#69 Oblivion


By Patty Wilkinson

(Some strong language, violence and adult themes)

As told by Jess Harper & Slim Sherman

Chapter 1

My partner Slim Sherman and I we’re feelin’ pretty beat as we sat around the breakfast table that morning in early fall.
We’d spent the best part of the last three weeks bringing all the stock down from the high ground and checking and double checking all the home pasture fences. Now as we sat enjoying a final cup of coffee before the yard chores we were discussing the idea of a fishing trip over to the lake at the weekend.
Mrs Daisy Cooper our beloved housekeeper beamed over at us as she refilled our cups.
“Well I think you boys deserve a good break after all the hard work of these last few weeks,” she declared staunchly.
“We could take Mike,” I added, knowing that our young ward was always up for a fishing trip.
“Sounds real good to me,” Slim enthused.
I turned to him and then swivelled my eyes to Daisy, “Did ya hear that Daisy, old Hardrock there agreeing to time away from work, am I hearing right?” I asked with a grin, twirling a finger in my ear for effect.
“Oh, come on Jess I love a bit of fishing as well as the next man you know that and I reckon we’ve done all the hard work needed around here for a while. There will be plenty of time to fix that barn roof before the snow when we get home. I’ll get the Jackson boys to cover us for a couple of days.”
I just shook my head laughing, “Well that’s sure good to hear Slim.”
Then I turned to Daisy, “You won’t remember what old Slim here was like when I first moved in. It used to take a stick of dynamite to get him off of the ranch enjoying himself, now he’s nearly as ‘wild and feckless,’ as me!”
“You, wild and feckless?” Daisy asked chuckling.
“Those were old Jonesy’ s words. He was an old buddy of Slim’s Pa who lived here riding shotgun on young Andy and Slim when I first landed. He didn’t rightly approve of me see Daisy, me and my wild Texan ways, said I was leadin’ the Sherman boys astray.”
“Well you did didn’t you,” said Slim reaching across the table and landing a gentle cuff to my head.
“You know Daisy I’d rarely been in a saloon or played poker until I met this guy and look at me now.”
“Well you’ve hardly turned into a gambling drunkard Slim dear,” said Daisy smiling benignly at my pard.
“And you forgot the saloon girls I added, so if it weren’t for me you wouldn’t be dating the lovely Lily would ya?”
“Uh, yeah, well good point Hotshot I figure I owe you that one.”
We were just thinkin’ of movin’ and doin’ some work when we heard a rider coming in fast.

“Now who the heck’s that at this time of day?” Slim said rising.
We went off to the porch, strapping on our irons as we went and a moment later Mort Cory jumped down from the saddle of his big old buckskin and walked purposely towards us.
“Howdy, Jess, Slim,” he said touching his hat in a welcoming salute.
“Mort, so what brings you here in such an all fired hurry?” I asked, grinning at him.
“Business I’m sorry to say boys,” he said looking mighty serious.
“Come on in,” said Slim,” I bet Daisy can find a coffee for you Mort, you look like a man that could use one.”
When we were once more settled around the table Mort turned anxious brown eyes on us both. “See it’s this way, I’ve been riding posse these last few days. Been off after the Corrigan Gang, did you hear they’d turned over the bank?”
“Nope first we’ve heard of it,” Slim said, “so when was this?”
“It was Tuesday this week.”
“Oh well that accounts for it, old Mose Shell’s been off sick all week, and Sam Peters has been drivin’ the Stage. It takes all your time to get a ‘howdy’ out of him, much less the latest news.” I said.
“Uh yeah he is kinda taciturn,” Mort agreed, before continuing his tale.
“Anyways, they struck just before noon and thank God it was quiet, not many customers, but the teller, young Anna Holmes, well she panicked and they done shot her.”
Daisy, who had just joined us, gave a little gasp, of shock. One hand shot to her mouth but she said nothing as she took her place at the table.
“She’s dead?” asked Slim.
Mort just nodded and we were all pretty quiet for a minute taking in this real bad news.
“So they got clean away?” I asked angrily.
“Nope, I was out of town on business, but Lon managed to shoot one of them, the cousin, Pete Corrigan, but Marty and Den got clean away with a substantial amount of cash.”
“To hell with the dang cash,” I muttered, “They’ve got a date with the business end of a rope for this ain’t they Mort?”
“Oh yes, no doubt about that. We have several witnesses; it’s just finding the hoodlums that’s the problem.”
“Well they can’t have gone that dang far,” I said, “so, Lon got a posse up at once?”
“Oh yes, well the best he could do…what with Marty’s reputation it was pretty hard to get any takers to be honest Jess and what we did have, well….”
“Not too good at tracking then?” Slim asked.
“Exactly, I went out again the following day as soon as I got back from Cheyenne and took Lon and old Jody Meriwether…but nothing. Been going around in circles and then...”
“Yes,” asked Slim looking hopeful.
“Seems there’s been a sighting over Rawlins way, they were making for the mountain pass, so I thought I’d ride out.”
“Well that’s one hell of a long way to go,” said Slim, “why can’t the law over at Rawlins deal with it, Sheriff Red Smith, huh?”
“He’s sick apparently, busted leg and needs his Deputy around right now. Well you know what a rough old town that is.”
“Sure, and I’m real sorry to hear that,” I said, Smitty being a good friend.
“So, what are you after then Mort?” Slim asked, his eyes narrowing as he suddenly guessed why the Sheriff was visiting.
Our old friend took a deep breath, “I need some help, from someone that knows how to track and isn’t afraid of a fast gun like Marty Corrigan,” he said looking at us both.
When we said nothing he said gruffly, “I really need a hand here boys for poor little Anna’s memory, so how about it huh? We need to stop ‘em before they get over the mountain and hightail it for the Canadian border.”
Slim nodded, “I can see that Mort, but it’s a big ask wanting us both to go, what about the ranch?”
“Well that’s no problem,” I butted in, “you’ve already got the Jackson boys lined up for the week-end, just get ‘em to come sooner.”
“That’s all very well Jess, a week-end is one thing, but this wild goose chase could go on for weeks, how much do you think that’s going to cost us?” he said crossly.
“Oh no hang on Slim,” said Mort quickly, “I wouldn’t see you out of pocket you know that. Usual rates of a dollar a day. Plus, the bounty on Marty Corrigan is all yours once we apprehend him and that should be quite a substantial amount. Feelings are running real high about this business in town and the Bank will pay top dollar to the folk that can bring the Corrigan Gang in.”
“Hell Mort, I don’t want to sound mercenary,” Slim said at once, “sure we both want to get justice for Anna, but we’ve got the business to think of as well.”
“So, if that’s all covered you’re up for it?” Mort asked eagerly.
Slim glanced over to Daisy who had sat silently throughout the whole debate.
“Daisy, you OK with this, you’ll be alright here?”
She just nodded, “You know I hate you boys being in danger, but Mort is right you have to go, before some other poor young person is killed like Anna … I’ll go and prepare some food for the journey,” and getting up she marched off to her kitchen, her head down hiding the sadness in her old eyes.
“That’s one special lady,” Mort said softly as she retreated and we both nodded in agreement.

It was a few days later that we finally arrived in Rawlins tired and dirty after the long journey. The weather had been terrible with a non-stop downpour the previous day and none of us were in the best of spirits.
After finding Red’s young Deputy Davy Roberts in charge of the office we were quickly directed to Red’s Ma’s place down the street.
Maud Smith answered the knock at the door and her sweet old face beamed in delight when she saw me standing there. Then her gaze moved to encompass Slim and Mort too. “Oh my, what a lovely surprise,” she said clapping her hands in glee. “Come in boys, Sheriff, come in do, Red is in the parlour.”
Red was equally delighted to see us.
“Excuse me for not getting up,” he said giving his leg a rueful look as it rested on a footstool.
Maud had bustled off to make coffee after asking after her dear friend Daisy Cooper. The women folk had become friendly when Daisy had visited, with me, seeking out her long-lost brother Matt Dyson some years ago. See #59 Daisy’s Promise
“So why ain’t you home being cared for your lovely wife?” I asked grinning down at my buddy.
Red smiled back, “Oh Jenny’s been wonderful over all this business and I go home in the evening but spend my days here. This way I can keep an eye on things and Davy can pop by to keep me up to date.”
“Must be real hard for you,” Mort mused, “so how long will you be out of action?”
“Another few weeks I’m sorry to say Mort. So, you are looking for those bastards the Corrigan brothers? Nasty business,” he continued.
“Uh, so there was a sighting?” Mort asked nodding.
“Yup, up the Rawlins Mountain and looked to be heading off towards Cherokee Peak. Then once they get over into Montana it’s pretty much plain sailing up to the border. That’s why I wired you Mort you really need to catch up with them before they go to ground.”
“Oh, dontcha worry Red we’ll get ‘em alright,” Mort said looking real determined.
Then Maud showed up with the coffee and we all relaxed some.
Later that night after we’d booked into the hotel we made straight for the saloon and after sinking a whiskey or two got settled into a poker game.
Well old Slim there was on a winning streak and it was all me and Mort could do to drag him away from the game come midnight.
As we walked back to the hotel I had one arm slung around Slim’s shoulders all of us a tad worse for wear.
“I reckon I taught you how to throw off the traces too dang well,” I laughed as we staggered up the stairs to our room.
“That you did,” Mort chipped in, “he was a pillar of the community until you happened along Jess Harper,” he laughed.
Then added, “and the best dang thing that ever happened to him too, he was way too serious before and I do believe we all need to relax occasionally.”
Well I guess me and Slim were pretty much as relaxed as a pair of skunks, and Mort not far behind. So, the next day we paid for it and it was a pretty sad and sober trio that set off up the mountain.

Chapter 2
We came upon an old campfire at noon the following day and were now descending the other side of Rawlins peak and headed towards Cherokee Peak, all of us constantly scanning the approaching foothills for any sign of life.
As it happened they chose the one moment when our guard was down to strike.
The terrain was really rough with lose rocks and shale banks making the going hard. We were just coming to the bottom of one such bank when Alamo lost his footing and slid down to the bottom scattering pebbles and whinnying in fear as he went.
Miraculously Slim managed to keep his seat but flung himself from the saddle at the bottom of the gully. Then we all reined in to check on his mount that seemed to have come up lame.
Later I decided that the Corrigan Gang must have been holed up in the foothills of the Cherokee range for some time and had been watching us, just waiting to make their move.
The first we knew about it was when a rifle shot rang out, catching Mort in the shoulder. It sent him flying and he hit the ground lying doggo. Then a volley of shots followed and me and Slim grabbed our rifles and hit the deck pretty damn quick I can tell you.
After a minute or so I ran across to where Mort had fallen and covered him as best I could, now exchanging brisk fire with the Corrigan brothers. Then they finally got too damn cocky and the redheaded Den put his head up over the rocks to take careful aim and that’s when I downed him. He fell over the rock he’d been behind and down the forty or so feet to the bottom of the gully and certain death.
That just left Marty Corrigan and he was gonna be mine too I decided. We had history and I sure wasn’t gonna miss the chance of sweet revenge, no siree.
By this time Slim had worked his way around to me and I signaled for him to cover me and stay by Mort as I made a dash for the cover of some nearby rocks. From there I started working my way up the back of the rocky outcrop from where Marty was still firing off pot shots at Slim.
It was in a break from the firing that he heard me cock my Colt and spun around to face me. He made to fire the rifle but saw the colt in my hand and me give him a shake my head.
“Don’t even think about it Marty.”
He glared at me for a good minute and then threw the rifle down.
“I might have known it would be you Harper,” he spat, “never let anything lie do ya?”
“Not when that ‘thing’ happens to be the murder of a good friend’s girl, no I don’t,” I replied.
He sighed deeply, “Know your problem Harper, you’re way too compassionate. You saw that little Meg as a nice kid…but I reckon I just saw a stupid whore who had gotten in my way… Just like that stupid broad in the Bank.”
That just about did it for me I wanted to kill him, there and then. Forget the goddamn trial, he was guilty as sin and we both knew it…So that’s why I agreed to what he said next.
“So, Harper, in the old days they were always speculating as to who was the faster out of us two, care to try your luck then huh? Or is it like they tell it, you’re a no-account rancher now who don’t know one end of a gun from the other?”
“Oh, I figure I can just about remember,” I said quietly and holstering my gun I stood back taking the stance.
“When you’re ready,” I said.
Goddamn it, but he was fast alright, but not quite fast enough. He drew but his shot went wide as he fell backwards, my bullet finding its mark, slamming into his chest and straight through his heart. He staggered a look of shock in his eyes before he fell backwards over the rock, disappearing from my sight. Then seconds later I heard him land with a sickening thud. Holstering my gun, I made my way slowly back down the hill to where Slim and Mort waited.
As soon as I saw Mort it was obvious he was in a bad way. On closer inspection we saw that the bullet had exited through the back of his shoulder, but he had lost a considerable amount of blood, his shirt soaking and stained an ugly dark crimson.
By this time, it was late afternoon, so we decided to make camp and give Alamo and Mort a chance to rest up and recover some.
Whilst I covered the bodies over and set up camp some distance from the scene of the shooting Slim tended to Mort. It wasn’t until I came back from collecting some fire wood that I looked over and saw how pale and sickly he was looking.
Slim sat back on his heels from where he’d been bandaging Mort as best he could and threw me a concerned glance.
Wandering over I set the fire and filled up the coffee pot before sitting down beside the Sheriff.
“Not feelin’ too good then Mort?”
“Been better son,” he whispered, “but I’ll be OK after a good night’s shut eye,” and he settled down to sleep, sighing deeply.
Then a moment later he opened his eyes again and gave me the ghost of a smile, “By the way good shootin’ Jess, I figure that reward’s all yours.”
Once he was sleeping soundly I went and fetched our saddles and bedrolls from where I’d ground hitched our mounts. I’d left them a few yards from the camp along with the dead, knowing the horses would alert us if a wolf or coyote was attracted by the smell of the corpses.
It wasn’t a particularly good place to camp with sparse vegetation for the mounts and no water or shelter for us, but it would do for one night I reckoned.
I passed Slim his bedroll and we made ourselves comfortable beside the fire.
“You want some supper,” he asked raising a questioning eyebrow.
“Nah, all this business has left kind of a bad taste in my mouth Slim,” I said, reaching for the coffee pot and pouring out two cups of the strong brew.
“Me too,” he said quietly and then threw me a speculative look.
“So, what happened up there, he wasn’t shot by your rifle and I heard two shots, almost simultaneously?” he said frowning. Then his eyes opened wide in surprise, “Hell Jess you wouldn’t have killed him in cold blood, so was it a shoot-out…huh?”
I said nothing for a moment, just sat staring into the embers of the fire and then looked across at him.
“Yes… he wanted it and I didn’t see why not.”
“Damn it Jess are you crazy!” he exploded. “He could have gunned you down and then killed me too.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t did he,” I rasped.
He just shook his head, “I just don’t see why you took that risk, when there was really no need.”
“Oh, but there was every need,” I returned, “see I wanted him dead Slim, and I wanted to be the one to finish it.”
“Huh? Jess what are you talking about, you knew the guy?”
“Oh yes I knew him alright,” I said bitterly. “He was a filthy killer who had no regard for human life Slim and the world will be a dang sight better place without him.”
“Well that’s a given, he was going to swing anyway, remember Jess?”
I just nodded, “He was yeah I know, but this was kinda personal Slim.”
“Go on,” he said.
“He goaded me, said I was a no-account rancher now, who probably didn’t know one end of a gun from the other anymore.”
“And so you just had to show him did you? “Slim said bitterly. “Darn it Jess I thought you’d gotten over being provoked by folk…could walk away?”
I just shook my head, “Nope it weren’t that Slim, it’s what else he said.”
“He called a real good buddy’s girl, Meg, a ‘stupid whore’ who got in his way. He felt the same about young Anna Holmes too …that’s what really got to me. He killed ‘em both Slim, without an ounce of guilt or shame, that’s what I couldn’t stomach.”
His eyes were now full of compassion, “Want to tell me?”
I sighed deeply and then told him all about that time back in Texas. Even then the Corrigan brothers were running wild. Meg had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time when they were shooting up the town…or so it seemed. But I’d been there, seen him turn and deliberately shoot her and everyone knew she’d turned down his advances in favour of my buddy Chas Long…who she had just become engaged to.
Slim sucked in a deep breath, “So what did you do?”
I shrugged, “I was only a kid myself, in my teens, ‘twas just before the war and everything was real chaotic…Marty went to earth and I couldn’t find him. I told the law everything I’d seen…but,” and I stopped, just staring into the fire remembering those dark days.
“The Sheriff brought him to justice?”
I gave a bitter laugh at that…
“Nope he was corrupt Slim. He took a backhander from Marty’s Pa; the whole business was hushed up and it was suggested I leave town or have a spell in the cells as a trouble maker. And as for Chas, well he was in pieces…ended up takin’ his own life.”
Slim shook his head in disbelief, still finding it hard to believe that these dishonest lawmen existed, although he knew in his heart that they did. And then the repercussions of a young man taking his own life…Jeez that was bad.
“And then, what happened?”
“And then I went to fight a war and when it was over Marty had disappeared. Some said he’d perished in the war, others said he’d skipped over the border to Mexico and so I let it slide, until today that is…”
“No one can blame you for what you did Jess,” he said softly. “I’m just dang glad that you’re still up to speed.”
Then looking thoughtful, “How come you’re still so dang fast and why? I thought you’d put all that fast gun-play behind you Jess, now that you’re settled at the ranch. Marty had one hell of a reputation, like his cousin Pete and I figure you couldn’t have outdrawn him unless you were well practiced, real well practiced?”
I flushed up at that, “I keep my hand in,” I said quietly.
“I’ve never seen you, working on your draw,” he said looking real concerned now.
“Nope you wouldn’t, I’d never do that sorta thing around the ranch, sure wouldn’t want Mike to catch me, you neither.”
“Then why Jess, why do it?”
“I have to Slim, in case someone comes looking for me, folk from my past wanting to settle a score. Or just try me… to see if I’ve lost my touch. And sure, I walk away when I can…but it ain’t always possible. So, which would you rather, me put down my iron for good and get killed, or keep up to scratch huh?”
He just shook his head sadly. “I just hoped that things could be easier for you now Jess, after all these years, hoped you could settle down without this constant threat.”
“I will someday Slim, I believe there will be a time when all those low life hoodlums are dead and gone and, on that day, I’ll put this old gun away for good, I promise you that, but until then…” and I just shrugged.
After a moment he reached across and punched me gently on the arm, “Well I’ll tell you what Jess, I’m real glad you were up to it today, that’s for sure,” and grinning he topped up our coffee cups.
I sipped my coffee, thinking to the future and was dang glad that Marty’s cousin, Pete Corrigan, was in the jail. Jeez even I didn’t wanna face him. See the thing was, everyone thought Marty was the fast gun of the outfit…and sure he was fast…but Pete… well he was something else…and on that scary thought I settled down for the night.

The following morning Alamo was looking in pretty good shape, the strained muscle seeming to have settled down, which was more than could be said for Mort.
Slim cooked up some beans for breakfast, but Mort couldn’t manage anything and he now looked grey and pretty frail.
Slim checked on the wound, but it was still bleeding some and we both figured Mort needed a doctor and as soon as dang well possible too.
We were about half way down the Rawlins Peak, heading for town with Mort leading the way. I followed on and Slim brought up the rear leading the two outlaw’s horses with their grisly cargo. I was just thinkin’ of stopping and taking a break when I saw Mort begin to slide from the saddle and spurring Traveller on was just able to come alongside and catch him as he fell in a dead faint.
Slim was there beside me in seconds and we carefully laid Mort down and offered a canteen, when he came around a few minutes later.
“Uh, what’s going on?” he whispered once he’d sipped some water.
“You passed out Mort, Jess here just managed to catch you.”
“The Hell I did, garldarn it,” he spat angry at his own weakness.
“That’s a real nasty wound,” Slim continued, “I figure one of those big blood vessels has been nicked Mort and you really need a doc to tend it and rest up a spell.”
“Well what am I doing down here then?” he said irritably, trying to get up, but Slim pushed him gently down again.
“Easy Mort,” he said quietly, casting me an anxious glance.
“Look Mort you won’t like this, but I figure we’re gonna have to ride double,” I said, “because like it or not you’re real wore out right now and it don’t look like you’re gonna get better anytime soon.”
“I’m OK goddamn it,” he drawled.
“Mort, just give in gracefully,” Slim said, “it’s Jess’ job to be the ornery one when he’s sick, remember?”
This made Mort chuckle, which ended in a coughing fit. But once he’d recovered he nodded.
“OK but we ride my Buck, he’s a tough ol’ critter will manage two up OK?”
And so it was that we entered town late that afternoon, with me riding Buck and Mort lying back against me as he sat drifting in and out of consciousness.
I’d tied Traveller’ s reins and he plodded on behind me, with Slim leading the Corrigan’ s mounts bringing up the rear.
Slim delivered the dead men to the Sheriff’s office for identification and then on to the undertakers whilst I took Mort over to Doc Potts. He was a great old guy and soon had Mort settled in his hospital bed at his office and promised we could visit in the morning.

Chapter 3
“I feel kind of bad leaving Mort there,” Slim said as we rode out of town a couple of days later.
“Well he’s in real good hands Slim, Maud Smith will spoil him something rotten and the Doc says he’ll be OK to come home in a week or two.”
“Yeah, but, you know…”
“Sure, I’m worried about him too, but he’ll be just fine. So, did you wire Daisy and say we were on our way?”
“Uh, yes I did Jess, but you know I’ve been thinking…”
“Um, how’s about we stop by the lake on our way home, just get a day’s fishing before winter, what do you say? I told Daisy it would be a few days before we made it back.”
I just stared at him, before a broad grin crept over my face, “Iffen I didn’t know better I’d swear you were turnin’ into me, hell yup why not pard!”
Well that was one of the most fun times we’d had in one heck of a long while and I was to look back on it with longing in the dark days that were to follow.
We arrived at the lake early one morning, the weather having taken a turn for the better and we were enjoying a late Indian summer. As we dismounted the sun sparkled on the waves of the crystal-clear water and beyond the snow-capped mountains gave a promise of the winter to come.
It wasn’t long before we’d made camp, had the fishing gear out and were settled on a rocky outcrop on the lake shore. The sun beat down and I had removed my boots, dangling bare feet in the water, my shirt off and hat tipped back, feeling as happy as a clam.
It was nearly noon and I was just debating whether or not to have a swim, when Slim nudged me in the ribs, “Company,” he said.
Looking up I saw a horse and rider making their way slowly around the perimeter of the lake. As they came into view we were able to make out a slight figure, dressed in buckskin and soon recognised Kate Munroe.
“Now what’s Kate doing down the mountain?” Slim said quietly.
“Dunno, but I figure she’s gonna tell us,” I replied as I stood up and mooched along the shore line to meet her.
Moments later she jumped down from her buckskin and marched over to me offering a hand and beaming at me.
We shook hands and she stood back arms akimbo and scrutinized me, “Why Jesse Harper you look just like you used to back on the panhandle, a little barefoot kid fishing at the creek,” she chuckled. Her deep blue eyes sparkled in merriment and the sun shone on her remarkable white blond hair, making her look way younger than her middle years.
Then Slim joined us, “Hey Kate it’s good to see you. So, has old Denver let you off the mountain?” asked Slim referring to Kate’s distant cousin the mountain man and Moonshiner Denver James.
“Tsk, let him try and stop me boy,” she said staunchly. “I ain’t beholden to any man you know that Slim Sherman, least ways that idler Denver.”
“OK Kate simmer down, Slim was just funnin’ ya,” I said, “so how is the old devil eh?”
“Oh, he’s just fine Jess. Him and the boys busy on the Thanksgiving batch. I take it he can put you boys down for the usual order of a couple of bottles?”
“You bet,” said Slim grinning at her, “so what are you doing off the mountain then Kate? Have you come to do a spot of fishing, we’d be glad of your company.”
“Well that’s right neighborly of you Slim. But see the thing is I’ve just been to town and Lon told me Mort was real sick over in Rawlins, so I thought I’d mosey on up there, check him out.”
It was a well-known fact that Mort and Kate were close, real close and so this didn’t surprise me.
“Well I’ll tell ya Kate he was bushwhacked by those bastards the Corrigan brothers and caught a bullet through the shoulder,” I said.
She winced at that, “Bad?”
“He was,” Slim confirmed, “but old Doc Potts sorted him out and now he’s recuperating at Ma Smith’s place, so he’s OK Kate don’t fret.”
She took all this in her stride and then beamed at us again. “I’ll head over there anyways see the old fool home safely.”
Well she sure weren’t kiddin’ anyone and I knew for a fact that she cared for Mort one hell of a lot. Jeez, I figured iffen she ever decided to give marriage a go one last time then it would be with Mort.
Anyway, we chatted for a while longer and then she went on her way and we got back to the important business of fishin’.
But what she’d said to me made me really think and I suddenly had a vision of the little ten-year old me, barefoot, dressed in rags and sitting at the edge of the creek feeling so dang happy I could burst. Sure, I had a tough childhood, Kate could vouch for that having been a real close friend and neighbour of Ma and Pa, but I sure was happy when I was off fishin’ or hunting…just like now.
I turned to Slim and shared my thoughts with him. “I’ve had some real difficult times between that time Kate was recalling when I was a kid and now. But it feels like it’s gone full circle ya know? I figure I’m as happy and contented sitting with this ol’ fishing line as I was back then as a ten-year old nipper.”
Slim grinned at me, “I can just see you, barefooted; with the seat out of your pants and a runny nose,” he chuckled.
“Yeah, well I didn’t know any different so it didn’t bother me,” I said defensively.
“Hey I’m just kidding you,” he said with a playful punch.
Then more thoughtfully, “It sure would be good if life could all be plain sailing, just as uncomplicated as it was when we were kids.”
I nodded “You’re not wrong there pard.”
“Uh, but I reckon it’s all that bad stuff in between that’s shaped us though, made us into the men we are today,” he went on.
“Yeah, well I could sure have done without some of my bad stuff,” I said bitterly, “like bein’ orphaned, half my family burnt alive…not to mention the dang war.”
He nodded absently, “Oh sure Jess, you had more than your share of tragedy, I know that… But you know in a strange way the war made me. I sure wasn’t the same person when I came home as I was when I marched out that morning…a fresh-faced kid and no dang idea about the world to be honest.”
“Uh, yeah, I reckon it was the making of me.”
I just shrugged, “I just wanna forget about it… my past,” I said quietly.
He shook his head and looked intently at me, “Don’t forget it all Jess, the War, your time on the drift…don’t forget it because I figure it’s by looking back a man realizes how far he’s come.”
“Hell Slim you’re getting’ way too serious buddy,” I said really wanting him to lighten up, all this talk of the past getting to me some.
Then reaching down I scooped up some water and threw it at him, he retaliated and before we knew it we were fallin’ about in the shallows tussling and wrestling until we were both soaked and gave up the fishin’ in favour of a swim.
Later that night we enjoyed a good fish supper. Then we sat by the embers of the dyin’ fire sipping a coffee laced with Red Eye and just thinkin’ our thoughts. It had been a great day. Nuthin’ special, just fishin’, tellin’ yarns and laughing at stupid things as only me and Slim could. Now looking over at him I realised what a really good buddy he’d become.
He seemed to feel my gaze on him and said, “I reckon you’re a real strong swimmer now Jess.”
“Uh, no dang thanks to you,” I said giving him a mock scowl.
He laughed then, “I recall that time you bunked off work and Andy was trying to teach you in the creek, you were splashing around and panicking in about four foot of water.”
“Yeah, and you teased me somethin’ fierce,” I retaliated, “never let me dang well forget it did ya?”
He nodded, “Nope that is until I knew the reason why. When I heard that you were chucked in the river down in Texas by the other boys just for standing by your friend Billy, well I felt really awful Jess.” *See #60 Dead and Buried?
I just nodded, “Well you didn’t know did ya.”
“That’s what I mean why didn’t you tell me you nearly dang well drowned Jess? I sure would have been a bit more sympathetic.”
I just shrugged, “I didn’t know you too well back then Slim. I wasn’t about to tell you all my colourful history on just a few months acquaintance.”
“No, I suppose not,” he said quietly, knowing what a real private man I am.
Then he smiled over at me. “Last time we talked about that. The way you were sticking up for your half caste buddy Billy Daniels, you were all set to leave the ranch for good remember?”
“I remember you fired me,” I said with spirit.
“Yeah and you quit as well, just rode off and left me in the lurch with all the dang work,” he replied quickly.
“Jeez, that was a good few years back weren’t it,” I said grimacing…
“I’m sure glad you reconsidered though Jess. So, you made the right decision to stay then?” he asked.
I looked over and grinned at him, “Well what do you think Hardrock?”
He just nodded and returned my smile. We sat on listening to the night-time sounds around us and watching a huge silvery moon rise above the lake and I figure we were both feeling about as contented as a man could be.

The following morning, we broke camp and rode on back to the ranch feeling real good after our break.
We landed home just before noon on the Saturday and as we rode into the yard Mike came tearing out of the ranch house, closely followed by Buttons and Blue barking in welcome.
I threw myself down from Traveller and Mike hurled himself into my arms.
I hugged him close and then picked him up and threw him over to Slim, who carried him off into the house under his arm like an old parcel, Mike laughing with delight. My dog Blue jumping around me and whimpering for attention.
Daisy came out of the kitchen a huge smile on her face and wiping her hands on her apron.
“Well you can certainly tell you boys are home,” she laughed, “the place is bedlam.”
I ushered the now barking dogs out and Slim stood Mike back on firm ground and then we both turned embracing her and apologising for our less than dignified entrance.
“Nonsense,” she laughed, “it really feels like home again now with you two and your wild ways back again.”
“Gee it’s good to have you back,” said Mike sincerely.
Then turning to me asked, “Did ya shoot the bad men, did ya Jess huh?”
I just nodded, never liking to boast about my ability with a gun to anyone, least of all young Mike.
“So, what’s for dinner, Daisy?” I asked quickly changing the subject.
But before she could answer we heard the noon Stage rattling in and went out to change the team.
“Well about dang time, I thought you two had hightailed it over the border and were makin’ a livin’ as lumberjacks,” Mose joshed us as he clambered down from the box.
“Good to see you Mose, so those young Jackson boys behaved themselves did they, looked after you right?” Slim asked with a grin.
“Oh, sure they ain’t bad kids, but I’m real glad you two are back.”
Then turning to me he said, “So did you shoot them Corrigan brothers then Jess, huh?”
I rolled my eyes at Slim and wandered off to get the new team.
“So, what’s up with him?” Mose asked, “I was only askin’.”
Slim grinned at the old timer, “Oh you know what he’s like Mose, he doesn’t like talking about his gun-play…so you been OK then?”
“Fair to middlin’ thankee Slim, that is apart from my rheumatics of course.”
“So, is there any news then Mose?”
“Uh,” he mused for a while and then said, “Oh yeah, I’ve a message for you from your Lily, she’s gone down to Denver.”
“Denver,” I asked coming back with the new team, “so what’s she doin’ there?”
“Her Ma’s been taken bad again, she went yesterday…”
I glanced over at my pard and saw how upset he looked. But after a moment he rallied, “For how long Mose?”
“Huh, oh I see, dunno Slim as long as it takes I reckon. But old Tom is keeping her job open that I do know… She said she’d write.”

It was when I was getting duded up for our usual Saturday night in town that Slim said he weren’t coming.
“Aww come on pard, you can still enjoy yourself even if the lovely Lily ain’t around,” I said grinning at him.
But he just shook his head and said he reckoned he’d have an early night.

I left Traveller at the livery and after jawing with old Bert for a few minutes made my way down Main Street to the saloon.
As I’d hoped Millie was behind the bar and she rushed around and straight into my arms as soon as I walked in.
“Oh Jess,” she said breathlessly, “it’s so good to see you. So, did you…you know, sort everything out in Rawlins?”
I nodded, “All done sweetheart, those dang Corrigan brothers won’t be bothering anyone again.”
“Thank goodness,” and then looking behind me. “So, where’s Slim, is he alright?”
“Yeah, fine, just feelin’ upset Lily ain’t around,” he stayed home.
“Oh, that’s a shame, but you’re here that’s the main thing,” she said looking deeply into my eyes, and I leaned forwards and kissed her tenderly. Before remembering where we were and pulling back real quickly. Looking kinda embarrassed at all the cat calls and bawdy comments from the other drinkers.
“You’d better git back to work,” I said sadly, “and we’ll catch up when you’re through huh?”
“That’s a date,” she whispered throwing me a smouldering look, before returning to her place behind the bar.
I’d just ordered a beer and was looking around to see if there was anyone around interested in a hand or two of poker when Lon, Mort Cory’s Deputy strode in, making straight for me.
He leaned against the bar next to me, looking kinda sheepish.
“Howdy Jess, I hear you nailed the Corrigan boys, Red wired me.”
I just nodded hoping he wasn’t going to ask for chapter and verse as Millie had wandered over and poured him a beer. I really didn’t want her to be privy to my latest killin’. Sure, she knows that’s what I have to do on occasion, but I really weren’t too proud of it and certainly didn’t want her asking about everything that had happened since we’d been apart. Nope I had other plans for the evening and they certainly didn’t include a blow by blow account of my tussle with the Corrigan Gang.
When he shuffled his feet and looked even more uncomfortable I asked him what was bothering him.
He shook his head, “You won’t like it…”
“Try me.”
“Well you know I shot Pete Corrigan, after he robbed the bank, Marty and Den’s cousin?”
“Sure I do, so is he well enough for trial now?”
“Oh sure he’s well enough alright,” he said bitterly.
Something in his tone made me really look at him.
“What are ya sayin’ Lon?” I asked warily.
He gulped and then said, “He escaped Jess.”
“What! When? Goddamn it Lon how’d that happen?” I exploded.
“Duped me Jess, said his wound had opened up and would I call the doc over. Well I knew doc Sam was out on a case, so I figured I’d take a look.”
I closed my eyes and muttered something very rude, before looking back at him. “Don’t tell me. He made a sudden recovery, over powered you and hightailed it off out of town, leaving you tied up in your own jail?”
He just nodded flushing up, “Pretty much yeah.”
I sighed deeply, “So what have you done about it?”
“It happened a few days back and I took a posse out, but with the boss being away I couldn’t leave town for too long.”
“Well I can understand that. But hell, Lon iffen you’re wanting me to go after him, you’re gonna be disappointed…I’m only just home from sorting out the rest of the gang and I really need to get all the winter chores done on the ranch.”
“Oh, heck no Jess I wasn’t meaning for you to do that. It seems he was sighted riding Cheyenne way, so I wired Sheriff Masters, but I just thought you should know…just in case…”
“In case he turns around and comes back to blow my brains out for dispatching his brothers?” I replied.
“Er, yeah, something like that.”
“OK well thanks for the tip off,” I replied, “but I figure he’ll be heading for Mexico if he’s got and sense. Ain’t nothing left for him here now with Marty and Den dead.”
“I sure hope you’re right Jess.”
“So do I,” echoed Millie looking concerned.
“Now see what you’ve done,” I whispered to Lon.
But if I’m really honest that had sorta spooked me too. See the thing is I went way back with the Corrigan Gang and what I knew and most other folk didn’t was that Pete was by far the most dangerous one. Sure, Marty was fast… gee we were pretty evenly matched. But last time I’d seen Pete draw he was way faster than both of us and that kinda worried me.

“Hey sweetheart, it’ll be just fine, you’ll see. I really don’t reckon Pete will be coming back.”
“I suppose not,” and Millie sighed deeply.
“It was late and we were snuggled up on the old couch in her room, a glass of Red Eye each, and sitting in front of a crackling fire.”
“Anyway, this ain’t like you Mill, when did you start worrying about me huh?”
She shrugged, “I’m sorry Jess it was just something Kate said the other day when she was in town.”
“Oh? Yeah, I met her yesterday over by the lake, on her way to Rawlins to see Mort.”
“That’s right, he was hurt real bad wasn’t he Jess?”
“Yeah, but he’s a tough guy, take more than a shoulder wound to stop ol’ Mort for long.”
“I know that’s what I said.”
“But Kate said different?”
“Um, she just said everyone’s luck has to run out sometime and it kind of got me thinking.”
I snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her close, “Well don’t. Worryin’ never helped anything. Besides I’ve got nine lives ain’t I? And they don’t come no tougher than Mort, so quit your frettin’ and come here,” I said softly.
Then drawing her even closer my lips brushed hers and after a moment she responded and then we were kissin’. The kissin’ gettin’ hotter and hotter until after a little while I picked her up and carried her off to her big old feather bed and I reckon after that the threat of Pete Corrigan was the very last thing on our minds.

Chapter 4
By Monday morning Slim and me figured we couldn’t put off the barn roof repairs any longer.
“It’ll only take a reasonable fall of snow and those damaged timbers will collapse Jess, we’re going to have to replace all the area directly over the right-hand side of the hay loft.”
“Oh great,” I said, “so do we have enough lumber?”
“Sure,” he said grinning over at me, “I ordered some before our trip over to Rawlins. They delivered it out back of the barn while we were away. So, there’s no excuse for you to go to town and maybe steal an hour or two with Millie, if that’s what you were thinking.”
“Me,” I said throwing him a deeply hurt, innocent look, “never crossed my mind.”
“Sure it didn’t Hotshot,” he said chuckling and aiming a punch at my arm, “sure it didn’t.”
“Come on then,” I said testily, “let’s git to it Slim, sooner we start sooner we finish,” and I can think up an excuse to visit town I thought secretly.
I wandered off to check on the timber and returned a few moments later, “I don’t reckon you’ve bought enough ya know Slim.”
“Sure I have, you want to bet on that then huh?”
It took us the best part of two days to get the job done, but by the afternoon of the second day the work was just about completed.
“Throw over that hammer will you?” he asked as we finally stood back to admire our handiwork.
I chucked it over and he put it in the tool bag and left it over by the ladder ready to take down before throwing in some spare nails and other odds and ends.
“At least the weather held,” I said looking up to where the Indian summer sun was still beating down on us.
I wiped my shirt sleeve over my sweating face and turned to grin at my pard. “I figure this will be sound for a good few years.”
He nodded, “We did a good job Jess,” and he took a step backwards, head on one side admiring the professional finish we were both kinda proud of.
That’s when it happened…As if in slow motion Slim fell backwards over the tool bag left on the edge of the roof. He desperately wind-milled his arms for a few seconds trying to keep his balance before crying out and disappearing back over the edge of the barn roof.
I just stood there helplessly rooted to the spot in horror, before tearing across to the edge of the roof and peering down.
He lay splayed out on his back unmoving and even from that height he looked deathly pale.
I clambered down the ladder and tore over to him, sinking down by his side.
“Slim! Jeez, Slim!” I gasped, putting a gentle hand on his chest.
Then seconds later Daisy was at my side, “I heard someone yell out,” and then she too looked down, a hand shooting up to her mouth, “Oh Jess, he’s not…”
I unbuttoned his shirt and slipped a hand inside over his chest and was rewarded by a good steady heartbeat, if a little fast.
“He’s OK Daisy, come on let’s get him inside.”
It was when I put a hand behind his head to lift it up that I felt the sticky warmth of blood and on investigating further saw a nasty gash to the back of his head, but otherwise he seemed relatively uninjured.
“Gee it’s dang lucky I hadn’t finished tidying up after I cleaned out the barn this morning,” I said to Daisy, “I reckon this big pile of straw broke his fall some.”
I managed to carry my still unconscious buddy into the house and laid him gently on the couch by the window while Daisy rushed off to fetch some water to clean him up.
After a few minutes Slim groaned and opened his eyes.
“Hey pard, how are you feeling?” I asked.
He peered around him looking real puzzled and then turned dazed eyes on me…staring like he’d never clapped eyes on me before.
“Slim are you OK? I asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.
He shrugged me away with a look of …what? Fear…no mistrust in his eyes.
“Hey Slim what’s up?” I asked, moving back a little and studying him carefully.
He glanced at me and muttered, “Matt the name’s Matt. Ma says iffen it was good enough for Pa it’s good enough for me…It’s only real close friends that call me Slim.”
“But I am,” I whispered, “I am a real close friend.”
This was more than just the shock of a bang on the head. He seemed to ignore me and was regarding the room as though visiting for the first time. His gaze lingering on the likeness of his Ma on the mantle and then over to his desk where a pile of papers were waiting on his attention.
Following his line of vision, I said, “Don’t worry about that Slim,” ignoring his rebuke, “plenty of time to tally up the Stage Line figures before the end of the month.”
Then he turned and gave me a hard look.
“That’s Pa’s job,” he said gruffly, “and who the hell are you anyways? Pa never said he was taking on help right now.”
I just stared at him, totally nonplussed. “Huh?”
“You heard me,” he said more loudly trying to sit up, but falling back with a groan, “who are you and where are Ma and Pa?”
I just stared at him again, still feeling totally bewildered, “What’s up Slim, why are you acting this way?” I finally managed. “It’s me, Jess… your buddy…ain’t you seein’ too well?”
He tried to sit up again and this time managed it, “Ma…Pa,” he yelled loudly, “where are you?”
Moments later Daisy rushed in, “I’m sorry Jess I was outside at the pump, I wanted some nice cool water for Slim,” then she stopped in her tracks and looked over at my pard.
“Slim dear, you really shouldn’t be sitting up.”
This was just a step too far for my buddy, “Who are you to tell me what to do?” he bellowed, looking as mad as all get out, “And what have you done with Ma?”
Daisy, being Daisy was totally unfazed and coming over put a cool hand to his forehead. “It’s alright dear, you’re just confused,” she said kindly. “You’ve had a nasty bang to the head and it has unsettled you a little that’s all. Why not take a nap, see how you feel then, um?”
“Nap… Nap, are you crazy Ma’am! I wake up with a head that feels like I’ve been kicked by a mule and find the house full of strangers and no sign of my folk and you want me to take a nap?” he spat.
Then turning to me, “I’m going to ask you one more time, where are Ma and Pa and young Andy huh?” he asked fixing me with a belligerent glare.
Before I could answer we heard the Stage rattling in and hove to outside.
“Well thank goodness for that,” he gasped, “Pa will be changing the team and when he comes in I figure he’ll explain everything,” and he collapsed back closing his eyes, in obvious pain.
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” I whispered to Daisy as we moved away from the couch towards the door. “What the heck’s gotten into him Daisy?”
“I’m not sure dear he could just be confused, maybe concussed. Or it could be more serious, he might have amnesia brought on by the blow to his head.”
“Either way I figure we could use a visit from Doc Sam,” I replied before going out to the Stage.
I was just in time to catch Mike alighting, returning from school and asked him to help me change the team.
Then I asked Mose to get word to Doc Sam Baker to visit.
“Someone sick Jess, it ain’t Miss Daisy is it?” he asked looking worried.
“Nope, Slim had a fall and he’s kind of …er concussed.”
Then looking up at Mose said, “So ask Sam to get here pronto will you Mose?”
Once the Stage had trundled off on its way I turned back to Mike.
“Did ya say Slim was sick Jess?” he asked looking anxious.
“Yeah, look Tiger, Daisy seems to think he may have lost his memory after a fall from the barn roof,” I said wanting to explain as quickly and simply as I could.
His eyes opened wide in shock, “Gee that’s too bad. You mean like that time you lost your memory?” he asked. * See #18 Lost
“Sorta,” I said, “except he seems to know who he is, keeps asking for his Ma and Pa, I couldn’t even remember my name that time I got in the Laramie River and was fished out by strangers.”
“Yeah, but you remembered me in the end,” he insisted, “Maybe Slim will too, if I go say howdy, huh?”
“Well don’t hold your breath Tiger it may take a while and don’t worry if he’s kinda ornery, just remember he can’t help it, he’s just sick...OK?”
“OK Jess I understand,” and he marched off towards the house.
Gee he sure was a good kid I thought, but how would he stand up to this new strange Slim? He had me spooked already and I had a feeling that things would get worse before they got better.
I followed Mike in and as he advanced on Slim I saw my buddy’s face light up, at last I thought letting out a sigh of relief.
“Howdy young ‘un,” Slim said happily, “have you come home with Andy?” Then he looked expectantly past Mike scanning the room for a sight of his kid brother.
Then his face clouded, “Uh-uh, don’t tell me, he’s in trouble again and sent you on ahead to see where Ma and Pa are huh?”
When Mike just stood frozen to the spot a puzzled look in his young eyes, Slim turned back to him.
“Don’t look so worried,” he said kindly, “tell Andy I’ll watch his back like I always do. Anyway, Pa’s out right now so he’s safe to come in. Now don’t tell me, he didn’t do too well in the math test huh?”
I couldn’t stand this any longer and striding over put a comforting hand on Mike’s shoulder.
“Er I figure Slim’s kinda tired Tiger, why don’t you go to your room and make a start on your homework and I’ll be into help ya just now OK?”
He looked from me to Slim and back and sighed deeply, but went off as asked, although looking like the weight of the word was on his shoulders.
Once Mike had gone Slim stared in disbelief at the closing bedroom door.
“Who the heck is that boy, he doesn’t live here. So, what’s going on?” he yelled harshly, as he glared me. “And more to the point why hasn’t Andy or Pa come in?”
“Look simmer down will you Slim all this yellin’ and frettin’ ain’t gonna do you any good.”
I sank down on a chair beside the couch and said softly, “Andy ain’t here because he’s back East in medical school and…”
“Whoa,” he broke in, “now I know you’re lying, Andy’s but a young boy so what’s your game mister why are you feeding me all these lies?”
Then putting a hand to the back of his aching head his eyes narrowed, “Did you do this to me…think you’d kill me and then move in the old woman and kid, take the place over?” Then he looked terribly upset, the colour draining from his face and his hands starting to shake as he looked at me in fear.
“Have you killed my kid brother, Ma and Pa too?”
My head shot up and I stared at him in shocked disbelief.
“Now just a goddamn minute here, hell no of course I haven’t! Heck Slim, Andy’s like kin to me…so are you. For God’s sake man can’t you remember!” I yelled my frustration suddenly taking hold as I shot out of my chair and started pacing around the room, running a hand through my hair before returning and slumping back down where I sat glaring at my pard…why didn’t he recognize me?
Then moments later Daisy was there, “Jess dear that really isn’t helping him, why don’t you go and get the chores finished and wait for the doctor to arrive um?”
I started to rise, but Slim grabbed hold of my arm and dragged me back into my seat, with surprising strength considering his weakened state.
“No, you’re not going anywhere until you come up with the truth about my family, now for the last time, where are Ma and Pa?”
I stared at him for a long minute and then said softly, “I’m so very sorry Slim, but they’re dead, been laid to rest these last ten years or more.”
A myriad of emotions flitted across his face from shock, to disbelief and then fury…
“No!” he yelled his eyes blazing, “You’re lying, they can’t be dead, I don’t believe it!”
I shook my head sadly, “Iffen you don’t believe me you can go up the hill once you’re feeling better. You’ll find then in the family plot Slim. Andy is over in New York in his second year as a student doctor and that’s the truth. If you don’t believe me just ask anyone.
He put his head in his hands then and whispered, “I just don’t understand any of this….”
My heart bled for him and reaching out I squeezed his shoulder gently.
“You’re just sick, Slim, real sick, you fell off of the barn and hit your head badly and that’s caused you to lose your memory. But it’s OK pard, the Doc’s on his way and he’ll fix you up, you’ll see,” I finished, sounding way more positive than I was feeling.
He just frowned up at me and then said quietly, “Well thank God for that, maybe I’ll get some sense out of Doc Johnson,” before he lay back and closed his eyes.

Doc Sam Baker sat by the couch and patiently explained yet again.
“Doc Johnson’s been retired a good few years Slim and I replaced him. And I have to say that not only am I your physician, but also a personal friend.”
Then he cast a look over to where I was leaning on the mantle watching the doc struggling to convince Slim.
“Yup, you, me and Jess there have whiled away many a Sunday afternoon on your lake fishing together,” he said with a warm smile.
Slim looked less than convinced about that, “Not on the Sabbath Doctor, I figure you must be mistaken, Ma would never allow that.”
Sam turned away and raised an eyebrow in my direction, but said no more about our ‘ungodly ways,’ and tried another tack.
“So, your Ma was kind of strict?” he asked with an encouraging smile.
Slim just shrugged, “No more than most, but Ma and Pa are good God-fearing people and we devote our time to the Lord on a Sunday, like most folk around here.”
“Uh, yes of course,” he said quickly.
“So, tell me, if you really are a Doctor that is, why am I laid here with my head aching fit to burst and a gash on my head. What could have caused it? A fall from the barn like that er…Jess is telling me?”
“That is undoubtedly the cause,” Sam confirmed. “Now first things first Slim… can you tell me how old you are?”
Slim frowned at him again and then said, “Seventeen of course, going on eighteen…off to the War real soon doc,” he said proudly.
I must have let out a gasp of shock, because they both turned and looked at me.
Then Slim threw me a hard look, “You look old enough to be fighting, so what are you doing working here huh?”
I just gaped at him and then Sam took his attention.
“Slim, now listen to me, what I’m going to say is going to be real hard for you to accept, but you must if you’re going to get better, understand?”
He just nodded his full attention now on Sam.
Our good friend sighed deeply and then said, “You’re not seventeen Slim, you’re thirteen years older and everything Jess here told you is perfectly true. Your parents are, I’m sorry to say, dead and Andy is studying back East. The War is long over and Jess,” he said nodding to me, “is your closest friend and partner in the Ranch and Relay. Mrs Daisy Cooper acts as Housekeeper here, although she means a heck of a lot more to you all than that…and finally that cute young man Mike is your ward. So, all we have to do now is support you as well as we can, until your memory returns…huh?”
Slim just stared blankly at him and then over to where Daisy and I were watching him, holding our breath and waiting for him to react in some way.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but not the next thing that happened that’s for sure…
Slim turned back to Sam and said quietly, “I want a lawyer. This whole thing is some sort of plot against me and my family…I want Pa’s lawyer, get me Benson.”

Chapter 5
Once I’d finally convinced Slim that I would ride for old man Benson first thing in the morning he seemed to relax some and allowed me to help him into his bed in our shared room.
Then Daisy made him some broth and sat awhile, just chatting quietly to him, until he fell asleep.
Later over supper we discussed the problem in more depth, all of us feelin’ kinda upset by the recent turn of events.
“I just don’t get it,” said Mike after playing with his food for a while and then abandoning it completely. “When you had this memory sickness you remembered me when I came along the river to find you,” the boy said turning troubled eyes on me, “so why didn’t Slim know me?”
I remembered back to that terrible time when everyone had thought me drowned. But Mike never gave up on me and ignoring the rules took Traveller and rode along the river bank looking for me…Jeez I could remember the relief of seeing him, suddenly a chaotic Kaleidoscope of memories rushing back to me in that moment. Would it be that way for Slim I wondered?
“Huh,” the boy persisted, “why don’t he know me Jess?”
I shrugged, “I dunno Tiger, but Doc Sam said that every case is different. Plus, I’d been gone quite some time so maybe my brain had started healing, its real early days for Slim you know.”
“I suppose so,” he said sadly, “but I really don’t like him being this way Jess, it sorta scares me ya know Jess?”
I nodded and reaching over ruffled his hair. “I know Mike, but hopefully he’ll be all better when you get back from your trip huh? And don’t forget buddy, it ain’t easy for Slim either.”
The youngsters face lit up for a moment when he remembered the trip back east he was taking with his buddy Billy Jones and his family. But then he cast his eyes down, “Maybe I shouldn’t go,” he whispered, “with Slim being sick and all.”
“Nonsense dear,” said Daisy cheerfully, “it’s the opportunity of a lifetime visiting New York and you’re really lucky that the Jones family have asked you along, Goodness even your teacher thinks it’s a good idea, they do say travel broadens the mind,” she finished smiling at us both.
I flushed up some remembering some of the mind broadening escapades of my own travels but thought them probably not suitable for Mike’s tender years.
“Besides Andy’s really looking forward to seeing you,” I added.
“Should I tell him, about Slim being sick and all?” he asked anxiously.
Daisy and I exchanged a glance before she replied, “I think its early days yet Mike, after all you take off the day after tomorrow. I think we’ll see how Slim progresses and then Jess will write if we feel it necessary. Who knows he’ll probably be just fine by the time you reach the City,” she said beaming at the youngster, “no need to worry Andy.”
When I turned in later, I noticed that Daisy had left a nightlight burning and as I stripped off for bed Slim awoke and peered over at me in the dim light.
“What are you doing in here?” he demanded his brows knitted.
“Sleepin’,” I said sarcastically, my patience with this new ornery Slim wearing pretty thin, feeling dead beat as I was after all the trauma of the day. Jeez all I wanted to do was get my head down.
“But that’s Andy’s bed,” he said throwing me a frosty look.
“Well he ain’t usin’ it right now is he?” I batted back as I stretched out and pulled the covers over.
Then I reached up and turned down the lamp, “Night Slim…”
“Uh,” he muttered and then there was silence and a while later I heard him snoring gently.
But I lay awake long into the night unable to sleep and just wondering when I would get my pard back.
The next morning when I awoke his bed was empty, he’d gone….
I leapt out of my bed and tearing out of the room found Daisy busy at the cook stove.
“Have you seen Slim?” I asked.
“Why no dear, he’s in bed isn’t he?”
I shook my head and darted over to the front door and pulling it open wandered onto the porch. Then peering out into the dim dawn light I was just able to make out a figure up on the hill, outlined against the first fingers of light from the rising sun.
I retraced my steps and hauling on my pants and boots and with my shirt still hanging open I made my way back outside and was joined by Daisy a moment or two later. She hugged her arms around her against the early morning chill and narrowed her eyes as she tried to make out the lone figure up at the Sherman family plot. Then as we watched Slim fell to his knees in a gesture of despair.
“I think he’s in need of a friend right now Jess dear,” she said casting me an anxious glance.
He half turned as I approached and then looked back down at the grave, where he still knelt.
I remained a respectful distance back, but when his head dropped and he gave a low sob, I ventured forwards and put a hesitant hand on his shoulder.
“I’m so dang sorry,” I whispered, only being able to imagine having to face the deaths of his loved ones again after all this time. The pain as raw as though it was the first time he had experienced it…and in a way I suppose it was because of course he had no recollection of their passing.
After a while he looked up at me, blinking the tears away, “I owe you an apology,” he said quietly, “and if you were right about this, well maybe I can trust you after all, huh? He said with the ghost of a smile.
“I reckon you’re gonna have to pard,” I said softly, before hauling him up. “Come on it strikes real chilly up here this time of day and Daisy’s got breakfast on.”
He nodded and we made our way slowly down the hill and I felt maybe, just maybe things wouldn’t be too bad and we’d weather this storm, as we had all the ups and downs of our friendship over the years.
I rode out for Mister Benson, the Sherman family lawyer directly after breakfast and he was able to confirm everything I’d already told Slim. Even to producing a copy of our partnership in the ranch, signed and sealed by us both.
“You made a really good deal on some Aberdeen Angus a few years back Matt, and Jess here also came into a sum of money. He bought a half share in the ranch and you both paid off Andy his share of the inheritance from your parents. That has been enough to see him through med school and should help him set up his office when he finally qualifies too.”
A look of wonder crossed my pard’ s face, “Pa and Ma would have been so proud,” he whispered, “it’s what they always wanted for him.”
Benson nodded, “I know my boy. I remember your dear Pa saying as much to me once. ‘Mathew will carry on the business as I would want it to be run and young Andy will use those brains of his to make a good life for himself.’ Then he said, ‘I’m truly blessed you know, Walter,’ Mister Benson concluded quietly, smiling at Slim or Matt as the old timer still called him.
Then turning to include me said, “I do believe your Pa would be well pleased in your choice of partner in the business too, very pleased.”
Well I’ll tell ya I felt real touched at that, a wise man like old Walter Benson singing my praises. It meant a lot…and I just hoped that Slim believed him and everything would settle down. Sure, the doc said it could be a few weeks before Slim recovered, but we’d manage OK now everything was sorted out…wouldn’t we?

The following morning Slim said he felt well enough to get back to work and overriding Daisy’s reservations with a brisk, “Nonsense I’m quite well,” he marched off across the yard towards the barn.
We gaped after him, so unused to the dismissive tone, but Daisy recovered quickly.
“He doesn’t mean it, he’s just not himself, you go and keep an eye on him and don’t let him overdo it Jess dear.”
I rolled my eyes at her, “Well wish me luck with that one,” I drawled before wandering off after him.
My hackles rose as soon as I entered the barn and saw him in Traveller’ s stall, preparing to saddle up.
“What are you doing?” I asked coldly.
He turned frowning slightly. “What does it look like, I’m saddling up? I thought I’d take a look around, ride fence and see if anything jogs my memory.”
“Good plan,” I said, “but not on that horse you don’t, he’s mine.”
“Huh? He asked now casting me a less than friendly look, “He’s a ranch horse isn’t he and it’s my ranch, what’s your problem?”
I strode over, now beginning to feel real angry at his attitude.
“I don’t have a problem, except this is actually our ranch…and that horse happens to be my personal property and no one rides him except me…ever.”
I must have done that thing that I do sometimes when I’m real wound up. Flexing my fingers over my gun butt… It don’t mean nuthin’, not in this case anyways. I sure weren’t thinkin’ of drawin’ on ol’ Slim…but he suddenly seemed to be alert to how mad I was.
I saw him note my stance and my hand hovering above my holster…hell my low hung, tied down, gunslinger holster and saw his eyes widen in shock for a moment.
I took a step forwards and opened the stall door, standing to one side to let him pass. Our gaze locked for what seemed like minutes, but was probably just a few seconds, before he backed down.
He strode out of the stall, “Have it your own way then,” he muttered and I directed him to Alamo, in the next stall.
“This is your usual mount,” I said quietly, “like me to come with ya?”
He shook his head, “That won’t be necessary,” he said icily before throwing his saddle up and leading the big horse out a few minutes later.
When he didn’t turn up for dinner Daisy wanted me to go out searchin’, but I figured that would only make him feel even more helpless and thank goodness he eventually turned up just as the sun was sinking behind the mountains.
After supper Daisy commenced some mending and Mike went off for an early night in readiness for his long trip the following day, so I took myself off to the porch, as me and Slim often sat out there in the evening.
After a little while he joined me and we chatted quietly about this and that, mostly regarding the ranch chores and our plans for the next few weeks and I could almost pretend things were back to normal.
After a while I wandered over to the barn and returned with half a bottle and a couple of tin cups.
“Like a nightcap?” I asked holding the bottle aloft a twinkle in my eyes.
Slim, who had been enjoying the moonlight on the mountains practically fell out of his chair at the proffered bottle.
“What the heck is that?” he asked looking scandalized.
“Well what do ya think,” I said with a grin, “some of old Denver’s best brew.”
“Huh? Who, what?” he asked looking mystified.
“Denver James, from up the mountain, this is some of his mountain dew.”
When he still looked bamboozled I said, “Moonshine Slim, grog… strong drink…huh?”
“Drink, strong drink,” he said looking shocked, “heck we don’t have any of that around, Ma doesn’t stand for that, er…didn’t that is,” he said with a look of sadness in his eyes.
“Yeah, well Daisy don’t either,” I said lightly, “but it ain’t ever stopped us pard.”
“What?” he said looking aghast, “You mean I imbibe that stuff?”
I sighed deeply, “Hell Slim it ain’t like we go tipping the jug all the livelong day…just have the odd glass now and then ‘tis all…and no harm in it.”
“Well that might be the way your Ma and Pa brought you up,” he said irritably, “but mine didn’t and I’d be obliged if you’d get it off the property,” and with that he rose and went off to bed, leaving me open mouthed, staring after him.
Then the irony of the situation hit me…Jeez I’d have to start teaching my pard again from scratch…the drinkin’, playin’ poker and of course the girls… Then a thought suddenly struck me, how would this new straight laced Slim react when he found out he was dating a saloon girl?
I poured myself a good measure and lifted the cup up to where Slim had so recently exited through the ranch door, “Cheers pard, here’s to gittin’ ya all educated up again,” and I downed it in one, before pouring another.

Chapter 6

The following morning Slim was up with the lark and couldn’t wait to get to work, whist I sat over a second coffee nursing a slightly thick head.
“Come on,” he said cheerfully slapping me on the back, “let’s get to it, I’ve got plans.”
I exchanged a martyred look with Daisy before dragging myself up, snagging my hat and gun belt from the hook by the door and following him out into the chilly dawn.
By the time the noontide Stage was due I was just about at the jumping off place. OK so maybe my hangover did make me slightly more irritable than usual but even so he was pushing me to the limit.
Firstly, he wanted to take everything out of the barn and rearrange all the tools the way his Pa used to keep ‘em. Then he went around the ranch with a paper and pencil, making notes and declaring that it was run down and Pa would be turning in his grave if he could see the mess the place was in. Well it looked OK to me. Maybe a lick of paint here and there wouldn’t go amiss, but hell we’d been runnin’ pretty near flat out all year and I for one was in need of a rest.
“Sure, we need to make good before the winter storms,” I agreed, “the lean-to needs some attention. The barn roof is all done but the back window of the bunkhouse needs re glazing…but that’s it Slim. Any other stuff can wait to the spring; I’ve got me some mustangs to break over the next few months.”
He gave me a thoughtful look then. “Um, I’ve been wondering about that side of the business, is it really viable? I mean those critters of yours have been eating us out of house and home, is it really worth it? Pa never bothered with Mustanging too much,” he said innocently.
Well that was it, I wanted to yell, ‘Well yer Pa ain’t running the outfit no more,’ but I bit it back and swallowed hard.
“Yes,” I finally managed, “it dang well is worth it. We’ve got the Army contract and they pay top dollar for every horse I break. What’s more, folk come from all over the territory wanting horses broke by me. I’ve got a real good reputation for it and I don’t aim to stop any time soon!”
He stared at me thoughtfully, “I see,” he said quietly, “it seems there’s more to you than I’d given you credit for.”
I said nothing, just held his steady gaze, wondering what the hell was going through his mind. Jeez this was so hard for me. I felt like I really didn’t know him anymore and suddenly an overwhelming feeling of loss and loneliness flooded through me.
The silence was broken by the Stage rattling in and then shortly afterwards Daisy called us in for dinner.
I had already been into the kitchen earlier in the morning allegedly for a coffee, but really to off load on Daisy.
“He’s drivin’ me crazy,” I had muttered, “do this, do that, no not that way, this is the way Pa likes it done…Dang it Daisy iffen I hear one more word about how the place was better run when his Pa was in charge so help me I won’t be responsible!”
“Oh Jess dear I do feel for you, but please try to be patient, just remember he isn’t himself um?”
Now we sat around the table enjoying Daisy’s rabbit stew, followed by one of her mouth-watering apple pies.
When we had finished she offered us seconds as usual and so yours truly didn’t wait to be asked again. But Slim looked kinda thoughtful and then said, “No thanks Ma’am. That was really good, but not quite the same as Ma’s. I think she added a little spoon of cinnamon, you might want to try that sometime,” and with that thanked her again and went off back to the yard, telling me not to be long.
Once the front door had closed behind him I turned to look into poor Daisy’s woebegone face.
“Aw Daisy, don’t take on,” I said kindly, squeezing her hand, “just remember he really isn’t himself right now…um?” I said quoting her word for word.
The irony wasn’t lost on Daisy. She looked up at me and then her lips twitched and moments later we were laughing uncontrollably. Well I reckon sometimes iffen you don’t laugh you’ll cry, so I figure Daisy chose the better option right then.
It was the following evening that we were really to have words and I was so dang mad at him I nearly threw a punch.
All I could think of afterwards was that I was dang glad Mike was safely off on his trip, because he’d have been real upset iffen he’d heard us fallin’ out that way.
It was a Saturday and I’d plans to ride into town that night and spend some time with Millie and I suggested Slim join me.
Well he went crazy sayin’ as how the Sherman family didn’t tend to go into town with all the lowlife that was to be found drinking and gambling on a Saturday night. Not to mention going with those painted ladies at the saloon, he said with a look of disdain. Well I kinda thought maybe it wasn’t a real good time to tell him he’d been dating one of those saloon girls for nigh on twelve months, and just thanked God she was out of town. Then he went off to our room muttering something about reading the Good Book in preparation for Church the following day.
It was sometime later that I went into our room to get ready and I stopped in my tracks. As I entered Slim swung around looking kinda sheepish and then I noticed my drawer in the chest was open and my Ma’s Bible in his hands.
“I’m er, I’m sorry,” he said quickly, “I was looking for my Bible and found this one…yours I guess?”
I nodded taking it from him, “And that drawer is where I keep my private stuff,” I growled throwing him an icy glance.
He flushed up at that and apologised again but recovered quickly.
“So, Jess I didn’t have you down as a religious type,” he said gesturing to the Bible I still held.
“Well some of us don’t feel the need to shout it from the roof tops,” I said quietly.
He nodded, “I suppose not, but you don’t always attend service either do you? Daisy said you probably wouldn’t be joining us tomorrow.”
I shrugged, “I guess not, but I figure the Good Lord and I understand each other well enough.”
“Um,” he said looking less than convinced.
Then he turned the conversation back to the Bible, “It looks like you’re from a really large family, lots of brothers and sisters listed in the front there, want to tell me all about them?” he asked.
“No, I don’t,” I said quietly turning to put the Good Book away and get out my best clothes for the night ahead.
But he just wouldn’t leave it be.
“Come on Jess I’m interested in your kin, tell me, huh?”
“They’re dead,” I said bitterly, “and I really don’t want to talk about it right now. If you want to know just ask Daisy,” and with that I finished getting ready in silence.
I was dressed and ready to go when he called me back, “You won’t be late?”
“Depends on what ya mean by late,” I drawled, “I usually land home sometime Sunday morning, by dinner time anyway.”
His jaw dropped and after a moment he said scathingly, “Don’t tell me, you’ll be spending all night playing poker?”
I shook my head, “Nope just some of it, the rest of the time I’ll be spending with my girl, Millie,” I said, “iffen that’s any of your business.”
“What, spending the night with a girl you’re not even betrothed to?” he said looking shocked to the core.
“For God’s sake Slim will you listen to yourself and stop being so dang sanctimonious!” I hollered.
Then I was suddenly transported back to a conversation we’d had last Christmas,
“Garldarn it Slim, if the Sheriff can turn a blind eye to a drop of moonshine at Christmas I don’t see why Daisy has to be so almighty sanctimonious about it,” I grumbled as we secreted the spirit in the back of the barn.
“Huh?” asked Slim grinning, “Sanctimonious eh Jess…you been looking in Mike’s dictionary again?” He said chuckling…
“No, I ain’t. As a matter of fact, it was the Parson who told it me…
The ‘old’ Slim would have picked me up on the word and joshed me about it. He knew dang well my schoolin’ was kinda sparse and used to tease me gently about it…Now I looked at Slim for some sign that he’d remembered that…but of course there was nothing he just looked angry and I suddenly felt totally bereft. My best buddy just didn’t know me he didn’t know me at all.
Then I remembered all the other things he didn’t know about me and a shiver ran down my spine. Hell, he didn’t know about my murky past or about my experiences in the War. There were a hundred different things that this new Slim, this stranger, didn’t know and would maybe find unacceptable in a friend. What would happen if he never got well, never regained his memory. Could we go back, pick up and start afresh and become friends again? Somehow, I doubted it.
Then I was startled out of my musing.
“Sanctimonious,” he bellowed looking as mad as all get out, “is that what you think about me and my kin?”
I just shrugged, “Well the way you’re acting right now I do yeah,” and with that I turned on my heel and left. Just knowing that if I stayed it could come to blows.
I marched out of the house and minutes later galloped out of the yard making for town, just wanting to put as much distance between the two of us as I could.

Chapter 7
Once I’d stabled Traveller for the night I walked briskly down Main Street, making for the saloon. But when I saw a light on in the Sheriff’s office I decided to call by and see what the news was with Mort.
Also, if I’m honest, I was feelin’ so dang mad I thought I’d have another go at Lon for letting Pete Corrigan escape and see if there had been any more sightings. Heck the way that Slim was acting right now the last thing we needed was a confrontation with a wanted outlaw.
I had already noticed that this ‘stuck in time’ young Slim rarely wore his iron now and I had the sneaking suspicion that he had never used it to shoot another man, but purely for protecting the ranch, should the need arise. And why should he I mused? Hell, it was me that had ridden the owl hoot trail and learned to live by my gun at an early age. But living an isolated life on the ranch the way he had done I figured there was no need for a hand gun, except for protection. Gee I reckoned that probably the first time he’d ever aimed his gun at another man was after he’d marched off to war.
Now as I barged through the Sheriff’s office door I was lost so deeply lost in thought about Slim and his past, that it took me a few seconds to realise that the lawman slumped in the chair before me was in fact Mort and not Lon.
Gee it was so dang good to see him. I figure after Slim, Mort is the best buddy I’ve got in these parts and I suddenly realised how much I’d missed him since his injury and enforced stay back in Rawlins.
“Hey Mort how are you and when did you land back?” I asked straddling a chair and chucking my hat on his desk.
“Just fine now thanks,” he said returning my smile, “I got home earlier this afternoon. Kate rode over with me and is staying a few weeks, feeding me up,” he said with a chuckle. “Anyway, I figured I’d let Lon go early and I’d do the evening shift, get my hand back in gently,” he said with a grin.
The irony wasn’t lost on me knowing what a wild old town Laramie could sometimes be on a Saturday night.
“Are you expecting trouble, ‘cos I can give you a hand?” I offered, thinking he still looked a tad sickly.
“Nah, you’re OK Jess all quiet so far, no drovers expected so just the odd drunk later maybe. Just don’t go stirring things up in the saloon and causing a ruckus,” he said with a wink.
“Who me?” I asked looking the picture of innocence, before giving him my cheeky grin.
“Nope my only plans are to sink a beer or two, play some poker and then bed down with sweet Millie,” I said. “But all that could be a hangin’ offence according to some folk.”
“Huh,” he said looking surprised, according to who Jess?”
“Slim? What are you talking about and how is he anyways, Sam said he’d had a nasty fall?”
“Is that all he told you?”
“Well yes, you know Sam. He isn’t one to talk about his patients…so he is OK?”
“Um…no, not really Mort, he ain’t in his right mind, that’s fer sure.”
“How so?”
“Sam thinks the bang on the head he sustained fallin’ off of the barn roof has given him memory loss. Amnesia Mort, similar to what I had that time…except he seems to be stuck at age seventeen and it really don’t suit him any.”
Mort looked real concerned and then picked up on my impatience.
“Well I’m real sorry to hear that real sorry and he’s being kinda difficult huh?”
I ran a frustrated hand through my hair before looking back at him, “Well let’s put it this way, I offered him a slug of Moonshine last night and I thought he was gonna frogmarch me to a Temperance Meeting. And right now, he’s home readin’ his Bible before Church tomorrow and probably prayin’ for my immortal soul too I shouldn’t wonder,” I added bitterly.
Mort looked kinda shocked at that.
“Well you’re not what I’d call a big drinker, least ways most of the time,” he said being totally honest. Him having had the pleasure of my company in the cells on the odd occasion after I’d tied one on.
“Nope the odd over indulgence,” he said following my train of thought, “but no not a big drinker and heck you attend Sunday Service every so often Jess you’re hardly a heathen. So, he thinks you need to shape up does he and be some kind of a paragon of virtue?”
I felt kind of puzzled for a moment but then I got his drift, “Yeah somethin’ like that Mort, he’s drivin’ me crazy. What with all my gambling, womanizing and drinkin’ he reckons I’m goin’ to Hell in a handcart,” I said bitterly.
Mort studied me long and hard for a few moments and then said, “It’s more than just that though isn’t it son, you think you’re losing him as a buddy, don’t you?”
I just shrugged, unable to meet his concerned gaze and then I nodded, “I feel I’ve already lost him Mort and I’m dang worried we won’t ever get our friendship back again…not the way it was anyway.”
“What does Sam think?”
“Dunno, says it’s early days we’ve just gotta keep calm and try and be patient with him.”
“So, have you been?”
I was silent for a while and then just shook my head, looking down and feeling terrible.
Mort leaned over and punched me lightly on the arm, “Well I shouldn’t feel bad Jess. It sounds like he’s being kinda difficult.”
Then he looked off into space obviously thinking deeply, before making a decision.
“Jess I’ve known Slim since he was a kid. Knew all his family real well too, maybe if you learned a bit more about what he was like back then it would help you to understand him more now?”
“Sure, go ahead,” I said quickly, “I’m all ears Mort.”
He put his feet up on the desk and settled back in his chair and I listened intently.
“I remember Slim telling me all about his ancestors,” Mort began. “The stories his Pa had told him of his family, Great granddaddy hailing from Stockholm in Sweden and his wife from Edinburgh in Scotland in the old country. Both had been brought up as Calvinists.”
“Huh?” I asked looking kinda confused.
“It’s a form of religion Jess, dating way back in time from a guy named John Calvin and then various other Churches evolved from his ideas. One being The Presbyterian in Scotland which this couple attended. In fact, more than that, great grand pappy was a Minister in the Church.”
“So, it was special this Church then?”
“Uh I reckon so, very strict and moralistic, the Minister spouting fire and Brimstone,” he said chuckling. “Then when they came over to New England they brought their beliefs with them and carried them on with their own offspring when they moved out West. That was Slim’s Pa’s parents, who had very high moral standards. To the extent that any form of pleasure was frowned upon. Slim’s own parents were slightly more relaxed than his grandparents, but they too had very high standards and values.”
“Yer not kiddin’,” I said peevishly.
“See when young Slim was growing up Matt’s Pa that is Slim’s grand pappy, lived with them for a spell and I do believe his moralistic attitude had quite an effect on Slim. His religious beliefs too, in fact I do recall Slim was thinking on going into the Church himself when he was young but he grew out of the notion.”
I just shook my head in disbelief, “Old Hardrock a Minister?”
Mort nodded grinning at the memory, “Well he wouldn’t thank me for telling you that. It was Mathew senior, Slim’s Pa that told me about it. Slim would have been about eleven or twelve when he got the ‘calling’ but it didn’t last too long. It seems he got a massive crush on a neighbour’ s young daughter and decided he couldn’t have both.”
I grinned then, “Well thank goodness for that, so he was kinda normal growing up then, likin’ girls and all?”
“Uh, yes I suppose so, except he really didn’t get too much of a chance to grow up like the other boys in the town.”
“Oh, how so?”
“Well his folks were really ambitious for him and when he was aged about twelve or thirteen they figured that old Bill Johnson the School Master had just about taught Slim all he could. He was OK at the reading, writing and ciphering, but not too much else got taught. So, his Ma took him out of school and educated him at home.
“Uh yeah, I recall him tellin’ me his Ma was a teacher and taught him real good by all accounts. Geography, World History even that dead language what’s it… er Latin. Yup he was educated up pretty good.”
Mort looked thoughtful. “In some ways yes, I suppose so. He was a good student and did really well academically, but there’s more to life than book learning Jess.”
“Really?” I asked with a sarcastic wink.
He rolled his eyes at me before continuing.
“See the thing is with young Slim he was pretty much isolated out on the ranch after that. He rarely saw his buddies from school…some turned against him, saying he was too good for the town school. He did have one good friend I remembered but that was all… and girlfriends certainly weren’t encouraged.”
“Poor guy,” I said with feeling. Sure, I’d had a pretty tough life managing on my own from the age of fifteen, but at least I’d had freedom to do pretty much what I wanted.
“And then the war came and Slim enlisted and you know what Jess …it was the making of him. The saying goes a boy walks off to war and marches back a man, but it was really true as far as Slim was concerned.”
I just nodded in agreement.
Mort said thoughtfully, “He told me once what his Pa said to him before he left. He also told me that he held dear the teachings of his parents. To be true to one’s self and one’s beliefs. They also taught him to take religion and moral duty seriously and of course to uphold the law on all occasions.
Then he told me about the talk he’d had with his Pa the night before he’d set off to war as a fresh faced, innocent young man. ‘“There will be things you’ll see out there and things you’ll be called to do for your country, that will be hard, real hard for you son. But I expect you to hold your head high and do your duty.”’
I nodded, gee old man Sherman sure seemed a good kinda Pa to have around.
“And by golly he did it Jess, he was a credit to his country and his Pa, making 2nd Lieutenant and leading his men courageously. All this from a young man who had never fired a weapon in anger,” he said softly.
“I figured not,” I said.
Mort shook his head, “I know he didn’t want to fight and kill that way, none of us did, but that’s war for you and I figure he learnt a lot as well.”
“I think it pushes a man to the edge, havin’ to survive against all odds and maybe yeah, he does learn a few lessons he really needs to in the process,” I agreed.
Mort nodded, “As well as teaching him leadership it was good for him in other ways too. He learnt to be a good buddy, to watch his friend’s backs, to do the right thing no matter what. Got up close and personal with the fairer sex too,” he said with a wink. “Well that’s something that would never have happened if he’d stayed on the ranch his Ma was powerful keen on morals, regarding young ladies and strong drink especially.”
“Well I kinda figured that,” I said bitterly and then I suddenly felt real bad.
“Hell Mort, I think that maybe I kinda corrupted him, led him astray anyways. I figure his Ma and Pa wouldn’t think too much of me…the effect I’ve had on their boy.”
But Mort shook his head and smiled at the notion.
“Oh no, I doubt that very much Jess. I have a feeling his Pa knew pretty much what Slim got up to when he was away, heck he was in the Military himself. Nope I figure his philosophy was ‘good for the boy’, as long as his Ma didn’t find out about his escapades. And in his later years old Mathew wasn’t averse to the odd glass of whiskey either, we shared a bottle or two in our time.”
I still must have looked kinda upset because then he told me something else. Something that made me feel one whole lot better.
“It was a few years back,” Mort said, “and you were pretty sick, over at Doc Sam’s. You’d stopped a bullet in your side and we were all a tad worried.”
I grimaced, “Yeah, I remember it well.”
“Anyway, me and Slim got stuck into the Red Rye while we were waiting for news and he said what a good buddy you’ d turned out to be over the years.”
“He said as how there was no one else he’d rather have at his back in times of trouble. Then he recalled the times you both laughed so dang much that you cried,” he said eyes twinkling…
Well I’ll tell ya, I know Mort was trying to make me feel better, but those memories just made me feel so dang sad…anyways he was still telling his tale, so I took a deep breath and kept listenin’.
“But to get back to what’s troubling you Jess. He also said that he often wondered if he’d taken to your ‘wild Texan ways’ with such alacrity and delight, because of his formative years, particularly how strict his Ma was about…well all the things you hold dear. The ways of typical young men, like drinking a little too much, playing a hand or two of poker and romancing the pretty saloon girls. Those were things that had seemed almost sinful to his strict parents. But when he hooked up with you he decided he needed to kick over the traces and live a little. He said it had taken only a little persuasion from you to convince him that he wouldn’t be on the road to Hell if he enjoyed himself a little occasionally and he’d never looked back.”
I shook my head now grinning at Mort, “Well that’s sure true. It was him that insisted we went off fishin’ on the way back from Rawlins you know, instead of coming straight home to do the winter chores.”
“Dadgum it, he never did!” Mort said with a hoot of laughter, slapping his knee.
Then he sobered, “Slim seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders after his folks died. The responsibility of running the ranch with just old Jonesy and bringing up Andy was hard for him, real hard. He was sorely in need of some fun and relaxation and you brought that fun into his life Jess. For what it’s worth I figure you’re the best thing that ever happened to the boy, having your friendship and then Daisy and Mike moving in too. Not to mention hooking up with the lovely Lily, he sure is blessed.”
It was a moment or two before I could speak and even then, I sounded kinda husky, “Thanks Mort,” I said sincerely, “let’s just hope he remembers us all soon huh?”
I got up to leave and then remembered why I’d called in the first place.
“Is there any news on the whereabouts of Pete Corrigan?” I asked
His face clouded at the name and he swung his feet off the desk leaning forwards and throwing me a troubled look.
“Uh, it seems he hasn’t been picked up in the Cheyenne vicinity and one of the Stage drivers swears he saw him back in this area just yesterday. I planned to ride out to warn you tomorrow. It seems he’s madder than all get out about his cousins dying by your gun Jess and he’s out for revenge. He’s looking to finish you, Slim and me too, according to the word on the street.”
I was in the act of putting my hat on, and I froze, my eyes narrowing and I felt my heart lurch within my chest.
I must have gone kinda pale because Mort said, “Jess…hey are you OK buddy?”
I took a deep breath and put my hat on pulling it down hard.
“Just fine and thanks Mort, I’ll keep my eyes open for him,” and with that I took my leave, heading for the saloon.

Chapter 8
“I’m kinda worried about Slim,” I said to Millie.
It was real early on the Sunday morning and we were lying in her big feather bed talking everything through.
“So, do you really think this Pete Corrigan will come to the ranch to find you? She asked looking apprehensive.
I shrugged, “I dunno, but I sure hope not and I figure Slim just ain’t up to it right now.”
“So, tell me about it again, you say he thinks he’d just seventeen and can’t remember anything after that age?”
“Yeah, that’s about the size of it and Sam don’t know when he’ll get his memory back, if ever. Right now, he’s thinking and acting pretty much like an innocent seventeen-year old kid.”
“Um, I wonder how Lily’s going to react to dating an ‘innocent kid’, instead of her usual passionate lover,” she said with a chuckle.
“That’s the least of my worries, not only have I gotta try and keep him safe from Corrigan, I’ve got to stop myself from landing one on him,” I said with a bitter smile.
“Oh Jess I’m sure he’s not that bad…is he?”
“Worse, he thinks I’m a heathen, drunk and gambler. And well let’s put it this way, I guess he wouldn’t approve of what I’m gonna do now one little bit either,” I said as I gazed deeply into her eyes. Then I caressed her cheek with a finger and moved in for a passionate kiss…before pulling her closer, aware of my heart pounding and a shiver of desire running through my body as we began to make love once more.
Much later we walked down Main Street towards the Church, along with the other good God fearin’ Laramie citizens.
“You sure you don’t mind?” I asked glancing down into her sparkling brown eyes.
“Of course I don’t,” she laughed, “I do actually attend Church occasionally you know Jess and not with a hidden purpose either.”
“Oh come on, the only reason you attend Church usually is because Daisy bullies you into it and today it’s because you want to watch Slim’s back, isn’t it?”
I sighed and nodded, “I am a believer, heck me and ol’ Rev Josh have some real fine talks about the Bible, God and all, when we’re off fishin’ together. It’s just that I get a tad…er edgy in Church what with all those weddings an’ funerals they have there,” I said honestly.
“Oh you,” she said slapping my arm and laughing up into my face.
Jeez but she was beautiful I thought, grabbing her hand and squeezing it as we marched along.
I don’t know who was more surprised to see us in Church, Daisy, Slim or maybe the Padre Rev Joshua Wesley. Gee he was a nice man. He’d landed in Laramie a few years back replacing Rev Myers and although he ruffled a few feathers with his honest down-to-earth style, now he was loved and accepted by all.
It was after the service that he came over slapping me on the back and beaming said, “Well Jess this is an honour I was expecting to wait until Christmas to see you in my congregation, or maybe I’d have caught you at the lake…how are the fish biting then huh?”
Slim had stood back watching this interaction open mouthed, but it wasn’t until later when we were back at the ranch that he voiced his misgivings.
“Well he certainly is modern in his outlook,” he said over the dinner table, “I can’t see Reverend Myers letting us call him by his first name or coming over here fishing either.”
Daisy nodded, “I did have my misgivings at first Slim, but he is a wonderful man and an inspiration to us all. And I truly believe that the Word of God is not just for the pulpit. I know Jess and Joshua have some stimulating religious debate, over at the lake don’t you dear?”
I grinned across at her, “You bet. We put the world to rights and try and make sense of things with the Almighty’s help. Josh sure is an interestin’ guy.”
Slim threw me a surprised look, but wisely changed the subject.
“That Millie’s a real pretty girl,” he said appreciatively.
Well I’d noticed the way his eyes had lit up when he saw her and how he held her hand a tad too long when they were introduced, so I figured it would be a good idea to put him in the picture.
“I think so,” I said quietly.
Something in my tone must have alerted him as he gave me a shrewd look.
“Are you er, good friends or is she free to date?”
Daisy gave me a warning glance and I took a deep breath before replying, “We’re seeing each other, if that’s what you mean, in fact we’ve got a sorta understanding. So, no she ain’t free to date…you got that Slim?” I growled.
He raised an eyebrow and frowned, “Loud and clear,” he said before giving his dinner his full attention.
It was later when we were getting ready to hit the sack that Slim brought up the subject again. He was sitting on his bed and I was over the other side of the room washing up.
“So, did you stay with the delectable Millie last night?” he asked with a sly wink.
I slowly finished rubbing my chest dry and slinging the towel aside made for my bed.
“Yes,” I said quietly, trying not to feel riled by his questioning.
“So, she lives in town?” he persisted.
“At the saloon,” I said lying down, “got rooms above the job.”
Slim considered this for a moment and then his eyes opened wide, his jaw dropping, “She’s a saloon girl?” he gasped.
“Yup, got it in one,” I growled, “so?”
“Don’t you mind…her going with other men?”
“What?” I gasped, suddenly feeling my pulse starting to race and flushing up.
“Well I mean…er I know she has to make a living, but it must be kind of hard on you having to share her and all those clients?”
“Goddamn it Slim my Millie ain’t no working girl!” I yelled, balling my fists and taking deep breaths…
“I’m sorry.” He said quickly, “I just thought, well all saloon girls were hookers…that’s the impression I got from my Grand pappy.”
“Yeah well you got the wrong dang impression then,” I spat.
“You are sure about that,” he asked, “after all she is very beautiful, she could turn a brisk few bucks.”
That did it I leapt up from my bed and grabbed him by the front of his undershirt, my fist pulled back and ready to smash into his face.
The look of terror in his eyes stopped me though. After a moment I threw him back on the bed and retired to my own, dousing the night light and rolling over on my side with my back to him.
I kept telling myself this wasn’t really Slim talking. He didn’t realize what he was saying. Hell, the way he was right now he had no knowledge of adult love, according to Mort, so I figured he didn’t really understand the sort of pain his comments would cause me.
The following morning, I was still feeling pretty dang mad and just wanted to put as much distance between us as I could. So, when he declared he was going off to ride fence that was just fine by me.
But then I remembered my conversation with Mort about how Pete Corrigan was on the prowl and figured I couldn’t leave Slim out there alone. Hell, he wouldn’t stand a chance against Pete I knew that.
“I’ll ride along with you,” I said going off to saddle up Traveller.
Sometime later we took a break to grab a coffee and warm up some by a camp fire, the weather having turned chilly, and he finally spoke for the first time.
We were hunkered down by the fire when he turned to me and said gruffly, “I don’t need a baby sitter you know Jess, I figure I can follow a fence along and find my way back home as well as the next man.”
“It ain’t that,” I said quickly, “it’s just…well you know there could be strangers around, trouble makers.”
“And you think I’m not capable of seeing them off, looking after myself?” he asked angrily.
I shrugged, “Do you?” I asked, noting that he’d forgotten to wear his iron again.
He glanced down and realized it at the same time and then his eyes narrowed as he glanced at my rig.
“Maybe not right now,” he conceded, “but you could. I reckon you could look after yourself real good.”
I flushed a little and said nothing, but he wasn’t going to let it drop.
“So I’ve been meaning to ask you, the way you wear your gun, low slung and tied down that way, that’s preferred by gunslingers isn’t it?” he asked innocently.
“If you’re asking me do I have history, then yes I do Slim. When you get your memory back you’ll remember all about it. How I’ve given up my old ways for good…But I sure ain’t about to tell you all about it right now OK?”
He looked real shocked for a minute or two, but then seemed to decide to leave it, for now at least.
“So why have you really ridden out with me?” he asked,” And don’t give me that rubbish about strangers, so what’s really going on?”
I sighed deeply, knowing he wasn’t gonna quit until I told him and maybe he should be put in the picture anyway, be on the alert.
I explained all about us riding posse with Mort and our subsequent run in with the Corrigan Gang, how two were dead and now their cousin was after revenge.
I noticed he’d gone pale as the tale unfolded and now he said urgently, “Did I kill one of them?”
I shook my head, “Nope I got one and then you covered me and stayed to look after Mort. He’d been hurt. I went off alone and dispatched the other one.”
“Dispatched,” he said looking horrified, that’s kind of an unfeeling word to use, for ending a man’s life.”
“Well he should have thought about that before he put a bullet through the head of a nineteen-year old girl. A teller at the Laramie Bank,” I said bitterly.
He hung his head at this, “I’m sorry I didn’t know…dang it Jess I just can’t remember!”
He sounded so terribly distraught that my heart bled for him.
“I know pard, I know, but you’ll be OK, it’ll just take some time…huh.”
It was later that evening and we were again taking our ease out on the porch. However, this time just drinking coffee in deference to this new abstemious Slim.
“Do we ride posse with Sheriff Cory often?” he asked me.
“Often enough, iffen he needs help he’ll call on us,” I affirmed.
“So, going after outlaws I figure I’ve maybe shot some, in the past?”
I nodded, “Some yeah.”
“And killed anyone?” he asked, holding his breath.
I nodded again, “A fair few, when there was no other way around it yes.”
He looked deeply troubled by this, “What would Grand pappy have made of me?” He whispered.
“I figure he’d rather have a live grandson than a dead idealist,” I snapped back.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well in the perfect world nobody would do wrong and iffen they did they’d just put their hands up and come quietly. But the world ain’t perfect Slim. There are hardened killers out there who only understand the law of the gun and the rope. They will do pretty much anything to escape, including killin’ men in a posse who are huntin’ them down. So, I guess it’s down to kill or be killed sometimes.”
“But that can’t be right,” he said shaking his head, then looking across at me in the dim evening light from the porch lamp, “Have we both killed men in this way?”
I nodded and then took pity on him. “Sometimes good people do bad things, but for the best of reasons…sometimes there’s just no other way.”

Chapter 9
It was the following day before it really hit home to me as to how badly Slim had been affected by his memory loss.
It seemed that each new revelation appeared to weigh him down more and more. I just couldn’t see any way to help him. If he asked me stuff I figured I couldn’t lie to him. So far, I’d been able to distract him by saying all his questions about me and my past would be answered as soon as he regained his memory.
To be honest I really didn’t think this raw young seventeen-year old Slim would accept me. Not with my murky past and all, certainly not the way the more mature and experienced Slim had done that’s for sure.
Even that had been a struggle back in the past. Nope I could see no way around things other than to try and function as normal with the work load and keep our heart to heart chats to a minimum. And just hope and pray that his memory would return soon.
He’d been sleeping real badly from the start. Well that was a first. It was usually me that woke the house up with my bad dreams. But a few nights after our chat on the porch he awoke in the small hours yelling and sweating, after a nightmare. Just as bad or maybe even worse than the ones I suffered.
He was screaming out in terror and I threw myself out of bed and was at his side in seconds, sitting on the edge of his bed, unsure as to what to do. Then he suddenly awoke and sat bolt upright, shaking and staring around him in trepidation.
“Slim, it’s OK pard, just a dream,” I said softly.
He stared at me for a moment and then gave a great heaving sob, sinking his head in his hands.
I watched him for a moment as he gasped for breath, the horror overwhelming him, before I put a comforting arm around him, speaking softly as I would to Mike after a bad dream.
Eventually he seemed to come to his senses and rubbing a hand over his face turned to me. “Sorry,” he muttered.
“Nothing to be sorry for,” I replied, “so what was it about, wanna tell me?”
He shook his head, “I’m not sure, there was all this…noise deafening noise, cannon fire and the stench of cordite. I could taste it, it was so dang strong and I could barely see through the smoke. There was the noise of a drum beating too…so loud it was like it was in my head.”
“Go on,” I said softly.
He sighed deeply as though just by voicing the horrors he’d experienced he would make them somehow real. Oh yeah, I knew all about this dream of his, knew it far too well.
“Then suddenly the smoke cleared and there was an army of men advancing, waving a flag, that’s where the drum beat was coming from and someone was playing something like a penny whistle,” he said his eyes opened wide in surprise.
“Fife and drum band,” I said.
“Huh oh yeah,” he said the light of understanding in his eyes, “it was the war wasn’t it?”
I nodded…
“It was so loud the drum and fife,” he said, “so dang loud.”
“Don’t tell me,” I whispered, “they were playin’ Dixie…”
“Nuthin’ pard, go on…”
He ran a hand through his hair and then shook his head as if trying to remove the terrible images from it.
“They started shooting and we shot back…men were falling everywhere, all around me. Jess…the blood…some screaming in agony,” he sucked in a deep breath before continuing.
“A man marching along side of me was shot in the face. When he fell I wanted to stop, help him, but I couldn’t. There were men behind me striding on, trampling the dead and fighting on. Then I felt this terrible pain in my head, I’d been shot. And then you were here and I was awake,” he finished.
I passed him a glass of water and he drank thankfully before passing it back.
“Maybe it’s a good sign,” I said gently.
“Huh, good, what’s good about it?”
“Maybe if you can remember the war, even just in a dream, it’s a sign your memory is waking up again Slim, you could be on the road to recovery huh?”
“Could be,” he said thoughtfully before giving me the ghost of a smile, “maybe you’re right.”
“You’ll be OK now?” I asked kindly.
He nodded, “Yes, thanks Jess…and I’m sorry for…. you know.”
I just punched him lightly on the arm, “Get some sleep, busy day tomorrow, we’ve got to fix the lean to remember?”
But that was not to be the end to the matter. The dreams seemed to be getting worse, more and more graphic and he was tormented by the images of the dead and dying.
Then one day about a week after the first intense nightmare everything came to a head between us.
The weather had turned decidedly chilly, with the threat of snow, so that morning we had decided to hole-up in the barn and make some much-needed repairs to some of the harness.
The night before he’d suffered a particularly bloody and vivid nightmare, as he recognized some of the fallen around him as good buddies from his platoon.
Now he sat on a straw bale, the bridle he was working on forgotten on his knee, as he looked off into space.
Then after a moment he turned to where I was sitting on the floor, my back to one of the stalls and tackling stitching repairs on one of my saddlebags.
“You know this will sound crazy,” he started, “but after all these dang dreams I still can’t remember something.”
“Oh,” I asked indulgently, “so what’s that pard?”
“Well, did we win Jess, did we win the war?”
My heart lurched in my chest, I felt dizzy and my mouth was suddenly dry.
I was silent for so long he glanced down at me…
“Come on Jess you must remember,” He said chuckling, “it’s me with the lost memory not you!”
I swallowed hard and then said quietly, “Yes, you won, the Union won.”
It took him a good minute for what I’d said to sink in.
He peered across at me with a slight frown, “Huh, what do you mean I won? Are you saying you lost Jess?”
I just nodded unable to speak. Oh God why did I have to tell him…but equally I couldn’t deny my past. I couldn’t be disloyal to the memory of all my comrades who had fallen in battle. No, I had to tell the truth no matter how dire the consequences.
His face was a picture of utter shock.
Then after a minute or so he said quietly, “You’re telling me you’re a Rebel? You fought for the Confederacy? As though saying it out loud would make me take it back. Grin at him and say,’ just kiddin ya’ big man…of course I was on your side.’
But I didn’t.
I just nodded again, “Yeah.”
It was the speed of the attack that astounded me.
One minute he was sitting on the straw bale just staring at me in utter shock. Then in seconds his expression changed to hatred before he charged at me, dragging me up by my shirt and laying a punch to my face which sent me flying across the barn.
I scrambled up shaking my head to clear it and putting a hand to the dribble of blood snaking down my chin from a split lip.
“No,” I gasped “Slim, please I don’t wanna fight you…not over this.”
He stared at me like a stranger, “How could you do it, lie to me all these years?” He hollered….
“I didn’t,” I said feeling dizzy with the shock and suddenness of the turn of events, “you’ve always known I fought for the Confederacy…Hell Slim you know I’m from Texas it can’t be that much of a dang surprise!” I yelled.
Then he just seemed to lose it and marching over rained blow after blow down on me.
I didn’t want to fight him, but after a while my natural survival instinct kicked in and I returned some of the punches, trying to defend myself, but my heart really wasn’t in it. The last thing I remember was a yell of rage as he punched me in the belly and then everything went black.
When I came around I was in my bed and Daisy and Mort Cory were gazing down at me, both lookin’ real concerned.
I tried to sit up, but pain shot through my whole being and I fell back on the pillow with a low groan.
“What happened, how’d I get here Daisy?” I whispered.
“You and Slim had a terrible fight,” she said her sweet old face ashen. “I heard a ruckus and came out and found you in the barn, unconscious and no sign of Slim. Then just moments later the Sheriff and Kate rode in on a visit,” she continued. “Thank God, I don’t know what I’d have done without them,” she finished turning a warm smile on Mort.
“Where is he now?” I asked, feelin’ kinda vulnerable and not quite ready for round two.
“In the bunkhouse, I ran him to ground down by the creek,” said Mort, he was in pretty bad shape so I took him over there to rest up. Then when Mose brought the Noon stage in I asked him to get Sam to call. The Doc and Kate are with Slim now. You’ve been out of it for over an hour Jess.”
I struggled to sit up again, “I’ve gotta see him, try and make it right.”
“Jess dear you must keep still,” Daisy said wiping my brow with a blessedly cool cloth. Doc Sam will be over directly to tend you. Just wait until he’s assessed the damage, before you move about. So how are you feeling anyway?”
“Like I’ve been trampled by a herd of buffalo,” I said quietly and saw Mort shake his head sadly.
“I just can’t believe he did this to you Jess.”
“He ain’t in his right mind just now Mort. He’s been having these dratted nightmares about the war. Then this morning when he asked me what side I was on I…I told him…then this,” I said shrugging.
“Jeez man, why the Hell did you tell him?” asked Mort looking exasperated, “He didn’t have to know.”
“I couldn’t lie to him Mort…not about that, it would seem like a betrayal…to me and everyone who died fighting for the rebels.”
Mort turned to me, respect in his concerned brown eyes, “No, no that you couldn’t boy, I understand that. But you sure paid the price for your loyalty.”
“Weren’t the first time,” I muttered, closing my eyes, suddenly the effort of staying awake just too much for me.
When I awoke next time, I could feel a tight bandage around my chest and a cool cloth on my forehead.
I opened my eyes cautiously and peered up into doc Sam’s kindly face.
“At last, I thought you were going to sleep away the whole day,” he said with a warm smile, “welcome back Jess.”
I sighed deeply and then winced with pain, running a hand across the snowy bandage now covering my chest, “What’s the damage doc?”
He looked serious then, “Not too good, a couple of cracked ribs, some very nasty bruising to your abdomen and a variety of lacerations, pretty much all over. That was one hell of a fight Jess.”
“What about Slim?” I asked quietly.
“Uh, not as badly off as you are, physically that is, but mentally?” He shook his head sadly.
He looked thoughtful for a moment before continuing. “He sustained a black eye and nasty gash to his head where he fell badly otherwise he’s not in too much pain.”
Then he gave me a grim smile, “If this had been a dime novel I guess that second bang on the head would have restored his memory and everyone would have lived happily ever after, but unfortunately real life isn’t like that.”
“So, there’s no change in his condition?” I asked.
“Very little, but I am feeling quite optimistic Jess. As you know disorders of the mind hold a great fascination for me and I pride myself with keeping up-to-date with all the latest research from back East, England and Europe too.”
“OK so what does all your ‘research’ tell you?” I asked feeling kinda irritable, what with my head aching fit to burst and the rest of me pretty much the same way.
“Well, all these dreams about the war are very positive, particularly the clarity and detail he has been seeing. I really think that he will gradually start to have what we term flash backs. Just odd snippets of his life before the accident and then in time memories will gradually all flow back.”
“Yeah, well let’s just hope it ‘all flows back’ before he does me anymore damage,” I said bitterly.
Sam suddenly looked real concerned and reaching out squeezed my shoulder gently, “My dear chap, I’m so sorry. I sometimes let my enthusiasm for the subject run away with me. I get so bogged down with the clinical facts that I forget real people with real feelings are involved, forgive me.”
“Sure,” I said softly, “and I am feelin’ kinda troubled Sam.”
Then looking up into those kind brown eyes that I trusted so much I whispered, “Tell me honestly Sam. Do you think he’s always felt this way about me…fightin’ for the Confederacy that is? Hated me for it deep down, but kept it real well hidden?”
He looked stunned for a moment and then beamed at me, “Heck no… I don’t believe that for one moment. Goodness you’ve only to see the way the two of you are together to know it’s a genuine friendship, as loving and open as brothers. No Jess, but what I do believe is that Slim is living his life based on the only information he has available to him right now. That’s from the view point of a young man heading off to war… One who has heard all the tales of battle, the atrocities committed by the other side. And then these terribly graphic dreams he’s experienced too. Based on all that, he sees you as the hated and much feared ‘enemy.’ It’s not a rational thought and not the thoughts or feelings of Slim as he usually is today.”
I reckon I must have looked kinda bamboozled after this long speech and he took pity on me.
“Look Jess the study of the mind is incredibly complex and we are still only learning about how the brain works. Maybe in years to come we’ll have answers. But now all I can say is that I truly believe that these feelings of animosity towards you are just because of his amnesia and not a reflection of his true self…good enough?”
“I reckon it’ll have to be,” I said with the ghost of a smile, “thanks Sam.”

Chapter 10
Meanwhile over in the bunkhouse Kate Munroe was doing what she did best, telling it the way it was…
“I guess you’re not gonna remember me boy,” she started as she sat down beside the bunk and fixed Slim with her startlingly blue eyes. “I’ve been a friend of yours for a good while, and a friend of young Jess in there,” she said tipping her head in the direction of the ranch house, “a whole lot longer.”
“Oh,” he said looking closely at her and wracking his brains. Surely he should know this woman, as striking as she was with her white blond hair and deeply tanned strong face. A friend of Mort’s he had noted and of a similar age, but Gee she sure was something else, even for an older woman.
“Anyway,” she continued firmly, “I figure you need telling the way things are Slim Sherman. Sure, you’re sick right now, lost your memory I know that. But hell boy, that ain’t no excuse for what you’ve done to Jess.”
“He betrayed me,” Slim said stiffly, “lied about being in the Confederacy…all the years I’ve allegedly known him I figure, because I sure wouldn’t have let a Johnny Reb on the payroll, iffen I’d known.”
“Look boy I ain’t gonna pull any punches with you. What you did today was truly wrong and against everything you really feel and believe. Right now, you’re stuck in this mind of a young kid going off to war. With those bad dreams you’ve been suffering too, well I can see how you’d make this kinda mistake. But believe me Slim you are wrong about Jess, about as wrong as you could be. And yes, you have always known which side he was on in the war, he was up front with you from day one…so you knew alright.”
“OK so you tell me,” Slim said belligerently, “tell me why I’d invite a darned Confederate into my home and life, huh?”
“You know boy nothing is black and white in this life. Good and bad can all be all shades of grey. Union or Confederate, it doesn’t make sense to judge by a name. Some of the Confederacy soldiers committed atrocities just as the Union did…you might want to ask Jess about his stay in a Union prison camp some time,” she said dryly. “He had a real bad time, and I imagine you did too Slim,” she sighed deeply before going on.
“Men are pushed to the limit of their endurance, fighting for what they believe in and in a civil war like ours sometimes brother against brother. But at the end of it all…after a spell of time, things have to be laid to rest Slim. The hurting…the hatred, it all has to be let go or it will destroy a man. You and Jess were mature enough to do that, to put your differences to one side and move on. I can honestly say that it has never cast a shadow over your friendship…until now that is,” she said sadly.
Slim put his head in his hands, “Goddamn it, I just can’t remember Kate. I can’t remember how it felt to be that reasonable man you’re describing…he’s gone…and maybe forever,” he finished, looking into her now concerned face.
“What if I am stuck like this forever Kate and I can’t get back…what will happen then?”
“Then maybe you and Jess will have to start again, build another friendship, maybe even stronger after everything you’ve been through. If he ever forgives you that is,” she said with a raised eyebrow and the hint of a grim smile hovering around her lips.
“Huh, what do you mean?” Slim asked.
“Have you seen the state of your buddy…seen what you’ve done to him?”
When I awoke the following morning, the sun was streaming in through the window and I realized I must have overslept…I made to get up and then fell back as the pain sliced through my chest and belly. I groaned and cussed before sitting up rather more carefully.
That was when I saw Slim sitting fully clothed on the edge of his bed just watching me, the expression in his eyes one of deep unease.
“Jess,” he whispered… “God, I’m so dang sorry.”
“You and me both,” I said flatly. “So, what happened…those dreams get to you huh?”
“I reckon, they were so real, Jess I just don’t seem to be able to tell the truth from lies right now…nothing seems to make sense anymore.”
I suddenly felt a pang of pity for him, even after everything he’d done to me. I felt maybe I hadn’t been as sympathetic as I could have been. Hell, out of everyone I should have understood his predicament, after what I’d been through.
I remembered the frustration of trying to capture those elusive memories, just out of reach… Then the relief when everything finally came flooding back to me.
I remembered back to that terrible time when everyone believed I’d drowned in the Laramie River…everyone except Mike that was, he just wouldn’t believe it and it was his faith that finally brought me home.
I recalled seeing him riding towards me on Traveller… Then suddenly everything flooded back with such force that I felt like I had been physically kicked in the guts, felt winded and dizzy with relief.
Now I turned back to Slim, “It will be alright I promise, we’ll just have to sit it out huh pard?”
His face crumpled and I thought for a terrible moment he’d break down sobbing, but he took some deep breaths and got himself under control again.
“I can’t remember,” he finally said huskily, “but I reckon you must be one hell of a friend.”
I just nodded but said nothing.
He got shakily to his feet, “You stay in bed today Jess, rest up some, I’ll do all your chores, until you’re feeling better OK?”
“Thanks,” I said quietly, lying back down, surprising myself by my obedience, but hell I was feeling real bad so why not.
I was even more surprised that he didn’t turn a hair. Heck Slim would have expected me to argue long and loud saying I was just fine and no way was I staying abed. But of course he didn’t remember his ornery buddy who doc Sam had dubbed the patient from hell, albeit tongue in cheek.
“I’ll get you a coffee,” he said retreating to the door, but I called him back.
“Yes, Jess?”
“Once I stop hurtin’ I’ll find it in me to forgive you for this…But I won’t be forgettin’ anytime soon and you turn on me that way again…I won’t be holdin’ back…understand?”
He nodded suddenly looking totally wretched, “I’ll make it up to you some way Jess…and I truly am sorry,” and he went out closing the door behind him.
“I know you are pard,” I said softly to myself, “I know you are….”
Mort and Kate had ridden out late the previous afternoon with a promise to visit again soon. But not before Mort and I had been able to have a private chat about the whereabouts of one Pete Corrigan.
“Old Denver came into town a few days ago,” Mort said frowning slightly, “wanting to know when Kate was going back up the mountain.”
Denver was a distant cousin of Kate’s and she had moved up the mountain with him a good few years ago after the death of her husband. That was when she had met up with Mort and over the years she had developed a deep friendship with him, but not deep enough to commit to marriage unfortunately.
“Den missin’ her company I imagine,” I smiled.
“Uh, her cooking more like, there ain’t much love lost between them that’s for sure. I reckon she only stays up there with him and the boys because she loves the life on the mountain. And even Kate realizes it ain’t too good an idea for a woman to be up there alone.”
“Well iffen you’re that dang worried about it why not ask her to marry you?” I quipped.
“Why you young bucks think you know it all dontcha?” he groused. “Anyway, you know dang well she wouldn’t have me, values her independence too much.”
I shrugged, “Well that’s one of the things that makes Kate so special, she’s her own woman likes to do things her own way, don’t give a damn what folk think either.”
He smiled and shook his head, “Yup that’s my Kate,” he said quietly, looking off into the distance. But then he suddenly remembered something.
“You made me forget what I was going to say. Denver told me he saw Pete Corrigan up the mountain, wanting to do some trading.”
I sat up at that and cried out as my ribs protested. “Say what? Did he say anything, about gunning for us?”
“Nope, Denver just said he was looking to buy a few bottles. But it seems like he’s got a hide-out somewhere up the mountain Jess, so things aren’t looking good. Me and Lon are going to take a look later this week, see if we can flush him out…but in the meantime you watch your back OK…and Slim’s too,” he added.
Now laying back in bed his words came back to me, garldarn it I thought, I can’t stay lyin’ around the place this way…gotta get up, keep an eye open.
I bumped into Slim bringing my coffee in just as I made my way to the kitchen.
“I thought you were taking it easy today?” he said in surprise.
I relieved him of the coffee cup and sat down at the table, “Nah I’m OK,” I said, “we need to finish mending the harness anyway.”
Daisy came over with Slim’s breakfast and went back to the stove to make something for me.
“I’m OK Daisy,” I said quickly, ”I ain’t too hungry.”
“But Jess dear you must eat and why don’t you go back to bed, I’m sure Slim can manage.”
I shook my head and threw her a look that said not now Daisy and she just shrugged and went to fetch more coffee.
It was when Slim had gone off to change the team on the early morning Stage that I got a chance to talk to her properly.
“Are you sure you can’t manage something to eat?” she said again.
I rubbed a hand over my aching belly just the thought of food making it lurch.
“No thanks Daisy, not right now.”
Then I decided to put my plan into action.
“Er, I was thinkin’ Daisy what with Mike being away for the next few weeks, you could take the chance to go visit with your sister in Cheyenne. It’s been a while since you’ve been.”
She gave me a shrewd glance, “Are you trying to get rid of me Jess Harper?”
“Heck no Daisy, I just thought that….”
“You just thought that I’d be safer out of the way, with that terrible Pete Corrigan on the loose,” she finished.
I flushed and looked down, before looking back up into her kind eyes, “Mort?”
She shook her head, “No, Kate told me, said I should be on the alert, what with you being hurt so badly and Slim…. well hardly himself.”
“I’m worried about him Daisy,” I said, “You know I have a feeling that if Corrigan did attack, well he just wouldn’t shoot back the way he’s acting right now, so I reckon it’s down to me.”
“Oh Jess dear do you really think he’ll come here looking for you both?”
“I sure hope not Daisy, but I would be a tad more comfortable if you weren’t around.”
“Well I’m sorry about that Jess, but I’m not leaving you,” she said before marching off to the kitchen to tackle the dishes.
As it happened things were really quiet for the next few days, which was kinda good, because I really wasn’t feeling any too well. I tried to act as normal because every time I winced or looked pained Slim would throw me an anxious look and it really weren’t helping us to put everything behind us.
Anyway, the good news came via two visitors.
Firstly, Doc Sam called by and insisted on checking me over, proclaiming my injuries to be healing well. Even though I hadn’t heeded his advice to rest, he added with a roll of the eyes. Then he asked Daisy iffen she’d be free to help him out some.
“I surely don’t know what was happening nine months ago,” he said chuckling as we sat around the table with a coffee, “but there seems to be one heck of a lot of ‘happy events’ due over the next few weeks.”
Slim looked somewhat embarrassed by that. But I was used to Sam’s forthright manner and laughed along with him. “I seem to remember the snow was down and folk couldn’t get out too much,” I said winking at him. “So, don’t tell me you need a loan of the number one Midwife in the district,” I said grinning over at Daisy.
“Oops, don’t let my Carrie hear you say that,” he smiled referring to his daughter and nurse who often helped out at confinements.
But then he turned to Daisy looking more serious, “But yes Daisy I really could do with your help, we are overwhelmed right now and if you could stay over with the Bates family for a week or two that would be a great help.”
Young Mary and Scott Bates lived just over the ridge and were expecting their first and I knew both were real worried about the whole business. What with being new to the West and pretty much struggling all around.
“Oh I don’t know I can leave right now Doctor,” Daisy said glancing over to Slim and then me for confirmation.
“Nonsense,” I said, “we’ll manage just fine Daisy,” but she still looked unconvinced.
“I’ll be OK,” Slim said briskly smiling at her, “it’s just my memory that’s gone Daisy, I’m not completely helpless…sure me and Jess can manage.”
“And that other business,” I added quickly, “I think it was a false alarm Daisy and Mort’s got things under control anyway.”
“Oh well if you boys are really sure….”
Our second visitor arrived shortly after we had waved Sam and Daisy off.
It was Mort Cory and he was looking pretty chipper.
“So, what’s the news from up the mountain then Mort?” I asked as the three of us settled on the porch for a chinwag.
“Well Lon and I spent a couple of days up the mountain, while that US Marshal was visiting. I figured he could make himself useful and mind the shop while we were away,” Mort said chuckling.
“And, what happened?” I asked.
“Not a sign of Corrigan. Looks to me like he just came over to do some trading with Denver and the boys and once he’d gotten his grog he’s headed back down to Texas.”
All the time he’d been talking Slim had remained silent, but now he said, “So this guy was part of the gang that robbed the bank?”
Mort flicked a glance over to me before replying. “Yup that’s right Slim, the rest of the gang we saw off just before your um…accident.”
I felt sorry for Mort he, like so many of our friends, felt kinda uncomfortable in Slim’s company since the fall. I guess they felt like they were walking on egg shells so one friend had described it as Slim had suddenly become pretty touchy and snappish, which wasn’t like him at all. But I figured he was just feeling real frustrated and who could blame him.
Well that news was a huge relief for me anyway. Now I felt I could leave Slim to his own devices occasionally and ride off to do the jobs that were needed without worrying about him all the time.
We’d done our usual thing of tossing a coin as to who would cook that night and Slim got the job, so I’d been off riding fence most of the day, returning tired and hungry….
I washed off some of the trail dust at the outside pump and then marched in through the front door, throwing my hat on the peg as I went…and then I stopped dead in my tracks.
Slim was standing by the mantelpiece, the brick that covered the hiding place behind the chimney set aside and my old gunslinger weapon in his hands.
He looked ashen and the expression in his eyes hostile as his head shot up when I entered.
“Pa used to keep the petty cash in here,” he said, “so I was checking it out and found this…yours I presume,” he said icily.
“What are you doing with it?” I hedged.
“So, you admit it then! I might have known as soon as I saw that low-slung rig, that you were a gunslinger. No wonder you didn’t want to talk about your past,” he spat angrily.
“I didn’t wanna talk about it because it’s kinda complicated,” I said, “and I didn’t think you’d understand, the way you are right now.”
“Oh come on, it can’t be that complicated,” he said petulantly, “either you’re a gunfighter or you’re not, so which is it?”
I sighed deeply just longing for the return of my pard, but it didn’t look like it would be anytime soon.
“I was,” I said, “but I ain’t no more. I put my old weapon up for good when I settled here, that’s why it’s hidden away in there, filed down sear, flattened hammer and all.”
“So…you’ve never used it since you’ve been here?” he asked raising a questioning eyebrow. “You really have put it away for good?”
“Mostly,” I muttered.
“Well what the heck is that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“Look you wouldn’t remember, it was all a long time ago…”
“Oh really…well that’s mighty convenient isn’t it?” He said drily, before throwing it down on the couch and marching off to make the supper.
Things were kinda strained for the rest of the evening and I was relieved when he said he was heading off for an early night.

Chapter 11
The following evening it was my turn to cook supper and so that afternoon I decided to take myself off to where there was a rabbit warren, on the East pasture, and pick off a couple for our meal.
Slim said he could manage the afternoon Stage himself and then maybe he’d catch up with me later.
I’d got a couple of rabbits and then I went over to a clay bank and took a few minutes drawing and shooting into it. Trying to keep up to scratch with my fast draw, as was my habit when I found myself alone for a while. I was kind of edgy, especially after the worry of Pete Corrigan being on my trail. Gee that really had spooked me some and I knew I needed to keep up to speed being aware of how dang fast he was.
I’d worked on my draw for maybe ten minutes when I decided to call it a day.
I holstered my gun and turned to retrieve the rabbits and then heard someone clapping and looking up saw Slim standing just a few feet behind me.
I just stared at him in dismay. Hell, this was the last thing he needed to see. Like I’d told him down by the lake that day, I never let him or Mike see me practicing. But I’d also told him why it was so necessary that I did it with the likes of Pete Corrigan gunning for me.
Now he was staring at me like a stranger.
“Given up your gun fighting then?” he said sarcastically, before turning on his heel and marching back off towards the ranch.
I caught up with him a few minutes later.
“It ain’t like you think Slim, I’ve just gotta keep on form because of the likes of the Corrigan gang. That Pete’s fast, real fast…what do you want me to do let him gun me down…you too?”
“Maybe you could try reasoning with him?” Slim said with a hard look.
I shook my head, “Are you crazy, have you ever tried reasoning with a bullet?”
I think it was maybe seeing me shooting that way that set off that er…flash back as Doc Sam had termed it.
We’d finished supper, without all the usual banter about my terrible cooking, but in a coldly polite silence.
Then afterwards I picked up my old gun from where Slim had thrown it on the couch the day before. I looked from the gun to Slim, feeling almost bereft, knowing that he just didn’t understand me anymore. Then after wrapping it in the cloth I put it back in the hiding place by the fire. Feeling pretty dang wretched I can tell you.
It was when I turned back that I saw Slim’s eyes open wide just staring at me like I was the Bogey man in Mike’s story book or somethin’.
Then he rose from his chair gaping at me and backing off, “My God you killed her,” he said shaking and looking horrified.
“Slim, what the Hell is it?” I asked.
He sank his head into his hands and then looked back at where I stood, hands by my sides just staring back feeling totally bewildered.
“I suddenly remembered seeing you…in the saloon…that same look in your eyes as you had a moment ago…of total hopelessness. You were kneeling on the floor, holding this girl…and there was blood. Hell, blood everywhere Jess…all over your shirt…and you just held her so tight…Goddamn it how could you shoot a woman?” And he backed off again, like he thought I would suddenly draw and kill him where he stood.
I must have let out a cry of distress, because something in him changed slightly, his expression shifting from fear to concern.
“What is it Jess who was she?”
I couldn’t speak for a good minute and then I finally managed.
“It was Maria…Hell I didn’t kill her Slim, it was that bastard Marcus O’ Leary. I didn’t kill her, I loved her…Goddamn it she was my fiancée.” *See #1 Loved Lost Survived.
He stared at me, then screwed up his eyes concentrating as though his life depended on it and then finally relaxed.
“Jeez, I’m sorry…I remember it now, remember seeing you with her that is, and before that you had a smoking gun in your hand…so did you kill O’Leary?”
I nodded, “Is that all, you can’t recall anything else…anything Slim?”
He shook his head sinking down into his chair….
“Nope…vaguely that you took it real bad…but that’s all, nothing else,” he said shaking his head with frustration.
“Took it kinda bad,” I repeated, “well that’s an understatement pard, I nearly went crazy with grief. Old Doc Johnson figured I was set to die of a broken heart. He believed I’d just given up on life.”
Slim shook his head sadly, “Gee that’s bad… so what happened?”
“You saw me through it,” I replied softly, “talked it over, made me see sense … and eventually I got through it…But it was you that saved me Slim.”
If we were to think that this flash back in time was to be the start of a miracle recovery we were sadly mistaken, as the days passed with no further developments or improvements.
I guess Slim was having a real hard time trying to figure me. Hell, it had been hard enough for him the first time around, with all his wits about him. But as he was now, with no memory of how we had met and forged our friendship he was really struggling. Plus, this time, he was looking at life through the eyes of a raw, immature seventeen-year old, where there was no room for compromise. Folk were either like Slim and his family, good God fearing, stable, law abiding citizens or you were not acceptable… So far, I figured he’d judged me and found me wanting.
Well I reckoned this just couldn’t go on…Hell he was thinking the worst of me at every turn. He believed me to be a gunfighter and now, albeit only for a moment, to be a woman killer for God’s sake. Well sure I’d had my moments and ridden the Owl Hoot trail once or twice, but I knew I was nowhere near as bad as Slim was imagining me to be. So, I decided it was time for some plain speaking.
I sat him down after supper the next day and told him a little of my life and how different my beginnings had been to his.
“I ain’t gonna lie to you Slim. I’ve ridden with some pretty shady characters, been on the wrong side of the law and seen the inside of a jail more than once. Even felt a rope around my neck, for crimes I never committed,” I added quickly.
He looked kinda shocked at that, but I ploughed on.
“But I can look you in the eyes and say I never lost sight of what I believe in. I’m an honourable man in my own way, I’m loyal and true. I’ve read the good book same as you and believe and trust in the Lord…and I’ve never…ever killed a man unless he was out to kill me first. Now that’s the bottom line. Take me or leave me Slim, past and all. That’s the way I am and I ain’t about to change any time soon.”
Slim looked pretty taken aback…but Hell it needed to be said.
“We’re very different, that’s for sure,” he said looking at me and raising an eyebrow.
“You can say that again,” I said with a grim smile. “Dadgum it iffen we’d met as young men I guess we really wouldn’t have gotten along, what with me being so dang bitter and with my ‘wild Texas ways’ as Jonesy used to say.”
Slim chuckled at that.
“Not to mention you’d probably have had a mission to get me to sign the pledge, being so dang religious and domesticated,” I added. “Sure, we are real different but we’ve learnt from each other Slim. I taught you how to relax some and not take life so dang seriously. Maybe even helped you become your own man…rather than just tryin’ to be what others thought you should be.”
He gave me the ghost of a smile at that, “Really…so what did I teach you then?”
“You taught me a thing or two about kinship and leading a useful life, one with purpose instead of my ol’ drifting ways. And you taught me to trust again Slim, especially to trust in a friend. So, I guess that’s why this is so dang hard for me. Having my best buddy not trust me, hell not even know me.”
“I’m sorry…but you know I can’t help being this way right now Jess. I don’t know you and I don’t feel like I even know me anymore,” he said with a deep sigh.
“Sure,” I said softly, “but it will come right Slim. Doc said these sudden flashes of memory were a real good sign. So just hang on in there will ya?”
He looked down and I could tell he was feeling pretty emotional and he just nodded, “Sure.”
I made my excuses saying I was going to check on the horses before bed, figuring he could use a minute or two…
When I came back he looked up in surprise, “Gee Jess, you look like a darned drowned rat.”
“That would be the rain,” I said sarcastically, “darn it Slim it’s blowing up one hell of a storm out there, I reckon the Indian summer’s definitely over buddy.”
The next morning, I had promised to ride over and check on Daisy so pulling the collar of my rain slicker up, me and Traveller took off for the Bates place, the rain still coming down in sheets. Although they only lived a couple of miles down the Laramie road I was pretty much drenched by the time I arrived and so wasn’t too pleased when Scott said Daisy weren’t there.
“Come in Jess take a pew,” he said, hanging my slicker up to dry.
Then Mary came in beaming at me, “How nice to see you Jess, coffee?”
“Thanks,” I said as she brought the pot over.
“Er…so, how are you?” I asked, trying to keep my eyes from slipping down to her huge belly.
She rubbed the bump and looked kinda sheepish, “Oh just fine but it looks like this little one is going to keep us all waiting a while longer.”
I perked up some at that, “Oh so is Daisy ready to come home…until you’re er…ready for her help?” I asked flushing up some.
“I’m afraid not Jess, Doctor Baker called and asked iffen she could help out at the Patterson place for a few days until she’s needed here.”
“Looks like she’s on the darned payroll,” I said with a laugh, although to be honest I weren’t too happy knowing I’d have to put up with Slim’s cooking a while longer.
Well Scott must have seen my expression because he said, “I guess the Doctor is really up against it right now Jess, hardly coping what with all these confinements. Now looks like there’s Chickenpox doing the rounds as well.”
“Great,” I muttered under my breath, just glad that Mike was still out of town.
“Mrs Patterson has had twins,” Mary joined in,” and could really do with dear Daisy’s help.”
I looked over to Mary and thought the size of her she looked pretty much like she could be in for twins too, but thought it better not to say anything. So after a while I drained my cup, thanked them and headed for home.
“I don’t know how dang long,” I said later running a hand across my soaking face before hanging up my slicker. “But I’d think a week or so rather than days Slim.”
“Well she’s helpin’ Ma Patterson right now and Mary Bates hasn’t even had hers yet…I’m tellin’ ya Slim this Midwifin’ is becoming a dang full-time job for Daisy,” I said angrily.
“Aw come on Jess you’re just sore because you’re missing out on Daisy’s cooking…besides you know how much she loves looking after babies…”
My head shot up at that, “Sure I do…but you didn’t, hey pard I really think you are beginning to recover.”
“How about that,” he said grinning over at me. Then more thoughtfully, “maybe that’s how it’s going to be, I’ll just slowly start to remember little things…over time.”
“Uh, maybe, so let’s see iffen you can remember your way to the kitchen huh Slim, I seem to remember it’s your turn to cook.”
He leaned over and swatted at me and just for a moment it was like my old buddy was back…but I knew he wasn’t, not really.
Well I guess things were really beginning to get to us.
I’d suddenly look up and find him watching me, like he was trying to figure me out.
After supper I went off to make the coffee and a few minutes later he joined me in the kitchen and stood looking at me irritably.
I’d found a packet of smokes in one of the drawers and although I’d given up a while back, I just felt the need. So, I was standing by the cook stove a cigarette in my mouth, squinting through the smoke as I brewed the coffee.
Aware of his rather hostile gaze I frowned back, “What?”
“Ma doesn’t allow smoking in the kitchen, or any place,” he said firmly.
Damn it! It was one step forwards and two back I thought. Just when he seemed to be recovering he’d slipped right back again.
I inhaled deeply and then blew the smoke out, “Well yer Ma ain’t here no more,” I said unkindly. I regretted the words the moment I saw the hurt look in his eyes as he withdrew, with a quiet, “Oh yeah.”
I took the coffee in and he had one sip and grimaced. We’d had this performance ever since the accident and I figured he’d lost his taste for decent coffee.
“Jeez, how do you do this?” he gasped eyes watering.
“Well,” I said, “what ya do is take two pounds of Arbuckle’s coffee, put in enough water to wet it down, boil it for two hours, then throw in a horse shoe. If it sinks then the coffee ain’t ready.”
He rolled his eyes at my tall story and mooched off to the kitchen saying he was going to water it down some.
“It doesn’t take near as much water to make coffee as some folks think,” I muttered after him. Then once he’d disappeared into the kitchen I spotted my bottle of Redeye in the hearth and went over and added a drop to my coffee. “I guess maybe it could use diluting some,” I said grinning to myself.
Well that little boost sure got me through Slim’s fussin’ and frettin’ all the dang evening, which was pretty much the way he’d been since the bad weather hit us. But hell I thought later iffen he didn’t hurry up and return to his normal self I’d end up the town drunk. Already he’d gotten me tipping the jug on a working day, not to mention smokin’ again…where would it all end I wondered as I mooched off to bed.
The following day the weather was worse if anything and it weren’t just Slim that was beginning to get kinda worried.
“You know Slim I reckon I’ll ride across the home pasture today, just double check the fence down by the creek,” I said over breakfast.
“Oh, is there a problem?” he asked.
I shook my head, “Dunno, could be. Last year the creek flooded, brought some of the fencing down and after all the rain we’ve had I think maybe it could come down again…especially now this wind’s gotten up,” I said as we listened to the eerie sound of the wind in the chimney.
Slim peered out of the window, “Well looks like the rain’s stopped at least, so shall we ride over after breakfast?”
As soon as we arrived at the creek we saw there was indeed a problem. The river was roaring and hurtling along with all the extra water and yes, the fence was down in one place.
Then as we moved closer our worst fears were realised as we saw a small group of cattle heading towards the fast-flowing water.
We hurtled down the hill and were able to head most of them off, save for two hell bent on reaching the water.
I herded the seven or eight heifers back up to the pasture and once they were headed back off towards the field water trough, I returned for the others.
Slim had already sent one back up and once she’d gone off to join her buddies, I rode down to where Slim was still trying to move the last one. But the stupid critter had bolted towards the water instead of away from it. I managed to get a rope on her. Then Slim swung down from the saddle and waded onto the muddy bank at the edge of the river to haul on the rope, seeing that the animal seemed to be well and truly stuck in the mud now.
With one final tug she was at last freed and bolted forwards knocking Slim flying in the process.
I watched in horror as he fell backwards into the bubbling river. He struggled hard to swim back to the bank, but was carried away in seconds.
I threw myself down from the saddle and removed my rope from the now panting and sweating cow before she made her way sedately off to join the rest of the herd. Then seconds later I was back on Traveller and heading across country. I galloped parallel to the river and could see Slim’s yellow rain slicker still bobbing away as he flailed his arms ineffectually, desperately trying to swim against the current and towards the bank.
I knew that the river curved and narrowed about quarter of a mile upstream and I spurred Traveller on towards that spot, threw myself from the saddle and divested myself of my slicker, boots, hat and gun belt, just before Slim appeared around the bend.
Moments later I launched myself into the foaming waters and jeez it was so dang cold it took my breath away for a moment. Then I rallied and seeing Slim coming towards me struck out swimming hard.
It was the slicker that was dragging him down and somehow between us we managed to ditch it and then he was able to swim more effectively. But then the river opened up again and he was losing momentum. That’s when I took over and getting him on his back yelled at him to just relax. After a moment he did and I was able to get us pretty much within spittin’ distance of the bank… Then he was able to cope again and eventually we both made it onto dry land…coughing and spluttering…
We were lying on our backs shivering and panting as we gazed up to the now clear blue sky above and he rolled his head towards me.
“Thanks,” he gasped, “I do believe you just saved my life.”
I grinned over at him, “Well let’s hope you still appreciate it when you have to go buy a new rain slicker.”
He stared at me and was suddenly laughing …and then I laughed too…jeez it was so good to be laughing together again, that was for sure.
Well I kinda hoped all the trauma would have shocked his brain into working proper again…but nope…he still couldn’t remember anything much before his late teens. But after this latest stunt I did believe that he was beginning to trust me, heck maybe even like me some.
By the time we’d repaired the fence and returned to the ranch we were freezing cold and it wasn’t until a spell in the hot tub that I was beginning to feel a mite more human. We’d tossed a coin for first dibs on the tub and I’d won.
So later while Slim was soaking by the fire I fed the stock and changed the last Stage of the day.
By the time I came back in the tub was all tidied away and he was sitting right close up to the fire still lookin’ kinda white and peaky.
I left the room and came back with a couple of tumblers and pouring a good measure of Red Eye, from the bottle on the hearth, into each passed one over.
Slim gave me a look of askance.
“Git it down you Slim, for medicinal purposes only, you look like you could be getting a nasty chill.”
He sniffed the drink suspiciously and then took a sip before recoiling.
“Go on,” I said encouragingly and eventually he knocked it back, coughing and spluttering, before passing his glass over for seconds.
I grinned at him as he settled back now sipping it appreciatively, “You know this isn’t half bad Jess, got quite a bite to it.”
“Yeah well you just take it easy,” I said with a twinkle in my eye, “it tends to bite back.”
Slim settled back in his chair looking deeply into the fire a slight flush to his cheeks now and a faraway look in his eyes.
“So, do ya fancy a hand of poker?” I asked cheerfully.
“Huh…er yeah why not, OK after supper. So, Jess, tell me about those saloon girls again…did you say I knew one?” he asked looking kinda eager.
It looked like I was about to educate Slim up all over again, I thought with a contented sigh.
Chapter 12
The following day we were just finishing up breakfast when there was a loud banging on the door.
We exchanged a puzzled glance.
“That can’t be Mose, the early Stage is long gone,” I said.
We both moved to the door, me snagging my gun belt from the peg on the way and Slim hauled the door open while I stood by, ready to draw iffen our guest turned out to be the less hospitable kind.
But no, young Scott Bates stood there and in a real lather too.
“What’s up Scott, come to tell us the baby’s arrived?” I asked grinning at him.
He shook his head and then I noticed how white he was and he was shaking too…Hell this was no happy announcement he’d come to make.
“What’s up,” I asked, “is Mary OK?”
He just stood there dumbstruck, staring at us.
“Has she had the baby?” Slim added, thinking like me that the way he was looking maybe they’d lost it. Hell, maybe even Mary too…it happened that way sometimes I knew that.
“Yes…No…er that is she’s had the baby and they’re both fine…at the moment…”
“Huh?” I said really wondering what could have spooked him so much.
He took a deep breath and tried again…
“He’s holding them ransom…Miss Daisy and Mary and our baby…says he’ll kill them iffen you don’t ride over pronto…something about a score to settle?”
“Who?” hollered Slim looking beside himself with anxiety now.
“Corrigan,” I spat, “Pete Corrigan, who else.”
We tore off to saddle up and it was just before we mounted that I grabbed hold of Slim by his shoulders, “Listen Slim,” I said firmly, “and listen up real good.”
I took a deep breath, still holding him by the shoulders and staring deeply into his anxious eyes. “I’ll take him on…but I really don’t think I can outdraw him, he’s fast Slim, maybe too dang fast.”
He looked even more troubled by that news.
“So, here’s what you do, he’ll draw on me and there will be a split second before he guns you down too…You have to kill him Slim, as soon as he draws on me you have to shoot him down.”
He just stood there looking horror stricken, “I…I don’t think I can Jess I haven’t ever killed a man…I can’t do it.”
I increased my grasp on his shoulders and shook him hard, “You have to,” I hollered, “you’ve gotta forget your damn principles for once Slim, because iffen you don’t do as I say he’ll kill you, Daisy and the Bates family too. He don’t take no prisoners Slim, it ain’t his way…he always kills any witnesses, that’s how he’s ridden free for so damn long… You understand me!”
He nodded looking alarmed, but he took a deep breath and pulled himself up tall, before nodding, “Yup I understand.”
As soon as we rode in Corrigan appeared on the porch, dragging out Daisy beside him…
I threw myself down from Traveller.
“Let her go you bastard,” I yelled, marching towards him, Slim on my heels.
He had a manic glitter in his eyes as he held the gun to Daisy’s head, looking like he’d shoot her outright. But then he seemed to think better of it and pushing her aside spat, “Git inside old woman.”
She stood frozen to the spot and I turned to her, “It’s OK Daisy do as he says,” I said, “go check on Mary and the baby, it will be just fine…I promise.”
She looked over to where me, Slim and Scott Bates were standing just a few feet away.
Slim nodded to her, giving her an encouraging smile, and she finally turned and disappeared inside.
“Right so to business gentlemen,” Corrigan said as he strode out into the yard facing us…
At the same time Slim and Scott had fanned out and now flanked me, standing several feet away.
Corrigan fixed me with his slightly feverish gaze and then said, “That’s right, you’re for it first Harper…seeing as how it was you who did for my cousins’ single handed.”
My head shot up and he gave me a nasty smile, “Oh yes I heard all about it. Overheard that dumb Deputy and the woman from the café talking in the Sheriff’s office before I escaped, sayin’ how brave Jess Harper had outdrawn Marty. I figure you two were pretty evenly matched in the old days,” he said throwing me a speculative glance.
I just nodded, my mouth dry, just wishing he’d cut the chat and get on with it but no, he weren’t through with taunting me yet.
“But I guess you know Marty was one thing…but I’m another altogether ain’t I Jess? I’d say I was way faster …wouldn’t you?”
“Maybe,” I said grudgingly.
“Uh,” he said, “I know what you’re thinking…same as me. I dispatch you, but you’re buddy there might just feel the need to join the party before he’s invited huh? That the plan Jess… your buddy will shoot me down huh?”
I just shrugged and said nothing.
“Well I’ll tell you something Jess, that doesn’t bother me too much. See all I wanna do is go home to Texas, but I can’t because I’ve got me a rope waitin’ on me in Dallas. Made a mistake back there, I done killed a woman, and let her kid live…he grew up some and gave evidence and now I’m wanted for murder. So, seems I can’t go home and ya know what, I figure I’m kinda weary of this life anyways.”
“Quit givin’ me the sob story Pete just git on with it.” I drawled.
“In time boy, in time, I just want you to know…it’ll probably end here for me but I really don’t care because I’m takin’ you down with me Jess…”
Then a split second later he drew.
Jeez, it was too dang fast to see, one minute he was grinning at me, his eyes glittering with madness and the next I felt a bullet slam into my chest. I realised I’d instinctively drawn and my bullet had gone high as I fell, catching him in the throat instead of the heart. Then as I was falling, almost in slow motion I saw him buck and jerk as two more bullets smashed into his chest, from Slim and Scott…killing him instantly.
The smell of cordite and the smoke was sickening and then through the haze I saw Slim striding over and falling to his knees beside me.
“Hey Hotshot, it’s OK,” he said peering anxiously down at me.
He’s back I thought fleetingly, he’d remembered his stupid nickname for me…my pard’ s memory was back…Then I thought how it was kind of a shame I was gonna die before I could welcome him home and then everything went black.
I spent the next few hours slipping in and out of consciousness. I remember Daisy’s tear stained face, a baby crying loudly and then Doc Sam was there. All the time they were talking to me, but I could barely open my eyes and my mouth too dang dry for me to utter a word.
Then I was lifted into a wagon and laid on a bed of sweet smelling hay. Slim hunkered down beside me, holding me close against the bumps rattling us about as we made our way slowly towards town.
Next, I was in a warm comfortable bed, Slim still at my side, anxious faces looming at me and then fading away and all the while the constant agonising pain in my chest.
Fragments of conversation floated around me… “Passed straight through him… It’s too early to tell the internal damage… Inches from his heart, lucky to be alive…Not Laudanum doc he can’t tolerate it…and a muffled reply. I’m injecting Extractum Cannabis, for the hemorrhaging… Morphine for the pain… Jess, can you hear me buddy…can you hear me?”
I just lay there my eyes too dang heavy to open and listened, ‘Yes I wanted to cry yes I hear ya. And no for God’s sake don’t give me Laudanum…I tolerate it way too well…don’t give me that. Morphine for the pain…hell yes give me something for the dang pain Sam…please, please…’ But I just lay there unable to speak or move, locked in a living hell.
Then Sam would give me a shot and I’d sleep. When I awoke the second or maybe the third day, I’d lost count, I managed to drag my eyes open and saw that Slim was still at the bedside, staring at me and after a moment a huge grin spread across his face as he realised I was awake and looking back at him.
“Jess, hey buddy, you’ve had us worried,” he said softly, “how are you feeling huh?”
I tried. Goddamn it I tried but although I licked my lips and opened my mouth to speak, nothing came out.
He gently lifted my head and offered me a drink and I took a sip or two before closing my eyes and drifting off again…
It was later, maybe even the next day when I came to again, but I just couldn’t open my eyes. I could hear someone talking softly, no not talking but praying. It was Josh, Rev Joshua Wesley and he was prayin’ as though his life depended on it and then I got to thinking maybe it was mine that did.
Next thing someone was sobbing and I could hear Millie saying something. Jeez I tried so dang hard to open my eyes…to move my hand, but nothing…then someone said something to her and a door opened and closed and I figured she must have been taken away.
That’s when I heard Sam say softly, “It’s no good were losing him.”
Then Slim’s angry retort, “Not while I’m riding shot gun on him, he’s not going anywhere Sam.”
It was later that night. I’d felt a sharp scratch on my arm where I knew Sam had been injecting me with the pain killer and I relaxed some waiting for it to kick in and take that bloody agony away. Then the next thing I knew I felt real light headed, almost as though I was floating and the pain gradually eased away. Gee that was quick I thought…
Then hours seemed to have passed, I’d slept and then woken up when a real strange thing happened. I felt like I was way up above the hospital bed, looking down and I could see myself, stripped to the waist and a snowy bandage covering my chest my face almost the same colour. Slim sitting with his arms folded on the bed beside me and his head laying on them and I figured he was so wore out he’d eventually nodded off. I felt pretty good, the pain gone completely and I stared down feeling real calm, like I was looking at someone else…or it was some sort of weird dream.
Then the door opened and Sam walked in, waking Slim as he leaned over, taking my pulse. But then he stopped just standin’ there like he was frozen to the spot.
“I’m sorry Slim,” he said eventually peering over to my pard, “he’s gone.”
There was deathly silence for a good minute before Slim bellowed like a wounded beast, “No,” he cried,” Goddamn it no!”
I felt a sudden force seemingly dragging me back down and then I bucked and cried out in agony as the pain smash into me like a herd of buffalo…
Then I felt firm hands on me, Sam’s voice sounding bewildered but joyful, “No…he’s back…Slim I’ve got a pulse…he’s back with us…”

Chapter 13

We never did find out what happened that night in Sam’s hospital room. The doc had pronounced my buddy dead…and just moments later he was crying out in pain. Then next thing we knew he came around properly for the first time. Sam struggled for an explanation, eventually saying that maybe the Morphine had slowed down his heart rate to such an extent that it appeared to have stopped.
Jess said he figured he was dead and was watching everything from up aloft, ‘on his way to Heaven,’ he’d said with a cheeky wink. Until he heard me hollerin’ that is and figured ‘he’d better get back pretty dang quick seein’ as how I was creatin’ somethin’ fierce.’
Whatever it was it really didn’t matter, because we were just so thankful that he started to recover from that moment on.
Now many weeks later I sat on the corral fence watching him breaking one of the Mustangs just grateful that my pard was back in one piece, fit again and as ornery as all get out too. I watched as he was thrown yet again, before getting up cussing and dusting himself down with his hat.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, before marching back towards the hapless critter.
Jeez it was good to be back to normal I reflected as I thought back to the past few weeks and once more thanked God that I was able to. I guess something like memory is taken for granted by most of us. That is until you lose it I thought now…then you realise just how dang precious memories are….
I thought back to that day just a few short weeks ago, remembered the feeling of pride as we admired our handiwork on the barn roof. My last thoughts on how pleased Pa would be that I was keeping the old place in tip top condition…and then I stepped backwards…
When I came to, my head was aching fit to burst and I was lying on the old couch. It was over by the window, instead of the far wall where Ma favored it, which was kind of strange. But things were about to get a whole lot stranger.
This dark-haired cowboy I’d never clapped eyes on before had the cheek to call me Slim. Well I thought that was pretty forward for the hired help, if that’s who he was indeed. Only my best buddy called me that…and this guy was certainly no friend of mine. He had a kind of dangerous look to him, the way he moved, like a lean cat on the prowl, not to mention that low slung, tied down weapon he was wearing.
Well it wasn’t too long before I was hollering for Ma and Pa, truth being that we didn’t see a great many folk in these parts, not ones we didn’t know anyway so I figured he was up to no good.
When it became clear that Ma, Pa and young Andy were nowhere around that’s when I really panicked…pinning all my hopes on seeing Doc Johnson. But no, he didn’t appear either and it was some guy named Sam Baker and he sure didn’t act like old Doc Johnson. He claimed to be a buddy who came by fishing; well I didn’t believe that for one minute.
That’s until Mr Benson arrived and that was when I had to start believing this Jess Harper was telling the truth…But it was hard, real hard, especially when I went up the hill and saw my folks’ graves and really knew the truth of it all. Jess was there for me then. Now with my restored memory I smiled to myself…even though I’d been a complete bastard to him up until then he was still there for me…a hand on the shoulder and a kind word.
Then I remembered back to all the other matters that had transpired during my spell of amnesia.
I guess it was the first time I’d had a chance to really think things through, what with Jess being hurt so badly and all… Now as I watched him working with the horses such dedication and skill I got a huge lump in my throat as I cast my mind back again remembering how badly I’d treated him.
Hell, we’d even come to blows over the War and I flushed up at the memory. I remembered the blind fury I’d felt when I’d attacked him, just seeing a Confederate…not a person at all… Had I really been that bigoted as a youngster? I’d practically killed him raining blow after blow on him and at first, he’d hardly retaliated at all…just saying he didn’t want to fight me that way.
I’d been so dang sanctimonious, that’s the word he’d used and I smiled at the irony now. Remembering that it had been his favourite word a while back…
But heck the cap fitted, the way I looked down on him for wanting to have some fun at the saloon, a drink or two, a game of poker and some romancin’ with the girls. And then I flushed up again, oh no, had I really said I thought Millie was a hooker? Then I thought of my beautiful Lily, still back in Denver caring for her sick ma…how could I have been so darned narrow-minded? Was I really that priggish before the war…it seemed I was.
Jeez I figured I’d got some fence mending to do with my best buddy and I was determined to start that very night.
However, as it turned out I was to be thwarted.
You see ever since Jess had been so sick and we’d nearly lost him Mike had become a tad clingy. The boy had returned home from his trip back east in high spirits and was delighted when Daisy told him that my memory had returned. But then she had to break the news about Jess being so sick. The boy had taken it really badly and even now that Jess was fighting fit again, Mike still needed to keep him close.
So that was why Jess had gotten into the routine of putting him to bed and telling him some of his tall stories, staying until the youngster dropped off.
Tonight, was no exception and as it was kinda chilly, now late fall and snow in the air, I had settled by the fire rather than out on the porch. Daisy had taken herself off for an early night, saying she was going to enjoy a new book in the comfort of her bed.
But I guess she knew I had plans for the evening as her parting shot was, “Why don’t you and Jess have a nice drink together, talk everything through, you’ve hardly had a chance since he was so sick.”
I grinned at her, “Are you sure you’re not a Witch Daisy,” I joked, “you always seem to know what’s on a body’s mind even before they hardly know it themselves.”
She smiled fleetingly and then said quietly, “I think you need to talk dear, I’ve a mind that Jess isn’t too happy right now.”
Once she’d gone I thought about it and yes, she had a point. My partner had been real quiet of late and I tried to remember the last time we’d shared a joke and I couldn’t. We’d hardly talked much either, him spending extra time with Mike and all.
When Mike’s door opened and Jess came out I was sitting by the fire and lifting up a bottle of Red-eye waggled it at him, “Night cap?” I asked grinning over.
He stared at me for a moment and then shook his head, “No thanks Slim, I’m pretty beat, gettin’ an early night,” and he headed for the bedroom.
“Are you OK?”
“Sure, why wouldn’t I be?” he replied and disappeared off into our room.
I sat back in my chair trying to remember if Jess had ever knocked me back this way before, refusing a whiskey, and decided not…things were obviously worse than I thought…But how to get him to talk to me, when I really felt he didn’t want my company?
My suspicions were confirmed just a day later.
We were sitting around the supper table and Jess suddenly said, “I figure that little Palomino is just about green broke now, ready for Jake Harrison to take on.”
“Huh, oh yeah he wanted something for his grandson, didn’t he?” I said.
Jess nodded, “She’ll be a real sweet ride once she learns some common sense and Jake wanted young Arnie to have a go at schooling her on himself, should be easy enough with his Grandpa’s help.”
“So, when are you going over it’s a fair step to his place isn’t it, someplace near Harmony?”
“Uh yeah, base of the Sheep Mountain, less than a day’s ride, maybe longer with that little Goldie in tow, I’ll probably camp out on the way back.”
All the time he’d been talking I noticed that Mike had stopped eating his pudding and was now staring at my pard with huge anxious eyes
“Do ya have to go Jess can’t Mr Harrison come by and collect him?”
“Huh, well no Tiger, he’s getting on in years and anyway it was part of the deal that we’d deliver.”
“But I don’t want you to go,” he said looking darned near to tears.
“Hey Mike what’s up,” I asked, “you know Jess needs to ride off the ranch sometimes.”
“But…what if a bad man comes like that Pete Corrigan and shoots him down again,” he said turning pale and his eyes suddenly filling with unshed tears.
“Oh Mike dear, that’s not going to happen, Mr Corrigan is er…deceased and Jess will be quite safe…he usually is you know,” Daisy said smiling at the youngster.
However, nothing we could say would comfort him and when he finally went off to bed even Jess’s storytelling and kind words couldn’t calm him and he finally cried himself to sleep.
Later I went and sought out Jess who was settling the horses down for the night.
I entered the dimly lit barn quietly and stood watching him for a moment as he caressed Traveller’ s muzzle, talking softly to him.
After a moment I wandered over and said, “The boy’s really upset then?”
He shrugged, “I guess so…”
“Look Jess how about I ride over with you, I think that would settle him some?”
He just shook his head, “He’s gotta learn Slim, iffen he kicks off every time I need to go away on business then where will we be?”
I nodded, “I agree but all this business is still kind of raw with him Jess. First me acting so weird and then you nearly dying that way, it’s bound to have spooked him some.”
When he said nothing I said quietly, “Is that the real reason, or do you just not want me riding with you?”
“Huh…what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh come off it Jess, you’ve not wanted to spend any time with me since you got back from the doc’s place.”
He shrugged again, “I’ve been busy ain’t I, tryin’ to get those broncs busted before the cold weather sets in. Dang it you know how I hate bein’ throwed off those ornery critters when the grounds froze solid.”
“OK, so sooner we get this one delivered sooner you’ll be able to get back on the job and I figure it’ll be quicker with the two of us too.”
“Oh you do, do ya…so why’s that then?”
“Because last time you delivered over there you were gone near a week, got real captivated by Ma Harrison’s cooking if I remember rightly.”
“Oh Slim that weren’t so, I was helping the old man out some because he’d been sick if you must know.”
“Uh, that’s what you tell me, but everyone knows old Ma Harrison’s Beef Stew is legendary.”
He finally cracked a smile, “Well I guess they’re not wrong at that,” he agreed.
“So, I’ll get the Jacksons to come by for a couple of days and we’ll go over together huh?”
He sighed and then finally turned to face me properly, “OK Slim, if that’s what you want.”
We rode out the following day and didn’t hang about because the weather had turned mighty cold, with the threat of snow iffen those big old grey clouds on the horizon had anything to do with it.
Jess was still pretty tight lipped on the way over, but I put that down to the weather more than anything, knowing how my pard hated the cold Wyoming winters.
Well the long hard ride was sure made up for some by the fact that Ma Harrison had her famous Beef Stew on the menu for dinner.
Well Jess and I were so dang full up we could barely get back up in the saddle. But we decided we’d push off for home as soon as the deal was struck and the meal eaten as the snow had already started drifting lazily down.
The afternoon was drawing in when a real fierce wind got up, the flakes stinging our eyes and faces as we turned up our collars and increased our pace. However, we were only halfway home before the dusk started to fall early and we knew we’d have to make camp and weather the storm before travelling the last twenty miles or so home.
We’d already planned to break our journey, but neither of us felt like spending the night out in the elements and after a while we reined in, turning our mount’s butts to the weather and discussed the problem.
“Well there is that old cabin in the creek valley that we passed on the way over,” Jess said, narrowing his eyes against the stinging snowflakes and pulling his hat down a tad further.
“What that old shack, heck it looked about to fall down Jess!” I exclaimed.
“Well you got a better idea?” he batted back angrily.
I shrugged, “Nope.”
“Well then,” and turning Traveller urged him on down the hill to the distant cabin.
With the wind now whistling around our ears and huge snowflakes falling relentlessly we had no choice but to make the best of a bad deal.
It was obvious that the shack had been abandoned many years ago and as Jess wrenched open the lean-to stable door it practically came off its hinges.
Together we managed to haul it open and were pleasantly surprised that there were still a few bales of clean looking straw for bedding and a pile of logs in the corner.
We rubbed down, fed and watered Alamo and Traveller before blanketing them against the freezing night, then taking an armful of logs apiece made our way next door into the shack.
Jess nearly turned right around again saying he’d rather take his chances out in the stable. That is until I pointed out that at least there was a fireplace in here and so iffen he wanted bacon and beans for supper, as planned, he’d better stop being so dang picky and help me clean up some.
So, a half hour later we’d dispatched most of the wildlife that had taken up residence, swept out about a ton of dirt and dust and finally got a fire started and the coffee pot on.
Jess looked around at the shadows playing on the walls from the roaring fire and an old lamp hanging from a beam above and throwing me a sarcastic smile said, “Home away from home ain’t it.”
I threw the bacon and beans in the pan and grinned over at him.
“Hell, Jess don’t let Miss Daisy hear you saying that.”
He chuckled then, “Well it’s a dang good job she ain’t with us because way she is she wouldn’t rest until the place was spotless and we’d end up eating at midnight.”
Pleased to see his good humour returning I hoped that maybe we could finally talk everything through after supper.
Later I sat with a coffee liberally laced with whiskey to keep the chill out, my back to an old barrel and my long legs stretched out before the crackling fire.
I looked over to where Jess was on his bedroll by the fire, resting back on his saddle and contemplating the contents of his coffee cup, still uncharacteristically quiet.
I cleared my throat ready to finally talk everything through, but his head shot up and before I could say anything he said, “I don’t wanna talk about it Slim.”
“You heard. I don’t wanna talk about everything that’s happened lately.”
“Why not,” I asked quietly, “it’s obviously bothering you.”
He still sat there a brooding expression in his deep blue eyes.
“Look I just wanted to apologise…for being such a jerk,” I persisted, “being so dang sanctimonious and all.”
His lips twitched into a tiny smile at the use of the word and then he finally looked me in the eye.
“Hell, it ain’t that Slim. Mort filled me in on your upbringing some, how your grandparents were real strict and all. Anyway, I figure most youngsters are kinda difficult one way or another…get kinda obsessive about things…remember the way Andy was…always getting fired up about something?”
I nodded smiling at him and reveling in the fact that we could again share that sort of memory.
“So, if it’s not the way I was when I had amnesia that’s bothering you what is it?” I asked, glancing over at him.
He never replied, but just a second later his head shot up and he drew his gun and fired a shot off, the bullet whistling past me and slamming into the wall opposite.
“Jess what the hell!”
He was up on one knee and in a fluid movement he holstered his gun, stood up and marched across to the dim recesses of the room.
He returned moments later dangling a bloody and very dead rat by its tail.
“Sorry ‘bout that Slim, can’t abide the critters,” and he wandered off to the door. There was a draft of icy air as he hauled it open chucking the offending animal out into the snow, before returning to his bedroll and settling down once more.
I was still shaking at the sudden turn of events but tried to make light of it.
“Hey you could make quite a reputation for yourself with that fast draw,” I quipped.
But he just frowned at me.
“That’s it,” he said quietly after a few minutes.
“You asked what was botherin’ me, that’s it.”
I looked puzzled and then said, “What, being a fast draw?”
He shrugged, “Nope not being fast enough I guess.”
“What Pete Corrigan? But heck Jess there was barely a second between you.”
“It only takes one second to be dead,” he said.
“So, what are you saying?”
He shrugged, “I dunno, maybe meeting my Maker just came a tad too close for comfort. Time gone by there was only me to worry about. I got killed, well it was hardly gonna ruin anyone’s day. But now…seeing how upset you all were, Mike, Millie, Daisy…you,” he said giving me a doleful glance.
“Go on,” I whispered.
“Well it hardly seems right somehow, me gettin’ in those kinda scrapes now.”
“So, what do you aim to do about it pard?”
“I dunno,” he said giving me a wretched look, “put up my iron for good maybe…only way I figure folk will stop wanting to try me.”
“So, is that what you’re going to do?” I asked in astonishment.
He just shrugged, “I dunno and anyway, like I said I really don’t want to talk about it right now Slim.”
I opened my mouth to argue. Then saw that steely glint in his eyes that said ‘enough’ and so I just poured us both another coffee and shortly afterwards we turned in.

Chapter 14

It was about a week after my declaration to Slim that I was considering putting up my iron…and since we’d discussed it I could think of nothing else, although I was still wearing it.
We’d headed for town with it being a Saturday night and Slim was overjoyed that Lily had finally returned home.
It was kinda quiet in the bar seeing as the weather was still bad and Tom, the barkeep, had taken pity on our girls and let them finish early for the evening.
Now we were lounging around a crackling fire in Millie’s room above the bar and catching up on everything that had happened since Lily had been away.
Earlier I had overheard Millie telling Lily about my recent run in with Pete Corrigan and the consequences. Heard her voice break as she said how they all thought I was done for. They had been in Millie’s little kitchen, off the main room, and after a second one of them had pulled the door to and I heard no more. But it was obvious that Millie had been crying when she returned with our coffee although she did her best to hide it.
It was sometime later, after a couple of drinks that Millie looked over at her friend and said quietly, “Maybe now would be a good time to tell Slim and Jess about…you know.”
Lily suddenly looked really bashful flushing up and glancing over at my pard and then away again.
“What is it honey?” Slim asked looking puzzled.
When she just hung her head and said nothing, Slim looked over to Millie and then back to his girl.
“Oh no, don’t tell me your Ma’s is real sick and you’re going home for good?”
“Oh no nothing like that, it’s just well… when I was staying with my Ma I had some rather unwanted attention.”
“Attention from a man Slim….”
Then she turned to me, “Millie thought you should know too Jess, you see you know him.”
“I do?”
“Johnny Stevens,” she said.
I let out a low whistle, Johnny Stevens sure I knew him. Millie did too. He was probably one of the biggest womanizers to come out of Texas and worse than that, a ruthless gunfighter to boot.
“What man, what are you talking about?” Slim said looking bewildered and a tad annoyed too at having his girl discuss their private business this way.
“He’s a Texan and he moved up here a few years back…he…well he pesters me to go with him every time I visit Ma.”
“Oh really,” said Slim now looking real annoyed, “so why didn’t you say something before?”
“Because he’s never really bothered me before, heck Slim, Millie and I know how to put down unwanted advances we have to do it all the time in the bar.”
Slim and I digested this rather disagreeable, yet truthful, information for a moment.
“So, what’s changed then,” he asked, “why tell me now?”
She looked even more embarrassed and then said, “I was just so worried about Ma I guess I let my guard down. He was really kind, asking how she was. He even brought her some flowers said he hoped they’d cheer her up some.”
I rolled my eyes and Millie nudged me and threw me a warning glance.
“I know,” Lily said, “I was stupid to listen to him and as soon as I realised what he was after I told him to leave us alone.”
“And so he just turned tail and left?” I asked sarcastically.
“Jess, you’re not helping!” Millie accused.
“Well,” asked Slim now fixing her with a less than friendly look, “so did he?”
She shook her head, “He said he’d got some work over here and he’d look me up. I told him he was wasting his time…but…”
“But Johnny don’t take no for an answer,” I finished.
“So, you seem to know a lot about him?” Slim said, turning his steely gaze on me.
“Kinda yeah,” and then I thought maybe now wasn’t the best time to tell my buddy his girl was being chased by a total bastard, who would sell his granny for two cents and had the morals of a tom cat.
He looked across at me and I guess he saw a look in my eyes that said I’d back off if I were you buddy, and he went real quiet for the rest of the evening.
To be honest I was kinda hoping Slim and Lily would be up for an early night and would go off to her room pretty soon, giving me some time alone with my Millie. But with a sort of frosty atmosphere going on between them it took a few hints from me before old Slim got movin’.
The second time I yawned real loudly he took Lily’s hand, suggesting they head off.
Once the door had closed behind them Millie came and sat next to me on the couch, “Uh-uh, I don’t think Slim was any too pleased about that.”
“Well who would be with the likes of Johnny Stevens hangin’ around his girl,” I said abruptly.
“Hey whoa, there cowboy, Lily hasn’t been encouraging him you know, she’s real upset.”
“Yeah I know,” I said quietly.
Then slipping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close said, “She ain’t the only one either is she?”
“Come off it Mill, I could tell you’d been cryin’ earlier and that really ain’t like you. So, what was it about huh?”
Then I put a hand up to silence her, “And before you say nuthin’ I know it was over me gettin’ shot up so bad weren’t it…huh?”
She said nothing for a minute and then just nodded, her head bowed.
I put a finger under her chin and tipped her face towards me seeing the tears in her eyes.
“Aw sweetheart, don’t,” I whispered. Then I leaned forwards and kissed her very tenderly.
I lay in her big comfy bed the following morning, my hands laced behind my head trying to make up my mind about something… as I had been since dawn.
Then I felt a movement beside me and seconds later Millie was leaning on her elbow, gazing down at me and smiling.
“Why so troubled looking cowboy?” she asked gently.
I sighed and then said, “I’ve been trying to decide on somethin’…and I think I have.”
“Go on.”
“I’m givin’ it up Millie, wearin’ an iron. Oh, sure I’ll still have a rifle for protecting the ranch, huntin’ and the like, but I ain’t getting’ involved in anymore gunfights.”
Her eyes opened wide and she gave a little gasp, but that was all. No big smile or smothering me with kisses like I’d hoped…well expected really.
“Well, say something.”
She shook her head and then said quietly, “I think you’re crazy.”
“It’s a death sentence Jess. There will always be folk who want to take you on, you know that and happy to supply you with a weapon if you’re not carrying. And so, what are you going to do if the likes of the Corrigan Gang strike again, killing some poor innocent girl, turn your back?”
My mouth dropped open but I said nothing.
Millie was on a roll now, “I suppose you’ll tell Mort Cory you’re way too busy to ride posse as well, or deputize for him. Nope Jess Harper is far too content keeping safe to worry about the good town’s folk of Laramie!”
“Millie, that ain’t true,” I said feeling shocked to the core, “I ain’t thinkin’ of me…it’s you and the others. Hell, I saw how upset you all were, Mike can hardly let me out of his sight, Daisy and you in tears and Slim thinkin’ his pard was gonna up and die and leave him with a ranch to run single handed.”
She shook her head, “Nope you’ve got it all wrong. Kids are resilient, Mike especially I mean you’re here now aren’t you.”
I remembered back to the day before and how I’d told Mike I was thinking of spending Saturday night in town and how he’d looked a tad apprehensive. But with the promise that Daisy would be there and the prospect of a comic and candy come Sunday had been all that was needed to keep him happy.
“The same goes for me and Daisy too and as for Slim, well he just refused to give up on you.”
I smiled at the memory of my good buddy sticking with me day and night.
Then I glanced back at Millie and saw the tears in her eyes again, “No, he didn’t give up, unlike me,” she whispered.
“That’s why I was so upset last night Jess. I was telling Lily about how guilty I felt that I didn’t stay with you. See I was so upset I fainted and then Sam sedated me and wouldn’t let me back in, said I had to rest and how I’d be needed once you were well again.”
“And he was right,” I said gently running a finger down her cheek. “I do need you and you were wonderful all that time I was recovering.”
“But don’t you see Jess it was the fact that I didn’t stay by you that had me in tears last night…I was just so upset I thought I’d let you down that’s all.”
“So, you weren’t weepin’ at me being shot?”
“No…of course I did at the time. But that’s over and forgotten now, no point in brooding about it. I love all of you Jess, the way you’re so kind and loving. But I also love the tough, strong side of you. How you stand up for what you believe in and if sometimes that means you have to use your gun, then so be it.”
I just stared at her in wonder, “You really think that?”
“We all do Jess, you come as a package, your wild side that won’t let injustice win as well as your… more domesticated and romantic side,” she said with a giggle.
I gave a deep sigh of relief. OK, so life wasn’t perfect, having to keep my gun fighting skills honed and always being on the alert for trouble wasn’t easy. Being ready to help out Mort when needed, or ride shotgun. But as Millie said that’s who I was and I figured it would have been hard to give all that up…real hard.
“Thanks,” I said softly.
“What for?” she asked.
“For understanding me better than I understand myself I guess.”
She smiled then, her beautiful face lighting up, “So you’ve only got one problem to deal with today,” she said now grinning at me.
“Huh, so what’s that?”
“Convince Slim not to take on Johnny Stevens, he’d slaughter him. Now there is a fast gun that everyone would like to see put his weapon up for good,” she said sadly.
It was later that day before we had a chance to discuss the matter.
Slim was still pretty quiet when we all met up at Miss Mollie’s Cafe for breakfast, later that morning. But he was very attentive to Lily, holding her hand and getting that stupid gooey look every time he caught her eye. So, I figured he’d forgiven her and was just real worried about that lowlife Johnny Stevens.
It was real chilly with still some laying snow so we made it home at top speed after breakfast and it wasn’t until we were rubbing down our mounts in the barn that we had a chance to talk properly.
“Come on then Jess dish the dirt on this Stevens character, is he bad news all around or just a ladies’ man?”
I sighed, really not wanting to be the one to spoil his day, but he had to be told.
“He’s a total bastard,” I said quietly, “real slimy ya know, smooth talkin’. Yup he’s got a way with words. He’s talked himself out of a noose more than once, pretty much by landing his buddies in trouble to save his own neck.”
“So, he doesn’t believe in honour amongst thieves then?” Slim said with a grim smile.
“He don’t believe in honour period Slim. He uses and abuses women and when he gets bored just throws them aside like a pair of wore out ol’ boots and moves onto the next one.”
Slim visibly flinched at the thought that maybe Lily had come under this lothario’ s spell albeit for a fleeting moment or two.
He shook his head, “And he’s fast with a gun?”
I nodded, “Fast enough, but not as good as he thinks he is….”
“But I’d be no match, with him being a professional gunfighter,” he said and it wasn’t a question.
I just nodded, “I guess not pard.”
He just shook his head, “Well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that…because if needs be Jess make no mistake I will fight for her.”
I just slapped him on the back, knowing it was useless to try and humour him right now.
“Come on let’s go in, Mike will be waitin’ on his comic,” I said with a wink and was glad to see he grinned back, his troubles forgotten, if only for a minute.
It was less than a week later that we had news of Johnny Stevens.
Slim had paid Mose a few bucks to regularly visit the saloon and keep his eyes and ears open as to any sightings of him. Well I guess that was a pretty satisfactory move on both accounts, as Slim had peace of mind and old Mose was able to indulge his love of a drink and a good gossip.
It was when Mose hauled the four in hand to a sweating, huffin’ puffin’ stop on the following Saturday morning that he finally had news.
“Hey you’ve been pushing these poor ol’ critters kinda hard ain’t ya Mose?” I said as he hove to in front of the ranch house, “So where’s the fire huh?”
“I promised Slim real fast, efficient service in return for that beer money and I’m here to tell ya that no good hombre Stevens hit town last night.”
“He did huh,” I said, “so he was in the saloon then?”
“Yup and leading that poor Miss Lily a merry dance too, wouldn’t leave the poor girl alone. In the end Tom sent her out back and told Stevens he wouldn’t be welcome there iffen he couldn’t behave.”
“Uh, so what did he do?” I asked scornfully, knowing before Mose even uttered a word.
“Well he said as how he was truly sorry and bought Tom a drink, all the girls too. Just said he was so head over heels in love he couldn’t help himself…real convincing he was too Jess boy.”
“Sure he was,” I said, knowing what a good actor old Johnny was. Heck with his sickly charm he could make the bird in the trees sing. But it weren’t true. None of it was, he was as fake as fake could be…just a shame it was only those that knew him real good could see through him.
“So did Tom say he could come back then?”
“Well he didn’t say he couldn’t, so I figure he’ll be there come Saturday night, well tonight that is,” he said with a broad grin. “Gee, the days sure fly by don’t they? Yup he should be there tonight.”
“Yeah, and so will we,” I said heavily.
Then glancing across to the old timer, “Do me a favour Mose, say you’ve seen the guy sure, but play it down some huh, Slim don’t need to hear it chapter and verse right now OK?”
“Listen to me will ya Slim, you’ve gotta play it my way, unless you want us to be digging a grave up on that family plot for you!”
He turned from where he was saddling up Alamo and really looked at me.
“He’s that fast?”
I nodded, “Just do what I say Slim and you’ll get your revenge and the only person that will be hurt real bad is Johnny, trust me on this one.”
“What do ya mean Jess?”
I gave him a grim smile, “You’ll see.”
There was a dance in town later that night and so me and Slim were dressed to kill in our smart frock coats, brocade vests and best Sunday boots and Stetsons.
We’d left Traveller and Alamo at the livery before paying a discreet visit to Mort. The Sheriff had grinned as we left, “Good luck then boys and I’ll see you shortly.”
As we entered the saloon there was a sudden hushed silence and Johnny Stevens spun around from where he’d been lounging on the bar, Millie and Lily looking real ill at ease and Tom none too happy either.
Johnny was dressed immaculately as usual, with an Eastern style suit, the smart jacket obscuring his rig, as I knew only too well. Sure he looked like a dandy, but his smart clothes and mild manner hid a ruthless killer and philanderer.
His lazy indulgent look suddenly vanished as he saw me enter, Slim on my heels.
“Harper, I didn’t know you lived here abouts,” he said looking kinda wrong footed.
“Johnny,” I nodded as I made my way to the bar, Slim taking his place behind me.
“So,” I said conversationally, “I hear you’ve been paying a tad too much attention to one of the girls?”
“Huh,” he asked looking innocent as a new born, “so who would that be Jess?”
I just tipped my hat towards Lily…
“Oh, dear Lily, well Jess I guess you’ve got me wrong there, see Lily’s the love of my life. I guess I’d do just about anything to impress her,” he said with a knowing smile.
I felt Slim move behind me and half turned and threw him a warning glance before turning back to Johnny.
“Well I reckon she’s really not interested Johnny, so why dontcha move on huh?” I said pleasantly enough.
He flicked a glance over to Lily and saw the disdain in her eyes, and then looked back at me, “So you’re interested in her are you Jess?”
I said nothing just stared at him kinda deadpan, which I knew would annoy him.
“Come on then boy, what are ya waiting for?” He said throwing me a challenging glance. “Wanna take me on, or is what I hear about you all true. You’re too dang busy branding beeves and fallin’ off of Mustangs to bother with gun play?”
At this there was a noise of chairs scraping back, as folk vacated their seats for a less dangerous ring side view.
But there was really no need for them to fret.
Because as Johnny went for his gun I’d already got him covered, my colt out in a split second and digging uncomfortably into his ribs.
“I figure a man can do both,” I said with a nasty smile, “be a rancher and still keep up to scratch, huh Johnny?”
He licked his lips looking real embarrassed.
Then I leaned forwards and relieved him of his iron before standing to one side.
“Meet Slim Sherman,” I said with a bitter smile, “Lily’s man.”
Slim launched himself at Stevens. A vicious blow releasing all the anger he’d felt since he’d first heard of the no-good hoodlum.
It only took a bloody nose and grazed cheek before Johnny was crying for mercy as I knew he would.
Slim dragged him up by his shirt front and said grimly, “So are you begging me to stop?”
Johnny just nodded eyes down cast.
“And you’re leaving town and won’t be bothering Lily again?” he persisted.
“Yes, no…of course I dang well won’t, just let me go,” he groaned.
Then Mort sauntered in from where he’d been watching events unfolding from the side-lines over by the saloon door.
“I think that’s pretty clear, Mister Stevens,” he said, “maybe you’d better leave town now and I shouldn’t think about returning iffen you know what’s good for you…huh?”
It was later that evening when we were sitting out at the dance, our girls gone off to gossip with their friends, that Slim asked me about Johnny.
He peered at me over his beer glass a half smile on his face, “You knew didn’t you…that he’d back down that way?”
I shrugged, “Whether he had or not, you’d still have taken him on. Knocked him senseless I guess…so maybe it was better this way huh?”
He shrugged, “So tell me how did you know?”
I grinned then, “Well I’ll tell you pard, see thing is old Johnny there don’t like his face harmed in any way, worried about his good looks see.”
Slim just shook his head in disbelief, “He really is that vain.”
“Yup, ’fraid so.”
He chuckled shaking his head, “Well I’ll be, a notorious gunfighter and as vain as a peacock, well I never, so same again pard, beer? I figure I own you one, the way you drew on him that way.”
I just shrugged grinning back at him, “All in a days’ work,” I said winking.
“Jeez but you were fast,” he said looking at me in awe, “don’t think I’ve ever seen you move so dang fast Jess.”
I shook my head sadly, “Well I guess being outdrawn by Corrigan…well it kinda concentrates the mind that sorta thing… makes a man realise the difference between life and death can be in the blink of an eye.”
He looked concerned, “I guess so Jess…But you’ve changed your mind, you’re not putting your gun up anytime soon I guess?”
I looked over at him trying to figure if he thought this was a good or bad move, but his expression gave nothing away.
After a moment I nodded, “It was Millie she convinced me it would be a bad move. She figures that folk would still come after me whether I was carrying a weapon or not and I think she could be right. And another thing….”
“I couldn’t let Mort down or the Overland, I think my fast gun comes in kinda useful around here, from time to time.”
“Like tonight,” he said beaming at me and getting up to go fetch the beers over. As he passed me he just slapped me gently on the back, “And I’m glad Jess, you wouldn’t be the same without that old colt on your hip I guess.”

It was a few weeks later before the two men discussed all that had happened recently to shake the very foundations of their friendship.
They were in the barn and Jess was secreting a couple of jars of Moonshine in the dimmest recesses of the old building, but turned as Slim entered leading his mount.
“You met up OK with Denver out on the Thanksgiving Run then?” Slim asked, eyes twinkling.
“Sure did, he brought it up as far as the lonesome pine on the ridge, didn’t wanna risk Miss Daisy’s frettin’,” Jess answered smiling across at his buddy.
Then shaking his head, “I dunno why she has to be so dang sanctimonious about it though Slim.” Then he stopped in his tracks, “Hell it only seems like it was yesterday I was sayin’ that and it was last winter I was sayin’ those very same words, got me a feelin’ of …what do ya call it Slim?”
“Huh, oh I see, yeah, déjà vu, like you’ve been there before?”
“Exactly, we’ve had this darned conversation before that’s for sure.”
“Well you know Daisy, she worries about it being illegal I guess and well, lots of folk don’t agree with having strong drink around the place you know Jess.”
He turned at that and threw his buddy an anxious glance.
“You know I’ve been kinda worrying about that some ya know Slim, I guess your Ma and Pa wouldn’t have been too keen either?”
The tall rancher shrugged, “I guess not, no.”
“Or you playin’ poker and dating Miss Lily either?”
Slim frowned, “What is this Jess…what are you saying?”
Jess came and threw himself down on a handy straw bale, “Aww I dunno Slim. I just can’t help feeling maybe I sorta corrupted you. You know led you off the straight and narrow by encouraging you to do all that stuff, drinkin’, playin’ poker and romancin’ the purty girls?”
“Huh?” Slim asked looking astonished.
“Well you sure weren’t that way when you’d lost your memory. Young Matt Sherman was as pure and innocent as the driven snow and I can’t help but think that…well maybe I’m a bad influence?”
Slim gave a hoot of laughter and wandering over tipped Jess’s hat over his eyes before taking the straw bale opposite.
“You’re kidding me. I did all that darned stuff pretty much as soon as I enlisted. Heck it was just great to get away from Ma and Pa’s strict ways. I was soon drinking and playing poker, not to mention visiting houses of ill repute as grand pappy would call ‘em. When I got back from the war, after Ma and Pa passed over I had the ranch to run and Andy to bring up too. I guess I kinda forgot how to enjoy myself…until you happened along that is.
Jess let out his breath, “Phew, that’s OK, so I won’t have yer Pa haunting me then?”
Slim shook his head chuckling, “Nope. Although I do have to tell you, you taught me some pretty good moves with the ladies and introduced me to Moonshine too…so your talents weren’t wasted pard.”
“Oh well that’s a relief… shall we sample this latest batch, just make sure Denver’s done us proud huh?”
They were sipping the strong brew when Slim looked over the rim of his old chipped cup and said, “I saw Mort in town.”
“Oh, does he want some grog too then, because I think Denver’s headed off home,” Jess said with a cheeky grin.
“No he doesn’t! Garldarn it Jess he is Sheriff you know. He might turn a blind eye to the stuff being around but he sure wasn’t in the market for any.”
“Umm…won’t stop him sampling some of ours come Thanksgiving.” Jess said with a smirk.
“Well that’s true. No, we weren’t talking about Denver’s grog. It was about the bounty on the Corrigan Gang.”
Jess looked down and flushed slightly, “Oh?”
“Yup he told me how you’d given some of it to Widow Holmes, young Anna’s ma. Seems she’s got Anna’s little sister and brother to bring up and was having a difficult time of it with her having been real sick lately. Apparently, Anna was the one bringing in all the money for the family, when she was working at the bank…until she was killed that is.”
“Yeah I know all that,” Jess muttered.
“Yup, but I didn’t, so how come you did?”
“I made it my business to know,” Jess said quietly. “I paid off the Jackson’s for minding the place while we were away riding posse. Kept a little back for Christmas treats for us and gave the rest to her.”
“Yes, Mort was telling me, but why Jess?”
He sighed deeply, “I don’t have no taste for blood money, you know that Slim and anyway I guess her need was greater than ours huh?”
“Well no arguments there pard. And you know what Jess….”
“Uh, what?”
“Not matter what folk say about you, you really do have a caring side…”
Jess took a moment to absorb this comment, before looking mortally offended and leaning over clipped Slim around the head none too gently, “Why you!” he exclaimed.
“Hey steady, don’t go hurting my head,” Slim said in mock alarm, “you don’t know where it might lead.”
“Well that’s true,” Jess said feigning horror, before looking up and winking at his buddy and replenishing their cups.
They sipped in a contented silence for a little while before Slim studied his pard and then said softly, “I did tell you how really sorry I was that I was such an utter bastard to you?”
“Yup, about twenty times,” Jess said, “just forget it Slim, you weren’t in your right mind…were you?”
“Huh? Nope of course not, I was everything you said I was back then though Jess. Real judgemental and kind of priggish I guess. It took the war to change me. I reckon I was a much more accepting, understanding kinda guy when I returned. Everything I’d seen…done it changed me forever.”
Jess nodded knowing the truth of it,” I guess it changed us all some way or another.”
Then peering over to Slim, “So you really don’t bear me any malice, with me havin’ been on the other side…Only the way you laid into me…well it seemed like you really meant it…Made me kinda wonder iffen there was a little part of you that still felt that way?”
Slim’s head shot up and he looked shocked to the core, “Hell no! You?”
Jess shook his head firmly, “No of course not it ain’t ever bothered either of us has it.”
“Well then…”
“Yup…I just needed to be sure you know?”
Slim nodded and reached over for the jar and topped their cups up again, “A toast,’ to memories and friendship that’s built on them.”
“To memories and friendship,” Jess said quietly.
Then Jess broke the rather emotionally charged atmosphere, “I sure am glad you came back, I dunno iffen I could have lived with you the way you were,” he said now grinning.
“Well I’m especially glad,” said Slim with a wicked grin.
“Yup, you see I’ve remembered everything that happened that day before the fall Jess.”
“Well that’s good ain’t it?” Jess asked looking puzzled.
“Oh sure for me… but maybe not for you?”
“Uh, you remember us making a wager…you said I hadn’t ordered enough timber for the roof?”
“Er…yeah, sure looked that way…”
“So, you bet me five bucks I’d got the order wrong.”
“Er…I did?”
“Yup, you dang well know you did.”
“OK, OK no need to start frettin’ about it.”
“Well no, sure I won’t fret as long as you pay up…”
“Come on Jess five bucks…now…”
The End Thank you for reading!

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