#70 The Lonely Trail

The Lonely Trail

By Patty Wilkinson

(Some strong Language, Violence and Adult Themes)

Thanks to QD Jess for lovely screen cap

Dedicated to the women folk of Laramie Wyoming

Chapter 1

After a long hard ride Jess Harper reined in his mount and looked down from the rise to the Sherman Ranch and Relay station spread out below him. He had been away over a week delivering the mustangs. Now he relaxed in the saddle, tipping his hat back and running a hand across his weary face, before gazing down again at the place he called home.
Then he stiffened and narrowed his eyes, something wasn’t right. It was nearly dusk and yet there was no lamp light to be seen spilling out of the ranch house windows. No smoke issuing forth from the cook stove chimney, spiraling lazily up into the chilly evening sky either. Then he heard the sound of the chickens still scratching around, although they should have been locked up long before now and could also hear the distant sound of a dog barking. But otherwise there was no sound or sign of human habitation at all.
Suddenly feeling a spasm of anxiety in his gut he kneed Traveller down the rise and into the yard, before throwing himself from the saddle, rushing into the house and calling out…
But as soon as he entered his worst fears were confirmed, the house was cold and dark, the remains of a dying fire in the grate, the lamps unlit and the place deserted. In spite of the evidence around him he called out again, before marching into the empty kitchen.
He retraced his steps and lit the lamps now peering around him, an expression of worry in his deep blue eyes.
“What the Hell,” he muttered as he advanced upon the table and saw the remains of a half-eaten, congealed meal. The table set for three and he remembered it was a Saturday so young Mike, the rancher’s ward, would have been home for the noontide meal.
“Mike, hey, Tiger you here?” he yelled…but there was nothing but eerie silence closing in around him.
His mouth was dry and he felt his pulses begin to race, where the hell were they all? Slim, Mike and dear old Daisy, their beloved housekeeper?

He yelled out again, charging into the room he shared with his pard, Slim Sherman, but there was no evidence of what had happened to his friend. No drawers thrown open as a sign that a valise had been hastily packed, nor any indication of a struggle or fight of some kind.
Shaking his head, he went next door and peered around Mike’s room. Nothing except the bright eyed Raccoon, Bandit looking plaintively out from his cage. The usual plethora of toys and books scattered around the youngster’s room.
Next, he knocked on Daisy’s door, more from force of habit rather than any expectation that she might answer and again put his head around. Everything was neat as a pin with just the faint fragrance of the Lily of the Valley scent she favored hanging in the air. Its familiar perfume a poignant reminder of the kindly lady, making his stomach churn with apprehension, where in God’s name were they?
He wandered back into the living room and then remembered Daisy’s secret hiding place for Mike. In times of trouble, once during an Indian raid and again when outlaws had visited, she had hidden Mike in the small cupboard by the door…Now holding his breath he pulled the door open, thinking that maybe someone had abducted Daisy and Slim, but she had managed to hide the child. But then he let his breath out and his shoulders slumped as he saw the empty space within.
He finally remembered Traveller waiting patiently by the hitching rail and made his way back outside. He quickly fed and locked up the chickens for the night, before leading Traveller over to the barn. By now it was completely dark and a chilly wind was blowing in, with the promise of rain. Jess shivered pulling his sheepskin jacket more closely around him before hauling the barn door open.
He was nearly bowled over as Buttons and Blue the ranch dogs leapt on him barking with joy and capering around him both vying for his attention.
Again, he was overwhelmed with a feeling of apprehension. Even in the worst possible scenario of maybe Daisy or Mike having been hurt or suddenly taken ill, Slim would never have left the dogs locked up this way without food or water. If he had been considering being away for any length of time he would have made some provision for them, unless he had no choice in the matter that was….
Once back in the house he put down the barely touched meal for the dogs to finish. It had been Daisy’s specialty of Chicken and dumplings Jess noted. With a wry smile he realised that was why the critters had been confined to the barn as they tended to fuss and fret for scraps. The big wolf cross, Blue slobbering terribly as he waited for his share at the end of the meal.
Now Jess slumped down in his rocker and fondled Blue’s ears, “Gee I wish you could talk fellah, so where are they huh?”
Alamo and Mike’s mount Sunny were still in the barn. However, the buckboard and Betsy and Tam that pulled it were missing, so Jess figured the others had headed off together someplace.
Maybe a neighbour was sick or giving birth and Slim had driven Daisy over to help out.
He stood up and wandered over to the window, peering out as the now torrential rain beat against the glass… “I sure hope they ain’t out in this boy,” he said, absently stroking Blue’s head and the dog whimpered. If not understanding the words picking up on his beloved master’s distress.
The following morning Jess was up at first light and his heart sank when he discovered Slim’s bed was un-slept in. On further investigation he found the fire to be out and the house cold and empty, save for himself and the dogs.
The night before he had considered going out to look for them, even though he realised the notion was crazy. It was pitch dark and a real doozy of a storm had blown in, obliterating any tracks he might have searched for. Then he thought he was over reacting. Maybe they had driven over to help a neighbour out and when the storm blew in decided to stay put…so with a heavy heart he had retired to bed.
Knowing that the early Stage would be through soon, he dressed and got on with the morning yard chores before returning to the house to put the coffee pot on. Maybe, just maybe they would be home soon. Laughing and joking. Slim slapping him on the back, saying, ‘Hey Hotshot I thought I was the worrier in this outfit. Daisy fussing around him, telling him he’d lost weight in just a week and finding him a slice of apple pie while Mike pestered him for news of the mustangs he’d delivered.
Then the thought of Mike brought Bandit to mind and Jess put down his coffee cup and went off to Mike’s room to feed the little critter.
It was when he turned from his task that he saw it. A large blood stain was almost covering the end of the bed, having dripped down staining the rug below.
He stood transfixed, his eyes wide in shock, before he moved quickly across hunkering down and putting a hesitant finger to the red stain…it was still sticky in places and his stomach turned over, a shiver running down his spine as he surveyed the grizzly find.
He was dragged out of his reverie by the sound of the Stage rattling into the yard and shaking slightly he stood up and made his way outside.
He stood on the porch for a moment breathing heavily as a wave of nausea and dizziness threatening to overwhelm him.
Then just moments later Mose’s kindly face came into focus.
“Hey Jess boy are you OK, you look as white as a dang sheet.”
When he said nothing the old timer continued, “Don’t tell me, is the kid really bad?”
Jess stared at him in bewilderment, “Mike…Mike’s sick then Mose? Tell me, I just rode in last night, couldn’t figure where everyone was.”
“Well Mike is badly sure, real badly so I believe. He’s off at Doc Sam’s place, Slim and Daisy with him…I figure it happened real quickly.”
“Well don’t ya know? What did Slim say? What happened to the boy?” Jess asked grabbing hold of the lapels of Mose’s shabby old jacket in his desperate need for news and shaking him some.
“Hey take it easy son, don’t you go shootin’ the messenger. I guess I don’t know much more than you do. I drove in the afternoon Stage, expecting a hot drink and kind word from dear Miss Daisy…some cake too, it bein’ a Saturday and her bakin’ day…and what did I get?”
“I dunno Mose, but iffen you don’t tell me real quick I guess I won’t be held responsible,” Jess said looking like he was pretty near the jumping off place.
“OK, OK son, quit yer frettin’ I’m trying to tell ya ain’t I! So all I got was a note pinned to the door, sayin’ as how the kid was real badly hurt and they’d vamoosed off to town.”
“That’s it, nuthin’ else?”
“Nope, nothing more, I’m sorry Jess.”
“Jess let go his hold on the old man and lurched off towards the barn.
“So where are you off to?”
“Get your replacement team and then I’m off to town, of course,” he threw over his shoulder.
When he rode into town sometime later it was still early and he had to hammer on Doc Sam’s front door for some time before Mrs Braddock the Doc’s elderly housekeeper finally hauled it open, looking a tad irritated. But her countenance cleared when she saw who it was.
“Why Mr Harper dear whatever are you doing here at this hour?” She asked.
“Where is he?” Jess grunted, ignoring the usual polite formalities.
“Why whoever do you mean? The doctor is out I’m afraid, but Miss Carrie is at the breakfast table if you….”
“No, Jess broke in…Mike, Slim and Daisy. Mrs Braddock, please tell me how the boy is, can I see him, huh?”
Mrs Braddock had noted her nosy neighbour standing on the doorstep taking everything in and she sighed.
“You’d better come in my dear.”
Jess walked inside as Mrs Braddock leaned down and picked up an envelope that had obviously been pushed under the door and then gave him her full attention.
“Now my dear, I’m not sure why you are so upset, but you have been misinformed if you think Mike and the others are here. My I haven’t seen Miss Daisy since the Ladies Group picnic nigh on a month ago, Mike was there too I do recall…and as for Mr Sherman…now let me see….”
Jess was feeling so dang impatient he thought he very well might explode….
“But there was a note, Mose saw it…sayin’ how Mike was hurt and they were hightailin’ it over here and that was yesterday, afternoon.”
“No I’m sorry Mr Harper dear. I think Mr Shell must have misunderstood…or possibly read the note wrongly, he really is quite short sighted you know.”
“Maybe,” he said quietly…but there had been that bloodstain and he was just about to remonstrate with her when she glanced down at the envelope she had picked up as Jess entered.
Now she gave a little cry of surprise, “Well goodness me, this is addressed to you Mr Harper, how very strange, it’s almost as though someone knew you would be arriving here!”
Jess almost snatched it from her and ripping the envelope open, quickly scanned the contents, before returning it to the envelope and stuffing it in the back pocket of his denims.
“Why Mr Harper, you’ve gone awfully pale dear, is it bad news?”
He looked at her like he’d never seen her before, for a moment. But then shaking his head slightly said, “Er, no Mrs Braddock, everything’s just fine… and I umm… I’ve remembered where they are now…my mistake, sorry to bother you,” and turning he marched back outside and mounted up without a backwards glance.
As he rode out of town Sheriff Mort Cory was just making his way to his office to relieve his Deputy Lon, who had been on night duty.
He raised a hand of welcome to Jess as he rode past, expecting him to rein in and come and share a coffee. But to the Sheriff’s surprise Jess hardly paused, just raised a hand in acknowledgement, before spurring Traveller out of town at speed.
“Well I’ll be,” said Mort shaking his head in surprise, “What the heck’s gotten into Jess this morning? Um if I didn’t know any better I’d think he was avoiding me,” and then he sighed, oh no I hope he ain’t in trouble he thought, before he entered the office to investigate if Lon had the coffee pot going.
Once Jess was back at the ranch he hitched Traveller to the rail and then went and slumped on a porch chair pulling the neat, closely written letter from his pocket and reading it again.
If you want to see the kid, old woman and your partner alive again you do exactly as I say. But tell the law or anyone else and they are dead and you’d better believe that. Get your sorry ass over to Pine Bluffs. Below the largest tree you’ll see a big white stone, instructions underneath. Be there before noon tomorrow or the boy dies first, that is if he isn’t dead already. He’s got some mighty nasty injuries Harper so get here pronto. Oh yes and you are being watched every minute so don’t foul up. If we suspect you have talked you won’t see them again.
The writing was well rounded and clear as though written by a gentleman or scholar, but Jess figured he was neither.
He quickly set to work, making arrangements for a prolonged stay away. Visiting the Jackson place and employing the two oldest boys to visit at the ranch daily and mind all the critters, including Bandit and Buttons, as well as do the chores and run the Stage line business. Then just hours later he whistled up Blue and struck off overland headed for Pine Bluffs to the East of Cheyenne.
He bypassed Cheyenne town. Although he would dearly like to have called in at Peggy Johnson’s boarding house for the night, knowing that Millie’s Ma would make a real fuss of him and feed him up real good too. But no, he couldn’t risk it. Any more than he could have risked a quick visit with his girl, Millie that morning, although he desperately needed to say goodbye to her.
He pretty much thought the notion that he was being watched was an idle threat made by the letter writer. But he just couldn’t risk it. Then he thought of the other good friends he had in Cheyenne, Sheriff Doug Masters and of course dear Daisy’s lovely sister Violet-Ann. The very thought of Daisy and how distressed she must be feeling made his blood run cold. Who in hell would abduct an old lady and a child this way? Someone not quite right in the mind Jess thought morosely.
He had camped a couple of miles the other side of Cheyenne, having made good time and would be at Pine Bluffs way before the deadline…But what then, some sort of perverse game of hide and seek, with Jess hunting high and low for his ‘family’? What sick mind would devise this kind of torture, he wondered yet again. He tried to cast his mind back to someone that would have a vendetta against him, but shook his head ruefully, where to start? Maybe someone recently released from jail. That handwriting might be a clue. He knew in some of the more enlightened prisons, inmates were encouraged to use their leisure time for self-improvement, although few took advantage of that perk.
He took the letter out again and perused it by the light of the fire. The paper and envelope were both of fairly good quality but not the brand available at the local mercantile…so it could have been prison issue. Hell, Jess could really use Doug Master’s help, he would know who had been released recently, but no he just couldn’t take the risk.
He finally lay down to sleep. Blue stretched out close to him, one paw lying on his chest, giving him some comfort. But his troubled mind kept him awake long into the night as he envisaged Mike hurt and in pain, Daisy terrified and Slim worried sick….
He was up before first light the following morning and on his way soon after, reaching Pine Bluffs by mid-morning. All the time he’d been travelling he had constantly surveyed the landscape around him seeking out anyone tracking him, but there was no sign.
He also had the dilemma about who he was up against foremost in his mind. Ideas spinning around like rats in a trap. Sure there were folk in his gunslinger past that bore him one hell of a lot of malice. But they’d mostly been dealt with, or had already died by the gun. Nope he figured this was more recent and real personal and he tried to think back to all the arrests he had made for Mort Cory and the Overland Stage Company over the last five years or so.
He finally made his way to Pine Bluffs and up at the very top of the escarpment he found the massive pine known by folks from miles around as Big Sam.
He slowly dismounted and ran a hand across his anxious face, before kneeling down and tipping back the large heavy white stone at its base.
The envelope was hardly damp at all and Jess figured it hadn’t been there too long and took a furtive glance around him, before ripping it open and reading the contents.
What he saw there made his heart beat faster and he cussed loud and long, before sinking back, tears in his eyes.
Congratulations on the first leg of your journey Harper. You may be interested to know that your friends now believe you to be dead. It was quite touching really, the old woman and kid in tears, your partner, getting real sassy, had to be restrained some. I’m afraid the old woman was just too much of a liability. So I had to dispatch her. A shame, but hell she sure was a feisty one eh, fought to the end.
At this Jess had to stop reading, as he could barely see through the tears of anger and frustration. Daisy, his beloved Daisy dead, could it be so?
He took a deep breath and forced himself to read on.
So your next task is to find the kid, if you can. You have a clue. He is being cared for within ten miles of Cheyenne, but just remember Harper, no help from your law friends, or the kid and Sherman die that day. You have until Sunday to find the kid. Then you get to Church come Sunday Service for the next clue.
Jess took off his hat and ran his fingers through his unruly locks, desperately trying to figure out where Mike could be. If he was sick maybe at the doc’s place…but no that would be far too easy and anyway, the Sheriff would have been alerted to the presence of a friend’s young ‘un at the doc’s house.
No, something else Harper, think damn it, he swore.
The Cheyenne orphanage maybe…sure it had been a real bad place once upon a time, maybe this lunatic still thought it was….
Jess cast his mind back to when young Joe, the son of a deceased friend had been placed there. *See # 49 The Quest.
Jess had visited and seen the absolute squalor and cruelty that abounded under that roof. He had been quick to condemn it. Matron, Ma Bevan and Superintendent Horace Bell too for the atrocities they had committed there under the pretext of caring for the young and vulnerable. They had been immediately arrested and Sheriff Masters and the town council had appointed a lovely young couple, with kids of their own as the new guardians. Betty and Fred Brown were the kindest and most caring couple the children had ever encountered. Now the orphanage was well run and all the children were cared for, healthy and happy.
Jess stirred himself from his thoughts. The Cheyenne orphanage several miles outside town was certainly his first port of call.
He arrived there at supper time and as he entered the dining room, he remembered his first encounter with the place and cast his mind back to that terrible time:
The room had contained a long heavy table around which sat roughly a dozen children ranging in age from about three to fourteen, all of them looking balefully down at plates containing some kind of grey mush, that looked like something the cat had brought up Jess thought.
The next thing he noted was that they all looked filthy dirty, with grubby hands and faces and their clothes virtually rags, soiled and torn. He felt his heart begin to beat faster and his stomach churn, what in hell was this place?
Then he was suddenly aware that all the children were sitting in totally unnatural silence and all that could be heard were the pitiful cries of a young baby coming from somewhere upstairs.
That was the last straw and he was just about at the jumping off place now and throwing the door open wide he marched in to confront old Ma Bevan who was seated at the head of the table.
There was nothing in front of her except a thick brutal looking cane, her fingers drumming idly on the table close to it, as though just waiting for one of the children to step out of line so that she could put it to good use.
However, at the sudden intrusion her head shot up, “Why Mister Harper,” she said pinning a false smile on her face, “to what do we owe the pleasure of your company?”
Jess ignored her and reaching out pushed the nearest bowl roughly, “I see yer still serving the same pig swill.”
“Porridge is a perfectly healthy diet I think you will find Mister Harper,” she said primly, “little stomachs shouldn’t be overloaded at midday.”
“Not much chance of that,” Jess muttered looking at the meagre helpings.
She ignored his comments and said, “So what can I do for you?” the smile getting rather strained.
Jess just looked around the sea of small faces now turned hopefully upon him, enjoying this unusual spectacle immensely.
“Ain’t you ever heard of soap and water,” he spat turning back to the fat middle aged woman, “these kids are filthy…an’ why are they wearin’ rags, I know for a fact that Miss Daisy Cooper and the Laramie Women’s sewin’ group send clothes over regular.”
“Oh yes, of course,” she replied throwing Jess what she imagined was a winsome smile, “so very kind and we keep them for best don’t we children?”
The children jumped at that and turned puzzled eyes on their Matron.
“Don’t we children?” she said more loudly, fingering the cane.
“Yes Mrs Bevan, Ma’am,” came the singsong reply, obviously having been well rehearsed and no doubt beaten into them Jess thought resentfully.
Since he entered the room he had been scanning the children’s faces looking for Joe, but there were only a couple of boys around his age and neither seemed to fit the description the Sheriff over in Boulder had given him.
“Can we talk Ma’am?” he asked gruffly.
“Why we are… aren’t we Mister Harper?” she replied throwing him an arch look.
“Outside, in yer office,” he said leaning forwards and taking her arm so that she had little choice.
She hauled her bulk up from the chair, “Well really, I don’t know why we need to ….”
“Believe me we need to,” he said icily.
Now as he looked around at the well-fed cheerful children chattering happily as they dug into a tasty repast he was indeed uplifted. Until seconds later he remembered his quest.
Fred Brown threw a concerned glance in the direction of Jess, who he knew to be a good man and benefactor of the orphanage.
“I just wish you could tell me more,” he said again, “I can see you are sorely tried.”
Jess just nodded, “It’s kinda complicated Fred…and I appreciate your help.”
“Uh, there is one person I can think of. You said maybe this person may have been looking to find a home for this child you have mentioned, bypassing the Orphanage?”
“Yup that’s right so you know of someone?”
“Well we do have a man very keen to adopt our children. But as it is obvious he only wants child labor we have never done business with him…but he is a possibility. If they were looking for a quick, no questions asked home for the child, like you are implying, then look no further than Jake Beasley, out two miles west of Cheyenne, the Double Y Ranch, I figure he might be your man.”
“So why haven’t you ever re-homed a kid there then, because he works them too hard?”
“Yes, he is a real bully Jess…apparently my predecessor Mr Bell did a lot of business with Mr Beasley, that is until one of the boys ran away and drowned in the river…that caused questions to be asked by the board and so apparently Mr Bell ceased trading in cheap labor.”
“Trading you say?”
“Uh, yes, you knew Bell and Mrs Bevan Jess they would find a quick buck wherever they could, I just thank God that you exposed them for what they were.”

Chapter 2
Jess rode into the Beasley spread a couple of hours later and as soon as he entered he had a feeling of unrest.
There was a gloomy vibe about the place and shivers ran down his spine as he dismounted and looked around the dirty down at heel yard.
He told Blue to sit and stay and he had no sooner dismounted and was making for the ranch house door than a scruffy looking middle-aged man strode out. He had a rifle in his hands and a grim expression on his face.
“Yes Mister what do you want,” he asked gruffly.
Jess’s hackles rose at the unfriendly welcome, but he kept himself in check and merely touched his hat and said, “Howdy, Mister Beasley is it?”
“Whose askin’ and what’s yer business Mister, I’m kinda busy.”
“Harper, Jess Harper and I’ve come from the orphanage. I thought you might have taken a boy in recently, to help work your land,” he added, tipping his hat towards the overgrown vegetable plot and generally neglected yard. Where gates were off their hinges and some dispirited looking scrawny chickens were wandering around pecking listlessly at the meagre pickings.
Beasley immediately flushed up, “I paid the man from the orphanage fair and square for the kid…so don’t you come here charging me again.”
“From the orphanage you say?” Jess asked looking puzzled, why should Fred lie to him?
“Sure, the tall guy, in Eastern duds, eyeglasses, heck you should know him iffen you work for the dang place.”
“I never said I worked there,” Jess said in exasperation. But then he finally let his heart soar, Mike was here, it had to be him it just did.
“So can I see him, the kid you bought?”
“What’s it to you Mister…if you don’t work for them?”
Jess was across the yard in two strides and had Beasley by the throat before the portly man even had a chance to raise his rifle.
“I said I want to see the kid,” Jess said slowly and frighteningly quietly. “Now are you gonna find him, or do I hafta pull yer head off?”
“Barn, locked in back of the barn,” he whimpered.
Jess threw him to the ground and picking up the fallen rifle, glared at Beasley.
“You’d better git prayin’ to yer Maker now mister, because if you’ve hurt that kid you’re on borrowed time,” and with that he strode off towards the barn.
He unbolted the door and it creaked open revealing the foul smell of rank straw and age-old animal waste.
Moving further inside he was able to make out the forms of two heavy horses. Heads bowed and up to their hocks in filthy wet straw, the stench now even worse.
He reached out to pat the neck of the nearest one and it flinched back, rolling its eyes in fear.
“Steady big fellah,” he said softly, before making his way to the stall at the very back of the barn.
A lamp hung from the ceiling beam dimly illuminating the stall and Jess peered down into what he at first thought was a bundle of old rags…but then it moved.
“Mike,” Jess whispered in horror, “Mike?”
The child stiffened and peered up at him from a filthy tear stained face, then he recoiled in terror, screaming blue murder for Jess to go away.
Jess opened the stall door and hunkered down by the boy, pulling him close, although all the time the youngster was crying out and trying to pull away from him.
“Hey Tiger take it easy, it’s OK, it’s OK,” he said soothingly.
After a little while he felt the child physically relax against him and then look searchingly up into his face… “Jess is that really you?” he said hesitantly.
“Why sure it is Tiger, you knew I’d come find you didn’t you?”
“I guess…but the man said that he’d killed you, told me and Slim and Aunt Daisy that he’d…he’d…” and the boy stopped unable to go on as fresh tears coursed down his face.
“Go on Mike what did the man say?”
“That he’d hung you high…and it took a real long time for you to die,” he finally managed.
Jess just held the child close too choked to speak for a few moments, before her rallied.
“Hey Tiger, I ain’t a ghost iffen that’s what you’re thinkin’ and if I am, I’ve gotten a ghost Blue outside just waitin’ to see ya.”
“Really you have?” The youngster asked the faint spark of hope now in his eyes.
“Really, come on let’s go find him OK?”
When they returned to the yard Beasley was still in the spot where Jess had left him, except now Blue was standing over him emitting a low threatening growl should the man move a muscle.
However, he trotted over to Jess as soon as he was called and moments later was cavorting around Mike giving joyful barks.
Jess gave Beasley a stony glance before returning his attentions back to Mike.
“So, did Mr Beasley here hurt you Mike?” he asked gently.
The boy looked fearfully across at his adversary and said nothing.
“It’s OK Tiger you can tell me. He won’t be harming you no more, I promise.”
“He just beat me the once,” the child whispered.
“Just the once huh,” Jess said, his hand now flexing above his gun butt. “So what did you do that deserved a beating then?”
“He said I was a smart ass…because I…I told him I thought the horses should be mucked out…an’ he said he weren’t wastin’ good clean straw on them but once a year or so. I said that was real cruel…and that’s when he hit me with his belt,” he said the words tumbling over themselves in his rush to tell his hero.
Jess’s teeth were clenched and he had a murderous look in his eye… but he still spoke quietly.
“You did right boy, ’tis real cruel and Mr Beasley will be attending to it…right now won’t you?” Jess said fixing the older man with an icy stare.
“Yes, yes right now,” he said scrabbling up and making for the barn at speed.
Jess looked down at Mike, “I want you to take Blue and wait for me by Traveller,” he said calmly, tipping his hat to where his mount was hitched a few yards away over by the ranch gate. “I’ll er, just give Mr Beasley a hand…you wait there until I come fetch ya…understand Mike?” He said giving him a firm look. Mike knew that look of old. Sure, Jess was simply the best, loads of fun and always kind and gentle with him. But Mike knew that was the look that said ‘you obey me no matter what.’
“Yes sir,” he said quietly and holding Blue’s collar he wandered off to Traveller.
Jess watched the small figure go, his blond hair unkempt and his clothes and face filthy and his heart bled for the boy.
He swallowed deeply and then with a look of resolve in his deep blue eyes he turned and marched towards the barn.
Once the barn had been cleaned out and the horses now comfortable in sweet smelling bedding and well fed and watered Jess turned his attentions to Beasley.
“Well I reckon that’s the critters well-being dealt with, now just a case of resolving the little matter of you beating my boy…huh?” He said almost pleasantly.
Beasley looked wary and cowered back, but said nothing.
“Oh yeah and just one thing before we settle that. I’ve got me one or two pressing matters to deal with right now…but you can be real sure I will be comin’ back this way. And iffen those horses ain’t clean and fed and in tip top condition I’ll be mad, real mad…I guess after today you won’t wanna see me real mad again.” That was when he threw the first punch.
He strolled out of the barn some ten minutes later and went over to the house knocking on the door and moments later it was answered by a mousey looking woman, who he had seen earlier peering out from behind the drapes.
She stared up at him looking terrified and then whispered, “I’m sorry Mister, about the child, I couldn’t stop my Jake, he’s got a powerful temper on him.”
Jess had just about had enough, what was the point in remonstrating with this poor shadow of a woman?
He sighed deeply, “Your husband’s in the barn, you might want to get a doctor to him…I ain’t killed him, but he’s none too well,” and with that he turned and marched off to collect Mike.

Chapter 3
They rode down the trail for ten minutes or so, Jess still shaking from the memory of the fight. Thank God he’d reined it in, in time he thought. He was now holding the boy close, as he sat in front of him as Traveller trotted along, Blue jogging behind. He rejoiced that the boy was safe, but what of the others?
After a while he spied a lake, the blue waters sparkling in the late afternoon sunshine and reined Traveller in. Dismounting he lifted the boy down and they made their way across to the lake’s edge and sat on the warm tufty grass, but saying nothing.
After a moment Jess turned to the uncharacteristically quite child and said, “Are you OK Tiger, anything else you wanna tell me about that scum bag?”
Mike shook his head and then with the ghost of a smile said, “Did you whop him good Jess?”
Jess opened his mouth to deny it and then closed it again and reaching over ruffled the boy’s untidy mop of hair, “Yup real good Tiger.”
The boy just nodded as though satisfied and then continued to look out over the vast expanse of water.
All the time they had been riding Jess had been looking around and he was pretty sure there was nobody watching them…now he turned back to the child… “So tell me, do ya know who this guy is that took ya, can you tell me about it all?”
Mike looked tearful again, but took a deep breath, “They came in sayin’ as how one of our heifers was lookin’ real sick and Slim went off with these men. Joel and Robby, they said they were ranchers and knew the Jackson’s, were real good friends, said as how Mister Jackson had sent them over.”
“OK…so what about the other guy?”
“He was real different, wore these Eastern duds strange gold coloured eye glasses and said as how he was a writer. He saw Aunt Daisy’s books and said how they had a shared interest. He was just a friend of the others and he said he’d stay and keep us safe while Slim rode out…except he didn’t….”
“Go on Mike.”
“When Slim had ridden off this Mister Jones said how we all had to go on a trip. He said that you were in danger and needed us. Well Aunt Daisy said we should wait for Slim to come home, and why hadn’t he said something while Slim was there anyway? That’s when he pulled the gun…tied us up and threw us in the buckboard.”
“Go on,” Jess said quietly….
“We drove off and it seemed like forever…a day and night and then Slim and the other men came…but they were bad men Jess real bad. I heard Slim tell Aunt Daisy how they’d never met the Jacksons it was all a rooster…roost?”
“Ruse,” said Jess, “like a nasty trick.”
“Heck Jess you’re getting real good with words,” the child said forgetting their frightening predicament for a moment.
Jess grinned down at him, “‘Twas on your spellin’ list for homework last month…remember?”
The boy shook his head, “Anyway it sure was a nasty trick as they were real unkind to us… Roughed Slim up and were even nasty to Aunt Daisy and everyone loves her.”
Jess’s heart started beating double time, remembering what this Jones, whoever he was, had said about having killed Daisy, maybe the boy didn’t know?
“So…er Aunt Daisy, do you know where she is Mike?”
The boy nodded, “Sure I do…she was real ornery, frettin’ and saying things like,’ your Ma would be ashamed of you acting this way,’ and after a while I figure Mr Jones couldn’t handle it any more. We drove to Cheyenne and he put her out of the buckboard… it was dark and real cold and he said, “Just go, I really don’t wanna see you again.” But Aunt Daisy wanted me to go with her and she kept askin’ and askin’ until Mr Jones just threw her out and drove off.”
Jess felt a wave of relief flow over him… she wasn’t dead then thank God. “Heck Mike was she hurt?”
“I dunno. I don’t think so, because we could hear her a yellin’ long after we left.”
‘That’s my Daisy,’ Jess thought grinning over at the youngster.
Then he came to a decision, he didn’t think this Jones, if indeed that was the bastard’s name, had his men watching over them day and night. So he decided to go into Cheyenne and leave Mike at Peggy Johnson’s place. He would be safe there. Then he’d have time to look for Daisy and he had a pretty good idea where she would be too.
They rode into Cheyenne at dusk and made straight for the boarding house. Jess being careful to approach it from the end of the street, which meant he wouldn’t pass the Sheriff’s office. Dadgum it, the last thing he needed was to have to lie to one of his oldest friends. Anyway, Doug Masters would see right through him he thought ruefully.
As soon as Ma Johnson answered the door and saw a weary and woebegone looking Jess and Mike before her she instinctively knew all was not well.
“Jess how lovely to see you,” she said as she opened the door a look of happy surprise on her pretty face and then hesitantly, “is everything alright my dear?”
“Sure Ma,” he said removing his hat and pinning a smile on his face, “we were just in town and thought we’d pay you a visit.” Then he cast an anxious glance down the street to where the lamps were still lit in the Sheriff’s office window.
The nervous scan of the street and general edginess was not lost on Peggy Johnson and she quickly ushered them inside.
“Well this is a real treat,” she exclaimed happily, “and how is my dear Millie?” She asked as she showed them into the parlour.
“Er, I ain’t seen her in a while,” he said, “been away deliverin’ mustangs.”
“Oh, that’s a shame, so Daisy and Slim, they’re well?” she continued with a look of sudden concern.
Mike opened his mouth to speak, but Jess jumped in.
“Why dontcha take Blue out in the back yard, brush him down some, I guess Aunt Peggy don’t want trail dirt in her front parlour.”
Once the child had wandered off to do as asked, Jess turned back to Peggy.
“I was wondering if you could take the boy for a couple of days Ma, I’ve got some business I need to take care of and I really can’t take him along.”
“Of course,” she said beaming, the notion delighting her, “he’s always welcome here, you both are, you know that.”
Jess sat back and visibly relaxed for the first time since he’d entered the house, “Thank you Ma that means a lot to me.”
“I’ll go and fetch you both some supper in a minute, but first are you going to tell me what this is really all about Jess, because I know a sorely tried young man when I see one.” Plus the pitiful state of little Mike hadn’t escaped her keen eye either.
He sighed deeply before giving her a weak grin, “I might have known I couldn’t put one over on you.”
“So, Jess dear, why all the secrecy?”
Sometime later she sat back in her chair looking deeply shocked… “And you say you think you may know where to look for dear Daisy?”
He nodded, “So you promise you won’t breathe a word to anyone Ma…it could cost Slim his life if word gets back to them that I’ve shared this with a living soul.”
“Of course not, you can rely on me…and Jess?” she said as she rose to fetch his supper.
“Use the back door when you leave, that way you won’t run into the Sheriff.”
It only took Jess a few minutes to locate Daisy’s sister’s house, a couple of streets away. Violet Ann answered the door at his first knock and looked surprised and pleased when she saw who it was.
“Jess how lovely to see you,” she said beaming up at him and then glancing behind him, “Is dear Daisy with you, have you brought her on a visit?”
Jess just gaped at her. He was sure, so dang sure he’d find Daisy here. She’d have run into his arms and cried some and then been her usual practical self, trying to help him locate his pard…but no… his hopes were dashed.
“Jess dear are you quite alright, you’re looking a little peaky?”
“Er, I’m just fine Ma’am,” he said rallying quickly, “er no Daisy isn’t with me right now, I kinda thought she said she was going to visit you? But I’ve been away, must have got the date wrong…sorry to bother you.”
“Oh it’s no bother, won’t you come in I’ve a hot pie just out of the oven and coffee,” she said hopefully.
Hell iffen Daisy weren’t here he had to try and find her and there was no time to lose.
“No Violet, I’m kinda running late, just thought I’d call in on her…Uh, if she should turn up, would you ask her to pay Mrs Johnson a visit?”
“Why yes of course my dear, but I really wasn’t expecting to have a visit from Daisy until Thanksgiving, but yes of course I’ll tell her if she should turn up.”
Jess jumped back up in the saddle and cussed softly. It was Wednesday night he had just three full days to find her before his deadline. On Sunday he had to attend Church Service and find the next clue as to where he might find Slim.
In the meantime, he had to locate Daisy, he just had to. If she’d been right here in town why in hell hadn’t she contacted Violet, or indeed the law? Then it struck him, for the same reason he hadn’t visited his good friend Sheriff Masters. Because this man Jones had threatened to kill the others if he had done. Now he figured he’d said exactly the same to Daisy…so what would she have done?
He made his way slowly to the livery to bed Traveller down for the night when a thought suddenly struck him. Maybe, just maybe she would have tried to follow them, tried to get Mike back again. He led Traveller into the livery and then stopped in his tracks when a surly looking man came forward.
“Yeah, what can I do fer ya mister?”
“Where’s Fred?” Jess asked irritably.
“Ain’t here,” said the tall scruffy looking man, before taking a drag of the cigarette that seemed permanently attached to his lip, “wanna put yer horse up?”
“I can see he ain’t here,” said Jess fixing him with an icy stare, “so where is he?”
“Sick…back next week,” the other finally managed, casting a baleful eye on Jess.
Jess absorbed this information sighing deeply, but then soldiered on.
“Have you rented out a hire buggy to an elderly lady, a Mrs Daisy Cooper?”
The man shrugged, “Might have done…might not, so what’s it to you?”
That was enough. Jess sprang at the tall rangy man and grabbing him dragged him up and pinned him against the wall, his face just inches away the fury in his eyes chilling.
“Yes or no,” he growled.
“Yes, Sir, I done rented out a buggy, few days ago, elderly lady, smart, fussy kinda hat on.”
“That’s better, see that didn’t hurt did it,” said Jess, releasing his hold a tad, “so when’s she due back?”
“I dunno….”
Jess dragged the man forwards and then slammed him hard into the wall this time, dislodging several bridles and making the nearby horses stomp anxiously in their stalls.
“She…she never said, paid a goodly deposit on the vehicle, said she’d be away a few days, maybe more, said she’d settle up when she came back…she seemed a real nice lady, so I let her have it…last Sunday night about eight o’clock or there abouts.
“What, you let a little old lady drive off in the pitch dark?”
“She was most insistent, not the kind you argue with Mister.”
“Well you got that right,” Jess muttered finally relaxing his hold on the man.
“OK look after my horse and real good mind. Rub down, double rations and your best stall,” he said fixing him with the killer stare again. “I want him saddled and ready to go at first light,” and he threw some coins down.
“Yes sir, saddled and ready, best stall, you got it.”
When Jess arrived back at the boarding house sometime later he was surprised to see Mike fast asleep on the parlour couch, Blue on the floor beside him.
“Gee I’m’ sorry ma’am I thought he’d have been abed by now,” Jess said peering down at the youngster.
“Bless you my dear, no need to be sorry, he was just sorely troubled is all…couldn’t settle until you were home…and by all accounts, what little he’s told me who can blame the boy?”
“No, I guess not,” Jess said sinking down onto a chair nearby and gently shaking the boy awake.
“Hey Tiger, you been giving Aunt Peggy a hard time?”
“No Jess I ain’t! Least ways I sure didn’t mean to,” he said more honestly. “I just couldn’t go to bed until you landed home…so did ya find Aunt Daisy, did ya huh?”
“Nope, I’m afraid I didn’t Tiger…but I will, I promise ya. So can you remember anything about the journey here or where you were camped?”
The boy shook his head, “Not really…except it was somewhere on the bottom road back to Laramie.”
“The old Laramie road you mean, are you sure?”
“Sure we were camped somewhere around the Saddle-back Mountain, we’ve been there on that huntin’ trip last fall…”
“Yeah I remember and so you came from there on the old Laramie road towards town, you sure?”
“Yup it was nearly dark when we came in but that road runs alongside the creek and I could hear the water and then we passed those twin lakes, and came into town on the old back road. That’s when the bad man Mr Jones pitched Aunt Daisy out.”
Peggy gasped at that news, “Poor dear Daisy, oh Jess where can she be?”
Jess shrugged, “It seems she hired a buggy and could be heading back towards the hideout, looking for Mike I guess.”
The youngster looked unhappy at that news, “But she won’t find the camp Jess, I heard Mr Jones sayin’ be ready to break camp when I get back, were moving on.”
Jess sighed deeply, “But Aunt Daisy didn’t know that?”
“Nope I guess not, she was over trying to help Slim, bathing his cut face,” the child whispered looking tearful at the memory.
“So what happened after he left Aunt Daisy in town?” Jess asked trying to move away from Slim’s predicament as it was obviously so upsetting for the child.
“We went to a big noisy place on the edge of town. There were all pretty red lights outside and a man playing the piano and lots of ladies dancing inside,” the child said with enthusiasm.
“On the edge of town you say?” Jess said quietly, exchanging a concerned glance with Peggy
“Yup, Mr Jones said it was called the Yellow Rose, I think.”
My God Jess thought the bastard’s done taken the kid to a whore house.
“Then what happened?” Peggy asked gently.
“Uh, they took me into a back room and gave me some milk and cookies and then one of the pretty ladies, a Miss Rosa took me upstairs and I went to bed in a little room way up at the top. She said it would be nice and quiet for me up there…then the next day Mister Jones came back and took me to that ranch…then you came and found me,” he finished, suddenly giving a huge yawn.
Jess gave a sigh of relief and grinned at Peggy, “Well that was quite an adventure Mike, so let’s git you off to bed.”

Chapter 4
The night before Jess had primed Mike about what was going to happen. That he would be riding out at dawn to find Aunt Daisy and would return by Sunday. In the meantime, the boy was to obey Aunt Peggy and be on his best behaviour.
“One other thing I need you to do Mike.”
“I want you to stay in the house and iffen anyone comes to the door, anyone at all, you’re to take Blue and lock yourself up here in Miss Millie’s room, you understand?”
“Sure, but do ya think they’ll come back for me Jess?” the child had asked looking anxious.
“Nope, well I hope not, but you’ve gotta just do as I tell ya, in case?”
“OK Jess, I will and don’t worry Blue will keep me safe won’t he?”
“He sure will Tiger,” and he’d ruffled the boy’s untidy mop.
Now as he rode out in the chilly dawn light he hoped to God he was right and the child would be safe. But what choice did he have but to leave him in Peggy’s care. He couldn’t ask Doug Masters for help, just in case the threat was genuine and he was being watched. If this Jones was capable of abandoning elderly ladies in the dead of night and taking young kids to brothels, he didn’t doubt he would rough up Slim some more, or worse…he just couldn’t risk it.
There were several old tracks on the road and so there was no chance that Jess could trail the buggy, but at least Daisy would have to stay on the road and couldn’t venture overland as a horse rider might have done. He just hoped and prayed that she would come to her senses and drive on for help in Laramie, rather than try and track the outlaws herself. But there again once Daisy’s mother cat with her cubs protective instincts kicked in, well there was no telling what lengths she would go to, to protect the young ‘un.
He found the abandoned buggy at dusk.
It had swerved to the side of the road when the wheel had come off and it now sat at a precarious angle…The horse having been released from the harness, gently cropping the wayside grass. But of Daisy there was no sign.
Jess leapt from his mount and looked desperately around the area, his heart pounding and mouth suddenly dry…where the hell was she?
At least she couldn’t have been too badly hurt if she’d unharnessed the horse…he thought, but that gave him little comfort. She might have survived the accident, but for how long? A woman on her own out on this backtrack that was unused by everyday travellers? It was the province of the outlaw and Indian …and his stomach churned at the thought…His dear Daisy lost and alone in this wilderness. The heat of the early fall day beating down from a relentless sun was followed by bitter cold nights how could she have endured such harsh condition? Sure Daisy was a tough old bird, but even so….
Jess was suddenly struck by the awfulness of everything as he leaned against Traveller; his good old horse his only source of comfort. From the offset he’d been pushed to the limit…making that dash to the Pine Bluffs. Then desperately seeking Mike…Now he still worried for the child’s safety, but even more so for dear Daisy…was she still alive? And what of Slim, he was hurt badly according to Mike, maybe his life hung in the balance. He knew he had to get back to Cheyenne in time for the Church Service and to try and help his pard…but how could he leave the search for Daisy?
Never had he felt so alone and so torn and he leaned against Traveller for a good few minutes before taking a deep shuddering breath and leading him on down the track.
The weather had been uncompromisingly hot and dry for several months and there was a thick white dust all around. It only took him a matter of moments to pick out the diminutive marks of Daisy’s neat laced ankle boots, amongst the wheel and hoof marks of previous travellers.
He followed them as quickly as he could aware suddenly of two things, the failing light and the sound of a wind getting up.
“Jeez,” he muttered, “that’s all I dang well need… a dust storm.”
He soldiered on peering down at the small steps down the centre of the track…heading for Laramie…But Hell that was a good thirty miles away and she would never make it.
The further he walked the more the wind got up until it was blasting him and Traveller, making the going almost impossible and completely obliterating the tracks.
He could have wept at the thought of poor Daisy out in these conditions…but at least they were coming up to some mountain foothills which would afford some cover at least.
After staggering on in the now gale force winds he had to admit defeat and he finally hunkered down in the lea of some rocks. Bringing Traveller in close and turning his rump to the worst of the weather. He’d pulled his Stetson down hard and covered his mouth and nose with his bandana to protect himself against the worst of the dust, but it now clung to him and his horse turning them both a pale grey colour. Jess could taste the gritty substance and guessed his horse was similarly suffering.
“Take it easy big fellah,” he said softly, “this’ll blow out by morning and we’ll go down to the creek and get ya a drink.”
Somehow, he managed to fall asleep, but woke cold and stiff to the realization that the storm was still blowing, although not quite as strongly as the night before. He walked Traveller down to the creek to drink his fill and replenished his canteen, but didn’t bother bathing as he knew he would be covered in the white dust again in moments.
Now at least it was safe to ride again as the pale dawn light filtered through the dust and he continued on following the old trail, figuring that Daisy wouldn’t have deviated from it.
It was only a matter of half an hour or so later when the wind finally dropped, the dust ceased swirling around them and misty sunlight shone down on the pair.
Jess reined in and looked around him. To the right were some foothills, sparsely covered with vegetation. But the steep gradient was making it unlikely that Daisy would have ventured too far upwards, even if she was trying to avoid the storm.
Then he looked to his left where the small creek meandered along, before it grew in size to merge with the Laramie River several miles away. He sighed deeply, about to move on, when something down in the valley caught his eye…a spiral of smoke lazily snaking up into the early morning sunlight…a camp of some sort. His heart leapt, could that be Daisy’s camp fire?
He spurred Traveller on down towards the distant smoke, but as he drew closer he saw a ramshackle old wagon and his heart sank. Just some old tinker or traveller and doubtless on this backtrack up to no good too. Then he thought what if they had taken Daisy in…hurt her in some way…and he hustled Traveller on again towards the distant camp.
He was unsure as to the welcome he would receive as he dismounted and entered the camp, but it certainly wasn’t the one that he got.
Four figures sat around the camp fire enjoying some breakfast, but they turned as one when Jess rode in and jumped down from the saddle and strode towards them.
A tall elderly man was the first to move and he jumped up spilling the contents of his tin plate as he cussed long and loud, before falling to his knees and making the sign of the cross…The other two men rose up slowly backing off a look of horror on their faces…Then Jess turned to the elderly woman and opened his mouth to speak…But before he could she screamed hysterically and backed off, her hands to her mouth and a look of terror in her kindly old eyes.
“Daisy, what is it?” He whispered, “It’s me Jess….”
Then he turned to the old man, “Denver…Hell what is it… dontcha know me? It’s me Jess…Jess Harper.”
Daisy was the first to come to her senses.
“Jess…oh Jess dear is that really you?”
“Well sure it is Daisy,” and he advanced towards her and just seconds later she was in his arms weeping softly.
He held her close inhaling the faint perfume of Lily of the Valley and feeling her frame shivering in his strong embrace. After a moment he put a finger under her chin and she looked him in the eyes, the loving concern he saw there threatening to bring tears to his own eyes.
“Daisy are you all right?” He asked softly.
She nodded, “I escaped when the buggy wheel came off and tried to walk home to Laramie, I thought if I could just get to Mort…and then I twisted my ankle,” she said ruefully.
He looked down to see a bandage around her dainty ankle and, stick nearby.
“Then dear Mr James and his boys, Cody and Mick found me and have looked after me beautifully Jess, so yes I’m just dandy,” she said bravely.
Then Denver came forwards and pumped his hand, “Garldarn it Jess, look at the state of you…all covered from top to toe in white dust we all thought you were a dang ghost.”
It was ten minutes later when they were all sitting comfortably around the camp fire again that Daisy explained…
“That terrible man, Mr Jones he called himself, told me you were dead, so we all thought you were some sort of apparition or ghost,” she said with a sheepish smile. Then put a hand to her mouth, “Oh Jess he’s taken Mike and Slim too…we must try and find them.”
It was sometime later before he had put Daisy in the picture and she was at least relieved that Mike was safe and Jess had plans to try and rescue Slim too.
“I guess when I go to the Church there’ ll be another message, maybe they’ll give me a chance to find him same as I did Mike.”
“But why dear, I just don’t understand why this terrible man is putting us all through this torture?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno, but I think maybe it’s someone I’ve crossed in the past and they’re trying to get back at me. Heck I’m so dang sorry Daisy.”
“Well don’t be, none of this is your fault dear, but have you any idea who it could be? I’m convinced this name Mr Jones is a pseudonym.”
“Um, I’d figured that too…so what was he like then Daisy?”
About your age, blond hair, gold rimmed eye glasses, tall and a very dapper dresser, Eastern style. Quite well spoken too… The other two were very rough, and I got the impression this Mr Jones had hired them to do his dirty work. He mentioned some other men back in town too.”
“So they were the ones that roughed up Slim?” Jess asked looking concerned.
“Yes, I’m afraid so …it was awful,” she said her eyes brimming with tears again.
Jess stiffened a hand flexing over his gun butt. “Dontcha worry Daisy they’ll git what’s coming to them,” he said menacingly.
It turned out that Denver James and his boys were heading for the outskirts of Cheyenne to do a little illicit trading of their hill whiskey, so were happy to give Daisy a lift back to the crashed buggy on their way.
Jess had to hide a grin when he saw Daisy made comfortable in the back of the wagon surrounded by several boxes full of moonshine. He wondered if she was aware of what she was sharing the wagon with, knowing what forthright views she held regarding its manufacture and sale. But there again after the kindness she had received from the mountain men he figured she’d turn a blind eye.
Once they arrived at the place where the buggy had crashed Denver and his boys helped replace the wheel and thankfully the old horse hadn’t strayed too far. So hitching Traveller on behind Jess and Daisy were soon on their way back to Cheyenne.
But not before Denver had taken Jess to one side and slipped him a small jar of Moonshine, “For medicinal purposes only,” he said with a broad wink. “Miss Daisy has quite taken to a nip or two in her bedtime coffee,” he whispered. “I told her it was one of Kate Munroe’s herbal recipes good for keeping the cold out.”
Jess grinned at him shaking his head, “You old rogue,” he laughed. But then he shook his hand and thanked him again sincerely for looking out for Daisy.
It was a tearful reunion between Mike and Daisy and Jess was relieved to see the child safe and well.
“I really appreciate everything you’ve done for us,” he said to Peggy that night as he was in the kitchen helping her brew the post supper coffee.
“You’re welcome my dear and Daisy and Mike are welcome here for as long as needed too. I’ll make sure she keeps off that ankle for a day or two as well. So you go off and try and find that partner of yours… I just wish we could ask the Sheriff to help you.”
“I daren’ t risk it Ma. Daisy was told that this Jones has other men on the payroll in town…they seem purely evil, I’ve gotta play it their way…for now at least.”
The following morning Jess took himself off to Church. It seemed strange sitting in a back pew without being flanked by Daisy and Mike…Heck and Slim too he thought ruefully. How was his pard…indeed where was he? Well hopefully by the end of the Service he would know. The last note had said he would be told how to find his pard and meet up with his abductors.
Rev Philpot was a nice enough man, if a tad long winded Jess had to admit as he tried to keep his mind on the Sermon while the elderly cleric droned on. It seemed that the theme was forgiveness, which was a concept Jess was familiar with and one he generally wholly endorsed. Believing as he did that holding on to a grudge merely turned a man bitter… Then he got to thinking, the way this ‘Jones’ was, then maybe all this business was born of bitterness and a real grudge or was it merely a way to make money from a ransom? He really didn’t know. Hell, he didn’t seem to know anything anymore. He felt so dadgum lonely without Slim and his old friend Doug Masters to talk things over with, to plan a strategy of some sort.
He was suddenly roused from his reverie by the announcement of the last hymn and before he knew it the congregation were filing out, and yet he had still not been contacted. He had expected a note of some sort to be passed to him, or some cryptic message given…but nothing.
He hung around as long as he could, once most people had left, before finally wandering over to the door, to shake the parson’s hand as he went on his way.
“Jess Harper, well this is an unexpected pleasure,” the elderly cleric said beaming at him. “You are staying at Mrs Johnson’s Boarding house I take it? So where is the good lady this morning? He continued.
“Er, she’s real busy with guests, sends her apologies,” he improvised.
“Quite so, a thriving business, keeps the good lady busy I know,” Rev Philpot agreed, “and so how are you young man…er you look somewhat troubled, may I say?”
Jess would have loved to have been able to offload everything onto the kindly old gentleman, but just couldn’t risk it.
“OK thanks,” he said quickly…then, “I er, suppose nobody left a message of any kind for me?”
The old man scratched his head, “No, I’m afraid not Jess…but if anything comes to light I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks,” he said turning away….
“Um, could you give Peggy Johnson a message from my dear wife?”
“Just remind her of the quilting party on Tuesday afternoon would you Jess? Dear Peg is providing the cake… all the Women’s Group are attending and her baking will be greatly appreciated.”
Jess sighed softly, “Yup, sure I can do that,” and turned to go again…
“And Jess…”
“Yes Reverend?”
“I shall be praying for you my boy, I can see you are up against it right now….”
Jess felt tears sting behind his eyes at this sudden kindness.
“Thanks,” he said softly, “maybe I could use a helping hand,” and he marched out of the Church and down Main Street, back to the boarding house.
As he walked along his guts suddenly started churning, maybe all this talk of a message waiting in the Church was some sort of ruse to get him out of the house, so the outlaws could come and abduct Mike and Daisy again, or worse.
He broke into a run and hammered at the boarding house door just minutes later.
He was relieved to have the door flung open by Daisy, leaning on her stick, a look of fury in her kindly old eyes before she relaxed back pulling the door wide to admit him, “Oh Jess it’s you thank goodness.”
“Are you OK?”
“We are now,” said Peggy coming to join her old friend, “that Joel Haines turned up…. left a message for you and got more than he bargained for from dear Daisy here,” she said grinning.
“Joel Haines?” Jess said looking puzzled.
“One of the men that took us away,” Daisy supplied, “Joel Haines and his buddy Robby Sayer, local ruffians. They hire out their guns to the highest bidder apparently.”
“And Daisy saw him off,” Peggy said again looking triumphant, “she really gave him the sharp edge of her tongue, not to mention attacking him with her walking stick!”
Daisy huffed looking about as dang mad as Jess had ever seen her.
“I could cheerfully have slapped him too,” she said angrily, “as it was…yes I told him off a strip or two and if he doesn’t let you bring dear Slim home soon I shall go and fetch him myself!” She finished angrily.
“Hey easy there Daisy, so did he say where I was to go?”
She nodded, “It’s all written down here dear, but oh Jess I do wish you could tell the Sheriff all about this, I really don’t want you going alone.”
Jess had been perusing the note and now looked up at Daisy, his expression defeated.
“Says here he’s got two more men in town keeping an eye on us, you were right about that Daisy. If they see me make a move towards Doug’s place, then Slim is dead, I just can’t risk it.”
It was after supper when Peggy handed round a slab of her wonderful coffee cake that Jess remembered the message from Rev Philpot’s wife regarding the quilting party on the Tuesday afternoon.
Peggy thanked him and then looked thoughtful.
“You know Jenny the Sheriff’s wife will be there,” she said to Daisy later, “I wonder…”

Chapter 5
Jess was off on his quest shortly after first light, heading for the twin lakes on the old Laramie road. There was a small patch of standing pines just to the left of the first lake and this is where the rendezvous was to take place.
He rode in slowly, knowing he didn’t dare make a move as he’d no idea as to the whereabouts of Slim. He just couldn’t risk a shootout or trying to catch them unawares. Anyway, he was expected and three guns would be levelled in his direction. Nope he had to keep a clear head and forget the heroics if he was to get Slim out of there alive.
Just as he’d expected two surly looking hombres had their rifles trained on him as soon as he rode into the camp and he figured they were Joel Haines and Robby Sayer.
He dismounted and scowled at the two dishevelled looking men. Robby Sayer with dirty red hair and pale face and the mousey, furtive looking Joel Haines, both with their rifles aimed at him and with itchy trigger fingers too, by the looks of it Jess thought.
He put his hands up, in a gesture of mock surrender and sighing deeply said, “OK so where’s the dang leader of this outfit I ain’t talkin’ to his paid monkeys.”
“Oh I’m here alright Harper and I can’t wait to talk with you, don’t you fret!”
Jess looked across the camp and into the eyes of…Jordon…Max Jordon and then everything flooded back and made perfect sense.
“So I guess we got your name wrong it ain’t Jones at all its Jordon ain’t it…Max Jordon,” he said his eyes narrowing as he peered at the man he hadn’t seen for nigh on five years. “Last I heard you were banged up in the State pen.”
“I was, got out just last month, figured I had some debts needed paying.”
“Really, well I reckon the only debts that are owed are to your dang family that you let down and betrayed,” Jess spat angrily.
Jordon looked furious. “How do you work that out, my Pa was dead, the business bankrupt…I robbed that Stage for my family…”
“Oh come on Jordon, lots of folk have it real tough, lookin’ after kin with no dang money to spare, but they don’t go robbin’ Stages to make ends meet…”
He suddenly remembered the reason he was here…Slim…
“Never mind all that, where’s my partner?” He growled.
Jordon tipped his hat behind him and gestured for Jess to come over.
He marched across to the far side of the camp where several majestic pines stood and there lashed to the nearest tree was his pard.
Jess hardly recognised the grey faced man wearing a blood splattered shirt, the only thing holding him upright the rope that lashed him to the tree… His head was bowed and he appeared to be semi-conscious.
Jess was infused with righteous indignation, “What in Hell!” He exploded.
He strode to his partner’s side and gently put a hand under his chin, raising his head, “Slim…Slim its Jess, pard.”
Slim’s eyes flickered and opened, a fleeting look of hope lighting them. When he tried to speak he licked his lips, but a mere croak came out.
Jess ignored the rifles that were now barely inches away and taking his hunting knife from his boot quickly sliced through the rope and caught Slim as he immediately collapsed.
He supported his pard’ s weight and gently lay him down and then turned furious eyes on the nearest man, Sayers, “Git him some water…now!” he yelled.
Sayers’ shifty eyes swivelled to his boss who grudgingly nodded.
Jess offered the canteen and Slim drank greedily, before almost choking.
“Easy, pard, easy”, he said softly, before glaring up at Jordon.
“When was the last time he had a drink, or food come to that?” he spat.
Jordon shrugged, “He wasn’t hungry…and he’s had water…had some yesterday as I recall,” he chuckled.
Jess leapt up and would have taken a swing at the smartly dressed man, if Sayer hadn’t thrust his rifle into Jess belly, bringing him to his knees.
Slim struggled to push himself up on one elbow, “It’s OK Jess, just leave it,” he whispered.
“The Hell it is!” Jess yelled still enraged.
Then he turned the full fury of his dark eyes on Jordon, “So would you just like to tell me why? Why you’ve persecuted my friends this way?”
“Surely,” replied Jordon with an evil glint in his eyes, “you boys just sit tight…it’s kinda a long tale.”
“See it was this way Harper…my family were happy enough back east. Ma and Pa working in a big store, while me and my big brother Abe were in school…. Well Abe there had always been trouble. He was…well, kinda slow, but real mean with it…and he had a terrible temper. Pa did all he could, but there just wasn’t any disciplining him. Then Ma had another baby young Toby…and the family was complete. I was doing really well in school, had the makings of a doctor or lawyer so the teachers said…that was until,” and he paused looking real sad.
“That was until what?” Jess spat, just waiting for some sob story.
“That was until Abe nearly killed a little girl in the school yard for laughing at him. The teacher pulled him off, but that was it, we were all done with school.”
“Yeah, well some of us managed alright without too much schoolin’,” Jess said quietly, “ain’t no cause to go takin’ it out on folk.”
“Oh that’s not the reason for all this, this vendetta. Dear me no. Pa moved us all out to Cheyenne, bought a little spread and we commenced farming.”
“Sod busters?”
“Yes, except it turns out the land wasn’t good and Pa was pretty bad at farming, we all were. Abe was a real handful, he was eighteen and Pa just daren’t let him near the town or he’d be drunk and in fights…worried Ma sick…I mean really sick…her health was bad all those years. Only thing she really cared about was young Toby, he was the apple of her eye…was Toby.”
Jess said, “Go on.”
“We stuck it out a few years, until Pa upped and died, I guess it was all too much for him. Abe was twenty-three, I was twenty and young Toby just ten. It was around about then I found out we were bankrupt…the bank was about to repossess the farm and land…that’s when I robbed the Stage and you brought me in.”
“So this is all my dang fault!” Jess yelled. “Hell lots of folk have that kinda trouble but they don’t all rob stages goddamn it!”
Jordon just shrugged. “I was put in the jail to rot and Ma got even sicker.”
“Yeah I remember and I dang well gave her all the reward money as I recall. So she could find a place for her and the boy. I told that Abe to get off of his lazy butt and find a job too,” Jess said angrily.
“Yes and do you know what happened to that good will gesture of yours?” Jordon said looking furious.
“Nope, but I guess you’re gonna tell us.” Jess muttered.
“Abe got his hands on it, went to town, got blind drunk and went on a shooting spree…killed three men in the saloon for laughing at him, before Sheriff Masters gunned him down.”

“Well good for Doug,” Jess said, “What was he supposed to do, let him kill half the town?”
“No, what he should have done was to arrest him when he got drunk. He could have stopped him before things got that bad. He knew what my brother was like and he should have been there to stop any gun-play before it started.”
Jess and Slim just exchanged an incredulous look before turning back to Jordon, both momentarily speechless.
“If he had done, Ma would still be alive… Doc said it was her heart…she just up and keeled over when the news came through that Abe was dead.”
“Hell you can’t lay that at the Sheriff’s door, he’s got more to do than baby -sit every dang drunk that goes in the saloon. Anyway, I don’t recall any of this,” Jess said looking sceptical.
“I do.” Slim said quietly, “You were down in Texas on that cattle drive Jess, gone a few months, was all over when you got back.”
“Oh yeah,” said Jess throwing Jordon a challenging look, “it were that time we had real bad money problems and I had to go to try and make ends meet as I recall.”
Jordon just continued like Jess hadn’t spoken…
“Then if Ma hadn’t died Toby would still be alive…As it was he was sent to Mr Bell’s orphanage and he sold him on to that bastard Jake Beasley from the Double Y Ranch.”
Suddenly everything became clear to Jess…
“He was the kid that drowned in the river trying to escape wasn’t he?” he said quietly.
Jordon nodded.
“He was just ten years old.”
“Same as Mike…”
Jordon just nodded again.
“So this was what it was all about, you posed as a man from the Orphanage and left Mike with Jake Beasley, knowing he’d be ill-treated and heck, maybe even get hurt bad trying to escape, before I could find him.”
When Jordon said nothing, Jess continued…
“The same with Miss Daisy, you told her I was dead, hoping she’d die from the shock, like your old Ma. Or at least be real upset…well you did good there,” he said sarcastically, “because she was real upset. But I figure you weren’t prepared for her being so dang feisty were you Jordon, met your match there,” he said with relish…
Then he turned to look at Slim, “Hurting my best buddy this way, was to get to me I figure?”
Then Jordon gave him a grim smile… “Oh it’s much more than that Harper, we’ve left someone really important out of the picture, your good friend Sheriff Masters. You see I want him dead, in retaliation for killing Abe…and you’re just the man to do it for me. I reckon you’re one of the few folk in these parts that could out draw the Sheriff…and kill him.
Jess’s jaw dropped, “And why would I wanna do a fool thing like that?”
“Because if you don’t I’ll hang your pard here. The choice is yours Harper. You kill the Sheriff and save your partner…or save the Sheriff’s life and we kill Sherman…simple really, you just have to choose.

Chapter 6
It took all Slim’s persuasive powers and last ounce of energy to try and convince Jess to ride out of the camp without him. But in the end it was Jordan that really made him realise he must go.
“Oh by the way,” he said casually, “I asked one of my men in town to send a wire to your girl back in Laramie, sayin’ her Ma was real sick and she was to hurry over.”
“You did what!” Jess exploded.
“I figured it would give us a tad more leverage,” Jordon replied with an evil smile. “Should concentrate your mind iffen you’ve got to try and keep your girl safe as well as the old woman and kid.”
“Goddamn you!” Jess made a lunge towards Jordan, but stopped in his tracks when Haines held his gun to Slim’s head, “I guess you don’t wanna see your buddy roughed up any more do you Harper?” he spat.
“Go on Jess, if you wire her right away as soon as you hit town she’ll get it before she leaves…for God’s sake, try and salvage something here pard…you don’t want Millie hurt too do you?”
Jess walked over and knelt down by him, one hand resting lightly on his chest he looked deeply into his eyes, “I’ll be back for you Slim I promise.”
Then he looked up at Jordon, “So what do you want me to do?”
“OK this is the way we’ll play it,” Jordon said, like he was just planning a fishing trip or similar.
“You’ll hit him Wednesday night. I’ll be in the bar around six in the evening and I know for a fact the Sheriff always calls in on the way home…and you’ll be there too Harper. Pick a fight with him…or just draw I don’t care…I just wanna see him fall from your gun… Then you hightail it out of there… Give me a half hour’s start to get back… If I don’t get back by eight at the latest, then Sherman hangs… We both make it back and then you can take your partner…OK?”
Jess just nodded…
“Jess, what are you saying?” Slim said in a hushed whisper.
Jess looked deeply into his eyes, “It’ll be OK pard, I’ll think of something, I promise,” and he stood up backing away, unable to bear the look of shock in his partner’s eyes.
“It’ll be OK,” he insisted before marching off to where Traveller awaited him.
Jordon hurried after him and as Jess was about to mount up he called him back…
“We do have a deal Harper?”
“Wednesday at six,” he said succinctly and pulling his hat down hard, jumped up into the saddle and spurred Traveller off into the chilly afternoon.
When he arrived back at the boarding house it was Daisy that answered the door to him and she could see at once that he was clearly distressed.
“Oh Jess dear, is it Slim, is he?”
“No, no Daisy, he’s still alive…but I dunno for how much longer,” he said honestly.
“Oh my dear please tell me everything.”
He looked down into her kindly old eyes and was sorely tempted, but should he burden her with this latest terrible dilemma?
“Where are the others?” he asked sidestepping the question.
“Peggy’s in the kitchen baking up a storm for the quilting party tomorrow and Mike’s up in his room, doing a little homework…School started back this week and I don’t want him falling behind.”
“I bet he’s pleased about that,” Jess said with the ghost of a smile.
“Well he wasn’t too downhearted as I promised him a comic once he’d learned all his spellings. So Jess dear we have the parlour to ourselves. Shall we…?” and she sallied forth.
Once they were seated she said at once, “How is Slim, couldn’t you bring him home?”
The more Jess explained the situation the more upset Daisy became…Until he finally told her of the atrocity he’d agreed to commit.
“Oh Jess whatever are you thinking of? Doug is one of your oldest and most loyal friends…you can’t really be contemplating doing what that dreadful Mr Jordon wants?”
“I want to try and find a way out, of course I do, but there ain’t much time.”
“Oh Jess, he’s one of your oldest friends!”
“Do ya think I don’t know that? Do you think I wanna be any part of this?” he said suddenly furious and leaping from his chair before pacing around the room.
Eventually he stopped by the window, thrusting his hands deeply into his denims and peering out down the street to the Sheriff’s Office, so near and yet so far…If only he could talk it through with Doug, try and think of some solution…
Then he looked across the street to the mercantile and saw a disreputable looking man sitting on a bench outside, a rifle across his knees, his eyes never leaving the boarding house door… His instinct was to go and knock nine bells out of the guy. But then he thought better of it. Garldarn it Jordan seemed to have spies every place and doubtless if he dispatched this one another two would appear out of the woodwork. Anyway, he really couldn’t risk news getting back to the camp that he wasn’t playing ball, no he just had to bide his time.
He turned back into the room and then was struck with remorse as he saw Daisy sitting quietly, her hands in her lap and her eyes bleak.
He immediately strode across and hunkered down beside her and took her hands in his own, “Gee I’m real sorry Daisy I didn’t mean to snap…. I’m just kinda edgy right now.”
She gently removed her hand and lovingly pushed his unruly hair back from his forehead, “I know dear, I know,” she said sadly.
Tuesday was one of the longest days of Jess’s life. The women folk were still busy baking and so he took himself off to the livery. He spent the morning chatting to old Fred, who was now fit and well again. Jess had managed to slip down a side street, on his way there, so he wasn’t seen by the Sheriff. Then later he noted that a scruffy looking individual was hanging around the livery and guessed he was yet another of Jordon’s men.
After he had played a few hands of poker with Fred for an hour or so Jess reluctantly made his way back towards the boarding house.
He’d barely left the livery when the scruffy looking man was on his tail…and after a moment Jess stopped abruptly, spinning around and catching him unawares.
“I’m goin’ back to the boardin’ house now,” he said pleasantly, “you care to walk along with me?”
He was rewarded by the other guy looking sheepish and shuffling his feet, “Just doin’ a job mister.”
Jess shook his head and moved off, the other man again following on, albeit at a more respectful distance.
Daisy and Peggy went off to the Women’s Group quilting party, armed with tins full of cake and Jess and Mike were left to their own devices.
Both were beginning to get stir crazy being shut up in the house for so long and so Jess took the boy and Blue off into the back yard for a ball game. Then came back to the parlour and spent some time playing checkers. After a while Mike wanted to learn how to play poker, but Jess declared he was way too young for that and anyway gambling was a mugs game.
“How so?” asked the youngster
“Well it’s this way Mike; you have to be real careful of cardsharps.”
“Some dishonest folk that have sleight of hand you see. That is they can move real quick, deal from the bottom of the pack that sorta thing, helps them to cheat see?”
Then he proceeded to show the boy how to spot a cheat, just as he had with young Andy all those years before.
The thought of those early days on the ranch and his growing friendship with Slim made him suddenly remember the terrible predicament he was in. Jeez, he was just glad he had young Mike to help take his mind of things, if only for a little while.
The youngster was so impressed by Jess’s speed with the cards that the cowboy promised to show him another trick.
“Go fetch three of Aunt Peggy’s cups, not the best ones mind…and a sugar lump.”
Then he placed the sugar under the middle cup and proceeded to move the three cups around, slowly at first and invited the boy to guess which cup the sugar was under.
Mike whooped with laughter and found it at once…until Jess upped his speed…then the boy was bamboozled.
“I could swear it was under the middle one,” he said looking amazed. “I saw it, I’m sure I did!”
Jess smiled at the youngster, “Well I guess you hafta learn you can’t always believe your eyes,” he said ruffling the boy’s hair.
It was almost dusk when the two heard the front door open and a cheerful call from Peggy.
“Jess…Mike, are you there, I’ve brought some friends home for coffee, come and meet them.”
Jess and Mike rolled their eyes at the thought of spending the next hour or two in the company of the good ladies of the Cheyenne Women’s Group. But they manfully pinned a smile on their faces and went off to be introduced. Although all Jess really wanted to do was hide away somewhere with his dark thoughts…tomorrow he had to decide what to do…

Chapter 7
The following evening Jess marched down Main Street at six o’clock on the dot.
He paused at the bat wing doors before taking a deep breath and entering.
He stood on the threshold of the saloon surveying the room. It was filled with about a dozen men chatting idly, either at the bar or sitting at the tables. Some men indulging in an early evening game of poker.
Jess wished with all his heart that was what he was here to do, a few drinks, a hand or two of cards and then home for supper….
Sheriff Doug Masters was propping up the bar, as Jess knew he would be, in his favourite place right at the far end.
He had told Jess once that this was his preferred place as he was able to see ‘trouble’ the moment it walked in and tonight was no exception.
Doug’s head shot up as soon as Jess entered, but there wasn’t the usual shout of welcome that generally heralded Jess’s arrival in town. No yell of delight and a call for the barkeep to set ‘em up…
No tonight his old friend had a somewhat wary look in his honest brown eyes.
The walk down to the far end of the bar seemed to last a lifetime and Jess’s gaze never left that of his old friend.
“Jess good to see you,” the Sheriff finally managed, “You been avoiding me then buddy, I hear you’ve been in town a good week?”
“I guess I have,” Jess agreed, his voice sounding gruff even to his own ears.
Doug seemed to accept this and took a careful sip of his whiskey before taking the bottle and pouring a good measure for Jess and sliding the shot glass down the bar.
Jess ignored it, now looking at his old friend almost as though he’d never seen him before.
“So why would that be then Jess…ain’t like you not to visit as soon as you land in town? My Jenny was asking after you too…seems Peggy said you were at her place?”
Jess tensed, “I guess that ain’t all Peggy’s been saying, is it Doug?”
The Sheriff looked surprised, “Oh, so what’s that then?”
“You know damn well what,” Jess said, now looking visibly angry.
The other drinkers suddenly started taking an interest. Jess Harper and the Sheriff having some sort of fall out that was unheard of and news indeed.
“Huh?” Doug asked now beginning to look more annoyed than puzzled and decidedly uncomfortable.
“I guess she was just repeatin’ the rumours that have been goin’ around town about you and Millie…Only they ain’t just rumours are they Doug… you’ve been seein’ her ain’t you? Last time she visited her Ma, so I’ve been told. I had a real good chat with some of the Women’s Group last night…real interestin’. ”
Doug flushed up and looked suddenly really guilty, “I’m married and Millie and I are just old friends Jess, real old friends…you know that.”
“Do I?” came the stony reply.
When Doug didn’t reply Jess tensed and moved away a few steps, his hand flexing over his gun butt and his eyes as hard and cold as granite.
There was nothing to be heard save the scrape of chairs being moved back as those nearest to the action quickly removed themselves from the line of fire.
“Well…tell me fer God’s sake Doug, tell me there ain’t nuthin’ in it,” he almost pleaded…
Then Doug sank his head down before looking back up into his old friend’s eyes, “I guess you’ll just believe what you want to,” he said softly.
“Well yer gonna have to fight for her then,” Jess said even more quietly.
“Jess damn it, you’re making a real big mistake here, just take it easy will ya?” Doug said…but too late.
Later nobody could tell who drew their weapon first. There seemed to be just one great blast of gunfire and then Doug Masters clutched his chest and fell forwards a look of deep shock in his eyes before he hit the floor, dead before he even landed, an on looker declared.
There was total silence as Jess just stared at the fallen man. His deep blue eyes held a look of horror at what he had done…and then he turned and fled.
All that could be heard was the sound of his mount thundering out of town, before all hell broke loose.
The old barkeep came and knelt by the Sheriff declaring him dead and someone ran for the deputy, whilst others just stared in dismay.
Then from the back of the saloon, a tall well-dressed man came forward, tipped his hat to the fallen Sheriff and carefully made his way outside to find his mount. Max Jordon jumped lightly into the saddle and spurred his horse out of town on to the old road, making for the campsite by the twin lakes, a satisfied smile on his face.
Jess’s heart was pounding and his mouth dry…and yet he was perspiring so much he could barely see where he was going.
After a mile or so he reined Traveller in, removed his hat and ran his sleeve across his burning face. He was panting so much he could barely catch his breath and he felt dizzy and nauseated. The memory of one of his oldest friends lying there with blood soaking his shirt was making him feel sick to his stomach.
Then he steered Traveller forwards again, deliberately riding away from the campsite for a mile or so, in case he was being watched. Then he turned back towards the old Laramie road and his pard…his only thought to liberate Slim.
He figured that Jordon would have had plenty of time to ride back in by the eight o’clock dead line and now he slipped from the saddle just outside the campsite and walked in…
It was late evening but the sun was not completely down. So he had no problem in making out the figures of Jordon and Sayers sharing a bottle standing by the fire, but of Slim and Haines there was no sign.
As soon as he walked in Sayers once more had a rifle trained on him and Jess sighed in exasperation.
“OK so where’s my partner?” he snapped, “I need to git movin’ before I have a dang posse breathin’ down my neck.”
“Oh there you are Harper,” Jordon said as though greeting an old friend, “Well, well I must congratulate you. I really didn’t think you had it in you. All I’ve heard about you, you’re a loyal and true friend…well I guess they’re going to have to re write history after today aren’t they.”
“Shut up!” Jess yelled absolutely beside himself with rage now, “Just git my pard.”
“Oh we can do better than that, I’ll take you too him,” Jordon said with a smirk, “he’s waiting for you with Haines over here,” and he led the way out towards the pines.
Jess stopped stock still and stared in horror at the scene before him.
Slim was mounted on a rather skittish looking grey and had a noose around his neck strung up to a high branch on the nearest pine tree.
“What the Hell are ya playin’ at?” Jess yelled in fury, turning on Jordon. “We had a deal!”
“Oh dear me, you are rather naive Harper. I suppose you live by the honour amongst thieves code…But believe me I have no honour, no scruples at all…I just wanted to get even, with you and your partner here too…So I guess this is the end of the line for you both.”
He just gaped at Slim, who was looking more dead than alive and could barely sit in the saddle…
Jess desperately tried to think what to do…any sudden movement would spook the grey and he would move forwards lynching his buddy…in fact he could have his neck broken in a matter of seconds…
He had to play for time and turning back to Jordon said, “I guess this is the end of the road then…I have to hand it to you… you thought of pretty much everything.”
“I had five long years in jail to plan it all out,” Jordon said, “and it was worth every minute to get to this moment…to see you a broken man Harper. So aren’t you going to beg me for his life then…huh?”
Jess swallowed hard and turned to Jordon, “If that’s what it takes yeah, I’ll beg….”
Then there was the sound of someone clearing their throat behind them and all four men swung around to see Doug Masters, his Deputy and a small posse standing there with rifles levelled at them.
“I don’t believe that will be necessary Jess, go take that noose off of your partner and the rest of you men throw your weapons down…now!”
Jordon turned deathly pale like he’d seen a ghost and nearly fainted…unable to believe his eyes.
But Jess grinned over at his old buddy, before striding across to where Slim still sat his horse. Slim moved his foot from the stirrup so Jess could swing up and remove the noose before carefully helping him down.
As soon as he was released Slim started shaking and shortly afterwards passed out, Jess just managing to catch him before he fell. Gently laying him down…he stood up slowly, his face a mask of fury…and he looked over to where the posse were cuffing Haines and Sayer before leading them away.
Doug was about to do likewise with Jordan, but stopped as Jess strode over.
“Give me a minute with him will ya Doug?” he said very quietly.
Doug looked from Jess to Jordon and back, “I guess you deserve that,” he said equally quietly, “one minute Jess…no more,” and he turned away.
Jess advanced on a now distinctly uncomfortable looking Jordan.
“Take ‘em off,” Jess growled.
“The eyeglasses take ‘em off…I’d hate for them to be damaged any.”
Jordon looked even more worried but did as he was asked.
He never saw the first punch coming…and he was thrown clear across the camp, ending up sprawled in the dirt.
But Jess wasn’t done yet, he hauled him up again, “That was for young Mike…and this is for Daisy,” and he threw another haymaker splitting Jordon’s lip, the scarlet blood coursing down his chin.
He finally tried to retaliate, but Jess easily parried his punches and finished him with another crack to the chin, rendering him unconscious, “And that was for my pard, you son of a bitch,” he spat.
Moments later he felt Doug’s hand on his shoulder, “You’re done now Jess.”
It was a statement rather than a question and Jess just nodded, wiping his sleeve across his sweating face, “I guess I am…thanks…for everything Doug.”
“That’s OK buddy I don’t mind taking a bullet if it helps you out some,” Doug said grinning at his old friend.
“Did it hurt much?”
“Some…but I’ll live.”
“Um…I’ll tell ya one thing though Doug, your Jenny’s gonna have one hell of a job gettin’ that chicken blood out of your shirt! I hope she ain’t too mad at us.”
“Hey that’s the least of my problems, wait until she gets wind of that alleged affair I’m havin’ with Millie that you dreamt up. You’d better go set the record straight…I figure it’ll be all over town by tomorrow.”
Then Slim groaned and Jess ran over to tend to him, followed by Doug.
Jess hunkered down by his pard, “Hey are you alright?” he asked softly.
Slim blinked looking vaguely around him, “I guess, been better but yeah, I’m OK.”
Then he saw the blood covering Doug’s shirt.
“Hey Sheriff have you been shot?” he asked looking anxiously from Doug to Jess and back.
“Sorta,” he said smiling down at Slim, “ask your buddy about it. Anyway, I guess I’m in a better state than you are Slim, you’re looking kinda rough buddy.”
“I’m fine,” he said bravely trying to sit up and failing miserably.
“I reckon he ain’t up to sitting a horse right now Doug. Why don’t you take the prisoners in, tell Peggy and Daisy we’re just fine and we’ll get back as soon as Slim’s feelin’ a bit more like it.” Jess said.
“If you’re sure, you’ll be OK?”
“Yup, we’ll be just fine here. It’s a good place for a camp, he’ll be right once he’s rested up some won’t ya Hardrock?”
“Sure you get off and put those bastards behind bars where they belong Doug, we’ll be fine,” Slim agreed.
Once Jess had cleaned Slim up some and tended to the horses, he returned to the camp his saddle bags over one shoulder.
“Are you hungry?”
“Nope I guess not. My belly’s kinda sore,” Slim said rubbing his stomach where he’d received a good kicking the previous day.
Jess nodded and brewed them both a hot drink, before digging about in his saddlebag and producing Denver’s moonshine and a small package…
“What’s that?” Slim asked with interest.
Jess opened the parcel to reveal two large slices of Peggy’s delicious coffee cake… and grinned at his buddy, “Sure you’re not hungry?”
Slim grinned back, “Well you know I think I could manage some.”
Jess shared it out and then added a liberal amount of whiskey to their coffee cups before leaning back on his saddle…and shaking his head, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“What?” Slim asked, glancing across.
“I was just thinkin’ there can’t be many would-be gunfighters set off on a mission with coffee cake in his saddlebags.”
Slim grinned back, “That’s Ma Johnson for you, always has her priorities right,” he said with a chuckle.
“So are you going to tell me everything,” he asked eventually, peering across at his friend, “I take it you didn’t really shoot Doug?”
“Oh I shot him alright, but with a blank.”
“Do you mind that time a few years back when I was asked to go undercover? There was all that trouble on the US/ Canadian border, they were callin’ it the Midnight Rebellion or some crazy name?” Jess asked.
“I sure do they were recruiting rebels for an uprising and you came to mind as the ideal candidate for the job with your background and all. So you could do some spying for the government,” Slim said remembering it all well, now Jess had brought it up.
“Yeah, so we had this scam remember? We waited until the recruitment officer, er… Jamison…Vern Jamison, that’s it, was in the saloon and then I started cutting up rough, acting real drunk.”
“Yeah and when I came in to pretend to sort you out you decked me real good,” Slim said, a hand to his chin at the memory. “You sure put on a good act…the way you slugged me felt almost real,” he said with irony.
Jess chuckled, “And that US Marshall I allegedly shot was an even better actor…with that little sack of chicken blood under his shirt, I just had to fire a blank…and then he hit the deck…gee he sure looked dead.”
“So that’s what you did with Doug, picked a fight and then gunned him down?”
“Yup, that’s about the size of it.”
“Phew, that was pretty dangerous Jess anyone in the saloon could have shot you…and how did you work it out with Doug anyway, I thought you were under surveillance the whole dang time, couldn’t risk seeing Doug, so you said.”
Jess chuckled again, “I was safe enough in the saloon, because most of the folk in there were already in on it…all except Jordan that is. And yup you’re right I couldn’t see Doug, so I had to do the next best thing, talk to Jenny his wife.”
“Yeah, it’s true. It was all Peggy’s idea. See there was this Women’s Group meeting and she knew Jenny would be there, the deputy’s wife too and a few other wives…ones married to the usual posse members. So Peggy arranged for Jenny to take my messages over to Doug and he sent word back via Jenny.”
Jess remembered back to the previous evening when the Women’s Group members had arrived and the lack of enthusiasm he and young Mike had felt at the idea of their company…How could he have known they would prove to be his champions one and all?
“Yup they’re a real fine bunch of women, real fine. They passed everything on to their men folk and they turned up at the saloon, to watch my back if anything went wrong.”
Slim had taken all this on board and then said, “It’s lucky you thought of that Jess…what made you remember that time back in Laramie, I’d forgotten all about it up to now?”
“Huh? Oh yeah me too, ‘twas a long time ago all that business. It was Mike made me think of it. I was showin’ him that game of Find the Lady and…”
“Jess what have I said about teaching the kid to gamble?”
“Oh come on Slim, I didn’t even use the cards, just a sugar lump under a cup…moved the cups around real fast and caught the kid out…It was when I told him that sometimes we just couldn’t trust what we saw…or thought we saw that the idea came to me.”
Slim grinned at him and reaching over tipped his buddy’s hat over his eyes, “Well I don’t care what folk say about you. I reckon you do have a brain in there,” he said laughing.
“Well you’ve sure perked up,” Jess said indignantly, righting his hat and glaring at his friend.
“Yeah, just pure relief I guess,” Slim said quietly, “we’ve sure been through the mill…all of us, Hell we all thought you were dead you know! But it was even worse for you I reckon Jess.”
Jess just nodded, heck he’d felt so dang lonely on the trail searching for Daisy and Mike and finally Slim. It had made him realise just how much they meant to him that was for sure.
He shook his head remembering that terrible evening when he’d ridden into the deserted ranch. Then the macabre find of the blood in Mike’s room. Gee that must have been chicken blood too he suddenly realised and gave a grim smile at the irony of the situation…Jordon having slaughtered a chicken and used its blood to dupe Jess and him doing exactly the same thing…with that little bag of blood secreted beneath Doug’s shirt.
“What are you thinking?” Slim asked.
When Jess told him about the grim find and also of how he had been told dear Daisy was deceased Slim sucked in a deep breath shaking his head in dismay. Then Jess told him the rest, about finding Mike on Jake Beasley’s ranch being badly ill-treated. Then of poor Daisy having been left stranded, but how she had hired a buggy and gone looking for Mike.
“Jeez, she’s one plucky lady,” Slim said in wonderment.
Jess nodded, “She sure is…I’m so dang glad I managed to find her…all of you.”
What would have happened if he never did find them? What would he have done? Hell he’d have gone to the ends of the earth lookin’ before he gave up.
It seemed as though Slim read his thoughts, “You never thought of giving up?”
Jess looked shocked, “Heck no, I always knew I’d see you again…just didn’t know when or where.”
Then Slim took another sip of his fortified coffee and looked uncomfortable for a moment, “So what would you have done if you hadn’t remembered that scam we used, or Peggy hadn’t thought to ask the women folk for help?”
“Oh plan B you mean? I was gonna get Daisy to wire Mort and get him to contact Doug for help saying he was needed over in Laramie. I figured iffen Doug was out of town I couldn’t be expected to shoot him, thought it would give me some thinking time at least.”
Slim nodded, “I guess that makes sense.”
“Anyway, no point in broodin’, it worked out OK in the end I guess…So you want some more of Kate Munroe’s sleepin’ draft then?”
“Denver’s brew, that’s how he passed it off to Daisy. When he picked her up on the trail he said she was freezin’ and so he said this was one of Kate’s herbals, guaranteed to keep out the cold and aid a good night’s sleep.”
Slim laughed at that news, “Ha, Daisy’s nobody’s fool, she’d know exactly what she was drinking, just got the common sense to accept when there’s the need for a drop of medicinal spirit.”
“Um, I guess you’re right…and so what’s good enough for Daisy…” And he offered the bottle to his friend.
Chapter 8
The two men talked long into the night. They had probably never been so open and in tune as they were in that moonlit camp. Lying under the stars, the soft night time sounds surrounding them. Maybe it was the Moonshine that had loosened their tongues, or maybe as Slim had said earlier, just the sheer relief that the terrible events of the last few weeks were finally over and resolved.
Jess was lounging against his saddle staring off into the middle distance a look of profound sadness in his deep blue eyes.
“What is it?” asked Slim, picking up on his buddy’s change of mood immediately…Just minutes before they had been exchanging banter and laughing at an old shared joke and now Jess looked almost fearful.
“You’re looking real troubled pard…you can relax now, let go, everything’s going to be just fine, thanks to you.”
Jess just shrugged, “It weren’t just me, everyone played their part…nope it’s something else anyway Slim. The way I was…hell still am. I thought I’d changed some you know?” he said turning and casting Slim a heartrendingly sad glance.
“Well you have…you know that Jess… you’re a pillar of the community now, except for shooting the odd Sheriff that is,” he said with a grin.
But Jess didn’t return it, “Uh…I mean my temper Slim. The way I am when I’m crossed.” He sighed deeply before continuing, “I really laid into that Jake Beasley you know…for what he did to Mike, beating the boy that way…he was filthy and half-starved too,” he continued shaking his head.
Slim frowned, “Poor kid…he’s OK now?”
Jess nodded, “Yup fine he’s a survivor though Slim. I just hope Beasley is. The way I beat him, he could have died I guess…iffen I hadn’t reined it in, stopped and told his wife to go care for him,” and he shook his head. “Then just now with that prize bastard Jordon, I reckon I’d have beaten him to a pulp too if good ol’ Doug hadn’t stepped in…Jeez Slim, I thought I had all that under control.”
Slim immediately reached over and squeezed Jess’s shoulder, “Hey pard, stop being so dang hard on yourself, you did stop in time. That’s the main thing and I guess it’s just a testimony as to how much you care about us all…that’s nothing to be ashamed of is it?”
There was a long silence as Jess considered this and then he said very softly, “I guess you’ll never know how much.”
Slim smiled over at him then and said, “Oh I think we do Jess.”
Then more cheerfully, “So you just hold onto that thought next time you argue when I ask you to go ride fence in the east pasture in the snow. You just remember how darned attached to me you are OK?”
“I guess a lot of other folk are kinda fond of you all too,” Jess said thoughtfully. “The way the women of the town rallied around and Doug was great too, can’t have been too pleasant bein’ shot that way, even if it was only a blank.”
“I’m just so glad you found a way out of it,” said Slim seriously. “The way you remembered that scam we pulled all those years ago with the chicken blood and shooting a blank…that was perfect. It was a miracle you thought of it in time.”
Jess suddenly looked very thoughtful, “Uh, well maybe it was.”
“That Rev Philpot, parson over in Cheyenne, he picked up on the fact that I was real troubled…asked if he could help.”
Slim snorted at that, “What, you were in Church?”
“Yeah,” said Jess indignantly, “I was told I’d find the next clue to where you were if I attended.”
Slim, sobered at once, “I’m sorry Jess go on.”
“So I couldn’t tell him what was botherin’ me because Jordon’s men were all over and he’d threatened to hang ya if word got back that I’d told anyone at all.”
Slim just looked concerned and waited for Jess to continue.
“So I couldn’t tell him, but he said he’d pray for me anyway…so maybe it was a miracle huh Slim?”
“I reckon you could have something there pard.”
The men sat in silence absorbing that awe-inspiring thought and then after a moment Slim said, “So you told Peggy all about it though and Daisy was staying there too, weren’t these men of Jordon’s suspicious that you might have said something or Daisy had?”
Jess grinned at him then, “That was Jordon’s big mistake…he just didn’t see that women could be any threat. Just assumed they would do nothing, or wouldn’t be believed if they did say something. That’s one hell of a big mistake some men make thinking women are sorta invisible, have no say in anything. But times are changing you know Slim, I figure those good wives of Cheyenne have proved that. I do believe one day women folk will be seen as equal to men you know that?”
Slim grinned back, “Equal, are you kidding me, Daisy’s way superior to us, just got the common sense not to make it known.”
“You know I think you’re right there,” Jess said laughing and replenishing their cups, with coffee and a dash more Moonshine.
It was mid-afternoon before the two friends found themselves at Peggy Johnson’s door. They had left their mounts at the livery and had a good chinwag with old Fred before making off down Main Street. Then they were accosted several times by folk wanting to pump Slim’s hand and slap Jess on the back, giving their good wishes to the pair. They did however resist the invitation to go for a drink with some of the posse members, both feeling slightly hung over after the overindulgence of the previous night.
As they stood at the door waiting for their knock to be answered they studied one another.
“Gee you’re looking real peaky Slim,” Jess said noting the grayish tinge to his buddy’s complexion and the week’s stubbly growth of beard.
“Well you’re not exactly looking all that great either,” Slim retaliated as he focused on the dark stubble to Jess’s chin, bloodshot eyes and trail dusty clothes.
“Uh, good job we ain’t thinkin’ on goin’ romancin’ our girls then,” Jess said with a tired grin.
“Hell yeah, only thing I want to do is go to bed and sleep in it,” Slim said with a wicked wink.
Two minutes later the door was flung open…and Millie stood there beaming up at the pair.
“Millie…Mill?” Jess gasped in shock and then a huge grin swept over his face before he took her in his arms and kissed her passionately.
After a moment or two Slim tapped him lightly on the shoulder, “Er come on pard, I’m losin’ the will to live here, think I could get inside and sit me down, before I dang well fall?
Millie immediately relinquished her lover and gave Slim a concerned look, “Oh Slim, I’m so sorry, you do look poorly, come on in, both of you,” she said grabbing Jess’s hand and leading the way back to the snug parlour within.
Ma Johnson immediately took charge noticing Slim’s fragile state and ushered him off upstairs to soak in the hot tub, whilst she made up a bed for him.
“You and Jess will be quite comfy in this room, next door to Millie’s, won’t you?” She said with a little wink as she went off to prepare a drink for the men and suggest Jess avail himself of the tub once Slim was through. Dear me she thought both young men looked done in and quite peaky and she wondered what she could give them for supper to build them up some, steak and taters maybe?
Slim had received an emotional welcome from both Daisy and Mike before he went off to clean up and now they sat in the parlour with Jess and Millie waiting to hear how everything had gone.
“I reckon I could never have done it without you and Peggy,” Jess said sincerely smiling over at Daisy, “not to mention the good wives of Cheyenne.”
“I’m just glad we could help,” Daisy said softly. “It’s dear Doug I feel sorry for it must have been quite painful being shot that way, even if it was only a blank.”
Jess nodded, “He’s a real good buddy, the best…I’ll go thank him properly tomorrow take him and Jenny out for a meal,” he said raising a questioning eyebrow to Millie, “You’ll come won’t ya?”
“Try and stop me,” she said smiling lovingly at him. “Tom said I deserved a break so I’ve got the next week off.”
Jess threw her a loving look. “Hey that’s real swell.” Then looking puzzled, “But what are you doin’ here anyway, I sent a wire sayin’ your Ma was fine and you’d no need to come over.”
Millie grinned at that, “Well I knew there was something wrong, because you’d never tell me to stay away…so I just had to come and investigate.”
He beamed at her then, “I’m sure glad you did,” and then Mike broke in, seeing the conversation was turning kinda mushy as he termed it.
“Jess, tell me again about how you shot the Sheriff,” he said thrilled with the whole idea of such a clever scam.
Jess turned away and rolled his eyes at Millie, “Later sweetheart, I’ll show ya just how glad,” he whispered squeezing her hand before turning back to the eager child.
“See it was this way Tiger….”
It was several hours later and Slim was lying in bed clean and well fed and feeling pretty relaxed. But his naked torso bore testimony to the terrible beatings he’d received at the hands of Jordon’s men.
“Aww Slim, those bastards really laid into you didn’t they pard.”
“I’ll live,” he said philosophically, “I feel one hell of a lot better for a session in the hot tub, shaved and being in clean clothes.”
Then he glanced over to the other bed where Jess was also looking pretty perky, his newly washed hair slicked back and wearing a pair of pristine white cut off undershorts…
Slim grinned at him, “It beats me how you always seem to have clean undershorts in your saddle bag…considering you’re none too picky about wearin filthy dusty pants and ripped up shirts most of the time.”
“Ah well the ladies appreciate that kinda thing,” Jess said with a grin.
“Always pays to be prepared see Slim, you just never know when you might wanna look your best.”
Slim chuckled shaking his head, “I take it you won’t be spending the night caring for your poor battered old buddy then huh?”
Jess’ head shot up and he threw Slim an incredulous look, “You’re kiddin’ me, with my girl just in the next room? Hell Slim, I may be kinda fond of ya…gotten used to havin’ you around anyways…but if it comes to a choice between nurse maiding you…or spending some time with my girl…well I’m afraid there ain’t no contest,” he said with a cheeky wink.
After a little while he rose and opened the door a crack, peering up and down the corridor, before turning back to Slim, “Don’t wait up,” he said with another wink and slipped quietly out of the room.
Slim chuckled flapping a hand at him, before he turned on his side, falling into a deep dreamless sleep almost at once.
Jess tapped lightly on Millie’s bedroom door before going in.
What he saw as he entered made his stomach flip and his pulses race.
Millie was sitting up in bed, illuminated by the soft light from a bedside lamp. Her dark hair was down around her shoulders and brushed into a shining halo, her beautiful face naked of makeup. She was wearing a pale nightdress of some diaphanous material and her whole appearance a delightful mix of innocence and voluptuous desire.
Jess swallowed hard, he could hardly remember seeing her look more lovely.
She broke the spell by grinning at him, “So what took you so long cowboy?”
He grinned back and was across the room in two large strides, sliding into bed beside her, as she lifted the covers back for him.
“Well I’ll tell ya, I figured I’d better make sure everyone was asleep first.”
She giggled at that, “Don’t worry your honour is quite safe…you me and Slim are the only folk on this top floor…Daisy and Mike are sharing the first floor front and Ma is in her usual room at the back of the parlour…we don’t have any paying guests tonight.”
Jess snuggled down taking her in his arms… “Well ain’t that fortunate,” then he kissed her very thoroughly.
They made sweet love, slept and then awoke and talked softly long into the night. Jess unburdening himself. All the fears and pain of the last few weeks, when his loved ones had been taken, flooding out.
“I just can’t help but think this was all my fault,” he said looking sorely troubled. “They would never have been put in that position if it weren’t for me bringing in Jordon.”
“Oh Jess don’t be so hard on yourself and anyway there is nothing you can do about it now, just let it go honey.”
He shook his head, “What if it happens again? Hell what if they really had wired you to come …they could have abducted you too,” he said his gaze falling on her now filled with alarm.
“Jess please, don’t…hush,” she said softly, running a gentle finger over his lips.
“Maybe I should leave town, go away someplace,” he insisted ignoring her distraction ploy.
“What…what about us?” she whispered, looking suddenly fearful.
He shook his head, “I dunno sweetheart…maybe you’d be better off without me.”
“Jess you don’t mean that. You’re just tired and emotional too…you’ve been to Hell and back worrying about everyone. Just give yourself time to get over it all. Things will seem different in a day or so.”
He held her close, his heart drumming in his chest, how could he leave her…but there again how could he not…the thought of anything happening to her unbearable. But yes, heck she was probably right and he was over reacting…born out of fear and exhaustion.
They finally made love again and Millie fell asleep in his comforting embrace.
When he awoke at first light the bed was empty…Millie was gone.
He sat up in the tangle of sheets looking around the room in the dim early dawn light, but nope the room was indeed empty.
His heart started hammering again, where was she? Come on Harper get a grip, she’s probably just washing up, he told himself.
When five minutes passed and there was still no sign of her he panicked and jumping out of bed marched off to the room he was sharing with Slim, to dress and search for her.
He threw the door open wide and stood back in surprise at the scene before him.
Slim was lying in his bed and Millie was leaning over him, bathing his pale face with a damp cloth.
“What’s goin’ on?” Jess asked as he came to his senses and strode across to the bedside.
“Oh thank goodness you’re here,” Millie said looking anxious. “I was just going to have a quick wash when I heard Slim groaning as I passed his door. He’s been sick and is in awful pain Jess; I think we need Doc Lloyd.
Jess gave his partner and anxious glance before throwing his pants and shirt and boots on and seconds later Millie heard him thundering down the stairs and the front door opening and slamming shut.

Doc Tom Lloyd sat back in Peggy Johnson’s best chair in her front parlour and stretched out his long legs as he viewed the assembled company of worried faces.
“There really is no great cause for concern,” he said addressing Jess Harper, who he knew from past experience tended to be somewhat fiery if his fears were not allayed and quickly.
“Your partner has received some nasty abrasions to his stomach and possibly even experienced a little internal damage at the hands of those ruffians,” he said. “That in turn had disturbed his digestive system, making it difficult to absorb proper meals, like the fine repast of steak, that I believe you provided last night,” said the good doctor turning to Peggy.
“Oh dear I should have realised,” she said looking very sheepish, “he needs a light diet then doctor?”
“Indeed my dear, just broth for a few days to give his stomach time to heal, then small light meals for another week or so and he should make a full recovery.”
There was a mass sigh of relief and the doctor went on his way, promising to return the following day to check on his patient.
Jess sat on the edge of the bed peering down at his best friend. He’d spent the morning with his buddy and then Millie had looked after him when Jess went off to see the Sheriff to find out about the up and coming trial. Now it was late afternoon and Slim was looking better for a good rest.
“Gee Slim I’d never have left you last night iffen I’d known you were really sick, I just thought you were dead beat,” he said for the umpteenth time.
“Hey, I was fine until I woke up first thing…and you couldn’t have done anything anyway. I’ll be just dandy in a day or so. Anyway, enough of me, what’s this rubbish Millie’s been telling me about you thinking of moving on?”
Jess’s head shot up, “She shouldn’t have bothered you with that, not with you being sick and all.”
“I didn’t give her any choice,” Slim said with a small smile, “I threatened to have a relapse if she didn’t tell me what was troubling her.”
Jess shook his head rolling his eyes and then said seriously, “I just don’t want to risk it all happening again pard. I figure this was all my fault.”
“So how do you figure that?”
“Well it’s obvious ain’t it… I brought Jordon in for that Stage robbery…and he tried to get back at me by hurting you guys.”
Slim just shook his head, “You’re crazy, you know that? So are you saying you should never have ridden shot-gun on that Stage…should have let Jordon rob it and maybe even kill some innocent folk at the same time?”
“Well no but…”
“But nothing, if anyone is to blame for this whole dang fiasco it’s me Jess. I should never have ridden out with those two hoodlums to check on that sick heifer, leaving Daisy and Mike alone with a complete stranger. Just because he was well dressed and spoke nicely I assumed he was a gentleman. Hell I can’t believe how dang stupid I was…So let’s hear no more of you leaving…Or I’ll have to go instead, seeing as how I believe it was all my fault and not yours,” he said with a smirk.
“So what are you laughing at?” Jess said. What his buddy had just said, about it not being his fault, making him feel pretty dang relieved he had to admit.
“The thought of you being left in sole charge of the ranch and relay, you’d have us flat broke in a month,” Slim said with a chuckle. “You’d get no work done because you’d be off fishing. You’d forget to pay the bills, or be off playing poker and using Daisy’s housekeeping for your stake money…gee it doesn’t bear thinking about,” he finished with an uncontrollable bubble of laughter.
Jess stared at him in consternation and then his face cleared and he started laughing too…
“Hell, I guess you’ve got a point there pard, figure we’d both better stay…and the sooner we get back to the old place the better.”

The trial was set for the end of the week and the circuit judge wasted no time in finding all the defendants guilty as charged and issued them with lengthy jail sentences befitting their wicked crimes against all at the Ranch.
The following day they bid their fond farewells to Peggy Johnson and Doug and Jenny Masters, Jess promising to visit again as soon as he could.
The night before he had treated the Sheriff and his wife to dinner and dancing at the local hotel, as promised, and a good evening was had by all.
The two men were sitting relaxing with a whiskey apiece and watching the good folk of Cheyenne waltzing past them as they waited for their women to return from a trip to the washroom.
“Why do they always do that?” asked Jess tipping his head towards the fast retreating backs of their girls.
“Go to get beautified up in pairs?”
“Oh that’s easy,” said Doug with a grin, “so they can talk about us behind our backs of course.”
Jess looked shocked at that news and then said glumly, “Well I dunno what Millie will be sayin’, I figure she was kinda mad at me yesterday.”
“Oh, so why is that Jess …what did you do?”
“I threatened to leave…felt it was for the best…had this idea that everyone would be safer if me and my trouble weren’t around
“That’s crazy talk buddy,” Doug said his glass poised half way to his mouth.
“Aww I know it now…I weren’t thinkin’ straight I guess…”
“Well you make dang sure she knows it,” Doug said looking mighty troubled. “One thing about that scam that was real true…and that’s the fact that Millie is a real good friend, heck I sure wouldn’t want to see her upset. So as soon as they come back you take her on that dance floor, hold her real close and tell her you’re not going any place…huh? Or so help me I’ll have to shoot you and there won’t be any dang blanks involved,” he said with a grin, although his eyes spoke of a definite challenge.
Jess chuckled shaking his head, “Hey you really are a good friend to her ain’t ya? Sure I’ll tell her,” and he slapped his buddy on the shoulder, “thanks Doug.”
Now as he handed Millie up onto the Stage they exchanged a secret loving smile, yup all was good again between them he thought with relief. Once Daisy, Mike and Slim were all aboard Mose slapped the reins and they headed back to Laramie at speed, Jess riding Traveller with Blue running alongside.
When they finally arrived back at the ranch the stark reality of what had happened to them was apparent from the moment they entered the house. The remains of the last meal still in evidence, the dirty plates Jess had put down for the dogs still there, a layer of dust on every surface and in Mike’s room the bloodstained bedding.
Daisy stood on the threshold looking totally defeated for a moment before rolling up her sleeves and springing into action.
“Jess dear could you change Mike’s bed and Slim, maybe you’d care to cut some wood for the stove so I can heat some water and I’ll tend to these dirty dishes… And er Mike dear I think maybe Bandit could do with some fresh air whilst you clean his cage, he may have been well fed, but I think maybe certain other essentials haven’t been tended to.”
“Huh?” The child asked looking puzzled.
“He stinks Tiger, go muck him out,” Jess replied ruffling the boy’s hair before taking off to do as he was bid by Daisy.
It was later in the day that Jess entered the kitchen in search of a reviving coffee. He had just returned from the Jackson’s place where he’d paid the boys for their work and picked up Buttons. Now he found Daisy at the tub, scrubbing away on the washboard. She was up to her elbows in suds trying to clean the blood from Mike’s sheet. Her hair was escaping her usually tidy bun and she looked hot and very tired.
Jess took the kettle and placed it on the stove before grabbing hold of Daisy around the waist and pulling her gently away from her work. Buttons started barking in delight at this perceived new game.
“Why Jess dear whatever are you up to?” she asked looking slightly exasperated. “I haven’t time for your high jinks; I’ve got this washing to get on the line before I can even think of supper.”
Jess still held her firmly around the waist and finally managed to maneuver her to one of the kitchen chairs. “Hey Daisy I ain’t messin’ around I just want you to take a rest and I’ll have a go at the washing. You look plumb wore out, now just take five minutes, OK?”
“Oh alright dear, but I really think that all that sheet is good for is the rag bag, I can’t get that blood out,” and she looked near to tears.
“Hey it’s OK Daisy, I’ll fix it,” he said casting her a warm smile.
“I can’t help but think how it must have been for you dear, arriving home to find us all missing and then that,” she said nodding to the sodden sheet, her voice trembling a little.
“Weren’t much fun,” he agreed as he got stuck into scrubbing the dirty washing, managing to splash a liberal amount of the soapy water down his shirt front.
Daisy shook her head chuckling, “Oh Jess dear that really is woman’s work you know…why don’t we just have a coffee, umm?”
But he just looked stubborn, “All that stuff about woman’s work, well it just ain’t right you know Daisy, it ain’t fair you should have all the borin’ messy jobs like this.”
“Oh, so what has brought this on? Championing the weaker gender then Jess?”
“Why are you sticking up for the fairer sex this way, I thought you believed a woman’s place was in the kitchen?” she said with a twinkle.
“Heck I never said that Daisy. And anyway, what got me thinkin’ was the way all you ladies organised yourselves back in Cheyenne. Saved the day I reckon an’ now you’ve all gotten the vote I guess there won’t be no stoppin’ ya…I figure there ain’t nuthin’ women couldn’t do iffen they put their mind to it.”
Daisy beamed at him, “Well you know Jess, Laramie has the honour of being the town where a woman, Louisa Swain, cast the first vote,” she said gleefully.
Slim had come in at this point and was leaning on the kitchen door frame grinning over at the state of Jess, now liberally covered with soapy water.
“Yup, I knew that,” Jess affirmed, “it was somethin’ real special. You know I bet folks will still be talkin’ about how women first got the vote here, in a hundred years’ time, maybe longer.”
Then Slim strode forwards and tipped Jess’s hat over his eyes,” I reckon you’ll still be trying to get that stain out in a hundred years’ time too pard,” he said laughing wickedly.
“Why you,” Jess yelled, “so iffen you’re so dang clever you git it clean then,” and threw the washboard down in disgust.
That was Slim’s cue to advance on the tub, managing to soak Jess with more soapy water and that ended in an unseemly scuffle, both men getting soaked and the sudsy washing water going everywhere.
“Oh Lord,” Daisy said practically crying with laughter at their antics, “just stop it the pair of you!” “Jess you pour the coffee and then you can both finish that washing and the kitchen floor will need mopping too!”
Both men turned wary eyes on their diminutive housekeeper.
“Well sure Daisy we can do that for you,” Jess said, “er so what will you be doing?”
“I thought I might just put my feet up and read the paper before supper dear. Now you boys are so keen on liberating us women folk I think I will embrace the idea wholeheartedly. Goodness maybe I’ll even be able to get out of the house a little more often. They do say that women are being asked to do jury service now as well. I think I might have quite an aptitude for that,” and she wandered off to find the local paper carrying the coffee Jess had just made for her. A small smile hovering around her lips, just wondering how long it would be before they woke up to her teasing…Although jury service would be most interesting she had to admit.
Meanwhile back in the kitchen Slim turned questioning eyes on his pard, “What have you been saying to her…jury service?”
“Nuthin’…well nuthin’ much. Aww come on Slim git to it, sooner we clean up in here sooner Daisy can come and make supper.”
Then an anxious look crossed his handsome features, “Hey Slim, she is gonna make us supper ain’t she…huh Slim…huh?”
The End
Thank you for reading!

“Women’s Suffrage (1870)
In 1869, the Wyoming territorial legislature became the first government to grant women the right to vote. Hear the notable firsts that set Wyoming apart in the suffragette movement.
Honouring The World’s First Woman Voter – Early in the morning on September 6, 1870 in Laramie, Wyoming Louisa Swain became the first woman in the world to cast a ballot under laws giving women full equality with men! In the fall of 2008, 138 years later, the U.S. Congress passes a resolution proclaiming September 6th as “Louisa Swain Day” in recognition of this historic event.
From https://visitlaramie.org/vendors/wyoming-women

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