the Sheriff, loyal and compassionate.
“Oh, undoubtedly Brother Harper is no saint,” the Parson had said, “He likes to imbibe, recklessly at times I might add,” he’d said flashing his wild eyes. “He’s been known to gamble and can curse for Texas if he’s a mind to,” he’d chuckled, “and you really do not want to be around him if he loses that temper of his…but yes Brother Harper is a good man and he’ll see you right,” the unconventional ex-cleric had declared.
Yes, a good man, the old-timer agreed, as they batted along in the winter sunshine making their way back to the ranch. But where is my home he wondered plaintively; did he have kin who were missing him, especially at this time of the year?
The sadness in the old man’s eyes had not gone unnoticed by Jess and as they approached the lake, bathed in the bright winter sunshine, he hauled on the lines and brought the team to a standstill.
“How about we sit awhile, enjoy the view,” he suggested.
They were sitting in the almost warm sunshine, backs to an old fallen tree and regarding the beautiful vista before them when Jess said gently, “I guess you were feelin’ kinda down yesterday and that’s why you were tipping the jug huh?”
Grandpa, as Jess now thought of him, flushed up and looked uncomfortable. “I think maybe that was at the root of it my boy, yes. That and the fact that I don’t think I am used to strong drink, it had taken its effect before I realised it.”
“Uh, yeah, the effect of bein’ trampled by a runaway herd of buffalo,” Jess said with a bark of laughter, “the following day anyways.”
“Exactly, you have over indulged too then?” the old man inquired.
Jess again laughed, “Yup, once or twice,” he admitted with a cheeky wink.
The old man sighed deeply, “That’s not the answer though I know and I won’t be as imprudent again, that’s certain. It is just so hard,” he mused almost to himself, “not knowing who I am…if loved ones are worrying, nobody can understand how it feels, I am so isolated.”
“I guess I can… some anyways,” Jess said seriously. “You see it happened to me a few years back. I fell in the Laramie River and hit my head on a branch too for good measure. By the time they fished me out I was a good dozen miles downstream and the folks at home thought I’d drowned. I couldn’t remember them, or where I lived, just like you. # See 18 Lost.
“Oh my dear boy how terrible, but you recovered of course, so there is some hope for me I suppose?”
“Sure there is, it’s only a matter of time. Just gotta relax and let that ol’ brain heal some, so Doc Sam says anyways.”
Grandpa nodded, “I just feel so useless, goodness I can’t even find work. Who will employ a man who doesn’t know what skills he possesses?”
Jess looked thoughtful, “I figure you’ve got a real good job, way you speak and dress…somethin’ like a lawyer or teacher maybe?”
His eyes lit up, “You know that does ring a bell…nurturing, debate and I see manuscripts,” he said closing his eyes and trying to concentrate before giving a gasp of exasperation, “It’s no good it’s gone…as though some vision is just out of sight.”
“That’s good,” Jess said smiling at him, “I reckon that’s a sign you’re on the mend ya know.”
“I hope so, because there has been something nagging me from the very start…this terrible feeling of loss.”
“Well I guess that’s normal, after all that scum took all your stuff, money clothes, everything.”
“Uh, yes but it’s more than that Jess. It’s almost like bereavement. You don’t think I could have had a travelling companion and they’ve been abducted…or worse?”
Jess shook his head, “I didn’t see any signs of a fight or anything. But it’s possible I guess…let’s just hope you remember everything real soon huh?”
“Amen to that dear boy!”
When they arrived back at the ranch they jumped down from the wagon and the dogs Buttons and Blue came tearing out of the barn barking and jumping up in welcome.
“Down Blue,” Jess rebuked gently as his big Sheepdog-Wolf cross capered around him and then jumped up putting his paws on Jess’s shoulders and attempting to lick him to death.
“Git off you ol’ flea bag, show yer master some respect,” he said laughing.
The old man bent down to make a fuss of Buttons. Then he turned his attentions to Blue who was now behaving perfectly, his tail still beating in excitement though.
“I guess you might not have much er…affinity with the horses but you sure like dogs,” Jess said grinning down at the old man.
He nodded, “I love the little guys, I really do... I always have.”
“Always,” Jess asked cocking an eyebrow, “you remember that?”
Grandpa beamed at him, “You know I believe I do….”
Then Jess looked into his eyes and saw a slightly dazed look, “Are you rememberin’ somethin’ grandpa?” he asked kindly.
“Umm…er no my dear boy…something about this little fellah,” he said patting Buttons again, “but no,” and he sighed, “it’s gone again.”
Then the moment passed as Mike came charging out of the ranch house and Jess remembered that he was now on School holidays.
“Hey Jess…Jess can ya take me into town tomorrow…please can ya, Aunt Daisy’s bakin’ all the Christmas pies and Slim says he’s gotta change the Stages, so can ya huh?”
“Whoa Mike calm down, manners?” Jess said tipping his hat towards the elderly gentleman.
“Gee, I’m sorry, hi grandpa, it’s real good to see you,” the child said smiling up at the old man.
Then he turned back to Jess, “So can ya…huh?”
Jess ruffled the child’s hair, “What’s so all fired important then Tiger?”
“Well you know how I’m singin’ the solo in the Church choir come Christmas?”
Jess winked across at grandpa, it had been the talk of the family for several weeks, “I had heard something like that yeah,” Jess agreed grinning at the youngster.
“Aw Jess…Well Reverend Wesley wants all the junior choir to come for a special rehearsal everyday for the next week. Billy’s Pa can take me on the other days, but he can’t take me tomorrow…so can you Jess please?”
“Sure I can Mike, I just need to spend the rest of today workin’ that ol’ Crazy Horse. She’s broke real good now. I just need to school her some more…but tomorrow is just fine,” he said wondering just when Millie was due home? Maybe going to town might prove quite a good move.
It was later that night that grandpa sought Jess out in the barn. He was fussing around the buckskin filly called Crazy Horse feeding her sugar and by the looks of things she seemed tame and gentle, the old man thought.
“Will she really be a safe ride?” he asked now looking more closely at the big muscular animal.
“As safe as a green broke horse can be,” Jess said honestly, “But old man Sutton and Beth know the score. Beth’s a real experienced rider and I don’t figure this one will give her any problems,” he said patting the horse’s neck.
“Beth,” said grandpa his face lighting up, “what a lovely name.”
Jess grinned at him, “She’s a lovely girl too, just turned twenty-one and knows horses inside out, this one will be just right for her…give her a bit of a challenge.”
“Uh…sorry what was that?” asked the old man again, looking slightly bemused.
“Nuthin’,” Jess said, “so your head botherin’ you a tad?”
“No…well yes a little,” he agreed with a sheepish smile, “nothing an early night won’t cure I’m sure,” and he turned to go…then he turned back.
“I say Jess would you think it an awful imposition if I were to accompany you and young Mike tomorrow?”
Jess looked surprised, “Well sure you can come along, wrap up warm though, strikes kinda cold in that big ol’ Church…you really sure?” he said, wondering why anyone would want to go and freeze half to death listening to the youngsters practicing.
“Yes, I think it’s just what I need, I feel like maybe if I pray I will finally get my memory back…sounds fanciful, but I genuinely feel it.”
“Well it sure can’t do any harm,” Jess said grinning, “We’re heading off about ten.”
“I’ll be ready and Jess…”
“Thank you, my boy, I appreciate it,” he said before he hurried away, leaving Jess looking after him. Wondering again just who the nice old guy was.
All was hustle and bustle when they landed at the church with the young choristers full of mischief and excitement about the coming service and of course Christmas. Joshua Wesley’s eldest daughter Hannah was in charge of the youngsters and seemed to be running a real tight ship so Jess was pleased to see. He touched his hat to her as Mike ran off to join the others and she gave him a cheery wave in return, with no hint of awkwardness Jess was pleased to see. Time was that things had been kinda difficult between them. When the twenty-year-old and very naive Hannah was first introduced to the family, on her father’s Induction as Minister in Laramie, she had instantly fallen for Jess. #40 See The Secret Admirer. Poor Jess had suffered months of her almost stalking him, buying little presents and generally making him feel real uncomfortable. However, that was all water under the bridge now and she had finally ’seen the light’ as Slim had humorously declared, and found a boy of her own age.
Now she rounded up her troupe of a dozen little boys and marched them to the choir stalls where she started inspecting their general appearance, including clean hands and nails.
“Well good luck with that one,” Jess said grinning at his old friend the Minister Joshua Wesley.
The good man glanced over to where his daughter was now berating one of the Patterson boys on his slovenly appearance.
“Precisely,” Josh said, “but if anyone can knock ‘em into shape it’s my Hannah, she even scares me sometimes,” he said with a wink.
Then he turned to grandpa and introduced himself, “So pleased to meet you at last,” he said warmly. “I’ve heard all about your troubles and I’m so sorry, but at least you’re in safe hands at the Sherman ranch,” he continued with his warm smile in evidence.
“Um, now if you could be seated at the back and just let me know if they can be heard well enough, if you can spare the time?” Joshua asked Jess hesitantly.
Jess had hoped to make a bid for freedom and spend some time over in the saloon, but it was still early and he should really support Mike, he thought feeling a tad guilty.
“Sure, we can do that,” said Jess stoically pulling up the collar of his sheepskin jacket and making his way down to the back pew, followed by a much more enthusiastic grandpa.
Jess slumped down and the old-timer sat down beside him looking up at the tall vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows with a beatific smile on his old face.
“You know what Jess,” he confided, “I feel better just for being here, it’s wonderful isn’t it.”
“Yup just dandy,” Jess agreed without enthusiasm. Gee he sure hoped Millie would be home soon and he wondered how long before he could make his escape down to the saloon to check with Tom when she was due back.
Jess had been miles away happily thinking of what he had to look forward to over the coming holiday, the most important item being spending some time with his best girl.
So it was some time before it vaguely filtered through to him that he was hearing the voice of an angel. Coming back from his reverie he focused on the events going on at the far end of the Church his blue eyes opening wide in surprise as he listened.
The dark old Church was illuminated by large candles and Jess could just make out Mike’s golden mop of hair gleaming in the shimmering candle light at the far end of the aisle. He certainly looked like a little angel Jess thought in amusement knowing how far from the truth that notion was and how deceptive appearances could be.
But then all such trite thoughts were banished from his mind as he really listened.
The crystal-clear treble tones of the boy soprano rose to the vaulted ceiling in heartrending beauty as the air of Once in Royal David’s City flooded the Church:
“Once in Royal David’s City stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a mother laid her Baby in a manger for His bed,
Mary was that Mother mild Jesus Christ her little child.”
Then the rest of the boys joined in making a melodic sound that filled the whole Church with its warmth and richness.
“Well, I’ll be,” muttered Jess, “I didn’t know the boy could sing that way,” and he turned to the old man…
Grandpa’s face was a study. At first awe at the breathtakingly beautiful singing and then a look of puzzlement followed swiftly by comprehension and then he finally looked totally overwhelmed before sinking his head in his hands muttering, “Thank God,” as he gave way to quiet sobbing.
“Hey, Grandpa, are you OK?” Jess said looking on with concern.
The old man finally wiped a sleeve across his tear stained old face and said, “I’m so sorry, it was just seeing little Ben again….”
“Huh… Ben?”
“My grandson, Ben sings solo every Christmas at the midnight service…”
Jess said gently, “That ain’t Ben, it’s Mike…Mike Williams, my ward, remember?”
He looked bewildered and then slowly the truth dawned on him. “Of course, Ben and my daughter Beth and dear Fritz her husband, are all back home in New York.”
Then he looked upset, “My dear boy I must wire them, tell them I’m alright, at once!”
“Sure, sure,” said Jess, “so you remember everything now huh, your name too maybe?”
The old timer nodded, looking down and gathering his thoughts, “Indeed, I am Reverend James T. Harrison of New York City, here on a Pilgrimage and Evangelistic visit to all points west.”
“Gee,” said Jess grinning, “that’s quite a mouthful…so you’re a Padre huh and here to spread the Word?”
“Uh…something like that my boy,” and then he looked around him suddenly distracted, “Snowy, where’s Snowy?”
“My dog, my little Snowy is he here?”
Jess shook his head, “Afraid not Padre,” he said suddenly addressing his new friend with his title, thinking that grandpa was a little disrespectful….
“Ain’t seen hide nor hair of him, are you sure you had him with you?”
The old man nodded vigorously, “I remember everything Jess. How those young men approached me…Heck little Snowy knew straight from the start they were up to no good.”
“OK, go on…”
“They pretended to be friendly, but Snowy started growling and that was when they turned nasty and asked for my money… I told them I had very little…that’s when one of them said they’d shoot the dog…I went between them and my Snowy… then he lashed out…I fell…. and then you were there when I woke up,” he said looking distressed, “So where is Snowy now…did they shoot him?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope I guess not, no need once they’d robbed you. I figure they probably took him as well as your money. So why don’t we mosey on down to Mort Cory’s office and you can tell it all to him huh?”
Jess waited until the carol was over and then had a quiet word with Joshua saying he had some urgent business, but would be back to collect Mike later.
“Don’t worry Jess we’ll keep an eye on him until you get back.”
Then Jess went over and explained to Mike, “That was just swell Tiger,” he said sincerely, the youngster flushing with pleasure at the compliment.
“So you say they were both pretty young…fifteen or sixteen and one had red hair and real bad skin, the other black hair and strange large green eyes?”
Rev Harrison nodded, “Absolutely right Sheriff…both very different, I imagine you would know them anywhere.”
“Oh yeah,” said Jess grinning across at Mort, “we know them alright don’t we.”
Mort nodded, “Cane and Luke Logan, they are well known to us…Reverend Harrison.”
Then he turned to Jess, “Just one problem buddy, I’m really tied up right now what with Lon being away delivering those no-good Smith brothers for trial in Cheyenne. I’ve my jail real full, just now, too. If you want these boys brought in I reckon I’ll have to deputize you Jess.”
Jess thought quickly, Millie wasn’t back in town yet…and yup he had a vendetta against the Logan boys from the time they’d been real unkind to young Mike. He was new to town and they had tried to belittle the kid at a School Party, until Jess had stepped in later when he’d had to comfort a tearful Mike. Now the boys had obviously grownup and were into frying bigger fish Jess reckoned…Well he’d soon put a stop to that.
“Sure Mort, I reckon I can help you out,” he replied, “So are you up for it Reverend, huh?”
“I certainly am Jess my dear boy, but I’d much prefer Grandpa you know,” he said with a winning smile.
“OK then gramps,” Jess said with a laugh, “let’s go get us some real mean outlaws huh.”
The Reverend James T Harrison threw Jess a quizzical look, “Uh on second thoughts maybe it would be better if you just called me James as all my friends do. You calling me gramps makes me feel a little old,” he chuckled.
The Logan spread was down a dirt track about three miles out of town on the old Cheyenne road and Jess drove the buckboard slowly along the bad surface.
They could smell the place long before they arrived, a stink of rotting manure mixed with rank animal skins. The latter littered around the yard stretched on wooden racks, in various stages of drying out.
“He ain’t one much fer cleaning up ol’ Carl Logan,” Jess said as they drove into the yard with the macabre corpses of bear, deer and wolf, along with copious piles of dung from the stable on display.
Jess hitched up the team beside the water trough and James clambered inelegantly down and paused looking around him.
Jess marched purposefully towards the rundown shack calling out for Logan and a few minutes later they heard the frantic barking of a small dog coming from the barn.
Reverend Harrison’s cherubic features registered a huge smile as he hurried towards the sound, wrenching the door open to allow a tiny scrap of frenzied white fur to hurl himself at his master. The elderly cleric scooped up the little dog who whimpered loudly as he licked his master’s face squirming in delight.
“Well I guess this is Snowy huh,” Jess said winking at the old man and enjoying the scene set out before him.
Then moments later the shack door was dragged open and Carl Logan stood there. He was wearing his usual garb of filthy stained denims, a cigarette dangling from his mean mouth and an expression of mistrust in his pale blue, watery eyes.
“What do you want Harper comin’ around annoyin’ folk?” he wheezed, a rifle held threateningly in his hands.
Then before Jess could respond, the tall lanky man turned on James, “What are you doin’ with my dog old man?” He spat, turning the rifle on the old timer.
Jess had drawn his Colt in the blink of an eye and now covered Logan, and James took a step back, totally mesmerised by the speed by which Jess had drawn his weapon.
It was then that Snowy stopped whimpering, before turning towards Logan and emitting a low threatening growl.
“Call me picky, but your dog don’t seem any too fond of you,” Jess said, fixing Logan with an icy stare, “but while we’re debating the matter just drop that rifle Logan.”
“Who the hell do ya think you are coming an’ disturbin’ law abidin’ citizens?” Logan bleated, now looking hard done by.
“The Law,” said Jess succinctly, moving his vest to one side to display the deputy badge pinned to his shirt.
“So, let’s try this one more time Logan, drop that rifle and kick it over here and then you can go fetch your boys.”
Logan looked into Jess’ flinty dark blue eyes and decided not to push things. Garldarn it he wouldn’t put it past the no-good gunslinger to put a bullet in his arm iffen he didn’t obey.
He sighed deeply and did as requested regarding the rifle and then said, “The boys ain’t here.”
Jess moved a couple of paces to his left and squinted into the filthy depths of the barn and saw that all the horses were in there, up to their hocks in dirty straw too he noted with distaste.
“Oh I think they are,” he said, a glint of challenge in his eyes…and with that he fired off a couple of shots into the air.
A moment later a pair of filthy, scruffy young men ran from the house.
“What’s up Pa?” Luke the younger boy called out. Then he turned to see Jess Harper with his gun turned on his Pa and quailed as he took in the old man as well, now reunited with his little dog.
Jess sighed deeply and holstered his gun, “So you care to tell me about it then Luke, how you robbed this gentleman, stole everything he possessed including his dang dog?”
Then Logan turned to his son, “Is this true boy?”
“No Pa, I promise I ain’t ever seen the guy before…I bought the dog fair and square from a tinker I met, like I told you.”
Snowy was once more licking James’s hands, his tail wagging so much the little terrier nearly fell over.
Jess rolled his eyes, “Yer really tellin’ me this dog don’t belong to the Reverend here?”
The youngster turned red and shuffled his feet but before he could say more his older brother Cane swaggered over from where he’d been standing on the side-lines and squared up to Jess.
“Iffen my brother says he bought him fair and square he did...he ain’t no liar Harper!”
“Pipe down boy,” Jess said harshly, “you both attacked this man and stole his belongings. He saw you plain as day and will make a statement to that fact. Plus, Bert from the livery said he caught you asking folk to buy you strong liquor. You said you’d come into some money and you knew dang well Tom in the saloon wouldn’t serve you, bein’ as how yer still wet behind the ears.”
“Is this true boy you got spare cash to buy liquor?” Carl growled throwing his older boy a dark look.
It was then that Cane backed off assuming the stance and ignoring his father he addressed Jess.
“Come on then Harper, you can’t prove a dang thing. So, is it true what folk say, you don’t care for shoot-outs no more huh?”
“Never did care too much for them,” Jess drawled, “just happens that sometimes there’s no other way.”
“Like now,” Cane snarled, his eyes never leaving Jess’s and his hand hovering over his gun.
“Cane, don’t be a fool son,” cried his pa looking anxious now, “Harper here’s a professional, you can’t mess with the likes of him boy!”
“Listen to your Pa Cane,” Jess said quietly, “he talks good sense sometimes.”
That did it, the youngster went for his gun, but before he was even halfway there Jess had him covered. Then in one fluid motion he strode forwards, disarmed the youngster and stuck his weapon in his own belt, before re-holstering his Colt.
Jess shook his head, “Gee I thought your brother was dumb, but you’re even more stupid pullin’ a stunt like that!”
Then Carl turned on the boys, “Is this true, what Harper’s sayin’ you robbed this old gentleman and him a Padre too?”
“Robbed him and left him for dead,” Jess spat, “so now… any objections to me takin’ them in huh Carl?”
The older man suddenly looked defeated, “No get them out of my sight, I’m ashamed of them. “Their poor Ma,” he said shaking his head, “she’ll be turnin’ in her grave,” and he mooched back into the shack slamming the door behind him.
Once he’d gone Jess turned back to the now decidedly miserable looking boys.
“OK so this is how it’s gonna be,” Jess said stonily, “you go in the barn and clean it out…real good. Give all the critters clean water and beddin’ and then we ride out to have a little chat with the Sheriff.”
Luke turned to do as he was told, but Cane still lingered, casting Jess a black look, “What’s it to you how we keep our animals?” he muttered.
Jess was fast losing patience now, “If you really have to ask that you shouldn’t dang well be allowed within a mile of livestock,” he spat angrily.
Then flexing his fist into a ball, said menacingly, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way Cane I don’t mind too much which way about it is…but those critters are gonna be cared for one way or the other…”
Cane flicked a glance up into Jess’s now dark angry eyes and figured he wouldn’t push his luck and slouched off to do as he was bid.
It was over a couple of hours later before the small group slowly made their way into town. Jess pulling the boys roughly from their mounts and frog marching them into Mort’s office, closely followed by James, Snowy still sitting snugly in his arms.
Mort looked up from where he’d been perusing the local paper and gave Jess a brief nod, “I see you’ve apprehended these poor excuses for human beings,” he said looking mighty serious. “I take it both of you are equally responsible for robbing the Minister blind and leaving him in a pool of blood…huh?”
The boys looked down shuffling their feet, but it was young Luke who cracked first.
“We didn’t mean to hurt him that bad really we didn’t,” he said looking sincere.
“Shut yer mouth you fool,” Cane yelled throwing his brother a furious glance.
“They know,” Luke insisted, “let’s just come clean and say we’re sorry Cane.”
The older boy just shook his head and said nothing.
“Oh yeah and this son of a bitch decided to draw on me too,” Jess said rolling his eyes to Mort.
Mort shook his head and threw Cane a look more in sorrow than in anger, “You got a death wish then boy?”
Cane just shrugged listlessly and yawned.
“Why you little…!” Jess yelled grabbing hold of Cane’s shirt front and dragging him up so that the two were on eye level.
Cane at once lost the attitude and back peddled fast.
“Alright I’m sorry OK Mister Harper…real sorry.”
“Uh, it ain’t me you should be apologising to, it’s Reverend Harrison here.”
Cane looked down swallowing hard before looking the elderly man in the face, “I’m sorry Reverend…we didn’t mean it, for you to get hurt that way. I guess we just panicked when the dog started all that barking.”
“Oh, so that makes it OK to hit an old man and leave him in the ditch for dead does it?” Jess yelled, now furious.
“No sir,” both boys said in unison.
Jess turned away and went and stared out of the window, trying to slow down his breathing and control his anger.
“Come on then kids, let’s be havin’ you…this way,” and Mort escorted them through to the cells at the back.
“Oh dear,” said James once the Sheriff returned, “What will happen to them?”
“If there’s any justice they’ll be locked up for the foreseeable,” Jess spat angrily.
Mort flicked a glance over to his buddy and then back to Reverend Harrison.
“Well that depends,” he said, “and largely on you Reverend Harrison. If you want to press charges, well then…” and he shook his head, “Jess is right, this isn’t the first time they’ve been in trouble and I guess the judge will throw the book at them.”
“And a good thing too,” muttered Jess quietly.
“Oh my dear boy, but what of Christian forgiveness and mercy,” said James now looking quite flushed and upset.
“Huh? They didn’t show you much mercy James.”
“ Oh dear I know, but they’re so young and motherless too.”
Jess rolled his eyes, “Believe me, what they need is a shock to make ‘em realise they can’t act this way and get away with it…Dang it James iffen I’d been jailed first time I played up some it would have saved me and the Law one Hell of a lot of grief I can tell you!”
“Uh, maybe you do have a point Jess…but if only there was some way I could help them…”
“You’ll help ‘em plenty by making sure they don’t go doin’ this kinda thing again,” Jess said firmly. “That’s what they need James a real shock to make ‘em sit up and take notice. Garldarn it, you could have died iffen I hadn’t happened by ya know…you sure wouldn’t have survived the night in that bitter cold.”
The Reverend turned pale and bowed his head fondling the little dog, before looking back up at Jess.
“I do believe you are right my boy. Maybe the Good Lord in his wisdom is trying to teach me a lesson…that love may manifest in many different ways and sometimes one has to be strong and seemingly harsh to actually help another.”
“Yup, you’ve got it James…Sure it’s a cryin’ shame about those boys losin’ their Ma so young and all and I figure ol’ Carl ain’t the best of fathers either. So, I guess it’s up to the Law here to sort ‘em out… Else they’ll be feelin’ the business end of a rope around their necks afore they’re full grown.”
“The business end…er oh I see; yes indeed, you may be right Jess.”
“I have to say I agree with him,” said Mort, “these things have to be dealt with real sharp to kinda bring ‘em to heel, make them see sense before it’s too late.”
“Will they be incarcerated here in Laramie?”
“Depends on the judge to be honest, but seeing as they’re young and it’s the first offense of this level, then I would guess so yeah, why Padre?”
“I was thinking with your permission and their father’s, that I might visit… pray with them and maybe help them to see the error of their ways?”
Mort shrugged, “I don’t see why not, but good luck, they ain’t the easiest.”
“So, you’re gonna stay around for a while then?” Jess asked eagerly, thinking he’d grown kinda fond of the old guy.
James nodded enthusiastically, “Indeed if you will have me as a guest for a little longer, er that is a paying guest,” he said with his beatific smile. “I have also remembered that I am quite well off and will have funds awaiting me in the Laramie Bank. I am on something of a sabbatical you see,” he said eyeing Mort and Jess keenly.
“You are?” asked Jess looking politely interested and really wondering what the heck the old guy was talking about now.
“It is a sort of paid leave, a break from the workaday grind if you will?”
“Aha,” said Jess knowledgeably, trying to look smart, like a huntin’ trip he thought privately, but didn’t voice his thoughts.
“You see I am a lecturer at the Theological Seminary in New York.”
James at once saw the Sheriff and young cowboy were looking somewhat perplexed again.
“The Seminary is an educational establishment where I, amongst others, educate students in the scriptures as a preparation for ordination into the clergy.”
“Oh, you train up young Ministers of the cloth,” Jess said suddenly enlightened.
“Indeed my dear boy, and a wonderful career it has been. But just over the last few years I feel I have become somewhat stale and maybe even dare I say it, out of touch with modern life.”
“You have?”
“Uh yes and particularly life as lived by those heading west and blazing out a new trail, so to speak.” He said looking enthusiastic. “So that is why I decided to spend a year spreading the Word in these far-flung outposts of our wonderful country. To see exactly how mankind survives under these circumstances, and the part love of, and faith in, our dear Lord plays too.”
“There is another reason too,” the older man said and his face clouded for a moment before he gathered himself again. “I lost my dear wife last year and needed time away from the hustle and bustle of life at the seminary to come to terms with everything.”
Then he turned to Jess, “Little Snowy here was my dear wife’s dog, that’s why I was so distraught when I thought I’d lost him. My Sarah adored him.”
Jess just nodded understanding completely. “Well you’ll both be welcome at the ranch for Christmas and as long as you want,” he said sincerely.
Reverend James T Harrison beamed again, “You know I thought you might say that. If it should come to that I would greatly appreciate it...but I must see if I can maybe travel home for Christmas if it is possible as dear Beth and her family will be missing me.”
Chapter 3
However, before further arrangements could be made the office door burst open and Mose stood there looking as mad as all get out, “Come quick Sheriff, that crazy Chas Dooley is only tryin’ to hold up the saloon. He should dang well be in an asylum, locked up someplace!”
“Robbing the saloon?” Jess and Mort echoed looking shocked, but wasted no time in further discussion, the Sheriff pausing only to grab his rifle, before they headed off down Main Street.
“Stay here James,” Jess yelled over his shoulder, “I’ll be back shortly.”
Reverend Harrison merely nodded, thinking, not for the first time, how different life out here was to his staid existence back east. Then he cast an anxious glance back to the cells. Goodness the Sheriff had said he had a full house and here he was apparently in sole charge of the desperadoes. Feeling slightly lightheaded he made his way over to Mort’s seat and slumped down. “Well I suppose the dear Lord will provide as ever,” he said to himself, before relaxing back and offering up a prayer for those in danger at the saloon.
Jess stood stock still, frozen to the spot by what he saw when he entered the saloon, Mort on his heels cannoning into him and then giving a low cuss as he too saw what was afoot.
Chas Dooley was behind the bar and had Millie in a vice like grip, his gun to her head, the till was open and Tom was urgently pushing the takings into a small canvas bag. The rest of the bar was completely deserted, save for Lily standing pale and tearful, looking on.
“What the hell is Millie doing here?” Jess whispered, “She’s supposed to be still in Cheyenne, I thought.”
“She must have gotten back early,” Mort whispered out of the corner of his mouth and then, they noted her valise and shawl abandoned near the bar.
Mort inched forwards and Dooley must have seen something out of the corner of his eye and dragged Millie around making her cry out in fear and pain.
“I said everyone was to leave or I’d shoot her,” he yelled, his voice slightly slurred and with his usual strange sing song intonation.
At that Jess walked forwards showing himself, “What are you doing Chas, hurtin’ Miss Millie that way?”
The painfully thin young man with a rather vacant expression squinted through the dim light of the saloon, “Is that you Mister Jess?”
“Yup, so you put that gun down and you and me will talk this out OK?”
All the time he’d been talking Jess noticed that Mort had slowly withdrawn and was probably making his way around the back, hoping Jess would keep the poor, mentally sick young man in conversation.
“Ain’t no talking to be done Mister Jess, I’ve got me one of my rages on and those voices keep telling me and telling me to do this…they want me to kill the purty lady…say I’ve gotta, just like they done said I was to rob Mister Tom.”
“No!” Jess hollered, before saying more quietly, “No Chas you listen to me, there ain’t no dang voices.”
“There surely are Mister Jess, talkin at me all the time ‘til I think I’m a goin’ plumb crazy!”
“Going?” Jess muttered to himself and then more loudly, “OK, OK Chas, if you think there are then Doc Sam can give you some medicine to shut them up like last time, remember, huh?” Jess said now breaking out into a cold sweat as he inched his way forwards. “Why don’t we go and find the Doc, he’ll look after you.”
“I can’t do that Mister Jess,” said Chas, almost crying in torment now, trying to hear Jess over the cacophony of other voices whispering and scolding in his poor befuddled brain.
“Come on buddy,” Jess pleaded, “just let Miss Millie go, yer frightening her.”
Chas then turned tortured eyes on Millie seeing for the first time how upset she was and loosened his grip a little.
That was when both Tom and Mort struck.
Mort, who had snuck in the back door now attempted to wrestle the gun from Chas as Tom desperately tried to wrench Millie free from him at the same time.
A scuffle ensued and, in the mayhem, Tom dragged Millie to safety, but the gun went off as Mort grabbed hold of Chas’s arm, the bullet catching Jess in the upper arm as he had dashed across to his girl.
However, he barely seemed to notice it as he pulled Millie into his arms and held her close as she sobbed in terror.
“It’s alright sweetheart, you’re safe,” he whispered into her dark hair, “you’re safe now.”
Mort had Chas cuffed and was ready to take him away.
“I’ll take him over to Sam and I reckon you need to come over too Jess,” he said softly, tipping his hat to where Jess’s jacket sleeve was now stained deep red.
“Goddamn it,” he muttered, “this is my best darned winter jacket.”
Millie pulled away, “Jess never mind the damage to your jacket,” she cried, looking deeply shocked, “you’re bleeding badly.”
“Hey don’t fret about that are you alright, did he hurt you?”
She shook her head, “No not really. We met at the rail head, I’d come home early and he was supposed to meet his Pa, said he’d been away for a family funeral.”
“And didn’t take Chas, that was askin’ fer trouble,” Jess said bitterly.
“I know, but you know the way he can be…he’s fine as long as life is real humdrum and ordinary but it’s when things are different…”
“Like his Pa not landing home when he was expected.”
Millie nodded, “That’s when he gets really restless and well, pulls a stunt like this, although he’s never been this way before,” she added.
“Yeah well he dang well ain’t gonna be pulling anymore stunts,” Jess spat.
“Jess, honey, he can’t help it he’s sick in the mind everyone knows that, it isn’t his fault.”
“Yeah, I know that, but you’d still be just as dead wouldn’t ya?” Jess said bleakly.
“He was alright at first, kind of vague the way he can be. He offered to carry my case from the rail head and then as we walked along he suddenly started telling me to shut up. Well I wasn’t talking too much, then I realised it was those voices he hears. He kept saying ‘no I won’t.’ Then when we got into the saloon, he just started sort of cussing and fretting and that’s when he grabbed me…said the couple of folks in here should get out and Tom was to empty the till.”
“Jeez”, Jess said shaking his head and again drawing her close. That’s when she suddenly realised he was still bleeding badly. “Heck Jess it looks nasty come on let’s get you over to the Doc.”
“Can’t gotta pick up Mike and take the Padre home…”
“Jess, just shut up for once will you? Get over to Sam’s while you can still walk,” she said briskly.
Jess looked slightly shocked and then nodded, “Yes Ma’am,” and turning left for the doc’s place.
“I just can’t figure how you didn’t realise how badly hurt you were,” said Sam later, “you were shot at close range it must have hurt terribly Jess.”
“Never noticed Sam…”
“Uh, too busy worrying about your girl I imagine.”
“Well sure, hell why wouldn’t I Sam? The guy’s completely crazy, wants locking up in an asylum like Mose said.”
“Have you ever been inside one of those places?” Sam said, shaking his head sadly.
“What are ya sayin’,” Jess said with a faint smile… “I’m crazy too, huh? Well I dang well would be iffen I let that Chas get away with this,” he said returning to his previous angry stance.
“OK just calm down will you Jess, you’re not doing yourself any favors sounding off this way. Now just keep still and let me clean and bind this wound properly and I want you to keep the sling on for a few days too. Give it a chance to heal, huh? You’re really lucky that it didn’t do more damage.”
A few minutes later Mort tapped on the door and poked his head around, “Can I speak to the walking wounded?” he asked with a grin.
“Sure, he’s all yours,” Sam said turning away from his patient to wash his hands. “I take it young Chas is still out for the count after that sedative I administered?”
“Yes, oh and his Pa’s just landed, he came by Stage, not on the railroad, he’s with Chas, keeping an eye on him,” Mort said before turning to Jess.
“So Jess, do you feel up to wandering across to the office to make a statement?”
“I guess, is Millie OK?”
“Sure, Tom’s looking after her and Lily, he’s closing tonight, I reckon they’re all a tad upset over this business.”
“Tad upset!” Jess bellowed, “That don’t come anywhere near Mort…he could have dang well killed my Millie.”
“Come on Jess, just relax huh? I can see you’re hurting and I don’t blame you being mad… But I just can’t figure how Chas was packing a gun with live ammo. Old man Dooley always makes sure he’s loaded with blanks, or nothing at all, the kid just likes toting a gun,” Mort said thoughtfully.
“Well his Pa weren’t here was he?” Jess exploded, “He ain’t no kid either he turned eighteen last month...these ain’t no childish ‘turns’ anymore. The guy could end up killing an innocent bystander iffen those dang voices of his tell him to.”
“I really don’t think so Jess. His Pa understands the mental problems his boy has and manages it wonderfully, gives him medicine when he’s heading for one of his, er ‘turns’ as you say,” Sam said. “Plus, they live in that isolated shack, how often does Chas get to town alone…hardly ever.”
“Uh, well it only takes the once don’t it,” Jess muttered.
“OK,” Mort sighed, “Do you feel up to coming back with me to make a statement? Then you can also sign a form that will request that he be confined in a Mental Institution. I’ve got all the forms back in the office. Once it’s signed the judge can decide what action to take.”
Jess nodded and got up from the examination table, staggering for a moment as a wave of dizziness accosted him.
“Are you alright Jess?” Sam asked looking concerned.
“Yup, I’m fine,” he said quickly.
“Um, you might want to take it easy for a few hours, maybe spend the night in town, huh?”
“I’m…” Jess was going to say ‘OK’, and then he suddenly realised that his lovely Millie was back home, “I’m…er sure you’re right doc, I’ll stay over and get the Stage back tomorrow, iffen Rev. James can go back with Mike, the boy can drive the buckboard just fine now.”
The Revered had breathed a sigh of relief when Jess and Mort landed back at the office, but his big smile quickly turned to concern when he saw Jess had been injured.
“My dear boy you say this outlaw shot you?”
“He isn’t really an outlaw, as such,” Mort said and explained exactly what had occurred and about Chas’ s sad mental condition.
“Oh well that puts a different complexion on things,” said James, “the poor boy…”
“Poor boy nuthin’,” Jess spat looking as angry as all get out, “he could have killed my girl James, sick or not he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.”
“Well if that’s the way you feel,” Mort said, “but he’ll doubtless end up in an asylum hundreds of miles away, is that what you really want?”
“I just want Millie and everyone else kept safe from him,” Jess yelled, before turning and pacing around the office like a caged big cat.
“Those are terrible places,” James said softly.
That was the last straw for Jess, “You got the forms then Mort?”
Mort exchanged a glance with the Reverend and then went over to his desk, shuffling some papers in the drawer before passing one across to Jess.
Jess slumped down in the seat opposite and took the form and the pen Mort offered him and then sat staring at the paper, transfixed.
He closed his eyes and grimaced, as though fighting some unseen demons, a muscle in his cheek working and one hand flexing restlessly.
After a moment he sighed deeply and opened his eyes, pushing the pen and paper back to Mort, “Goddamn it,” he muttered, “I guess we’ll give him one more chance.”
Mort just nodded, a small smile playing around his lips, sure he knew Jess would do the right thing in the end. Then he sighed, Gee I sure hope it is the right thing he thought to himself.
James merely reached across and squeezed Jess’s shoulder but said nothing. Then after a moment he made for the door, “I’ll go and pick Mike up from the rehearsal, tell them at the ranch you’ll be home some time tomorrow?”
Jess looked surprised and then said, “Yup …and thanks James I owe you.”
Once he’d gone, Jess turned to Mort, “How’d the ol’ guy know I was fixing on staying in town?”
Mort grinned, “Well he knew your girl was back and I guess he just put two and two together.”
Jess looked deeply shocked, “And him a man of the cloth too!”
“Ha-ha,” Mort barked, “well I guess they’re human too and the guy has been married, so I figure he knows how you’re feeling right now…with everything that happened.”
Jess just nodded, “I need to see her, I’ll write up the statement tomorrow Mort and maybe we can have a talk with old Jackson Dooley, make sure his son don’t get to town alone again huh?”
Mort nodded, “Yup…and thanks Jess. No matter what folk say you’re a good man.”
Jess chuckled, “That’s Slim’s line, see ya Mort,” and he went off to find his girl.
Jess made his way hurriedly up the fire escape at the back of the saloon and knocked loudly on the door. He knew Millie would be in her room along the corridor as Tom had closed up for the day after the recent drama. Sure enough, he heard his girl bustling along the passageway and moments later bolts were drawn back, the outer door was hauled open and they were in each other’s arms.
He kissed her passionately before putting a loving arm around her waist and walking back to the privacy of her room. Once there he pushed the door closed with his foot whilst taking her in his arms again and it was several minutes before he finally released her. His deep blue eyes twinkling as he looked down at her.
“Are you alright Jess? What did Doc Sam say?”
“Just a scratch really Millie, Chas did more damage to my darned sheepskin jacket than he did me,” he said ruefully.
“Well it certainly didn’t look that way, the amount of blood on your sleeve,” she said now glancing down to the dark brown stain of dried blood. “What did Sam say?”
“He cleaned it up real good and said I should take things easy and maybe stay the night in town, to rest,” he said raising a questioning eyebrow, “so how about it huh? Got any room at the Inn?” He asked with his cheeky grin.
She gave him a knowing look, “Um, and so you’re going to take things real easy then are you cowboy?” she asked.
“Uh huh, well sort of,” he said now encircling her tiny waist again, “so what do ya say?”
“I say get that jacket off and I’ll go soak it, try and get those blood stains out,” she said with a cheeky wink, “and then we’ll see.”
He did as he was asked and once the jacket was removed she patted his good arm gently having noted the slight grimace of pain as he shucked his thick coat.
When she had made off with his jacket, Jess removed his gun-belt and boots as per her house rules and left them by the door, before glancing ruefully down at his shirt sleeve noting that too was badly stained. Unbuttoning it he removed that too revealing his taut tanned torso, the bandage to his arm a snowy white against his bronzed skin. Then he wandered over to Millie’s little kitchen just off her bed-sitting room and stood on the threshold watching her. She was bent over the sink, running water onto the sleeve of his jacket. The nape of her neck was exposed making her suddenly look so young and vulnerable that he felt his heart lurch and skip a beat with a rush of love for her.
He stepped quietly over and after a second put his hands around her waist once more, nuzzling into the back of her neck and kissing her there...oh so gently.
Her head came up and she gave a little gasp of pleasure, before turning to face him. Then when she realised he was naked from the waist up her eyes opened wide in surprise and she flushed a little in anticipation.
“I wondered iffen you’d mind doin’ this too,” he said innocently holding the bloodstained shirt up.
“Why you…!” Millie laughed then took it from him. But before she could turn back to her task, he pulled her close again, his naked chest giving her a little frisson of excitement.
“Maybe later though huh?” He asked as he once more pulled her into his strong arms.
It was the following morning before they finally got around to discussing the issues of the day before in the saloon, when Millie’s life had been in the balance.
“I can’t forgive him for what he did to you Millie, not ever, but I guess I can’t see him caged up in one of those dang asylums either, if what the Doc and Reverend James says is true.”
“Oh Jess I don’t want him punished in any way, he can’t help it poor boy, ‘tis an affliction that’s all.”
“Uh, that’s all very well Mill and I feel real sorry for the boy too. But what if there’s no help around next time and he really does as these dang voices of his want and kills someone, what then huh?”
She hung her head, “I really don’t know Jess.”
“Maybe the Sheriff will have some ideas,” he said as he got up to take his leave.
“Are you sure you’re OK Mill, I kinda hate to leave you right now.”
“Of course I am and it’s only a week or so to Christmas and we can be together then...you’re meeting Lily and I at the Church, right? Then we’ll drive home with you and Miss Daisy?”
Jess nodded happily, “I can’t wait,” and giving her a final kiss, left to go see Mort and write up his statement for the records.
When he arrived at the Sheriff’s office Mort was just supervising Lon giving the prisoners their breakfast and Jess put his head around the door to the cells for a moment, before withdrawing to the coffee pot.
When Mort joined him a little later he said, “I see you’ve got Chas in the cells now?”
“Uh, yes, I figured it wasn’t fair leaving him at Doc Sam’s...and I doubt he’ll have another ‘episode’ as the doc calls it for a while. I guess we’re just waiting on your statement and one from Miss Millie to see if he’s gonna stand trial for yesterday’s little...er episode.”
Jess shook his head in bewilderment, “Jeez Mort I know the guy can’t help it, but even so, something has to be done, he’s a danger to himself and others right now. If his Pa can’t come up with a plan to keep the kid out of town, well then, I guess there ain’t no alternative but to jail him, maybe that will make his Pa be more responsible...hell I don’t know Mort, I guess I’m out of my depth with all this business.”
“Um well maybe this will help you then. Two things have come to light since you left last night. On his way home the Reverend Harrison called by and said he’d remembered that there was a new special ‘Home’ opening in New York soon, to replace the old asylum. Apparently with the backing of the Church this new place is like a hospital and they’ll treat all the patients with care and respect. Even try and make it like a home away from home and I reckon that’s just what young Chas needs. His Pa called by too and swore on his dear dead wife’s memory that he’d never let the boy out of his sight again as long as he lives. Also said he’d be happy to sign the boy up to this place in New York, when the time comes that he can’t care for him any more...so what do you say to that Jess?”
Jess took a deep breath and then said, “I figure that’s about as good as we could hope for and if his Pa means it, well then I guess me and Millie won’t be pressing charges.”
Mort nodded looking pleased. “There’s just one more thing Jess...Chas wants to see you...to apologise. The kid’s beside himself with remorse, could you maybe spare him a moment?”
When Jess entered the cell, Chas was lying on his back staring at the ceiling, his face shrouded in misery.
He looked up when Mort unlocked the cell and let Jess in. The youngster’s expression turning at once to utter anguish and he jumped up from the bunk to face Jess.
“Mister Jess, I’m so, so sorry,” he gasped. “Miss Millie is she alright?”
“I guess, no thanks to you Chas, you frightened her half way to next week and back...me too... you do know that gun was loaded and you could have killed her?”
At the words the youngster sat back on the bunk head in hands and started to sob, “Yes...I know that now Mister Jess,” he finally managed, “and I done shot you too...and I’m just so dang sorry.”
“OK I guess we’ve covered ya bein’ sorry,” Jess said with the hint of a smile, “and to be fair it was Mort grabbing the gun which made you discharge it, so I guess it weren’t all your fault.”
When the boy continued to weep softly Jess put out a tentative hand to his shoulder, “Hush Chas, it’s OK...I know you couldn’t help it.”
The boy sniffed a few times and finally pulled himself together, “I won’t ever do that kinda thing again Mister Jess, no matter what those dadgum voices say.”
“Yeah, I know you won’t boy,” Jess said gently, “and your Pa’s gonna make real sure he keeps you safe too.”
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes and then the youngster looked across to Jess and said, “Do you mind the time you came over to our place and helped me break that colt?”
“What... ol’ Dynamite, he was one hell of a ride weren’t he boy,” Jess said chuckling at the memory. “Made you a real good workin’ horse once he was fully broke as I remember?”
“Sure did,” the youngster said, “I love him dearly Mister Jess, I call him Deano now and he’s sweet as a nut and a real good ride...kinda like a best friend, ya know?”
Jess just nodded, feeling moved.
“You’re the only person who’s ever shown me any kindness Mister Jess, helpin’ me out that way,” he said softly.
Jess sat for a good minute and then reaching over patted the boy’s shoulder, “You just take it easy Chas, stay by your Pa and everything will work out OK,” and then he yelled for Mort to let him out, feeling suddenly close to tears.
Chapter 4
By the time Jess got back to the ranch all the preparations for the big event were underway.
Daisy had been baking and bottling, stuffing and salting until there wasn’t an item of food in the ranch that hadn’t been accounted for and made ready for Christmas Day.
Sweetmeats and pies had all been stored away, the turkey cleaned and ready for the cook along with various other prime cuts of meat. OK the ranch might be suffering some as far as ‘cash flow’ was concerned, as Slim termed it. But as far as Jess could see they were rich beyond measure.
He had arrived on the noon stage and was still feeling a little drained after the goings on of the previous day. His arm was aching and he was regretting the fact that his sling was languishing on the floor by Millie’s bed, where he’d abandoned it the day before when he and Millie had gotten kind of amorous. Now he smiled at the memory as he climbed stiffly down from the stage.
Slim took one look at him and shook his head in amazement.
“Only you could go into town to attend a Church meeting and come home like this,” he said ruefully, “you’re a mess pard.”
“Huh, what do ya mean?” Jess asked indignantly.
“All shot up Jess, how do you manage it? Dadgum it you sure are a magnet for trouble.”
“Hey I couldn’t help it,” he said standing there and looking so pale and woebegone that Slim took pity on him.
“Nor you could I know that buddy, Rev James told us all about it, come on in, the coffee’s hot.”
Slim eyed the ripped jacket as the friends and Mose made their way in to the ranch house.
“So, do ya think Daisy will be able to mend it...huh, huh?” Jess asked plaintively.
But Slim merely shook his head now grinning at his pard and shrugging, before rolling his eyes at Mose.
“Sure, I’m heading out to the Sutton spread tomorrow,” Jess said irritably, “I made a promise I’d deliver that buckskin filly and I always keep my word.”
They were all sitting around the dinner table that night, enjoying a coffee, until Jess started being ‘difficult’ as Daisy termed it.
“Well I really don’t think you should be riding until that wound is healed, it could open up again you know Jess dear, if you knock it, and by the looks of things you’ve lost a lot of blood already.”
“Aw Daisy quit frettin’,” Jess said gently, “I’m OK really.”
“Can’t you take the wretched animal over Slim?” Daisy asked looking harassed.
“Sorry I can’t Daisy we’ve got the Stage line Superintendent due his end of year inspection any day now. I can’t be gallivanting off on private business.”
“Yeah, not when it’s my private business either,” Jess retaliated hotly. “I tamed the garldarn critter and I aim to see the deal through.”
“Maybe I could ride along with ya, take the lead rein, that way you could rest your arm in the sling like Aunt Daisy wants?” Mike said trying to be diplomatic and also craving the responsibility.
Jess looked uncertain, until James spoke up. “Maybe I could endeavor to practice my new-found riding skills? I do declare I’ve taken quite a shine to dear Betsy.”
Jess hid a sigh and painted a smile on his face, “Sure that would be just swell all three of us will go.”
Later in the privacy of their room Jess turned on Slim and said in an angry whisper, “You could have said something.”
“You could have stopped James and Mike riding out with me, now I’ve got the young ‘un and an old man who can barely sit a horse to worry about as well as that dadgum Crazy Horse.”
“I thought she was good now, gentle as a lamb you said.”
“Yeah, well a real lively lamb,” Jess said as he climbed into bed, looking hard done by.
He was just settling down when Slim said, “Jess...”
“I think you might want to think about changing the filly’s name...Crazy Horse is kind of contentious.”
Slim sighed and rolling his head on the pillow grinned over at his buddy, “Not real suitable pard...maybe something more lamb like...something that sounds nice and gentle...like er...how about Frisky?”
Jess rolled his eyes and turned over to sleep, not dignifying the comment with a reply.
The following morning, Mike, Rev James Harrison, Jess and Crazy Horse AKA Frisky, set off for the Sutton spread.
It was a large well to do ranch just outside town and as the three rode in Dave Hicks, Mr Sutton’s ramrod came out of the stable block to meet them.
“Howdy Jess, quite an outing I see,” he said turning an amused gaze on the young boy and old man.
“Got me a bum arm, needed the help,” Jess said succinctly, not liking the slightly sarcastic tone of the other.
“Oh yeah, I forgot, it’s just you and Sherman over there isn’t it, you don’t have paid hands as such like Mr Sutton.”
“Nope we’re the owners and work the place too,” Jess said, then once more gaining the upper hand said, “kinda nice not being in anyone’s employ, way you are,” he said pointedly.
“Uh, yeah, ‘suppose,” the older man said looking slightly abashed, “I’ll go fetch the boss to you.”
“Yup, you do that,” Jess said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Mr Sutton strode out of the ranch house a few minutes later and gave them a much warmer reception.
He walked all around Crazy Horse viewing her from every angle and then reached up and patted her neck, the large horse blowing gently down her nostrils in welcome.
“Nice, real nice, you’ve done an excellent job here Harper I’m impressed.”
Then he glanced over to where Mike and James were standing a little apart and marched over bidding them welcome.
“If you good people would care to knock at the back door you’ll find my Dory in the kitchen, with milk and cookies for you Mike and a good strong coffee for you good sir.”
Then he turned back to Jess, “It’s a good job you’ve got some help here Jess, I heard about the shooting, nasty business.”
Jess nodded and ruffled Mike’s hair before smiling at James. “Yup good help’s hard to find.”
The older man nodded, “Don’t I know it.”
Then he turned to James, “The number of times I’ve asked this young man to come on the payroll. He’d earn three times the amount he does at the Sherman place but will he listen?” he said shaking his head in mock despair.
“Called loyalty Mr Sutton,” Jess said softly.
“Oh yes I know boy and I’m only teasing you...come on let’s go stash this beauty away in the far stall. I don’t want my Beth catching a sight until Christmas Day!”
On the ride home Rev James was very quiet and once they were nearly at the turn off for the ranch Jess told Mike to ride on ahead and warn Daisy ‘some weary travellers were in need of the coffee pot.’
“Cookies too?” Mike asked with his cheeky smile.
“Get out of here,” Jess laughed, “any more cookies and you’ll burst the buttons on your pants,” and the child galloped off laughing.
Once he was out of earshot Jess reined in, gesturing for James to do the same.
“I guess I’ve known you long enough to know when something’s wrong,” Jess said searching the old-timer’s face. “What’s up James?”
The old man sighed deeply, “I think it’s pretty hard to get one past you young man. Well I’ll tell you Jess. I saw how cock-a-hoop you were when Mister Sutton paid you for the horse and it just underlined what I’ve known all along. Money is at a premium at the ranch and I fear I have taken advantage of your hospitality for far too long. When I was in town yesterday I visited the Laramie Bank and withdrew enough money to cover Doc Sam’s fees and also a room at the Laramie hotel. I’ll stay there until I’m able to travel home, which won’t be until after Christmas unfortunately as all the railroad seats are already booked and...”
“Hey whoa, hold on James. What makes ya think we’re gonna chuck you out just before Christmas?”
“Well I didn’t but I really don’t want to overstay my welcome and I know you have plans, all your friends visiting and...”
Again, Jess cut him short, “Heck you’re a friend now James and we sure wouldn’t see you stuck in a hotel room over Christmas.”
“Well that’s very kind of you Jess, but...”
“But nuthin’, have you ever been alone at Christmas?”
“Well no, of course not...”
“I have and you really wouldn’t like it James, so it’s us or nuthin’ and as long as you promise not to have more than four slices of Daisy’s cake and not drink all the Red Eye, then I guess you’re real welcome.”
“Oh my dear boy, what can I say,” said James tearing up and looking quite red in the face.
Jess noted his emotions at once.
“Nuthin’ more to be said then,” he said briskly, “so let’s see how good you are on old Betsy, race ya back,” and he took off at speed, giving James time to recover and follow along at his own pace.
Once the mounts had all been tended James and Jess entered the ranch house, Jess going off to the kitchen in search of the coffee pot. He found Daisy standing by the table eyeing the Christmas cake, a knitting needle in her hand and a determined look in her eye...She was flanked by Mike and Slim both looking on with interest.
Jess tipped his hat back and looked at the proceedings before saying, “What the heck are ya up to Daisy?”
“Uh, it’s my dear friend Louisa Dunn who gave me the recipe. You simply make holes in the base of the cake with a knitting needle and then very carefully pour this liquor into the little holes and it sort of permeates the cake making it rich and moist,” she said with excitement.
Jess leaned over and sniffed the contents of the measuring jug and moved back quickly coughing, his eyes watering a little. He flashed a quick glance over to Slim, before addressing Daisy.
“Uh, so what is that liquor then Daisy?”
“Um, a special Sherry wine, imported so I believe. I know that Henry, Louisa’s poor departed husband, was very fond of it. Had it shipped in from foreign parts so Louisa said. He took himself off just before Thanksgiving to collect it every year... from the rail head I suppose,” she said thoughtfully. “Anyway, dear Louisa swears by it and offered me a small bottle so I thought I’d give it a try.”
“That’s a real swell idea isn’t it pard,” said Slim beaming at his buddy.
“Sure is,” Jess agreed with alacrity and grabbing some cups and the coffee pot made for the fireside to warm up, Slim following on.
Once they were out of earshot Jess chuckled, “Well I’ll be, Daisy really don’t know she’s lacing our Christmas cake with Moonshine, does she?”
“What really?” gasped Slim, a look of horror, closely followed by mirth, on his handsome features.
“Uh huh, and by the smell of it some of Denver James’ best brew.”
Slim shook his head, “Well I’ll be... the old dog, I really wouldn’t have had Henry Dunn down as one of Denver’s customers,” and the pair laughed long and loud. But then they were joined by James and young Mike wanting to know what all the hilarity was about and quickly changed the subject.
Rev James sat down by the fire place and accepted his coffee before shaking his head and saying quietly, “Such a happy house always laughter and merriment,” and he looked over at the men with a contented smile, thinking how fortunate he was to have cast up there.
But of course, like all families there were ups and downs, some sunshine and the odd spot of rain.
The following morning at breakfast, Jess was taciturn and it didn’t take Daisy long to realise that the wound to his arm was playing up.
He hadn’t complained as it was not his way, but just one look at her ‘middle boy’ with her wise old nurse’s eyes told her he was in some pain and he also looked pale and quite peaky too.
“Come along now dear,” she said after breakfast, “let me change that dressing and take a look at that gun wound, I can tell it’s bothering you.”
“Aw Daisy...”
“Come along young man, you don’t want to be ill over Christmas do you and only a few days to go now you know. So how about me taking a peek, before your chores, um?”
“OK Ma’am, if I hafta,” he finally agreed and surrendered to her ministrations.
The table had been cleared of the breakfast dishes and James had insisted on washing them whilst Daisy set about tending Jess.
Now he looked over his shoulder as Daisy removed the bandage and he gasped at the angry painful looking wound. He blinked away tears from his old eyes as he saw how stoic Jess was. Neither cussing nor complaining as Daisy carefully cleaned out the lesion with neat alcohol and he shuddered at how very painful that must be?
Once the job was done to Daisy’s satisfaction Jess casually buttoned up his shirt. Then pulled his vest on and made for the door to collect his hat and now mended winter jacket.
“Surely you’re not going to work in the yard after that,” James blurted out, unable to keep quiet.
“I know it’s none of my business, but really shouldn’t he be resting?” he asked turning troubled eyes from Jess to Daisy.
She gave a little chuckle, “I fear you’ll have to walk many a mile before you find a more stubborn patient than Jess here,” she said with resignation, “there is just no arguing with him I’m afraid James.”
“Well in that case I’ll come and help you Jess. I have completed all the washing up Daisy my dear, to your high standards I hope?”
“Oh thank you James, most kind. It’s so nice to have someone offer to help, without being bullied into it,” she said throwing Jess a mock grimace.
“Aw Daisy that ain’t true,” Jess said in defense, “I did ‘em all last Sunday, didn’t I?”
“Yes dear I’m just teasing. Now wrap up warm if you really must go out,” she said fussing like a mother hen as was her way.
“Yes, come along dear boy, you just tell me what needs doing and I am your willing slave,” James said with a huge smile.
“Heck James there really ain’t no need. It’s powerful cold out there this morning. There’s a northerly blowing up. There ain’t no call for us both to get our butts froze off.”
Daisy shuddered at Jess addressing a man of the cloth that way, but James took it in his stride.
“I very much doubt that will happen, I am exceedingly well padded, so lead on Mac Duff,” James said chuckling to himself.
Jess threw Daisy a quizzical glance but knew when he’d been out maneuvered and marched off to start cleaning out the barn with his new apprentice.
As it turned out James was a quick learner and Slim and Jess both valued his help.
Once the hens had been fed and eggs collected, assisted by Mike, the barn cleaned out and all the horses fed watered and groomed James had to admit to himself that he was exhausted. The early morning Stage had been and gone with fresh horses supplied and the incoming team cared for, before the men took a break for a welcome coffee.
James assumed that was the bulk of the work attended to and the men would relax after their coffee and maybe mend some harness or something in the welcome warmth of indoors. So it was with apprehension that he saw both stretch, thank Daisy for the morning snack, and make their way once more outside.
“What’s next?” asked James, hoping his face wasn’t betraying his feelings. Oh how he longed to sit down. Read an improving book by the fireside, or maybe work on a future Sermon...he certainly had plenty of food for thought at the moment.
Jess and Slim exchanged a glance before smiling kindly at the elderly gentleman.
“I figure you’ve done more than enough for one day James,” Slim said kindly. “You go and take it easy, keep Miss Daisy from overdoing things huh.”
“But where are you going?” The old-timer asked casting a glance to the ominously dark clouds rolling in and noting the fierce wind was blowing up even stronger now.
“Got to go out to the east pasture to check the stock,” Jess said. “Looks like we’re in for a spell of bad weather and we need to be sure they’ve got plenty of food and water, some shelter too. Be home before dark,” he finished with a cheery salute as the two men mounted up and rode off up the rise.
Mike came out onto the porch and said, “You comin’ in Grandpa, Aunt Daisy says she’s just taken a pie out of the oven and thought you might like some after all your hard work?”
“Uh, thankee Mike, I would indeed.”
Then he nodded to where Jess and Slim were just riding out of view.
“I feel mighty sorry for them. Do they really have to head off in this bitter weather?”
“Yup I guess so. I asked Jess about that once. I was real young and got kinda upset, him riding off in a real bad storm and he said, ‘We’re ranchers boy, that’s what we do and those critters out there are our livelihood. More than that, they rely on us to do right by them...they deserve that Mike and don’t you ever forget it.’”
Then the youngster turned his innocent face up to James, “And I guess I never have...all our animals are put first you see Grandpa, it’s just the way it is...”
“I can see that now Mike, and Jess and Slim are right to care about their stock that way, of course...but it’s still a worry huh?”
Mike nodded and then said sagely, “Jess always says ain’t no sense in worrying until the house cow dies.”
“I beg your pardon?” James asked looking bewildered.
“He meant no point in worrying until things actually happen,” the boy supplied, “and I guess he’s right...so you comin’ in for pie then?”
James smiled down at the boy, “You just try to stop me.”
Then I’ll take myself off to the bunk house and offer up a few prayers for those young cowboys, he thought to himself...no need to go worrying, but the odd prayer can’t do any harm
It was nearly dark when the two rode back in and Daisy peered out of the window breathing a sigh of relief.
“They’re home Mike can you clear the table of your painting things and help me set it, Jess and Slim will be tired and hungry, in need of a good hot meal.”
James jumped up from his fire side seat and took the knives and forks from Daisy as she returned a little later, “Here let me do that dear lady,” he said his old grey eyes twinkling in admiration.
“Why thank you,” said Daisy blushing with pleasure, before hurrying back to the kitchen to dish up the meal.
Moments later the front door burst open emitting a blast of cold air and Jess practically fell in, with Slim hard on his heels. Both men looked bright eyed and had a healthy flush to their cheeks from the bitter cold outside.
“Dadgum it I won by a good few yards and you know it!” Jess yelled, “Traveller can leave that old nag of yours standing any day of the week.”
“The hell he can,” Slim yelled back, “it was neck and neck, up to the front gate...”
“Yup well front gate ain’t home ...I was first in the yard,” Jess retaliated.
“Boys, please can we have some decorum, we do have a guest you know,” Daisy said tartly.
Both men turned to look into the room for the first time, suddenly registering that they were not alone.
“I’m real sorry Daisy, James,” Jess said, not looking totally contrite as he removed his hat and brushed the dusting of snow from his coat with it.
“Please don’t apologise on my account,” James said quickly, “I like to see healthy banter between young men...”
But any further comments were lost as Mike tore to the door and pulling it open started jumping about in joy, “Hey it’s snowin’ I knew it would, just in time for Christmas too!” he finished in delight.
“Mike come away in and shut that door,” called Daisy who had returned to the kitchen. Then she marched in and looked at Slim and Jess properly, “Oh goodness me it is snowing, not too deep I hope...we have to travel to town in just two days.”
“It’s fine Daisy,” Slim said patting her arm, just a dusting, don’t fret, I’m sure we won’t be snowed in,” and he followed Jess into their room to wash up before supper.
“Are you sure of that pard, we could be in for more,” said Jess. Then he looked horror stricken, “Heck I don’t mind being snowed in once we hit town, but I sure hope it doesn’t stop us getting there.”
“Don’t worry Jess, I can read the weather around here, we’ll just have a dusting until mid-January I guess.”
“Huh?” Asked Slim as the men re-entered the sitting room.
“Well iffen we were to get snowed in town I could stay shacked up with Miss Millie until spring came around,” he whispered with a wicked grin.
“Yeah and you would too wouldn’t you,” said Slim reaching out and cuffing his buddy around the head, both men chuckling at the notion.
“Would what dear?” Daisy asked brightly returning with the dinner plates.
“Uh...nuthin’, Daisy” they said in unison, quickly praising the delicious meal set out before them.
Chapter 5
The following day was Christmas Eve and as per usual Jess and Slim took Mike off to the woodland surrounding the home pasture to choose a tree. Also as usual Daisy had proclaimed it to be the best one they had ever had.
Rev James had joined them in their quest and stood by and watched the young cowboys obviously enjoying Mike’s excitement.
Once they were back at the ranch James opted to help Jess rub down and feed the mounts whilst Mike and Slim hauled the tree indoors.
“That’s a mighty plucky youngster by all accounts,” James said as he assisted Jess, “to think he can be so happy and lively after all he’s been through.”
“Yeah well it don’t serve no purpose to dwell on the past,” Jess said quietly.
“No, er... I suppose not,” said James casting Jess an apprehensive glance.
“And I imagine your past Christmas’s were none too happy?” he speculated.
Jess shrugged, “I guess you could say so yeah.” Then he turned and smiled at James, “But I figure things have turned around for me...and Mike too...we’re real lucky to have ended up here.”
James said nothing of the fact that Daisy had filled him in on a little of Jess’s history as they whiled away the previous afternoon together. At first, she had been very reticent to discuss the young cowboy’s past. But then when James said he was merely curious and would never murmur a word of what Daisy told him to a living soul, that she had opened up a little. Telling of when Jess’s home had been fired by the Bannister Gang and most of his kin burned to death. Then of the relentless search for the perpetrators taking over his life. His hellish war followed by his time on the drift with all the temptations of a life on the owl hoot trail. Before he finally fetched up at the Sherman spread and had changed his life forever.
“Thank you for sharing that with me Daisy,” James had said sincerely, “and trust me I will never breath a word of what you have just told me.” Then turning to smile at her he said, “You have no idea how important that information is to me though.”
“It is?”
He nodded, “As you know I teach in a large seminary back in New York and I am currently researching the Word of God as it applies to the frontier... Are these hardy souls who come out here to carve out a new life still believers in God and the Church, or do they now rely on their own endeavors?”
“Well that’s very interesting James and I do believe it will depend on who you speak to...but if you are using Jess as a typical westerner...then I think I can say that he has a truly Christian Spirit. Oh, I know he doesn’t attend Church as often as I would like and he is far too familiar with a few of the Deadly Sins...but all in all he has a great respect for our Lord...as do most of the folk around here, so I think you’ll find.”
“Thank you, Daisy, that’s really good to hear,” he had said sincerely, “Oh and by the way, I’d already made my mind up about Jess...the way he took me in and cared for me, well that was a truly Christian act and I will never forget what he did for me that night and all of you subsequently.”
Now he looked over to the young man in question as he finished rubbing down his beloved Traveller.
“You think a lot of that horse don’t you Jess?” The old man said, leaning on the stall door and watching Jess now searching in his shirt pocket for a sugar lump for the animal.
He turned his honest gaze on James and nodded, “This ol’ horse has been a good friend to me over the years. He’s looked out for me just the way a buddy would ya know? Brought me on home iffen I’ve been shot up, hurt fightin’ or just had a tad too much red-eye,” he chuckled. “He knows his way home and just plods on until we’re back, dontcha boy,” he said now proffering the sugar lump.
“That’s something else you’ve given me to think about now. I always thought horses were rather disagreeable animals, but I do declare I’ve changed my mind. I’m really quite fond of Betsy now and your Snowbird is a magnificent animal,” he said referring to Jess’s champion quarter miler.
Jess grinned, “Well I’m real glad you think that way James and I figure we’ll make a half decent rider of you pretty soon too.” Then he looked thoughtful, “Something else you say?”
“Er yes I was explaining to Daisy about my mission to discover if the Word of our Lord is still as relevant out here in the wilds as it was… and still is back east.”
Jess looked thoughtful for moment and then said, “I figure when folk are sorely tried, got their backs against the wall, scared out of their minds by wild animals and injuns...well I reckon they’ve even more need of the Lord’s help than those folks back east...don’t you?”
“Yes...yes I do my boy and that’s a very valid point. And there is one thing I am certain of… there is no shortage of Christian love and devotion in this house. Even for poor wretched interlopers like me. I could have been just anyone Jess but you took me in and cared for me and I won’t ever forget that, it was truly a Christian act.”
Jess looked slightly embarrassed, “Well my old Ma used to say treat others the way you’d like to be treated and I try most times.”
“Well she was a very wise woman,” said James, “so you too follow her maxim of Love They Neighbor then?”
Jess looked slightly dazed at all this Bible talk, but rallied quickly, a twinkle in his eyes, “Oh yeah, I guess I love my neighbours right enough James, s’ long as they keep the boundary fence in good order.”
Then it was James’ turn to look bewildered before he gave a bark of laughter, “I see, touché my boy...maybe we have discussed religious matters long enough, shall we go and see how the tree decorating is coming along?”
By the time they reached the ranch house the six-foot tree was in pride of place to the right of the fireplace and secured in an old beer keg carefully shrouded by Daisy in scarlet material with a green sash keeping it in place.
Below it was a set of nativity figures, carved painstakingly by Jess, Mary and Joseph flanking the crib containing baby Jesus.
“You got the stuff down from the attic then,” Jess said turning to grin at his buddy.
Slim nodded tipping his head towards the large box of goodies Mike was currently trawling through, with whoops of delight as he discovered forgotten treasures.
“Some of that stuff belonged to my Ma when she was a little ’un,” he said proudly, “these glass baubles have travelled all the way from the old country and survived a good few Christmas’s with young Andy, my kid brother, and I playing with them.”
James shook his head in amazement as he looked at the delicate decorations, then gave a little sigh.
“Seeing young Mike there dressing the tree reminds me of Christmas’s past with my dear Sarah and little Beth,” he said looking suddenly desperately sad. Then turning to Slim said, “I really miss them, especially my Sarah...I just can’t imagine Christmas without her,” he said softly.
Mike stopped rummaging around in the box and turned to where James was looking stricken and getting up he went over to the old man draping an arm around his shoulders.
“Aw don’t be sad Grandpa,” he said softly, “don’t forget your wife is safe here and here and he tapped his head and heart.”
“What say my dear boy?” James said blinking away a tear.
“I felt kinda this way the first Christmas I was here. I missed my Ma and Pa something fierce. I was real sad and then Jess told me something special, didn’t ya Jess?”
Jess just nodded kindly at the child, “You’d better explain it to grandpa then Tiger.”
“See it’s this way... your wife is here,” he said touching James’ head, “and here, tapping his heart. Kept safe see in your head for all the memories and your heart for all the love and as long as ya remember that then she’s always with you see?”
James just sat there obviously battling with his emotions before pulling out a large red spotted handkerchief and blowing his nose noisily. Then he turned back to the child and said, “Thank you for reminding me of that Mike,” then flashing a look over to Jess, “Thank you my boy.”
Mike had returned to the box of decorations and the tree was now looking magnificent with all the old-fashioned baubles along with some more modern creations courtesy of Slim and Andy when they were children and more latterly those contributed by Mike.
Now all that was left was a strange little green carved figure.
“What’s this Slim?” Mike asked holding up the little green man.
Slim took it from him and chuckled, “That’s old Green Jack.”
“Don’t ask me why he was called that Mike, it belonged to my Ma and she was none too keen on it, said green ornaments were unlucky. Her granddaddy was a sailor and brought back all sorts from all over the world, India, China, some places we haven’t even heard of.”
“He looks kinda fierce don’t he,” Jess said taking it from Slim, “kinda like me when I’ve got a temper on me,” he chuckled.
“Heck no you look way scarier than that,” Mike quipped before receiving a gentle clip around the ear from Jess.
“May I see it dear fellow,” James asked looking animated.
Jess passed the little man across and James turned it over and over in his hands staring at it closely, “My oh my I don’t believe it,” he finally muttered.
“Huh, what’s up James?” Slim asked suddenly alert to the old timer’s excitement.
“Have you any idea what you posses here my dear young man?” James asked earnestly.
Slim merely shook his head, “A carving made by an old seaman, you see hundreds of the like about folks homes. I figure the sailors used to while away the hours carving stuff when the ship was becalmed... Pretty much like Jess here, but he just does it whether there’s work to be done or not, “Slim chuckled and a playful scuffle ensued and much banter between the two.
“No please listen to me,” James insisted. “If I’m right this is a Jade carved warrior, an antique and Chinese in origin.”
“The heck it is,” Jess said chuckling, “So? He’s still an ugly lookin’ cuss and bad luck according to Slim’s Ma.”
“No my dear boy, quite the contrary, this little figure could be worth hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars on the open market. Collectors of Jade pay a pretty penny in New York I can tell you.”
There was a stunned silence and then Slim’s face fell into a disbelieving grin. “I don’t think so James. I guess Ma would have known iffen it had been worth anything. But if you’re so all fired keen on it then please take it as a gift...to remember us all by huh?”
“Oh no, no Slim I really couldn’t do that. But what I will do, with your permission, is take it to a dealer I know in New York and have it valued and if it is worth something, sell it on your behalf?”
Slim just smiled at the old guy figuring he’d humour him. “OK James if you’ve a mind to, then swell, but if it’s worth a thousand bucks as you say keep half alright?”
James just smiled shaking his head, “Oh ye of little faith, I’ll show you Slim Sherman and I wouldn’t dream of touching a penny. I think Green Jack should benefit you all, just the way I’m sure your dear Mother would have wanted.”
Then the debate was over for the time being as Mike’s kitten Snowball made a dive for the tree and in the chaos that ensued James and his belief in old Green Jack were forgotten as the kitten caused mayhem.
Much later, on that Christmas Eve, the three men sat around the fire having a last coffee before retiring.
Mike had been his usual excited self, but had finally been persuaded to bed by Slim after hanging his stocking up by the fireplace.
“Iffen you don’t get to sleep soon you won’t have time to open your stocking presents before we head off for Church,” Slim had said seriously. “We aim to be on the road before sun up you know.” That had done the trick and with hasty goodnights the child had headed off to bed.
Daisy was worn out she freely admitted. She had cooked the huge turkey that day and left it to cool in the oven saying she would just need to carve it and heat it up when they all arrived home from Church the following day. “This way I’m sure it’s really cooked through,” she said happily, “and with lots of gravy nobody will notice it’s not hot from the oven. Now have I done everything? Maybe I should check the cold store for cream.”
“No,” said Jess firmly, “only place you’re goin’ is bed Daisy...you’re worse than Mike, now shoo!”
“Um alright dear in a minute,” Then she looked thoughtful, “When I was in the cold store yesterday I’m sure there was a side of venison missing? I don’t need it now we’ve plenty but where did it go?”
Slim looked slightly flushed, “Er guilty Daisy...I gave it to Tom for his Christmas dinner, when I was in town the other day.”
“Oh, you did... really dear?”
“Yup, he’s so good to have all the waifs and strays that haven’t got anyplace else to go around for the day, I thought we’d help him out some.”
“Enough to feed the five thousand there,” Jess said chuckling, “I guess they’ll have a good time, nice thought Slim.”
“Yes, I agree dear a very nice idea,” Daisy said yawning.
“Yup and as soon as you need more old Hot Shot here will provide,” Slim said chuckling, “always wants a good excuse to go hunting dontcha Jess.”
Jess grinned, “You bet,” and then saw Daisy yawning again.
“Bed now,” he said firmly.
Daisy laughed and reaching up kissed him fondly on the cheek, “You’re so good for me,” she laughed and disappeared off to bed.
Once she had finally departed, James smiled after her, “That’s a mighty fine woman, mighty fine,” he said earnestly.
Jess cocked an eyebrow at Slim and turned to grin at James, “Hey you wouldn’t have designs on our Housekeeper would you James, ‘cos I’ll tell ya now, we’d put up a real good fight for her.”
He had only been joking and was surprised to see James flush up.
“Well if I was a few years younger I really might consider taking you on young man,” he said grinning at Jess. “But no, Miss Daisy is happy and settled here and I wouldn’t dream of trying to coerce her.”
Jess looked slightly baffled but then said, “Well that’s good...I guess?”
Slim just nodded.
“OK to business,” Jess said reaching down beside his chair and coming up with a bottle of moonshine like a conjurer with a rabbit out of a hat. “So, who’d like a drop of Christmas Cheer in their coffee then huh?”
Slim agreed with alacrity, but it took James a little longer to be persuaded.
“Well, just a tiny drop,” he finally said and then all three men sat back before the roaring fire, toasting their toes and thinking all was well with the world.
“I figure you’ll need a drop of this stuff to keep you warm tonight,” Jess said, “it’s turned mighty cold out there.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine dear boy. Miss Daisy found me a buffalo pelt to act as another quilt and I’m quite warm. But I do hope there won’t be any more snow. I’m booked to head home in a few days and I hope we won’t be snowed in.”
“Don’t worry I’m sure we’ll be just fine and we’ll get you off home OK,” Slim promised.
“Famous last words,” Jess muttered.
“Oh come on Jess, your Ma should have christened you Job...way you are it’ll be just fine you’ll see,” said Slim chuckling.
Sometime later as they were about to turn in Slim turned to James, “Have you got everything you need James?”
James nodded and then his face clouded, “Everything except my Bible...those young ruffians stole it, threw it away I imagine as it wouldn’t be worth much to them...but I do miss reading the scriptures before retiring.”
“Don’t we all,” Jess said softly out of James’ hearing and receiving a sharp elbow in his ribs from Slim.
“Well you’re welcome to borrow my family Bible,” Slim said quickly, “but it might be a tad weighty for reading in bed,” he said nodding towards the large tome on the shelf above his desk.
James nodded, “You may be right my boy, thank you anyway, but no matter,” and he turned to go.
“You can borrow mine,” Jess said.
James spun around the expression on his face one of astonishment, which he quickly tried to hide, “You have one I could borrow?” He asked.
“Sure,” Jess said and disappearing into the bedroom returned a moment later with a rather battered looking Bible.
“It was my Ma’s and I guess it’s seen better days, but it’s all there. I even read it myself sometimes,” he said, his blue eyes now challenging James.
The Minister realised Jess had seen the look in his eyes and he reached across and patted his arm before taking the Bible.
“I m sure you do Jess...and thank you I appreciate you lending it to me I really do,” and with that he made his way over to the bunkhouse.
Chapter 6
Christmas morning was the usual chaos of Mike opening his stocking to shrieks of delight whilst Jess and Slim were slightly more subdued after a glass or three of Moonshine the night before. Daisy was however her usual calm and collected self. Not at all fazed by having to serve breakfast at the crack of dawn as they needed to get into town for morning Service where Mike was singing. James joined them at the breakfast table looking hale and hearty and very much looking forward to the proceedings.
“Is everything in place then pard?” Slim had asked before they rode out, Daisy driving the buckboard with Mike and James on board.
“Straw and blankets in the back for the girls?”
“Check,” said Jess.
“You reminded the Jackson boys to come over for a Christmas drink later this afternoon?
“Jeez Slim, yes I have, OK?”
“All the critters tended to and plenty of food and water down for the dogs?”
“Well garldarn it, sure I checked that,” Jess said, “although I sure don’t know why I can’t take Blue to Church, he’s one of God’s critters ain’t he?”
Slim just shook his head chuckling and spurred Alamo off at a brisk trot.
“Well ain’t he?” Jess persisted, before following on.
It was when he had been riding along adjacent to the buckboard for a little while that he noted an unusual bulge under James’ coat and then saw a little white head pop out. We’ll I’ll be... he said to himself laughing, I said they were all God’s creatures and I guess Reverend James agrees with me!
The morning was bright and crisp, the sun shining down from a crystal-clear azure sky. Betsy and Tam trotted along at a fine pace, Daisy driving them competently, with Jess and Slim following on. As they passed the lake Jess noted the white choppy waves on the surface and realized the wind had gotten up and it looked like another northerly was blowing in. He pulled his collar up around his ears and his hat down hard before continuing on towards town.
Once they arrived James, Daisy and Mike were dropped off at the Church, before Jess drove the buckboard down the road to the livery, Traveller hitched on behind.
Once they arrived Slim dismounted and groused, “I don’t know why you insist of stabling them all Jess we’ll be getting off home before too long.”
Not for another couple of hours, longer iffen Daisy starts gossiping, and I don’t want ‘em standing out in that bitter weather Slim, that wind could slice you in two. Would you like to be standin’ around in it huh?”
“Um, you’re right I guess but...” Slim was just about to remonstrate about the cost when old Bert lumbered in from the back stalls.
“Morning boys, season’s greetings to ya both,” he said cheerful.
“Merry Christmas Bert, can ya give these critters some shelter for an hour or so whilst we’re in Church?” Jess asked, patting Traveller’ s neck affectionately.
“Sure can Jess boy, might even throw in a few oats too,” he said chuckling.
“You want us to settle up now?” Slim asked, “I guess you’ll be heading over to the saloon for Tom’s Christmas Party soon huh?”
“Nah, not yet awhile Slim plenty of time to tend to yon critters, and they’ll be no charge.”
“Huh?” Jess asked looking puzzled.
“We all heard how you and Slim provided a side of venison for the table at Tom’s place and that was real neighborly of you...so there ’ll be no charge, like I say.”
“Gee thanks Bert,” Jess said cheerfully.
Slim chuckled, “The only way I get me some peace and quiet is by sending Jess here off hunting, so I guess you good folks are doing me a favour.”
“Aw away with you,” Bert guffawed, “you’re good boys the pair of you,” and he shuffled off to take care of the horses.
When they arrived at the Church the building looked wonderful. It was decked out in Holly, soft candle light casting shadows on the pale whitewashed walls. A ripple of excitement was running through the congregation as they exchanged waves and smiles across the large building.
Then suddenly all was hushed as Reverend Joshua Wesley called the congregation to order by announcing the first hymn, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.
Then after a short pause Mike’s sweet treble tones filled the church seemingly rising to the rafters as the age-old carol once more proclaimed Christmas Morning was here.
“Once in Royal David’s City stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a mother laid her Baby in a manger for His bed,
Mary was that Mother mild Jesus Christ her little child.”
Daisy gave a little sniff and pulled her handkerchief from her bag and Jess squeezed Millie’s hand, Slim and James looking on in awe, all of the ‘family’ with pride in their eyes.
Then the rest of the choir joined in along with the congregation, the music swelling into a joyous anthem.
Later Joshua stood in the pulpit for his sermon and Jess settled down thinking a crafty nap might be in order.
“For my text today, I am taking ...Love Thy Neighbor. Ah, not very Christmassy I hear you say,” he jested, his kind eyes twinkling as he surveyed his congregation. “But I would say differently, for why was our dear Lord born all those years ago if not to teach us that very thing?”
He paused for a moment and then read a passage from the Bible open before him.
“Jesus said unto him, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Joshua smiled around him. “This reading is familiar to us all...but how many of us can truly say that we follow this commandment to the letter? We see someone who is hurt...is it not easier to pass by? We see someone sick...why should we pay for their care...We see someone who is in a foreign land...lost and sore afraid. Do we comfort them, offer succour, or is it easier, safer...to just pass by?”
Again, he paused and looked out across the sea of faces looking back up at him, heck he even had Jess’s attention he noted with a little inward smile.
“I have to tell you that just this very week I have been told of a family in these parts who have truly loved their neighbour. I will not say more as they would be embarrassed by my words. In fact, I imagine they will not even recognise themselves. They would not think that they have done anything special although indeed they have. But hear the word of our Lord and if you have passed by, ignored or even ridiculed your neighbour it is never too late to repent. That Baby born in a humble stable came to give you the gift of the Word of God...heed those words my good friends and act accordingly...Amen.”
There was total silence for a few minutes as many wrestled with their consciences vowing to mend their ways.
“Now we will rise and sing Hymn number 27 In the Bleak Mid-Winter....”
After the service was over it was the cries of consternation echoing up the Church from the porch that alerted Slim and Jess that all was not well outside.
The service had come to a festive conclusion with ‘Merry Christmas’ banded about the building as folk rose to leave....and then this commotion by the door.
Slim and Jess strode down the aisle wondering if maybe there was some mischief afoot, rowdy youngsters upsetting the good folk leaving Church maybe?
But when they reached the huge oak doors, pulled open wide, and peered outside they just stood still in total shock.
It wasn’t just snowing; the wind was roaring and there was a full-blown blizzard raging. The strong wind was blowing the flakes sideways so it was impossible to see even halfway across the street.
Jess’s first thought was to be darned glad that he’d insisted on stabling the horses. His second, what was he gonna get for his Christmas dinner? Because as sure as God made little green apples, there was no way anyone would be leaving town that day.
“Well of course there’s no question,” Millie said as they were all now gathered in the sanctuary of the Church porch, “you must all come back home with me, Tom will provide us with Christmas dinner.”
“Oh, I don’t know Millie dear,” said Daisy looking anxious, “can he really feed an extra five mouths, well you and Lily too of course he won’t have catered for you thinking you would be at the ranch with us...and then there are our other guests Mort and Kate...oh dear what should we do? I know Tom is so kind in providing a hot meal for those alone at Christmas, but this is too much to ask of him I fear.”
Just moments later their minds were made up for them, as out of the storm marched an almost ghostly figure, covered as he was from head to toe in snow. But as he came closer it became clear who the stranger was.
“Greetings on this joyful morn,” He bellowed fortissimo, “I come bearing an invitation of a Festive nature for all you good brethren at the Sherman ranch...Er and dear sisters too,” he said smiling benignly at Daisy, Lily and Millie.
“Morning Parson,” said Jess grinning at the strange wild-eyed man, “so what are ya sayin’?”
“Merely that I come at the behest of dear brother Thomas from the saloon, to invite you to our Christmas repast...come, come along one and all, hurry along now...Thomas awaits us!”
Jess nudged Slim, “Come on then pard, we wouldn’t wanna keep Brother Thomas waitin’ would we?” Then taking Daisy on one arm and Millie on the other he followed the Parson back down Main Street to the saloon.
As Daisy was to say later it was the liveliest and most memorable Christmas meal she could ever remember. The saloon looked unrecognisable with all the tables lined up and covered with long white cloths. The tables heaving with a cornucopia of food. The haunch of venison that Slim had given done to a turn and in pride of place. This was surrounded by huge dishes of vegetables. These were flanked by jugs of ale and bottles of what looked suspiciously like Denver James’ moonshine Jess was pleased to see.
Around the table deep in merry conversation sat Bert from the livery, Ezra who ran the general store and several other lonely old bachelors or widowers in need of friendship over the holiday. Mort and Kate were already seated at the far end of the table. Kate’s second cousin Denver and his boys Mick and Cody placed at the far end, Tom thinking it probably prudent not to sit the Sheriff next to a known moonshine peddler. Even if that said Sheriff was real close to Denver’s kin, Kate...no point in advertising trouble.
As it was Mort was happy enough to turn a blind eye as long as the old scoundrel didn’t actually do any trading in front of him. Anyway, Mort only had eyes for Kate. She had relinquished her usual dusty old buckskins for once and was wearing a low cut, figure hugging deep blue velvet gown. The colour flattering her white blond hair, making her look stunning for a woman in her middle years, or any age, so Daisy thought as she was seated next to Kate with James to her left.
Tom was in his element wearing a long butcher’s apron and benign expression as he dispensed food and festive banter in equal measure. As soon as his gaze had rested on Daisy and the others his expression had changed to a veritable beam of welcome as the Sherman party arrived and there were cheers from all as they made their way in.
Once they were finally all around the table they joined hands and the Parson gave a blessing over the food and then the party commenced...and what a party it was. Jokes and laughter abounded, but the usual rather bawdy, wild event was somewhat toned down in respect of the ladies’ present. In fact, the men all said later how wonderful it was to have the company of the fairer sex on this special day, not to mention young Mike Williams, who was spoilt by one and all.
James sat back enjoying the proceedings immensely and with them being so very different to his usual Christmas celebrations he hardly felt melancholy at all. And when he did have a little pang of regret that his dear Sarah was not at his side to enjoy it all too, he merely remembered Mike’s wise words and at once felt comforted.
There was a lot of speculation as to who the family mentioned in Joshua’s sermon might be, and much joshing and laughter over it all. “Well Jess isn’t too good on the Ten Commandments,” Slim chuckled as an aside to Mort, “but I reckon he knows the Seven Deadly Sins OK.”
Sitting on the other side of him Jess overheard the less than charitable comment. “The heck I do,” he said feigning innocence, “like what huh?”
“Uh, how about gluttony...er lust...wrath...need I go on?” Slim asked chuckling.
But before Jess could retaliate a loud cheer went up as Joshua Wesley arrived bearing two huge pies and set them down for dessert.
Ezra shook his head in wonder and said to James, who he was seated beside, “Good old Reverend Wesley, he comes by at the end of the meal every year with dessert made by his dear wife. He says it’s a good excuse for him to get out of the house for an hour or so and have a nice glass of beer too,” he chuckled.
“He’s an extraordinary man, but there again Laramie folk are all pretty special,” James said, looking around him at the wonderful neighborliness. No, there was no doubt in his mind at all, the Words of the Lord were heard and heeded here just as well as they were back east...and maybe even more so he thought secretly.
When he had started his journey friends and colleagues had tried to dissuade him saying it was pure folly to take off alone on this pilgrimage. Where it was thought that the dear man would be robbed and have his throat cut or be shot by some wild outlaw. The West was a place of drunken debauchery full of fugitives and sinners, so they believed. The once Godly people had lost their way, and now worshiped the god mammon, as they greedily rushed to find gold. Others believing that life out west would be the answer to all their needs, faith and God’s teachings forgotten. However, James had argued against this hypothesis and had insisted on finding out the truth for himself.
Yes, to some extent those harsh predictions were true, after all had he not been robbed and left for dead? But there again he reasoned maybe that was the Lord’s way of showing him the other side of the coin? The cowboy way, which was one of trust, loyalty, perseverance and grit, he now knew. Goodness if he hadn’t been wounded that way and landed at the Sherman place he would never have seen it all first-hand he reasoned.
He so admired the partnership between the two young cowboys and how they toiled unstintingly...riding for the brand Jess had termed it, loyal to the workplace and those who dwelled within it. And that loving care had extended to him. He was truly grateful for this insight he had been allowed a glimpse. The true ethos of the pioneering folk, cowboys and small-town dwellers out here in the untamed west. It was all here he realised as he looked around the table at the good folk he now sat amongst.
Agreed there was still some greed, drunkenness, houses of sin and those who chose the owl hoot trail. Then he looked over at Jess… and yes those who relinquished it too. He looked around at the people of this small Wyoming town and decided that yes, it was mostly a good place with good people living good lives, often under difficult circumstances. It was occasionally wild and some parts rough with trouble makers, but most of the folk were God fearing, hard-working ordinary folk.
James observed the company noting a fleeting expression on a face here, a bark of laughter there. Old Ezra had slipped back to his shop and returned with some candy and small toys to keep Mike occupied and now they were deep in conversation. Daisy was swapping a recipe with Kate and Jess was holding Millie’s hand and looking longingly into her soft brown eyes. Then, he noted at the far end of the table Denver and the Parson were chatting away animatedly to Joshua Wesley. What a nice man he was. How adept of him to use James’s story of being taken in and cared for as his text for the day. And yes, James thought with a small smile, nobody at the Sherman Ranch had recognised themselves at all, just as Joshua had predicted.
Then James reached down to his side and felt a little cold nose find its way into the palm of his hand, Snowy was being the perfect guest he thought happily, at the perfect party. He patted the little dog’s head and said quietly, “We’ll be home for New Year Snowy and what a lot we’ll have to tell the folk there.”
Chapter 7
It was a couple of days after Christmas and Jess and Slim had a busy old time catching up with all the chores around the place and checking on the stock. As they had hoped the Jackson boys had turned up for their drink on Christmas afternoon, soon realising that everyone was stuck in town due to the terrible weather and had cared for all the critters.
By Christmas night the snow had started to thaw but Jess and Slim had decided to stay in town, Daisy, Mike and James staying over at Mort’s place.
“I guess I can find a corner to bed down these two trouble makers,” Tom had said laughing as the others made their way to the Sheriff’s abode.
“Oh I don’t doubt it,” Daisy had said with a secret smile, not wanting to embarrass her boys, but knowing full well where they would be spending the night.
The following morning all was set fair, the snow melting in brilliant sunshine and so Mort, Kate, Millie, Lily, James and all from the Sherman ranch finally wended their way to the Relay for a belated Christmas dinner.
It was a quieter, slightly more sedate occasion than that at the saloon, but none the less joyful and very much appreciated by one and all.
The love between the young couples of Lily and Slim and Jess and Millie was obvious to see as was the strong bond between the Sheriff and his lady and James once more turned to look at Daisy. She was a mighty fine woman and would make the ideal wife for any man he freely admitted. Then he felt a stab of guilt, whatever was he thinking, with dear Sarah not gone from him a year? But then he forgave himself. It was just the magic of Christmas he decided...the love surrounding him giving him fanciful thoughts. He realised that wonderful woman that she was, Daisy’s place was here at the heart of the Sherman ranch.
“Say James, penny for ‘em,” Jess said peering at the older man, “you’re lookin’ kinda troubled?”
“What, oh no my dear boy, I’m just fine, if a little tired. I think I’ll retire if you will forgive me...early start on the Stage tomorrow, haven’t we Snowy,” he said stroking the little dog sitting on his lap.
“It really ain’t no bother drivin’ you to the rail head,” Jess had said kindly, but James refused saying he would be just fine.
Back in the bunkhouse he picked up Jess’s Ma’s old Bible and began to read and then after a while he took paper and pen and wrote a short note... placing it as a marker in the Bible....then he turned in, a beatific smile on his old face...tomorrow he would be going home to see his own family.
The party had finally broken up with Mort and Kate driving the girls’ home as they really had to work the following day and they went off in a flurry of hugs and kisses from their men folk.
Early the following day James had taken off on the morning stage and the house felt somehow quieter and almost forlorn without all their guests as Slim and Jess went about their chores.
Now they sat out on the porch, Daisy and Mike long abed, tired after their busy few days.
A bottle of moonshine stood on the porch between them and they had a glass apiece as they stared off to the distant snow-covered mountains, illuminated by a huge moon. Surprisingly after the terrible weather of the last few days it was quite mild and they were feeling comfortably warm and also a little mellow.
“It was good,” Jess said after a while, sipping his drink and looking off to the horizon, “bein’ at the saloon and all. Real good spending the night with our girls too,” he added winking across at Slim.
“Yes,” Slim agreed, “but...?”
Jess turned and gave his partner that huge warm smile of his and said, “But it weren’t the same as bein’ at home was it Slim?”
Slim turned and smiled at his best buddy, “Nope you’re right Jess...it wasn’t.”
Then they turned back to the awesome view before them once more, sipping their drinks...in perfect accord.
The following morning the men were just finishing their early morning coffee break when Daisy bustled in with her arms full of washing with Jess’s Bible perched on the top.
I’ve just been stripping the bed in the bunkhouse and I thought I’d bring your Bible back Jess. I think James left it over there so we’d find this note attached, take a look.
Jess relieved her of the Bible and then opened it at the page the note marked and read the short letter out loud
“It’s to all of us, he says, My Dearest Friends, How to convey the sentiments I am feeling? How to say a thank you so that you will know it is truly from my heart? Then it came to me in the words of our dear Lord. Please read this text and know that you Jess and all at the relay have in some way helped me...in more ways than you will ever know. This text says it all I think...
What more is there to say, but that you are all shining examples of Christian love, your humble servant, Reverend James T Harrison.”

“What’s the text Daisy?” Slim asked his voice thick with emotion.
“It’s taken from Mathew 25, shall I read it?” she asked softly.
Slim and Jess merely nodded.

“Matthew 25 5-40 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' 37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40 "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”

Daisy gave a little sniff, reaching for her hanky and after blowing her nose looked over to Jess.
He had his head bowed and then she noted Slim was sitting very still his eyes also cast down.
Slim was the first to finally pull himself together.
“That was real nice of him to say that,” and he got up quickly and turned to Jess.
“Come on pard, chores to do.”
Jess got up and silently left the room, Daisy and Slim exchanging an affectionate smile. It took a lot to move their fast tempered, wild, tough Texan, but it seemed James had found a way.
It was a week later when Slim rode into the yard at speed and throwing himself down from Alamo marched over to the barn, just as Jess was leaving it.
“Hey pard, where’s the fire?” he asked as Slim barged into him, practically knocking him off his feet.
The usually calm placid Slim ignored Jess’s flippant comment and threw himself down on a bale of straw, his eyes flashing dangerously.
“Hey what’s up Slim?” Jess asked coming and leaning against a stall door and peering at his friend in concern.
“That darned Peterson that’s what’s up,” spat Slim, looking as mad as all get out. “You know after he gave us that dud check for the beeves we gave him a chance to pay us off. We said deadline for payment was January first?”
Jess nodded, “And today’s what...the third, so it’s in our bank account right?”
“Wrong! I went to the bank and it seems Peterson’s in big trouble. He’s in debt right left and centre, owes half the town and the bank are repossessing the ranch.”
“So, what did you do?”
“Went around of course to see what was happening. Poor Maggie Peterson’s in pieces and Peterson is too. Oh I remonstrated with him alright, but you can’t get blood out of a stone Jess.”
“I’ll dang well ‘remonstrate’ with him,” Jess yelled balling his fists, “I’ll dang well remonstrate him into next week.”
Slim hid the ghost of a smile, “That isn’t really living up to your new persona now is it Jess?”
“Loving thy neighbour?”
Jess cussed and then said, “So what are we dang well gonna do now then?”
“I really don’t know Jess, but what you’re not going to do is go around there shouting the odds. I guess Maggie’s gotten enough on her plate without having her man smashed to a pulp.”
“Uh, it might not help her but I’d feel one whole lot better,” Jess insisted bitterly.
It was later that day when both men had calmed down some and were chatting out on the porch that Jess saw reason.
“I guess we’ve all been pretty desperate at one time or another, owing on the Mortgage a family to support. I can kinda figure how he was feeling.”
Then his eyes suddenly swivelled to Slim, “Hell please tell me we’ve gotten enough put by to get us through this mess Slim? We...we couldn’t lose the ranch, could we?”
Slim shrugged, “I reckon we’re sailing pretty near the wind Jess. It’ll only take one of us to get real sick, or have to call the Horse Doc in and we couldn’t make the Mortgage payment next month.”
Jess looked shocked, “I knew things were pretty bad, but not this way Slim.”
“It was that real bad winter and fall last year when we lost some stock. Then you were real sick and couldn’t get the usual money in for breaking mounts for the army. Just bad luck Jess.”
Jess jumped up from his seat on the porch and marched purposefully across to the barn.
“Now where in tarnation are you off to now Jess, supper will be on shortly.”
“Tell Daisy I’ll eat in town, I need to see the Bank Manager for myself, see if there’s any way out of this goddamn mess.”
A few hours later found a despondent Jess leaning on the bar of the Laramie saloon like he’d got the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’d even snapped at his best girl and she’d taken umbrage and was up at the other end of the bar chatting to Lily.
“What’s up with Jess?” Lily asked chewing a finger nail and casting the cowboy a sad glance, “he looks real upset about something Mill.”
Millie shrugged, “I dunno, he nearly bit my head off when I asked him before, I figure I’ll give him some time to cool off before I try again,” she said sagely.
Jess had sunk a couple of whiskeys and was wondering if a third would be a mistake on an empty stomach, when he became aware of someone standing beside him and glancing across looked into the kindly eyes of old man Sutton.
“Mr Sutton,” he said touching his hat in deference to one of his best customers, Sutton having bought at least a dozen horses broken by Jess.
“Howdy, how are you doin’?” he asked politely, hoping the man would say a quick hello and wander off. The last thing Jess felt like right now was company. Not after the unsettling session he’d had with the Bank Manager. George Cole sure wasn’t afraid of telling it how it was, Jess mused. And as far as the Sherman and Harper Ranch and Relay Station was concerned, things were looking pretty grim. Then to cap it all he’d upset the one person in the world that he loved with all his heart. He’d just finish this drink and go make it up to her, stay in town the night maybe he thought, cheering marginally.
Then he was suddenly aware that Mr Sutton had said something to him.
“I said I heard about your financial issues Jess and I’m real sorry.”
“You did, did ya?” Jess asked looking angry.
“Hey calm down young man. It’s common knowledge that Peterson has gone to the wall, you aren’t the only ones to be affected you know, he owes me too.”
Jess tried to swallow his anger and just said gruffly, “Well I reckon you can stand the loss better than us Mr Sutton.”
The older man nodded his grey head sagely, “Well isn’t that the truth young man and that’s why I’ve got a proposition for you.”
Jess was getting heartily sick of being referred to as ‘young man’ and was about to make his excuses and leave when his ears pricked up.
“A proposition?” He asked his eyes narrowing to a glint of interest...
It was past midnight and Jess was lying in Millie’s huge feather bed, his best girl in his arms looking as beautiful as he could ever remember.
They had made up their quarrel as soon as Mr Sutton had left the bar whistling merrily and looking cock a hoop.
Jess couldn’t wait to take his girl in his arms as soon as Tom released her from work. They’d virtually ripped each other’s clothes off and leapt into bed, the moment they were through her door. Their love making had been even more poignant and special, after the little tiff of earlier in the evening.
Now Millie lay in Jess’s arms feeling drowsy and satiated, “So what do you think Slim will make of all this?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno, I guess he won’t be any too pleased, but heck it ain’t forever Mill. I’ll just break these broncs for old man Sutton as fast as I damn well can. Pick up the bonus for completing the job quickly and there you are a nice fat pay check to see us back in the black again. He’s offering real good wages Millie, I figure he thinks once I get a taste for the good life I’ll throw my lot in with him,” he chuckled.
“And would you?”
Jess’s face clouded, “You have to ask? Do ya really think I’d run out on Slim and the others just for the extra money?”
“No…no of course not,” she said quickly, “but you must be tempted...a little bit?”
He shook his head, “What, work for someone else after being a partner, no way Millie, this is just to see us out of a hole that’s all.”
“Goddamn it Slim I’m doin’ it fer you. For the ranch, Daisy and Mike too, can’t ya see that? OK I know you’ll be kinda hard pushed with me away, but it’ll be worth it for the extra cash won’t it? By the time I’m through there, we’ll have fattened up some more of the stock to sell on. Then I’ll be goin’ off in search of some more mustangs to break for the Army and we’ll be back on track again.”
“But you always said you’d never do that Jess, sell out to the big ranchers, said you wanted part of this place?”
“I did, hell Slim I still do, this is just a means to an end can’t ya see that, for goodness sake!”
They were sitting out on the porch and again it was real late, Daisy and Mike long abed.
When Jess had returned from his overnight visit to town earlier that day he had been very reticent as to what he’d been up to and now it was all out in the open and Slim was acting just the way Jess had predicted.
He sank his head in his heads, “Hell Slim is that what you think of me after all this time,” he gasped, “that I’d move on for more money?”
“No of course not Jess and I’m sorry I’m being really selfish. We’ll miss you something fierce and I appreciate you doing this really I do...I’m sorry OK?”
“Sure pard and it don’t sit any too easy with me either, but what’s a guy to do? I figure once I’ve got the money we can relax some and get back to normal huh?”
“Sure,” said Slim slapping him on the shoulder, “whatever that is!”
Jess chuckled, “I guess you’ve got a point there. Normal being one step ahead of debit…but at least we’ll be ahead.”
It was the following Monday morning when Jess started work at the Sutton ranch and he was greeted by Sutton’s ramrod Dave Hicks, seemingly looking real pleased with himself.
“So you finally caved in then Harper, decided to take the easy ride huh?”
That was all Jess needed to really rile him. He’d said an emotional farewell to dear Daisy and Mike that morning and his partner was none too pleased to see him ride out either...and now this.
Jess sat tall in the saddle and turned his icy gaze on Dave Hicks, “Let’s get this straight once and for all Hicks, I’m here to make a few bucks, because I need to right now, that’s all, this ain’t nuthin’ to do with selling out to the highest bidder. I ride for the Sherman brand and don’t you forget it!”
“OK, OK back off Jess, was only funnin’ ya...but I figure the boss thinks he’s got you for the long haul, even if you don’t. And let me tell you, the boss tends to get what he dang well wants, so I figure you’re here for good...don’t you?”
Jess just shook his head and rode off to find the bunkhouse, already counting the hours to when he could leave.
It was a big prosperous ranch with over a dozen Spanish hands looking after the stock and land. Dave Hicks was ramrod and chief bronco buster, his deputy Lenny White and young Tommy Saunders, the boss’s nephew made up the remainder of crew. He may be kin, but he’s not gettin’ any of the perks so Lenny White informed Jess later that morning.
“See it’s this way Harper the boy got himself in some trouble back home in Colorado, so his Pa sent him over to his Uncle...Mr Sutton that is to straighten him out some. That’s why he’s sleepin’ with us workers in the bunkhouse. Learning the ropes see Harper and some respect too I figure.”
Jess took all this on board deciding to make up his own mind about young Tommy and turning to Lenny said, “So I suppose Dave Hicks runs a pretty tight ship around here then?”
Lenny looked kind of embarrassed and then said, “I guess that’s for you to find out Harper, but he ain’t the man he was that’s for sure.”
Before Jess could inquire further there was an impatient cry from the yard, “There’s work awaitin’ ya Harper iffen you’ve done jawing in there,” and Jess and Lenny exchanged a glance.
“Looks like I’m about to find out,” Jess said before pulling his hat down hard and marching out to the corral to see what the day was about to throw at him.
Well the first thing it threw at him was a wild looking Palomino that the hands had named, Death Ride, which Jess found less than encouraging for his first mustang of the day.
“Why so?” Jess asked Lenny as he got ready to face the critter.
“It were after he downed Dave for the third time, he ain’t been the same since...got a real bad shoulder, so he says, ain’t done no bustin’ since, that’s why you’re here I guess Jess.”
“Is that so?” Jess asked narrowing his eyes as he took in the full potential of the bucking snorting frenzied animal before him.
And then there was Beth Sutton.
Jess hadn’t clapped eyes on young Beth for a while and he remembered her as a gawky teen...but now as she wandered over and sat the corral fence with a casual ‘howdy,’ he realised she’d grown up... Boy and how!
She’d sure filled out some and he found it difficult to control his gaze from drifting south for a split second. Her Ma should buy a size larger shirt, the way the buttons were straining on the one she had on now, he thought with the ghost of a smile. She also wore dark blue, skin tight denims nipped in at her tiny waist by a red leather belt, the whole outfit leaving nothing to the imagination, that was for sure, he thought fleetingly. Her long dark hair was pulled up into a perky pony tail and her large brown intelligent eyes never left Jess for a moment.
Jess spent the rest of the day getting to know the mustangs he’d be working with, talking softly to them to slowly gain their confidence. But his gentle ways cut no ice with Dave Hicks and after a couple of days he complained to Mr Sutton.
“The man’s a joke,” he said bitterly, “spends all his darned time pettin’ the critters and feeding them sugar, not so much as shown them a dang saddle yet!”
Sutton sighed deeply, “Well that’s because he’s a horse whisperer, likes to get to know the critters before he gets up in the saddle. It’s the Injun way and Jess reckons it halves the time it takes to finally break a horse.”
“He does, does he?” Hicks said looking unimpressed.
Then Sutton turned his flinty gaze on his foreman, “You want to watch him Hicks, you might just learn a thing or two,” he growled before marching off.
Meanwhile as well as getting to know the horses Jess was throwing his lot in with the other men over in the bunkhouse. The Spanish men spoke mainly in their own language and Jess thought it prudent not to admit that he was fluent in Spanish, having many Mexican friends down in Texas. He soon learned that Mr Sutton was well-liked as a good strong boss who was fair and paid well and always on time. However, his daughter was thought to be spoilt by her father and way too forward for a young Senorita. Lenny was popular enough as was young Tommy Saunders. All the Spaniards thought Hicks had lost his nerve though, regarding the mustang breaking and was also drinking hard.
Jess spent some time with young Tommy and really took to the boy. He was amused to find that the depth of his decadent behaviour was to have bunked off school to go fishing a few times and had been involved in the odd fight. When the youngster told him how passionate he was to learn all about horse breaking Jess took him under his wing and agreed to let him watch and help out some with the horses, if his uncle agreed.
Jess finally started getting to grips with the animals and he soon had a saddle on Death Ride and was being jerked about, holding on for dear life. It was bitterly cold and the ground as hard and cold as iron and he wanted to keep any falls to the minimum.
As per usual he was being watched by Hicks and young Beth was on the sidelines too, calling out encouragement and dashing over to help him up when he finally came a cropper.
He dusted himself down with his hat and grinned at her, “Thanks.”
“Are you OK that was one heck of a crash?” She said her eyes soft with concern.
Jess rubbed his butt ruefully, “Had worse,” he said with a wink before catching the reins and jumping athletically back up into the saddle as she scurried to the safety of the sidelines.
Moments later she was joined by a furious Lenny White.
“What the heck do ya think you’re doing Beth, you’ll get hurt going in the corral with that crazy wild critter,” he fumed.
She turned amused eyes on him, “Which one Jess or Death Ride?”
Lenny looked momentarily perplexed and then said angrily, “And you can stop ogling that saddle tramp too, it’s me yer courting Beth.”
“Oh am I?” she said now looking flushed and angry, “You don’t own me Lenny White and I’ll ogle, as you so charmingly put it, who I darned well like. I’m a free agent and don’t you forget it!”
Lenny just glowered at that and marched off.
It was later when Jess was in the barn grooming Traveller that Beth mooched in and leaned on the stall door watching him.
After a moment he turned and smiled at her, “What was all that with you and Lenny before?” he asked, “giving the boy a hard time huh?”
“Oh, he’s of no account,” she said casually, “we date occasionally but it’s not serious.”
Jess shook his head, “It sure is from where Lenny’s standing I reckon.”
“Well tough I’m really not all that interested.”
Then she opened the stall door and came and stood close to him, looking up imploringly with her big brown eyes.
“Now if it was you proposing to court me that would be a whole different thing, I sure wouldn’t leave you guessing as to what I wanted,” she said boldly.
“Hey whoa, where did this come from?” Jess said taking a pace backwards and looking shocked.
“Well there’s no point in not being honest and open is there?” She said looking beguiling, “After all, you find me attractive, don’t you?” She asked her eyes dropping to her ample cleavage and back up into his deep blue eyes, “I saw you looking the other day.”
Jess flushed, “Lookin’ ain’t doin’...it don’t count.”
“Uh...so what’s stopping you doin’ then huh?” She asked with a brazen smile as she inched closer Jess feeling her warm breath on his cheek.
“You know dang well I’m seeing Millie Johnson and I don’t fool around with other women,” he said harshly.
She took a step back looking slightly uncertain and then gave him a slow smile, undoing the top couple of buttons of her shirt.
“Oh come on Jess, I won’t say anything, just a little kiss or two huh?”
“Beth Sutton, you dang well behave and get yourself covered up or so help me I’ll go fetch your Ma to you,” he said now looking furious. That did the trick, her face crumpled and she ran off, “I hate you Jess Harper,” she cried over her shoulder.
Jess grinned after her, “Well that’s good to hear,” he said quietly, “real good.”
However, Beth was a pragmatic young woman and part of her was kind of glad that he hadn’t given in to her womanly charms. After all, one of the things she and her girl friends adored about Jess was his one hundred percent reliability and faithfulness and in retrospect she thought she must have been crazy to think for a minute that he would cheat on Millie.
She remembered the first time she had cast eyes on him at about fifteen. She had been riding her pony hell bent for leather across the yard and jumped the corral fence, just showing off really.
Jess was standing by her pa, handing over a prize stallion he had just broken and she had urged her mount across the corral to say howdy to this new friend of her fathers.
He had been smoking a cigarette and squinted up at her through the cloud of blue smoke his eyes narrowed and full of admiration.
“She’s some rider your daughter,” he’d said turning to her pa.
“Yup that’s my Beth,” Pa had said beaming up at her from where she still sat her pony, “she’ll be a darned good horsewoman when she’s full grown.”
“Aw, Pa,” she’d said flushing up, “I’m all grown up now.”
“Sure you are sweetheart,” Mr Sutton had said rolling his eyes at Jess.
Jess felt sorry for the awkward teen and smiling at her said, “You sure sit a horse well Beth and I really appreciate that in a young lady.”
She’d repeated all this to her best friend Ginny later. “And I really appreciate the way he wears his blue jeans,” she had giggled, “he’s just got so much darned sex appeal,” she said quoting a line from one of her dime novel romances.
“Huh?” Ginny asked who at a year younger than her friend still had some growing up to do.
“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough Ginny,” she’d said hugging herself and closing her eyes, “he’s absolutely divine.”
That had all been over six years ago and now the twenty-one-year-old was much more self-assured and not afraid to ask for what she wanted, even if it was a kiss from Jess Harper.
Now up in her room she wandered over to the window and peered out at the corral where Jess was once more amongst the lively wild horses, patting one here, offering sugar there and all the time talking gently to them.
“Shucks,” she said aloud, “I guess you just can’t stay mad at the man for long,” and tossing her long hair she marched back downstairs to apologise and hope he’d accept her offer of friendship if being lovers was definitely out of the question.
Having made his peace with young Beth, Jess decided he’d better put the record straight with Lenny as well and he found him over in the bunkhouse.
“I...er wouldn’t want ya to think there was anything going on between me and Beth,” he said hesitantly, “we’re just old friends...known her since she was a kid, I’d never… you know....”
“Really, you mean it?” Lenny asked his face relaxing into a broad grin, but then it clouded over, “Yeah, but I figure she’s got the hots for you Jess, way she’s always hanging around the corral.”
Jess shook his head, “Nope she just likes to see me fallin’ on my butt all the live long day,” he said chuckling.
Lenny shrugged, “Maybe you’re right, but things might change once you’re here full time. I reckon old man Sutton would welcome you into the family a whole lot sooner than me.”
“What’ re you talkin’ about Lenny, I ain’t gonna work here full time and I sure as hell ain’t gonna marry Beth, are you crazy?”
Lenny shrugged again, “It’s what Mr Sutton wants and he usually gets what he wants, I heard him talking to Mrs Sutton about it.”
“Oh? So go on?”
“Uh, maybe I’ve said too much,” he said now flushing up.
“Oh no, you can’t say this kinda stuff and then back down what did Mr Sutton say about me?”
Lenny sighed, “That he wants you on the payroll full time, thinks Hicks has lost his nerve. He said you were the best and if he pays you that bonus for breaking them by the end of the month then he’s got you.”
“Got me?”
“Yup, he knows that things are real bad at your place right now and he said if all your wages go off to pay the mortgage and expenses back at the ranch, well then you’ll have to carry on working here. He said he was going to send out some men mustanging and then get you to break them for the military. He reckoned you wouldn’t have time to go out mustanging for the Sherman place as he’d keep you real busy here. That way he’d get the military contract, he’s been after that for years Jess. But the Major said he’d only deal with the Sherman place because they’d got the best dang breaker in the territory.”
Jess was as mad as all get out. He’d been set up, why hadn’t he seen it? And yes of course Sutton was right, the mortgage would need paying every dang month and there was precious little money coming in, until he could go off mustanging in the spring. By which time Sutton’s men would already have caught the best of the bunch.
His initial reaction was to go and knock old man Sutton’s teeth down his throat...but no, how in hell would that help. Nope he’d just have to keep quiet and play along until he could figure a way out.
Once Jess had slept on it he didn’t feel quite as resentful towards Sutton. The guy was only trying to make a living after all and he was paying Jess a fair wage for a fair day’s work and if Lenny could be believed he would be offered the job as ramrod at some stage. Heck no it wasn’t that, it’s what this would do to Slim and all back at the ranch. The money Jess made from the military contract would be essential this year if they were to keep their heads above water after the Peterson debacle. Nope he’d just have to get through breaking these darn critters at top speed and head back home. Maybe go mustanging a tad earlier this year even if it meant riding on down towards Colorado to find them.
Maybe it was all the problems weighing heavy. Or just that he was tired that he made an error of judgement with the last of the mustangs. Rosa named after an old Spanish girlfriend was of a fiery nature as was her namesake. Jess had left her to the end to give himself time to gentle her and get her trust. His theory had worked out amazingly well and as he walked out on that late January afternoon he had high hopes of having her green broke before the week was out.
For some reason Hicks was making himself useful for once and had the mare all saddled up and ready for Jess to get up.
It was a bitterly cold day and as Tommy and Beth straddled the corral fence Jess noted that they were well bundled up against the bitter easterly. There had been a frost in the night and the rock-hard ground glistened in the early afternoon sunshine.
Hicks led Rosa over and said, “Come on then Harper lets git on with it shall we, sooner you get this little lady seeing sense sooner you can be away and out of my hair.”
Jess threw him an icy glance and then went over and patted Rosa’s neck gently, receiving a little whinny of welcome and after a moment he hopped lightly into the saddle.
He was totally unprepared for what happened next, the young horse seemed to almost explode, bucking and rearing such as she hadn’t done since the day she was first captured. Sure, she had been a feisty ride, but Jess was convinced that she now trusted him and would behave accordingly.
She tore around the confines of the corral before finally losing her footing falling badly and throwing Jess off and into the corral fence. There was a sickening thud as he made contact with the top of the fence, catching him full in the ribs before he crumpled and fell to the floor. He rolled on his side, bringing his knees up and clutching his torso giving a yell of pain and cussing loudly.
Hicks gave a bark of laughter and wandering over snarled, “So much for your fancy horse whispering huh Harper?”
Jess smelled the strong drink on him and cussed again, “Get the hell out of here Hicks you’re drunk!”
Hicks ignored him and marched off to his office in the barn, where Jess knew he had a stash of grog hidden away.
“You’ll keep,” he muttered as he tried to get up.
Beth was at his side in moments and hauled him up and young Tommy caught Rosa, who was now standing, looking docile blowing gently through her nostrils.
“What in hell was all that about?” Jess asked looking puzzled, he couldn’t have been so wrong about her, she was pretty much green broke, why in hell would she take off that way?
Then he felt a wave of dizziness and clutched hold of Beth for support.
“You’d better come in the house with me and I’ll patch you up,” Beth said. “Ma and Pa have gone to town, but I know what to do,” she said looking at the badly torn, blood stained shirt.
“Are you OK putting Rosa up Tommy?” Jess asked not really wanting to leave the youngster with the recalcitrant animal.
“Sure, she’s just fine now Mister Jess, look,” he said fondling her ears, “sweet as a nut.”
Jess shook his head, “I just don’t get it?”
“Never mind that now come inside and I’ll bind up those ribs,” said Beth, “I shouldn’t be surprised if you’ve not broken some,” she continued, sounding remarkably like Daisy so Jess thought, with the glimmer of a smile.
It was half an hour or so later and Beth had bound up his ribs which were so dang painful Jess could well believe they were busted or at least cracked. They were sitting in the kitchen sharing a pot of coffee when Tommy came running in.
“You’ll never guess what I found under Rosa’s saddle Mister Jess, look,” he said passing over a large sharp burr.
Jess just stared at it in consternation, “No wonder she took off that way!”
Then he suddenly remembered Hicks saddling her up and the sly look in his eyes as Jess mounted.
He was up and out of the kitchen in a split second and marching across the yard he banged his way into the barn and then through the open office door at the back of the large building.
“Knock can’t you Harper,” Hicks said, not looking up from his desk.
Two seconds later Jess grabbed him up by his shirt and threw him against the wall.
“Harper, what on earth do you think you’re doing?” cried Hicks, “Get out of my office!”
Jess smashed a fist into the ramrod’s smug face sending him reeling.
“What in God’s name was that for?” he yelled looking up from where he was now sprawled in the dirt, looking shocked to the core.
“You know dang well what that was for,” Jess spat. “And if I find you anywhere near any of my horses again you’ll get the same.”
“Don’t you mean Mister Sutton’s horses Harper or had you forgotten you’re just a paid hand same as the rest of us?”
“I break ‘em they’re my responsibility. No matter who owns them and like I say just butt out Hicks iffen you know what’s good for you,” and he strode out of office without a backward glance and went to saddle up Traveller.
All he wanted to do right then was get the hell out of the dang place. It was now late Friday afternoon and he was going to town for the weekend to see his girl and take some well-earned time out. Hell, he hadn’t been off the ranch since he arrived several weeks ago and he felt like he was going stir crazy. Plus, he didn’t trust himself around Hicks right now either. His meddling had probably set his work with Rosa back a couple of weeks, garldarn it.
A few minutes later Lenny came across from the ranch house.
“Where are you off to Jess?” He asked looking surprised to see the cowboy up on his mount seeing as Beth had just said he’d had a real bad fall.
“To town, back Monday,” he said succinctly.
“Er, Mister Sutton won’t like that Jess, he don’t like us going into town weekends in case we get in trouble a fight or somethin’.”
Jess scowled, “Well he don’t own me body and soul and iffen he don’t like it I really don’t give a damn,” and he rode off at speed.
Chapter 8
Millie was delighted to see Jess as he strode in through the batwing doors of the saloon, but she soon surmised all was not well with her man.
She had hardly seen him since New Year and in just a few short weeks he had lost weight and had that mean edgy look that she remembered so well from times past.
“Jess honey what is it?” She said as he leaned on the bar like it was the only thing holding him up.
He managed to rally and gave her a good approximation of a carefree smile, “Nuthin’ sweetheart, just kinda beat. So how about a beer and maybe some company later huh?”
Millie wasn’t fooled at all, but simply brought his beer over and after a moment said, “You eaten?”
He shook his head, “I ain’t hungry right now.”
She could see the pain etched around his mouth and in his eyes, but knew better than to say anything, all in good time she thought to herself.
“So how’s it going at the Sutton place, I figure you’ve been kinda busy, seeing as you haven’t been by?”
“Aw Mill, don’t give me a hard time. I’ve been working my dang butt off breakin’ those dadgum flea bitten nags for old man Sutton. I ain’t had a moment to myself, let alone to get to town.”
“Oh I know,” she said coolly, “Beth Sutton has been regaling us all at the Women’s Group about the amazing feats of the amazing Jess Harper, breaking all those big bad horses.”
“Aw, Mill give us a break...she’s a nice kid, but come on...”
“Alright,” she finally said throwing him a kindly glance, “I know you haven’t been fooling around with her, as much as she’d like us all to believe differently.”
“OK...I admit it, she did come on to me,” Jess said, beginning to feel he was losing the will to live. “But I threatened to set her Ma on her and that seemed to do the trick.”
Millie couldn’t help herself and she burst out laughing before reaching across the bar and kissing him gently on the lips, “I do love you so,” she whispered.
“You do?” Jess asked looking a little surprised, “So I get a bed fer the night then?”
She nodded and then looked at him again, he was pale and the hand holding the beer was shaking slightly and she finally noticed the torn bloodstained shirt as his jacket fell open.
“Yes,” she said softy, “and sooner than you thought too Jess I think you’d better come up now.”
He knocked back the last of his beer and was just about to say he was fine when the room started spinning and he figured that a beer on a very empty stomach, along with blood loss was not an ideal combination and he followed her out the back.
She had taken him to her room and helped to undress him, but when he had pulled her close for a kiss she had pushed him gently away.
“I have to go back to work Jess, later?” and she went out leaving him feeling utterly drained and knowing that he probably wasn’t up to making love anyway, the way he was feeling right then.
When he awoke an hour or so later he saw Doc Sam’s kindly dark eyes smiling down at him.
“Looks like you’ve been in the wars Jess, Millie was worried so I popped over, let me take a look see huh?” He asked nodding at Beth’s rather inept bandaging.
Jess shook his head, “I’m OK Sam was just an unlucky fall is all, bruised some, I’ll be fine.”
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that Jess?”
“Because I can’t dang well pay ya Sam, that’s why,” Jess yelled suddenly feeling frustrated and embarrassed too.
“Heck buddy when has that ever bothered me?” Sam said looking hurt. “A few of your tasty fish from the lake next time we go fishing is all the payment I expect you know that, don’t you?”
Jess shrugged, “Sorry Sam I guess I’m feelin’ kinda thin-skinned about money right now.”
Sam sat back, “Well I’m not surprised you’ve had a rough ride, what with Peterson not paying you for all your stock, that’s a heavy burden for any ranch to bear, I’m really sorry Jess. Now come on, you need to be checked over don’t you… so how about it huh?”
Ten minutes later Sam told him his findings and it wasn’t good news.
“I’m sorry Jess two ribs cracked and a third broken I think that must have been one hell of a fall. Anyway, my prognosis is that you’ll need to rest completely for a couple of weeks and then light duties for another five or six and certainly no ‘bronco busting,’ as you term it.”
“What! Are you crazy Sam, I’ve gotta finish this job or I won’t get the bonus.”
“So the money is worth more than your health? You fall again Jess it could be dangerous. That broken rib could pierce a lung and that’s it...need I say more?”
Jess shook his head, “It’s a gamble I’ve gotta take Sam, I ain’t got no choice.”
“There’s always a choice Jess, think about it please....”
Jess stayed in Millie’s bed for the rest of the weekend, although as he told Slim ruefully later there was little activity except for him sleeping, waking, cussing and sleeping again.
On the Monday morning he dragged himself up and dressed slowly whilst Millie sat up in bed watching him anxiously.
“It’s still early,” she said, hoping to tempt him back to bed where she could once more try and talk him out of going back to the Sutton place.
However, Jess was adamant and as tempting as it was to just relax back in his girl’s arms, he had a job to do.
“I’ve gotta go Mill, old man Sutton ain’t too keen on us coming to town and I guess there’s no point in riling him by turning up late. Don’t worry sweetheart, I’ve only got Rosa to bring into line and then I’m all done and can get back home.”
Millie gave him a faint smile, “Well if you named the filly after that tramp Rosa you dated once I reckon she’ll take more than a little sorting out.”
Jess chuckled, “Yup she was a feisty one that’s fer sure.”
“Feisty, she shot you Jess!”
“Yeah well this little filly is good as gold now, well she will be with a little more time and effort,” he said honestly.
Millie shook her head and watched as he buttoned up his pants and then strapped on his gun belt, noticing how slow and deliberate his actions were, almost as though each tiny movement was a huge effort.
She looked away quickly, tears forming in her eyes, hating to see him hurting this way, but knowing arguing with him was useless.
He advanced on the bed and kissed her tenderly on the top of her head. “I should be through by the end of the week. How about me and Slim riding in and taking you and Lily out to supper huh?”
She nodded, still looking down.
She didn’t move and he put a gentle finger under her chin, tipping her face up towards him, seeing the glint of tears in her beautiful eyes.
“Millie, don’t,” he whispered, “it’ll be OK you’ll see.”
Then he bent down and kissed her very lightly on the lips before standing up and turning away. He grabbed his hat from the hook by the door and was gone.
Millie lay back down a finger brushing her lips and then let the tears silently fall.
It was still very early as he strode down Main Street making for the livery, a dusting of snow on the ground and the first fingers of dawn light filtering down between storm clouds.
Then in the distance he saw a loan rider coming unhurriedly down the deserted street.
Jess stood stock still as the tall rangy man on the big horse came slowly towards him and reined in.
“Howdy pard, I hear you’ve been getting in some trouble huh?”
“Slim! Jeez Slim it’s real good to see you,” Jess exclaimed.
Slim slid down from the saddle and shook hands and then pulled his buddy into a warm hug, but pulled back quickly when Jess winced in pain.
Slim looked down at Jess’s chest, “Ribs busted?” He asked.
“One, a couple cracked,” Jess agreed.
“Sam told me you weren’t any too good, but you know him and his ‘professional etiquette,’ wouldn’t go into details.”
“You’ve seen Sam?”
“Yup he rolled in yesterday for an hour or so of Sunday fishing and said you were none too well, could use a friend right now huh?”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Jess agreed as the men fell into step making for the livery to collect Traveller.
As they walked Jess filled Slim in on all that had been happening over at the Sutton spread culminating with the stunt pulled by Dave Hicks causing Jess’s bad fall.
“So you decked him,” Slim said turning to look at his buddy.
“Of course,” said Jess with a grin, “what do ya think?”
“I think you should have gone to Mort,” Slim said seriously, “the guy could have killed you.”
Jess shook his head, “I really wouldn’t have thought it of him. Yeah, he’s always been kinda superior thinkin’ he’s a cut above everyone just because he’s a darned ramrod...but this? I guess he was real worried I’d take his job. He’s finished Slim... lost his nerve and is drinkin’ all hours too...he knows it’s only a matter of time before he goes. But I figure he thought he’d buy himself some time if he discredited me.”
“So what did Will Sutton have to say about it all?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno, I lit out before he came back from town.”
“And has he asked you to replace Hicks, when he finally goes?”
Jess looked uncomfortable and then disclosed everything that Lenny had told him, about keeping Jess there so Sutton’s men could have the pick of the prime mustangs and then get Jess to break them for the military and thereby gain the contract.
“I’d get wages, but effectively you and me would lose the army contract.”
“The conniving old dog,” Slim spat looking furious.” Hell Jess, we’ve been neighbours for years and then he tries to bring me to my knees, knowing full well we wouldn’t survive at the ranch right now without that contract.”
“Don’t I know it...but let’s just wait until the job’s done and we’ve got the cash in the bank before we let on we know all this huh? Lenny told me in confidence and Sutton thinks I’m just some hick Texan that he can use...well he’ll learn, but when the times right...huh Slim.”
As they rode out towards the Sutton place Jess turned and grinned at his partner, “So you never said what you were doing out here.”
“Well its obvious isn’t it? I’m going to finish breaking the mustangs for you. Doc Sam did say it could be a death sentence iffen you had another bad fall Jess, even though he wouldn’t elaborate, but you have to listen up and take notice.”
Jess still looked stubborn, “So who’s mindin’ the store then?” He asked throwing Slim a quizzical glance.
“Mike and Daisy have come up trumps doing most of the yard chores. Daisy’s even proving to be a dab hand with grooming the horses. The Jackson boys said they’d come over for the heavy stuff and Mose and the guard promised to change the teams for the next week or so.”
“Looks like you’ve got yourself a job as horse breaker then,” Jess said with a relieved grin.
“It won’t take too long anyway, Sam was telling me you’ve just about sorted out the last one?”
“Yup, old Rosa, she was kinda difficult, but I think we understand each other now,” Jess said with a playful grin.
Slim did a double take, “Oh really... don’t tell me you called her after your Rosa...now there was one hell of a difficult woman.”
“Aw Slim she weren’t that bad.”
“The hell she wasn’t... she shot you Jess!”
They rode into the Sutton ranch half an hour later and as they reined in and tethered their mounts old man Sutton came briskly out of the house.
“Jess my boy,” he said looking apologetic, “how can I begin to make amends I’m just so sorry.”
Jess slid down from the saddle one protective hand across his chest and gave Sutton a hard look. “You heard then?”
“But of course, dear Beth was beside herself when we came back from town, said you’d been really badly hurt, what can I say?”
Jess shook his head, “Nuthin’ to say Mister Sutton, I’ve got a job here to finish and iffen you’re OK with Slim taking the last ride, then we’ll get to it.”
Sutton cast Slim a rather embarrassed smile, “But of course good to see you Slim,” he said jovially.
However, the look Slim threw him was enough to curdle the milk Jess thought, hiding a smile.
Sutton put it down to Sherman being justly concerned about his partner and let it go.
“But of course, just that grey filly I think and then all done yes?”
Jess nodded, “Yup just Rosa left, all the others are green broke now. Once we’ve got her confidence back I figure it should be an easy enough job, take a day maybe two.”
“Yes, of course,” said Sutton turning back to the house, but then he turned back. “Oh by the way I fired Hicks on the spot after Tommy and Beth told me what had happened, maybe we can talk about the implications of that later Jess?”
Jess just gave him a curt nod and turned to go fetch Rosa.
As predicted it didn’t take long to get the little filly back on track and by the following evening Jess and Slim were ready to head home with the job completed satisfactorily.
Slim noticed that Will Sutton had been watching his pard carefully. Seen that he’d spent time looking out for all the horses he’d worked on over the last few weeks and even if he wasn’t well enough to ride he had certainly carried on giving his all, just as Will Sutton knew he would.
He was a darned good horse breaker and wouldn’t make a bad son in law either he thought as he watched him sharing a joke with his beloved Beth. Maybe once he was on the payroll he would forget all that silly romance with Millie Johnson and marry into the family, making money for them all at the same time, he thought with a huge smile.
But how was he to put the proposition to Jess though? It didn’t look like young Mathew Sherman was about to leave anytime soon, as Will thought of the young blond rancher from his childhood days. So he’d just have to brazen it out and see which way the wind was blowing with Harper.
Now the men were standing in the yard, Beth having ridden Rosa around the corral several times saying she was the sweetest ride and could Pa keep her please?
“Looks like you’ve done a real good job Jess, you too Slim and I appreciate you stepping in this way. Now if you don’t mind I have a little personal business to discuss with Jess here.”
Jess pocketed the cash for the work and then turned to Sutton with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“It’s OK Mr Sutton, Slim and I are good friends and business partners as you know, so I guess there ain’t anything you can say to me that you can’t say in front of Slim here.”
Sutton looked really uncomfortable but taking a deep breath rallied and said, “Alright Jess I guess you know what I’m asking, I want you to work for me full time and take on the job of ramrod and horse breaker, so what do ya say...huh?”
Jess paused for a moment looking across to Slim and then back over to Sutton and said in his deep gravelly voice, “I’ll tell ya exactly what I’ve told ya in the past Mister Sutton. I am a partner in the Sherman Ranch and Relay and there is no place else I want to work. I appreciate you takin’ me on and now the jobs done I’ll be goin’ home.”
Then Slim turned his full fury on Sutton.
“I really thought we were good neighbours Will, you knew my Pa and me and Andy, we had a real good relationship...Like the time I let you use my lake in that drought...but I guess, neighborliness means something different to you? But I sure as hell know me and Jess don’t appreciate being hoodwinked this way.”
“Huh, what are you saying Slim?”
“You know dang well Will! Using our financial difficulties to keep Jess working here while your men go off and pick up all the prime mustangs come the spring. Then use him to pick up the Army contract. You know that would cripple us right now! Have you no conscience? You’re no better than Hicks putting Jess through Hell for your own ends.”
Sutton took a deep breath and then said quietly, “I’m sorry you both see it that way...and yes maybe I have been rather overzealous...but I only want the best for me and all here at my ranch.”
“So do we Mister Sutton for all at the Sherman place,” Jess said quietly, “and like I’ve said before, it’s called loyalty. No matter how hard it’s gonna be for me and Slim we’ll make it in the end,” and with that both men mounted up and rode out without a backwards glance.
When they arrived home, Mike came tearing out to meet them, Blue and Buttons barking shrilly and finally Daisy, wiping her hands on her apron and beaming delightedly at her two eldest ‘sons’.
“My goodness you’re back already,” she said in delight, “Mike and I weren’t expecting you for another few days.”
Jess had dismounted and now he turned as though to get back up, “Oh well iffen you’re coping so well without us I guess we’ll mosey on back to the Sutton place huh Slim?”
“Oh don’t you dare,” Daisy said grabbing hold of his arm and pulling him back.
Jess embraced her and then ruffled Mike’s hair forgoing his usual antics of throwing the boy about in the air and catching him as was his usual way when arriving home after a long absence.
“Doc Sam said you were kinda sick Jess, are you alright,” the boy asked now looking concerned and aware that Jess was much more subdued than usual.
“OK, Tiger, gettin’ there anyway,” he said honestly, one hand straying to his painful ribs.
“Well you boys come away in and rest up some before supper, you both look worn out,” said Daisy kindly.
During supper they discussed their plans as to how they were going to survive the current financial predicament.
“Well I sure ain’t headin’ back to the Sutton place anytime soon,” Jess said firmly, “and I guess I’ll be mustanging early this year too, get in before Sutton’s men go looking.”
“I doubt he’ll bother now he knows he’s not got you on side Jess, he hasn’t got a chance of getting the army contract without you,” Slim said gravely.
“I guess we’ll just have to ride it out until the money comes in from the spring round up and the army contract then,” said Jess.
“Well I can run a very tight ship if I have to,” Daisy volunteered. “We may have to give up a few luxuries like my home baking and just mend broken equipment, patch and patch again all our clothes instead of buying new, that’s really not a problem for me.”
“Thanks Daisy, I appreciate that,” said Slim patting her hand. But Jess remained silent thinking life without Daisy’s pies might just be a step too far.
Mike had run off to his room and returned with his piggy bank. “I’ve got ten dollars and twenty-two cents saved,” he said proudly. “You can have it all Slim and I won’t have any treats of candy or comics either,” he said steadfastly, although all the adults could see what a great sacrifice this was. Jess was all for telling him that the small amount would still be OK to spend. But then again, he realised that the boy wanted to feel part of everything and needed to help.
“Thanks Tiger,” Jess said softly, “that’ll be a big help and it’s only for a couple of months, three tops.”
Daisy felt so moved by the youngster’s kindness and Jess’s reaction to it she felt in her apron for a hanky and then her hand came to rest on a thick envelope.
“Oh Slim, I almost forgot, Mose brought this letter for you yesterday, it’s from New York so I believe.”
Slim took it from her and stared at the neat handwriting on the envelope, before slitting it open and quickly perusing the contents.
The others watched him closely as his expression went from polite interest to surprise and then he gave a little gasp of shock, and cussed softly, under his breath.
“Slim?” Said Daisy shocked as the blond rancher never used bad language in front of her.
His eyes flicked across to her and he apologised before looking back down at another piece of paper in his hands that had been attached to the letter.
“Well are ya gonna tell us Slim, or do we hafta start guessing?” Jess asked with a faintly perplexed smile.
Slim said nothing but merely passed the slip of paper across to Jess.
Jess stared down at it and then he too cussed. “Dadgum it Slim, I didn’t know you could write checks for this much money!”
“Boys, please what is it?” Daisy asked now looking from one to the other.
“Er, sorry Daisy, this is a letter from Rev. James Harrison. Remember how he took Green Jack away to be valued?”
“Green Jack...who?” Daisy asked looking puzzled.
“You know that little green carved man that was in with the Christmas decorations, he reckoned it was a Jade Chinese carved piece of some antiquity, could be worth a lot of money?”
Then Jess broke in, “Well he was right dadgum it...looky here Daisy,” and he passed the four figure check over.
“Oh my, oh my,” she said her eyes huge with amazement, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a check for this amount before.”
“Can I see, please?” Mike asked.
Daisy passed it over.
“Gee whizz, that’s a lot of numbers!”
Jess nodded grinning, “And it’s a heck of a lot of dollars too Mike... I have a feeling all our problems have just been solved.”
It was later after supper once Daisy and Mike had retired for the night that the men sat by the fire feeling pretty mellow from celebrating with the last of the Christmas moonshine.
After a while Jess turned to Slim and said quietly, “Of course we can’t keep it all, wouldn’t be right would it pard?”
Slim gave a little sigh of relief, “I’m glad you see it the same way Jess. We have to give James half, after all if it wasn’t for him we’d never have realised that the little guy was an antique, worth thousands.”
Jess nodded, “I agree. Garldarn it Slim even half of that is enough to pay off the mortgage for good, buy in more stock and even buy that parcel of land adjacent to the south pasture and still have change left over for a rainy day.”
“Exactly what I was thinking, but how do we get him to accept it, I really don’t think he will Jess.”
He thought long and hard and then snapped his fingers, “
I’ve got it Slim. Why don’t we make it over to that new mental hospital he was talkin’ about when he was here, the one he said would be ideal for young Chas Dooley when his Pa can’t cope no more? James was sayin’ he was retiring from the seminary next year and going on the board of this here new hospital, fund raisin’ and the like, so they must be in need of cash.”
Slim grinned at him, “And folk say you’re just a dumb gunslinger, but by Jove there is a brain in there, Jess!”
“Aw Slim behave,” Jess said reaching over and giving his buddy a none too light cuff around the ear.
Reverend James T Harrison was finally persuaded to accept the money gratefully on behalf of the New York Mental Institute and the Harper/ Sherman wing enabled people with mental health issues to lead as normal a life as possible with the aid of a team of well-trained sympathetic doctors. The hospital was pioneering in the field of Mental Health, finally bringing the old lunatic asylums to an end once and for all.
It was just two years later that old man Dooley had a fatal heart attack and left to his own devices poor Chas was once more taken over by the ‘voices’ and had to be admitted to the Institute. Doc Sam took the young man under his wing and accompanied him to New York. Once admitted he was regularly visited by James and led a long and productive life there. Aided by excellent medical support he was able to hold down a job and lead a near ‘normal’ life as was possible for him.
Just a month or so after Jess and Slim had left the Sutton ranch for the last time they had a visitor, Will Sutton.
He rode in late one Sunday afternoon, Slim and Jess taking their ease out on the porch and Daisy and Mike staying overnight in town at a Church social.
He tethered his old buckskin near the water trough and made his way stiff legged over to the porch, where both men had risen from their seats looking expectant.
“Will,” Slim said warily, while Jess just looked on, the glint of challenge in his deep blue eyes, wondering if Sutton was here to try and persuade him to change his mind about the ramrod job.
“I guess you’re wondering what I’m doing here,” the older man said removing his hat and looking kind of hesitant.
Blue had come out from behind Jess and gave a warning bark, before Jess told him to hush up and sit, which the big dog did, but reluctantly, sensing an atmosphere.
“Please, come have a seat,” Slim said, his inherent good manners taking over as usual, “Drink? Jess and I were just having a glass of cider.”
Sutton accepted and took Slim’s seat whilst the tall rancher leaned on the porch rail, looking down at his old neighbour keenly.
“Mild for the time of year, but I guess it’s nearly spring,” Sutton said nervously.
Jess sighed impatiently, “You wanted to see us Mister Sutton?”
The rancher turned to Jess and then glanced up at Slim, “Yes...yes I did, I need to apologise, set the record straight once and for all. The underhanded way I tried to get you onto my payroll, so I could get that lucrative contract with the military was way out of order Jess.”
“Particularly as I knew the mess you were in Slim,” he said turning to look at the rangy blond rancher. Then including Jess in his gaze, said, “I’m truly sorry, it was unforgivable.”
“Yes, yes it was,” Slim agreed, and then glancing over to Jess, “but I guess we can accept your apology.”
Jess nodded, “But why now?”
Sutton looked down, “It was something my wife said the other night, about the Christmas sermon Reverend Wesley gave about loving your neighbours. My dear Dory reminded me of it and suggested I should take heed...apologise for being the worst kind of neighbour and said I should change my ways.”
“Sounds like your wife has got uncommon good sense,” Jess said grinning at the old rancher.
Then flashing an amused glance across to Slim turned his gaze back, his quirky eyebrows arching in question said, “More cider Mister Sutton?”
So it was that time moved on, and life was one heck of a lot easier at the ranch as Jess said with the wonderful Green Jack money to help them out. They paid off the mortgage and bought another hundred acres of prime land abutting the south pasture, where some years later Jess finally settled and built his family home.
Over the years if anyone at the ranch came into an unexpected windfall, like a win at cards or a bonus it was always referred to as Green Jack money...unexpected and highly appreciated.
From then on, generations of Shermans and Harpers always referred to this bounty of unforeseen or easily won cash as Green Jack money although the origin of the phrase was lost in the mists of time. Nobody would remember the little green man in the bottom of the Christmas decorations box, in that time so long ago… But one thing they always remembered was to love their neighbours and as Jess had always said, “And to make darned sure the boundary fences were always in good order.”
The End
Thank you for reading & Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to you one and all!

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