#71 Jess Harper Won't Back Down

# 71 Jess Harper Won’t Back Down!

Patty Wilkinson
(Some adult themes, violence and strong language)

Chapter One

Well I won’t back down, no I won’t back down”

Sheriff Mort Cory looked down at the bruised, battered body of his good friend Jess Harper and said quietly, “I guess that was always his problem, he just wouldn’t back down.”
He cast a glance across the bed to where Slim Sherman stood, his blond head bowed, hiding the pain in his eyes.
After a moment he glanced up at the Sheriff, “He won’t back down Mort, not wouldn’t, he isn’t dead yet you know.”
Mort shook his head sadly, but said nothing for a while.
“I blame myself, I shouldn’t have left him alone in town deputizing for me,” he finally managed, “I had heard on the grape vine that the Lewis gang were possibly somewhere in the area, maybe I should have insisted Jess accompany the prisoner to Denver and stayed in town myself.”
“Oh come on Mort, we could spend forever saying what if. What if Lon, your deputy hadn’t got sick that day, what if I’d ridden into town for supplies earlier? Jess always said, always says, ‘thinkin’ on the ‘what ifs’ of life could drive a man plumb crazy.’”
“So how is he really?” Mort asked.
“Doc Sam seems to think there’s a slight improvement since we brought him home from town, he’s holding his own anyway and Miss Daisy’s nursing him real good.”
Mort threw the patient on the bed a quizzical look, “What does she make of that?” He asked the ghost of a smile on his rugged features.
Slim regarded Jess’s huge wolf cross sheepdog Blue, lying on the bed, his head on his master’s chest. The dog looked up, showing the whites of his eyes and his tail beat back and forth for a moment, knowing he was being discussed.
Slim leaned down and caressed the animal’s head affectionately, “I guess she doesn’t mind. Anything that helps my pard get well again is OK as far as she’s concerned,” he said his eyes suddenly bleak.

Lying deathly still on the bed Jess Harper heard their conversation, but he was just too blamed wore out to join in. Instead he cast his mind back to the happenings of the last few days.
It was nothing special deputizing for ol’ Mort. Hell, he’d done it a dozen times before. Sure, it would have been good if Lon had been around with the threat of the Lewis gang riding in a possibility. But that was just one of those things. The guy was sick to his stomach with food poisoning, so what could you do?
“Nah, you get off with the prisoner Mort, I’ll be just fine,” Jess replied when Mort offered to change places.
“OK iffen you’re sure Jess, now you just watch your back huh and if you get word that Carl Lewis and his gang are around then send word for Slim OK?”
“Sure, sure, just git off Mort, you fuss more than Miss Daisy.”
The Sheriff chuckled and stretched out a hand, shaking Jess’s firmly, “I’ll be back end of the week.” Then hand cuffing his prisoner they left the office and marched down Main Street headed for the Stage Office.
Once the Sheriff had gone Jess mooched around the jail checking on the rifles and took a quick glance at the latest wanted posters before settling down with a coffee and the Laramie Sentinel, feet up on the desk.
That pretty much set the pattern for the rest of the day. He took a turn or two up and down Main Street during the afternoon. Having eaten supper at Miss Molly’s café across the street, he made a final check of the town before he turned in sometime after eleven.
He stretched out on the staff bunk in the end cell and lamented the fact that his girl, Millie Johnson, was out of town off visiting her brother with her Ma. Jeez he’d have been enjoying a much more interestin’ evening iffen his girl had been in town he reflected glumly, before turning on his side and falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He was just leaving Miss Molly’s Café the following morning after a substantial breakfast when he noticed something odd down the street by the bank. It had only just gone nine and the bank didn’t open its doors until after ten, although the staff were always there on the dot of nine to prepare for the day. Now however there were four horses tethered nearby and Jess felt the first stirrings of unease.
He turned towards the bank and marched briskly down Main Street, only slowing his pace momentarily to say a quick howdy to Tom. He was out brushing the sidewalk in front of the saloon and his eyes followed Jess as he strode on towards the bank wondering what he was up to.
Jess paused for a moment and cast a practiced eye over the waiting mounts, all of them sweating slightly like they’d been ridden hard and all strong fit animals that would have a good turn of speed.
He moved towards the bank’s front door and finding it ajar he drew his gun and edged inside, listening for a moment before entering.
It only took him a split second to take in what was happening. The Bank Manager and two female tellers were tied and gagged, lying on the floor looking terrified whilst two men helped themselves to cash from the safe, another two guarding the prisoners.
Seconds later Jess had four guns trained on him, but then Carl Lewis stepped forwards, from where he’d been watching the prisoners.
“Well, I’ll be…if it ain’t little Jesse Harper,” and he turned to grin at the others. “Take it easy boys, you remember Harper here from home dontcha, remember the little Indian lovin’ kid?”
Then he turned back to Jess, “What can I do for you Jess boy, only we’re a mite busy here right now.”
Jess cocked his Colt and said gravely, “You can throw down those dang guns and git down on the floor.”
Lewis looked deeply shocked, and then he scrutinized Jess more closely and noted the star on his vest and let out a shout of laughter, “How long since ya gave up the owl hoot trail then Jesse and sided with the law huh?”
“Long enough,” Jess said quietly, his eyes narrowing and a muscle flicking in his cheek the only sign of tension.
“Come on now Jess,” Lewis said in a cajoling voice, “ya don’t mean it huh, you wouldn’t turn on old friends?”
“Oh I mean it alright,” said Jess, his chin jutting out, “you ain’t ever been a friend and I dang well ain’t gonna tell you again Carl.”
The older man took a step forwards and shook his head, “You just don’t learn do you Harper? You were a fool kid who never knew when to back down and I guess you’re still the same.”
Jess just stared.
“Hell, wasn’t it enough I damn near drowned you as a young ‘un, you’d think you’d learn.”
“Yeah and if you remember right, I floored you later that week and sent ya cryin’ off home to yer Ma with a blackened eye.”
Lewis flushed up looking deeply embarrassed in front of the others, his younger brother now sniggering openly.
Carl turned to him, “Shut it Denny,” and swinging back he levelled his gun at Jess.
“What are ya all waiting for... an invitation to down the bastard?”
Jess instinctively dropped and rolled shooting Carl through the heart in one fluid motion, before turning his gun on a shocked Denny and killing him too, his shot aimed at Jess going wide.
That was when the other two retaliated, one grazing Jess in his side just below his ribs.
He barely felt the pain and merely returned the fire winging one of the men, Jack the oldest brother, who fell to his knees clutching his left shoulder.
It was then that reinforcements finally arrived, tipped off by Tom. Ezra, from the mercantile armed with his shot gun downed the remaining outlaw Hank. Tom was just behind him wielding his old hunting rifle, followed by several other towns’ folk.
Jess staggered up, a hand to the wound in his side and was about to thank them. But then seconds later the man he’d shot in the shoulder, Jack Lewis, opened fire again. Jess had made the fatal mistake of assuming he had lost consciousness when he hit the deck. However, the outlaw had rallied, his bullet catching Jess on the temple and he fell to the ground like a stone.

“What the hell was he playing at Tom, I don’t understand it?” Slim asked an anguished look on his handsome features as they stood in Doc Sam’s front parlor.
Slim had ridden in to collect some supplies and had been greeted by the bloody carnage in the bank. He, Tom and Ezra had carried his buddy down the street to Doc Sam’s office and now he’d been in surgery for over an hour.
“I just don’t get it,” said Slim again, “why front up the whole Lewis gang on his own?”
Tom shook his head wearily. “I guess he didn’t want them to get away with it. He didn’t know how long they’d been in there and they could’ve ridden out at anytime with all the takings.”
Slim merely nodded, “I suppose…”
“Come on Slim you know Jess, once he was in there and had confronted them there’s no way he’d have backed down.”
Slim shook his head sadly, “That’s always been his trouble never knows when to dang well back down. He could have got a posse together gone after them.”
Tom just shook his head, “That ain’t his way though is it Slim? The boy gets dang mad. He just had to nail those bastards and I guess he did pretty much too.”
“Great epitaph,” Slim said bitterly.
Just then the door burst open and Doc Sam entered looking exhausted.
“Well?” Slim asked abruptly when the doctor went and slumped down on a chair by the fireside, indicating that Tom and Slim should be seated too.
Once they were gathered round Sam turned hopeless eyes on his old friend.
“I’m sorry Slim, I did all I could.”
Slim’ s head shot up, “What…he’s not?”
“Uh, oh no he’s holding his own right now, but I’m afraid I don’t have much hope this time Slim. The wound to his side was bad enough, no internal organs damaged by some miracle, but tremendous blood loss that has weakened him considerably.”
“He’s bounced back from that before,” Slim insisted.
“True and he could again, but it’s the head injury that’s so serious Slim.”
“It’s impossible to say how severe the brain damage is, but it looks like he is pretty much paralysed right now and he can’t seem to speak. In fact, I’m not sure if he even recognizes me. So, you see buddy, it might just be a blessing if he slips away.”
“No!” Slim yelled, before burying his head in his hands, and whispering, “No…”
A little later Tom got slowly up and patted Slim on the back, “I’m truly sorry Slim.”
Slim’ s head jerked up and he looked suddenly angry. “Don’t you dare say a word about this in the Saloon Tom, you hear me! I don’t want folk gossiping and burying him when he still has a chance.”
“Sure, sure Slim, I won’t breath a word, I promise,” and with that he made his way sadly out of the room.
“Can I see him Sam?”
Nothing prepared Slim for what he saw when he entered the hospital room at the back of the Doc’s office.
Jess was swathed in bandages around his naked torso and his head. His face below was almost as white as the dressings themselves, save for the black shadows around his closed eyes.
Slim sat down quietly on the bedside chair and then put a tentative hand on his buddy’s arm, “Jess you asleep?”
After a moment the deep blue eyes flickered and opened. He looked around him, swiveling his eyes around the room before finally coming to rest on Slim, the expression dazed.
“It’s OK pard,” he said softly, “you’re at Doc Sam’s. You decided to take on the Lewis gang single handed remember?”
Jess just continued to stare, his expression unchanging.
“Jess, buddy can you move your arm for me?” Slim persisted, hoping upon hope that this brain damage was all just a ghastly mistake.
Any minute now Jess would raise his arm and give Slim a cheeky swipe around the head, ‘sure I can move my arm, what are ya on about Hardrock?’
But there was nothing, save for a sudden look of utter panic in those blue eyes.
“It’s OK, hey, it’s OK Jess, it’ll be just fine, you just need time huh,” Slim said quickly, the panic like a knife in his guts making his voice sound desperate even to his own ears.
He tried again, “It’ll be OK. I’ll see to that I promise,” he said more convincingly.
But how the hell was he going to do that he thought when even Doc Sam had given up?
Now Jess was left to his own thoughts, lying in his bed back at the ranch.
He’d been surprised when Sam had allowed him to travel home, wrapped up in a comfortable bed of straw in the back of the buckboard. But then he saw the look in Sam’s eyes as he waved him and Slim off and how Ma Braddock had turned away a hanky to her sad old eyes. Then he knew, he was being sent home because the doc could do no more for him, he’d been sent home to die.
He lay in his bed feeling he might well go crazy, just lying there thinking all the live long day.
Hell, what else was there to do but think…and not about the future or the here and now that was way too daunting. To take on the Lewis gang single handed, that was OK, although in retrospect a tad fool hardy he thought now. But to consider a life where he was unable to move or communicate, well that was way beyond scary, so he didn’t think about it at all…
He cast his mind back to the Texas panhandle. To the time when he was just a young kid with a good buddy named Billy Daniels. *See #60 Dead & Buried?

He had been just seven years of age when he first met up with young Billy Daniels on one of Jess’ rare appearances in school. He might only have been seven years of age but already he’d got on the wrong side of Ma Stark the School teacher. Mostly it was his Pa’s fault keeping him home to work the land, but that cut little ice with the teacher.
He had just received a scolding from her for not having done his homework and was returning to his seat when a new kid on the front row gave him an encouraging wink, which was unfortunately intercepted by the teacher.
“Billy Daniels, step up here and tell the class why you think none completion of the homework task is cause for merriment,” she said tartly.
It was at recess that Jess caught up with young Billy.
“She’s a right stinker ain’t she,” he said conversationally, grinning at the new boy.
Billy grinned back, “Yup, I don’t think she likes be none.”
“Me neither,” Jess confirmed, “but I guess it don’t bother me too much.”
Then he paused looking thoughtful, “Say you wanna come down to the fishin’ hole on the way home, they’re bitin’ real good just now.”
That was to seal their friendship and Jess, his best buddy Millie and Billy joined up as an inseparable force, spending their time fishing, hunting and occasionally skipping school together.
Unfortunately, though it wasn’t just Ma Stark who seemed to have taken an instant dislike to Billy, it was the four Lewis brothers too. They never missed an opportunity to try and trip up Billy or push Jess around, purely because he was Billy’s friend. However, whereas Jess would retaliate and usually ended up coming home with a bloodied nose courtesy of the older boys, Billy tended to keep his head down or try and make a joke of it all.
“I dunno how you can do that,” Jess said one afternoon when they’d been waylaid on their way home from school and Billy’s books were taken and scattered around. He’d simply run off and it was sometime later before Jess caught up with him.
“Well,” he repeated, don’t it make you dang mad the way they are, dontcha wanna fight back?”
The boy just shook his head, “It ain’t that I’m scared Jess, it’s just that Ma and Pa say it’ll just make matters worse and I’ll bring big trouble to their door iffen I start scrapping with the white kids.”
“But why is that?” Jess persisted.
“Because I’m half caste of course, Ma’s from the Cheyenne tribe, heck Jess you must have noticed?”
“Well sure I have said Jess looking perplexed, “so what difference does that make, we ain’t at war with the Cheyenne, and anyway I can hardly see your Ma hurtin’ a fly,” he said honestly.
Billy just gave a sigh, “I guess it ain’t that, it’s that some folk think mixed marriages are bad. Pa says folk don’t understand and they judge us. He says people think us kids are neither one thing nor the other…not accepted by the Indian or the white man.”
Jess looked furious, “Well that’s real stupid, I accept ya, so does Millie, we’re real g
ood buddies…ain’t we?”
“Sure, we are,” said Billy grinning again, “come on Jess race ya home, Ma said she was makin’ cookies today.”
They were just little kids back then Jess remembered, but as they got older and the Lewis boys more out of hand so the bullying became more and more vicious. Until one afternoon everything came to a head. He and Billy had just turned ten and Millie nine when Carl Lewis decided to take things to another level.
Jess, Millie and Billy were down at the river fishing when the four Lewis brothers sauntered over; laughing and shoving each other before pausing beside the younger children.
Millie was never one to be intimated and turned to glare at them as Carl started kicking stones into the river.
“Stop it you idiot,” she cried, “You’ll scare the dang fish.”
He just laughed and turned to his youngest brother who was Jess’s age, “They ain’t the only things we’re gonna scare are they Denny boy?”
At that Denny took his cue and kicked Billy’s can of bait into the deep, slow moving river.
Jess jumped up at this intrusion, “Hey what do ya think yer doin’ Denny, quit it,” he hollered.
“Just having me some fun with the little Injun boy, you don’t mind do you Billy?”
For once Billy looked real mad, “Yeah I do,” he snarled, flushing up and standing to turn on the perpetrator. But before he could retaliate Carl was there towering above him. At thirteen he was a tall, heavy youth who took delight in tormenting the younger less able kids.
Billy looked pretty scared, but stood his ground as Carl pushed him hard in the chest nearly making him topple down the slippery bank.
Jess was there in a flash looking furious. “Leave him alone Carl!”
Carl left Billy immediately and turned all his attention on Jess.
“Well if it ain’t little Jesse Harper playin’ the hero again, looks like you’re gonna get thrashed all over again for sticking up for this scum, you’d think you’d learn wouldn’t ya? The number of times I’ve beat you up. Told ya what to do didn’t I, leave the loser alone and we’ll look out fer you…huh?”
“Git lost,” Jess growled standing fist’s balled and looking as mad as all get out.
Carl shook his head as though more in sorrow than anger, “Oh dear Jesse, I guess you just made the wrong choice.”
Then he yelled to his other brothers who had been lounging against a cotton wood smoking and watching the little drama play out through hooded world-weary eyes.
“Come on boys,” he yelled over, “I figure it’s time we taught this kid a lesson,” and grabbing hold of Jess started pulling him towards the edge of the river bank.
Jess fought back manfully, but once all four brothers, Jack, Hank, Denny and Carl, had hold of him he knew he had no chance.
Millie and Billy punched and kicked at the older boys but they just brushed the youngsters off like they were swatting away flies.
“Don’t,” Millie cried, “he can’t swim, stop it Carl…please!”
“About time he damned well learned then,” Carl said with a bitter sneer.
Just moments later Jess was suspended in the air the bullies having a limb each. They swung him out over the water, once, twice and then on the third threw him unceremoniously into the deep dark waters of the river.
Millie screamed hysterically as Jess thrashed about in the deep water.
“He’s drowning do something!” She cried.

Carl and his gang watched in consternation as Jess coughed and spluttered. Desperately trying to keep his head above water, but losing the battle and sinking below the surface as they looked on.
Minutes later the Lewis brothers panicked and ran off, Carl calling over his shoulder, “It weren’t us, we was never here…you young ‘uns remember that!”
Millie began pulling her boots off, but she stopped as she saw a stripped off Billy run to the water’s edge, “I’ll get him Millie you stay put,” he called firmly before diving into the dark water and striking out to where Jess was just going down for the third time.
Jeez that had been a close-run thing he thought now. It had been a miracle that Billy who was way lighter and a good head shorter than Jess had managed to rescue him and safely get him to the shore where Millie helped to pull him out. All three were in shock and sobbing until Millie saw that Jess was white and shaking. Then her bossy side took over and she coerced Billy into helping her support Jess back to her home just a short walk away.
There Mrs Johnson had taken pity on the poor half drowned boys and had dried them and their clothes off, giving them a bowl of piping hot soup apiece to warm them up. Billy running off home shortly afterwards, giving his thanks but saying his Ma would be worrying if he was too late.
“Please Mrs Johnson, please don’t tell my folk. Pa will beat me real good fer goin’ off fishin’ after school,” Jess had begged.
“But your parents should be aware dear, what if that dreadful Lewis child attacks you again?”
“Oh he won’t be doin’ that,” Jess said, a look of resolve in his suddenly steely blue eyes, “I can promise you that Ma’am.”
Millie was to remember that look years later. It was one she was to become very familiar with once she and Jess were together. It said ‘look out because I’m comin’ after you and I won’t back down, no matter how much the odds are stacked against me. I’m out to get you.’
Millie finally persuaded her Ma not to say anything and Jess made it back home without his parents ever knowing. His Ma had given him a slightly quizzical look thinking that he looked somehow cleaner and smarter than when he set off for school that morning. But then the baby cried and the moment passed. Mrs Johnson’s ministrations with the smoothing iron on Jess’s clothes also went unnoticed by his Pa when he lurched home from the saloon that night, so Jess got away with it.
It was a week later that he finally got his revenge.
He deliberately voiced his plans to go fishing again that afternoon in the hearing of Denny knowing he’d pass it onto Carl.
He, Billy and Millie had only just sat down to fish when Carl and Denny wandered over.
“Well I’ll be,” said Carl nudging his younger brother, “if it ain’t that little Jesse Harper keepin’ company with the soppy girl and that half caste kid again. What’s up Harper, can’t find any proper friends?”
Jess had his back to Carl and as he stood up slowly Millie saw the light of battle in his eyes and she quaked in fear….
“Jesse?” she whispered anxiously.
“It’s OK,” he whispered,” you just git off home Millie.”

He turned slowly and faced his adversary, his eyes now blazing with anger.
Carl took an involuntary step backwards suddenly feeling slightly wary of this skinny dark-haired kid with attitude.
He turned back to Denny for moral support.
“Jesse looks kinda mad don’t he Den, maybe we should chuck him in the river again cool him off some?”
Denny gave a little giggle, but his eyes were serious as he too had picked up on the slightly threatening aura now surrounding the young Harper kid.
Jess advanced, “Oh no you ain’t Carl and you ain’t gonna bully my friends no more either.”
Carl gave a slightly high-pitched laugh at that notion, “Well whose gonna stop me kid?”
He just never saw it coming, Jess moved as fast as a rattler strike and slammed his fist into Carl’s face sending him reeling, hitting the dirt several feet away.
Jess didn’t give him time to recover but tore across and straddled him raining blows to his head and torso like a creature possessed.
Carl finally managed to bring his knees up and dislodge Jess who fell backwards hard.
“What are yer waiting for Denny, come help me,” Carl yelled.
But Denny had seen enough and had cut and run as the first punch was thrown.
Seeing he was on his own Carl paused wondering whether to do likewise, but that was a bad mistake because Jess charged at him again. This time head butting him and slamming him into the ground where the pair rolled over and over in the dirt like a pair of scrapping wild cats.
Millie was genuinely fearful that they’d kill one another and tore off for help, returning some minutes later with her Pa in tow.
Billy was still gasping in dismay. He’d tried to pull Jess off saying enough, but to no avail.
Jess had got the upper hand again shortly after Millie had run off for help. And had been relentlessly knocking nine bells out of Carl, even though the older boy was almost hysterical and pleading for mercy.
It took all Mr Johnson’s strength to separate the two and when he finally did so he shook his head in sorrow.
“Jess boy, take it easy huh.”
Sure, Mr Johnson knew Jess was something of a scrapper, kind of admired him for sticking up for himself, and protecting his daughter on occasion too. But this, well the boy had been out of control and it was a frightening spectacle to witness.
He turned to where Carl was now getting shakily to his feet sobbing like a baby.
“Are you alright boy?”
He just nodded looking very embarrassed.
“OK well cut along home then,” Mr Johnson said.
But before he could make a move Jess leaned forwards and grabbed hold of Carl’s shirt front and said quietly, “It’s over Carl, you don’t ever, ever upset me or my friends again…you got that?”
Carl nodded but Jess narrowed his eyes and said “Huh, I didn’t hear ya?”
“Yes, OK I promise,” he cried before turning and running off home.

That was the last time he ever spoke to or came near Jess or his friends until Jess turned up at the Laramie Bank heist. Well that would be the last dang time Carl Lewis ever spoke to anyone Jess reflected now. But there again maybe it would be the same for him he thought bitterly

Chapter Two
You can stand me up at the gates of Hell
But I won’t back down.

That night when Slim turned in he noticed that Jess was worse.
Goddamn it he thought what was wrong?
It had been so difficult, trying to second guess what his pard’ s needs were. He just lay there unmoving, his only way of saying how he was feeling the expression in his eyes.
Slim found it hard, so hard to look into those beseeching eyes, trying time after time to ascertain just what he could do to help. Was his buddy too hot or cold, hungry or feeling nauseous, in pain?
It was Daisy who devised a method, of sorts, to get through to Jess. She had needed to resort to this kind of communication when nursing in the war, getting her patients to blink once for yes and twice for no. It was very rudimentary and frustrating for all, but better than nothing. Slim had thought at the time at least Jess was still in there somewhere, he could still understand and if he could do that, he could fight he thought hopefully. Of all things Jess wasn’t a quitter.
Now as Slim looked down at his buddy he could see all was not well. He looked flushed and agitated his eyes darting around the room and then resting on Slim. They seemed to be burning with…what… frustration, anger…no pain. His buddy was in pain.
“Are you hurting Jess?” He asked gently.
Jess blinked the once.
“Is it your head?”
He blinked twice for no.
“Here?” Slim asked putting a gentle hand on the bandaged wound below Jess’s ribs.
He gave one blink and a gasp, no almost a groan as he desperately tried to speak.
“It’s OK pard I’ll fetch Daisy,” and he disappeared from the room.
Jess lay there looking up at the ceiling tears of frustration behind his eyes. Why in hell couldn’t he move or speak properly. It was almost as though he’d forgotten how to. He knew all the words. He was frantically shouting them out in his head. ‘Fer God’s sake call Sam back it’s the wound it’s hurting’ something’ fierce. I’m hot so dang hot, pull the damn covers back why don’t you? ’But nothing, the words died in his throat and no sound came forth save the odd groan or gasp of pain.
Minutes later Daisy hurried in and calmly ran a cool hand over his burning forehead, smiling kindly into his anxious eyes. Then she pulled the covers back and turned to Slim.
“Go and fetch my medical basket will you dear I need to check the wound and a pitcher of really cold water from the well. I fear he has a fever and maybe the wound has become infected.”
Doc Sam was due to call by the following day as it happened and he was able to check on the patient, before retiring to the kitchen table where Daisy poured him a coffee.
He took a sip and then glanced at Slim and Daisy over the rim of his cup, before sighing and replacing it in the saucer.
“The wound is infected and he’s got a bad fever, this could be the way he goes I’m afraid,” he said softly, holding Slim’s gaze, “I’m so darned sorry.”
“But we can nurse him through it,” Daisy said staunchly, “I’ve done it before.”
Sam bowed his head, “Yes Daisy I think maybe you can, but for what? I really can’t see him coming back from this. Well the truth is we just don’t know,” he said sounding almost angry and so unlike the usually placid, cheerful Sam
“So what are you saying,” Slim said angrily, “just do nothing let him fade away?”
Sam shook his head, “No of course not…I’m just, well trying to prepare you for the worst. But I want you, all of us, to hope for the best.”
“At least Mike is away for the summer back East with Andy and Jonesy,” Daisy said looking tearful. “All this would be too much for the youngster to endure.”
“Is there any news of Millie?” Slim asked.
“Nope she’s still off visiting her brother Tad and family down in Texas and with her Ma gone too nobody seems to know his address.”
“Except Jess,” Slim said with irony, “he must be wondering why she hasn’t been sent for.”
“I reckon that’s the least of our problems right now,” said Sam,” let’s just get him through this crisis first and then worry about finding Millie.”
Then he looked searchingly at his good friends.
“We really shouldn’t give up hope just yet. I reckon I seem a little negative because I’m just so frustrated. You see our knowledge of the workings of the human brain is still in its infancy. We really can’t say if Jess will recover or not. His brain has been severely traumatized by that shot to his temple. But the good news is that at least the bullet didn’t penetrate the brain, so it does have a chance of recovery.”
“When will we know?” Slim asked, rallying and looking hopeful for the first time since the shooting.
“If he makes it through this current crisis, then I guess we’re talking weeks rather than months. If he makes it through the next couple of weeks and starts to regain some speech and movement he stands a chance.”

He was hot... so blamed hot. His skin dry and burning even though Slim had nursed him vigilantly throughout the night, washing him down with icy cold water to try and reduce the fever.
Now it was nearly dawn and as Jess surveyed his buddy through half closed eyes, he felt terribly guilty. Slim looked haggard. He had dark shadows around his troubled eyes and stubble on his chin as he’d not had the time, or maybe the inclination, to shave for a day or so. He looked rough, real rough Jess thought miserably.
Jess couldn’t bear to see that haunted look in his buddy’s gaze either, knowing that he was the cause of it all, and after a while he closed his eyes and tried hard to just switch off and sleep.
But he couldn’t, he was as hot as blazes, his skin dry and burning and he felt like he’d been left out under a desert sun…no worse than that. He was burning up…on fire…he was going to perish just like his kin had in that terrible fire all those years ago…No he cried to himself, fer God’s sake don’t go there Harper…anything but reliving that….
Jeez but he was hot, hot as Hell…would he end up there he wondered vaguely, feeling so bad that he almost didn’t care, just wanted it all to end.
Hot as Hell…that reminded him of that trail drive from Texas he’d ramrodded back in the summer of ’76. After it was all over, he’d ridden back into the Sherman yard feeling dead beat. Slim had marched out to meet him and asked him what took him so dang long to get himself back as he’d been real late arriving home. Jess had replied, “Well I’ll tell ya Slim, see I’ve been to Hell and back” and he sure hadn’t been exaggerating.
He was hot, so dang hot and he cast his mind back again to that terrible time, when he’d brought a herd of beeves up from Texas with the help of a drunken ex con, two young, wet behind the ears drovers and a cantankerous old cookie. But that weren’t the worst of it.
Oh no it was the goddamn fire that had nearly done for them , that was the worst thing…Talk about the Gates of Hell…He remembered exactly how he’d related the story to Slim when he got home: * See #31 To Hell & Back.

Well I was a sittin’ there, by the ol’ camp fire havin’ the first coffee of the day, just before dawn and I was suddenly aware that something wasn’t quite right.
I didn’t know what it was at first, and I peered out into the dim early morning light and then, sniffing….I smelled it before I saw it, the unmistakable smell of burning, then looking out to the horizon I saw a distant ribbon of red and then as I scrambled to my feet and stood, staring in horror I heard it…… the wind beginning to roar and the faint crackling of the fire advancing towards us.
I yelled at the crew, “Get out here fire… damn it… fire!”
The following few hours were a mixture of terror, pain and pure Hell, as I told Slim later, yeah, I sure went to The Gates of Hell and back during that day and later too and the memory will stay with me forever.
We broke camp immediately and got the herd moving, but even as we moved them on out, the wind started roaring even louder and the fire that had been on the distant horizon was moving in on us at a frighteningly fast pace. And before too long that thin band of flame had grown and the smoke and fire seemed to be chasing us like some great fire breathing monster out of one of Mike’s story books….a dragon, that was it .That Goddamn fire was like a mighty Dragon chasing us across the prairie and it looked pretty much like it was goin’ to win the race and catch us too.
We hurtled along at a breakneck speed the herd now stampeding as they smelt the smoke, knowing instinctively that they were in danger and it was all we could do to keep up with them. I was real worried about the crew and tried to watch them as well as stay with the terrified beasts.
Poor ol Cookie was driving the chuck wagon as fast as he darn well could and it looked pretty much like it was in danger of fallin’ apart and I went and rode beside him for a spell before he waved me off with an angry, “I’m OK boy, see to yer beasts I can manage!”
I had already released the remuda and they were running free ahead of the herd, all hell bent for the river and I just hoped and prayed that the flames wouldn’t be such that they would be able to jump the waters, as I had heard of them doing in other fierce fires.
My heart was practically leaping out of my chest it was beating so dang hard and I couldn’t ever remember feeling so terrified as that searing heat and roaring inferno chased us across the plain.
Now as the fire advanced on us it was like a roaring Tornado with grey ashes falling all around us, the smell hurling me back in time to that fifteen-year-old kid I’d been when the Banister gang had torched our family home and I’d nearly burnt to death. There’ d been seven of us in my family and only three of us got out alive, and even now I thought I heard the screams of my Ma and Pa and the other kids in the flames that were chasing me. I remembered how a neighbor had to hold me back as I fought to go back in and try and save them.
Then I was suddenly whisked back to the here and now, as I saw the river glinting in the morning sun about half a mile ahead of us and I knew then, in my heart, that we would be saved and felt almost light headed with relief.
The horses and steers threw themselves into the shallow water and made it across to the safety of the other side closely followed by Cookie and the chuck wagon, with the drovers and me bringing up the rear.
As soon as we were safely over and the herd were beginning to settle, some of them already grazing peacefully I surveyed the others. Their clothes were covered in the ashes and looking half dead and I figured I was lookin’ little better, but that was the least of my worries. It was then that I discovered the Kid was missing, the youngest drover at just sixteen.
I turned back to the river expecting to see the flames leaping at its shore, but a miracle had happened even in the short time we’d been talking, the wind had changed direction taking the flames away to the east, leaving a blackened barren stretch of scorched wasteland as far as the eye could see.
I went and stood by the river bank and scanned the area with my binoculars but there was no sign of the boy and I dipped my head in sorrow, the fire had got him.
Without a word I went over and remounted the Buckskin, but before I could ride out Cookie came over and grabbed the reins, “Hey where are you heading off to son?”
“Fetch him back… what’s left of him,” I said, my voice thick with emotion.

Once I’d crossed the river I paused, and cutting up my spare blanket I soaked it in the river before tying pieces around the horse’s feet to protect them from the still scorching earth, before riding off on my grim mission.
I’d been riding for about half an hour when I saw something in the distance and raising my glasses, I saw the Kid’s little Paint pony trotting along towards me, he was rider less.
When I caught up with him, I checked him out and he seemed to be OK, and I slapped him on the rump and he made his way down towards the river at a good pace and I resumed my quest. I was constantly scanning the black waste for signs of the young ‘un’s charred remains, his discovery so very important to me, as I needed to lay him to rest, but the thought of actually finding him also deeply distressing.
I was suddenly alerted to the presence of fire again and looking out to the East I saw a small grove of cottonwoods well on fire and as I rode closer, I could hear the roar of the flames and a terrible cracking sound as one of the mighty trees was felled by the fire and crashed to the ground, flames and sparks leaping from it.
Then I heard it, above the crackling of the fire, an unearthly scream as of a terrified, trapped animal and I figured it had made its way to the trees in search of water and had become imprisoned by the flames. I’d come across many charred victims of the fire on my ride, from prairie chickens to a wolf, and I figured that the eerie sounds were coming from just such a critter….
And then I heard it again and this time I stiffened and stood up in my stirrups staring at the distant flames as the sound was now unmistakably human…. The Kid it had to be the Kid, frantically screaming for help.
I spurred Clyde on towards the bank of flames and once we neared it, he shied and snorted showing the whites of his eyes all his instincts being to bolt, but I held him and patted him gently. Then leaning over his neck, I whispered words of encouragement into his ear, before kicking him on towards the creaking, crackling Gates of Hell.
All we could see were the flames and smoke as the trees burned and crashed around us and it was only the continued frenzied screams of the boy that drove me on.
Touching my spurs once more to the Buckskins flanks, I set him towards the still burning fallen tree and he careered forwards as I urged him on and leapt over it as though he were flying, landing well and continuing forwards.
Now we really were in Hell, the stench of burning flesh all around, the flames almost engulfing us and the ear-splitting crack as another tree fell, making my horse rear in terror nearly tipping me off.
The air was full of curling wafting smoke and the fire was casting a hellish red glow over everything, but finally I found what I was seeking…there on his knees in the center of it all was the Kid, the look of terror in his eyes suddenly changing to disbelief and then amazement as he saw me riding towards him.
I spurred Clyde onwards and like I had thought when I first clapped eyes on him that ol’ horse could turn on a dime. We galloped across the few short yards separating us from the boy and I reached down and grabbed hold of his arm dragging him up behind me and within a split second old Clyde had turned and was hightailing it back the way we’d come and even with two up, he still sailed over the burning log and was halfway back to the river before I had a chance to catch my breath.
Well when he got back, we both dived into that deep cold old river and I was sure glad that young Andy had finally taught me to swim, because that was the best dang hour I’d ever spent in a river. The cool water like healing’ for the body and soul after all we’d been through.
Something had changed, I opened my eyes and saw Slim had finally fallen asleep in the bedside chair, all that swabbing me down finally wore him out I figured. But it really didn’t matter as the fever had broken and I felt good, so dang good.

Then I cast my mind back to thanksgiving of that year of the prairie fire and how, after a few glasses of Red Eye, Slim had retold some of the story of the ill-fated Trail Drive.
He was talking to Mort, thinking I was busy chatting to Millie and wouldn’t hear.
He was telling of my rescue of the Kid from the prairie fire and he’d said, “You know Mort, you can stand Jess up at the Gates of Hell and he won’t back down,” the pride in his voice touching me deeply. I’d pretended not to hear feeling kinda embarrassed. But now it came back to me and it was just what I needed. Iffen I could survive that dang fire then I could survive this sickness and I resolved to stop feeling sorry for myself. I was gonna fight to the goddamn end. I sure wasn’t gonna let the Lewis gang have the last laugh I thought bitterly.
Then all thought of the Lewis gang and their evil ways disappeared as Slim awoke, the look in his eyes as he saw the fever had finally broken was pure joy.
He leapt from the chair, “Daisy, hey Daisy come here, he’s OK, Jess is OK!”

Chapter Three

No, I’ll stand my ground,
Won’t be turned around

Jess figured he’d won that battle but the dang war wasn’t over yet and he was still locked into the living hell of the paralysis of his limbs. However, he was beginning to regain a little feeling. When Daisy religiously manipulated and massaged his limbs to keep the circulation going, he slowly became aware of her firm but reassuring touch. Maybe that was the first signs that things were gradually healing he hoped and prayed so anyway..
During the daytime Daisy spent as much time as she could with him, bringing in her mending and chatting away as though everything were normal. But the one-way conversation must have been nearly as frustrating for her as it was to him, he figured. But even so he still appreciated the company.
Likewise, Slim spent all his free time holed up in their shared room, chatting about the day to day happenings at the ranch. However, the only things he didn’t talk about were the two things Jess desperately wanted to hear about. When was Millie coming home and how was Mike getting on back East?
It had taken him a while to figure that he was the only one with Tad’s new address where Millie and her Ma were staying for a few weeks and in a way he was relieved. Dad-gum it, he sure as hell didn’t want his best girl to see him in this fix.
He wondered vaguely what he looked like now. He knew he’d lost a heck of a lot of weight, his muscles seeming to waste away before his eyes and for once in his life he had no interest in food at all. He figured he needed a haircut too, his unruly hair flopping down over his forehead just one of the many small but unbearably irritating things he had to put up with. At least Slim shaved him on a regular basis. Also attended to all the other personal issues that had to be addressed and Jess figured he’d never be embarrassed or awkward about anything again after this ordeal.
It was the day following his recovery from the fever that Slim marched in from changing the morning Stage triumphantly waving a letter.
“Hey Jess, looky what Mose brought, a letter from Mike!”
Once he was sure he had Jess’s full attention he began reading it out loud. Slim laughed and Jess’s eyes were twinkling with merriment as they heard of all the escapades their young ward, along with Slim’ s kid brother Andy, had been getting up to. The childishly phrased letter was blessedly helping Jess to forget his dire predicament, if only for a few minutes.
All at the ranch had thoroughly enjoyed catching up with old Jonesy and Andy when they had visited earlier in the summer. In fact, Mike and Andy hit it off so well that the boys pleaded for Mike to return back east with them for a prolonged visit over the school holidays. Andy had to return because as a third-year Medical student he had to spend some of the holiday helping out on the wards.
“But I’ll still have plenty of time to show Mike around and introduce him to the family next door too. Young Kerry and Peter are his age and they’d love a real cowboy to play with,” he said grinning at his big brother.
Slim and Daisy were a little wary of him traveling all that way and of the visit too, thinking he might become bored or homesick.
It was Jess who fought Mike and Andy’s corner though.
He’d taken Slim to one side and said, “Dontcha think you’re being kinda selfish Slim? The kid’s got a chance to experience a whole different way of life. Heck it might even open a few doors for him, make him study harder so he can have the same kind of advantages Andy’s had. Sure, I know he says he wants to help run the ranch when he’s older. But don’t you think he should see what else is out there so he can make the right choice?”
Slim had looked thoughtful and then finally agreed.
“You could always go across for a week or two to fetch him back at the end of the summer and visit with Andy again,” was Jess’s final shot and that clinched it.
Once the idea was repeated to Daisy and Jonesy, they could both see the logic of it.
Jonesy had turned to Jess laughing and then said to Slim, “I hate to say it but that wastrel drifter finally made good. It turns out he’s even got himself a few sensible ideas. Beats me as to how though, number of dang times he’s fallen off of those dang mustangs and banged that thick skull of his.”
Jess and he had both laughed at that and more good-natured banter had followed.
Now Jess lay there and wondered what old Jonesy would make of this latest mess he’d gotten himself into. It’d sure take more than some of Jonesy’s foul-smelling liniment to fix him up this time he thought ruefully.
Then he remembered his promise to Slim, “Sure you can go and spend some time back East, I’m here to run things ain’t I.”
Goddamn it, I’ve got to get well he suddenly thought I can’t let Slim and Andy down.
He tried, with all his might to move his hand. Just an inch would do it he told himself, just one lousy inch to show he could make it. He could conquer this thing. But his hands remained stubbornly unresponsive and he felt he could well weep with frustration.
Instead he did what he had taught himself to do since the tragedy had struck him, to turn away from it all and think about something else…anything that would take his mind off the all-consuming horror of being trapped in his own body.
He thought about what a swell time he’d had with Andy. Now that the young man had matured, an even greater friendship had sprung up between the two and he’d relished laughing and chatting about old times together, now over a welcome beer or two.
He Slim and Andy had taken themselves off to the saloon on the last evening, leaving Jonesy packing and exchanging notes with Miss Daisy on Mike’s daily routine.
They sat at a table, a beer apiece and reminisced about the old days when Jess had just moved to the ranch and struck up a friendship with Andy, if not so much with Slim back in those early days.
“Gee but you were a wild one then,” Slim had said laughing, “Was it any wonder I didn’t want my beloved kid brother influenced by you.”
“Hey I weren’t that dang bad,” Jess had parried, “at least I listened to the boy, gave him a fair hearing, tried to understand him,” he replied.
“Uh, but that’s all he was though,” Slim said, “a boy and you treated him like an equal Jess.”
“Well maybe that’s what he needed,” Jess insisted, now getting slightly heated.
“Hey I am here you know,” said Andy, looking from his brother to Jess and back and thinking how dang much he missed and loved them both.
“Go on then,” said Slim turning to his brother, “so what do you make of all this? Looking back now as a pillar of the community and respected medical student,” he said with a chuckle.
Andy deliberated for a moment and then said quietly, “I reckon if it hadn’t been for Jess landing at the ranch, I’d have gone plumb crazy and I guess I owe as much to him for getting me where I am now as I do you Slim.”
Slim took this on the chin and rallied well, “OK I can accept that… maybe, but what makes you say that Andy?”
Andy grinned at both men now, “Remember the time I ran away? I guess it all started then, me really growing up I mean and deciding that I wanted to do something special with my life.”
Slim looked into the middle distance, “I remember you saying something to me back then Andy, after you’d been found. You were talking about Jess and you said how he’d stand his ground and wouldn’t turn around, not for anybody and I guess that made a lasting impression on you didn’t it?“
Andy nodded, “It’s how I wanted to be, so sure of what I believed in that nothing would move me. I guess now I am that person, I believe in me and what I’m doing,” and he raised his glass.
“To you Slim for bringing me up so well and giving me all the support to get where I wanted to be.” Then turning to Jess, “To you Jess, for showing me how to believe in myself and that with guts and determination you really can make anything happen.”
Slim had smiled at him then and asked, “Are all your dreams coming true at last then Andy?”
He’d nodded a grin a mile wide on his handsome young face, “They sure are Slim.”
But Jess had felt real moved by Andy’s toast and just swigged back his beer, hiding his feelings on the pretext of sauntering off to the bar to buy the next round.
Now lying on his sickbed, he thought back to that time when he’d not long been at the Sherman Ranch and everything had finally gotten too much for young Andy to cope with. How he’d lit out, saying he was leaving home and never coming ba

It had started like any other morning on the ranch and relay, Slim yelling at Jess to get his sorry hide out of his pit. Then he called to Andy to go find his homework, so Slim could look it over before the boy went off to school on the Stage. All this was with old Jonesy putting out the breakfast with a side serving of homespun wisdom and sarcasm in equal quantities.
Jess lurched towards the table, eyes at half-mast his shirt hanging open and scratching and yawning, as he slumped into his chair.
“Well good morning your lordship, how good of you to finally grace us with your presence,” Jonesy quipped as he thrust a rapidly cooling plate of bacon and beans in front of the young cowhand.
Jonesy rolled his eyes to Slim who was just finishing up.
“I think Jonesy’s saying your breakfast will be in the cat iffen you don’t get a wriggle on tomorrow,” Slim said with the hint of a smile.
Jess grunted and muttered something very rude under his breath before taking a reviving swig of strong coffee.
Andy arrived at the table long after even Jess had made an appearance and was looking sullen and guilty in equal measure.
It seemed to Slim that his young brother, who had just turned thirteen, was the archetype troubled teen. He seemed to swing between being a boisterous child, to a taciturn young adult and neither guise seemed comfortable on him. Nothing seemed to fit right on the boy anymore from his pants, which were way too short in the leg now, to Slim’s principles and future plans and aspirations for him.
Just the previous evening they’d had a huge bust up about Andy’s future.

“It’s just not good enough,” Slim berated him, “Pa wanted a profession for you Andy, how are you going to fulfill his hopes if you won’t buckle down and do your school work…huh?”
Andy scowled at him and cast a glance over to where Jess was seated in front of the fire mending Traveller’ s bridle.
“Well Jess got by without too much schooling and he’s done just fine,” he said belligerently.
“Hey don’t drag me into this,” Jess drawled, “listen to yer brother Andy, he’s talkin’ sense. Fer once,” he added sotto voice, winking at Jonesy.
Now as the youngster came to the table, he looked like he’d got the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“Come on then,” said Slim with asperity, “where is it?”
Andy looked warily up at his brother “Huh?” He asked in a good approximation of Jess’s low growl.
“You heard me,” said Slim looking exasperated, “the Math homework let’s check it over before Mose gets here.”
Andy sighed deeply, “Can’t.”
Now it was Slim’ s turn to look askance, “What do you mean can’t?”
“You can’t check it because I ain’t done it!” Andy yelled, looking flushed and tearful.
“Haven’t done it,” Slim rasped, the poor grammar inflaming his temper even more.
“That’s it,” said Andy now with a look of bravado, having seen Jess look down quickly hiding a smile.
That made Slim even madder, “Well why not?” he thundered.
The boy just shrugged, “I dunno, just leave it will ya Slim, dadgum it, what’s all the dang fuss about?”
Slim’ s jaw dropped and he stared at his little brother in disbelief and then glanced over to Jess and saw he was looking flushed and uncomfortable. As well he might, thought Slim angrily. Heck this was practically word for word, what had transpired between himself and Jess just a few days before, when Slim had tackled him about some unfinished work.
Now Slim turned back to his brother and said very quietly, “I haven’t ever taken my belt to you Andy but I’m getting pretty dang near it right now.”
Then they heard the stage rattling in and he tipped his head towards the door, “Get off and we’ll talk tonight,” he said ominously.
The boy shot out of his seat and bolted for the door and shortly afterwards Jess followed him, thinking discretion was the better part of valour under the circumstances and that he’d give ol’ Slim some breathing space.
“Me and Mose will change the team,” he called over his shoulder, before slamming out of the front door.
Once it had closed behind him, Jonesy turned to Slim and said “Well I blame that sassy young saddle tramp for all this. Andy would never have cheeked you that way before he arrived.”
For once Slim didn’t agree. “I don’t know Jonesy; I guess the boy is just growing up fast. I’ve a mind I was kind of difficult at his age. Took against my studies and there was a fair amount of door slamming and temper,” he said with a self-conscious grimace.
“Yes, but you had your Pa to keep you on track,” Jonesy blurted out, without thinking.
Slim bowed his head and sighed deeply, “Yup and Andy’s only got me, I know.”
“Aw heck boy, I weren’t meaning it that way, you do your best. I know that. And you’ve got me to back you up…even that no good drifter talks some sense to the boy occasionally I guess,” he said, for once being fair to Jess.
“Uh, well maybe he’ll be able to talk him into doing his Math, because I sure can’t,” Slim said bitterly, before going off to start the yard chores.
Out in the yard Andy threw Jess a dark look.
“I thought you were my friend.”
“I am yeah?” Jess agreed looking surprised.

Well you sure don’t act like it sayin’ Slim’ s right about my schoolin’ and all.”
Jess shrugged, “Well have you thought he just might be right Andy?”
The boy looked down shaking his head, “No I ain’t I don’t wanna be a swot I just want to be like you Jess, learn to shoot and fast draw and go off on adventures, the way you did.”
Jess looked furious, “Just grow up kid, yer talkin’ crazy,” he said and marched off to the barn as Mose looked down from the box.
“You gettin’ on aboard son, or am I goin’ without ya?”
Andy sighed deeply and clambered on board, slamming the door behind him.

Later in the day, the afternoon Stage was merely a drop off with the team being driven back to town for the night as it was a Friday, so none of the Relay staff needed to be on hand.
Slim and Jess were off in the East pasture mending a fence that had come down and Jonesy in the kitchen, baking up a batch of cookies. He figured if Andy and Slim were going to be at loggerheads all evening over the kid’s school work then maybe milk and cookies would be called for later, to calm the troubled waters.
He heard the Stage arrive and slammed the cookies in the oven, quickly before washing all the baking stuff up. Then he finally wandered off to the porch to see what was keeping the boy and was just in time to see Andy’s pinto pony Patch disappearing up the rise at speed, Andy in the saddle.
“Now what in tarnation is that boy up to now?” Jonesy muttered grimly, shading his eyes against the bright summer sunlight. “He knows he’s got chores to do before supper.”
Jess and Slim rode in an hour or two later both looking hot and tired. Jess dismounted and led his horse to the water trough, before making for the outside water pump and dousing himself with the cool water. He shook his head like a wet dog as Jonesy came out onto the porch and he grinned at the old timer.
“Is supper ready, I could dang well eat a whole cow never mind a steak,” he said looking hopeful.
“Well you’ll be disappointed then boy, because I’ve been busy baking and only had time to fix cold cuts and taters, take it or leave it.”
Jess looked aghast but wisely said nothing, knowing that any further argument would mean an even smaller helping of the meager fare on offer. Old Jonesy sure knew how to hit a man hard Jess reflected, in his dang belly.
However, Jonesy had more pressing matters on his mind than Jess’s famous appetite.
Slim strode over and Jonesy called out, “Is young Andy with you?”
Slim frowned, “Nope, why should he be, he’s doing his chores isn’t he? Or maybe even his homework,” he said with a flash of sarcasm.
Jonesy shook his head, “No, he rode out a good couple of hours ago; I thought he’d gone to hook up with you.”
Jess’s face clouded, “You don’t think he’s took off do ya?”
“Huh, what do you mean?” Jonesy asked.
“Gone, vamoosed, run away,” Jess said with asperity.
Slim turned pale and marched off to the youngster’s room and checked his chest of drawers, before returning.
“Pa’s watch and his eight bucks are still there, plus all his clothes so I figure he can’t have gone too far.”
Jess was just returning from the barn. “His canteen and bedroll are missing though and I found this,” he said passing over a scrap of paper torn from one of Andy’s school books.
Had enough and I’m leaving. Don’t follow me, Andy.
Jess gave it a grim smile, “I figure he ain’t thought this through too much. He won’t get far without any money or supplies.”
“So you think it’s funny do you!” Slim shouted feeling terribly guilty.
“No, I don’t think it’s funny,” Jess retaliated hotly, “I’m just sayin’ there ain’t no cause to get to frettin’… the kid will be home when he’s hungry.”
Slim just looked furious and turned towards his mount, but Jess followed him. “So where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m going to find him of course!”
Jess just shrugged, “Up to you I guess but I figure you’re making a big mistake.”
“You do huh?” Slim replied angrily.
“Well that’s what he wants you to do ain’t it. Get real upset and go hightailing it after him, feeling real sorry for upsetting him. Oh yeah and forgetting that little matter of the homework that he ain’t done.”
“Oh so you’re an expert on parenting now are you?” Slim spat angrily.
But then Jonesy spoke up, “I hate to say it but I think Jess has got a point.”
“You do?” Slim asked looking amazed.
“Uh-huh. See that’s just what your Pa said when you pulled a similar stunt.”
Slim bit his lip and said, “Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that, but Pa knew I was hiding out in the root cellar. Ma had seen me sneaking off after I left the note, so they knew I’d be safe.”
“Yup and you were back in the house, cold and scared, at dawn as I recall and feeling mighty repentant.”

“Uh, that’s all well and good, but we don’t know where the heck Andy is. Anything could happen to him out there,” Slim said casting an anxious glance up the rise.
“I do,” said Jess quietly.
“Huh?” Slim questioned.
“I think I know where he’s gone, that old shack over on that wasteland next to the Benson place. We found it last fall when we were huntin’ out strays. It came on to rain something fierce and we sheltered there. I’ve a mind we said at the time that it would be a real good place to hole up iffen we’d need to anytime.”
Slim looked thoughtful, “Even so if he is there, I still think he could be in danger out alone.”
Jess nodded, “OK I’ll go fetch him back then. That way you still get to play the stern father figure and I’ll keep him safe huh?”
“You’d do that?” Slim asked suddenly looking really grateful.
Jess nodded, “Sure and anyway it isn’t just you he’s mad at. I was kinda mean to him this morning and I’d like to make my peace.”
Jess took off a few minutes later bearing a gunny sack with some food and a promise that he’d be back the following day.
It was almost dusk by the time he reined Traveller in close to the old shack and dismounting strode over and burst in without ceremony. He’d already seen Patch ground hitched behind the building and figured young Andy would be feeling mighty hungry and maybe a tad lonely by now.
So he was kinda shocked when he walked in to find the kid aiming Jess’s own old gunslinger weapon, directly at him.
He immediately froze looking at the petrified kid…who after a shocked intake of breath, lowered the gun looking deeply ashamed.
“It’s you Jess,” he said weakly.
“Sure it is,” Jess said advancing on the younger, “so who were ya expecting the Torrey Gang?”
Andy looked down, near to tears and muttered, “I guess not, I just didn’t know, I was scared.”
“Yeah, well give me that dang gun,” Jess said angrily, “is it loaded?”
The boy nodded, “I’m sorry I stole your gun last night, from that hidey hole behind the chimney, the bullets from Slim’ s spare stash. I know it was wrong but I just wanted something to remind me of you, to protect myself with too,”
Jess took the gun from him and unloaded it quickly, before turning to face the boy, “I suppose you’ve been practicing your fast draw too,” he muttered sarcastically.
Then he glared at the boy, “So why did ya do it, huh Andy?”
He bowed his head, “I guess I’m sick of everyone treating me like a little kid, all I want to do is make my own decisions Jess, but it seems like I ain’t ever going to.”
“And you think stealing and running off this way is gonna help any, Andy?
The boy shook his head now on the verge of tears again, “I guess not.”
“Well then... and ol’ Slim and Jonesy only want the best for you anyway.”
“Do they or is it just this dang tradition, the oldest Sherman boy gets the business and the younger ones go into a profession, who wrote the darned rule anyway?”
“Beats me,” Jess said softly. “Hows about we light a fire and cook up some supper and talk it all through huh?”
It was after they were both outside some bacon and beans and had a coffee apiece that Andy turned sad eyes on Jess.
“I only wanted to be like you Jess. No matter what you say about schooling I figure you’ve got by pretty well without much. Why you know all sorts of things dontcha…real wise things, huh?”
Jess settled back and looked at the kid over the rim of his coffee cup.
“Oh sure full of wise words me. Like always drink upstream of the herd, uh…never squat with yer spurs on…and…um, the most important of all, iffen you find yourself in a hole, quit diggin’.”

Andy chuckled, “Aw Jess, you know I mean, really wise things, important stuff.” Then he paused, “What do ya mean about diggin’ my-self into a hole?”
“Well you are ain’t you, all this fussin’ and frettin’, cheeking Slim and not doin’ your school work, carry on this way boy and you’ll have no chance of gettin’ out of that hole you’ve dug for yourself.”
“But Slim was this way too when he was thirteen, Jonesy said so, it’s just that life seems kinda unfair right now. Heck didn’t you play up some when you were a youngster huh?”
Jess looked deep into the fire before replying, “Nope, not so much and I sure didn’t cheek my Pa that way, iffen I had he’d have taken his belt to me and I wouldn’t have sat down for a week.”
Andy’s head shot up and he looked deeply shocked, “What your Pa used to hit you?”
Jess didn’t reply, just said quietly, “You’re dang lucky you’ve gotten a brother that cares about ya, that’s all.”
Andy looked at his friend for a long time, but when it became obvious that he wasn’t going to elaborate on his own upbringing, the boy continued.
“I just wanted to be like you, is that so bad?” he asked sulkily
Jess sighed deeply, “Andy will ya stop romanticizing everything. Bein’ a gunslinger ain’t glamorous or exciting, it’s plain dangerous and mostly frightening. Always havin’ to watch your back, just waiting’ on the next chancer that wants to try you on, see iffen they’re faster than you are. I’m never able to relax…Always havin’ to keep an eye open for trouble. Does that sound exciting to you?”
The boy just looked unsure, so Jess continued.
“As fer goin’ on the drift it’s just plain exhausting, uncomfortable and downright borin’ at times too. Never knowin’ where yer goin’ to rest yer head that night, being tired, hungry, cold…No decent bed or meal at the end of the day…does that sound like a bundle of laughs huh?”
The youngster sighed, “I guess not.”
But then with more spirit, “Dang it Jess I just want some adventure in my life! I never go anyplace but school, heck I’ve hardly ever even camped out in the big open and I’m so darned bored I guess I might just fade away before I get me a chance at life,” he finished dramatically.
Jess did his best to hide a smile and once he had collected himself, he said seriously, “Well maybe we’ll see what we can do about that. But after you’ve promised to buckle down and do your school work the way Slim wants though…huh?”
The boy’s eyes sparkled, “Sure, sure I’ll do my school work real good, so what have ya got in mind Jess huh…huh?”

“What are you crazy Jess, you want to take the boy off on a hunting trip!”
“Look, just hear me out Slim. He needs some excitement in his life, something different, surely you can understand that?”
“Sure I can, what I don’t understand is rewarding him for playing up and being dang well disobedient.”
“Look Slim, it don’t work that way. What I’m proposing is that if he does well by the end of term then I take him off to Paradise on a hunting trip as a reward, sorta carrot and stick huh? Only I’m sayin’ try the carrot, not the stick.”
“And I suppose the big bad older brother is going to be labelled as the one who wants to be using the stick then huh?”
“No, nuthin’ like that, we all know you’d never hit the boy, but maybe this way will work, huh?”
Slim, Jess and Jonesy were all seated around the fireside the evening after Andy had returned from absconding and the boy was long in bed. He was feeling truly repentant after a serious lecture from his older brother.
“Look,” said Jess trying to defend his idea, “it works with ol’ Harpy don’t it, fastest way to git him movin’ is dangle a carrot in front of him.”
Slim chuckled at that vision of Harpy, their obstinate mule. He’d originally been called Harry when he was bequeathed to them by an old prospector. But it had been Jonesy who had renamed him Harpy, after Jess, as the mule and young ranch hand shared many negative characteristics, including their dislike of mornings, work and being told what to do.
“Uh, so what do you think we should dangle in front of Jess to get him going in the morning,” Slim said with a bark of laughter, “a pot of extra strong coffee?”
“Nope,” Jonesy said, “I think it’ll definitely have to be the stick to get the drifter movin’,” and he cast Jess a rascally grin.
Jess ignored the jibes and took advantage of Slim’ s good humor, “What do ya say huh Slim?”
So, it was one bright summer’s morning the boy and the young rancher set off for the far-flung area of the Sherman Ranch known as Paradise. Jess had fallen in love with the place on his first visit for its wild landscape and abundance of wildlife. Being a good two days ride away to the south of the spread it had not been cultivated or used as grazing, but was the perfect place to relax on a hunting or fishing trip.
Slim had many happy memories of camping out there as a boy with his pa and maybe that was why he had never ventured over with young Andy. Slim’ s memories of the good times with his Pa too raw after his passing, plus the fact that the work on the ranch had been pretty unrelenting over the last few years.
Unrelenting until Jess’s arrival, but now he had to admit, things were getting easier with the input from the young ranch hand.
Sure, the boy was hard to get going in the morning and even harder to keep on track with his frequent cigarette and coffee breaks, but by hell he could sure graft once he got going.
He had the stamina of two men and was surprisingly strong considering his lean frame. Yes, Slim was pretty impressed with Jess and he’d proved to be worth his weight in gold if they were really up against it. Chores like bringing the herd down for the winter and searching for strays in freezing miserably cold weather conditions for example. Well heck, the boy just never backed down, so Slim had told Jonesy just the previous fall. He’d stick it out until every critter was safely accounted for.
Now he had sent his new buddy off with his blessing, telling both to have a really good break as they deserved it. Jess for all his hard work around the ranch and his kid brother for really sweating over his books and achieving straight A’s in the end of term exams.
“We’ll make something of you yet,” Slim had said after reviewing the end of term report card. Then punching his little brother lightly on the arm, said, “Pa would have been really proud of you!”
All was going exceedingly well for Jess and Andy, with the fish biting and a wild turkey and young deer in their gunny sacks…until disaster struck.
They were on their way home and were only a mile or so from where they had been camping when Traveller started playing up, nodding and showing the whites of his eyes as they walked slowly through a narrow gully. Jess reined in and patted the horse’s neck as he gave a little whinny of fear.
“Don’t like this tight trail eh,” he said softly, “well we’ll be through in a minute boy,” and he kneed him onwards, after glancing back to check on Andy following behind him.
It was just as they were about to clear the narrow pathway that the big cat struck, landing on Jess’s back and knocking him to the dirt where the critter growled furiously and ripped at Jess’s arm, the cowboy desperately trying to pull free and get his hunting knife from his boot.

He was no match for the huge cougar though, which was now worrying his arm, the teeth like an agonizing vice as it refused to let go his grip.
Just when Jess thought he could bear it no longer a single shot rang out and the ferocious beast collapsed, its dead weight pinning him down.
It took all Andy’s strength to pull the critter away, before tearfully assessing the damage to his hero.
“It’s OK Andy,” Jess managed desperately trying to reassure the shaken youngster.
However, as he was to tell Slim later, it was only a matter of minutes before the child regained his nerve and took charge of the situation. The cat hauled away, the damage assessed and shortly afterwards Andy took charge of everything.
He had made Jess comfortable and cleaned and dressed the multiple wounds, before going in search of their mounts.
He returned riding his pony Patch and leading Traveller, before slipping down from the saddle and casting Jess an anxious look.
“Heck Jess, you’re shaking and looking real pale, I figure we should make camp here and carry on home tomorrow huh?”
It was in fact a further two days before Jess was well enough to travel. But he had been nursed expertly by the then thirteen-year old Andy and was truly thankful for the youngster’s presence.
It was the evening of the second day when he had finally shaken off the fever that had wracked his body over the previous day and he’d turned grateful eyes on the youngster.
“Hey Andy, I wanna really thank ya fer looking out for me. When did you get to be so good at doctorin’ huh?”
The boy had blushed with pleasure. “I guess I kinda picked it up bein’ around Jonesy so long and there’s been one heck of a need for doctoring since you landed at the relay too,” the boy said honestly.
Jess threw him a rueful glance remembering the bar brawls and odd shooting he’d been involved in, after which he’d limped back to the ranch in dire need of Jonesy’s no nonsense care and attention.
“Yeah, well as long as you steer clear of that ol’ liniment of Jonesy’s I guess you could make a pretty decent doctor,” Jess had chuckled

Now lying on his sickbed all these years later he thought back to that time and how young Andy had gone on to show an even greater aptitude for nursing, especially the injured wild critters he was always bringing home, finally leading him to a career in medicine and Jess smiled inwardly at the memory. Then he sobered, Gee I hope they haven’t told young Mike and Andy how sick I am he thought suddenly, he sure didn’t want them frettin’ about him.
However Slim had already wired Andy with the news that he was so tied up with work that he would be unable to collect Mike and it had been arranged that the boy would travel back with a neighbor who had been visiting friends back east. Slim felt kind of bad at not telling Andy the truth, but knew he couldn’t afford the fare home. Also, he would fret terribly about Jess, especially with his medical knowledge making him aware of the gravity of the situation. There was time enough to explain to Mike when he got home, he thought.
Mike arrived on the railroad and Slim went to town to fetch him, stopping off at the lake on the way home to explain the current situation to the youngster.
“What he can’t talk or move at all!” Mike had cried in consternation.
“Look Mike, we hope, well pray that this is just temporary, just for now you understand, I really hope he’ll get well again.”
“Really well,” the youngster asked his eyes huge with shock, “he’ll be able to ride the mustangs and take me huntin’ and everything?”
Slim had pulled the boy close in a warm embrace, unable to meet that pleading innocent gaze, “I sure hope so,” he whispered.
There was an emotional reunion and Mike, although distressed when he first saw Jess, had rallied well and spent all his free time with his hero, chatting away and keeping him company. Mike’s innocent faith that Jess would indeed get well, being a real lift to everyone’s spirits.

Chapter Four

And I’ll keep this world from dragging’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down

Jess was still thinking about the old days with Andy and Jonesy around when he heard the front door bang and knew Slim was home for supper.

Seconds later the door flew open and Blue bounded in and jumped straight onto the bed. Jess smiled to himself as the big dog snuggled down, instinctively knowing he had to be gentle around his master who lay so strangely still and lifeless.
I figure Daisy’s too busy with super to notice he’s come straight in from the yard, Jess thought. Then he automatically put a hand up to caress his dog…and caught his breath…his hand had moved!
He stared at it, like it was some strange alien object, before trying again…yes! Little by little he managed to move it towards Blue’s enticingly soft fur. Finally, the great effort paid off and he was able to give the dog a gentle pat, the moment making him tear up. He sighed and closed his eyes offering up a heartfelt prayer, feeling almost light headed with the relief.
Blue seemed to know something special had occurred and beat his tail hard on the bed, before licking Jess’s hand.
Jeez, that raspy tongue had never felt so good, or the fur so soft.
He had to tell Slim and he opened his mouth and tried with all his might to call out, but was only rewarded by a hoarse gasp.
He tried again and again to formulate the words that had been so elusive since his injury, until he finally emitted a weak, “Sli…m.”
As luck would have it Slim was just about to pay him a visit anyway and he breezed into the room, before stopping in his tracks, something in the look in his pard’s eyes making him peer down in question, “What is it Jess?”
Jess took a deep breath and tried again, “Slim…” he whispered before trying once more, now his deep raspy voice almost at full strength, “Slim…I can…do it.”
Slim looked down to where Jess’s hand was tangled in Blue’s fur and watched as he gently caressed the big dog.
He stood watching his pard for a good minute, blinking back unshed tears of his own. Then he dived from the room, “Daisy, hey Daisy…Mike come in here quick!”
It was the beginning of a long grueling convalescence where Jess was to be tested almost beyond endurance more than once.
Doc Sam had been called in to check him over the following day and he was truly amazed and delighted by Jess’s progress. He could now move both hands and wiggle his toes and his speech although not clear at times was lucid and mostly understandable.
Jess too was feeling overwhelmed by the fact that he could at last communicate again and would hopefully be on the road to recovery before too long.
That’s why it came as a complete bolt from the blue when Sam said he really thought Jess must have specialist attention.
“Huh, what’ re you talkin’ about Sam?” he managed, talking slowly and much more clearly, as he really needed to be understood, “Daisy can nurse me can’t she?”
Sam shook his head and looked across the bed to where Slim and Daisy were looking rather surprised too.
The doc sighed looking concerned, “I really don’t think any of you realize just how sick Jess has been…in fact still is.”
“I’m fine Sam,” Jess interjected, “getting stronger every day I reckon.”
“Hmm, well let me be the judge of that,” said Sam. “I need to do some research. Recovery from this form of paralysis is very complex Jess and with precious little research done, I must away and consult my journals,” he said, the light of battle in his dark brown eyes, “This will be a challenge for us all, but one we will rise to,” he pronounced cheerfully as he left, promising to return in a few days.
Once he’d left and Slim returned to the bedside Jess looked up at him a twinkle in his deep blue eyes, “Come on then Slim, help me sit up some huh?”
Slim looked doubtful, “Well I don’t know Jess, Sam said not to do anything until he visited again.”
“Aw come on pard, while Daisy’s off makin’ the coffee, huh?”
Against his better judgement he hauled Jess up in the bed and he was able to look around him properly for the first time in several of weeks.
However, the novelty was quickly replaced by unease as he felt suddenly dizzy, the room spinning around him, followed by a wave of nausea. He also had an overwhelming feeling of weakness, as helpless as a new born kitten.
“Lay me back down Slim,” he said urgently.
“Lay me back down, quick,” he growled.
But before Slim could comply, Daisy walked in carrying a tray of coffee and stopped in her tracks.
“Why Jess whatever are you doing?” She asked briskly.
“Lyin’ back down, ” he said gruffly, “iffen Slim here will give me a hand.”
“Once he was lying down, but supported with a couple of pillows, Daisy gave them both the sharp edge of her tongue.
“The doctor said no moving around until he returned with further advice, so what do you two do the minute his back’s turned!”
“Sorry Daisy,” Slim muttered looking uncomfortable.
Then she looked down at Jess but he was looking so desolate that she forgave him immediately.
“Gee Daisy, I feel like I ain’t ever gonna get over this,” he gasped looking drained.
“Are you feeling nauseous and shaky?” she asked kindly.
Jess agreed he was, “Dang room spinning like I’ve been…” he was about to say drinkin’ too much Red Eye, but then in deference to Daisy stopped, “err spinning real bad,” he amended.
“Hmm,” she said flicking an amused glance across to Slim,” well I imagine it did dear and that’s quite common after being confined to bed and having no movement at all for so long. That’s why we need Doc Sam’s expert advice,” she said making her point, before dispensing the coffee.
Jess just had to be content with very slowly beginning to sit up as Daisy introduced an extra pillow until he was almost upright and he had no further problems with dizziness. However, as she continued to manipulate his arms and legs to help build up his muscles again, he found it increasingly painful as the sensation started returning to his limbs and he suffered terrible pins and needles and a burning sensation.
It was after a particularly grueling session that Doc Sam waltzed in looking very chipper.
“Good to see you are exercising the limbs Daisy,” he said brightly, “that will be a great help once the treatment proper begins.”
“Huh,” asked Jess turning questioning eyes on the doc, “what dang treatment?”
“Come now Jess, Daisy,” he said including the ex-nurse in his sunny smile, “I did say you would need specialist help. Certainly, Daisy has done a wonderful job thus far, but I fear the exercising and manipulation needed now would be just too tiring for her.”
When Daisy looked a tad unhappy about that he reassured her.
“Forgive me for speaking so honestly Daisy, but well, this new physical therapy I have in mind is usually carried out by young and extremely fit members of the medical profession.”
Then turning back to the patient said, “And as luck would have it, I have found the very person to treat you Jess.”
“You have huh,” said Jess looking stonily at the doc, “so what iffen I don’t want this specialist’s help, I figure Daisy’s doing just fine.”
The doctor tried to hide a sigh and then turning to Daisy said pleasantly, “Would it be possible to have a coffee Daisy, I’ve been on my visits since first light and I am really dry.”
Once she had bustled off Sam sat down on the bed side chair and turned his full attention on Jess.
“Look buddy I know how hard this is for you and yes it will be uncomfortable to be seen this way by a complete stranger. I understand your reservations, sure I do,” he said with a look of compassion. “But the bottom line is Daisy has neither the experience nor the stamina for the job and believe me that is no criticism. Indeed, neither am I completely versed in all Professor Lings work.”
“Huh, who’s that?” Jess asked looking bewildered.
“Professor Per Henrik Ling,” he founded the idea of massage and exercise to aid health and this idea has been carried on at the Zander Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, by a Doctor Zander.”
“So, it will be this Swedish guy, Doc Zander comin’ to fix me up?”
Sam chuckled, “Dear me no, but one of his students a Doctor Alex Macnab. He is fully trained in forms of gymnastic exercise which will strengthen those muscles again and also massage which will help with the inevitable… err discomfort you may suffer as the treatment begins to heal you. It really is pioneering work Jess and we are extremely lucky that Doctor Macnab is available and willing to stay here for a little while. He will be traveling over from the Denver Hospital where he is currently working.”
“So, what’s in it fer him and what’s it gonna cost?” Jess asked dourly.
“Well that’s what’s so wonderful,” Sam replied looking elated, “he has agreed to work here free of charge as he wishes to write a paper on your case, use you as a sort of case study for his research.”
Jess frowned, “Uh, he ain’t just practicin’ I mean he knows what he’s doin?”
“Oh certainly, the paper is merely an academic tool.”
“A way that the doctor can climb the ladder of success Jess, maybe even get a professorship if the case is successful. He writes an academic paper that is er a sort of report on his work about you, your progress and ultimate return to good health, that’s all.”
“And it ain’t gonna cost us, right?” Jess insisted.
“No, I reckon the doctor will wish to take up residence here for the duration of the treatment and receive meals of course, but otherwise no Jess. All you have to worry about is getting well. And maybe making life a little easier for both Daisy and Slim? This has had a terrible impact on their lives too you know buddy. With Doc Alex here, well it will take an awful lot of the weight of worry from them.”
Jess looked down and thought long and hard and then said quietly, “OK Sam I guess we’ll give this Doc Alex a go huh…and we’ll look out for him real good. So, does he like fishin’ do ya know?
It was arranged that Doctor Alex Macnab would arrive the following week and all at the ranch were excited at the prospect of meeting such an illustrious medic.
Daisy had made sure the bunkhouse was comfortable and welcoming. It had been converted a few years before when her dear God daughter had stayed there. Now it was looking at its best with everywhere spick and span, the drapes freshly laundered and even a posy of wild flowers on the table.
“This will be a real home away from home for him with the table to write up his notes,” Daisy said brightly, surveying her handy work before looking up to smile at Slim,” I do so hope he will be comfortable here.”
“Well why wouldn’t he,” Slim returned, “it’s a palace Daisy, he’ll be just fine. You’re right with the table and comfortable chair I figure he’ll be able to write those papers Sam seems so excited about, right here.”
“Do we know anything about him?” Daisy asked clasping her hands together and looking enthralled by the idea of having such an important guest.
“Nope, it seems Sam has never actually met him, just heard of his reputation and read several of these research papers he’s written on other patients, but doesn’t know any personal details.”
Then he turned away from the bunkhouse to see Doc Sam’s buggy coming sedately down the rise, “But I figure you’re just about to find out.”
Mike ran out of the house with the dogs in tow barking wildly as they picked up on the general air of excitement.
Sam brought the vehicle to a standstill right beside them and jumping down reached up to help his passenger down…
Slim and Daisy stared in astonishment and it was Mike who was the first to come to his senses.
“Gee,” he proclaimed loudly, “the Doctor’s a lady!”
Slim gaped, his jaw slack and eyes large as he surveyed the most beautiful woman he’d seen in a long while. From her dark chestnut hair piled neatly up in a chic style to the tips of her highly polished boots the diminutive woman exuded confidence and vitality. She pulled herself up to her full five feet and moved towards the waiting reception committee, Sam on her heels.
“May I introduce Doctor Alexandra Macnab,” he said beaming at them all.
Daisy was the first to regain her composure and took the doctor’s hand shaking it warmly, “I’m delighted to meet you my dear, I do hope you’ll be comfortable here.”
“I’m sure I shall,” she said briskly with a business-like smile.
Then Slim stepped forwards, “Pleased to meet you Ma’am…er Doctor Macnab, may I take your bags, show you to your room?”
Again, there was a tight smile as she passed the bag over, “Thank you, but I would like to see the patient first if I may and there is no need for my full name Mr Sherman. The title Doctor will suffice. Then she strode off with Sam escorting her towards the ranch house, leaving Slim looking totally stunned.
Mike, who she had ignored turned to Slim and said quietly, “She’s kinda strict actin’ ain’t she Slim?”
Slim just nodded and wondered what his pard would make of her and figured the sparks would be flying before sunset.
Sam had finally left and Daisy and Slim had been dismissed from the sick room by the doctor, saying she would take things from here.
“Good luck,” Slim muttered as he left and was given a little slap by Daisy who none the less hid a smile.
Jess looked into her blue eyes, her very determined looking blue eyes.
“No,” he said gruffly, “I ain’t.”
“Look Mr Harper, if I am to be your doctor, I must examine you and that requires you removing your under vest.”
Jess looked mutinous, “I never signed up to a dang woman doctor. Sam said it was a doc Alex.”
“And so it is,” she said trying to stay patient, “Doctor Alexandra Macnab, but as I said to your colleague you may call me Doctor.”
Jess looked scandalized, “I won’t be callin’ ya anything ‘cos you ain’t dang well stayin’.”
“Oh, I’m not going anywhere Mr Harper; I can assure you of that!”
Then with a rather challenging smile, “And you certainly aren’t either. So, unless you want to remain tucked up in that bed for the rest of your life, I suggest you let me examine you and we can start planning your treatment um?”
Jess stared at this woman, clad in a white blouse and dark grey skirt the epitome of a smart business woman, the deep blue eyes now looking almost mocking and her chin jutting out determinedly.
He cussed softly under his breath before he allowed her to peel off the undershirt.
“Look Jess you’ve got to give the woman a chance.”
It was later that night and Slim had turned in early as the doctor wanted to start work on her patient first thing. He sure didn’t want to be caught out snoring away when the doc visited their shared room.
“Why should I?” Jess retorted looking as mad as all get out, “She’s plumb crazy I tell ya Slim. Got Daisy feedin’ me a diet of milk and eggs and she spent a good half hour pullin’ and pokin’ me about, I swear I’m black and blue I thought she was dang well supposed to cure me not make be worse.”
“Well you know what they say, you’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelette,” said Slim smirking at his own humor.
“Dunno about crackin’ eggs, she dang well near cracked my ribs, she ain’t half heavy handed for a little ‘un,” he said with grudging admiration. But then his countenance clouded again, “But she sure takes some uncommon personal liberties, pullin’ and pushin a body about, it just ain’t right I tell ya Slim. It ain’t decent for a woman to be doin’ those kinda things to a man.”
“Oh come on Jess it’s her job, she’s a doctor isn’t she…and anyway, you’ve got to admit, she is kind of easy on the eye.”
Jess grunted, “‘Tis alright for you, ain’t you she’s pullin’ about is it!”
“Just give her a chance, that’s all I’m saying.”
Daisy too was having some reservations about the new doctor. She had tried to make polite conversation over supper, showing an interest in the doctor’s home life and possible family, but she drew a blank on every account. Doctor Alex was polite but somewhat vague and distant, making it painfully obvious that her personal life was just that and nobody else’s business.
She had complimented Daisy on her cooking and then said she needed to make some notes before bed and left for the bunkhouse immediately after supper.
“Well what do you make of her?” Daisy had asked much later as Slim was just about to turn in.
He shrugged, “Kind of hard to tell, she sure plays her cards close to her chest,” and then he looked away quickly and blushed a little at the thought of the Doc’s rather delectable chest.
“How old would you say, thirty, maybe thirty-five?”
Slim just gave a noncommittal grunt, still considering the woman’s perfect curvy figure.
However, Daisy didn’t notice as she was deep in thought.” I wonder if she’s married. No ring of course, but that could be for professional reasons. It would be strange if a beautiful woman like her was not wed, but I doubt she has a family. After all she paid no heed to Mike at all. And who would be caring for her children if she works away like this…in fact would a husband put up with it?” she mused almost to herself.
“Well I guess we’ll never know Daisy,” Slim said as he got up to turn in, “because I’ve a feeling the lady isn’t about to tell us any time soon.”
Then he’d gone to his room and had to pacify Jess after his first run in with the doctor.
The next morning the doctor was up early and after breakfast turned towards the bedroom.
“Um, where are you going?” Slim asked leaping up from his seat.
“Why to start work on my patient of course,” she said with a raised eyebrow.
“I, er wouldn’t wake him just yet,” Slim said rather hesitantly, “I mean he’s been sleeping in a bit later since he’s been sick and well, to be honest Doctor, he’s not really at his best first thing,” Slim said.
Daisy grimaced at the masterly understatement. “Maybe I should just give him his coffee first?” she suggested.
“Nonsense,” said the Doctor blithely, “the body works better when unhindered by too much artificial stimulant I always find. A nice coddled egg and glass of warm milk in an hour or so my dear,” she said dismissing Daisy as she strode off towards the bedroom and knocking briefly barged in.
Slim and Daisy gazed at each other, both mentally counting to three, before they heard Jess bellowing in anger and frustration, followed by and equally forceful comeback. More cries of fury from Jess and then finally complete silence.
“Round one to Doc Alex,” Slim said winking at Daisy before going off to the yard to help Mike with the morning chores.
There was a deathly silence in the room as Jess glared at the doctor as he held the sheet around him with an almost vice like grip considering his still weak muscles.
“Come along Mr Harper I really can’t treat you unless you let me examine you properly.”
“You done that yesterday,” Jess countered, “just tell me what these dang exercises are and I’ll get to it.”
The doctor sighed, “I’m sorry Mr Harper I’m afraid it’s not as easy as that, now are you going to comply, or spend the rest of your life in bed?”
Jess rolled his eyes but finally let go of the sheet and the doctor pulled it back exposing his naked torso and short white cut down undershorts and immediately started running a hand over the limbs, much to Jess’s embarrassment. Then she stood back and asked him to raise his arms…he did so with much effort and the same with his legs and then she suggested he move so that he could sit on the edge of the bed. This took him sometime and he was sweating and breathing heavily by the time he was in position.
She nodded, all the time watching him carefully.
“Right and now stand up Mr Harper.”
Jess knew he couldn’t but dadgum it he wasn’t gonna back down from the challenge.
He made a valiant attempt and finally stood for a moment before falling forwards into the doc’s arms.
She was surprisingly strong and bore his weight easily and maneuvered him back onto the bed.
Jess cussed softly under his breath before turning angry eyes on her, “You wanted that to happen didn’t ya?”
She frowned, “No, but it’s important for you to know your limitations, now we will work to improve your muscle tone and strength,” she said firmly.
“We start with resistance work, here push my hand away with all your strength,” she said, brooking no argument.
An hour later Jess was shaking with fatigue, sweat glistening across his firm torso and the light of battle in his eyes.
Doc Alex finally sat back from where she’d been manipulating his legs and gave him a tight smile.
“Enough for now, I’ll instruct Mrs Cooper to give you your breakfast,” she said turning to leave.
“Is that it then?” he asked hopefully.
She shook her head, “Oh no Mr Harper we’ve only just begun that was merely a warm up. I’ll leave Mr Sherman to deal with any personal care and then we will reconvene in one hour precisely.”
Jess looked slightly relieved that at least she wouldn’t be messin’ with every darn part of his miserable existence.
He gave her a weak smile, “Thank you Ma’am.”
“Doctor,” she said brusquely.
Jess ignored her icy tone, “So would that be Miss or Mrs Doctor?” he asked with a mischievous grin.
“Just Doctor,” she said firmly before marching out of the room without a backward glance.
“Well ain’t you the hoity-toity one,” Jess replied, but too late she had gone.
By the end of the day Jess was not only totally exhausted but also in some pain from all the vigorous exercising, albeit still carried out on the bed.
Once the Doctor decided Jess had worked hard enough, she told him she wanted him lying on his front and helped to flip him gently over, his head resting on his arms and a wary expression in his deep blue eyes.
“Now what are ya gonna do?” he asked in a resigned tone.
“You’ll see,” she said and moments later he was aware of a sweet cloying smell and then he felt something like warm oil on his back and seconds later Alex’s firm hands sliding and gliding across his taught tanned skin massaging his back before moving down to his legs…
Jess gave a gasp of shock, which was swiftly changed to a soft groan of pleasure as her sensitive fingers worked their miracle on his tense painful muscles.
When Slim burst in a few minutes later Jess jumped and flushed up, although the doc seemed perfectly composed.
Slim stopped in his tracks looking taken aback, before finding his voice.
“Er, Daisy says supper’s ready when you are Ma’am.”
The Doctor turned to him with a cool smile, “Why thank you Mr Sherman, I’m nearly through here I’ll be with you directly.”
Slim entered their shared room after supper and mooched over to Jess’s bed looking down at him, a speculative look in his eyes.
“Well what was all that about?” He asked without preamble.
“Come on Jess you know what I mean, what the heck was the doc doing, slathering you with that scented oil and doing that….er sort of massage?”
“What do ya mean sorta massage, it was a special massage to ease my muscles if you must know,” he said irritably.
“Uh huh,” said Slim with a wicked grin, “well I’ll bet you’d pay top dollar for that service in one of those high-class bordellos back east.”
Jess looked annoyed, “It weren’t that way Slim, and she’s a doctor for goodness sake.”
“Uh, it might not have been that way for her…but how about you Hotshot, so is the doctor growing on you some huh?”
Jess turned away unable to look his buddy in the eye, “No she ain’t,” he muttered, “and you’re crazy you know that?”
“Sure I am,” said Slim with an evil chuckle before he started getting ready to turn in.
If Slim had not been too far off the mark with his comments the night before, Jess was soon to forget the pleasurable massage as the doc really turned up the heat on his treatment.
He was in real pain by dinner time and the Doctor decreed he should rest during the afternoon and they would just have a shortened session after supper.
Slim caught up with her later sitting out on the porch taking the air and he pulled up a seat beside her.
“So how’s my pard doing then Doctor?” He asked with a shy smile.
For once Doc Alex seemed to be relaxed and willing to talk.
She looked over to Slim and smiled, “He’s a very strong character isn’t he?” she said.
“Oh yeah, I guess you could say,” agreed Slim with a hint of irony.
She cocked her head on one side and gave him a penetrating look, “What made him that way, so strong willed and spirited?” she asked.
“Darn right ornery you mean?” Slim asked with a genuine smile now.
However, the doctor didn’t share his humor.
“For a man to face that gang in the bank, rather than running off for help,” she said looking slightly bemused, “and then to work so hard to get well again that he is utterly exhausted, shows a great depth of character, I just wondered how it had been formed?”
“I guess he hasn’t had the easiest of lives,” Slim said looking slightly guarded, “but I think you should ask Jess if you want to know more, he’s a kind of private guy, doesn’t appreciate folk prying into his past.”
“Oh please Mr Sherman,” she said, “I have no intention of prying, I merely need to know to aid his recovery. You see I work on a holistic approach.”
“You do huh,” said Slim, looking slightly out of his depth.
She nodded, “It is a very advanced approach I admit, but I do believe if the practitioner fully understands the patient then it really does aid recovery.”
When Slim still looked unconvinced she said, “I am already aware that Mr Harper’s past is… shall we say…not the most salubrious, a gunslinger and drifter before he moved here so I believe, but I am more interested in what makes him tick. I need to know what I can do or say to get the very best from him. You see he really needs to be extremely motivated if he is to overcome this affliction.”
“I guess he’s motivated enough,” Slim said quietly, “he wants to get well, not just for himself, but for us too. The business and his commitment to others, that’s the kind of man he is doctor, loyal to a fault and cares for his friends…anything else, like I say you’d better ask him yourself.”
The following day Doc Alex sought Slim out in the barn and engaged his help.
“You see Mr Harper needs some support as he starts to walk again and this is what I propose,” she said showing Slim a deftly drawn diagram. It was of two parallel poles supported by several base poles and looked something like two parallel hitching rails about eighteen inches apart.
“You see the patient can grip the rails, one in either hand and walk forwards…thereby gaining strength and muscle tone until they are able to walk unaided,” she said giving him a triumphant grin, “you can make it Mister Sherman?”
The apparatus was duly installed in their bedroom a few days later and Jess’s grueling self-imposed regime, as he strove to gain his strength once more, started to dominate his life.
The first few shuffling steps he had made, once he left his bed, had been replaced with stronger and stronger ones as he accessed this new apparatus, courtesy of Slim.
But those first steps had been hard won. After the initial few paces he was exhausted, the sweat soaking the back of his blue shirt from the effort and his face a mask of pain.
Seeing the effect on her patient the Doc told him to relax and went to fetch him a chair. But Jess refused, saying he weren’t backin’ down and his dang body weren’t gonna get the better of him. He’d carried on until he almost fell badly and had to eventually sit for a few minutes.
The first time he made his sweating, cussing and faltering way down the length of the parallel bars, he was rewarded by a sincere whoop of joy from Doc Alex and a, “Well done, bravo Jess!”
He raised an eyebrow, thinking he saw the gleam of a tear in her eyes, but she turned away and said nothing and was shortly back to her usual aloof professional persona.
But Jess looked at her long and hard, there was a person with feelings in there somewhere he figured, but dadgum it they were real well hidden.
Jess was finally able to start walking outside, albeit with the aid of a stick. His balance was still very poor and he took many a tumble. But dragged him-self up again, cussing softly, before carrying on, his need to return to full health pushing him onwards, his spirit resolute.
Doctor Alex spent a lot of time working in the bunkhouse on her academic papers, but still made sure Jess did all his exercises on a daily basis from push ups to twisting and bending to promote overall muscle strength.
What she was not aware of was that Jess regularly took himself off down to the creek, on the home pasture to work on his fast draw.
It had been one of the things that he was most concerned about.
Obviously, he wanted to get his health and strength back that was paramount. But he also knew that he really had to get his lightning fast draw back. Because any day, any time, some cocky kid could come along to try him on, to prove what a big man he was in front of his friends.
Or even worse some low life from his past would emerge and want to take him on. Wanting pay back for some long past transgression or disagreement, he had to be ready... he just had to if he wanted to survive.
It was some three weeks into his recovery that the doctor spied Jess wandering off across the home pasture and fuelled by curiosity and the need for a little exercise, she decided to follow him.
She had been working on her medical notes since breakfast and the necessary information about her patient’s physical progress was easy to account. However, the underpinning psychological impact of the disability upon him and the obvious drive that was forcing him to push himself so very hard, she knew little of. He was totally driven, working at the exercises until he could barely function and many a night, he had fallen asleep as she massaged his aching limbs.
But although they had been very close physically as she went about her work and she knew his body as intimately as her own, she still knew nothing of the man within.
As she moved closer to the fast running stream that bordered the home pasture, she heard a shot ring out followed by another and then another and felt fearful. Was Jess, as she thought of him in private, involved in some sort of altercation, or maybe hunting she thought more rationally?
She finally saw him, his back to her, drawing his handgun with lightning speed before dispatching a row of tin cans balanced on a rock, some distance away. Goodness, she could barely see the cans or the speed with which he drew. But why was he doing this she asked her-self and suddenly she was furious.
She marched towards him as he was reloading his gun and at least he had the grace to look slightly guilty.
He holstered the gun and walked slowly towards her with a hesitant smile, “Hey doc what are you doin’ way out here?” he asked.
She ignored his question and proceeded to give him a verbal lashing.
“For goodness sake man what on earth do you think you’re doing?” she asked angrily.
“I thought that would be kinda obvious, even to an educated woman like you,” he replied equally crossly.
“Yes, but why,” she asked irritably, “why do you have to draw that fast anyway?”
He sighed deeply, “Because there could be some other bast…er…some other guy out there who’s just hankerin’ to try me out, make a reputation for himself, or just someone with a grudge from my past.”
“But why do it?” she asked again.
“Because iffen I don’t keep up to speed, I’m pretty likely to end up dead,” he said gruffly.
“But why not just walk away from it all…I don’t understand?”
“I have,” he said bitterly, “and got shot in the back for my trouble.”
“But if you get into these kinds of confrontations surely you could be killed anyway? Why throw away all your hard work getting fit and well again, it doesn’t make sense,” she said. Now looking near to tears but of concern or frustration Jess wasn’t sure.
“Do ya think I don’t know that?” he spat angrily, “I don’t go lookin’ for trouble you know!” Then more quietly, “But with my kinda past it has a way of finding you.”
She sighed and when she seemed as though her legs would hold her no longer, Jess nodded to a grassy knoll and gestured for her to sit and he slumped down beside her.
Once they were sitting comfortably, she said quietly, “Would you like to tell me about your past then Jess?”
“Nope,” he said firmly, frowning at her, “you?”
“You wanna tell me about your past?”
She shook her head.
“Well then,” and he made to get up.
“Please,” she said grabbing his arm to pull him back down.
He threw her an icy glance raising an eyebrow and she released her hold at once.
However, he sat back down and stared moodily into space before finally saying, “So what do ya wanna know then?”
“Well, from the beginning, your upbringing, why you went of the drift in the first place?” she asked eagerly.
He sighed deeply, “Why do you wanna know, just curious? You find a rough ol’ cowboy kinda entertaining?” he asked bitterly.
“No, of course not, “She said with spirit. “It’s purely to aid my research, I’m trying to find out what motivates survivors of life threatening or changing illness, so I can use the information to help others.”
“Is that so,” he said laconically, but never the less decided to humor her.
He told her very briefly of his life in poverty down on the Texas panhandle, the fire that had killed his kin and his subsequent search for the perpetrators in a bid for revenge. He told it in a dull deadpan way, showing no emotion. Then how he had volunteered with the confederacy in the war, before returning to Texas to find there was nothing left there for him. Then he told of his seemingly endless years on the drift getting by and making some very dubious friends along the way. Not to mention skirting on and off the owl hoot trail. Before he had finally come across the Sherman spread. Here his life had changed and he’d put up his old gunslinger weapon and ways for good.
“So you can see as how there might be a few folk out there gunning for me,” he said dryly. “But nowadays I try an’ use my gun for good, deputizing for the Sheriff, riding shot gun for the Stage line and the like.”
When she just stared at him saying nothing, her eyes glittering with unshed tears, he continued.
“I dunno how that’s gonna help other patients,” he said dryly, “unless you’re suggesting your patients get a career in gun-slinging to help their recovery, only I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve found in the past it’s been kinda bad for my health,” he said with a wry grin.
He looked back up at her and was just in time to see her wipe a tear away.
His demeanor changed immediately, “Hey what’s wrong doc? What did I say?”
“Nothing,” she said quickly, cursing herself for letting her professional mask slip. “That has been most useful Mr Harper. I can see now where you get your tenacity and strength of spirit from. What do they say? Er…out of adversary is born strength,” and she smiled at him.
When he looked slightly confused, she said gently, “What I mean is, because of your difficult past you stand your ground. Won’t back down and no matter how much life tries to drag you down you persevere. Well you may fall, but you always get up again as you have proved over and over these last few weeks and I truly salute you for that.” Then standing quickly she turned and marched back off towards the ranch.
“Good afternoon, Mr Harper,” she called over her shoulder as she went, but Jess just stared after her the expression in his deep blue eyes unfathomable.
After a while he wandered over to the tin cans and replaced them carefully on the rock. Then turning he walked away until he was several yards back and he began fast drawing and shooting again.
This time as Doctor Alexandra Macnab heard the sound she flinched, a look of deep trepidation on her beautiful face.

Chapter Five

Well I know what’s right
I’ve got just one life
In a world that just keeps on pushin’ me around
I’ll stand my ground

One thing that was really bugging Jess was his riding. His balance had been badly affected and his legs seemed to be much slower to recover than his arms and hands.
The first place he had walked to when he had the strength had been the barn to check on Traveller. He’d spent so long out there talking to his good old horse and fussing over him that Doc Alex had come in search of him to tell him he was late for his exercise session.
She had heard him talking softly and stood at the door watching him as he caressed the horse’s velvety nose.
He had spun around as she entered the barn one hand flashing to his holstered gun, but he relaxed when he saw who it was.
Never the less the instinctive reaction had alarmed her and she had her fears confirmed later when she was to come across him practicing his draw.
Now she was more circumspect in her approach and tended to give a little warning cough.
The day following the incident with the tin cans, she again found him in the barn, this time cleaning out the stall and she leaned on the door watching him.
“Your horse is very important to you isn’t he,” she said quietly.
Jess’s head shot up and he watched her through narrowed eyes. Was this another of her gambits to find out about the life and times of Jess Harper he thought cynically?
“I guess,” he said warily.
“And the fact that you’re finding it hard to recover sufficiently to be able to ride as you once did, that’s bothering you?” she persisted.
“Hell, yes of course it dang well is!” he yelled, forgetting his usual good manners when in the doc’s presence. “It’s my livelihood. What use is a cowboy who can’t round up the herd, ride fence…heck do most of the dadgum jobs on the spread? Not to mention bronc bustin’.”
She visibly quailed at the thought of what that might entail, but it sounded pretty brutal and demanding to her ears.
“Well I don’t know how soon you’ll be breaking wild horses again, time will tell, but we can certainly work on your riding next, if you’d like to?’
“Like to?” said Jess grinning from ear to ear his good humor now once more intact, “Why heck Ma’am is a hog happy in mud…why sure I want to, when do we start?”
It turned out that the Doctor was a proficient rider and she suggested that they ride out together the following day. Starting with just an hour or so on the ranch, gradually extending to longer rides as his leg and torso muscles strengthened.
“Gee can I come too Jess?” Mike asked the following day when he and Alex were saddling up, but the doctor shook her head.
“I’m afraid not dear this is hard work, not fun. Now run along sonny.”
Mike had turned anxious eyes up to his hero wondering what he had done wrong to be treated so dismissively.
Jess frowned over at the doctor and then ruffled the child’s blond locks, “I guess not today,” he said softly, “the doc’s right it’ll be kinda boring buddy. But you and me, we’ll have a game of checkers when I get back huh?”
The youngster beamed at him and ran off happily.
Jess turned a stony gaze on the doctor, “His name’s Mike, not sonny and I’d appreciate it iffen you wouldn’t talk down to him that way he ain’t used to it.”
She looked a tad upset at this sudden unexpected attack and apologized.
“I, er didn’t know there was a child in residence before I agreed to come,” she said quietly.
Jess looked surprised, “Well would that have made a difference, what’s your problem, don’t you like kids?”
“No…yes, it’s not that,” she said looking confused. “I’m well, not too comfortable around them, let’s just leave it at that,” she finished briskly, her reserved manner coming to the fore as usual when any personal issue was to be addressed.
“Well just make an effort, will you?” Jess said throwing her a dark look before turning back to finish saddling up.
Slim was on the porch as the couple left to ride out across the east pasture. But he averted his gaze as Jess mounted. Unable to bear watching the way he hauled himself up into the saddle, so painfully slowly. Gone was the usual graceful little hop, the athletic figure relaxing and settling into the saddle like it was his second home…and in losing that Slim felt he’d lost a little part of his pard.
When Jess rode back into the yard a couple of hours later Slim ran out of the barn where he’d been working and stopped in his tracks as he saw the shape his partner was in. He was perspiring and seemed out of breath, his complexion pale and he looked really sickly.
Slim moved forwards and grabbed Traveller’ s halter peering up at his buddy.
“Jess are you alright?”
He sat up tall in the saddle squinting down at Slim and rubbing a hand wearily over his face, “Sure I am why wouldn’t I be?” he muttered.
Slim exchanged a look with the doctor and said, “Oh no reason, need a hand down?”
He shook his head looking outraged and bracing himself, slid down from the saddle holding onto the horn for a moment as a wave of nausea and dizziness almost overwhelmed him.
Slim put a gentle hand on his back, “Come on Jess you go lay down for a while, I’ll tend to Traveller.”
However, after a moment Jess seemed to rally and dragging his head up from where it had been resting on Traveler’s neck, threw Slim a hard look.
“I tend my horse you know that,” he said quietly, before leading the bay off towards the barn.
The doctor had watched the little scene unfold, instinctively knowing not to interfere.
Now she turned back to Slim, “It means a lot to him doesn’t it, caring for his horse, riding…all this,” she said gesturing to the yard and hills beyond.
Slim just nodded feeling really bad, “It means everything to him,” he said softly, before taking old Betsy’s reins from Alex and leading her towards the barn.
Then he half turned back, “Just give us some time will you Ma’am. I reckon he’s done enough for today anyway huh?”
She just nodded, “Of course.”
That evening Jess made an effort to spend some fun time with Mike, mindful that he’d been somewhat neglected since his return home from back east. Slim and Daisy’s attention focused on Jess himself. Now he wanted to try and make it up to the boy, especially after the Doctor’s less than friendly attitude to the child.
He’d played several games of checkers with him and later read a bedtime story to the youngster.
When he emerged from Mike’s room sometime later it was obvious that he was totally drained, but he came and took his seat by the fire along with Slim and Daisy.
“Where is she?” he asked morosely as Daisy passed him a coffee over.
“The Doctor you mean, gone to the bunkhouse, said she had notes to do and was having an early night. She said you should do likewise,” Daisy said casting him an anxious glance. “You look done in dear.”
Jess sighed, “I’m OK Daisy just dang well frustrated, I guess. Gee I’ve been riding all my life, why should it be so dadgum difficult now?”
“Hey don’t be so hard on yourself,” said Slim, throwing his friend an encouraging smile. “Heck Jess a few weeks ago you could barely move, you’re doing real well pard. You’ve just got to be patient.”
“Slim’ s right dear, you’ve done so well, but I really think you are pushing yourself too hard, these things take time you know.”
“Uh, but that’s somethin’ we ain’t got Daisy, it’ll be fall soon and how is Slim gonna manage bringing the stock down on his own? God knows I ain’t gonna be much help the way I’m fixed right now,” he said looking wretched.
Slim leaned forwards and gave him a gentle punch on the arm, “Come on Hotshot, snap out of it. We’ll get by, we always do and if you’re not up to it we’ll just have to buy some help in.”
“Oh yeah, sure what with Slim, you know we’re pretty much livin’ on the edge right now until we sell some stock off in the spring. I might not even be fit to go mustanging,” he said looking aghast at the thought. “Jeez Slim, I hafta get right, I really hafta.”
Slim and Daisy exchanged an anxious glance, knowing the truth of it and that they could find no words of comfort that could help.
“Why don’t you get off to bed dear, things will look better in the morning,” Daisy said, trying her best to calm him some.
Jess sighed, “In a minute Daisy.”
“Well I’m off,” she said with a yawn getting up, she put her mending to one side and left the room with a soft, “goodnight boys.”
Once she had departed to bed Slim cast his buddy a troubled glance.
“So how was it really today? The Doc seemed kind of concerned about you.”
Jess shrugged, “OK I guess, just dang hard goin’ you know Slim? I’m so used to gettin’ in the saddle and ridin’. I never even think about it, I might as well be sittin’ in this old rocker. But now… and he shook his head sadly. I feel every dang step he takes and it jars my back real bad and right now my legs feel so dadgum stiff I can barely walk, it’s crazy.”
Then he shook his head and gave Slim a wry grin, “God knows what my poor ol’ horse is makin’ of all this, me riding like some sorta greenhorn.”
Slim chuckled at that, “I’m sure Trav will find it in his heart to forgive you. Come on Jess let’s hit the sack, tomorrow’s another day huh.”
The following day Jess insisted on riding out again, even though the Doctor was slightly hesitant.
“You have to take things slowly Mr Harper,” she insisted. “Work up to longer rides slowly.”
But Jess, being Jess insisted on having his own way and after a week of longer and longer rides he was beginning to regain his proficiency in the saddle. He could do pretty much all he was able to before, albeit more slowly and carefully. But his old reckless ways, where he rode hell for leather just for the joy of it, were sadly no longer in evidence.
He still mounted sedately, without the graceful little hop and jump up, or any of the other imaginative ways he found to mount up. He rode slowly and sedately, but at least he was back in the saddle and managed to ride through the pain, until a week or so later things finally began to get easier.
It was a bright early fall morning and Jess suggested he and the Doc ride over to the lake for the day and take a picnic. She planned to return back to the hospital in Denver at the end of the week and professed that she would really like to see some of the surrounding countryside before she left.
Jess remembered that fateful day so many weeks ago when her visit had first been mentioned and he’d asked Doc Sam if the new doctor liked to fish and he smiled wryly at the memory.
Back then they had all assumed the doctor was a man of course. But he still didn’t know if she liked fishing, in fact he knew little more about her today than he had done on day one, he mused.
Now he turned to the adjacent stall where Doc Alex was saddling up old Betsy and said, “Say Doc do you like to fish?”
She looked surprised and then gave him a genuine smile and said, “Yes, actually I do.”
Jess had packed an extra rod and a few hours later they were sitting companionably by the lakeside fishing, as they digested the fine picnic Daisy had provided for them.
“So what else do ya like doing in your spare time?” Jess asked after a while.
She looked blank and then said, “I don’t have a lot of free time, my work is so important.”
He considered this and then said, “So you ain’t got a man in your life, friends that you see maybe, heck you must have fun sometimes don’t ya?”
“I er, don’t discuss my private life Mr Harper.”
“Oh come on,” he said throwing her a challenging look, “what do ya think I’m gonna do blackmail you with all those skeletons you’ve got in yer cupboard?”
When she looked askance, he grinned, “Well there must be some dark secrets because you sure don’t share too much do ya?”
“It’s called keeping a professional distance Mr Harper, it’s essential really not to get too emotionally close to the patient when working so intimately with them.”
“So that’s all I am to you then, ‘the patient’?” Jess said sullenly, ignoring the words emotionally close and intimate. Hell, what did she think of him? That he’d hit on her if she called him by his given name he thought bitterly.
She nodded appraising him, “Why… what else would you be to me?”
He shrugged, “Seein’ as we’ve spent so much time together, I kinda thought we might have become friends? Maybe not ‘emotionally close’,” he said with an ironic smile, “but at least to be able to be reasonably friendly with each other. Use first names even. Heck I’ve been better acquainted with the folk on the annual travelling fair than you, and they only stop by the one day a year.”
Her lips twitched at that and she bowed her head to hide the smile.
But not before Jess noticed and grinned at her, “Hey take it easy Ma’am you nearly cracked a smile,” he said with a chuckle.
She looked at him properly then, “I’m sorry. But it’s best that I stick to my rules if I’m to survive.”
He raised an eyebrow, “Survive?” he queried, thinking that maybe he’d been right. She did think he was going to start messin’ with her. “Hey Ma’am you’re quite safe with me,” he said looking slightly affronted.
“No, you misunderstand me,” she said quickly. “I mean survive as a woman in a man’s world, that of Medicine. It’s hard for a woman to make any progress, to be accepted and given equal opportunities with men.”
He thought about that and then said, “Is that why you shortened your name from Alexandra to Alex, you wanted folk to think you were a man?”
She nodded, “It’s a necessary deception I have to say Mr Harper. When I first started trying to get a post in this kind of research, all the jobs went to the male students. I was even told I should get back to nursing and leave medicine to the men,” she said bitterly. “Until I published my research under Doctor Alex Macnab and then they were falling over themselves to offer me work and a research grant, thinking I was a man,” she said angrily.
“So you got it at least,” Jess said.
She nodded, “But it was so hard won I mustn’t let anything get in my way. Any faint rumor that I have been less than professional, especially with male patients… Well let’s just say there are many waiting in the wings to discredit me…so I just can’t afford any scandal or idle chatter, you understand?”
“I hear you,” he said quietly, “but nope I guess I can’t understand it. If folk are that quick to judge you, it’s them in the wrong not you, isn’t it? Surely the people in charge of these grants and stuff, can see that? It must be pretty darned lonely leading that kinda life,” he reflected giving her a sympathetic look.
But before she could reply her fishing line jerked and she got a bite and with all the excitement of the catch the conversation ended.
They were just getting their quite substantial catch together in a gunny sack to take home for supper when Jess noticed a change in the weather. The previous glass like surface of the lake was now roughened by waves as a squally storm moved through, the wind getting up and the sound of distant thunder rolling in as the sky darkened.
Doc Alex looked up in consternation, as the first flash of lighting rent the sky, “Should we get back?”
Jess shook his head looking at her thin blouse and riding skirt. I reckon not, these storms come in pretty fast in these parts and can be kinda violent too; we’d be soaked before we’d gone a mile. I figure our best bet is to sit it out up in the cave,” he said tipping his hat towards a steep path leading up the mountain behind them.
“Yup, it’s just a few yards up that steep track we’ll be safe and dry up there. Can you get our stuff together? I’ll just make sure the mounts are ground hitched in the lea of those rocks, should keep the worst of the weather off of them.”
They just made it to the cave before the first heavy drops of rain began to fall.
Alex was a little out of breath after the very steep climb, but Jess was happy to find he made the gradient without too much bother a testament to his recovery he thought.
The doc was pleasantly surprised to see a wide mouthed light cave going back a good twenty feet or so and a similar width.
“Goodness me the place is huge,” she said looking up at him and laughing, “You could make a home here,” her eyes alive and twinkling.
He grinned back glad to see her so animated, instead of her usual serious manner.
He quickly gave her the guided tour, a large trunk containing bedrolls and extra blankets towards the back along with a store of dried goods including a few cans of beans, coffee and a large pile of firewood and kindling.
“Pretty much everything you need to survive for a few days. We come up here camping in the summer, bring young Mike and go fishin’ or huntin’,” he said as he gathered up a pile of wood for the fire.
It had turned quite chilly with the storm raging without and he soon got a cheerful fire blazing away, near the cave entrance. They sat companionably in front of it watching the storm play out below them, the lightning display over the now almost black lake impressive.
Jess had put the coffee pot on and now he poured Alex a cup. Smiling he said, “Are you warm enough?”
She accepted the coffee gratefully, and said she was OK, but Jess saw her give a little shiver and after a moment he stripped off his jacket and draped it around her shoulders.
She looked up, thanks and surprise in her deep blue eyes, “Thank you, there was no need.”
He just smiled, “We don’t want the doc catchin’ a chill now do we?”
She smiled back, pulling the jacket more firmly around her, “Thank you Jess.”
Jess raised an expressive eyebrow, didn’t comment on the use of his first name, but took comfort from it. Maybe the ice maiden, as Slim had dubbed her, was finally beginning to thaw.
“So,” he said casting a speculative glance in her direction, “we never did get around to takin’ about you, did we? I reckon you’ve had the shortened version of my life history, so how about yours?”
When she didn’t reply, he said, “Come on Doc, you’re leavin’ in a few days, why not risk it huh? I promise not to tell a soul,” he said with his cheeky grin.
She met his gaze and couldn’t help but smile back, “Did anyone ever tell you how stubborn you are?” she asked with a chuckle.
“Too many to recall,” he replied smiling into her eyes.
She gave a little sigh, “Alright what do you want to know?”
He looked thoughtful. “I dunno, everything, I guess. What makes a pretty girl like you spend all her time workin’ when she could be enjoying life to the full? Sure, your work’s important to you I can see that. Gee I thank God for it, you sure saw me out of a fix. But… well dontcha just long for something more?”
She looked down for so long he thought again she would refuse to answer. But when she looked back up there were tears in her eyes.
“Yes, of course I do,” she said quietly. “I did, I had everything I wanted, but no longer.”
Jess looked puzzled, “Why, what happened?”
She seemed to steel herself to continue, “A terrible accident. My husband and small son were killed in a boating accident, both drowned.”
Jess just gaped for a moment before pulling himself together.
“I’m so sorry,” he said quietly.
“I rarely talk about it,” she continued, “it’s easier that way and I find solace in my work.”
Jess nodded, “Mike… that’s why you’ve tried to ignore him, he reminds you of your boy?”
“Don’t, please don’t say any more,” she said, the tears now streaming down her beautiful face, “yes you’re right, he was the image of Mike and just seven years old when he died, he’d have been twelve next week.”
Jess could say nothing to comfort her, he knew that and so he merely put a comforting arm around her shoulders and after a moment she relaxed back and put her head on his shoulder, the tears finally coming to a shuddering close.
“I’m sorry,” he said a little later, “I shouldn’t have pried that way.”
“No,” she said with a watery smile, it’s fine, you weren’t to know. I find it easier not to say anything, in my experience most people just can’t understand the death of a partner or child, and they feel embarrassed, don’t know what to say.”
“I understand,” he said softly.
“You do?”
“Kinda, see my wife-to-be was shot down, murdered in front of me, died in my arms, so I can understand some, but losin’ the boy too…” And he shook his head sadly. *See #1 Loved Lost Survived.
She looked devastated, “I’d no idea. You never mentioned it when we talked of your past.”
He just shrugged, “It’s not the sorta thing you talk about unless you have to I guess.”
“Have to?” She repeated.
He looked sadly into the fire before turning to her, “Yeah, I was pretty much like you. I tried not to think or talk about it for a long time, just threw myself into work. I pushed myself so dang hard I near killed myself,” he said honestly. “See I was tryin’ to out run it, escape from it …but can’t be done.”
“It?” She asked.
“Grief, mourning, call it what you will, but it can’t be gotten around, you just have to plough straight through,” he said softly.
“Please, tell me more,” she said watching him with rapt attention.
He took a deep breath, really not wanting to drag it all up again. Those terrible feelings of despair as though his heart had been ripped out and trampled on some. Of course, it was easier now, time does heal he thought with a grim smile at the old adage, but even so it was hard, real hard.
“I pretty much worked myself into the ground,” he said very quietly. “Old Doc Johnson told Daisy he really thought I’d die of a broken heart, can you believe that,” he said with the ghost of a smile. “But I guess he had a point. I was pretty weak and sick, he thought a Wyoming winter would see me off, lung fever or just a bad chill I was so weak, not eatin’ much you see,” he said.
She watched him in fascination, not daring to comment lest he should suddenly clam up.
“It were ol’ Hardrock, Slim that is, that made me see sense,” he continued. “He made me face up to things.” Then he chuckled, “Got me real mad too, until the old Harper fightin’ spirit came through to help me out, get me back on track.”
It was Alex’s turn to smile at the mention of that spirit and tenacity she had become so familiar with.
He turned to look at her properly for a moment. “He told me to pack my bags and go,” he said ruefully, “said as how I were no damn use to him the way I was and I should hightail it back to Texas. He said that at least I’d get away from all the memories and maybe make a fresh start,” he said shaking his head sadly.
He took a deep breath and said, “So of course I got real mad, just like he knew I would. I told him how it was, the pain, like my heart had been ripped out, how I kept hearin’ her… seein’ her, how I couldn’t eat or sleep and I just wanted out…ya know?”
She nodded, “Yes,” she whispered, “I know.”
He nodded. “Of course you do. Anyway, Slim talked some real good sense that day. Helped me to see I wasn’t plumb loco I was just grievin’ real bad. How I needed to accept that…accept she’d gone too. So next day I went and visited her grave and I guess that’s when the healing started,” he said giving her a warm smile. “It weren’t easy and even now there are times it hits you like a knife in the chest…but I guess I’m OK, mostly.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, “it’s such a relief to talk to someone who really understands.”
He threw another log on the fire and relaxed back.
“So, you wanna tell me all about them huh?”
That was to be the turning point for Doctor Alexandra Macnab as she unburdened herself to a young cowboy, in a shadowy cave in the middle of a wild storm. An experience she would never forget and one she would be eternally grateful for. In fact, she was to say to a dear friend many years later, “That was the day I started living again.”
When it became obvious that the storm had set in for the night Jess suggested they camp out.
Alex’s face took on the look of a mischievous child, “That would be fun,” she said, “but won’t Daisy and the others worry?”
Jess smiled at her not yet quite used to this new more frivolous side of the doctor that he was seeing for the first time.
“Nah, they’ll know it would be crazy to try and ride back in this weather, besides it’ll be dark soon and real treacherous under foot for the horses.”
She nodded in agreement then and smiling at him, “What would you like me to cook up for supper, the fish or some of those beans?”
He did a double take, “Huh, you cook? Here was I thinkin’ all you were good for was docterin’,” he said with a bark of laughter.
“Oh you’d be surprised,” she said with a twinkle in her blue eyes, baking, sewing I can do the lot,” then sobering quickly, “I’ve just not had much call for it these last few years.”
He nodded, “I guess not,” and he realized this new light-hardheartedness was still very fragile.
“How about the fish,” he said quickly, “I’ll gut ‘em for you and then go settle down the horses for the night.”
She watched as he used his razor-sharp hunting knife to swiftly and efficiently prepare the fish and marveled at his skill.
“A good fisherman always cleans the catch for the cook,” he said with his broad smile, “Mike’s a dab hand at it too, I made sure of that,” he confided. Then his face clouded as he realized what he’d said, “Gee I’m sorry Ma’am I guess you don’t want to hear about the boy.”
She took a deep breath and then said, “Actually I do, I’ve been very unfair acting the way I have, he’s a delightful child,” Then she said quietly,” and it’s Alex, Jess not Ma’am.”
He smiled at her and nodded but said nothing and shortly afterwards left to tend the horses.
That evening after supper Alex talked like she hadn’t done in years. She told him about the love of her life, about her beautiful bright clever son and the depths of her misery at their loss. How she had thrown herself into her work and that had become her lifeline. ‘The only thing keeping me going’ she had admitted.
“That’s why I’ve acted that way around you all,” she said quietly. “I just couldn’t bear to get close to anyone. I thought if you found out the truth and I talked about it I’d just fall apart and have some sort of breakdown.”
Jess thought about that, “Well you seem pretty together to me. Sure, you’ve been upset, that’s natural but I’d say you were a strong lady Alex, real strong and you’re gonna survive.”
She nodded, “You’re right, it’s exactly what I needed. To face my demons, greave properly and then maybe I can move on at last.”
They talked long into the night, sometimes laughing at the antics of her son and other times crying bitterly for her loss, the tears somehow cathartic though. When she finally slept it was the best night’s sleep she had had since the death of her dear husband Curt and little Robbie.
The next morning, she awoke, stretched and sat up to see sunlight streaming into the cave entrance, the lake surface turned to a serene gold from the rising sun, and she revelled in the moment, a new day and a new start.
Jess had already got the fire going and the coffee on and he wandered over bearing a cup of his strong brew and passed it to her.
They sat in companionable silence for a little while enjoying their drinks and the stunning view before them. Then she turned to him, “Jess you won’t say anything to the others, about…well everything I’ve shared.”
His face was a picture of surprise and his eyebrows shot up in question, “Heck no, I said I wouldn’t, didn’t I?”
She nodded, “Yes and I appreciate it. It’s just early days. I feel safe talking with you about it all you’re so accepting and really understand, but I just don’t think I’m ready to talk about my family to anyone else just yet.”
“Sure, I can understand that,” he said with a kind smile, then, “So how are ya at cookin’ beans huh?”
She giggled and gave him a little slap on the arm, “Just swell,” she said and got up to start the task, before turning back, “Thank you,” she said softly and wandered off, thinking what a blessing humor could be and how Jess was a rather remarkable man.
Later they made their way down the steep path and looked out to the lake, the warm early fall sun now beating down.
“This is so beautiful,” she said quietly, “I’ll never forget our time here and what you did for me.”
He looked down embarrassed and then said quietly, “We got just one life and I guess we have to make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt huh?”
She nodded still looking out to the lake and the distant snow-covered mountains beyond, “Oh I intend to from now on,” she said softly.

Chapter Six
Hey I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down

Slim came running out of the ranch house, looking a little exasperated as Jess and Doc Alex rode into the yard.
“Are you alright?” he asked addressing the doctor, “Daisy’s been worrying.”
Before she could answer the lady in question hurried out of the house, “Oh thank goodness, I was so worried dear. We thought maybe you’d been caught in that dreadful storm?”
Jess jumped down from his mount and gave the housekeeper a little hug, “No call to fret Daisy, the Doc and I got to talkin’ so by the time we were thinkin’ on coming back home that old storm broke so we bunked down in the cave for the night.
“Did you indeed?” Slim asked throwing him a censorious look, “I hardly think that’s suitable accommodation for a lady like the Doctor here.”
“I was quite comfortable,” Alex confirmed, “in fact it was rather fun wasn’t it Jess,” and with that she led Betsy off towards the barn.
“See, it was fun,” Jess mimicked chuckling at the look of shock on his buddy’s handsome features, “no need to go frettin’ Hardrock and it beat gettin’ soaked to the skin,” he added before he mooched off after Alex.
Daisy and Slim exchanged a bewildered glance, “Fun?” Daisy asked, thinking that would be the last word she would have expected to hear from the sombre doctor’s lips.
“She called him Jess,” Slim said looking startled “she never calls him that.”
Daisy shrugged and returned to her baking whilst Slim strode off to the barn to investigate further and heard the unfamiliar sound of the pair laughing at a shared joke.
He stood on the threshold a look of irritation flitting across his handsome features for a moment before he marched in.
“I’ll take care of Betsy, you get on in and freshen up Doctor,” he said rather authoritatively, “take a nap maybe?”
“I’m quite alright Mr Sherman, really I am,” she said with her attractive smile.
Then she saw the look in his eyes and after flicking a glance across to Jess and back, said, “Maybe I should go in and put Mrs Cooper’s mind at rest, we were quite safe though, really there was no call to worry,” she added. Then glancing once more at Jess and giving him a tiny intimate smile, she left quickly.
Once she was out of earshot Slim turned on his buddy.
“Well so what really happened then, huh?”
Jess turned to face Slim from where he’d been rubbing down Traveller, “What do ya mean?”
“Come on Jess, stop playing the innocent, something’s happened between you two hasn’t it?”
Jess stared at his friend for a moment, his body suddenly tense and his eyes wary, “What are you talkin’ about Slim?”
“I don’t know, but I can make a pretty good guess. She comes back looking all bright eyed and bushy tailed and saying she’s had fun…and suddenly you’re on first name terms and chatting away like you’re old buddies, well something’s sure happened.”
Jess just shook his head and turned back to his horse, “You’re crazy you know that?”
“Jess I’m being serious, Doctor Macnab is a guest in my home and a colleague of Doc Sam and I am responsible for her well being and safety.”
Jess turned back again, now flushing up, “What? So you’re sayin’ she weren’t safe in my care?”
“I really don’t know,” said Slim coldly, “you tell me, did you take advantage of her, the odd kiss maybe huh?”
Jess suddenly pushed his way out of the stall and confronted his pard looking as mad as all get out. “How could you think that of me? I’d never do that.”
“Really, I saw the way you were when she was doing all that massage stuff. And you’ve been taking off on long rides all the while together; do you think I don’t know what you’re up to Jess?”
“I ain’t up to anything,” Jess yelled, “except workin’ my butt off to try and get myself fit again so I can pull my weight around here! That’s all I’ve been doin’ and you know it. You know how worried I’ve been, pushin’ myself real hard to get back to work again Slim.”
Then his eyes narrowed, “Oh I get it, so you’ve got the hots for her yourself huh? She said as how you’d asked her iffen she’d like to ride into town with you.”
Slim looked furious now, “The hell I have! I was just trying to be polite, figured she was working real hard and would like a break, change of scene. Anyway, I’m seeing Lily, if you remember?”
“Yes, and I’m promised to Millie, if you remember!” Jess bellowed, “There is no way I’d cheat on her ever, and you dang well know that.”
Slim looked into his pard’ s hurt eyes and half believed him. But goddamn it she sure was an attractive woman and they’d been alone together at the romantic lakeside all night. Well what man wouldn’t be slightly tempted he thought?
“OK, so what has been going on then, because I know something’s changed between you two.”
Jess hung his head then and finally said quietly, “It’s kinda private Slim, I can’t tell you, so I guess you’ll just have to trust me on this one,” and he turned and re-entered the stall and continued to tend to his mount.
After a few minutes Slim sighed deeply and turning on his heel left the barn.
When supper was over and they were all sitting around the table with their coffee later that evening, Slim said, “Oh yeah, I forgot Mose brought a letter for you this morning.”
Jess’s head shot up and he looked delighted, “Is it from Millie?”
“Yup your intended,” Slim said emphatically and glanced over to Doc Alex, but although she raised an eyebrow in surprise she didn’t seem upset in anyway.
“On my desk,” Slim said flicking his gaze over to Jess, but he too seemed nothing but excited, with no sign of awkwardness.
Maybe I am over reacting Slim thought and yes, Jess hadn’t been mistaken when he had suggested Slim was attracted to the Doctor. Sure, he loved Lily with all his heart, but the Doc was kind of special he reflected and blushed a little feeling pretty bad at the way he’d treated his pard. Maybe a little part of him had been jealous.
He looked up now to where Jess had ripped open the envelope and was reading the contents avidly with a soppy grin on his face as Daisy asked him a question.
“I said is she coming home soon dear?” Daisy asked patiently.
“Uh-huh, in a couple of weeks,” he said the joy in his eyes obvious for all to see. Then he excused himself to go and sit out on the porch to read the long love letter in peace.
“That’s his girl, Millie,” Slim said again, to be sure there was no mistake, “she’s been away a while, her brother’s wife has just had another baby and she’s been staying to help out.”
Doc Alex made a vague comment, but didn’t seem unduly moved Slim noticed, and the subject changed to her travel arrangements for her journey back to Colorado at the end of the week.
“You really think he is cured now,” Daisy asked, looking a little troubled, knowing that Jess still wasn’t quite himself yet.
The doctor smiled at the older woman. “I’m guessing he is not quite back to his usual energetic self? But he is really improved and should be back to his full vigor in a month or so. He can be signed off to do light ranch work and if Doctor Baker agrees he should be well enough to resume mustanging by next spring. Subject to an examination by the doctor of course, Er, I’m not speaking out of turn by the way, Je…. Mr Harper has given me full permission to share his health with you both,” she finished.
“Of course,” said Slim dryly, “we know how professional you are doctor.”
She merely gave him a cool smile and then at Daisy’s invitation took her coffee to the fireside.
All three chatted politely for half an hour or so and then the doctor excused herself, saying she needed to work on her case study over in the bunkhouse and wished them a good night.
Daisy washed up the dishes and then declared she too was going for an early night as she had a new romantic novel she was dying to start in the privacy of her room.
Slim wandered over to his desk thinking he’d work on the ranch accounts, but he couldn’t settle and he wondered what Jess was up to. He was still out on the porch and so Slim decided to go and hear Millie’s latest news. However, as he moved towards the door which was slightly ajar, he heard the sound of muffled voices. Peering out he was just able to make out Jess and the Doctor sitting in the twilight, their heads close together deep in conversation. They were talking so softly that he was unable to make out the words, but the tone sounded decidedly intimate to his ears. Then he saw Jess lean closer and Alex take his hand and he quickly moved back away from the door, not wanting to be seen spying on them.
Goddamn it, what’s he playing at Slim thought as he moved away. His buddy had lied to him. But what was even worse he was doubtless going to lie to dear Millie too and the thought made him gasp with shock. He made his way quietly to their shared room and mechanically prepared for bed, his mind in turmoil, what in hell was going on?
Meanwhile outside on the porch the doctor had been hearing all about Millie’s visit with her brother and baby nephews and had laughed along with Jess at their mischievousness. How she missed the rough and tumble of playing with her boy she thought sadly. But then for the very first time since the tragedy she thought maybe, just maybe, at some time in the distant future she would again have that sort of happiness. After all Jess had found love again and on impulse she grabbed hold of his hand and looking deeply into his eyes, said softly, “I can’t thank you enough Jess.”
He looked a little perplexed, “What for... just listening? I reckon I ain’t done much Alex.”
“Oh, but you have you’ve given me something that is precious,” she said softly, “hope.”
Eventually she leaned over and kissed him gently on the cheek before getting up. “I must turn in, I’m suddenly so sleepy,” she said with a huge yawn, “goodnight Jess.”
“Night,” he said with a smile, pleased to see her so relaxed.
Then she turned back, “Oh and Jess I think maybe tomorrow I should be a little more circumspect.”
“You know, discreet, back to the old professional distance, I’ve a feeling Slim thinks that maybe we have become close?”
He nodded, “Yup you could be right.”
“Uh, well like I said before I daren’ t risk any gossip…you do understand? I really can’t let anything disrupt me publishing my research; it means so much to me Jess.”
“Sure, I know that,” he said softly.
She nodded, “Thank you and … Jess?”
“He’d be right, we have haven’t we…become really close?”
He nodded, “Friends?”
She smiled widely, “Friends,” and turning wandered off to the bunkhouse.
Jess smiled after her…and then a few moments later dug the letter out of his pocket and started reading it again for the tenth time, the soppy smile once more on his lips.
It was half an hour or so later when he made his way into the dimly lit bedroom. Slim had left the night light burning for him and he undressed quickly, had a cursory wash and made for his bed.
However, he stopped in his tracks when Slim leaned over and turned up the night light, peering at him angrily.
“Sorry Slim, did I wake ya?” he said looking surprised at the fury on his buddy’s usually placid countenance.
“No you didn’t wake me I can’t sleep thanks to you.”
“Huh, so what have I done …now?” Jess said in a resigned voice, slumping down to sit on the edge of his bed.
“Oh come on Jess you know dang well what I’m talking about… what’s happening between you and the Doc, is it serious?”
Now it was Jess’s turn to flush up looking furious, “I told ya you’re talkin’ crazy Slim there ain’t nuthin’ between me and Al… the Doctor,” he said quickly, stumbling over his words.
Slim rolled his eyes and then went in for the kill, “What are you going to tell Millie about your relationship with the doc then, huh?”
“Nuthin’,” Jess spat, “because there ain’t nuthin’ to tell and you just leave my girl out of this Slim, or you’ll be sorry.”
“Well I figure she’s got a right to know if her intended is playing around,” Slim said equally harshly.
Jess had just about reached the jumping off place now and he was across the space between the two beds in the blink of an eye and hauled Slim up off his pillows dragging him by his undershirt. Looking like he might well land a punch, but then thinking better of it he flung him down again hard…
“Just leave it Slim, I’m warnin’ you,” he growled before returning to his own bed, dimming the lamp and throwing himself down. But sleep alluded both men for several hours as the problem went around and around in their minds.
Slim unable to believe Jess was capable of deceiving Millie this way but also unable to deny the evidence of his own eyes. Whilst Jess was worrying that he couldn’t break a promise to Alex. But there again he couldn’t stand by and see his girl hurt and humiliated…he just had to make Slim see reason.
Breakfast the following morning was rather a strained affair with Jess and Slim conspicuously not speaking. Daisy feeling rather perplexed and Doc Alex picked up on the bad vibes and went into ‘professional distance mode’ as Jess thought of it now. The only one with anything to say for himself was Mike, who was full of the spelling bee to be held later at school.
“I bet you’re real good at spelling ain’t you Ma’am…er Doctor?” He said addressing Alex and trying to cut through the rather cool, detached quality that always surrounded her.
To his surprise she looked across at him and said, “You know what Mike, I never was too good at spelling when I was your age, I’d rather have been off catching frogs,” she replied honestly with a genuine warm smile.
The boy looked amazed and then laughed, “Really?”
“Yes really,” she replied smiling into his wide innocent eyes.
“Come on Mike shake a leg,” Slim said breaking into the light banter, “go get your books, Mose will be here soon.”
The boy ran off to do as he was bid and Daisy went into the kitchen to start on the dishes.
Slim pushed his chair back and stood frowning down at Jess, “You coming, the Stage horses won’t change by themselves,” he said gruffly, ignoring the doc.
Jess’s head shot up and he looked like he was going to argue, but bit the words back, “Sure in a minute,” he said gesturing to his unfinished coffee.
Slim flicked a quick glance over to Alex and back to Jess and then turning on his heel marched out slamming the door behind him.
“We need to talk,” Alex whispered her eyes following Slim’ s uncompromising back and flinching slightly as the door slammed.
Jess glanced back towards the kitchen, noted Daisy was outside the backdoor feeding the chickens and turned back to Alex and nodded, “Yup we do.”
“You and Slim have had words haven’t you…over me?”
He nodded again, “He’s gotten this crazy notion that there’s something going on between us,” he said quietly.
“I thought as much and who can blame him? I feel so much more like my old self right now, I must look kind of starry eyed and giddy,” she said with an uncharacteristic giggle.
“You’re just feeling relieved, gettin’ all that stuff off of yer chest yesterday. You feel like the burden’s kinda lessened some huh?” he replied.
“That’s exactly it. Look Jess I don’t want to cause any upset between you and Slim. But I really can’t face talking about it, explaining everything about my loss…not just yet. And you know what they say, ‘least said soonest mended,’” she quoted. “So, I think I’ll leave a few days earlier than I’d planned.”
“OK, if that’s what you want?”
“It’s what I think is the right thing to do,” she clarified. “I’ll stay over with Doctor Baker for a couple of days, he did ask me to just the other week, to discuss my work and so on. But Jess…”
“I’ll never forget how you’ve helped me,” she whispered, her hand reaching out to touch his.
Just at that moment Daisy bustled back in, “Really where is that boy?” She said looking exasperated, “Mose is in the yard waiting.”
Alex withdrew her hand quickly and jumping up said, “Goodness is that the time already, I must get to work on my notes, if you’ll excuse me, Mr Harper,” and she marched off without a backward glance.
Jess just nodded looking slightly bemused and glancing up at Daisy saw the shocked expression in her eyes. He realized she’d seen Alex reaching out to him and the look of affection in the doc’s eyes too and he just knew Daisy was jumping to all the wrong conclusions as well, just like Slim.
Lurching up from his chair he made for the door and dashed out to help change the Stage team, Mike in swift pursuit, but he knew he couldn’t escape Daisy’s questions forever.
It was after supper that evening when the Doctor made it known that she would be leaving shortly. She explained that she had decided to take Doc Baker up on his kind offer for her to visit with him for a few days before her return to Colorado. Especially now that her patient’s recovery was almost complete, she added, casting Jess a business-like smile.
Then she turned to Daisy and said kindly, “Thank you so much for making me welcome here and looking after me so well Mrs Cooper.”
Daisy inclined her head in a regal response and said the doctor was more than welcome.
Then she turned to Jess and said innocently, “I wonder if you could spare the time to accompany me into town tomorrow Mr Harper, I would very much like Doctor Baker to examine you and confirm my findings on your recovery.”
Then turning to Slim with a warm smile, “That’s if you can spare him Mr Sherman?”
Slim looked somewhat flustered but agreed that indeed he would be able to manage without Jess for a morning. Before excusing himself, saying he had paper work to attend to and striding over to his desk immersed himself in his accounts for the rest of the evening.
Taking this as a cue that he wanted some peace and quiet, both ladies retired early. Then after Jess had helped Mike with his homework and put him to bed, he poured himself a coffee and took a seat by the fireplace.
After Slim had ignored him for a good ten minutes Jess sighed lustily and said, “You want a coffee Slim?”
The blond rancher looked up from his desk and stared at Jess like he hardly knew him, before merely shaking his head and going back to his figures.
After another few minutes Jess could stand it no longer, “Dad-gum it Slim will you stop sulking and come and talk to me.”
Slim finally capitulated and throwing his pen down went and joined Jess by the fire.
“I don’t think we’ve got anything to say have we?” he asked icily.
“Sure we have…look Slim I explained, yes me and the Doc have gotten pretty close, but it ain’t the way you think. I was just helpin’ her out with somethin’. Somethin’ real private, that she don’t wanna discuss right now. But that’s all it is OK? I’ll deliver her to the doc’s house tomorrow and that’ll be the last we see of her….
Slim racked his brains to think what sort of thing a smart woman like the doctor would need Jess’s help with, but as it looked like he wasn’t about to find out anytime soon, he decided to give in gracefully.
“Uh, well OK, but I still don’t know what you were helping her with that needed you to hold her dang hand,” was his last bitter comeback.
Jess’s head shot up, “When did you see that?” he asked, angrily.
Slim looked away feeling wrong footed, “I happened to look out on the porch…saw you were together that way and came straight back in, I didn’t want to er… disturb you,” he said, once more up on the moral high ground.
If Slim had been spying on them, well there was nothing he could do about it now, so he just let it go, “She was upset about somethin’ OK Slim, now can we just forget it huh?”
Slim sighed and shook his head, before throwing his buddy the ghost of a smile, “If it wasn’t for your dang reputation with the ladies you wouldn’t have folk jumping to the wrong conclusions,” he muttered.
“Yeah, well I’ve got Millie now ain’t I and I’m a reformed character,” he said, blue eyes twinkling roguishly.

Chapter Seven
Hey baby, there ain't no easy way out
Hey, I won't back down

The following morning after breakfast Doctor Alex made her farewells to Daisy, Slim and Mike and Jess drove her off to town in the light buggy Daisy usually used, it being a more comfortable ride than the buckboard.
On their way they passed the south shore of the lake and Alex asked Jess to pull in so that she could take one last look.
He helped her down and she walked over to the edge breathing in the fresh early fall air and relishing the view of the sun sparkling on the lake surface.
Turning to remark upon the scene to Jess she noted that he looked a little distracted, looking around him and back the way they had just driven.
“What is it?” She asked softly.
He shrugged, “I dunno, I got the feeling we were being followed, sorta felt we were being watched, you know?”
She too glanced around looking slightly anxious, “Trouble?”
He looked down at her smiling, “Nope I guess not,” and nodding to a huge fallen tree he suggested they sit for a while.
Could Slim have followed them, be spying on him he wondered and then dismissed the thought from his mind as ridiculous and gave the Doc his full attention.
They sat on the log next to each other looking across the lake to the snow-capped mountains in the distance and after a minute Alex said shyly, “Do you mind if I ask you something…about Millie?”
He threw her a quizzical look, “No, why should I?”
“Well it’s all rather personal, but you see there is nobody else I can ask about this and I guess we won’t be meeting again, so I have to well…take my chance while I can,” she said looking earnest.
“Go ahead, it’s OK,” he said kindly.
“It’s just that, you said how much you loved Maria, nearly died from grief… so how is it possible to love again…after Curt I just don’t think I ever could.”
Jess looked off to the distance and considered the question, “It’s hard, real hard and I guess you figure you’d be forsaking him huh?”
She just nodded, her eyes welling up with unshed tears.
He shook his head, “But dontcha think he’d want you to be happy…to try and live your life as well as you possibly can…for him? He sure wouldn’t want to think of you bein’ sad or lonely would he…or your boy either...he’d want his Ma to be happy don’t you think Alex?”
That’s when the tears brimmed over and spilled down her cheeks as she accepted the truth of it.
Jess said nothing but put a comforting arm around her shoulders and the couple sat looking out to the distant horizon, until she was once more composed.
She eventually took a deep breath and then looking up gave him a watery smile, “So how did you two meet?” she asked.
“Me an’ Millie met in school, known her most of my life, loved her since I was just a little kid too, I guess,” he said softly.
“So why…well why didn’t you get together sooner?”
He shrugged, “Just the way our lives panned out I suppose, we were best friends until I was maybe fourteen, then something changed. We were still real good friends but we wanted, well more you know?” he said flushing a little and looking off to the hills again. Before he continued, “But Millie was worried, that iffen we went out, dated and things didn’t work out we’d lose that special friendship.”
Alex nodded, “It happens I guess.”
“Yeah, so we stayed friends, hooked up over the years and I dated other girls…a lot of girls,” he said with a chuckle, “until Maria.”
He sighed deeply and then looking down at Alex said softly, “She had me from the first look…I was a lost man, no way out ya know? I was hers from the moment our eyes meet across the saloon. Then he gave a bark of laughter, “Gee listen to me I sound like one of Daisy’s dime novels.”
“No, it’s lovely,” she said impulsively, “it takes a really confidant man to be able to articulate those kinds of things you know.”
“It does?” Jess asked squinting down at her and looking slightly bemused.
She just nodded, “And after Maria…passed, what then?”
“I guess Slim made me see sense, I had to get back out there and yup I saw some girls,” he looked off into the middle distance remembering…and then pulled himself together, “But it was Millie that I really wanted, it just took me a while to see what everyone else knew, we were meant for each other.”
She looked down, still trying to figure it all Jess thought.
“See it’s this way,” he frowned trying to make her understand. “I loved Maria and I guess I always will, she’ll always have a place right here,” he said tapping his heart. “But with Millie it’s different, we’ve gotten history, we have always been there for each other. It feels like it’s the way it’s meant to be. There ain’t no reasoning to it Alex. It’s just …well all I know is I sure couldn’t live without Millie in my life and she feels the same about me, simple as that.”
Alex reached out and took his hand in hers, “I’m so, so happy for you,” she whispered. “You’re a very special man, do you know that?”
He shrugged looking embarrassed.
“Come on Doc, Sam will be wonderin’ what’s happened to us,” he said, jumping up and giving her a hand up, to cover his awkwardness.
She just smiled and took his hand loving the way the rough, tough cowboy could also be so bashful. And yes, also so articulate about loving, losing and surviving it all. Yes, he was a true inspiration she thought.
A couple of hours later Jess marched into Mort Corey’s office and grinned at his old friend.
Mort who had been in conversation with his deputy Lon, turned to see who had entered and his face lit up.
“Why look who it is,” he said to Lon, “Jess Harper all fixed up an’ lookin’ good as new.”
Then he reached across and shook Jess’s hand, “So you’re all better then buddy?”
Jess nodded in confirmation. “Yup just dropped Doctor Macnab off at Sam’s place and they’ve both given me a clean bill of health,” he said looking immensely relieved.
“Well that’s swell,” said Lon, “but hey that’s a bit formal for you ain’t it Jess, thought you’d be callin’ her Alexandra by now,” he chuckled.
To his surprise Jess frowned and said quietly, “Show some respect huh Lon, the woman’s a professional lady you know.”
At this Mort tipped his hat back and grinned openly at Jess. “Well from what I hear from Slim she’s been giving you all these ‘professional massages’ seems like you fell on your feet there Jess boy and she’s a real cracker too.”
Jess turned on him then, looking really angry, “Don’t talk about her that way Mort, it ain’t right. She’s a real good doctor just the same as Doc Sam and deserves to be treated proper.”
“Oh come on Jess you can’t deny she’s a mighty good lookin’ woman,” Lon persisted, “don’t tell me you weren’t tempted, just a little?”
Jess flushed up angrily, “No I weren’t. I’ve told ya Lon our relationship is strictly business and iffen I find you’ve been tellin’ anyone anything different you’ll be dang sorry…understand!”
Mort detecting some underlying issues here decided to defuse the situation before it escalated any further.
“Uh, I reckon it’s about time you went over to Molly’s and fetched the prisoner’s dinner over,” Mort said to Lon, giving him a sharp look.
Lon started to argue it was a tad early, but then seeing the look in his boss’s eyes backed down.
“Sorry Jess, I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said as he turned to go.
Jess just nodded, but said nothing.
Once the door had closed behind Lon, Mort turned to his old friend.
“So what was all that about Jess, Lon and me were just pulling your leg you know?”
Jess slumped down on the chair in front of the desk and tipped his Stetson back, “Yeah I know. It’s just a kinda tricky subject Mort. See the doc has to be seen to be… well, real professional, bein’ a woman in a man’s world of doctorin’. She reckons any sorta talk like that could be real bad for her work iffen any kind of scandal got out,” he finished vaguely, not really understanding the implications fully himself. Just that he’d made a promise to the doc and he aimed to keep it.
Mort nodded sagely, “Well I guess I can kind of understand that. It can’t be easy for a woman in a man’s world like you say. I figure she probably has to try a dang sight harder to succeed and can’t risk anything getting in her way huh?”
Jess nodded, “That’s about the size of it, Mort… and thanks for understanding.”
“That’s OK Jess and it looks like she’s done a real good job on you anyways. Jeez, when I think how you were,” and he shook his head sadly. “None of us thought you’d make it you know son… and look at you know as chipper as a dog with two tails and gotten your ornery streak back too,” he laughed. “Yup you’re sure all fit and healthy again.”
Then he sobered, “I guess that’s good news because you’re going to have to be up to speed Jess.”
“Huh, why what’s happened?” Jess asked looking puzzled and then his face cleared. “Hey do you want me to deputise for you Mort? I sure hope not. Havin’ been sick for so long I really need to be on the ranch pulling my weight again you know. I figure Slim really needs me on side.”
“No, it’s not that Jess,” and he sighed deeply, “you’re really not going to like this.”
“Go on, try me,” Jess said with his cheerful grin, thinking he was so dang glad to be alive and well it would take a lot to upset him…but five minutes later that was all to change.
“Dang it Mort what are you sayin’ that low life Jack Lewis escaped from jail…how in Hell did that happen!”
“Outsmarted a green young deputy over in Denver, left in charge whilst the Sheriff was having his supper,” Mort said honestly. “Anyway, that isn’t what’s important, I’m darned well worried about you Jess, the word on the street is that he’s headed this way and is gunning for you, want’s his revenge.”
Jess cast his mind back the horrendous events of the bank robbery all those weeks ago when he had sustained injuries that were to have such a profound effect of his life for the ensuing weeks.
“Dad gum it Mort, iffen anyone deserves some revenge it’s me and I guess I was happy enough to see him banged up in jail for the next few years. It was just a dang shame he was only injured and not shot dead after what he did to me,” he finished bitterly.
“Well that’s not the way he sees it Jess, he figures you killed his brothers and he’s determined to kill you, looks like he’s got some help in town too. Remember Frank and Jed Black?”
“All too clearly,” Jess said bitterly, and the way they had been fired from employ at the ranch after attempting to rustle Sherman cattle he remembered. Nothing could be proved, but at Mort’s suggestion the two men had left town shortly afterwards.
“Well they turned up back in town a few weeks ago and according to Tom have been asking all sorts of questions about you in the saloon. They wanted to know how you’re recovering, about the new doc …everything. I believe they’re working for Jack Lewis, but I can’t prove anything yet. It’s a waiting game Jess, we’ve just gotta sit it out and see if Jack turns up here.”
“Oh great,” said Jess sarcastically,” and in the meantime I’ve to spend all my time lookin’ over my shoulder.” Then he stopped, remembering that strange feeling that he’d been watched that morning.
“What is it Jess?”
“Nuthin; just one of my feelings you know,” he said with a dismissive shrug, “What do you want me to do then Mort?”
“Nothing you can do, just leave it to me and Lon to sort out, but my advice is to stay put at the ranch until we know one way or the other huh?”
Jess nodded and then remembered something, “OK I will for now, but Millie’s due back end of the month and I sure ain’t stayin’ out of town then,” he said stoutly.
Mort sighed, but rallied quickly, “Well that’s not for another couple of weeks, should be all over and dealt with by then Jess,” he said with a confidence that he wasn’t really feeling.
Jess’s next port of call was the saloon.
It was late morning now and he decided he’d just have a quick beer before heading home. The atmosphere between himself and Slim was still rather strained and he didn’t want to make things worse by arriving home late.
Tom came over as soon as Jess entered and shook him warmly by the hand. “It’s good to see you Jess and looking so well too, thank goodness.”
Jess grinned back, “Thanks Tom,” he said feeling quite touched by his friend’s obvious concern.
“Yup I don’t know what I’d have told Millie iffen you hadn’t made it,” he said honestly.
Jess laughed, “Well no need to worry on that account and you know I didn’t want her to know I was sick Tom. She’d only have high-tailed it back here and missed all the fun of a new nephew.”
“I suppose you’ve got a point,” Tom agreed as he pulled Jess a foaming beer and pushed it over, “on the house and glad your back,” he said happily.
Jess sipped it appreciatively as Tom stood nearby polishing glasses and after a moment he turned to the old barkeep and said, “What’s all this about the Black brothers askin’ about me huh?”
Tom looked thoughtful and then said, “Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that. I thought it kinda odd so I mentioned it to Mort. They were sayin’ how they’d heard you’d been shot up some and weren’t gonna make it. Well I wasn’t havin’ them spreading that kinda gossip, so I told ‘em, straight as to how Doc Sam had got this real top lady Doc to fix you up real good.”
“You did huh?”
“Uh-huh and then they wanted to know all about it, how long she was stayin’ and if you’d be fit to work again that kinda thing. Well I’ll tell ya Jess I’m not one to gossip. But I have to say I did hear them talkin’ to Mose later that evening and he was holdin’ forth the way he does, ya know?”
“Yeah, I know alright Tom, so I guess they know I’m better then?”
“Yup were in a couple of days ago and mentioned it, then Mort came in and had a quiet word with ‘em and they haven’t been in since. I figure they’ve high-tailed it off back to Cheyenne, been workin’ there they said, until the rancher upped and died.”
“Ha, upped and fired them more like,” Jess said draining his beer glass.
“Another?” Tom asked.
“Nah, I’d better be heading’ home, Slim’ s getting’ kinda sick of doin’ all the work around the place,” he said with a mock sigh, “I’d better git back, show him how it’s done, see you Tom.”
“So long Jess, take it easy huh?”
Jess left raising a hand in farewell and five minutes later he was heading for home.
As he pushed Traveller into a brisk trot he cast his mind back to his final goodbye to Doctor Macnab, said in front of doc Sam and she was utterly professional as ever, saying he’d been a good patient and wishing him luck as he continued in his final recovery.
Then as Jess had turned to go, she had whispered, “Thank you for everything Jess,” and they had exchanged a charged look of deep understanding.
Sam saw this and was surprised, but said nothing and merely waved his good friend off telling him not to overdo things.
Now Jess thought about Alex’s solitary life and hoped that one day she would be able to move on and live a more fulfilled existence. “But I sure hope she don’t give up the doctorin’ because she’s dang good at it,” he said softly to Traveller, patting his good old horse’s neck and heading for home.
That had been on the Wednesday and on the Thursday Jess’s whole life was to be shaken up and his faith in himself and his abilities tried to the full.

Chapter Eight

Hey I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down…

Slim and Jess had spent a busy day checking all the fences on the low-lying pastures ready to bring the herd down for the winter the following month. It was now late September and Slim had predicted an early winter.
“How do you know?” Jess persisted as the two sat on the corral fence waiting on the overdue afternoon Stage.
Slim just looked off to the distant hills, “I don’t know,” he said honestly, “but Pa always knew too. Kind of a gut feeling I guess.” Then grinning at his buddy said, “You should know all about those Jess.”
Jess had filled him in on everything Mort had told him the previous day and both men were on the alert for any signs of trouble or strangers hanging around.
“Do you really think you were followed when you took the Doc to town?” Slim asked now.
But before Jess could answer the Stage swept down the rise and into the yard with a flourish, Mose bringing the sweating heaving horses to a head nodding, stomping standstill.
“Hey Mose where’s the fire,” asked Jess looking annoyed, “ain’t no call to go runnin’ the animals into the ground is there?”
Mose tipped his hat back and producing a huge red handkerchief wiped his forehead before answering.
“I was runnin’ late,” he said equally brusquely, “‘twas the youngsters were late out of school and then that no good saddle bum Jed Black held young Mike back talking to him and frettin’ about somethin’.”
“Huh what Jed Black you say?” Jess asked looking anxious.
By this time Mike had jumped down from the coach and was beside Jess, “It’s true Jess he was real mean too, said iffen I didn’t give you this note he’d make sure I got in big trouble said it was real important.”
Jess knelt down by the boy, Slim slipping a comforting arm around the child’s shoulders.
“He didn’t hurt you did he Tiger?” Jess asked gently.
“No…well some, he grabbed hold of my arm real tight, that kinda hurt a bit, but I’m OK really,” he said stoically.
Then he thrust an envelope at Jess, “He said you were to read this right away.”
Up on the box Mose was undecided as to what he should do. Part of him was intrigued and desperate to hear this latest piece of potential gossip material. Whilst the other half knew he should be away as he was running real late and he needed to get back to town.
In the end his conscience won out and he slapped the lines and the team reluctantly set off again. “I’ll change teams back in town,” he called after him, but by then they were all too engrossed in the letter to reply.
Jess had ripped it open, reading the contents quickly, his expression changing from interest to shock and then fury as he pushed the missal into Slim’s hands and made for where Traveller was tethered to the corral fence.
“Hey where are you going in such an all fired hurry?” Slim yelled after him.
“Town, just read the damn thing Slim,” then he vaulted up into the saddle in one smooth effortless movement before spurring his mount off at speed.
Slim took a split second to revel in the pure magic that was Jess Harper on horseback, as he mounted with ease and sat in the saddle like he’d been born there. Before returning to the badly written note and then all became clear.
Harper git your butt to town pronto if you want the Lady Doc to live and tell Cory not to get involved or she’s really dead. Hogarth Hill at sunrise, just you alone or you’ll live to regret it. It’s all down to you Harper. We need to finish it once and for all.
“What is it Slim was he a bad man and where’s Jess goin’?” Mike asked looking close to tears. Slim really wanted to just cut and run following his pard, but he knew he had responsibilities at the ranch. He must explain to Daisy and then ride over to the Jackson spread to get the boys to stay over until he could make it back, just in case the letter didn’t contain empty threats.
“It’s OK Mike, don’t fret, come on in I need to talk to Aunt Daisy,” and the two made their way into the ranch, Slim with a heavy heart.
Meanwhile Jess was riding along the Laramie road at breakneck speed, all he could think of was getting even with that low life Jack Lewis. The note hadn’t been signed, but sure as God made little green apples that was who it was from Jess figured.
Sometime later he threw himself out of the saddle outside the doc’s office and marching across the sidewalk hammered on the door.
A few minutes later a breathless Mrs Braddock came running, “Goodness me whatever is it? She gasped and then seeing Jess her anxious face relaxed into a welcoming smile, “Why it’s you Mr Harper, what can I do for you dear?”
Jess ignoring polite formalities said, “Where is she Mrs B, please tell me she’s here?”
“Miss Carrie?” asked the elderly lady, “Why no my dear she’s off helping at a confinement with her Pa, I’m not expecting them back until later, is someone hurt?”
Jess looked past her down the corridor and then looked back to the elderly housekeeper, “No,” he said quickly, “not Carrie…Alex, er Doc Macnab, is she here?”
“Well no I’m afraid she’s gone out too. About an hour ago actually and I am expecting her back shortly.”
Jess heaved a sigh of relief, “Were did she go Ma’am the mercantile?” he asked hopefully.
“No dear, a young man came to the door very upset, said his brother had been kicked badly by his horse about a half mile out of town, too sick to ride and could the doc come and take a look, as I say she should have been back by now,” and she peered past him down the street, hoping to see the pretty lady doctor on her way home.
“Listen this is real important Mrs B do you know who it was that called by?”
“Of course dear yes, it was one of those young men that worked for you for a while. I’d know him anywhere he broke his arm badly last year and the doctor set it for him… Um, I’ve never heard language like it,” she confided, “he certainly was no gentleman.”
Jess took a deep breath and with uncharacteristic patience said, “So it was?”
“Why it was Frank Black dear, didn’t I say? Must have been Jed that was hurt and I….”
But Jess didn’t wait to hear anymore, thanking her he tore off across the street to Mort Cory’s office.
Mort’s head shot up as Jess barged in without ceremony and the Sheriff gave him a shrewd look, “I thought you were layin’ low for a while Jess, until all this business with Jack Lewis blows over?”
Jess sighed deeply, “I don’t think it’s gonna blow over Mort,” and he went on to explain the contents of the threatening note he’d received.
Sometime later the two men made their way briskly down to the livery and called out for old Bert.
“Have you seen anything of the Black boys, Jed and Frank this week?” Mort asked as the old timer wandered out from a stall at the back of the stable.
“Uh, let me see, yes…yes I have as it happens Sheriff they were by earlier on this morning, wanted to hire a horse. Well I thought it kinda strange seeing as they had two perfectly good mounts. But then that Frank said he was riding out with a lady friend asked for a nice easy ride, so I let ‘em have my Tilly she’s that gentle yer granny could ride her,” he said with an engaging grin.
“Fer God’s sake Bert,” Jess broke in, “do you know where they went and did you see the lady huh?”
The old man looked a bit miffed at Jess aggrieved tone, but rallied well, “No on both accounts Jess, sorry. They left the money before they took her that I did insist on and they said she’d be back in her stall, dinner time tomorrow if that helps you any?”
Jess just glowered, but Mort thanked him and asked him to inform the office at once should they return.
“What a goddamn mess,” Jess spat as they made their way back down the street and after leaving a message for Doc Sam to join them in Mort’s office on his return, the two made their way back there.
Once in the office Jess looked real worried, “I shouldn’t even be in here with you if it gets back to Lewis I ain’t doin’ what he wants God knows what’ll happen to Alex.”
“Uh, the doc… Doctor Macnab.”
“Oh, yes of course, Alexandra,” Mort confirmed throwing Jess a slightly quizzical glance, but saying no more.
“What time is it?” asked Jess.
“Near on five, why?”
Jess ignored the question, but straddled a chair laying his head down on his arms resting along the back and remained motionless for a good few minutes and then his head shot up.
“I’ve got it!” he cried.
“Hogarth Hill is that rise overlooking the old Benson place ain’t it, like a big peak, no cover, trees anything, just rock that right?”
“Yes and the perfect place for them to choose to meet you too. I reckon you can see for miles from up there, they’d sure know if you hadn’t kept your part of the bargain alright and you’d brought the law along.”
“Yeah, but it really ain’t a place you’d camp is it? Way too steep towards the top and even on the lower slopes no firewood, shelter? No grazing or water for the horses either. I guess it’d be the last place you’d choose to spend the night huh?”
“Well I reckon you’re right, but what are you saying Jess?”
“Just that iffen it was me I’d make camp over at the line shack on the boundary between the Benson place and our ranch, know the place? It’s only about a half mile from the Hill.”
Mort frowned, “I think I know it yeah, didn’t you hole up there one year just before Christmas when the Stage broke down in the snow? A young lady had her baby there?”
Jess shook his head in mock horror, “Don’t remind me, yup that’s the place”. See*#59 Last Stage out Before Christmas.
“Slim and me use it all the time when we’re workin’ over that side of the ranch. There’s a stable attached and we keep supplies and bedding there. What’s more Jed and Frank know all about the place. We caught them camping out there after we fired them,” Jess said flushing up in anger at the memory.
“So?” Mort asked looking puzzled.
“Well dontcha see, that would be the ideal place for them to wait it out.”
“You could be right but it’s a long shot,” said Mort.
“Yeah well it’s all we’ve got and I reckon there are a couple of hours of daylight left if it’s only five, so I aim to go take a looksee.”
“Not on your own you’re not.” Mort said firmly.
“Look Mort this is all my dang fault, it’s me Lewis is gunning for.”
“Yes, and it was me you were helping out when you got caught up in that Bank raid,” Mort said equally firmly.
Just moments later the door flew open and Slim, closely followed by Doc Sam, rushed in wanting to know what was happening.
The doctor turned ashen when he heard what had happened to his esteemed colleague.
“I don’t understand... why Alex? It doesn’t make sense she’s never met this Jack Lewis, or the other fellows,” the doc lamented.
“It seems that the Black brothers got wind of the fact that the doc had virtually brought Jess back from the brink,” Mort said, “and so I guess they figured she’s be a good lure to get him to play ball. Thinking he was indebted to her. I would imagine Lewis is after a shootout with Jess, certainly wants revenge anyway.”
“Doggone it Jess you can’t just go wading in there though,” said Slim, “what about the doc she could be hurt in the cross fire if you storm in all guns blazing, we have to think this through properly.”
“So you figure they may be holed up at the line-shack too then?” Jess asked.
“You mean that place near the Benson spread...yup that makes sense,” Slim agreed, having already figured that was the closest place to the hill.
“So here’s what we do,” said Mort taking charge. We go over and check the place out and if indeed they are in there, I figure we need to just sit tight and wait and see how it pans out. There may be a chance to get between them and the doc and get her out of the way in the morning as they ride out to the Hill.”
Slim was kind of surprised when Jess agreed to the plan without argument, but he said nothing as there was a flurry of preparation, the men collected supplies and extra weapons.
“Are you sure you want to come doc?” Mort asked as they prepared to leave.
Doc Sam nodded vigorously, “Oh yes I feel responsible for the young lady and anyway my services may be needed,” he said glancing over to where Jess was spinning the cylinder of his Colt, checking it thoroughly, his expression grim.
Once they were within half a mile of the cabin they dismounted and walked on, then in a small clearing in the cottonwoods stopped, Mort declaring it to be a good place to set up camp.
“Why don’t you tend the horses and get settled while Jess and I head over and check the place out?” Mort said, addressing Slim and the Doc.
Slim was about to object and then realized that Mort was thinking of the Doc’s safety and relented. Heck Sam was a good man but no shakes with a firearm and would need protecting as any civilian out on the Sheriff’s business would have been.
As Mort and Jess made their way stealthily towards the cabin in the woods, the Sheriff said, “Tell me about this Jack Lewis, you knew him back in Texas huh?”
“Oh I knew him alright.” Jess said darkly, the bastard and his brothers tried to drown me as a young ‘un just for befriending a half caste kid. Well I weren’t having that,” he said winking at the Sheriff. “It were Carl that was the one got it in for me and Billy, so I decked him and he backed down after that,” he said with the ghost of a smile. But then he sobered. “But lookin’ back on it now, it was Jack that was just as bad, maybe worse. See he was the oldest, should have known better and stopped Carl, but he just didn’t give a damn about us youngsters.”
“Well he really wants you dead Jess, are you sure you can handle him after you know…”
“What, bein’ paralyzed and all?” Jess said bitterly.
“Uh, well yes, I know you’ve had a lot of problems Jess and you told me you still weren’t back to yourself, so how about your draw huh?”
Jess shook his head, “I just don’t know Mort, until I try…but I don’t have no choice. I have to be sure this ends in a shoot-out just between me and Jack, that way Alex has a chance of gittin’ out alive.”
“She means a lot to you this woman,” Mort said but it wasn’t a question.
“Saved my life and my sanity I reckon,” Jess said succinctly. “She pushed me so dang hard, I almost hated her for it, but now…” and he shook his head. “Well I can see she needed to be that way to get me up and movin’ again,” he said thoughtfully.
Then turning to look his good friend in the eyes said firmly, “I ain’t gonna let anything happen to her Mort.”
By now they were on the edge of the dense woodland and Jess put out a hand to stop the Sheriff.
“Just over there,” he whispered peering through the twilight.
It was obvious at once that the cabin was occupied. The stable door stood open wide and Frank Black could clearly be seen grooming his horse. Working by the light from a lamp suspend from the beam above him.
There was also a light shining out from the cabin windows and smoke issuing forth from the chimney.
“Looks like we’ve got ‘em,” Jess said turning to grin at his friend.
Mort shook his head, “Even so we can’t just barge in, not with Doctor Macnab in there. They’re bound to open fire and then she could get caught up in it like we said.”
“What if I just wander over and make myself known to Frank there, while he’s in the stable, let him take me. It’ll be easier if we have the shoot out here tomorrow at least you’ll be around to pick up the pieces that way, as long as you keep well-hidden tonight huh?”
Mort looked unconvinced.
“Look Mort, at least I’ll be in there, may be able to get her out…keep an eye on her anyway,” he said bleakly.
“What you mean they might hurt her tonight…or worse?” Mort asked, turning pale at the idea.
“The thought had crossed my mind yeah,” Jess said quietly. “Especially if Jack’s had a drink or two, he’s gotten a reputation with women Mort. Knocks ‘em about when they don’t oblige too.”
It was while Mort was digesting this unpleasant piece of information that Jess made his move.
He stood up and whispered, “Wish me luck Mort.”
“No damn it Jess you can’t,” Mort, called in a harsh whisper, but he was too late Jess had already broken cover and turning back he gestured for Mort to vamoose.
Mort knew he had no choice unless he wanted to be captured too and so feeling mighty uncomfortable, he turned and headed back to the others in the camp.
Jess walked towards the lit barn and as he’d expected Frank had his gun out and trained on him as soon as he got within several yards of the old place.
“Hold it right there,” Frank barked, his eyes narrowing to try and see who was in the dim light outside the cabin. Then gesturing with his gun, he told Jess to advance and throw his weapon down, a look of utter surprise on his thin weasely face when he saw who it was.
Jess did as he was asked albeit reluctantly and gave Frank a dark look.
“You ain’t supposed to be here yet Harper,” he said glaring at the other, and kicking the gun away into the bushes, “Jack won’t like it.”
“Well that’s too bad,” Jess growled sarcastically, “I’m not any too happy myself as it happens, so where is the lowlife excuse for a human bein’ then, huh?”
Frank looked rather wrong footed by Jess’s verbal onslaught but just gestured again for him to enter the building and Jess mooched across into the stable.
The cabin was of an unusual layout in that the living quarters and stable were all one, an archway dividing the two spaces. So Jess wasted no time in walking into the large main room and was met by three pairs of surprised eyes, Doc Alex, Jed Black and of course Jack Lewis was there just as Jess knew he would be.
He stopped in his tracks when he saw Doc Alex lashed to a chair, the rope painfully sight around her chest and waist.
Jess’s eyes flashed in anger, “What the hell do ya think yer playin’ at Jack, cut her loose,” he yelled. Noting her flushed cheeks and disheveled hair.
Lewis who had been lounging on the saggy old couch in front of the fire leapt up, cussing angrily, “What are you doin’ here,” he spat, “it was tomorrow, I said for us to meet up.”

“Yeah, well I’m here ain’t I so what are you gripin’ about?” Jess returned equally acerbically. “Now dang well do as I say and let her go!”
“I reckon you ain’t in any position to be laying down the law,” Lewis snarled, “I could gun you down right there where you stand.”
Jess nodded agreeing, “Except you won’t will ya Jack, because you want your vengeance dontcha? Wanna gun me down at dawn, all nice an’ clean an eye for an eye…huh? Shoot me down the way I did Carl and Denny?”
Jack turned puce with rage and looking away was silent for a good couple of minutes before turning back and gesturing for Frank to untie the Doc.
Jess immediately rushed to her side and put a comforting arm around her shoulders.
She threw him a grateful glance, massaging her painful arms, her eyes, huge with fear.
“He ain’t…you know hurt you any other way,” he whispered, his blue eyes brimming with concern.
“No, I’m alright really,” she whispered, “I’m just scared.”
Jack flipped from furious to genial as he so often did, leaving his friends and enemies alike in a quandary as to what he would do or say next.
“Hey, Jesse boy, what are you sayin’ I wouldn’t hurt a purty lady like the doc here,” he said, leering at her.
“The hell you wouldn’t,” Jess muttered, knowing full well Jack’s reputation, but decided not to push things.
“The lady needs some privacy,” Jess said quietly, there’s a cot in the end stall next door, I reckon she should bed down there for the night.”
He remembered vividly that Christmas not so long ago when the Stage went off the road leaving all the passengers afoot and a young female passenger had started her labour pains. Jess had taken them to the cabin and made a bed up for her in the stable so she would have some privacy from the other passengers. For some reason he and Slim had never gotten around to moving it and now it was the ideal place for the doc to retire to he figured.
“Well I dunno,” said Jack still seemingly genial, “I might want the little lady to spend the night with me,” he said throwing Jess and evil grin.
That was it as far as Jess was concerned and he just lashed out without a second thought, smashing his fist into Jack’s supercilious face and sending him sprawling. But Frank retaliated by thrusting his rifle barrel into Jess abdomen and he fell to his knees clutching his belly in agony.
Before he could recover Jack was up and standing over him, putting his boot in and kicking Jess repeatedly in the belly and chest laughing harshly as he writhed in pain.
Doc Alex sprang into action, pulling at Jack’s arm and shouting for him to stop, but he merely shrugged her off like an annoying fly, before continuing his assault on Jess.
Eventually he appeared to tire of the whole business and addressing Frank said, “Get ‘em out of my sight. May as well be in the stable like, he said, that way one of you can guard ‘em both more easily.”
So Jess was unceremoniously manhandled into the stable and thrown on the cot, and the doc followed him in, looking tearful and very afraid after the appalling violence, never having witnessed the like before.
She sat down on the edge of the cot, shaking from fear and cold, looking down as Jess lay on his side, his eyes tightly closed for a moment and his mouth a tight line of pain, his arms wrapped around himself.
However, after just a couple of minutes he opened his eyes and peered around him, before his gaze came to rest on the Doctor.
She put a gentle hand on his chest, her eyes now full of concern as she knew there was really nothing she could do to help him. But Jess’s focus was purely on her, not himself.
“It’s OK,” he whispered, “I’ll keep you safe I promise…this won’t happen again. I’ll look after you,” he said gently, taking her hand.
Her eyes were brimming with tears and she squeezed his hand, “I know you will,” she agreed, although she had her doubts, how could he, one unarmed man against these dangerous thugs.
He looked deeply into her eyes and saw her distress and uncertainty.
“Are you cold?” he whispered when he saw she was shaking and she nodded.
There was a threadbare blanket on the cot and Jess pulled it up and gestured for her to lie down beside him.
She hesitated for a second, and he said, “It’s OK, you trust me dontcha?”
She nodded, “Of course,” and finally did as he suggested and got in beside him.
Frank who still had his rifle trained on the couple from where he was slumped down, back against a straw bale, a good few feet away said nothing. Figuring sleeping prisoners would be a tad easier to guard.
Jess suggested she lie with her back to him and he spooned up to her and after a few minutes she stopped shaking as he warmed her up. They lay there for some time not speaking. Alex feeling his firm body against her, his arms embracing her and stirring long forgotten feelings. It seemed a lifetime ago that she had lain in her husband’s loving embrace this way and the memory brought tears to her eyes yet again. Then she thought of the here and now and how Jess had come to her, risking his life to save hers and felt overwhelmed.
After a moment she turned to face him so that she could see deeply into his concerned blue eyes.
“Better?” he whispered.
She nodded and then said quietly, “What will happen, you know tomorrow?”
He gently caressed her hair, putting an escaped tendril behind her ear, “Don’t worry about that it’ll be OK,” he whispered, after casting a glance over to Frank, to check he couldn’t hear them.
“Who is that man, he wants to kill you doesn’t he?” she asked, tipping her head towards the dividing wall where Lewis was now getting stuck into the Red Eye.
“It’s Jack Lewis, the guy that robbed the bank and shot me,” he said bitterly, “he’s after revenge fer me shootin’ his brothers.”
Alex gasped in shock, “He wants a… what do you call it…a shoot-out with you?”
Jess just nodded in confirmation.
“But that’s terrible, where’s the Sheriff, why can’t the law deal with it all?”
“They will, hopefully,” he said quietly, “the Sherriff’ s outside, back at the camp, along with Slim and the doc.”
“But why haven’t they attacked and arrested these men?” she asked looking dumbstruck.
“It was too dangerous, we figured you could get shot, so I decided to come in first and see you were alright…the others will be around tomorrow. Now listen up real good Alex, tomorrow when they wake us up, I want you to pretend to be sick, real sick OK?”
She looked surprised, “But why and what with, I’m just fine they’ll know I’m lying.”
“Because I need you to be here in this bed keepin’ safe, well away from the gun-play. You stay here nuthin’ can harm you see?”
She nodded, “I understand, but I can’t just suddenly be sick, they’ll smell a rat.”
Jess thought long and hard and then he flushed up, but knew he had to overcome his embarrassment if the idea was to succeed.
“We’ll tell ‘em you’ve got…woman’s problems,” he said quietly, unable to quite look her in the eyes.
“Uh… what do you mean?” she asked looking vague, and then she suddenly understood, “Oh I see yes, women’s problems,” she said trying to hide a smile at his awkwardness.
“So what does an unmarried young man like you know about that kind of thing?” She asked, with an innocent look, trying to control her inner mirth. Thinking as she did so that she must be on the verge of hysteria brought on by the dire situation they were in.
“Well I know enough that they’ll be so dang embarrassed that they won’t question it,” he said stoutly.
She gave him a genuine smile then, “You really are rather devious aren’t you,” she whispered, “thank goodness.”
He grinned back at her then, their gaze suddenly locking.
“You…you will be alright, if it comes to a shoot-out?” she whispered anxiously.
He cast his eyes down before looking back up, “I just don’t know,” he said honestly and then he pulled her to him unable to bear the pain and fear in her eyes anymore. “Try and sleep huh,” he whispered as he held her close.
She closed her eyes and eventually did drift off to sleep held securely and comfortingly in his warm embrace.
But it took Jess much longer to sleep, and as he held the beautiful woman in his arms all his thoughts were of his beloved Millie. Then as he relaxed his last thoughts were still of Millie, she would be home in a few days, would he be alive to see her he wondered?

Chapter Nine
No, I won’t back down…

The following morning everything went to plan with Alex putting on an Oscar winning performance of a woman in pain, holding her abdomen and groaning quietly.
Jess had already been escorted back to the cabin’s main room by Frank and Jack confronted him looking bleary eyed and bad tempered.
“Where’s the Doc, I want her out there watchin’,” he said gruffly.
Jess shook his head, “Well yer gonna be disappointed then Jack because she’s sick, doubt she’ll be gettin’ up anytime soon.”
“The hell she is,” Jack cussed, seeing his chances of showing off his prowess with his hand gun quickly fading. “How so, we’ve eaten the same stuff and she looked fine to me last night…just trying to keep her safe huh?” He said with a nasty smirk.
Jess just shrugged, “Have it yer own way. All I know is she said she’d got women’s problems and felt real sickly.”
“Huh, what you talkin’ about Harper women’s what?”
“You know,” Jess said cocking an eyebrow at him, “what women get at certain times...huh?”
“Oh,” he said light dawning as he flushed up looking away quickly, “well in that case I guess she’d better stay in her bed…”
“That’s what I said,” Jess agreed.
Jack was suffering one heck of a hangover and was in no mood for Jess, particularly looking so dang perky considering the working over he’d received the night before.
“Don’t get smart with me Jesse boy,” he drawled, “shouldn’t you be on your knees to your Maker, seein’ as how you’ll be meeting Him real soon…huh?”
Meanwhile back in the stable end of the shack Doc Alex was getting more and more furious. How dare this ill-mannered, drunken outlaw disrupt her life and more than that put her former patient’s life in jeopardy? When she thought of all she and Jess had been through to get him to physical fitness again after an almost intolerable struggle…All for him to be gunned down, well she could have screamed with frustration and dismay at the very idea.
Suddenly lurching up from the cot she seized the rifle that Frank had left leaning against the wall when he had taken Jess into the other room. Wielding it dangerously she made her way to the archway and taking a deep breath cried out, “Drop your guns, all of you!” Her voice was, though sounding somewhat timid even to her own ears.
The men all turned to look at her, grudging admiration in Frank’s eyes, amusement in Jed and Jack’s and shock turning to apprehension in Jess’s.
Jack was the first to react and smoothly drawing his gun said, “Oh I don’t think so little lady, huh boys?”
Acting on Jack’s lead both Jed and Frank drew their Colts too, all three staring menacingly at the Doctor, now feeling uncertain of her next move.
“Well go on then Doc, don’t let me stop you,” Jack, said sniggering, “you just go ahead and shoot me, all in your own time.”
Alex darted a look over to Jess and he was beside her in two strides, gently removing the gun from her grasp, “It ain’t no good,” he said softly, “I’m sorry.”
Then Frank barked with laughter, “You didn’t really think I’d leave a loaded rifle layin’ around did ya Ma’am?”
“I do believe the doc is feeling better,” Jack said throwing her a false smile, “how nice, she can join us outside and watch the fun.”
Then he levelled his gun at Jess, “Go on, git outside Harper, I reckon we may as well finish it now.”
Once they were all outside, Jack grabbed hold of Alex and put his gun to her temple…Jess made to attack but stopped in his tracks as Jack cocked the Colt. “I had me a nasty thought last night Jesse boy,” he said. “Yup a real nasty thought, I got to pondering if you’d brought help in with you…the Sheriff maybe?”
Jess remained poker faced and said nothing.
“Not talkin’ eh? OK well let me tell you Jesse, this little lady is our ticket out of here. See Frankie here is gonna hold his gun to her head and iffen you decide you don’t want a shoot-out today, well she’ll suffer…got it? And likewise, after it’s all over and you’re dead, she’ll see us safe out of here, the Sheriff or Sherman…any damn fool that’s stupid enough to get close will see her brains blowed out…you got that?”
“Loud and clear,” Jess said. “But I win and you let her go free yeah?”
“Sure Jesse boy, you have my word on that,” he said with a wolfish smile, “Seein’ as you don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell’s of beatin’ me,” he finished with a roar of laughter. Jess felt a shiver run down his spine, Goddamn it why hadn’t the doc just played along and stayed abed he thought bitterly.
But then all time for thinking was over.
Jack changed places with Frank and the weasely little man stood just in front of the cabin, a hank of Alex’s hair roughly gripped in his hand, dragging her in close, his gun to her temple.
Then Jack strode over to Jess and threw him his Colt, Jess grabbing it and spinning the chamber to check on his ammo, before holstering it.
Jack backed off a few yards, Jed flanking him.
Jess looked on and figured iffen he did indeed manage to outdraw Jack then Jed would fire on him too. He shook his head pondering on how dishonorable they were. Jed was just itching to get his revenge Jess knew all too well. Even if Jess was downed by Jack, then Jed Black would be more than willing to put another shot into a dying man Jess figured. Goddamn it what kind of morals did this scum possess?
It was all over in the blink of an eye.
Jack stood regarding Jess for a couple of minutes until the dark-haired cowboy lost his patience. “Fer God’s sake git on with it Jack, you want me dead you open on me…because I sure as hell ain’t drawin’ otherwise, I want no part of this, you know that.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Jack drew…and almost simultaneously so did Jess, except he was a tad faster and Jack fell like a stone a bullet through his heart…a look of total shock on his weathered features as he fell.
Then just as Jess had predicted a split second later he felt a bullet skim his left arm and diving and rolling he returned the fire, shooting Jed in the shoulder and he fell writhing in pain and yelling blue murder.
Jess scrabbled up in a moment and picked up Jed’s gun before turning away back to where Frank still stood. He had his gun to Alex’s head, his face a picture of horror as he looked down at the sprawled body of Jack Lewis and then up to where Jess was advancing upon him.
“Stay back,” he yelled, dragging Alex’s hair painfully so she gave a little cry of shock, “stay back damn you or I’ll blow her dang brains out,” he spat.
Jess froze, “I ain’t gonna do anything Frank, just let her go and you can ride out OK?”
Frank merely shook his head, increasing his hold on the doctor, his eyes flicking around him as if trying to think of a way out of his predicament.
Then out of the corner of his eye Jess saw Slim and Mort edging around the side of the cabin, behind Frank and knew he must distract the outlaw at all costs.
“Listen to me Frank,” he said moving a step closer, “Jed over there, he’s hurt, real bad…why don’t ya let the doc go huh, let her take a look at him?”
Frank flicked a glance over to where his brother now lay deathly still in the dirt, just groaning softly. Then he looked back to Jess and loosened his grip slightly on the doctor still looking undecided.
“He’s hurtin’ Frank and the doc here she’s good, real good, fixed me up didn’t she, why dontcha let her take a look, huh?”
All the time he was talking Mort and Slim were edging towards Frank and then everything happened at once.
Just as Mort thrust his rifle into Frank’s back, Jess lurched forwards snatching Alex from the outlaw’s tenuous grasp, with one hand and wrestling the Colt from him with the other.
Then Mort yelled for his prisoner to hit the deck and seconds later Frank Black was sprawled face first in the dirt having his wrists cuffed by Slim as Mort kept the rifle aimed at his head.
Alex threw herself into Jess’s arms and he held her close. His eyes tightly shut as he tried to erase the terrible vision of what could have happened as she shook, sobbing uncontrollably, her head buried in his shoulder.
After a moment Jess’s head came up and he opened his eyes and looked over Alex’s bowed head straight into the quizzical gaze of his best buddy.
“Everything OK then Jess?” Slim asked, enjoying the spectacle of the emotional scene before him. After a moment Alex recovered and looking slightly embarrassed withdrew gently from Jess’s comforting embrace and looked down at his blood-stained shirt sleeve.
“He shot you,” she said, in outrage, “that dreadful man shot you even though you had won the gunfight.”
Jess flicked a glance over to Slim trying to hide his amusement and then looked back to Alex, “Way it goes sometimes,” he said trying to sound solemn, “there just ain’t no code of honor around among outlaws and thieves no more.”
She looked up at him and then smiled, “Oh you,” she said softly, realising she was being teased.
“It ain’t nuthin’ anyway,” he said honestly, “just a scratch.”
She sobered then, “I believe you. I suppose I’d better see what damage you’ve done to that Jed first then. But I’ll clean up that arm of yours afterwards,” she said firmly, before marching off and looking every inch the professional again.
Jess watched her go, a look of respect and affection in his deep blue eyes before turning back to Slim.
“Thanks Pard, Mort, I guess you turned up at just the right moment…so where’s Sam?”
“Left him back at camp,” Slim said grinning. “I figured we needed one man still standing at the end of all this.”
Jess chuckled, “I’ll go fetch him.” Then turning to Slim said, “Say can ya put the pot on pard, I ain’t had breakfast yet, could kill for a coffee.”
Mort had tied Frank up to the hitching rail and now he returned grinning over at Slim, “Well I reckon that answers one question then.”
“Oh, so what’s that Mort?”
“The boy’s still got it…hasn’t suffered any from that old head wound. I’ve never seen him draw faster,” he chuckled. “I dunno what that doc did to him, but she’s sure worked wonders,” he said with a bark of laughter.
Slim watched Jess’s retreating back as he went off to find Sam, “Uh, she’s sure done something to him,” he said quietly, before going off to put the coffee pot on.
Later that day the small posse wended their way back to Laramie, with the exception of Slim. He declared he would go back to the ranch and let Daisy and Mike know all was well, “and get some dang work done too,” he said throwing Jess a rather pointed look.
“Well one of us has to go into town and write up the statement,” Jess said reasonably, “and I need to check when Millie will be arriving home too, Tom may have heard.”
Slim was instantly appeased with the thought that Jess was obviously so keen to see his girl. Maybe he was mistaken in thinking there was anything between Jess and Doc Alex save the patient, doctor relationship.
“Well sure I can understand that,” he said throwing his partner a broad grin, “and if it’s to be in the next few days you stay in town and meet her, I guess I can manage OK until the end of the week.”
“Gee thanks Pard,” Jess said cheerfully, “and tell Mike I’ll fetch him some candy fer doing so dang well in that ol’ spelling bee, huh.”
“I sure will,” Slim said slapping him on the back before mounting up and riding off towards the ranch.
“I’d like to take another look at your arm too,” said Doc Sam wandering over and giving Slim a wave as he rode off.
“It’s fine Sam,” came the predictable reply.
“Come along now Mr Harper, let the Doctor check it out,” said Alex as she came over leading Bert’s old mount Tilly. “I haven’t gone to all the trouble of getting you back in shape just for you to get a nasty infection in that arm.”
“No Ma’am, I guess not,” said Jess grinning down at her, the two obviously very easy in each other’s company, so Sam noticed. Then looking more closely at his esteemed colleague he observed how well she looked. Even after her recent ordeal, her eyes were sparkling and her skin had a youthful flush. In fact, she looked years younger he mused.
However, before he had time to ponder further on the matter Mort urged them all to mount up and get moving.
“The sooner this lowlife is in my jail,” he said tilting his hat towards a surly looking Frank and heavily bandaged Jed, “happier I’ll be. The other in the safe hands of Charlie Fairfax,” he said grinning at Jess.
“In the safe hands of Mr Fairfax, who is that?” Alex asked looking perplexed.
“Local Undertaker,” Jess said succinctly.
Alex shuddered, “Oh I see yes of course,” then it suddenly hit her that it could have been Jess they were taking on his last journey and she felt quite faint at the thought.
Sam and Mort had already set off leaving Jess and Alex to take up the rear and now he turned questioning eyes on her.
“Are you alright Alex, you’ve gone awful pale,” he said, fleetingly wondering if she really had succumbed to some women’s problems.
She shook her head as though to clear it and then looked up at him, “I’m alright really… It’s just all this shooting, it suddenly occurred to me it could be you that had died.”
Jess just nodded in agreement, “It was a pretty close-run thing I guess.”
She looked down biting her lip before looking up into his kind blue eyes.
“I was wrong and you were right, that day down by the creek when you were shooting those cans,” she said softy.
“Go on,” he said.
“I was so angry with you, thinking you could throw away all our hard work. Goodness throw away your life in one of these terrible gunfights. But I see now why you had to do it. I understand sometimes there just is no choice, and so yes of course you must practice and be the best you possibly can.
“Thanks for understanding, if there were any other way…” and he shrugged, shortly afterwards they mounted up and slowly followed the others back to town.
On arrival Mort dropped the prisoners off in the jail with Lon and took Jack Lewis’ body down the street to the undertakers whilst Sam, Jess and Doc Alex made their way back to Sam’s office.
“Come on into the parlor and we’ll have some coffee before I check that arm of your Jess,” Sam said, cheerfully calling for his housekeeper.
Mrs Braddock came from the depths of her kitchen wiping her hands on her apron and beaming at them all, “Coffee is it Doctor?” She asked, taking the wanderers return in her stride as usual.
“Please Mrs Braddock, if you’d be so kind.”
“Of course sir, oh and doctor you have a visitor waiting in the front parlor, he was most insistent he should wait, I hope that’s alright.”
Sam raised an eyebrow, “A friend of mine?”
“Oh no, the visitor isn’t for you, but for Doctor Macnab sir,” she said before bustling off to make some fresh coffee.
The three entered the room and as they did so a tall imposing looking gentleman in a smart eastern style suit rose from his seat and looked over to Alex with apprehension, followed by relief.
“Oh thank goodness,” he said moving quickly to her side, “are you alright Alex my dear I’ve been worried sick. The housekeeper seemed unsure of your whereabouts, just that Doctor Baker was looking for you”
Sam and Jess peered across to Alex who was looking slightly flushed and uncomfortable.
“Chas, why whatever are you doing here?” she asked ignoring his question.
“I was concerned of course! We all were back at the hospital. I came to meet you at the Denver railroad, but you weren’t there, no message at all. So of course, I came to seek you out.”
“Well that’s very, er…kind,” she said weakly, taking the nearest seat and sitting down abruptly. “But there really was no need I was in good hands.”
Then she recovered her manners. “This is Doctor Samuel Baker and Mister Jess Harper, my patient,” she said flashing Jess a warm smile. “Gentlemen this is a colleague of mine from the hospital, Doctor Charles Morris.”
“Colleague and good friend, I hope,” he said glancing at Alex somewhat possessively, before turning back to Sam and Jess.
Charles reached across and gave Sam a smile, “Good to meet you doctor,” and then shook Jess’s hand slightly less enthusiastically, “Harper.”
The four sat around drinking their coffee and making polite conversation until Sam suggested he and Jess retire to his office and attend to Jess’s injury.
Chas cast Jess a rather condescending look and said, “I expect you get injured a lot doing manual work on one of those er…ranches?” he said.
Jess just grunted, not appreciating being patronized, “I guess I do,” he agreed, “but I got kinda too close to a bullet actually.”
Chas’ s face was a picture of shock, and then a moment later he turned to Alex, “Please tell me you weren’t embroiled in this violent incident,” he said earnestly.
“Oh yes I was involved alright,” said Alex with spirit, now rather enjoying herself and seeing the alarm exhibited by the usually unruffled cool Chas. “But it was quite alright, like I say I was in good hands.”
Jess however was not liking the scrutiny that was now in Doctor Chas’ shrewd eyes and said quickly, “Let’s git this over with huh Sam, I’ve gotta see the Sheriff later.”
With that the two men made their exit, leaving the two friends to catch up, although by the look in Chas Morris’ eyes it looked to Jess more like Alex was going to get something of an interrogation as to the day’s events.
Once Jess had been checked over by Sam and the wound redressed, he made to leave, just putting his head around the parlour door, to say farewell, on his way out.
“Ah there you are,” said Alex rising quickly, “you are staying in town tonight, Mr Harper?”
Jess nodded, “Sure I am yeah.”
“Oh good so you will come out to dinner with us, as my guest, you too of course Doctor Baker,” she said casting her enchanting smile on both men. “I would just like to say thank you to you both and it would mean so much to me, in the hotel at about seven say?”
Jess looked from her to Chas Morris, who was positively glowering at Jess and he couldn’t resist it. “Sure, that would be swell Doctor, thanks,” he said and giving Chas a cool glance and her a little salute, said he would see them all later and left for the Sheriff’s office.
“Well I just don’t get it,” said Mort later, tipping his Stetson back and peering up at Jess who was sitting on the edge of his desk. “A real purty woman like that, you’d think she’d be married at least, or courting’ anyways.”
“It really ain’t none of our business Mort,” said Jess looking a little uncomfortable, knowing full well as to why the doc wasn’t courting.
“So, who is this Chas Morris character you told me about then?” Mort persisted.
Jess shrugged, “Just a guy she works with.”
“Uh, more to it than that I figure,” Mort said thoughtfully, “he wouldn’t come all this way lookin’ for her iffen he weren’t kinda smitten I guess.”
Jess just shrugged, “Who knows, so you want this statement off of me or what Mort?”
“OK no need to go gettin’ yer britches in a ruck Jess, we’ll get to it soon enough. I did think maybe the lady doc was a tad keen on you to be honest you know Jess? Way she was today, real upset when you got hurt some.”
Jess just sighed, “She was real upset because she ain’t used to being abducted by dang outlaws and havin’ a gun held to her head, see sense Mort!”
“Um… just sayin’ ‘tis all, seems real taken with you I reckon,” Mort continued recklessly.
When Jess just did his poker face Mort gave up and taking the forms out of his desk got down to business.
Later Jess made his way to the hotel dining room via the Laramie saloon. Tom had been delighted to say that Millie was indeed due back by the end of the week. So Jess reckoned he’d stretch his pard’ s good nature a little further and stay in town to meet her from the rail head on the Friday. In the meantime, he had a dinner to attend and as he marched down Main Street he sighed deeply.
Sure, Doc Alex was a lovely girl and he’d gotten kinda fond of her over the last few weeks. In fact, they’d got real close once she’d opened up to him about her past bereavement. But this Chas character was another kinda fish all together and Jess was in no mood to spend the evening being patronized. But there again he owed her, and Sam was a real good buddy too, so he figured he’d go and stay for the meal but make his excuses as soon as he politely could.
Right from the get go Chas started talking business. Telling Sam about his latest research in great technical detail and even though Sam looked uncomfortable he failed to take the hint that maybe they should talk less formally and include Jess and Alex in their conversation.
Meanwhile Alex made several brave attempts to include Jess in the discussion, telling Chas about the ranch and what an accomplished horseman Jess was. But all her comments were met with stony silence from Chas.
Finally, the meal was over and Jess hoped to make his getaway, but Alex pleaded with him to stay for just one coffee, so how could he refuse? As they moved through to the lounge, Chas made his excuses and went to the bar to buy some cigars and once he’d gone Alex turned apologetic eyes on Jess.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, “I just don’t know what’s got into him tonight, he’s usually so quiet and mild mannered, this is so unlike him.”
All the time Sam had been looking on calmly taking in the situation, which was his way. But now he turned to Alex and giving her his kindly smile said, “Well if I didn’t know better, I’d say that young man has an attack of jealousy.”
Alex looked shocked, “What do you mean, what’s he to be jealous about?” she asked raising her eyebrows to Sam in puzzlement.
Sam looked down before looking her in the eyes and then flicking his glance over to Jess and back, said, “I guess anyone would have to be blind not to see the closeness that’s built up between you too.”
“What do you mean?” Alex protested, looking confused.
Meanwhile Jess just stared at his buddy, feeling real uncomfortable.
However, Sam put his hands up in a conciliatory gesture. “Heck I’m not saying anything unprofessional has happened between you. I’m just saying it’s not uncommon for a patient and doctor to form a strong bond and I think your friend Chas is kind of upset about it,” he said honestly.
“You’re talkin’ crazy Sam,” Jess blurted out looking pretty angry.
But it was Alex who took it even worse.
“How could you suggest that, you just don’t understand Sam, it’s nothing to do with the patient doctor relationship at all,” and getting up she left the room hurriedly.
She had waltzed past Chas and now he returned to the table looking concerned, “What on earth’s wrong with dear Alex?” he gasped.
Then turning to Jess and grabbing his arm he said belligerently, “Is this your doing?”
Jess pulled roughly away, “No it ain’t,” he said angrily, before following her out of the room.
He caught up with her outside and taking her arm guided her to a porch chair, taking the one next to her and just holding her hand until she recovered her composure.
“Look I’m sorry if this is something I’ve done,” he said softly, “but honesty Alex I ain’t betrayed your trust. I’ve never breathed a word about your…loss to Sam or Slim really I haven’t.”
She looked up at him, her eyes shining with tears and her expression surprised. “No, I knew you wouldn’t betray a confidence,” she said quickly. “Goodness Jess this isn’t your fault it’s all mine. Because of your kindness and well, yes deep understanding of my predicament, I think I’ve become very close to you.”
She saw his eyes open wide and the look of dismay in them, “Heck Alex I ain’t done anything, said anything improper, have I? Jeez I just wouldn’t, lovin’ Millie the way I do, you know that don’t you?”
“Of course you wouldn’t. I know that and I don’t mean in a romantic way. I mean close as in good friends the kind of a friend that really understands you and that’s been sadly lacking in my life for so long.”
“What about Chas, he seems to be a real good friend?” Jess asked.
She nodded, “I thought he was, well kind of…but I’ve never seen this side of him before, so possessive and forceful.”
“So does he know, about you losing your family?” Jess asked.
She shook her head, “No I’ve just kept it all so deeply buried until our talk…I’ve never told anyone, not a living soul after I moved to Denver.”
“I think you should,” he said softly, “I figure he’d want to help.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she said thoughtfully. “And now thanks to you I really think I’m strong enough to tell him.”
“I hope so,” he said softly, and then his head shot up, “and I guess maybe now would be a good time?”
He stood up quickly and vacated his seat just as Chas marched over, looking rather unsure of himself for once Jess noted with pleasure.
“I was just going Chas,” he said and gestured to the chair.
Then he turned back to Alex, “You’ll be alright now?”
She nodded, “I think so, goodnight Jess.”
He touched his hat and made to move off but she called back.
“You will come and see me off tomorrow?”
He nodded and gave her his cheeky wink, “Try and stop me,” and with that he disappeared off down the street whistling softly.
Jess was at the rail head just before noon and spotted Sam, Chas and Alex standing on the platform and marched over.
To his relief he noted that Alex was looking relaxed and happy and even Chas looked pleased to see him.
After a little idle chatter Chas took Jess to one side saying he needed a quiet word.
They moved along the platform a little way and after Chas had fiddled with his necktie and coughed a couple of times, he turned an earnest expression on Jess and said, “My dear fellow I believe I owe you a heartfelt apology.”
“You do?” Jess asked throwing him an enigmatic smile and raising one quirky eyebrow.
Doc Chas looked down and said softly, “This isn’t easy for me, but I’m afraid I had misjudged you in the most dreadful way. When I observed the bond between you and dear Alex, I must admit I jumped to totally the wrong conclusions. Thinking there was maybe some sort of romantic liaison or dalliance going on.”
Both Jess’s expressive eyebrows arched at this as he considered what the doc might be trying to say. Then the light of comprehension dawned and he grinned, “Oh well I guess you aren’t alone in thinkin’ that doc…but it weren’t nuthin’ like that you know, Alex did tell ya?”
“She certainly did,” he agreed, “all about her terrible bereavement and how incredibly supportive and empathetic you have been too.”
From the doc’s expression Jess figured that was a good thing and just nodded gravely.
“I guess we all need a helping’ hand sometimes,” he murmured.
“Indeed we do,” said Chas enthusiastically. “Then she told me of the dire circumstances of her abduction and how you rode in to save her. My goodness this is the stuff of the legends of Greek Mythology, you are a veritable Perseus, Jess, a slayer of monsters!”
“Sure, that’s me alright,” said Jess chuckling and wondering if ol’ Chas had been tipping the jug that morning.
Chas grinned too at his over enthusiasm, “Um, maybe I am over stating things a little. But there is no doubt in my mind that you were a true hero for keeping my dear Alex safe and for that I shall be forever indebted to you my dear fellow.”
Luckily Jess was spared anymore embarrassment as there was an ear-splitting whistle announcing the arrival of the engine, now steaming into view.
All was hustle and bustle with hurried goodbyes from the awaiting passengers and Chas clambered on board with their valises to find a good seat for the pair, after pumping Jess’s hand once more. Doc Sam had made his farewells and dashed from the platform saying he had a room full of patients waiting on him and left with a cheery wave.
That just left Jess and Alex standing together and as she looked up at him her eyes brimmed with tears once more.
“Hey, don’t,” Jess said gently, stroking her cheek.
“It’s alright,” she said sniffing and giving him a watery smile, “these are tears of happiness Jess, I feel…liberated, a new woman and it’s all thanks to you.”
He gave a little sigh of relief, “Oh well that’s OK then,” he said smiling into her eyes.
Then, after a moment’s hesitation, she reached up and kissed him very ardently, before pulling gently away.
“What was that for?” He asked softly, his heart suddenly pounding.
She smiled at him again, “I just got to wondering what it would be like to kiss you,” she said honestly.
“Hmm and it was every bit as good as I thought it would be,” she said with a now decidedly cheeky twinkle in her deep blue eyes.
Then there was another loud whistle denoting the imminent departure of the train and Jess took her arm and helped her aboard. She leaned out of the carriage window and said, “Be happy Jess, I aim to be.”
Then seconds later Chas joined her, putting a comforting arm around her shoulders. The couple waved as the huge engine got up steam and slowly made its way off. Like some gigantic smoke belching dragon. Jess surrounded by clouds of dark smoke stood waving until the train disappeared from his view.
He still stood there feeling slightly bereft thinking of all he’d been through over the past few weeks. Then as he lingered there pondering, the smoke cleared revealing a solitary figure standing on the platform, clutching her valise, an uncertain expression in her deep brown eyes.
Jess’s head shot up and a broad grin spread across his handsome features.
“Millie…Mill, that you!” and he tore down the platform picking her up and swinging her around….
His girl was home!
Once she was settled back down on the ground he said, “Tom said you weren’t coming until Friday, gee this is great!”
She still stood there peering at him and saying nothing.
“Millie, you alright honey?” He asked as it dawned on him that she was a tad quiet.
“Who was that girl you were kissing Jess?” She finally managed.
His eyebrows shot up and he affected a look of innocence, “Heck I weren’t kissing her Mill, she was kissing’ me!”
Millie was looking decidedly exasperated now, “Who was she Jess?”
“Hey Mill, that weren’t no girl that was my doctor.”
Her jaw dropped and she looked stunned, “Your doctor?”
“Uh-huh a genuine lady doctor, how about that eh.”
“Doctor…Doctor? Jess have you been sick? Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked now looking a tad more equitable.
“Well I didn’t wanna worry you did I sweetheart,” he said smoothly as he grabbed her valise in one hand and put the other arm around her waist.
“Come on Millie, let’s go home and I’ll tell you all about it….”

Once they were relaxing in her room Jess had finally been able to convince Millie that Alex really had been his doctor. Then when she discovered the extent of his injuries, after the ill-fated bank raid, she relented and was indeed very concerned for him.
“I’m just thankful this Doctor Macnab was able to heal you,” she said with feeling, “even if I am a little bit jealous.”
“Well you sure ain’t got no cause to be,” Jess had proclaimed, “I already told her I love you something fierce. And I figure that Doc Chas has got plans for her too.”
“You do?” she asked looking captivated. “I thought you said she was still mourning her husband really badly.”
Jess nodded, “Sure she is right now, but I’ve gotten a feeling it’ll change one day. Like I say I reckon ol’ Chas has got plans for the good doctor.”
“And what about those awful Black brothers, I sure hope the Sheriff’s got plans for them.”
“Oh yes don’t you go worrying’ on that account,” Jess said firmly. “According to Mort the circuit judge is due next week and with any luck those two will be in jail for a good few years for aiding and abetting Lewis.”
Then he had taken her in his arms and glancing around her warm comfortable room said softly, “Seeing as how Tom’s given you a couple of days off why don’t we stop talkin’ about everyone else… In fact, why don’t we just stop talkin period,” he said with his cheeky smile and pulling her into his warm embrace he started kissing her….
Back at the ranch a few days later Jess was getting kind of irritated with Slim’ s constant teasing about his relationship with Doc Alex and everything came to a head on the afternoon of his first day back.
“So, have you any plans for going up to Denver, get yourself checked out again…maybe before the mustanging season?” Slim said his tone equitable but the twinkle in his blue eyes making the teasing evident.
“No I ain’t,” said Jess quietly as he turned back to where he was grooming Traveller.
“You’ll just have to put up with Doc Sam, but I guess it won’t be the same huh Jess?” Slim continued, on a roll now and determined to get a response from his buddy. Maybe even getting him to admit, that yes, OK maybe he and the beautiful doctor had gotten a mite too close. ‘Yes he had been messing with her, but heck she was a beautiful woman wasn’t she?’
But no… when Jess finally turned to look at his buddy his eyes were full of hurt, mixed with irritation.
“You just ain’t gonna let it rest are ya Slim? OK so I’ll tell you now. Sure, I got real close to Alex, but it weren’t the way you’re thinkin’. She was real upset about losin’ her husband and young son…they drowned Slim.”
“What, heck I didn’t know that,” said Slim looking shocked.
Jess ignored him and continued.
“Well we got to talkin’ and I told her about me and Maria…how I was in such a bad way. Then how you helped me out some, made me see sense. Told her how I had to meet it full on and go through it all, the pain and hurting…to come out the other side.”
“I guess that’s right,” Slim agreed.
Jess looked off into the middle distance.
“I guess you’re never quite the same again. But you can go on, make a life…”
Slim had been listening, his eyes open wide and his expression more and more shamefaced as Jess spoke.
“So that’s about it…OK? No great romance between the doc and patient like in one of Daisy’s dime novels. It was about a couple of folk tryin’ to help each other out that’s all Slim.”
“I see that now and I’m sorry Jess. But heck why didn’t you tell me, instead of letting me go on teasing you the way I have?” Slim said looking askance.
“Because she asked me not to say anything…and you know me. I have my faults sure I have, but I am loyal and if the lady didn’t want me tellin’ folk…well then I wasn’t about to…understand?”
“Sure I do Jess and I’m sorry, really sorry for misjudging you.”
Jess turned and gave Slim that warm smile of his, “You can’t be blamed pard, I do have kind of a reputation with the ladies I guess, easy mistake to make huh?”
It was some eighteen months later that Jess and Slim were to hear anything more of Doctor Alexandra Macnab, when a letter came from her addressed to Daisy.
It had arrived on the early Stage and now Slim and Jess sat around the table drinking coffee, avidly watching Daisy reading the missive.
“Oh my,” she gasped raising her eyebrows…then a moment later, “goodness me!”
“Daisy just tell us!” Jess said in consternation, “Is she OK?”
“Oh yes dear very er…OK as you put it.”
“Go on then Daisy spill the beans,” said Slim looking almost as exasperated as Jess.
“Well it seems that Doctor Macnab has a new name….”
“I knew it, I just knew it,” said Jess grinning from ear to ear, “don’t tell me she’s Mrs Charles Morris.”
“Uh no, it’s not quite that dear.”
“It’s not Mrs of even Doctor…It’s Professor Morris now, she has moved up in the academic world by all accounts as well as marrying her dear friend and colleague. She says here, please tell Jess that the time we spent talking in the cave totally changed my life and I shall be forever indebted to him.”
Jess blushed with pleasure, “Heck I didn’t do much, just told her how I survived after…well Maria and all that yer know?”
Daisy smiled across at him, “Well it certainly helped the dear girl.” Then she continued to read…
“Goodness gracious, listen to this. It is now over twelve months since our marriage and I am delighted to impart that last week dear Chas and I became parents to twin boys. I have called one of them after Mike. I think he is such a delightful young man. The other we’ve called Charles after my dear husband we are overwhelmed with joy at our good fortune. As dear Jess explained “We have just one life and we have to make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt,” That is so true and I never thought I’d find happiness again, but here we are.’ “Isn’t that wonderful,” said Daisy looking quite dewy eyed.
Jess was looking kind of thoughtful, “Um, I guess Mike is a nice enough name…”
Slim gave a bark of laughter and reaching across the table ruffled Jess’s unruly hair, “What’s up Hotshot, think the baby should have been named for you, do you?”
Jess shook his head, but secretly he figured it would have been kind of nice.
Daisy had returned to the letter, “Um, the rest is a little more of her work… how proud she is to be a Professor now…apparently it was all the research on paralysis that helped her obtain the position. It seems that you helped her in more ways than one Jess dear. All the research papers she wrote here helped her no end she says.”
“Great,” said Jess with irony, “glad to oblige. Heck iffen I’d known I could help her career that way I’d have got my head near blowed off sooner.”
Daisy just chuckled used to Jess’s volatile nature.
He rose to go and then she put a hand up to stop him…
“Oh Jess dear you have been remembered after all. You may not live on in her memory because she named her boy after you, but this is every bit as good.”
“Huh, so what’s that then Daisy?”
“Do you remember that walking device you used to help you learn to walk again, the bars you held onto as you made those first steps?”
“I ain’t gonna forget that in a hurry,” said Jess darkly, “so what about it?”
“Well apparently she has got a carpenter to make some for the hospital and they have been called, ‘The Harper Apparatus’.”
Jess’s face was a picture as he tried to come to terms with this information and figure whether it was a good or bad thing.
However Slim barked with laughter, “Ha, fame at last,” he said with glee. Then his face clouded and he looked back to Daisy.
“Huh, garldarn it, I made that contraption, should be the Sherman Apparatus!”
This in turn set Daisy and Jess off into peals of hysterical laughter.
“Your face pard,” Jess said doubling up with mirth.
Just then the door flew open and a flushed and excited Mike stormed in.
“Jess, come quick, it’s Satan; he’s jumped the fence again!”
“The hell he has,” Jess yelled leaping up from his seat and making for the door.
“Come on pard, why don’t you just admit defeat,” Slim called after him. “You’ve been trying to break that mustang for weeks now, just give up, you’ll never do it!”
“That’s what you think,” Jess called over his shoulder, “I ain’t gonna let him beat me Slim, you’ll see,” and with that he was off.
He easily vaulted the corral fence and then jumped athletically into Traveler's  saddle before spurring him off at speed, following the dust cloud that was all that remained of Satan’s presence.
Back at the table Daisy poured them another coffee.
“The boy just won’t back down,” Slim said shaking his head in grudging admiration.
“And we wouldn’t have him any other way,” said Daisy with her warm smile.
Slim glanced over accepting the welcome drink and grinned back at her, “I guess you’re right at that Daisy, you usually are.”
They exchanged a look of mutual affection and relaxed back sipping their coffee.
All was right with the world once more.

  1. The End

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