#72 Whiskey, Women and Wild, Wild Ways

#72 Whisky, Women and the Wild, Wild Ways!

Patty Wilkinson
(Strong language, violence and adult themes)

It was early spring at the Sherman ranch and relay and all was pretty hunky dory as Mike Williams, the rancher’s young ward had recently proclaimed.
Just a few months earlier, over Christmas, they had all been in dire straits when Peterson a friend and neighbor had gone bust, almost taking all at the ranch down with him, when he had no funds to pay for stock he had bought from the ranch. * See #68 Love Thy Neighbor
Luckily a visitor staying at the ranch over Christmas, Reverend James Harrison had recognized an old ornament in the Christmas trinkets box as being a priceless Chinese Jade carving worth thousands.Even after Jess and Slim had insisted upon giving fifty percent of the proceeds back to their friend’s charity they still had enough to pay off the mortgage on the ranch, buy a substantial acreage abutting the southern pasture and still had money left in the coffers to use on a rainy day.
Now Slim and Jess were sitting out on the porch on the first really warm evening of spring. A whiskey apiece, relaxing. They were watching, the fruit of Jess’s recent mustanging trip milling about in the corral getting used to their new confines.
“You got some with real potential there, Jess,” Slim said nodding towards the fine bunch of horse flesh, “but I guess they’ll take some taming, they look a real feisty lot.”
Jess nodded, “I’ll get to it in a week or so, once they’re settled in, got used to the human voice, touch and all that kinda thing.”
Slim nodded, “Talking of feisty it was nice of Beth Sutton to ride over on Rosa wasn’t it? She really has worked hard on that fiery young filly, you broke for her pa.”
Jess chuckled, “Which one are ya callin’ feisty, Beth or Rosa?”
Slim chuckled, “Both I guess...and I figure that young lady’s still got the hots for you, she was all over you like a rash.”
Jess chuckled, “Jealous are you then Hardrock?”
“No of course not,” Slim expostulated and then grinning said, “well a tad...beats me as to how you get these nubile young girls falling for you Jess.”
Jess just rolled his eyes, “Don’t ya let my Millie hear you talkin’ that way and anyway you know I’m really not interested.”
Slim nodded, “I know, just kiddin’ you...but there was a time Jeez, you sure were a ladies’ man when you first landed here...”
“OK, OK so that was years ago. That was then, things change you know pard, folk grow up, move on...I’m a reformed character now you know that.”
“Sure, you are Jess, I know. But it still didn’t stop you calling that spirited little filly of Beth’s Rosa now did it...so you must still think of her...sometimes huh?”

Jess’s eyes went misty and he looked out to the snow-covered range in the far distance, “I guess I’d be lying if I said no Slim...she was one hell of a woman, weren’t she?”
“Oh yes she was that alright,” Slim said with an evil grin, “so when did you first meet her and what was going on between you two, I never really knew for sure.”
Jess shook his head and then rolled his eyes, “Me neither, but I guess that’s the way it was with Rosa, she always liked to keep her men guessing.”
“Go on then,” said Slim looking enthralled, “tell me all about it, you never have... not everything.”
Jess sighed deeply, “Hell how long have you got Slim?”
“Long enough,” he said with his broad smile and he topped up Jess’s glass with a good drop of Denver’s moonshine and then attended to his own...go on then pard I’m all ears.”

Chapter 1
(As told by Jess Harper)

I knew Rosa probably most of my life. She lived over the other side of town to us down on the Texas panhandle. Or I should say Rosa Maria Sophia Lopez, as she always told folks on first meeting. Yup she sure had a few airs and graces considerin’ she was just a barefoot, backwoods kid like the rest of us.
I saw her at school mostly…when I went that is... then in town sometimes, her always hanging around with the older boys.
Jeez, but she was good lookin’, even as a kid. She had this long black hair that hung down her back, braided mostly, occasionally loose. Large dark eyes that seemed to see right into your soul...Sometimes with a kinda challenging look, ‘come on Mister I dare ya’. Smouldering eyes, hot with desire...oh she knew what she wanted alright. Weren’t afraid to go get it either.
I guess I must have been about thirteen, her fifteen when I first noticed her that way. One day she was just a real purty girl in school, the next she seemed to have grown into a fully mature woman and she had the figure to go with it too...Oh boy did she have a figure.
She hadn’t had it easy though, her Ma and Pa were killed in an accident when she was but six years old and the family all split up, her brothers going to some far-flung cousin in Mexico who wanted them to work the land for him. Rosa went to an aged aunt, who pretty much didn’t give a damn about the kid. So, I guess she kinda brought herself up. Her aunt would only speak Spanish and that was her first language, so that made her kinda different too I guess, sorta exotic.
Maybe that’s why she went off the rails. Her old Aunt never bothered with her and maybe she was lookin’ for love, for someone to pay her attention. Then as soon as she blossomed well, just about every red-blooded male in town sat up and took notice, me included.
OK I know what you’re thinkin’ Millie was already in my life by then...but it was different with Millie in those days we were just real good friends. But what I felt for Rosa wasn’t the same. I guess it was just good old-fashioned teen lust. Of course, she paid me practically no attention...led me on occasionally just fer the fun of it... A kiss maybe... but she’d always leave ya wantin’ more….
See it was the older boys she wanted to be with and by sixteen they were all around her like bees around a honey pot. I can remember Ma sayin’ to me once, you steer clear of that Rosa Lopez son, she’s headin’ fer trouble and I don’t want one of my boys to be any part of it.
Well of course Ma was right and there came the day when she’d done got pregnant and was none too sure who the daddy was either, so folks said. But I heard all about that later after the war.
She seemed to disappear off the scene for a good while and then word came to town that she had lost the baby and nearly died too... Well that was the end of motherhood for Rosa, so she said, and she wasn’t ever able to bear kids after that...Maybe that was why she had that ‘don’t give a damn’ way about her...she was never gonna be a wife and mother, so what the hell...why not just enjoy life to the full?
I had heard no more of her. As you know I went on the drift, looking for the Bannisters...Then the war hit and I had, maybe the worst and in some way’s best times of my life.
The worst...hell I ain’t gonna dwell on that too long... you know all about it anyways Slim...the way it was for me, for a lot of us...But the good things were the camaraderie, knowing that we were all fightin’ for a common cause and more than that...we were watchin’ each other’s backs. Building friendships, real strong ones too, the kind of... well almost kinship that I’d lost when all my family perished.
Then suddenly one day it was all over, word filtered down the ranks that we’d lost the cause and that was it....
Maybe...just maybe that was why I went kinda loco...runnin’ with gangs. It was in some ways the same kinda feeling...all for one, stickin’ together through thick and thin...Except this weren’t a fightin’ battalion of men. These gangs were made up of renegades, the hurtin’ sick, dregs of war...Young men with no purpose, no job or hope...no future.
Anyways I guess I can make excuses until the cows come home, but the upshot was that I went kinda wild...feral my Ma would have called it... No job, no home and just trusting to my ...so called friends to see me through...
By this time word had gotten around that I was a fast gun, real fast. After all the dang practice I’d put in before headin’ off after the Bannisters and I hate to admit it now, but I was kinda proud of my fast draw back then. It sure made me popular anyways and it was a way to earn good money too. Selling my gun to the highest bidder in a range war seemed to make sense...at the time that is. But like I say I was kinda crazy back in those days.
I guess that’s why I joined up with Skeet Winters and his gang. Jeez they were a rough lot. Made up of Skeet, his brother Cole and several other boys I’d served with in the war, Tom Hicks, Davey Owen and Chase Dunn. Chase was a mess, had lost an arm and an eye in the war and he was as bitter as all get out. Just wanted to go on one long killin’ spree to try and get his revenge, but on who it were never really clear. He hated the Union soldiers, black folk, Spanish, Mexicans, Injuns and women.
I met up with them one hot evening in a low dive of a saloon on the Mexican border, a few years after the war. I’d been involved in a few skirmishes with the law if I’m bein’ honest and decided to lie low on the Mexican side of the border until things quietened down some. Although I hadn’t actually been involved some men I’d been riding with for a while had been. They’d relieved the local bank down in Dallas of most of the money in the safe and as folk there knew I was good friends of Charlie Hazard and his Gang, well I guess that made me guilty by association.
So anyways I was down in Mexico, kinda drownin’ my sorrows in a whiskey glass but who should drift in but Skeet and Cole Winters. Well that was one heck of a reunion I can tell you, me and Skeet bein’ old friends from the panhandle and then having served together in the war too. We’d ridden together for a while afterwards, until I met a girl I kinda liked and decided to stay around, whilst the others rode on alone. Anyway, now when he told me that Davey, Tom and Chase were ridin’ with him and so how about it, did I want to get back together? Well I jumped at the chance of joining up with them.
“So where are the others?” I asked eagerly.
“Chase will be along shortly, Davey and Tom tomorrow, hopefully.”
“They’re in the local jail right now,” he said with that big belly laugh of his. “We shot up the town some last night, me, my little brother and Chase outran the posse, but poor ol’ Davey and Tom got caught and chucked in the local jail…silly sods…need to git ‘em some half decent nags,” he said laughing again, draining his glass and calling for another bottle. “We were off and clear before the Sheriff even hit his saddle…that’s why we’re here large as life, they don’t even recognize us,” and he gave another loud laugh, his whole body shaking with mirth.
“Well maybe it would make sense to kinda keep yer voice down?” I suggested looking warily about me. But then half the low life in there looked like they’d got a wanted poster out on ‘em so I relaxed some.
A little later Chase mooched in and boy did he look rough. The war had been over a while and we’d all been on the drift ever since but the hard life sure seemed to have taken its toll on Chase. He looked old and bitter although he was only in his twenties same as the rest of us. He wore a patch over his missing eye and the left shirt sleeve hung down, flapping as a constant reminder that he’d lost a limb. He was thin to the point of gauntness and his one eye looked cold and calculating. He just nodded at me like we’d never been apart and taking the offered drink downed it in one before pouring himself another.
“Chase don’t say much these days, unless he’s cussin’ women and any folk who ain’t Texan,” Cole whispered to me, and I just nodded and knocked back my drink too.
It was getting late when there was a little ripple of comment and a moment later this stunning woman sashayed over. She was tall for a girl with long black hair and wore a real tight fittin’ red dress which left nuthin’ to the imagination. She came over to Skeet and kissed him fleetingly on the cheek before turning to me.
“Well if it isn’t little Jessie Harper,” she said her eyes teasing…you grew up mi amigo,” she said her gaze sweeping over me.
My mouth was so dry I could hardly reply and my stomach flipping, “Howdy Rosa,” I finally managed, “yer lookin’ good.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that Rosa was Skeet’s girl and would be riding with us.
Then I heard an impatient sigh behind me and turning saw the look of pure hatred in Chases’ eye…and figured that she was doubly hated by Chase as she was Spanish and well...er most definitely a woman, that was fer sure.
From day one Skeet made it pretty damn clear that if it were to come to a choice between Rosa and Chase, well Rosa would win hands down. Of course, Rosa loved that and took every opportunity she dang well could to rile Chase, hoping it would come to a shootout. Nothing Rosa enjoyed so much as a good shootout, especially iffen she was the cause of it.
It wasn’t just Chase she wound up either, she seemed to take delight in flirting with all the men, but maybe mostly me, because she saw how mad it made Skeet. He’d lash out and it would end in a fight, usually when we were all pretty drunk, so not too much harm done...until one day when things really got out of hand. That was the thing with Skeet, he could be happy as a clam one moment, that big laugh of his echoing around and then he’d just turn if someone riled him, like he was a different person.
A few weeks later we were camped out on the trail heading out of Mexico. Skeet and Cole had taken off for the nearest town to buy some grog and Chase was moaning saying why spend good money when we could rob the store and stock up for free. Well up to then our evil ways had been pretty much confined to gettin’ drunk and shooting up towns, terrifying the good folk witless before ridin’ out again. OK we’d done the odd hold up, relieved some Stage travelers of their trinkets and cash, but nuthin’ real big like a bank job, and nobody ever got hurt. OK I know I’m tryin’ to justify myself some maybe...but it really didn’t seem that bad at the time.
Well I’d just about had enough of Chase fussin’ and frettin’ over robbing the general store. I told him to shut the hell up and said I was goin’ down the river fishin’ with Davey and Tom.
“You comin’?” I asked turning to where Rosa was sitting combing her long hair and making sheep’s eyes at me, although I sure don’t know as to why she was botherin’ as Skeet weren’t there to make jealous. But there again I guess she knew the affect she had on me. Her sittin’ there with a real tight fittin’ dress on and combing her hair, each stroke of the comb done in a kinda seductive way...Jeez she was always dressed up to the nines too. Even though we spent most of our time in the big open camping out, she’d still be wearing full makeup and a real smart dress.
Now she frowned at me, wrinkling her nose, “It’s so boring Jess, why don’t we just stay here and talk some,” she said patting a place beside her on the log she was perched on.
“What and have you tease me all the dang day. Lead me on real good and then back off like usual, no thanks,” I said gruffly and turned to go. Then I turned back.
“You’ll be OK?” I asked noting the mean look in Chase’s eye.
She just yawned, “Of course...no need to go fretting about me Jessie boy,” she said with that maddening little giggle of hers. I’d just about done tellin’ her not to call me by my old childhood name, because the more I complained the more she did it, so I just glared at her and marched off.
I never did catch up with Davey and Tom as they’d decided to go off huntin’ instead and were up in the mountain at the back of us when it all kicked off.
I’d been fishin’ for an hour or so when I heard Rosa screaming blue murder.
I threw down my line and tore back into the camp in time to see Chase really layin’ into Rosa. Even with one arm he was slapping her about real bad, his face a mask of fury. She had blood dripping down her chin from a split lip and she looked absolutely terrified. For once all her false bravado evaporating as Chase laid into her again and again. He had her backed into a corner against a rock and I guess there was no escape for her
I grabbed hold of his arm before he could strike her again and dragged him away laid a punch to his chin that sent him reeling. Another couple of swift blows and he was out cold and I turned to where Rosa had collapsed to her knees, pale and shaking.
“Sweetheart, are you OK?” I asked as I hunkered down beside her.
At the endearment her eyes opened wide and she stared at me in surprise for a moment before regaining her usual composure. “That crazy bastardo attacked me for no good reason,” she cried looking furious.
“I very much doubt that,” I said softly, before going off to find my canteen and a cloth to clean her up with.
Once I’d finished, she again looked kind of perplexed, like she was really seeing me for the first time.
“Thank you,” she said softly, you were very gentle,” her gaze holding mine for a tad longer than necessary.
I just gave her a curt nod, not liking the sensations the look in those dark eyes was stirring up in me...yet again. Feelings I knew I could never act upon, not while I was riding with Skeet Winters anyways, that was for sure.
Skeet and Cole rode back in at sundown and it wasn’t long before Skeet noticed the busted lip and bruising to his girl’s face.
“Goddamn it what in hell happened to you?” He cussed as soon as he saw the sorry state, she was in.
‘Twas that miserable hijo de puta (son of a bitch) Chase who attacked me,” she said angrily, “I don’t know what I’d have done without Jess. That Chase just upped and attacked me for no reason.”
Skeet moseyed over to where Chase was now sleepin’ off the medicinal whiskey he’d imbibed after I’d flattened him.
He kicked him hard in the leg a couple of times before he finally roused him and grabbing hold of his shirt front dragged him up.
“I told ya didn’t I!” Skeet growled looking murderous, “I told ya if there had to be a choice, you’d be the one going.”
Chase looked dumbstruck, “You’d choose some little Spanish broad over your oldest buddy?” He asked looking incredulous.
“Looks that way Chase,” then he looked around at us all, “and that goes for the rest of you too. Anyone comes between me and my girl I’ll kill you and that’s a promise.”
Then he turned back to Chase and said menacingly, “But seeing as you’re my oldest buddy, you can leave in one piece…now Chase.”
Chase just stared at him and then picking up his saddle bags he threw them up on his mount, tied ‘em down and rode out, without another glance at any of us. Then he reined in and threw Rosa a look of deep hatred, “You’ll regret this,” he barked, before spurring his horse off at a brisk trot.
As he rode off into the late summer’s evening Skeet turned to look at the rest of us…then he said deathly quietly, “I weren’t kiddin’... anyone messes with my woman they’re dead.” Grabbing hold of Rosa’s hand, he marched off, almost dragging her behind him. But just before she left the camp, to go to their own private place, she turned and looked at me. I wasn’t sure what I saw in her eyes, a look of fear…neediness…almost of pleading…whatever it was it sent a shiver down my spine.
Skeet and Cole were big drinkers, always had been. But now it was getting out of hand, they were rarely sober and this had a huge effect on Skeet’s relationship with Rosa. Being drunk all the time he wasn’t able to love her the way she needed, wasn’t even capable of makin’ love at all half the time I figured, and Rosa wasn’t happy, not happy at all.
I reckoned part of the way she valued herself was all down to the effect she had on men. She needed them to almost worship her, to make her feel real special…and Skeet was certainly not doin’ that anymore. In fact he seemed to be taking her for granted and just treating her as some unpaid cook and skivvy and that sure didn’t suit Rosa. It was almost as though the physical side of the relationship was everything to her and nothing else mattered. Maybe that’s why I held out for so long. I kinda figured there was more to a relationship than just that…But I’m getting ahead of myself…it was a while before me and Rosa got together in that way or any other way.
Ever since the issue with Chase she’d been different around me. She actually treated me with some respect…and when she watched me with that passionate look in her eyes, for the first time I kinda got the feelin’ she weren’t kidding any more.
But that just made the whole friendship with Skeet even harder. I’d been thinkin’ of leavin’ for a while, all the drinkin’ and shootin’ up quiet little towns, well it was kid’s stuff really and I’d moved on. I wanted more from life although I didn’t have a dang clue as to what.
The days turned to weeks and we decided to leave Mexico and head north. We moved on just because we could, us all bein’ kinda fiddle foot and wanting to see new places. Ever since Chase had left things had been kind of different. It almost seemed like Tom and Davey didn’t trust the Winters brothers anymore. After all, if Skeet could throw over his oldest buddy that way, then maybe he wasn’t as loyal a friend as we’d figured.
I reckoned Tom wasn’t any too keen on heading too far north either. He couldn’t let the war go and insisted on wearing his old army Forage Cap and army shirt. Well hell I was still loyal to the cause too, but the dang war was over and gone and I couldn’t rightly see the point of courtin’ trouble by riding up into Union held country dressed that way. Davey was pretty easy going, but like me he’d had enough of the crazy life we’d been leading and wanted out. So, it was no big surprise when they jumped ship in Albuquerque sayin’ they’d decided to try their luck there for a while.
We were in a large saloon when they dropped their bombshell, figuring Skeet couldn’t kick up too much of a fuss in a crowded place.
Skeet actually took the news quite well, but that might have been because he’d been tipping the jug most of the day and was in an advanced state of intoxication, Cole already having headed off unsteadily to the cheap hotel across the street.
After he’d finally absorbed the news, he turned to me, “So how about you Jess are you deserting me too?”
Well they’d asked me, of course they had and I hafta say I’d thought about it long and hard. I wanted out sure I did, but maybe not quite yet. I wasn’t ready to settle down, needed the Big Open and adventure, if I’m honest. I wanted to see more of the country and heading north kinda appealed. So, I decided to stick with Skeet, for the time being at least…maybe take off on my own once we got up towards Colorado.I’d a friend there I thought I might look up, maybe get a job and settle for a little while.
“Well?” he yelled turning angry eyes on me and dragging me away from my thoughts. I stared at him for a moment and then flicked a glance to Rosa. I saw that same look in her eyes as of the night Chase left…fear mixed with…yup definitely pleading.
I turned back to Skeet and grinned at him, “I guess I’ll stay around a while longer,” I said.
I almost felt Rosa’s sigh of relief, but it was later that night that I was real sure about the way she felt.
It only took another whiskey and Skeet was floored and me and Rosa had to almost carry him over the street and up to their hotel room.
Once he was on the bed, out cold I turned to go, but Rosa put out a hand and grabbed my arm, “Jess?”
“Yeah, what is it?”
“Thank you…”
I chuckled, “Well it ain’t the first time Rosa and doubt it’ll be the last,” I said throwing Skeet a rueful glance.
She had loosened her grip on me, but took a pace forwards, so close now I could feel her sweet breath on my cheek.
“I don’t mean for that, I mean for staying with us…I’d miss you if you went.”
I threw her a skeptical look, “You would huh?”
She nodded and then inched forwards, glancing at my lips and up into my eyes, before leaning in for a kiss.
I backed off like I’d been burnt and shook my head very slowly, before saying, “Night Rosa,” and walking out closed the door quietly behind me.
I leaned my back against the closed door for a good minute, trying to catch my breath and waiting for my heart to stop pounding before I made my way slowly to my own room. Suddenly thinking maybe I’d just made the wrong decision deciding to stay.
The following morning, she was her usual sarcastic self and I figured I’d imagined the whole thing.
Skeet actually seemed to be a reformed character too and although he didn’t stop drinking completely, he sure cut back and everything seemed fine as we headed off for Santa Fe.
That was where I finally found out exactly what Rosa thought of me.

Chapter 2

We managed to find cheap rooms, in a boardin’ house on the edge of town opposite an old saloon. Skeet said we should stay a while rest up some after all our travelling. But I knew better than that. I figured he was planning a job and a big one too. Funds were running pretty low, so I’d got me a part time job in the livery. But ol’ Skeet and Cole refused to work. Said only fools and horses worked and they could get some cash a dang sight easier.
“Well I don’t want no part of it, Skeet,” I said angrily. “Shootin’ up the odd town, even holding up a Stage maybe, but I ain’t gonna be no part of a bank heist.”
“It never stopped you living life on the Owl Hoot Trail when you were running with those other gangs after the war,” he said.
“Yeah and I learnt by my dang mistakes from that...As soon as that old guy was killed in that hold-up I wanted out. Hell, that gang I was riding with was made up of crazy men. Then I had a spell in prison for the attempted bank job…so I’ve had my fill of that kinda thing Skeet. Been in jail in Abilene, Fort Worth and a few other places too and there ain’t no way I’m goin’ back in.”
“Hey buddy, take it easy, would I do a thing like that to you,” he said laughing, “you worry too much, you know that?”
I just shrugged and mooched over the street to the old Mexican style tavern to see if Liza was working that night.
She was quite a girl, tiny at just five foot, with a slim waist and huge dark teasing eyes and she was just what I needed right then. She never took life too seriously and certainly wasn’t looking to get wed and settle down anytime soon. She was however very willing, enjoyed my company and was pretty much up for anything. ‘You’re a long time dead,’ she used to say, ‘you’ve gotta enjoy everything while you can dontcha think, sweet man?’
The place was dark and quiet when I ambled in and then I saw her polishing glasses behind the bar, her golden hair shining in the light of the lamp behind her almost like a halo.
“Howdy honey,” I said lightly, “you look just like an angel tonight, you know that?”
She laughed loudly at the corny line and then leaning across the bar whispered, “Well it’s a good job we both know I ain’t then isn’t it Jess.”
I stole a kiss and then said hopefully, “Any chance of you finishing early tonight huh?”
“Iffen you’re considerin’ shoutin’ poor little ol’ me supper, then I think it could be arranged,” she said turning and winking at her friend Faye.
I’d taken her to a decent hotel just down the street away and we were halfway through the meal when I noticed that Skeet, Cole and Rosa were dining at a table just across from us. As I looked up Rosa looked over and threw Liza a black look and then glared at me before looking away. I thought it kinda odd they hadn’t mentioned they were going there earlier, but then I forgot about it as my attention came back to Liza.
I quickly checked her, but she hadn’t noticed anything as she was way too busy tucking into her steak and talking nineteen to the dozen about her day. Jeez that girl could talk, I guess she could talk the stripe off of the back of a skunk, but she was real bubbly and fun to be with. So I just nodded and threw in the odd yes and no as necessary.
Once we’d finished dessert and the waiter had brought coffee, I took her hand across the table and looked deeply into her dark brown eyes, thinking how dang beautiful she looked. She looked so young and wholesome with that cute little dimple in her cheek.
What are you thinking about?” She asked with that cheeky little smile of hers, one eyebrow raised in question.
“You have to ask?” I said softly, my gaze drinking in every little bit of her.
“Ma always said it was rude to stare,” she giggled.
“I bet your Ma said a lot of stuff…but I reckon you didn’t heed it all did ya?” I countered.
She flushed up a little making her look even more desirable. “Why Jess Harper you say just the naughtiest things I do declare.”
I squeezed her hand and I guess my eyes said it all, “So you comin’ back to my room then?” I asked, “and we could, er talk it all through.”
“Well what you were sayin’ before, you know… whether you and Faye should move back down to southern Texas or not.”
“Uh, so you were listening.”
“Sure I was, I’m a real good listener… gee I think I could listen to you talkin’ all night long,” I said with a wicked wink.
She laughed at that, “Um well if that’s all we’re goin’ to do all night, I guess Ma couldn’t object,” she said her eyes wide and innocent before she burst out laughing again.
We hadn’t heard Rosa come over and now she looked down at Liza with undisguised loathing, before glancing across at me and ignoring Liza said, “The boys and I were just going over to the saloon for a last drink, would you care to join us Jess, I believe Skeet wants to talk to you about something…important.”
I glanced over to where Skeet and Cole were just finishing off a bottle of Rye and figured neither of them would be in any fit state to talk business, important or otherwise.
“Sorry,” I said, rising and taking Liza’s hand, “but Liza and me have gotten other plans for tonight, tell Skeet we can talk tomorrow,” and I walked her out leaving Rosa looking as mad as a wet hen.
Early the following morning as I was showing Liza out, we bumped into Rosa in the boarding house lobby. She stood by the reception desk, idly looking over the morning paper as I saw Liza off.
At the door I had taken her in my arms and kissed her passionately, ignoring Rosa’s angry eyes boring into the back of my head. Once my date had hurried off with a last wave and blowing me a kiss, I turned back to find Rosa looking furious.
I returned her less than friendly look and said, “What’s up Rosa and what was so dang important last night that couldn’t keep?”
“You and that little whore,” she yelled now looking as mad as I’d ever seen her, “what do you think you’re doing with her!”
I was beginning to lose it now, “She ain’t no whore and it’s none of your goddamn business what I do anyways!” I yelled back.
She just glared at me and started cussin’ in Spanish before she swept off up the stairs two at a time.
“Lo mismo para ti,” (the same to you), I yelled after her and was rewarded by her bedroom door slamming behind her.
I mooched off to the dining room and sat down with Skeet and Cole, pouring myself a coffee from the pot on the table.
After a moment Skeet shook out the paper he was reading and raised an eyebrow at me, “Was that my Rosa yellin’?”
I nodded, “Crazy woman was real rude about Liza, what in hell’s gotten into her Skeet?”
He just shrugged, “Who knows why woman do anythin’,” he replied looking slightly puzzled before returning to his newspaper.
“So what was this important business you needed to discuss last night then?” I asked.
“Business, Rosa said you needed to talk.”
He shrugged, “I dunno what you’re talking about buddy.”

I guess if Liza hadn’t taken off back to Texas the following week like she’d already decided, then me and Rosa would have had a real falling out over that.
As it was, she was rude to Liza just one more time and I took her to one side and told her to behave herself iffen she knew what was good for her. I never threaten women, but she got me so dang mad that night. She’d sat in the saloon making sarcastic comments within Liza’s hearing all night and that’s when I really lost my temper. In the end she apologized to Liza before heading back to the boarding house and I stayed the night in Liza’s room in the saloon. The following day she and Faye headed off back home to Texas and I felt real sad… OK it was never gonna be the romance of the century, but little Liza was funny and kind, and I missed her.
I guess it was because I was so tied up in my relationship with Liza that I hadn’t been takin’ too much notice as to what Skeet and Cole were hatching. Or what Rosa was plotting too. I should have realized all wasn’t well between her and Skeet earlier. Looking back now it was obvious. He was neglecting her, maybe even lost interest. Well I have to admit Rosa and her temper could sure grind a man down as I was to find out later, but of course by then it was too dang late.
It all happened a couple of days after Liza had left town and I was still wandering around like a bear with a sore head, so when Skeet suggested we ride out the following day and head for Colorado well that was just fine by me.
I can’t believe that I never saw what was going on at the time, but like I say I was still missin’ Liza something fierce and had kinda tied one on the night before we were due to leave. I seem to remember Rosa and Skeet talking to me...real intense like, but I wasn’t really takin’ much notice and then there was just Rosa and me sitting in the saloon. She looked real good that night as only she could, that long black hair and those teasing eyes and at the end of the night when she offered to help me into my room it was kinda tempting…no it was real tempting. But thank God I wasn’t so drunk as to have lost all sense completely and lurched off, pushing her away and saying I could manage just swell thank you all the same.
The following morning, I had one hell of a sore head and so when Skeet suggested that me and Rosa ride out ahead and find some place to make camp whilst he and Cole went and bought in provisions I didn’t argue. We agreed to head west and make for the Rio Grande river near White Rock and pretty soon after we lit out.
Rosa seemed real anxious and kept looking behind us and refused to talk or even look at me. Well I just thought she was still mad at me over the Liza business and to be honest it suited me just fine to ride in silence.
We made good time and camped in a real purty wooded area near the banks of the river. There were cottonwoods providing some welcome shade after the long hot ride and we set up camp beneath them. When Rosa was still acting strange, I took myself off fishin’ saying I’d catch us something for supper, guessing Skeet and Cole would be real hungry when they rode in.
When supper time came and went and there was still no sign of them Rosa began to look even more anxious, pacing about the place and muttering in Spanish under her breath.
“What in hell’s wrong with you girl?” I said in exasperation. “They’ve probably just had a few drinks too many and decided to ride out tomorrow.”
“No!” she cried “He wouldn’t do that…wouldn’t leave us alone together all night.”
I was hunkered down by the fire pouring a coffee, but looked up feeling real riled when she said that.
“What?” I growled, “So Skeet don’t trust me?”
She looked down flushing and then said quietly, “No mi amigo he doesn’t trust me, I think.”
What she meant took a while to finally sink in.
I put the coffee pot down carefully and just stared at her.
“I…I didn’t know, you felt that way?” I said softly.
“Idiota (idiot), why do you think I was such a bitch to your little Liza, I was jealous!”
“What…where in hell has all this come from Rosa?” I said suddenly feeling almost angry, “What about Skeet?”
“We’re through I’ve had enough of his drinking and neglecting me. I said I would stay until after this last job and then I vamoose and I thought maybe you would come with me?” She said her eyes once more pleading.
But I wasn’t paying any attention…
“Job? What job…Rosa where in hell are they?”
She shrugged, “I do not know…they were going to rob the saloon after we left town, but they should be here by now.”
I flung my cup down and jumped up, turning towards my horse, but she ran after me grabbing my arm and pulling me back, “It’s too late Jess, they were going to do it this morning, you can’t stop them it is too late.”
“Goddamn it Rosa what in Hell were they thinkin’? It’s that crazy son of a bitch Skeet, probably half drunk and he’ll get his head blowed off, pulling a stupid stunt like that in broad daylight! He ain’t got the dang sense he was born with and Cole ain’t no better!”
“I thought they were your friends?”
“So did I,” I spat bitterly, “so why do ya think I’m so dang mad about it all huh?”
She shrugged, “I guess you’re as worried about them as I am?”
I didn’t know how I was feeling really. Mad at them for betraying a trust, sure. Skeet had said he wasn’t gonna do a job…hadn’t he? Then the dang fool had pulled this crazy stunt…it just didn’t make sense. But yes, he and Cole were friends and I was worried sick about them, of course I was.
“Skeet just said it was better that we were out of the way. He knew you would come with me to look out for me. He also knew you would try to stop him if you found out, so he needed to get you away,” she said shrugging.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and sank back down by the fire my head in my hands, what the heck did they think they were doing…and where were they? And how could Rosa have been so deceitful too.
As the sun finally set, we had to admit that they wouldn’t be arriving that night, if ever. Maybe they had decided to head out alone. I reckoned that Skeet had lost interest in Rosa and this would have been an easy way out. Or possibly they had been chased by a posse…or apprehended at the saloon even? The town had an elderly Sheriff, but he was supported by a bright eager young deputy and between them I figured they could have stopped Skeet and Cole if they’d been alerted. Again, I questioned their logic in carrying out a raid in broad daylight. Then I had a terrible thought, they had surprise on their side because the barkeep liked them and knew them well.
I felt sick to my stomach at what they’d done. The tavern was an old established family business run by the elderly Pedro and his wife and while I was seeing Liza, they had become good friends. Heck, friends to all of us. Skeet and Cole had drunk in there every night, exchanging banter with old Pedro so how could they turn and rob him this way? I was totally disgusted with them.
I turned all my anger on Rosa. “How could you let them do this? Damn it Rosa, Pedro was a good man, a friend, why in hell didn’t you stop Skeet?”
“And how was I to do that, you don’t know him the way I do Jess. Skeet is different in private…if I’d said anything, he threatened to beat me…and he would have done too!”
“Skeet, beat you up?” I asked looking amazed.
“Just the once, that is when I decided enough. Like I told you mi amigo I was going after this job. I thought that when you found out you would be so airado (angry) you would ride out and I was going to go with you Jess.”
I just stared at her overwhelmed by her trickery.
“What makes you think I’d want you?” I growled angrily.
She just gave me that smouldering look of hers, “Because you always have,” she said simply, turning away and sinking down on her bedroll by the fire.
I just glared at her before picking up my bedroll and making a point of spreading it down way over on the other side of the fire and lying down I turned away, too dang mad to speak to her.

I didn’t sleep much that night, what with everything going round and round in my brain. And yes, OK the nearness of her didn’t help too much either. She may have been on the other side of the fire but I could smell her perfume, hear when she turned restlessly in her sleep, but I weren’t cavin’ in. If she thought she could just snap her fingers and I’d come runnin’ well she’d got a nasty surprise in store.
I lay there in the moonlight looking up at the stars twinkling away and tried to find an answer. Where in hell were Skeet and Cole? Heck now I knew about the raid on the saloon, I knew that narrowed the options down some. They had either taken off on their own, Skeet thinkin’ I’d look after Rosa; they were languishing in jail…or… I had to face it, they’d been gunned down. I knew that young deputy was pretty handy with his Colt and if Skeet had been drinking…well he could well have been hurt some, Cole too. Part of me wanted to ride back to town to find out, but that would be dang stupid. Everyone knew I was ridin’ with Skeet and Cole so I’d be arrested for sure. Nope we just had to stay put for a few days and see what happened.
The next morning when I came back into camp from having washed up in the river, I could tell Rosa was in a real bad mood. She was whistling quietly and then started muttering in her own tongue, under her breath as she stirred up the camp fire and put the coffee on. I caught the odd word and knew she was cussin’ and smiled to myself thinking how much worse cussin’ in Spanish sounded and even more so from such sweet lips.
I stood looking down at her, my shirt still hanging open, my hair damp from my early swim and a towel slung around my neck.
“Que esta sonriendo a idiota?” She spat bitterly.
“Huh, either speak slower or in English will ya, it’s kinda early in the mornin’ for me to understand all yer jabbering,” I said equally irritably.
“I said,” she replied slowly and loudly, “What are you grinning at... idiot?”
My smile broadened at that and I said lightly, “Yeah, I got the last bit the first time.”
“Nuthin’ Rosa, so are you cookin’ breakfast then?”
She jumped up at that, “Why do all you men think I am your slave huh, cook your own meal you cerdo! And that’s pig in English!”
“Yup, knew that one too,” I said easily as I hunkered down by the fire, pushing the frying pan over ready to fry up some bacon and beans.
After we’d finished eating, I took her plate from her and refilled her cup, “That alright fer you, your ladyship,” I asked raising an eyebrow at her.
She stared at me and then gradually her face relaxed into a huge smile and then she started giggling, “Oh Jess, you are an…”
“I know idiota,” I finished, smiling at her.
“So how about we take the cookin’ in turn with the huntin’ and fishin’,” I suggested, knowing Rosa was hopeless at both.
She sighed deeply, “Alright I understand, you will provide and I will cook yes amigo?”
“Suits me,” I agreed.
Then her face clouded, “But what of Skeet and Cole…where do you think they can be?”
I sighed, “You know as well as I do Rosa, on the run someplace or in jail.” I didn’t mention the other option, laid up nursing gun wounds at the old doc’s place, but she weren’t stupid.
“You will go look in the town?” she asked.
I shook my head, “Not unless you wanna see me in jail too. Come on Rosa, either of us show our faces back there we’ll be chucked in jail as well, nobody will believe we weren’t in on it.” I paused and threw her an angry look, “Anyways you were weren’t you?”
“I explained about that please don’t be angry mi querido.”
“Well I am dang well angry and I ain’t yer darlin’ either,” I barked, before marching off to check on the horses.
I was grooming Traveller when I sensed her behind me and a moment later, she snaked her arms around my waist. I turned and she looked up at me her eyes misty with desire, “Jess please do not be mad at me.”
Her chin came up and she looked intensely at me; the way she had done that night we’d carried Skeet over from the bar. My pulses started racing and I looked down at her full, red lips and then back into those oh so seductive eyes…and gently pushed her away.
“No,” I whispered, “this ain’t right. Skeet’s still your man until you tell him different. Hell Rosa he could ride back in here anytime. Have you no shame?”
She looked hurt and then finally backed off and wandered over to the fire again.
A little later I saddled Traveller and walked him over to her.
“I’m just going up that ridge yonder, should be a good view of the trail from there. I’ll see if there’s any sign of them OK?”
She just nodded and continued staring into the fire.
In truth I just needed to get away from her for a while. See I wanted her, God forgive me… One of my oldest buddies was out there someplace, banged up in jail or maybe hurt or on the run and I was lusting after his girl and that made me feel bad, real bad.
When I got back, she was real quiet and we hardly spoke until after supper. I’d brought a couple of skinny rabbits back and she’d made a passable meal from them. Then as the sun was going down we sat by the fire resting back on our saddles with a coffee each, laced with a drop of whiskey.
I dunno if it was the strong drink or what, but she started talking to me again as though there had been no rift between us at all. Then after some idle chatter suddenly said, “Jess tell me about your family.”
I nearly choked on my drink and turned to look at her, “Dang it Rosa you know my kin burnt to death in that Bannister raid.”
“No, I’m so sorry, I meant your sister Francie, she survived didn’t she and your big brother, what was he called…um Wade?”
I brightened a little at Francie’ s name. “She’s just swell, went back east with Mrs Johnson and Millie after the war. Mr Johnson died and so the family moved to be near kin. Francie were courtin’ last I heard,” I said smiling at Rosa.
“And Wade, someone said he perished in the war, was that true?” she asked, her eyes wide as she peered at me in the dim evening light.
I shrugged. “I guess he did, I heard he’d been killed at Shiloh. I were there, but never saw him, different battalions. But word came through he was missing believed to be dead. So yeah I guess he is.”
Then I glanced over to her, “Why what’s it to you, you didn’t even know him did you?”
She just shook her head, “No not really, not well anyway,” and then she said she was tired and was turning in.
“Do…do you think they’ll be here tomorrow Jess?” She asked as she cuddled down under her blanket.
I shook my head, “I guess not. Figure if they could get, they’d have been here by now. We’ll give them another day and then we’ll decide what to do.”
When they still hadn’t arrived after the third day, I made the decision to move on. Although Rosa looked kinda tearful I wondered as to just how bad she was really feeling. The way she’d been acting and what she’d said earlier, well I guess things were turning out pretty much the way she wanted, with me replacing Skeet in her life. However, I was none too sure about how I felt about that.
Yes, she was a beautiful woman and I can’t begin to explain how bein’ close to her made me feel…but was that all we had? Otherwise we were so different and left to our own devices would fight like cat and dog. It was almost a joke in the gang the way she used to wind me up with her teasin’ and flirtin’ all so false and shallow. But now there seemed to be a new feeling between us and I started to wonder if maybe we could make a go of things.
We set off heading for Colorado the following day and rode on hugging the river, the trees along the bank making for some shade cover at least. We had been getting real low on provisions and I knew there was a small town just about ten miles to our east and decided to ride in the next day.
The heat had made us both pretty short tempered added to the fact that we’d run out of coffee I was on a real short fuse. When we dismounted at the end of yet another long day, I was weary and feelin’ real ornery and by the looks of it Rosa was feeling the same.
I watched her as she slipped from the saddle, now at least wearing more suitable clothes, a ridin’ skirt and white blouse. But Jeez... she could even make them look darned sexy. The dark skirt hugged her hips and the blouse was tightly fitting, the first two buttons open showing her generous cleavage.
I looked quickly away and once the horses were tended to and a fire going, I left Rosa cussin’ over heating up yesterday’s rabbit stew and took myself off for a long cool swim.
It was after supper that she really let rip. I had said I’d ride into the small town and pick up some provisions the following morning.
“Why is it always you that is forever riding off, hunting or on the look-out for Skeet and Cole? Now you wish to leave me all alone again while you go off drinking and playing cards and how you say…ogling the girls no?”
“No!” I stormed, “I’m just goin’ in for supplies Rosa, no saloon and definitely no…er ogling’ girls either…and I don’t anyways,” I said throwing her a hard look.
“Oh no…well what were you doing before, looking at me that way…ah…do not deny it you…you mujeriego you!”
“I ain’t a womanizer!” I yelled feeling real offended now.
“No… what about that little slut Liza then…so you were playing cards with her all night were you!”
“I told ya before Rosa, me and Liza was none of your business, now just leave it!”
“You don’t care about me at all! You drive me loco with your oh so proper ways…sleeping far away and acting as though I were you sister!”
“Hell Rosa make ya mind up, one minute I’m a dang lady-killer and the next yer moaning because I ain’t comin’ on to you…you can’t have it both ways!”
“Well why can’t I come with you,” she said ignoring my sarcastic comments.
“Because we’re still not all that far from Santa Fe and they could be lookin’ for a man and woman of our description, after that damn fool stunt Skeet and Cole pulled last week.”
“Why can’t I go alone, there are things I need, personal things for a woman’s eyes only…”
“I’m sorry Rosa, it would look real odd a woman traveling alone, you just write down what ya need and I’ll hand it to a lady in the mercantile to buy it OK?”
“Pah! You have an answer for everything Jess Harper… I hate you so much!”
“Yeah well the feelin’ s kinda mutual right now so let’s just turn in huh?”
“Why not,” she spat, “good night little brother!” And she made a great fuss of moving away as far as she could from me.
As I was bedding down on the other side of the fire I called out, “You’re a long way from the fire over there Rosa, just yell out if you feel cold.”
She froze as she was pulling her blanket over and then sat up and peered across at me, her expression expectant, “Why what will you do mi querido?” (My darling) She asked her voice suddenly as soft as silk, after her previous outburst.
“Throw another log on the fire of course,” I said laughing unkindly.
Moments later she cussed and hurled a rock in my direction, which I easily ducked before settling down, still chuckling to myself.

Chapter 3

The following day I headed off for the small town, with pretty much the last of the money I’d saved from the livery job I’d had, and Rosa’s shopping list.
I rode into the one-horse town an hour or so later, the dusty Main Street flanked by a couple of saloons, a mercantile and livery, but thankfully no Sheriff’s office.
I hitched Traveller up outside the mercantile and made my way into the cool dark interior, finding myself the only customer. In fact, I’d seen only a couple of old-timers sitting out in the shade on the board walk and I figured everyone else were at their dinner or in a saloon.
I wandered over to the counter and a miserable lookin’ old guy said, “Yes?”
“Mornin’,” I said smiling at him.
But was rewarded only by an impatient, “Well what do you want young man?”
I threw him the Harper glare and pushed my list over the counter. Canned food stuffs mostly, bacon and coffee, some whiskey and ammo.
“Last of the big spenders eh son,” he said laughing at his own wise crack.
Well I felt like telling him where to stick his dang shop, but as it was the only place for miles around, I took a deep breath and said, “I’ve gotten some more stuff on this other list, er is your wife around?”
“Uh, why do ya want to know?” he asked looking suspicious.
I nodded to the list, “Stuff here for my… er…wife, needs a woman to sort it all out I guess.”
He sighed deeply, “She’s havin’ her dinner,” he said before grudgingly going off to fetch her.
I could hear some distant argument going on out back and while I waited, I glanced at a copy of the local paper on the counter…and then my heart stood still as the headlines leapt out at me….
A few minutes later a large grey-haired woman bustled in, “Well young man what can I do for you?” she asked briskly.
I was still staring down at the paper and she had to ask me again.
“Excuse me Mister but my Wally said you needed me to fill your order?” she said loudly and slowly like she was addressing an idiot.
I looked up at her, my eyes unfocused for a moment and then dragged myself back to the present.
“Er, yes Ma’am, I need this stuff,” I said hastily passing my list across the counter.
She read it silently, her lips moving a little and her face set in a frown. Then she peered at me over her eye glasses. “For your wife you say?” she said looking at me disbelievingly.
“Yes Ma’am, she’s kinda sick right now can’t make it into town herself.”
She looked me up and down noting my somewhat shabby trail weary appearance, down to my low-slung iron and dusty worn boots. Hardly looking like husband material, I imagined she was thinking. She sighed and then nodding went about the business of pulling open drawers from under the counter and packing up various items in brown paper, before placing them all carefully in a gunny sack. Along with my other purchases, including a copy of the paper I’d been looking at previously.
All the time I was watching her my heart was pounding, my mouth dry and stomach churning as I tried to make sense of what I’d just read, it couldn’t be…
Once more I was dragged back to reality as she asked for payment and I dug about finding the right amount before thanking her and leaving the shop in a daze.
I unhitched Traveller and walked him down the street to the nearest of the two saloons, tethered him and plucking the newspaper out of the gunny sack marched in through the bat-wing doors.
The place was surprisingly quite for dinner time, but then I weren’t in the mood for talkin’ anyways.
I asked for a bottle and mooched over to a quiet table at the back and just sat there for a few minutes. Then I poured a whiskey, downed it in one and then poured another and sat looking at it for a while. Finally, I looked back down at the paper spread out on the table and read the headlines again.
Raid Foiled as Winters Gang Attempt to Hold –Up Pedro’s Bar.
Then below: Skeet and Cole Winters shot dead at scene.
I closed my eyes tight, unable to read any further. Rotting in jail, yeah or even shot up some, but both dead, it hardly seemed possible.
I cussed under my breath and took another slug of whiskey before reading on:
Meryl Dawes, Deputy Sheriff of Santa Fe, was in the right place at the right time Friday morning of last week when Pedro’s bar was attacked by two of the notorious Winters Gang. He explained to our reporter how he had been paying an early morning visit to his fiancée Miss Lorna Potts, barmaid at Pedro’s saloon, when he heard a disturbance down in the bar. Entering quietly, he saw Skeet Winters threatening Pedro Gonzales with a pistol, whilst his younger brother Cole was emptying the till of the previous night’s takings. Fast thinking Deputy Dawes drew on the couple and gunfire was exchanged resulting in both Winters brothers being shot dead, whilst Deputy Dawes received a minor wound to his arm. Nobody else was hurt in the raid. It was thought that the rest of the gang had recently disbanded and had nothing to do with the raid. Skeet Winters appeared to be inebriated and Sheriff Jones assumed that was the reason there was little gun-play involved. However, he praised his Deputy for his fast actions. Miss Potts told our reporter that Mister Skeet Winters was shot in the face and chest and died an agonizing death. His brother Cole was killed outright by a bullet through the heart.
I closed my eyes breathing hard, unable to read any further. Then I took a deep breath, threw back a final whiskey and rising went over and chucked some coins on the bar before leaving. Then I made my way unsteadily back to Traveller, the Red Eye, having gone straight to my head by way of my empty stomach. I dragged myself onto Trav and pointed him in the general direction of our camp, feeling just about as bad as I could remember in a long while.
I rode in at sundown and as expected Rosa was furious, cussin’ me long and loud in her native tongue.
However, I barely heard her, feeling the way I did. By now kinda hung-over and also deeply saddened at the loss of two of my oldest friends, Skeet having been a buddy since we were little kids. Sure, he’d lost his way these last few years. If I’m honest he was on a course of self-destruction, what with his drinkin’, robbin’ and wild, wild ways. But I could still remember back to the war and how loyal he was. Then afterwards the real fun times we had together, before the drink took over his life and things started going so dang wrong.
Then Rosa was there beside me as I slipped down from the saddle rather unsteadily.
“I knew it,” she cried furiously, “you’ve been drinking. Pah! Why can no man be trusted to do a simple job…without the need to go in the saloon, drinking and gambling…and yes whoring too…So have you been with a woman then Jess…huh, well have you?”
“Shut up Rosa,” I said wearily, mooching over to the fire and pouring a coffee.
I slumped down, back to a large log and just stared into the flames, trying to decide how to tell her.
She followed me over still calling me every name under the sun, until I looked up at her and she saw the pain in my eyes.
She stopped yellin’ at me at once and just stared for a moment before sinking down beside me.
“Jess whatever is it?”
I couldn’t look at her, but took her hand in mine and sat looking at it resting in my own for a minute as I tried to swallow down the huge lump in my throat.
I eventually looked her in the eyes.
“It’s Skeet and Cole, they didn’t make it over…because they’re dead Rosa…I’m so dang sorry.”
Her eyes opened wide and then she gave a little laugh, “No…no mi amigo, you are wrong, Skeet cannot be dead…or Cole…why do you tell me these lies, huh?”
“It’s true sweetheart, I’m real sorry. It was in the local paper, both shot dead whilst robbin’ Pedro’s place by that dang fast shootin’ deputy, Meryl Dawes.”
“Deputy Dawes killed them?”
I just nodded.
Then it really hit home and she collapsed weeping as I held her close.

Skeet and Cole’s death changed everything and nothing….
Me and Rosa were still traveling together, just the way she wanted I guess, but now things were different. Now she felt guilty as sin for wanting me and not Skeet. I felt real bad for letting her feel that way too. Maybe for allowing her to think that we might get together at some stage, although we had not been intimate, heck I hadn’t even kissed her, but she had seen it in my eyes, in the way I looked at her.
We were still headin’ fer Colorado, just like we’d always planned, but now on our own…with all that implied.
For me everything had changed. I was never gonna run with a gang again, or cross the line between law and crime again either. Jeez it weren’t because I was scared or nuthin, I just couldn’t see the point of it. Pedro was a nice hard workin’, kind guy…he didn’t deserve to be robbed that way. But I know part of me thought that Skeet and Cole didn’t really deserve to die that way either. I knew perfectly well that Deputy Dawes would have been able to take them alive. In fact iffen he’d just told them it was over and to drop their weapons then they would have done so I was sure. But there again his girl was there and I suppose he was protectin’ her too.
I guess I felt as guilty about my feelings for Rosa as she did for me and I couldn’t see how we could ever have a future now. Not with Skeet’s death casting a shadow over us.
That night we had laid together, me holdin’ her real close as she cried herself to sleep, but that’s all it was… comfort. In the morning we rose and went about the day to day chores of livin’ without any closeness other than our mutual sadness.
We headed on riding north towards Colorado, treating each other with polite respect, but there was none of the flirting or hoped for intimacy of earlier and I began to think maybe once we reached Denver, we should go our separate ways.
Hell, I still wanted her something fierce. She was a real beautiful woman, spirited and headstrong sure, but passionate and so dang lovely she near took my breath away. But it just wasn’t right lusting after my buddy’s girl, even if he weren’t around no more…no... especially as he weren’t around no more.
The weather was real hot and humid as it had been throughout our journey from Mexico and as we headed north the relentless heat never seemed to lessen and it was beginning to get to us.
Over the last few days I’d a feeling we were bein’ watched too. I’d spent so much time lookin’ behind us and all around that Rosa had noticed and it had spooked her too.
We were camped by some huge rocks, the horses some little way off where there was sparse grazing for them.
As Rosa set about making a fire, she turned to me and said, “So who do you think it could be Jess…the law? Do they think we were part of that hold up?”
I shook my head, “Nope probably just some drifter, maybe after a hand out.”
She’d rolled her eyes and given a hollow laugh at that, “Well they’ll be lucky, we’ve precious little for ourselves.”
“Yup I know Rosa, but we should hit Colorado Springs in a few days and then I can find some work, get some money in, maybe you could too huh?”
She flashed her eyes at me and then giving a little wiggle of her hips as she moved towards me said “Well I think I could make plenty of money mi amigo,” and she gave me one of her smouldering looks.
It took me a moment to figure out what she meant, but when I did, I was furious. “You don’t need to resort to that, makin’ money on yer back,” I spat, “I can earn plenty for us both.”
“Oh, so you don’t want me making money for us that way. But then you don’t want me either, so I didn’t think you would care mi querido,” she said sarcastically.
“Well maybe I do care,” I spat before turning away and marching off to unsaddle and groom the horses.
I started tending Traveller, my mind racing, why had I said that? Did I care about her…was it just the fact that Skeet was dead holding me back? Hell, I’d adored the woman since I was just a kid and now I had my chance with her I couldn’t…no wouldn’t take it because of some stupid sense of loyalty to my dead friend. I sighed deeply and rested my head on Traveller’ s neck, breathing in the reassuring smell of horse and wondering just where my future lay.
After a while I stopped my task and peered around me into the gathering dusk, again having that strange feeling that I was being watched. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I mooched over to where I’d left my saddle. Taking my rifle from the scabbard, I paced around, but could see nothing. I finally replaced it and then patting my good old horse headed back to the fire.
It was almost dark by the time I wandered back into the camp and Rosa was sitting silhouetted by the light from a lantern she had placed on a high rock above her bedroll.
She was sitting leaning against the rock and looking pensively into the fire. So still, so very beautiful and my heart turned over…
I unbuckled my gun belt and let it slip to the ground by my bedroll and then toeing off my boots moved silently over and sat down on her bedroll beside her.
After a moment she turned her beautiful face towards me, her eyes tormented, “I’m sorry mi amor (my love), I didn’t mean it…any of it. I would not demean myself that way. I just wanted to make you jealous, tu entiendes?” (You understand)
I shrugged, “I hear you, but no I guess I don’t understand, no. Why do you want to hurt me that way?”
“Me working as a painted lady, would bother you?”
I grabbed her by the wrist holding it tightly, “Goddamn it Rosa you know it would and you know why!”
My mouth was dry and my heart beating almost out of my chest as I looked into her dark teasing eyes…
“Tell me Jess, tell me why.”
“Because I want you,” I whispered, “and I can’t stand the thought of any other man touching you that way.”
She nodded as though she had known that all along, then she looked deeply into my eyes and the teasing was all gone.
“Well then?” She breathed.
I looked from her eyes down at her inviting lips.
I knew if I made my move that would be it, there could be no going back, but I knew in my heart I was lost, she had me…hell she’d had me from the start.
I ran a finger seductively down her cheek, and then cupping her face between my hands I leaned in for a kiss…and then …. I froze.
The sound of a Colt 45 cocking was unmistakable….
Very slowly we drew apart and I looked up to see a figure just a few yards away, his gun aimed at Rosa and a horrific grin on his emaciated face…the eye patch black against his pale skin, the left arm of his shirt hanging loose.
“Chase,” I growled, “what in hell are ya playin’ at?”
His gaze flicked over to me and then back at Rosa.
“I’ve come to do you a favor Jess boy,” he said quietly, “come to dispatch this little whore so she can’t wreck your life the way she has the rest of us.”
I could feel Rosa trembling beside me and reaching out I put my hand on her arm, hoping to reassure her…Then I saw something that sent a stab of fear like a knife in my guts… my Colt stuck in his belt. He must have sneaked around behind us while me and Rosa were talkin’ and now I was completely defenseless. Why in Hell had I left my rifle back by my saddle I thought fleetingly, knowing the answer, all my thoughts had been of Rosa and Rosa alone.
I felt cold sweat running down my back and licked my lips, my mouth suddenly dry as I realized, I’d have to try and talk him out of killing her…and he didn’t look too much like he was in the mood for talkin’.
“Chase, mi amigo, I’m sorry I did not mean those things I said to you in Santa Fe that night…It was just a joke I didn’t think Skeet would throw you out that way…I didn’t mean you any harm, really,” Rosa said sounding panic-stricken.
Chase snarled at her, “Like you didn’t mean no harm getting Skeet and Cole killed. That was all down to you Rosa! He’d never have robbed that dang saloon if it hadn’t been for you. Pretty Rosa and her perfume and jewellery and dresses, you dang well near bankrupted the guy more than once…and now you’ve got your claws into this poor sucker.”
“Look Chase, just calm down will ya…come and sit a spell, have some whiskey…food, you look done in buddy,” I said trying to sound normal.
He just shook his head, “Sorry Jess I can’t. See this is the end of the road for me… I guess my life has been pretty meaningless since the war…but losin’ the friendship, of Skeet, you and Cole, well that was a step too far... and it’s all that bloody bitch’s fault.”
I realized what he was going to do, just a split second before he did it…
He opened fire shooting at Rosa and I dived across knocking her over, feeling the bullet slam into the top of my left arm as she screamed in terror and fell to the ground in a heap. Then there was another shot followed by deathly silence.
I scrambled up from where I’d dived holding my arm, feeling the warm sticky blood running through my fingers and staggered over to where Rosa lay on her back.
I squatted down beside her looking at her white face, she was dead…the second shot must have done for her.
I gently touched her cheek and then felt for a pulse in her neck, hoping on hope that I was wrong…
Then just moments later she gave a little groan and opened her eyes, peering up at me as if in a daze.
“Rosa sweetheart, tell me where did he hit, ya, where does it hurt?” I asked frantically….
She struggled to sit up… “Nowhere, he must have missed me…it was just the shock, I fainted. Oh but Jess mi amour, you are bleeding.”
I ignored her suddenly realizing that Chase had gone kinda quiet.
I looked around and couldn’t see him…then I staggered up and moved across to where he’d been standing and saw something lying in the dirt… Then I gasped and swallowed hard thinking I might well chuck… Chase was dead, very dead. He’d put his gun to his head and blasted his brains out.
I heard Rosa moving behind me and swung around grabbing her and pulling her away, “No,” I said, “don’t look…it’s over Rosa he’s dead.”
Her eyes were wide in horror, “He has killed himself?”
I nodded, “You heard him he said he had nothing left to live for,” I said bitterly.
She turned back to the fire, “And you believe him…that it was all my fault?”
I looked back at my old friend, feeling totally desolate, then wandered back to the fire and slumped down.
“I dunno,” I sighed, “I just dunno anymore.”
Then I started feelin’ real sickly and I realized my sleeve was soaking wet with blood…
“Rosa, git my canteen and some rags out of my saddlebags for my arm, will you?”
She ran off to do as asked but it soon became clear that she was no nurse. Just the sight of all the blood nearly had her fainting and it was down to me to wash out the wound as best I could with some clean water and spirit.
Once it was covered with a pad of rags she managed to bandage it OK. I just thanked God the bullet had gone straight through, figuring she wouldn’t be up to diggin’ it out. When she’d finished bandaging, I took a slug of whiskey from the bottle and offered it to her. Then we sat quietly, the night time sounds all around us. Along with the ever-present knowledge that Chase’s gruesome remains lay just a few yards away.
After a while I could stand it no longer.
“We’ll have to bury him tonight,” I said.
“What, but it is dark and you are hurt,” she objected.
I nodded, “That’s why you’ll hafta dig the grave Rosa.”
“Me! She cried in shock, I cannot do that!”
“Sure you can, and I think it’s kinda fitting don’t you? Seein’ as it was down to you that he took his own life,” I said harshly, suddenly feeling real mad at her.
She looked down and flushed, “So you do believe that,” she cried, before stamping off to do as I asked.
I looked after her and realized for the first time what a hard woman she was. She showed absolutely no emotion, no remorse at having led a man to kill himself. But there again the guy had been tryin’ to kill her, so maybe she had a point. My arm was throbbing something fierce and I felt sick to my stomach so decided to just get on with the job and stop thinking about anything too much right then.
Once she had dug a good deep grave, I performed the grisly task of wrapping his remains in his bedroll and then we both dragged him over to the grave. When the job was finished, I placed an old battered Confederate Flag, I found in his belongings, on a stick at its head. He’d like that I thought. I stood alone for a few minutes saying a prayer for him, then saluted and wandered back to the fire where Rosa was already settled.
I sank back down and Rosa turned anxious eyes on me, “He was a good friend to you, no?”
I nodded. “He wasn’t always this way Rosa, the war changed him completely…ruined him, I guess. It don’t excuse him for shootin’ at you that way, I know that, but I figure he was kinda sick in the head to do somethin’ like that.”
She nodded, “I think you are right mi amigo.”
I turned back to her, “Thanks, for diggin ’the grave an’ all. I couldn’t have done it right now, way I’m fixed,” I said nodding to my blood-stained sleeve….
Then I stood up and made my way slowly across to my own bedroll.
“Jess?” she called, a frown on her pretty face.
Hell, surely she didn’t think I would sleep with her tonight, after everything that had happened I thought angrily. Jeez had she no respect for the dead?
I turned back, “Good night Rosa,” I said firmly and I guess she got the message alright, because I heard her cuss softly, before turning on her side and ignoring me.
I lay down feelin’ real bad. I mourned the loss of one of my old comrades in arms...but then I guess the real Chase had died the day he was maimed so badly. He never seemed to recover mentally from that. I figured the hate and resentment had just built up over the years and then tonight it had finally spilled over.
Then I thought about what he’d said about Rosa. Could she really be as bad as he’d painted her, in relationships just for money? I knew that she needed lovin’ and adoration like most folk need food and water…but was she a gold digger too? I smiled grimly in the darkness, ‘well I wish ya luck with that one sweetheart,’ I thought as I finally drifted off into a troubled sleep.
I awoke a couple of hours later, the pain in my arm having wakened me and then I couldn’t drop off again.
I stirred up the fire and then with my blanket around my shoulders huddled down and poured a good measure of whiskey into one of the tin cups and took a swig. Then I cast my mind back to those early days just after the end of the war.
I’d been back home and there was nuthin’ left for me there. I’d met up with my beloved Millie and her family and then they, along with Francie, had headed off back east to start a new life (See #64 The Beginning). Pa Johnson had died in the war and so Ma went back to live with her brother taking Millie with her, leaving me not knowing if I would ever see her again.
Maybe that was part of the reason I kicked off the traces and went kinda crazy for a while. I’d hooked up with Skeet, Cole and Chase for the first time not long after that and boy were we wild.
We’d go on drinkin’ sprees, sometimes days on end and shoot up towns, just for the hell of it. Other times we’d go chasin’ women and we were sure never disappointed. All the real purty girls seemed to like a bad boy and we were real bad. We’d go shootin’ up a saloon, or get into a fight and the poor ol’ barkeep would be terrified, just wantin’ us gone or at least behavin’. There was no law in most of the places we visited and so it was down to the locals to try an’ keep the peace.
Well those ol’ saloon girls and workin’ girls too were all over us…although I never seemed to hafta pay for it. Nope those girls were happy to oblige and I reckon the bar keeps were happy too iffen it stopped us wrecking the place. This was before Rosa was on the scene though and back then Chase was a tad more normal… But even then, the signs were all there I guess iffen we’d stopped to look.
It became more and more obvious that he was just usin’ the women and had no real feelings for them. Then he started getting real ornery with some of our Spanish and Mexican friends too until it got kinda embarrassing. Towards the end it seemed like his world was getting smaller and smaller and he would only mix with fellow Texans…Eventually, by the time I caught up with them again a few years later, he’d only tolerate the gang.
Back then I’d hooked up with a beautiful Mexican girl Francesca and when she begged me to stay with her when the gang were ready to move on, I had done. Well it hadn’t worked out and then a few years later I hooked up with them all again in that bar down on the border.
I sighed deeply. Jeez Chase had changed so much…hardly ever spoke and spent all his time just with the gang. No wonder he’d been so devastated when Skeet had thrown him out. But even now I couldn’t believe that he would kill himself because of it, or attempt to kill Rosa. I sighed deeply and refilled my cup, casting a glance over to where Rosa was now sleeping soundly. How could someone so beautiful be as evil as Chase had made out? Nah I thought it was just Chase, he hated everyone didn’t he? I knew he blamed her for his being ejected for the gang…but that was it, wasn’t it?
I finally made my way unsteadily back to my bedroll and crashed out, asleep in seconds.

Chapter 4

The following day the early morning sun awoke me and I groaned and put a hand to my head…Jeez, why had I hit the bottle last night? Then I remembered it all. Chase shooting at Rosa, hitting me and then, I gagged at the thought, then turning his gun on himself.
I sat up carefully; casting a glance towards the camp fire, hoping Rosa had the coffee on. But no, there was no reassuring smell of breakfast cooking although judging by the height of the sun it was well after our usual rising time.
I stretched and yawned and then got up and wandered over to the fire, but it was long out, just cold, grey dead ashes.
Then I peered over to Rosa’s bedroll…but it was gone…and so was Rosa.
Forgetting my pounding head, I looked around the camp. The gunny sack with all our provisions in had gone too and on further inspection her little Palomino filly was missing as well…she’d done run out on me.
What in hell was she doing I thought furiously. Dadgum it, it was dangerous out there, with Indians, lowlife drifters and every kind of dang animal you cared to name ready to make you it’s next meal. Heck it was only yesterday I’d shot a dang bobcat sniffing around our camp, the long dry spell making pickin’s kinda slim for the critters. Rosa wasn’t particularly savvy regarding basic survival either always relying on us men to keep her safe, so what had possessed her?
Cussing long and loud I marched off to saddle up Traveller and was soon tracking her.
We were a couple of days ride south of Colorado Springs, Pike’s Peak to our left guiding us and I figured she at least knew what direction to ride in.
It was a couple of hours before I caught up with her, trotting along at a fine pace and when she saw me following, she broke into a gallop.
I spurred Traveller on, now as mad as all get out, and quickly drawing alongside I grabbed the reins and pulled her to a standstill.
“Dontcha know any better than to ride a horse hard in this heat!” I yelled furiously.
“Oh, I might have known you were more concerned for my horse than me you bastardo miserable!” (miserable bastard)
I slipped down from the saddle and pulled her unceremoniously down from hers, gripping her shoulders hard, just wanting to shake some sense into her.
“That hurts you son of a bitch,” she screamed trying to drag free from my grasp.
I dropped my hands at once but continued to glare at her.
“What the hell do ya think you’re doing taking off that way, dontcha know how dang dangerous it is out here for a woman alone?”
“Like you care!”
“Of course I damn well care, why do ya think I’m so mad at ya?”
She looked down and when she looked at me again her eyes were brimming with tears…
“I don’t know I don’t know anything anymore… I thought you hated me because of Chase.”
My heart was pounding and I could hardly breathe. She looked just so damn desirable. Her hair mussed up falling loose around her shoulders, her cheeks flushed and her full lips slightly parted and I could stand it no longer.
Grabbing hold of a hank of her hair I pulled her head back and then leaning in, covered her waiting lips with my own…In that moment I was done for and knew my fate was sealed.
My head was spinning and my belly flipped as a rush of excitement ran though me…
I could feel I was losing control and I pulled away gasping for air and looked into her startled eyes… But then I saw something else, something that made my pulses race even faster, a look of wanton desire…of need so great that it equaled my own.
“If you want me to stop, you’d better say now,” I gasped.
She shook her head, “No mi querido, I don’t want you to stop….”

It was two, maybe three days before we moved on and that was only because we had nearly run out of supplies.
Rosa was the most passionate and inventive lover I had ever known and she had me at the first…Somehow it didn’t matter anymore that she was maybe just using me for her own ends. I guess I was blinded, by what I thought was love…but it wasn’t…it really wasn’t, not on Rosa’s behalf anyway. In fact I think now that maybe she really didn’t know what love was.
Back then everything seemed…well just perfect. We couldn’t get enough of each other and every waking hour was spent together. She even started huntin’ and fishin’ with me and didn’t make a bad job of it either.
But the time came when we had to move on and late one hot afternoon we landed in Colorado Springs. We had precious little money left, but we found enough for a dingy room in a down-at-heel boarding house on the rough side of town. The upside being that the old-timer that ran it didn’t give a fig whether we were married or not and rented us a double room with no questions asked.
Right from the start Rosa made it clear that she was used to better, but that kinda moaning cut no ice with me.
“This is all we can afford girl and at least we’ve a roof over our heads and a good comfortable bed.”
“And what about the cockroaches and the baby above that cries all night long!” She snapped.
But then I took her in my arms, “Hey sweetheart, we ain’t gonna let that bother us none are we?” I cajoled and moments later all her grievances were forgotten as she lay in my arms.
Things were idyllic for a few weeks and I got me a good job at the livery, carin’ for the horses and also breakin’ a few broncs the owner had out back too. But the harder I worked and the longer hours I put in the more resentful Rosa became.
On the rare occasion that I was just too dog tired or beat up to make love, after spending a day being tipped off ornery mustangs, she got in a rage. Or worse still a massive sulk, refusing to speak or look at me.
It was after one such night that I came back from work to find her gone.
The previous night I come home after having been thrown, landing badly and having suffered bad bruising to my lower belly and I really wasn’t much good for anything, just needing my bed when I got in, the pain making me feel sick to my stomach.
She was pretty sympathetic at first, but when it became obvious that all I was gonna do that night was sleep, she took herself off to the saloon alone, leaving me feeling pretty dang bad. Hell I knew she could look after herself, but it still sat none too well having my girl visiting the saloon on her own that way.
The following morning, she was like a dog with two tails.
“Guess what Jess? Jason at the Golden Nugget gave me a job last night, isn’t wonderful!”
“You’ve done what?” I yelled.
“Got a job, so what’s it to you? You don’t own me you know.”
“A job doin’ what?” I asked ignoring her comment.
“As a Hostess, and before you say it, no that isn’t another name for a hooker I will be very, how you say…er…very classy…All I do is get the men to buy the best whiskey and I get top wages, more than you can make at the livery,” she taunted.
“So what am I supposed to do while you’re gettin’ all these poor suckers to part with their money?” I asked bitterly.
“Why stay here and nurse your wounds of course, you poor boy,” she said sarcastically.
Well I guess I knew then that this dang job was only to try and snap me back into line by making me jealous…but maybe I didn’t want to believe that she’d stoop that low.
In typical Harper fashion I refused to be emotionally blackmailed that way and waved her off to her job, knowing that she’d soon tire of it if I didn’t rise to the bait. But I guess I hadn’t allowed for her stubbornness.
All the time it was Jason this and Jason that…Apparently this Jason Hugo, who owned the Nugget thought Rosa was destined for great things, maybe even as his assistant, she said giving me a challenging look.
“So, you’ll be stayin’ here when I move on to Denver then?” I asked, calling her bluff.
Well I guess she was still hedging’ her bets in case it didn’t work out with Jason and she went crazy hitting me and sayin’ I had led her on and now I was abandoning her.
I just reminded her that it had always been my plan to go on up north and she could do what she damn well pleased…and I guess that’s why she acted the way she did the night I visited the Nugget.
I let her stew for a couple of days and then one night I thought I’d go along and see exactly what she was up to…and yes, I guess I was feelin’ kinda jealous, but there was no way she was goin’ to know that.
She saw me as soon as I walked in but she pretended that she hadn’t and spent the next hour or so wrapped around Jason, looking adoringly at him and hanging on his every word.
He was a real smug lookin’ bastard. From his greased hair to his polished boots he was every inch a fake. I’d met his type before, all show and no do…and I really didn’t trust that he had Rosa’s best interests at heart either. But there again maybe they deserved each other I thought as I sat sipping a beer at the back of the saloon.
Then something happened that made me really sit up and take notice. There seemed to be some sort of argument had broken out between him and Rosa. Her face was flushed and she was shaking her head, whilst another grey-haired older guy was looking on. Then he grabbed hold of Rosa’s hand and started pulling her towards the stairs and she cried out in pain…smug face Jason just looking on mockingly and not lifting a finger to help her.
I was across the room in the blink of an eye and floored the grey-haired guy with a single blow to the chin. Then Jason set some of his heavies on me and the whole place erupted into a free for all. Furniture was smashing and fists flying when out of the corner of my eye I saw Jason sneaking off towards the stairs. I strode over grabbing hold of his arm and turning him around I smashed my fist into his smug face, getting great satisfaction from splitting his lip…The blood flowing down onto his dazzling white shirt.
The place was a mess of broken furniture and bodies littered around the floor by the time I grabbed hold of Rosa and we made off home. We said little that night and just went to bed and sleep, me feelin’ kinda beat up and Rosa obviously mad, although she said nothing. However, the following morning she really laid into me.
I had woken first and had just washed up and was thinkin’ of going down to what the old man laughing called his ‘boarder’s breakfast’ when I saw Rosa was awake.
She got out of bed pulling a shawl around her shoulders and pouted at me…before saying, “What the hell did you think you were playing at last night Jess?”
“What do ya damn well think, you were yellin’ and the old guy was pullin’ you about, so what did you expect me to do?”
“Nothing, I can handle the likes of him!”
“Oh sure you can…it really looked like it,” I said sarcastically.
“I don’t need you I can look after myself!”
I sighed deeply, “Are you even listening to me?”
“Look I was just doing what I’m paid for,” she said in exasperation, “and sometimes it is difficult for me but Jason says I will learn and I will be his best girl, I am to have great things, money, jewels all I desire if I do as he says.”
My jaw dropped and I just stared at her as realization hit, “Just exactly what are you doin’?” I asked real quietly.
She must have seen the mounting fury in my eyes because at least she had the grace to blush.
Then she too looked real mad, “You know the money I get, what do you think I’ve been doing to earn that kind of money…twice what you bring home,” she said belligerently.
“Say it!” I spat.
“I am a special hostess…”
“Special hostess,” I yelled, “you’re a damned whore ain’t ya Rosa? Dress it up any way you wanna, working girl, soiled dove, painted lady…or your ‘special hostess’ it all amounts to the same don’t it?”
“Shut up…just shut up!” She yelled her face red, angry tears in her eyes.
I turned away, unable to even look at her…hell I’d never felt so close to hitting a woman in my life. I took a deep breath and then turned back to her.
“It’s over Rosa, I just can’t do this anymore,” I said and grabbing my saddlebags I made for the door.
“Mi amor, you can’t leave me this way,” she said suddenly realising she’d overstepped the mark and I really was going.
“I ain’t your love,” I growled, “in fact I don’t think you even know the meaning of the word. If you did, you’d never have done this to me.”
“Please Jess, you can’t go…”
“Sure I can, just watch me and don’t worry Rosa, you’re all Jason’s now he can look out for you,” and I left without a backward glance.

Now all these years later I turned to Slim as we were still sitting out on the porch sipping our whiskey.
“So that’s the way it was Slim, I made a fool of myself over her I guess…but I was real young. Then I turned to grin at my buddy, “And it sure was good while it lasted, she was some woman.”
“She sure was,” Slim agreed, “and I appreciate you telling me all that Jess. I guess what happened when she landed here that time makes a lot more sense now too. She sure turned everything upside down when she turned up here. What…um… it would be when you’d been here about six months wouldn’t it?”
I nodded a grim look in my eyes, “She nearly dang well lost me everything, your friendship, Andy and old Jonesy’s too I reckon, not to mention my job. Jeez she sure was trouble.”
“Hell Jess she nearly cost you more than that, she could have taken your life…she shot you remember?”
I turned and gave him the ghost of a smile, “I guess I ain’t gonna forget that in a hurry Slim.”
My pard shook his head gravely, “Me neither…”

Chapter 5
(As told by Slim Sherman)

I watched my best buddy as he looked out to the distant snowy mountains, sipping his whiskey, a look of pain in his deep blue eyes. Yup even now, what… a good six years since we had last clapped eyes on Rosa, she had the power to unsettle us both.
I sat back in my old rocker on the porch and cast my mind back to those early days when Jess had been with us just a short time. Sure, we were getting to know him. Trust him too, heck I couldn’t wish for a more loyal buddy to have at my back…But there was still a lot we didn’t know about him and that included his past with Rosa and I cast my mind back to that time….

Jonesy marched out of the kitchen a frying pan in his hand and a murderous look in his eyes.
“Where’s that dang saddle tramp”, he spat, peering around the parlor as though Jess would suddenly materialize out of thin air.
“He’s over in the corral getting the horses ready for the noon Stage,” I said, “What’s he done now Jonesy?”
“Only gone and eaten half of our dinner. There were a good dozen sausages in the larder last night and now there are only seven and he’s had ‘em.”
“Oh come on, are you sure we didn’t eat them?”
“No, we didn’t eat them! It was that no good drifter I tell you, he came in from the saloon last night, fallin’ over every darned thing, including his own feet. Doubtless drunk as a skunk and then fried up the sausages.”
“Well if you know that why didn’t you darned well stop him?”
“Because I was asleep, that’s why…but that’s what must have happened you just mark my words…he’s done it before too!”
I rolled my eyes, and then noticed as Jonesy winced putting a hand to his back.
“Sit down,” I said gently, relieving him of the frying pan and pulling out a chair. “It’s more than those doggone sausages isn’t it, Jonesy? Is it that sacroiliac of yours playing up again?
He sighed deeply, “Well if you must know it is giving me a twinge or two.”
“I knew it. Gee Jonesy I sure wish you’d go and see that specialist in Cheyenne, he’s the best according to old Doc Johnson and we can afford it.”
“It ain’t the money boy, I’ve got my savings,” he said casting me a severe look. “The fact is I can’t leave you boys. Dang it, Jess would eat us out of house and home within the week if I weren’t here to guard the larder.
I grinned at the old timer, “Come on he isn’t that bad Jonesy,” I chuckled as I went off to give a hand with the horses.
“So buddy did you have a midnight snack when you got in from town last night?” I asked a few minutes later.
“Me,” asked Jess looking the picture of innocence.
“Yes you!”
“Uh, well I might have had one or two sausages, but hey Slim I’m a growin’ boy ya know…gotta keep my strength up.”
“Um, well you’ll need all the strength you can muster when Jonesy finds out the truth, he’s on the war path Jess, his back’s giving him gyp and he’s none too happy,” I said as I shielded my eyes against the bright sunlight and looked up the trail.
“Here comes Mose bang on time, and I just hope for your sake he hasn’t got any hungry passengers on board,” I added grinning.
Mose pulled up with a flourish and Jess and I exchanged a knowing smile, pretty sure there must be a female aboard.
Jess elbowed me out of the way to pull the stage door open and looked to where a woman was about to alight…then he suddenly stood back instead of leaning up to help her down, and I flicked him a surprised glance.
His face was drained of color and I saw him swallow deeply before saying bitterly, “Rosa, what in hell are you doin’ here?”
“Jess,” I yelled, annoyed that he should be rude to a stage passenger, “what’s got into you?”
“Ask her,” he snapped back at me before marching off to collect the replacement horses.
“I’m real sorry about that Ma’am,” I said offering her a hand and then as she fully emerged from the stage I stared in awe at the most incredible, dark skinned beauty I had ever clapped my eyes on. Her long dark hair was braided and hanging down to her tiny waist. Her tightly fitting scarlet dress leaving nothing to the imagination and her dark brown eyes were now viewing me quizzically.
I just stood there frozen to the spot drinking in her stunning good looks, before I suddenly became aware that Mose was throwing down a valise from the stage luggage rack.
I peered up at him, “What are you doing Mose?”
“The lady’s stayin’ over,” the old driver said, before scrabbling down and mooching off towards the ranch in search of the coffee pot.
My eyes swiveled back to where Jess had now arrived with the team and was looking angrily at the woman… “The Hell you are,” he said heatedly.
“Please Jess,” she said advancing upon him and placing a gloved hand lightly on his chest, “it’s Jason. I ran away and he’s sent some of his heavies to bring me back.”
I watched as Jess just shrugged, “You made yer bed when you took up with him Rosa. You chose him over me as I recall, so I really ain’t interested.”
“Please, mi amor,” she said literally throwing herself at him, “estoy tan asustado!” (I am so frightened)
“What did she say?” I asked.
Jess sighed deeply, “Says she’s frightened.”
I looked at Jess’ uncompromising face and then to where this beautiful woman was looking pleadingly into his eyes.
“We can at least hear the lady out Jess,” I said quietly.
He just shrugged and then with a resigned look in his eyes picked up her case and offering his arm walked her over to the house.
I followed them over and was just in time to see Jonesy emerging from the kitchen gunning for Jess.
“I hope you aren’t thinking of eating dinner with us because there ain’t enough to go around, seeing as somebody has eaten half the dang sausages!” He bellowed.
Then he suddenly registered the vision of loveliness on Jess’s arm and back peddled.
“Why excuse me Ma’am, I didn’t see you there, you stoppin’ for a bite to eat?”
Mose who was already at the table pouring his coffee, said, “She’s stayin’ period Jonesy…one of young Casanova’s women folk,” he said guffawing at his own joke and flicking a glance in Jess’s direction.
“She ain’t,” Jess said quickly, “whatever that means,” he added darkly.
Mose simply raised an eyebrow to Jonesy and nodded to where Jess had just put the valise down.
“She’s in a spot of trouble,” I said quickly, “we just need to get to the bottom of it, see how we can help.”
“Sure, sure,” said Jonesy quickly casting one of his rare smiles in Rosa’s direction. “And don’t you worry Ma’am, there’s plenty of dinner to go around, I’ll just go heat up some nourishing Mulligan Stew,” he said casting Jess a black look.
“Oh that is so kind of you,” Rosa said beaming at Jonesy, who retired to the kitchen in a warm glow.
A little later Mose reluctantly said he should be making tracks.
“There’s a late afternoon Stage back to town should you need it,” he said with a toothy smile in Rosa’s direction before heading off.
“Oh, she’ll be on it,” Jess muttered.
“Jess mi amor, why are you so mean to me?” She asked with a little pout.
“You know dang well why,” he replied, “and I ain’t ‘your love’ so quit sayin’ it.”
“Yeah Jess stop being so mean to her,” I agreed, “let the lady explain at least.”
“What lady,” he muttered sotto voce. “OK so what’s the story Rosa and it better be good.”
She sighed and looked like she might well cry and I patted her hand encouragingly, and led her to the couch, “In your own time,” I said, but Jess just rolled his eyes.
“Well you remember I was working for Jason Hugo, at the Golden Nugget?” She started.
“I’m hardly likely to forget it am I?” Jess growled.
She flushed up at that before continuing… “Well anyway I did very well and was finally put in charge of all the girls, as their Manager, just like Jason had promised and I earned a fortune.”
“Well that’s just swell,” Jess said, “you chose working for that low-life over us…so I’m real glad it all worked out like you wanted,” he said sarcastically.
She ignored him and continued. “Anyway, Jason decided to sell the Nugget and he bought the Buck’s Head over in Cheyenne.”
I gave a little whistle, “That must have cost a pretty penny.”
She nodded, “It did and he has had some money problems since we moved. He had to get rid of someof the girls and wanted me to take my old job back…said I would pull in the punters.”
“Oh, so what was that?” I asked innocently.
She flushed again and threw Jess an uncertain look.
“Well go on tell him honey, don’t be shy?” Jess said nastily.
“I was an um, a hostess,” she said quietly.
“Oh yeah, sitting with the clients and chatting,” I said naïvely.
Jess looked exasperated, “Never mind all that, why have you run away?”
“Oh Jess,” she said suddenly looking tearful, “he is so cruel, he beats me, look,” and she pulled up the sleeve of her dress to show some really nasty bruises.
I sucked in a breath, feeling really shaken and flicked a glance over to Jess and saw the pain in his eyes. So, all the bravado and sarcasm was a front I suddenly realised, and my pard still had feelings for this beautiful girl.
She was seated on the couch beside me, and Jess was leaning against the mantelpiece and he turned away, looking down before he said quietly, “What else?”
“Well heck that’s enough isn’t it?” I exploded, “for goodness sake Jess look at her.”
Then he turned angry eyes on me, “Rosa’s a real tough cookie, she can look after herself.”
“Can’t you,” he said looking at her, “so what else huh?”
That was when she pulled her low cut dress down a little further, clearly showing a burn on her shoulder, “A cigarette, Jess, he stubbed out his cigarette…and there is more...he,” then the tears welled up and we could hardly hear what she said…but when we did it was truly shocking, “he forced himself on me Jess, not once but many times and I can bear it no longer,” then she collapsed sobbing.
I looked from Rosa to Jess and saw a look in his eyes I recognized and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, that look of pure rage, “I’ll swing for the bastard,” he said his eyes now flashing dark and dangerous.
That was when she flew into his arms, “Please mi amigo, I do not want to see you in trouble...just keep me safe, let me stay, just for a little please?”
Jess looked at me over the top of her head and I could tell he was lost. Whatever she had done to him in the past to make him so bitter, he was still prepared to forgive her and look out for her, just as I knew he would in the end. Well look out for her anyway… but forgive, maybe not.
Over dinner she was charm itself, asking me intelligent questions about the ranch, praising Jonesy’s cooking to the skies and occasionally casting a furtive glance across the table to Jess, who had remained quiet throughout the meal.
“So what are your plans then young lady?” Jonesy asked innocently, not having been privy to our earlier discussion.
When she flushed up looking anxiously across at Jess, but I answered for her.
“Rosa and Jess are old friends and she’ll be staying with us for a little while Jonesy,” I said quickly.
Then an idea struck me. “Uh, how are your cooking skills?” I asked her.
“Well I’ve never had any complaints,” she said flicking a glance over to Jess.
“I was wondering if you could possibly act as housekeeper for a few weeks. Jonesy here needs to see a doc over in Cheyenne, but he thinks we can’t manage without him…but if you were to stay, cook, do a little housework, well I guess we could make it worth your while huh Jess?” I asked looking over to my pard for approval. “And you’d be doing us a real favor.”
“Look Slim I think we need to talk this through,” Jess said looking anxious.
“What’s there to talk about Jess, we’re in need of a housekeeper and Rosa here needs a safe place for a while so everyone’s happy.”
Except Jess wasn’t… he really wasn’t.
He just shrugged and then turned to Rosa, “So these heavies of Jason’s are Harvey and Kyle?” he asked.
She nodded.
Jess shook his head, “Harvey James is a big bear of a man with the brains of an ape and similar looks. Kyle Davies is different again, a real fast gun, cunning and sly as a fox.”
“And they know you’re headed for Laramie huh?” He asked Rosa.
“I think so yes. I found an old newspaper and there was a report on how you had helped apprehend some outlaws when you were deputising for the Sheriff here. It had your address and everything, that was when I decided to run away and find you…but Jason saw it too…so I guess they’ll know where to look for me.”
“Oh great,” Jess said looking real mad again, “that’s all we need Slim, those apes showing up here, with Andy and Jonesy about.”
“Andy?” Rosa asked.
“My kid brother, he’s in school right now, but he’ll be back on the afternoon stage, you’ll meet him then,” I said smiling at her, those dark eyes mesmerizing me.
It was a warm day and we were all sitting out on the porch later with some lemonade when the afternoon Stage hurtled down the rise.
Jess immediately went to fetch the new horses and I stood up ready to go help him.
“I’ll go and help Mr Jonesy start the supper, yes?” Rosa said jumping up too.
Then moments later Andy charged over, sliding to a standstill and almost dropping his pile of school books as he saw Rosa smiling down at him.
“Hey Andy come and meet Rosa,” I said smiling at the effect the stunning woman was having on my little brother.
He opened his mouth but no words came out and then finally a little squeak, “Ma’am,” he said shaking the offered dainty hand.
“I am enchanted to meet you Andy and I am Rosa Maria Sophia Lopez, but you must call me Rosa mi amigo.”
He blushed to the roots of his hair and said, “Thank you Ma’am... er I mean Rosa.”
“Come along then Andy we will help your Mr Jonesy with the supper yes? I am to stay a while and we will become good friends I think…”
I watched as they went inside, thinking how fast my kid brother was growing up when Jess yelled over, “Are we changing this dang team or what Slim?”
It was later as we were grooming the stage horses in the barn that we had a chance to talk properly.
“She certainly is a looker Jess, so were you two uh…close at one time?”
“You could say,” he agreed, continuing to groom Tam without looking up at me.
“She sure is a beautiful girl,” I said beaming at Jess.
“You said that already Slim.”
“Yes, well she’s a real stunner,” I said warming to my theme.
“Yeah and she’s also a conniving scheming little gold digger who’d sell her granny fer the price of a bottle of scent.”
I turned and stared at him, “You sound pretty bitter Jess, she can’t be that evil surely?”
“She’s bad news Slim you don’t want any part of her.”
“What do you mean, she’s a lovely intelligent woman and had a good job too by all accounts until that Jason turned nasty,” I said stoutly.
“She’s none of those things Slim,” he said turning angry eyes on me. “She’s a fake and you can’t believe anything she says…she’s just after a free ride an’ she’ll take you for every penny you’ve got iffen you let her.
“What are you talking about Jess? You’ve seen how beautifully turned out she is, she’s got taste and refinement…She’s obviously had a very good job to be able to dress that well.”
He just shook his head, “You’re crazy. I’ll tell you what her job is Slim.” He was now giving me his full attention his eyes burning with anger, “She’s a painted lady…a soiled dove… a lady of the night…got it?”
I felt deeply shocked, no she couldn’t be, she looked every inch a lady…he was lying, but why?
He shook his head again, obviously knowing what was on my mind, “I ain’t lyin’ to you Slim, your kid brother is in there making our supper with a hooker…so are you so keen she stays around now, huh?”
I shook my head trying to think it all through, it couldn’t be so…
“Well maybe this Jason forced her into it…kept her captive so she had no choice?”
Jess just shook his head, “She does it because she likes it Slim. She likes being center of attention, of having men drool over her, giving her presents, jewellery, money. Sure she’s paid well, she’s a real high class whore…but that’s what she is Slim, whichever way you look at it.”
I just stood there staring at him, realizing that maybe he was telling the truth, but not wanting to believe it.
“I ain’t got nuthin’ against workin’ girls, I guess everyone has to turn a buck or two and iffen that’s the only way they can do it, well good luck to them,” he said.
I nodded, not that I’d had much to do with them…well not since the war anyway, but yeah, live and let live was my principle too.
Jess shook his head, looking real upset again.
“But Rosa is something different Slim. She’s devious and she turns friend against friend, for the fun of it. She makes people do stuff they never normally would, just because they’re under her spell. I’m warning’ you I lost three good buddies because of her.”
Then he sighed looking deeply embarrassed, “But I still went with her, God help me…because she’d got me Slim…there was no dang way out….I thought I loved her…I really did, until she betrayed me in the worst possible way.”
“Well that was a long speech,” I said gently, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say so much about anything before.”
“Well maybe you need tellin’ Slim… warning, because you really don’t wanna go there, trust me.”
“Or maybe you don’t want me to go there, because you still have feelings for her yourself huh Jess?” I said quietly, before turning on my heel and leaving, just needing some space to think everything through.
I just couldn’t believe that everything Jess had said was true and he didn’t seem to want to elaborate on how she had lost him his friends or indeed what she had done to betray him. Then it occurred to me that maybe she had taken up working as a hooker whilst she and Jess were together. Hadn’t he said something earlier about her choosing Jason over him? Jeez, that sure would be the ultimate betrayal. Something in his eyes made me think I was right, humiliation, hurt and anger were plain to see. I gasped well of course he wouldn’t want her here. But there again we couldn’t send her off to Laramie to face Jason Hugo’s paid henchmen either.
The decision was pretty much made for us at supper time that night.
All Jonesy could talk about was his trip to Cheyenne and what an excellent doctor the specialist was. Also what a great cook Rosa was and how it was a load off his shoulders that she would be around to look after us all.
“I reckon that’s what you boys need,” he said casting an amused eye over us all, “a nice young lady to knock you all into shape. Heck the female influence might even tame the saddle tramp,” he said winking at Jess.
Jess flicked a quick glance over at Rosa and I saw the look of intimacy they exchanged, before Jess quickly looked down and just grunted.
Andy had suggested Rosa have his room and said he’d bunk down in our room again.
“It’ll be fun, Jess, Slim won’t it,” he said cheerfully, “just like old times.”
It wasn’t until the kid was finally asleep that Jess and I were able to talk.
Jess had lain on his bed just staring at the ceiling after we’d all turned in ignoring Andy’s excited chatter about our new housekeeper.
Once I was sure Andy was fast asleep tucked up in a cot on the other side of the room I turned to Jess.
“Are you brooding?” I asked.
He sighed deeply, “This ain’t gonna work Slim, she’s gonna cause trouble.”
“Oh come on Jess, what can she do? It’s only for a couple of weeks, three at the most.”
He just shrugged, “She’s already got her claws into you.”
That’s ridiculous she’s just being pleasant…anyway what’s it to you if I find her attractive. You don’t still want her do you?” I asked belligerently.
“See,” he said and turning his back on me feigned sleep.

Chapter 6

I awoke really early the following morning, yawned and stretched before looking over to Jess’s bed…it was empty.
I did a double take. Heck it practically took dynamite to get Jess out of his bed in a morning. In fact, it wasn’t until coffee was brewing and bacon sizzling that he could be persuaded to join us at the breakfast table usually.
I sat up and saw that Andy was still fast asleep, the first fingers of dawn light filtering in through the threadbare curtains.
I got up, pulled my pants on and padded out of our room barefoot.
Then I paused outside Andy’s room, where Rosa was sleeping. I bent down a little, listening intently at the door for any movement, if Jess wasn’t in his own bed…well then maybe….
Then I heard a slight sound behind me and straightening up guiltily I turned to see Jess watching me.
He was leaning on the wall by the kitchen, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his eyes squinting through a curl of blue smoke and a coffee cup in his hand…the expression in his eyes unfathomable.
“I ain’t in there if that’s what you were thinkin’,” he said gruffly.
“I…er…no,” I said flushing up at being caught out and feeling kind of foolish.
Jess took a pull on the cigarette and then exhaled a plume of smoke peering over at me. Then more in sorrow than in anger said, “I wouldn’t do that Slim, not with Jonesy and the boy in the house…you know that dontcha?”
“Sure, sure I do Jess, I’m sorry,” I said before wandering over to join him in the kitchen, “anymore coffee going?”
He poured me a cup and then sat down at the table opposite me.
“I didn’t know where you were,” I said rather lamely, “not like you to be up so early Jess.”
“I’m goin’ to town in a minute, catch up with that lowlife Harvey and his buddy Kyle from the Nugget and with any luck that bastard Jason will be with ‘em…I really wanna have a word with him,” he said cracking his knuckles.
When Jess gets moods like this on him it makes me wary, real wary.
“Look Jess, this is a matter for the law, let’s talk to Mort and get him to sort it all out huh?”
He just shook his head,“Oh no Slim, the law’s too dang good for the likes of Jason, a guy that can slap a woman about that way… and…the other stuff,” he said a look akin to pain sweeping across his face… “to do that to a woman…time on time, well he don’t deserve no mercy Slim.”
I sighed knowing there was no point in arguing when he was like this.
“Why so early?” I asked.
“I wanted to get to town before they get a chance to turn up here Slim. That hot head Kyle Davies is likely to draw before he dang well thinks things through and you sure don’t want the likes of him around Andy and Jonesy.”
“OK well I’m coming with you then.”
As we rode out, I covertly studied my buddy, again wondering about his past and exactly where Rosa fitted in. All he would say was they went back a long way and yes, they had been lovers, but that was all ancient history.
I knew what a private man he was and that there was one heck of a lot of past that he hadn’t shared yet, maybe never would. I knew about his family home being fired and the loss of most of his kin. That he’d been on the drift for five years after the war and on occasion had been in trouble with the law, but that was about all.
But I imagined the use of his fast gun figured pretty heavily in all his activities. Now I wondered exactly what his plans were for Jason Hugo’s hit men, and more to the point Jason himself.
“Look Jess I really think we should run all this past Mort when we hit town,” I said, “after all there’s no point in getting into trouble over it all.”
“It ain’t me that started the trouble,” he growled, “Jason did that the first time he raised his hand to her. All I’m gonna do is send them on their way and iffen they don’t wanna go…well then.”
When I threw him a rather disapproving glance he shrugged.
“Oh come on Slim, I’ve been around long enough now for you to know I never draw first, if Kyle or even Harvey wanna try their luck, well that’s up to them… same with Jason. But he’s an out and out coward, like most bullies, so I doubt he’ll be around to be honest.”
“Will you go after him?”
Jess shrugged again, “Maybe, sometime…I’ve gotten a kinda itch to beat the daylights out of him Slim…but I guess he’ll keep.”
We never actually made it to town…we intercepted both Harvey and Kyle about a mile outside, heading for the ranch.
All four of us reined in and then Harvey James, looking exactly as Jess had said a huge bear of a man spoke first, taunting Jess.
“Well if it ain’t Jess Harper, we’re lookin’ for you boy and that little tart Rosa.You ready to hand her over because the boss is getting kinda lonely.”
“Is he?” Jess said swinging down from Traveller and viewing the big ugly man with a jaundiced eye, “You wanna get down off that horse and ask me nicely?”
I gasped, was Jess crazy, the big ape was a good head and shoulders taller and pounds heavier.
The older man lumbered awkwardly down from the saddle and turning towards Jess was immediately head butted in the stomach by my buddy and was sent reeling.
Before he could drag himself out of the dirt Jess had straddled him and was raining countless blows to his head.
Eventually Harvey managed to bring his knees up and kicked Jess off, but my pard recovered well and went in for the attack again. The clincher being a haymaker to the chin, followed by a chop to the back of the neck as the big guy was falling, leaving him face down in the dirt, out cold.
I cheered and was met by a stony glare from Kyle, who now jumped down from his horse to assist his friend.
“So, you want the same?” Jess asked cheekily, when Harvey was once more upright, but obviously a broken man…sitting on a rock, head in hands.
“I was thinking along the lines of something a tad more permanent,” Kyle drawled in his husky voice… “like a shoot-out, winner gets the girl, how about it Harper?”
Jess flicked a glance up to me, where I was still sitting on Alamo and he raised an eyebrow that said, ‘do I really want the girl?’
Then he turned back to Kyle, “Whatever you want Kyle, you draw when you’re ready huh?”
It was just too darned fast for me to see. OK I’d been with Jess before when we’d both been shooting but I’d never witnessed a shoot-out this way when I was just focussed on him and I was totally amazed at his speed and accuracy.
Kyle was down in the dirt yelling in pain from the slug in his shoulder, before he’d even had time to aim at Jess.
I quickly looked to Jess, but there was nothing in his face, no pride, no emotion at all. He merely wandered over to Kyle and pulled him up from the dirt and gestured to Harvey, who had now recovered some, to come and look after his buddy.
Sitting my mount as I was, a good few yards away, I only just caught what Jess said to the two men and a grim smile crossed my face, yup, my buddy sure never minced his words.
“Get the hell out of here,” he spat, “and if you know what’s good fer you, you’ll leave Rosa alone or you’ll git more of the same.”
Both men nodded and then Harvey helped the badly injured Kyle onto his horse, before mounting his own.
“Another thing Jess growled grabbing hold of Harvey’s horse’s bridle, “you can tell Jason from me, this ain’t over… I’ll come lookin’ ….”

We were back home in good time and as we went to the barn to put our horses up Jess turned to me and said, “What did you really think I was gonna do back there Slim?”
I shrugged, “Stop them I suppose Jess, one way or another.”
“Uh,” he grunted before wandering off to Traveller’ s stall, where he pulled the saddle off and started rubbing him down.
I followed him in and then leaned on the stall door watching him, “Why do you ask?”
“Because I’ve got this feelin’ you don’t trust me Slim. I told ya didn’t I, she don’t mean nuthin’ to me no more. I ain’t about to go courtin’ the business end of a rope on her behalf iffen that’s what yer thinkin’. Sure I’ll catch up with that bastard Jason one day, but all I’ll do is rough him up some…I ain’t about to kill him Slim.”
“I know that,” I said quietly. “So what will happen about Rosa now?”
He shrugged, “Whatever ya want Slim, I guess she can stay until Jonesy gets back but just don’t expect me to spend time with her.” Then he suddenly looked cheerful for the first time that day, “After all, I’m seein’ the lovely Jade ain’t I!”
Jess had been dating Jade Adams for a few weeks now and they’d got close, real close. And boy was she a stunner, from her fiery red hair to her large green eyes she was every inch an absolute doll. But more than that Jade was funny, kind and very much the party girl and the ideal date for my crazy buddy.
She lived on the edge of town in a tiny house that she shared with her friend Lizzie. Both girls worked in a rather upmarket haberdasher that had recently opened in town called Madame Barbette’s. Although rumor had it that Madam Barbette was really Betty Hodges, who had another store over in Cheyenne. Anyway, whoever she was, she acted pretty much as a sleeping partner, leaving the girls to run the Laramie shop without any supervision. This of course gave them plenty of time to wangle free time between them and Jess was never short of a date with Jade.
Now Jess’s eyes lit up, “In fact I’m on a promise come Friday Slim. Lizzie’s out with her Jack an’ so we’ll have the whole house to ourselves.
I looked over at my buddy pleased to see him happy and animated for the first time since Rosa had arrived.
“Well don’t do anything I wouldn’t,” I said with a wink.
“I guess that narrows it down some then,” he said laughing.

We mooched over to the house, pleased to see we were still in time for breakfast.
“Where in heck do you think you two have been! “Jonesy said marching out of the kitchen in high dudgeon.
However, it was difficult to take him seriously, wearing his long wrap around apron, with a matching chef’s hat on his head.
Jess took one look and fell about laughing, whereas I was slightly more circumspect.
“What’s with the hat, then Jonesy?” I asked, now unable to stop a grin creeping across my face.
He pulled himself up to his full five foot eight and said, “I’ll have you know a very good friend of mine gave me this hat and he used to cook for the President!”
“Well that still doesn’t explain why you’re wearing it to cook our breakfast,” I said patiently.
I was amazed to see him flush up a little and refusing to look me in the eye said, “If you must know I thought it was kinda fittin’ …I’ve just been showing young Rosa the ropes in the kitchen, so she’s already to take over when I go to Cheyenne tomorrow.”
“So where is she?” I asked.
“We’ve gotten breakfast all ready and she just slipped out the back to call young Andy in and give him a hand feedin’ his critters.”
“The hell she has,” Jess said his good humor suddenly deserting him as he barged past me and out the back door.
A minute later Andy ran in, “You wanted to see me Slim?” He asked.
I looked briefly puzzled but then recovered, “Uh yeah, breakfast’s ready Andy, Jonesy wants you to give him a hand dishing up,” I improvised, “I’ll go tell the others.”
I went quietly into the back yard and could hear an altercation going on down by the pen where Andy kept his pets.
They had their backs to me and as I approached I heard Rosa say, “For goodness sake Jess he’s just a little boy, of course I wasn’t leading him on….in what way?”
“Garldarn it Rosa, flirting' is just like breathing to you, you don’t even know yer doin’ it.”
“Doing what?” She yelled sounding really annoyed.
“The way you are around men, with that come on I dare ya look. You stand so dang close, that look in your eyes that leads ‘em on…come on Rosa you know dang well.”
“You fuss too much! Jess he’s just a little boy, like I said…he just wants to be friends with me, is that so wrong?”
“He’s about the same age I was when you led me on real good Rosa…kissin’ me and offerin’ more, then snatchin’ it away…. Well I’ll tell ya now, you start messin’ with that kid and you’ll have me to answer to.”
“What is wrong…you are maybe jealous mi amigo?” she said triumphantly, before turning and seeing me standing a few feet away.
“Uh, Slim, I didn’t see you there,” she said looking a little uncertain. But then she rallied quickly and giving me a huge smile walked over grabbing my arm and moving off towards the kitchen. “You are in for a real treat mi amigo, I have cooked you a Spanish omelette to accompany your bacon, you will like I think.”
Once we were all seated at the table, Jonesy now sans his chef’s tall hat, said, “So you never said where you two have been at such an ungodly hour.”
“To sort out those no hopers Harvey and Kyle,” Jess muttered, without removing his gaze from his plate.
“Gee, those men who were after Rosa, so did ya get ‘em Jess…did ya?” Andy asked excitedly.
“Yup,” Jess said still not looking up.
“Well come on tell me Jess did you shoot ‘em both did you huh?”
“Andy just get on with your breakfast,” I said, “you don’t need to hear the gory details, enough that they’re dealt with and won’t be bothering Miss Rosa again.”
“Aw Slim…”
“Andy, that’ll do and if you’ve finished you’ve chores to do haven’t you,” I said firmly.
“I suppose,” he muttered slowly getting up and making for the door. Then he turned and grinned at Rosa, “Thanks for the Spanish Omelette Rosa it was swell.”
“De nada, Andy.”
Andy flicked a questioning glance at Jess.
“Says yer welcome,” he said grudgingly.
Andy beamed again and went out with a spring in his step.
A soon as he had gone Rosa turned wide eyes on Jess, “You went to find them mi querido?”
Jess ignored the endearment and just nodded, “They won’t be bothering’ you again Rosa, or Jason I guess, so you can go and get on with your life huh?”
“Not yet she can’t,” Jonesy said quickly, “the gal has promised to stay and cook for you all while I’m away, look out for the boy too…you still will won’t you my dear?”
“Well of course Mister Jonesy,” said Rosa beaming at him, “I promised did I not? I have to… how do you say…er take myself in hand too, decide where I will live and work from now on…I need some time for this I think.”
“Sure you do my dear and it’s Jonesy, not Mister, just Jonesy,” he said with a foolish grin.
Jess rolled his eyes and I said, “Well sure you can stay on until Jonesy gets back it’s what we agreed after all.”
At that Jess got up, scraping his chair back noisily and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
“Well what in heaven’s name had gotten into the drifter,” Jonesy said looking surprised, “you’d think he’d be happy having a beautiful lady like Miss Rosa around the place, the way he likes the ladies.”

Jonesy went off for his appointment with the doc over in Cheyenne the following day. Jess pretty much keeping to himself the rest of the week, riding fence away from the yard most of the time.
When he rode out one morning Rosa joined me on the porch and watched him riding up the rise with a sad expression in her eyes.
“He is avoiding me I think?”
I looked away, not knowing what to say, “Um, he’s just busy I guess, we’ve a heck of a lot of miles of fences to look after, we have to keep on top of things.”
She sighed deeply ignoring the obvious white lie.
“We used to be so close you know, in the old days he was so apasionado…er passionate, you know…such a wonderful lover…”
I flushed up, running a finger around my collar, “Uh, right,” I said, looking off to the hills.
She gave a little giggle, “Oh Slim now I have embarrassed you, I am sorry, my Latin blood you see,” she said with a little pout, “we are not afraid to speak of such things…”
Then before I could reply I saw the Stage rattling down into the yard and moments later Mose heaved on the lines bringing the horses to a snorting, head shaking stop. Then he grinned down at Rosa and said, “Any coffee on the go young lady?”
I bowed my head hiding a secret smile, was there nobody immune to Rosa’s charms I wondered… She sure was one hell of a beautiful woman though. Open minded and doubtless very apasionado herself I thought as I went off to change the team.
I caught up with Jess later in the day, when I went over to the south pasture where I knew he’d be working.
I reined in, slipped from the saddle and stood watching him hammering a fence post in place before advancing on him. I stood a little behind him noting the sweat stains to the back of his pale blue shirt and knowing how hard he’d been working in the relentless heat.
“Jess,” I called.
He stopped hammering and I saw his back stiffen, but he didn’t turn around.
I mooched over and faced him, “Jess, take a break we need to talk, I’ve brought you some fresh biscuits, I’ll put some coffee on huh?”
He said nothing but threw the hammer down and wandered over to where he’d already got a fire going and he pushed the pot across to the heat and slumped down, back against a tree trunk.
I fetched the bag of biscuits and chucked them down to him before sitting down myself.
After a while he flicked a glance over at me, “Thanks.”
“Rosa made them for you specially, said to tell you she really appreciates what you did for her.”
He just nodded and started to demolish the biscuits and then I poured a coffee and passed it across.
“Thanks,” he said again, but refused to look at me.
“Jess for goodness sake will you talk to me,” I said in exasperation.
“What do ya want me to say Slim I’ve already told you why I don’t want her around.”
“Heck Jess this isn’t about you anymore. You know old Jonesy would never have gone off for that treatment unless he thought we were in good hands.”
He shook his head and muttered, “Good hands…uh she’s sure got him fooled then.”
I chuckled, “I think old Jonesy is kinda smitten.”
Jess’s head shot up and he really looked at me then, “What about you Slim, are you smitten too?” He asked angrily.
I suddenly felt my pulses racing, “Maybe...why should it bother you Jess, you don’t want her…or do you?”
“You just don’t get it do you Slim, she’s no good…for you or me either, why the hell can’t ya just see that?”
“But why, I just don’t understand?”
He sank his head in his hands and then when he looked back up at me, he seemed almost desperate, “Look I just want her gone OK!”
I shook my head, “I’m sorry buddy, I made a promise. I said she could stay until Jonesy gets home and I aim to keep that promise.”
“Well there ain’t nuthin’ more to say then is there,” he growled before standing up and getting back to work.
Rosa seemed perfectly pleasant and normal, carrying out her tasks as required and chatting pleasantly in the evenings before retiring early most nights…that was until Friday came around.
After supper Jess had been in the shower and then spent time in our room getting into his glad rags and I have to say my buddy scrubs up pretty good.
He came striding into the parlor wearing his Sunday best dark pants and frock coat over a sparkling white shirt and black string tie. His best boots were shining and his good Stetson set off the outfit really well.
Rosa who was just pouring us a coffee nearly dropped the pot when she saw him, I noticed and hid a smile.
“Where are you going?” She asked, sounding rather abrupt.
“To town,” he replied equally abruptly.
Then turning to me said, “See ya tomorrow Slim, Andy,” and turned to snag his gun belt from the hook by the door.
As he was buckling it on Rosa drifted over towards him and standing really close said, “What will you do in the town mi amigo?”
He said nothing for a moment and then, “I’m seeing my girl, Jade, if ya must know,” then turning on his heel he left.
She turned away and I saw a look of total wretchedness in her eyes for a split second before she recovered and busied herself with the coffee once more.
When Andy was in bed she settled down with some mending and I opened a book, but she obviously needed to talk.
“Jess has been seeing this woman for some time?” she asked.
“Er Jade, yeah quite a while,” I said smiling across at her. “She’s a great girl, works in the haberdashers,” I said.
“How nice,” she said, rather sarcastically.
Then, “So they are lovers no?”
I shrugged noncommittally, “None of our business I guess,” I said knowing Jess wouldn’t want his private life discussed this way.
“Oh they are lovers,” she confirmed, “if he has been seeing her a while…as I’m sure you know, do you not Slim?”
“Like I say it’s none of our business,” I repeated.
She was silent for a while and then she said, “How much do you really know about Jess?”
I raised a surprised eyebrow, “Enough, I guess. Enough to know he’s a loyal true friend, how about you?” I asked intrigued.
“Oh we go way back,” she said with a little smile, “since he was a boy and then later we rode in the same gang.”
My jaw must have dropped because she said, “You look shocked Slim.”
“I er hadn’t had you down as a gangster,” I said with a smile, thinking she was kidding me.
“Oh yes, the Winters Gang, down in Texas, those boys were wild,” she said with her charming giggle, “and Jess the wildest of the bunch…that was before I joined though…they calmed down a little when I met Skeet Winters. He was my man when I rode with them.”
“Oh, so Jess was a wild one?” I said chuckling.
She nodded, “The drink, women…many women, much drink…and then they would shoot up the towns…sometimes they rob, the…er…Stagecoach and maybe the small-town stores, for the drink you see.”
I nodded taking this all in my stride. Jess had admitted to me that he’d been kind of wild as a youngster so it was no surprise really.
I smiled indulgently at her, “Are you trying to shock me Rosa?”
She gave me a calculating look and then said, “No of course not, you are a man of the world you know how these things happen and Jess was not a bad man…back then.”
“He’s changed,” I said confidently, “all that’s in the past.”
She looked disbelieving and pulled a little face.
“What?” I asked.
“Oh nothing, as long as you are happy having a proscrito living under your roof and with the boy here, well then…”
“Huh? What do you mean proscrito?”
“He is an outlaw Slim.”
“Ex- outlaw,” I said coldly, “and yes I did know.”
She looked down, “He told you that?”
“He said he’d been in trouble with the law, been in prison too…but that’s all behind him Rosa and I believe him. To be honest I feel kind of uncomfortable discussing him this way. He’s a good friend as well as working for me you know.”
“He didn’t tell you about the murder then?” she persisted.
“Murder, what murder?”
“I thought not,” she said with a tight little smile. “He is wanted for killing a woman down in Mexico, I thought he would have said if you are such good buddies…no?”
I just stared at her unable to speak for a minute, before I pulled myself together, “No,” I said more loudly than I meant to… “no and I really don’t believe you Rosa.”
She just gave me that little smile again, that didn’t quite reach her eyes, “Why not ask him about Conchita, if you don’t believe me. Maybe that was why he didn’t want me around Slim, afraid I would tell of his dark past?”
With that she yawned and got up, “Excuse me I am suddenly sleepy, goodnight Slim.”
I just sat there staring after her, murder…murder? I couldn’t believe it of Jess. He wouldn’t kill anyone in cold blood and certainly not a woman, she must be mistaken.

Chapter 7

Jess didn’t roll in until late morning on the Saturday and I was feeling pretty irritable after a night of tossing and turning.
He gave me a wave as he led Traveller into the barn. I joined him a little later and he glanced up from where he was grooming his mount and gave me a rueful grin.
“Sorry I’m late back Slim, that Jade can be kinda persuasive, you know how it is,” he said raising a mischievous eyebrow.
When I didn’t respond to his light-hearted banter, he turned and looked at me properly.
“What’s up I ain’t that late and I’ll make up the time.”
“Uh, it’s not that Jess, the thing is Rosa and I got to talking last night…”
“Yeah and she said…well she mentioned someone called Conchita?”
I looked at him and saw the color drain from his face and then he banged out of the stall, startling Traveller, before pushing me out of his way and heading for the ranch house.
By the time I caught up with him I could hear Rosa screaming and Andy yelling for Jess to leave her alone.
I entered to find Jess, shaking Rosa by the shoulders and cussing, whilst she screamed blue murder with Andy unsuccessfully trying to pull Jess off.
I tore across the room and grabbing Jess’s shoulder pulled him around towards me before smashing a fist into his face sending him reeling and falling badly on his back. Blood gushed from his nose and down his chin as he lay there looking up at me with shocked, hurt eyes.
“What did ya do that for?” he finally managed as he dragged himself up.
“Why do you think?” I yelled, suddenly shaking with anger, “you were hurting Rosa, just because she told me about this Conchita, I imagine.”
He seemed to flinch at the name and he threw Rosa a black look, “I weren’t hurtin’ ya were I?”
She shook her head, “No I was just frightened, not hurt…I should have said nothing about her…I’m sorry Jess, I thought he knew.”
Then Jess turned to Andy, “Go feed Traveller for me Andy.”
The boy hesitated for a moment, before reluctantly wandering off.
“Is someone going to tell me what’s going on?” I asked my glance flicking from Rosa to Jess and back.
Jess finally looked me in the eye and said, “Conchita’s dead and it’s all down to me, OK is that what you wanted to hear Slim?” And with that he disappeared into our room, to clean up I imagined.
I went over to Rosa and gently took her hands, “Are you alright, he really didn’t hurt you?”
“Really,” she said, “it was just the anger in his face that made me cry out…I was being silly, he wouldn’t hurt me I know that,” and she wandered off back to preparing the dinner.
When I entered our shared room a little later, I found Jess bathing his wound and he half turned as I entered before grabbing a towel and drying off.
I suddenly felt a twist of remorse seeing his face so clearly painful and the hurt look still in his eyes.
I sat down on my bed and said quietly, “Why didn’t you tell me about it Jess I had a right to know don’t you think?”
He just shrugged, “Iffen I told ya every dang thing about my past I guess we’d be here forever.”
I nodded, “But being wanted for murder is kind of a big thing not to mention, don’t you think?”
His head shot up, eyes wide in shock, “Murder? Who’s wanted for murder?”
“Well you are…aren’t you?”
“Huh?” he asked looking astounded now. Throwing the towel down and coming over to sit opposite me on his own bed he said, “How do you make that out?”
Then I filled him in on everything Rosa had told me the night before, about his womanizing and heavy drinking culminating with the murder of Conchita down in Mexico.
When I’d finished Jess sprang up, “I could kill her for this,” he yelled, furious once more, but I restrained him and pushed him back down on his bed.
“Never mind about her for now, just tell me the truth huh, Jess?”
He slumped back down, head in hands for a moment, before looking across at me.
“OK, you win. Yes, I knew a girl called Conchita back in Mexico, Conchita Salas. I…I loved her Slim she was a great girl.” He swallowed deeply before continuing.
“Anyway, to cut a long story short I was in a mess of trouble with a gang of Mexican banditos, crazy lot out fer my blood. It all ended in a shoot-out and I killed the leader, one Pancho Lovato. Well his brother was none too pleased about that.”
“I imagine not.”
He paused now shaking his head, his eyes misty as he looked into the middle distance. Then focusing back one me, “He shot Conchita Slim…killed her in revenge then shot and wounded me…left me for dead.”
I just stared at him aghast, “What happened?”
“The law came along, saw the two of us and figured that I’d killed her in a rage and then turned the gun on myself. I was slung in the jail and they started building the scaffold. Everyone in that one-horse town looking forward to a good old-fashioned necktie party,” he said one hand going to his throat, his eyes hard with the memory.
“What happened?” I whispered…
“Well I’m here ain’t I?”
He sighed, “Some witnesses came forward at the last minute and said they’d seen it all and I was innocent. Then the judge looked into the evidence and it was obvious I couldn’t have shot myself, the bullet bein’ in my darned back!” He said with a grim smile. “I don’t think that little matter bothered the town’s folk none they just wanted a good hanging. Anyway, with the new evidence I was pardoned. Still got the paperwork if you wanna see it Slim?”
I shook my head, but he found it anyway, safe in the back of his old Bible.
I handed it back to him. “I’m so sorry for doubting you Jess…but why on earth would she say such a thing?”
“To stir up trouble probably, who knows?” he said darkly.
“Well I aim to find out,” I said before jumping up…then I paused, “I really am sorry Jess.”
He just nodded, “Sure I know.” But there was something in his eyes which said, I might forgive you, but I won’t forget it.
I found Rosa out in the kitchen and giving her a hard look said, “Sit down will you Rosa I want to speak to you.”
She looked surprised, but did as I asked her.
“This business about Jess having murdered Conchita, it’s all lies isn’t it…huh?”
She flushed up, “No he was in the jail for her murder…a crime of passion so they said.”
“That was back then, but he was exonerated you must know that?”
She shook her head, “What is this exonerated, I do not understand Slim?”
We both turned at a footfall and saw Jess standing behind us, “Exonerado, pardoned, let off fer goodness sake Rosa you understand all too well!”
“I am sorry Jess I misunderstood. I remember you saying how glad you were to get away from Mexico when we met up later that year…no?”
“Sure I was glad to leave…leave all those dang memories of poor innocent little Conchita being killed that way. And yeah, I do feel guilty. She’d still be alive today if she hadn’t been my girl…and I guess I’ll never forgive myself for that. Hell, or you Rosa, for disrespecting her memory this way,” he said looking mad again.
“I am so sorry mi amigo, I meant you no harm, I know you are a good man.”
“Yeah and you know damn well I ain’t no murderer too dontcha Rosa, so how come you lied to Slim here huh?”
That was when she started crying and ran off to her room, leaving us both feeling exasperated and unsure of what to do next.
Jess was the first to recover.
“Look Slim, just put it down to experience huh, at least you know what she’s really like now dontcha.”
With that he mooched over to the cook stove and lifted the lid of one of the pans.
“Looks ready Slim, you wanna set the table and I’ll dish up? I figure the cook ain’t gonna put in an appearance anytime soon,” he said with a wry smile.

Well I might have seen through the lovely Rosa, but my kid brother sure hadn’t.
Over dinner he was still smarting from Jess having sent him off to do some chores, when he really wanted to know what was happening.
“I’m not a little kid anymore,” he said plaintively over dinner, “why won’t you tell me what’s going on Jess?”
“Because it ain’t none of your business buddy,” Jess said amiably enough and ruffling the boy’s hair.
“Well I don’t think it’s right you hurting Miss Rosa that way,” he said dodging away from Jess and flushing up.
“That’ll do Andy,” I said quietly, “it’s none of your business, like Jess said, and he didn’t hurt her either, she admitted that.”
“Well she was real upset and it ain’t right to upset a lady that way…you told me to always treat ladies with respect,” he said glaring at me.
“That’s true Andy, but Rosa had told some lies about Jess and he was real mad, you can understand that.”
“No! No, I can’t, she wouldn’t lie not Rosa. I don’t believe you,” and with that he jumped up from the table and dashed off outside.
Jess half rose to follow him but I put a restraining hand out to stop him.
“Leave him to simmer down Jess I’m afraid my brother has got a real bad case of puppy love as far as Rosa is concerned.
Jess rolled his eyes, “Great that’s all we dang well need,” he muttered.
“Look Jess never mind about Andy, what are we going to do about Rosa…I mean can you live with her staying here after this?”
He gave a bark of laughter at that.
“Hell Slim, she’s probably done the worst she can, so why not let her stay. Hang it all she is a pretty good cook,” he said, eyes sparkling.
Gee it never failed to surprise me at how my buddy could bounce back after something had floored him, and I don’t just mean my punch either. It must have really upset him, Rosa bringing back the past and the loss of his girl, but he seemed to be back on good form and I relaxed some.
“OK pard, we’ll see it through and Jonesy will be back before we know it,” I said with a grin.
But the following morning I began to regret those words.
I was just finishing off shaving, Jess still languishing in bed as per usual, when Andy said, “Can I borrow your razer Slim?”
Well I nearly cut my darned throat at that.
“What do you want it for?” I asked after a moment.
He sighed wearily, “Well what do you think, to shave with of course.”
There was a stifled eruption of laughter from the depths of Jess’s bed and Andy’s gaze flicked over and then back at me, “Well can I?” he asked.
“Um, I really don’t think you need to yet,” I said trying to keep a straight face, “so what’s brought all this on?”
“Well I’ve been thinking, I’m nearly fifteen and I reckon things have got to change around here. I figured if I was shaving then maybe you and Jess would take me a bit more seriously, treat me like a man.”
The bubble of mirth inside me fizzled out and I suddenly saw my young brother as he really was, a young man desperate to be accepted as such.
Jess had levered himself up in bed and from the look in his eyes he was thinking pretty much along the same lines.
After a moment he said, “You can borrow mine Andy, I guess I won’t be needing’ it fer a while, I ain’t got a hot date until next week.”
Andy was delighted and after a few tips from me he managed to get through his first shave pretty much unscathed. Although I reckoned, he wouldn’t have to do it again for at least a week, maybe longer.
Once he’d gone off to collect the eggs for breakfast I turned to Jess and said, “Thanks for that buddy.”
He just shrugged as he dragged himself up from his bed yawning and scratching, “The kid’s growin’ up, I guess we have to accept that.”
Well shaving was one thing, but I hadn’t bargained for the strength of feeling young Andy had for Rosa. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so worrying. He was her willing slave, hanging on her every word and forever helping out in the kitchen.
“He were never that obliging for old Jonesy,” Jess remarked one morning when Andy had set the table and was now busy helping Rosa to wash the dishes.
“Um, he’s sure got it bad,” I agreed. Then, feeling rather uncomfortable I said, “she wouldn’t…er you know lead him on would she Jess?”
He grinned at me and then said, “Nah, not on purpose anyways. I told her to leave the kid alone and I guess she will, unless she wants to get me real mad again,” he finished with a rueful smile.
However, it wasn’t going to be Jess that got real mad in the end.
I had noticed that there seemed to be a truce between Jess and Rosa and they were getting along really well. Her flirtatious ways seemed to be like water off a duck’s back to him though. As he exchanged good natured banter with her the atmosphere lightened and it looked like we would all survive Jonesy’s absence relatively unscathed. That was until a few days after the shaving incident.
Andy and I were stacking the log pile and Jess had wandered off to the barn to saddle up Traveller before going to finish mending the fence on the south pasture.
After a while we noticed Rosa wandering in the direction of the barn too. Andy glanced across and then a few minutes later threw down the logs he was stacking and moved off after her.
“Hey Andy where are you going, we haven’t finished up yet,” I called.
“Won’t be a minute Slim I said I’d show Rosa my pony,” he called before running off.
Just a few moments later he emerged from the barn looking terribly upset and tore across the yard and into the house slamming the door behind him.
Then Jess ran out looking equally distressed, while Rosa just wandered off around to the vegetable garden out back where she had been working earlier.
I walked over to where Jess was now leaning on the corral fence looking undecided as to whether he should go and check on Andy.
“Hey Jess what happened?” I asked as I mooched over.
He flicked me a glance and then looked down before finally saying, “The kid caught us kissin’, I guess it kinda upset him some.”
“Kissing? Hell, Jess what are you doing kissing her…I thought you were with Jade… and anyway, you said she was bad news to steer clear of her? Kissing, where did that come from?”
He shrugged, “Beats me, one minute we were chattin’ the next she was all over me…”
“Oh yeah, right,” I said sarcastically, “it’s not like you’ve never been known to kiss a pretty girl is it Jess?”
“I swear Slim, she was kissin’ me and by the time I backed off, Andy was there lookin’ like I’d just shot his pet racoon!”
“So if you didn’t instigate it …why then?”
I sighed deeply, “Why was she kissing you Jess?”
“Oh I see, because she wants me to ride out with her I guess, when she leaves. Said it would be like old times, plus I’m a real good kisser,” he said with his cheeky grin.
I was in no mood for his stupid banter and I felt the color drain from my face, “You’re not going to, are you?”
He looked at me like I was crazy, “Garldarn it, of course I ain’t.”
“I imagine she could be quite persuasive,” I said raising an eyebrow.
“Nah… I can’t trust her see Slim. I reckon that’s why she fed you those lies about me murdering Conchita too. She figured iffen you thought I was a murderer you’d throw me out and she’d be there just waitin’ on me,” he said shaking his head. “The woman’s dang devious, trust me on this one Slim.”
Oh how I wished I had.
Now looking back on it, well it was as obvious as the nose on your face that she was just using me…but back then…Well I guess I was flattered when she started casting me those lovelorn looks, keeping eye contact a tad too long and accidentally brushing past me….
Then one night when Jess was out and Andy in bed, she really moved in on me…
She said she was off to bed and then threw me the sort of look that a decent woman just wouldn’t. I was by the door, about to go and check on the stock before turning in when she drifted over to me. Then reaching out ran a finger down my cheek.
“You really are a very handsome man,” she whispered in that husky Spanish accent of hers and I was lost in those eyes…feeling like I was almost drowning in those dark pools.
Next thing I knew she’d reached up and kissed me on the lips, her touch as soft as a butterfly wing…but with a promise of untold passion just below the surface.
I was going to take her in my arms and kiss her again when she backed off, a teasing look in her eyes.
“Goodnight Slim?” she said, the question in her voice offering… what… an invitation?
Before I could react, she was gone, closing her door quietly behind her.
I went outside breathing in great drafts of the cool night air, trying to slow my beating heart and get my thoughts in order. Had she meant what I thought she had…invited me into her bed? If so, did I really want to take up with a woman who Jess had warned me off on numerous occasions? But there again she was one heck of a beautiful woman, what sane man wouldn’t want her? The clincher was the fact that Andy was sleeping in our shared room…but what if he awoke? I still took my guardianship responsibilities very seriously and I just knew that Ma and Pa wouldn’t expect that kind of behavior from me…not with Andy around anyway. I finally returned to the house and my lonely bed…but that wasn’t to be the end of things….
The following week school was out for summer and Andy prepared for his trip back east with his friend Billy Jackson and his family. He’d been looking forward to it for weeks, but now I guessed he had mixed feelings.
Jess had spoken to him after the incident in the barn and Andy had got really emotional.
“I hate you Jess! You’ve got a girl of your own, why did you have to steal Rosa too?” He’d cried in an agony of teen torment.
Then Jess had closed the door and I wasn’t privy to what was said. However, I think Jess must have given a reasonable explanation as Andy seemed to settle down. His friendship with Jess if maybe a little bruised and battered, would later be just as strong as ever.
We waved Andy off on his trip and were looking forward to old Jonesy landing home in another week or so. In the meantime, Rosa was still spending all her waking hours making sheep’s eyes at me and flirting outrageously.
Now looking back, it was always when Jess was around. But he rarely seemed to notice and just treated Rosa like a wayward older sister. Well that suited me just fine. Seeing that Jess really wasn’t interested made me feel a whole lot better at starting up a relationship with her.
Everything came to a head just a day after Andy had left.
There was a dance in town and I asked Rosa. I guess she knew that Jess would be taking Jade, so she agreed with alacrity.
Jess and I were all done up, like a ‘dog’s dinner’ as he’d described it, in our Sunday best finery and Rosa sure didn’t let us down.
She looked like a dream in a tight fitting dark blue satin dress, trimmed with cream lace and a deep neckline that showed all her womanly attributes to perfection. Her long dark hair was up in a sophisticated style and she looked like an absolute doll. Even Jess gave her a double take as she sashayed into the room and she gave him a covert glance under her lashes I noticed.
Anyway, it was a fine night and I set off driving Rosa in our small rig, Jess following on behind.
Once in town he went to collect Jade and we met up again at the dance hall, already hot and jam-packed with eager dancers. I chose a table for four near the door where there was a welcome draft of cool air and then went off in search of a drink for us both.
When I returned Jess and Jade had arrived and the two women were eying each other up like a pair of she cats…just bursting for a fight.
Jess seemed completely oblivious to the tension around the table and I tried to ease things by distributing drinks and chatting away to Rosa. All went reasonably well as we took our partners off to the dance floor, until there was a Ladies Excuse Me …
Jess had several ladies pushing in as usual and he exchanged partners several times…until Rosa tapped Jade on the shoulder and took possession…and made it quite clear to all comers that she wasn’t going to relinquish her partner.
Sitting out with me Jade looked over to where Rosa was clinging very close to Jess and said, “That Rosa sure is persistent ain’t she, she cut in between me and Jess a good four times, seemed kinder to let her have the dance,” she said throwing me an exasperated glance.
“Well she’s sort of er… different, being Spanish, doesn’t have our way of behaving,” I said defensively.
“Um, you could say that,” she replied bitterly.
However, the moment the dance finished Jess came back and reclaimed his partner, taking her hand and looking deeply into her eyes as Rosa sat back down beside me.
I put an arm around her and pulled her to me and she seemed happy to get real close.
Then towards the end of the evening I had gone off to the bar to fetch a final drink for Rosa and while I was away Jess left a message with her…which I never received, as Jess explained later.
He stood up to go, a protective arm around Jade and said to Rosa, “Can you tell Slim I’ll be back real early tomorrow?”
“Si, I will tell him, why so?” she had said wondering why Jess would give up precious time with his girl.
“Tell him Davy Burrows saw a whole herd of Pronghorns up near Dead Man’s Leap yesterday and they should still be around if we set off at first light.”
“Of course Jess, I tell him…you both go deer hunting early yes?”
“Thanks,” Jess said before taking Jade’s arm and heading off.
Once they had left Rosa seemed to lose all interest in the dance and we went home soon afterwards.
She seemed very quiet, on the drive back. But then as we entered the ranch house, she suddenly became animated again and started kissing me. Well one thing led to another and before I knew it, we were on the brink of making love. I made for Andy’s room, where she was sleeping, but she insisted on going to my own bed…more special she said.
“When I am gone you will lie here and remember me my love yes?”
I was lost…her eyes deep pools of desire driving me insane and I would have slept in the barn if she’d wanted.
So I led her to my bed, took her in my arms and finally made sweet love to the most amazing woman I had ever met. She was everything I had hoped for and more, so passionate, so loving and I just couldn’t get enough of her.
It was the small hours of the morning before we finally fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Dawn was just breaking when the bedroom door was thrust open and Jess stood there looking deeply shocked…
Rosa was still asleep in my arms…our clothes scattered around the room and I lay there stark-naked feeling suddenly embarrassed and angry in equal proportions.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked, pulling the blanket over to try and cover our nakedness.
“The huntin’ trip of course,” he said, seemingly recovering quickly and now unmoved by the scene before him, “didn’t Rosa tell you?”
I shook my head, “No…she didn’t.”
Moments later she awoke, surveying Jess with lazy amused eyes, “Oh mi amigo, you are back already and you find Slim and I hacer el amor (making love), lo siento, (I am sorry), she said looking anything but sorry.
Jess just frowned at her, “Sure you are,” he drawled.
“I guess you ain’t comin’ then,” he said flicking an exasperated glance down at me before turning on his heel and moments later we heard him ride out.
Once he was gone, I turned and took Rosa in my arms again, but after a little while it was soon clear that she had grown cool towards me and she made an excuse to get up, leaving me hurt and puzzled. After the passion of the night before she now seemed extraordinarily remote and I just couldn’t figure her.

Chapter 8

It was late afternoon when Jess rode back in, Traveller weighed down by several bulging gunny sacks and I figured he’d made a good killing.
I was just in the middle of shoeing one of the Stage horses, so merely gave him a wave of welcome as he led Traveller into the barn to tend to his needs.
Just moments later I saw Rosa fly over to the barn and I reckoned she had gone to admire the kill.
I finished off with the horse I was working on and once he was safely back in the corral, I wandered over to the barn. However, as I advanced, I heard raised voices and stopped on the threshold peering into the dim interior.
Jess and Rosa were standing a few feet apart, her arms akimbo and cussing loudly in her own language.
“Oh come on Rosa, just admit it, you seduced my buddy last night to make me jealous! That’s why you didn’t give him the message that I’d be ridin’ in early. Why you slept in his bed too, instead of using your own, you just wanted me to catch you that way didn’t ya?”
There was a pregnant silence and I strained to hear her answer…
Then she suddenly exploded with anger, “Alright yes, I wanted to make you crazy with jealousy…I wanted you to leave that woman for me…to ride out together like we used to.”
“Shut up Rosa, just shut the hell up!” he yelled furiously. “How could ya use my pard that way? I ain’t jealous woman I’m goddamn furious!”
“Jess please mi querido…I love you I need you back in my life, I am nothing without you!”
“After this, what you’ve done? You’re kiddin’ ain’t you?” he spat angrily, “I don’t even want you on the ranch. Go get packed up Rosa you’re leaving on the next Stage out.”
I still stood there as though frozen to the spot, my whole life suddenly crashing in ruins around me. How could she have abused our friendship this way…hell it went way more than friendship from where I was standing…but I clearly meant nothing to her.
I stayed there for a further minute listening to her alternately crying and pleading, before I marched off to my room, slamming the door behind me. I lay on the bed staring up at the ceiling as the full realization of the situation hit home, I’d merely been used and then thrown aside and I felt totally humiliated.
I must have finally fallen into an exhausted sleep as it was almost dark when the door opened and Jess came in, slumping down on his own bed, and surveyed me with concerned eyes.
“She’s gone,” he said flatly, “I paid her what we owed her for the housekeeping’ and she went on the afternoon Stage. Jeez Slim I’m so dang sorry.”
I peered up at him, “It wasn’t your fault Jess, it’s not like you didn’t warn me about her.”
“Yeah well, once she gets her claws into you, I guess it’s pretty hard for any man to resist her,” he replied.
“Even you?” I asked raising an eyebrow, “She sure was begging you out there.”
He blanched, “You heard all that? I thought you’d just realized what her game was.”
I nodded, “Yup, every dang word. I’ve been a prize fool I guess and yes maybe I did know already, but just didn’t want to face it. But what about you Jess, not tempted to go with her?”
His face was a study, “Are you kiddin’ me, after that stunt she just pulled?”
“Thanks pard,” I said softly, “and Jess do me a favor huh?”
He nodded, “Sure anything.”
“Don’t ever mention this again, I feel every kind of a fool and I just want to forget it huh?”
“OK, we’ll just tell Jonesy and Andy that she was needed back home or somethin’.”
“Thanks, so is that where she’s heading?”
“Uh I reckon she’s got kin down Mexico way…and to be honest Slim, I don’t give a damn as long as she ain’t here.”
Once supper was over Jess threw me an anxious glance, “Er I was kinda thinking of riding into town later, promised Jade I’d make up for the early start this morning, you wanna tag along?”
“Oh sure,” I said sarcastically, “I really feel like playing gooseberry.”
“Well we were thinkin’ on going to the saloon, you could check out that new cute salon girl that’s just started?”
I rolled my eyes, “Nope I think I’m all done with girls for the time being Jess, I’ll just have an early night.”
I finally convinced him I would be just fine and he promised to be home in time to change the early morning Stage and he took off, still looking a little anxious.
When he didn’t return the following morning, I wasn’t too worried. I changed the team with old Seth the driver before going about the morning chores.
But when dinner time rolled around, I was beginning to feel kind of mad, so much for my buddy’s caring side I thought grimly.
By the time the noon Stage rushed at speed down the rise I was as mad as a wet hen, knowing I’d have to do all the work on my own again.
Mose pulled the team to a standstill and just peered down at me, his face drawn and apprehensive.
He clambered down from the Stage and I thought he was about to give me a hard time because he’d have to help me out instead of taking his ease with a coffee and short rest…but no.
He said, “Look son there ain’t no easy way to say this, but I guess you’d better ride into town right now…I’ll tend to the team.”
“Huh, why on earth would I do that?” I asked casting him a quizzical glance.
“It’s Jess, the word on the street is that he was killed last night Slim…shot down in cold blood, I er, thought you’d want to know?”
I just stared at him as my world suddenly rocked on its axis, Jess dead? My mouth went dry and I couldn’t speak for a moment, before I finally managed, “You’re sure?”
He just shrugged, “That’s what folk are saying.”
Almost before he’d finished the sentence I was hurtling towards the barn and seconds later I was up in the saddle and away, galloping Alamo up the rise at break neck speed, followed by Moses’ sad gaze.

I rode hard all the way to town and jumping down from the saddle I tethered Alamo outside Doc Johnson’s place, figuring either way Jess would be there, dead or alive…Or maybe he’d already been taken to the undertakers I thought, a shiver running down my spine.
Old Doc Johnson answered the door himself and peered shortsightedly at me before saying, “Ah Slim I was expecting you,” as he pulled the door open wide and ushered me in.
“Is…is he…” I gulped unable to say those terrible words.
“Huh dead you mean? No Slim although a lot of folk thought he was and I have to admit he sure looked more dead than alive when they brought him in this morning.”
I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding and felt a huge wave of relief flood over me.
“Can I see him?”
“Sure, he’s sleeping right now, I had to sedate him to keep him in the bed, you know what he’s like Slim, but that should wear off soon.”
“What happened?” I asked as we walked down the corridor to the hospital room at the back of the house.
“We’re not too sure just yet, he was in a bad state when he came in, a nasty head wound Slim. It made him kind of difficult to understand and poor little Jade wasn’t much better.”
“Jade…what Jade was shot too?” I asked in consternation.
“Yes, but thankfully just a superficial wound. Lots of blood but looked worse than it was. Just a minor vessel damaged. She’s convalescing at home with her friends now…No it’s Jess that’s giving some cause for concern.”
“Yes, as I say a nasty glancing blow from a bullet at quite close range. It didn’t penetrate the skull, but it’s given him a nasty concussion, he’s got to take it real easy for a while Slim.”
By this time, we had arrived at the sickbay and he opened the door noiselessly and ushered me in, putting a finger to his lips to remind me to be quiet.
“If he awakes try to stop him getting over excited, he needs lots of peace and rest to get over this Slim,” he whispered.
I was unprepared for what I saw before me. Jess’s head swathed in snowy white bandages and his complexion almost grey. I could quite understand how he could have been mistaken for a corpse I thought as I sat down beside the bed, my eyes never straying from his face.
It was about half an hour later when he finally stirred and his eyes flickered open before searching the room and finally coming to rest on me.
“Slim,” he groaned attempting to sit up, but I pushed him gently back on the pillows.
“Take it easy Jess, Doc says you’ve got to keep real still and rest.”
He sank back and then his eyes opened wide in fear, “Jade, oh God Jade?”
“It’s OK, it’s OK buddy,” I said resting a gentle hand on his chest. “She wasn’t badly hurt, she’s at home and Lizzie and Jack are caring for her.”
He looked despairingly at me, “Blood there was so much dang blood.”
“I know the doc said it looked worse that it was, apparently the bullet just caught a minor blood vessel, and she’ll be OK in a week or so.”
He took in a deep breath, “Thank God,” he whispered.
“That’s more than can be said for you. The Doc’s quite worried, you’re badly concussed Jess, you really need to rest up.”
“Rest up,” he echoed angrily, “how can I do that with that dang crazy woman on the loose?”
“Huh, crazy woman, what do you mean Jess, who did this to you?”
“Why it was Rosa of course.”
I sat back in total shock, “No, she wouldn’t I don’t believe it!”
“Well you’d better, because it’s dang well true.”
I stared at him just processing this latest piece of information. The woman I had made love to less than forty-eight hours ago had tried to murder my pard in cold blood?
“I just don’t get it,” I whispered, “I thought she loved you?”
He shook his head, “I reckon she don’t know the meaning of the word Slim. She said iffen she couldn’t have me then nobody would…”
“Tell me exactly what happened Jess,” I said, still unable to really take it all in.
“It happened last night, me and Jade were just thinking of turning in and Lizzie was staying over at Jack’s place. Then there was a bang on the door and Jade went to answer it, thinking maybe Lizzie and Jack had one of their rows and Liz had forgotten her key…but it weren’t Lizzie….” And he swallowed hard.
“Go on,” I said softly.
“I heard a shot and I ran to the door and Jade was on her knees, holding her arm, blood everywhere…I ran to her and then Rosa cried, “She’s not having you!”And that’s when I saw the derringer. By God Slim, I’d have drawn on her, but I weren’t wearing my iron…then I guess she must have shot me. Last thing I remember was Jade yelling, ‘He’s dead, you’ve killed him,’ and then I must have passed out.”
“But didn’t anyone hear it, come to help?”
He shook his head, “It’s real isolated that little place of Jade’s right on the edge of town Slim. Anyway, it was the following morning that Jack and Lizzie turned up. Seems they all thought I was dead, but brought me over to the docs place and he found a pulse…so I guess I ain’t,” he finished with the ghost of a cheeky grin.
“That accounts for it then,” I muttered.
“Oh nothing, just that Mose has told half the town you’re a goner that’s all.”
He gave a grim smile at that, “Oh well at least we won’t be troubled by Rosa again. I figure she’s high-tailed it off down to the border tryin’ to cheat the rope and with any dang luck she’ll stay there.”
Once I was sure my pard wasn’t in any danger I left him resting and went across the street to the Sheriff’s Office.
Mort was sitting feet up on desk sipping a coffee and he gestured to the pot before saying, with a twinkle in his eyes, “So how’s our dead man now?”
“It’s no laughing matter Mort,” I said pouring a coffee and slouching down in the chair opposite his desk.
He brought his feet down and sat up straight in his seat, suddenly alert.
“He is alright isn’t he Slim? Doc Johnson said he’d be just fine after a good rest?”
“Oh yes, or he will be. Just pretty mad at being caught out that way by a woman I guess. He wasn’t wearing his gun and she arrived just out of the blue. He’d sent her packing earlier in the day…”
“Oh really, why was that then?”
“Uh, it’s sorta personal Mort, let’s just say she was playing us for a pair of fools…me in particular and Jess was kind of mad about it.”
Mort grinned then, “As only he can be huh?”
I nodded. “Funny thing is though it sounds like this was a crime of passion. She said that if she couldn’t have him then nobody would.”
Mort shook his head, “Crazy woman.”
I smiled, “That’s what Jess said, so any sign of her Mort?”
He shook his head, “I’m afraid not Slim. It looks like she lit out on the night train. She just paid for a ticket going south…she could alight any place. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Oh sure, I’ll put out some Wanted posters, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
“As long as Jess and Jade are OK, I don’t think we’re too bothered Mort. The important thing is that she won’t ever be back. Not if she thinks she’d killed Jess and I reckon he can live with that. All we want is her out of our lives for good,” I said firmly.
And we really thought she was, until that fateful day a good six years later!

Chapter 9
(As told by the narrator)

That conversation on the porch had taken place several months earlier and both men had forgotten about it. In fact, neither of them had given Rosa Maria Sophia Lopez a second thought since that evening. It had been a spring evening when prompted by Slim, Jess had opened up and told of his early days with Rosa. A time of whiskey, women and wild, wild ways as he had said. Now is was fall and thoughts of Rosa were the last thing on their minds.
It was one of those rare fall days when it almost seemed as though summer had returned. The men were hot and tired after a morning bringing a few remaining strays down to the lower pasture for the winter.
Jess flung himself down from Traveller and leaving him by the water trough marched across the yard to prime the pump before dowsing himself under the delightfully refreshing cold water. Then he shook his head like a dog, grinning over to where Slim was taking a refreshing drink.
Slim looked across regarding his buddy’s disheveled appearance, his dusty denims now liberally splashed with water. His hair was dripping, his teeth sparkling in a wide grin in his tanned face, giving him the look of a rather mischievous rogue, Slim thought fleetingly.
“You’re a mess pard,” he said chuckling, “and the noon stage will be here in a minute.”
“Well I can’t help that,” Jess said shortly, “what do ya want me to do Slim, stand around lookin’ smart all the dang day, or git the work done huh?”
“Well is it too much to ask for both?” Slim said, now warming to his theme. “I can remember back when Jonesy was here, we used to get really spruced up for the stage arrival, clean shirts the lot.”
“Yeah and we all know what a fussy ol’ woman Jonesy could be,” he retaliated.
“Hey don’t you let Miss Daisy hear you disrespecting old ladies,” Slim said with a bark of laughter.
“As though I’d dare,” Jess said returning the smile.
Just then they heard the rumble of a stagecoach approaching and a little later it hove into view, hurtling down the rise at speed.
Moments later Mose pulled on the lines bringing the coach to a standstill, just inches from where Jess was standing grinning up at him.
“Couldn’t ya get no closer Mose?” He teased putting out a hand to open the stagecoach door.
Mose glanced down to where Slim was standing back expectantly, before climbing quickly down from the box, the better to see the unfolding events. Then he leaned over and whispered to Slim in an aside, “Brace yerself for fireworks.”
Slim and Mose both watched in fascination as Jess pulled the door open and offered a hand to the lady within.
She was tall, elegantly dressed, with long dark hair and a hauntingly beautiful face.
Jess gallantly helped her down, thinking there was something familiar about the woman…the braided hair…the graceful way she alighted and then she looked him in the eyes. Fixing him with a look of burning passion…. and he finally realized who it was…Although she was a shadow of her former self.
He dropped her hand and took a pace back, “You shot me!” he growled indignantly.
Just at that moment Daisy came out, wiping her hands on her apron and smiling at the amassed company.
“The coffee is all ready, would you like some Mose?” she asked and then turned inquiring eyes on the beautiful but painfully thin woman who had just alighted.
“Would you care for a rest and some coffee my dear?” She asked looking to Slim for support, the atmosphere suddenly seeming rather tense.
Slim was the first to come to his senses although his heart was beating so fast, he thought she would hear it as he took Rosa’s arm and said, “Let me introduce you Daisy, this is Miss Rosa Maria Sophia Lopez. Rosa, this is Mrs Daisy Cooper our housekeeper and good friend.”
Daisy took one look at the young woman and knew she was sick, really sick. Oh yes she was well made up and elegantly dressed, but the frills and Spanish lace shawl did little to disguise the fact that the woman was slender to the point of emaciation.
Jess still stood there staring at her, his expression unfathomable and the only sign of his strong emotion a nerve flicking in his cheek and his fingers restlessly clenching and unclenching above his gun butt.
Then Daisy swept her along into the ranch as the three men just stared after her.
Jess turned to Slim, “What in hell does she want?”
Slim shook his head, “I don’t know Jess, but whatever it is I’ve a feeling we’re not going to like it.”
“Well she ain’t getting nuthin’ from me Slim. She done shot me and left me for dead and I ain’t about to forgive and forget if that’s what she’s thinkin’! You just go see what she dang well wants while I see to the team and then make sure she gets back on the dang Stage and rides out of our lives again…OK?”
Slim shrugged, “Well I’ll try, but you know what she’s like Jess… And anyway, she isn’t exactly my favourite person either if you remember?” he finished his eyes hard and unforgiving.
“Sure I do that’s why I want her gone,” Jess spat before marching off to see to the horses.
Rosa seemed reluctant to be drawn out by Slim as to the reason she was there, but it hadn’t escaped his notice that she was travelling light and didn’t appear to have any luggage at all. He mused upon that, wondering if it was a good thing or bad.
However, before he could decide she drained her cup and said politely, “Would you excuse me please I need to speak to Jess,” and she was off out the door before he could respond.
Mose’s eyebrows shot up and he said grimly, “Well I sure hope she ain’t come to finish the job, the boy won’t take kindly to bein’ gunned down a second time.”
Daisy’s eyes opened wide in shock at his words, “Goodness me is that the Rosa that you told me about Slim, the one who shot him and left him for dead?”
“The very same,” Slim said, “and I don’t know why she’s here, but Jess doesn’t want anything to do with her, that I do know. Me neither,” he said to himself. Remembering again the shame and humiliation at the way she had used him.
Meanwhile out in the yard Jess had been standing by the corral fence grooming one of the incoming stage horses and he spun around at her approach.
“I…I had to see you Jess, to apologize for everything.”
“Apologize for everything Rosa? Do you mean for throwing our love away and humiliating me by going off to work as a dang hooker? Or for turning up here years later wanting me back. Then shooting me and leaving me for dead when I wouldn’t oblige?”
“For both, for everything I’m just so sorry,” she said tears welling up in her agonized eyes.
“That’s supposed to make it alright is it?” he spat before turning back to his task.
“No,” she said softly, “but I have to talk to you Jess, even if you won’t forgive me and take me back.”
“Take you back!” he yelled in astonishment, “Why in hell would I wanna do a damn stupid thing like that huh?” Then without waiting for an answer he said, “And how did you dang well find me anyways, you thought I was dead didn’t ya?”
She nodded, “That ruined my life Jess…I have spent these last six years trying to repent…make good for that terrible sin.”
He just raised a skeptical eyebrow at that.
“It’s true I worked in a hospital down in Mexico caring for the sick and dying and that’s where I met a friend of yours James Peters?”
“Jamie…he’s sick?” Jess said suddenly alert.
“Not now, he recovered from the fever he had and sends his best to you, said he was so happy working here at the ranch last year.”
“Yeah, he was a good man, helped us out when Slim was bad with a broken leg,” Jess mused.
“When I was nursing him, we got to talking and he mentioned you and Slim, said he’d been working at the Sherman spread and that you were fit and healthy…”
Then the tears brimmed over and she sobbed, “You have no idea what a relief that was Jess, what a burden of guilt was lifted from me.”
“Well I’m real glad you’re feeling better about it all,” he said sarcastically, “and now you’ve seen I’m OK you can be on your way huh?” he finished turning his back to her once more as he continued grooming the horse.
“Jess please,” she cried, reaching out and pulling gently on his arm.
He turned back to her, angrily jerking his arm from her grip and looked at her properly for the first time…then gave a little gasp of shock.
The wonderfully shapely, woman he remembered had gone. In her place was a mere ghost of the former beauty. Her hair was streaked with premature grey, her figure gaunt and her once lovely face now emaciated. But her eyes were still stunning, the expression of adoration in them now slowly melting Jess’s heart.
“Please,” she whispered again, “we need you right now.”
“We…who are you with?” he asked raising a questioning eyebrow.
“Your daughter Jess, I called her Chiquita….”
Jess stood there just staring open mouthed, what had she just said?
Then as if from far away he heard Slim saying Mose was ready to go and then Rosa had leaned in and kissed him fleetingly on the lips.
“We are staying at the Laramie Hotel, you will visit later…si?” she said, although it was more of a command than an invitation.
Then she turned and swept off back to the stage and a surprised Slim helped her on board and then watched as the stagecoach departed in a haze of dust.
He turned back to where Jess was still standing as though rooted to the spot and looking like he’d just seen a ghost. The color drained from his face, his mouth slack and an expression of deep shock in his dark blue eyes.
“Hey what’s up buddy, she hasn’t promised to have another crack at shooting you has she?” Slim asked, chuckling at his own joke.
Jess slowly turned to look at his pard, the torment in his eyes sending a shiver down Slim’s spine.
“Jess, what is it pard?”
“No,” he said eventually, “she ain’t gonna shoot me…I reckon it’s worse than that,” and he turned towards the barn leaving a puzzled Slim gazing after him.
After a few minutes he followed him over and saw he was saddling up.
“Hey where are you off to, Daisy will have dinner on the table in five minutes,” Slim said surprised.
“Ain’t hungry, I’ve got me some thinkin’ to do Slim, guess I’ll go ride fence out in the south pasture. Tell Miss Daisy I’m sorry…I’ll see you later,” he said, pushing past Slim and leading Traveller out of the barn.
Slim recovered quickly and followed him out, pulling Jess around to face him.
“Oh no…don’t tell me you’re thinking of getting back with her Jess?”
“Huh, why would I want to do a crazy thing like that? I’m promised to Millie you know that.”
“I don’t know, you tell me. She’s sure got some sort of hold over you and I didn’t see you backing off any when she kissed you just now. It seems like you’d kind of forgotten about Millie for a moment there.”
“Shut up Slim! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Jess yelled angrily.
“Well tell me then Jess, I’m not a mind reader but something’s sure got you really fired up, what is it huh?”
Jess mounted up in one fluid movement and gazed down at his friend, “I said I need to think Slim, just leave it will ya,” and with that he spurred Traveller off down the track.

“I really don’t know what’s up with him Daisy,” Slim said again as they lingered over their post dinner coffee. “I can’t remember seeing him so spooked in a long while. Surely he isn’t really thinking of going back to her after all this time …and what about Millie?”
“Maybe it’s not what you think dear. That young woman looked sick to me, maybe she just needs some support from Jess in her time of need?”
“Time of need… hum,” he said thoughtfully, “I wonder iffen she’s heard of that windfall we had? You know at Christmas when we sold the jade ornament. It was in all the papers that we made a small fortune and Jess always said she was a gold digger Daisy.”
“Oh no I’m sure that isn’t the case dear, she seemed a pleasant woman, just in need of a little help from Jess I’m sure that’s all it is.”
“Uh well I just hope Millie is as reasonable about it as you’re being when she gets back from her trip back east,” Slim said thoughtfully.
“Oh it’s so exciting isn’t it, her brother Tad a father for the second time, I do hope his dear wife has the baby soon.”
“Yeah, the sooner the better and Millie can get back home and sort Jess out,” Slim said grimly, “because he sure won’t listen to me. He’s got that sort of haunted look about him Daisy, like when he first landed here and was in some sort of trouble…. I don’t like it, not one little bit.”
“Oh don’t fret Slim dear, he just needs time to think things through and then I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it. Maybe the poor woman needs a place to stay if she really is sick?”
“What, here you mean?” Slim asked looking aghast.
“Well why not dear, there is plenty of room in the bunkhouse and it’s really lovely in there after you and Jess renovated it for when my dear Flora stayed here.” * see #19 Daisy’s Dilemma.
How could Slim tell Daisy that it wasn’t just Jess that had history with Rosa? OK they had just had the one night of passion and she had used him to get to Jess…he knew that. But even so she still had the ability to make his pulses race and heart beat faster.What would it be like to live in close proximity with her again…anything but peaceful he thought with a sigh…But what would Jess want to do?

At that moment Jess was sitting by a campfire and drinking coffee liberally laced with Red Eye, as Rosa’s words went endlessly round and round in his brain like rats in a barrel. Your daughter…Chiquita…your daughter Chiquita…
How could it be? OK he had never bothered with any precautions because she said she was unable to conceive and he’d believed her. So, either she was lying then or now…and he knew he just had to find out the truth.
As dusk fell, he knew he could put off his journey no longer and getting unsteadily to his feet, mounted and headed Traveller towards town.
It was after nine when he walked into the hotel lounge and saw Rosa sitting in a quiet corner sipping a glass of brandy.
He advanced towards her and as soon as she saw him, she patted the place beside her on the couch, as though she had been expecting him.
“You came,” she said quietly as he sat down.
“You knew I would,” he said softly, “so what’s all this about Rosa?”
“I’ve… er, not been too well,” she started, “and when you are very sick you see things more clearly, mi amigo.”
“Go on,” he said, his eyes never leaving her face.
“I felt you should meet my lovely little Chiquita, maybe even play a part in her life?”
“So why do you think she’s mine?”
“A woman knows these things, besides when you see her, there can be no doubt, she has your looks Jess.”
Jess glanced around him, “So where is she then?”
“In bed of course, it is late for a ten-year-old to be up still.”
A ten-year-old, Jess did the math, yes that was about the time they and been lovers.
“As I say if you want to be part of our lives, then you will have plenty of time to get to know her.”
He shook his head, “You really are a piece of work ain’t you. You’ve had my kid... allegedly… all these years and suddenly decide you want me to play pa to her. How the hell do you think that makes me feel Rosa, finding out I’ve missed the first ten years of my own kid’s life?
“I’m sorry,” she cried, before looking around at the raised faces in the lounge and looking down.
“I’m sorry,” she said more quietly, “but it was difficult back then. I had to hide it from Jason and then I ran away and had her in secret…but I needed to give her up Jess. I couldn’t offer her any sort of life, so I gave her to a childless couple, Jack and Pauline Myers with a farm just outside Denver. I had friends there, Annie and Bill Johnston and they helped me out…until Jason came looking for me and took me back. When the couple found out what line of work I was in, they said they’d still take Chiquita, but I was never to see her again.”
Jess shook his head trying to absorb all the information. “So, you chose to go back to Jason rather than look after your own baby?” he said his eyes full of outrage.
“I had no choice…he dragged me back and that’s when he started abusing me and later, I escaped again, that was when I came to the ranch that time and you saw off his heavies, you remember?”
“Yeah, and you showed your gratitude by shootin’ me,” he said bitterly.
Then a thought struck him, “Why in hell didn’t you tell me about her back then?”
She shrugged looking slightly wrong footed, “She was settled with her adoptive parents by then and anyway you didn’t want me, you were with that little tramp Jade. That was why I was so desperate for us to be together, can’t you see? But now her adoptive parents have died in a tragic accident so I have my baby back and we can make a fresh start.”
Jess ignored the derisive comment about Jade, wanting to keep to the point.
“You should have dang well told me sooner,” he said angrily.
“I’m sorry, but I’m here now and we can be a family. We can be together at last,” she said passionately, her eyes burning with desire, “You still want me don’t you, mi amour?”
Jess dipped his head before looking back at her.
“You really do take the biscuit dontcha? You think you can just waltz back here with a ready-made family and expect me to drop everything and take you both on?”
“Well why not? We were good together, were we not mi amour…we could be again, no?”
“I’ll tell ya why not. I’m promised to a beautiful lovin’ girl and there ain’t anyway on God’s earth I’ll be leavin’ her for you. So yeah, I’d like to meet the child and maybe we’ll see somethin’ of each other…But there ain’t gonna be no me and you Rosa so you’d better get that straight in yer head right now!”
She ignored him completely and merely moved in closer, so that he could feel the heat of her thigh through the thin diaphanous gown she was wearing, her musky perfume filling his nostrils and making him feel slightly light headed.
“I understand my darling,” she whispered, “just tonight, for old time’s sake and then if you still say you don’t love me tomorrow, I shall accept it, yes?” And leaning in she caressed his lips with her own.
Jess felt a bolt of desire crash through him, his stomach flipping and pulses racing as he returned the kiss, for a mere few seconds.
Then he came to his senses, blaming his indiscretion for the amount of whiskey he’d imbibed earlier.
He pulled roughly away, his dazed eyes opening wide and his mouth now hard and set in a firm line.
“No that won’t be happening,” he said shakily, “I don’t cheat Rosa you should know that.”
She threw him a look of triumph from eyes alight with mischief, “Really?” she said, “Well we’ll see shall we not mi amigo?”
“I’ll come and meet Chiquita at breakfast tomorrow,” he said before turning and marching out, without a backwards glance.
But Rosa sat on sipping her drink a look of challenge in her dark Latin eyes. She had to convince him…after all it was now a matter of life and death and time was running out.

Chapter 10

Jess stood outside the hotel undecided as to what to do next. He wasn’t going home to have Slim give him a hard time that was for sure. Even Daisy would be asking questions about the beautiful visitor and the effect she’d had on him and Slim. Had she indeed put two and two together and realised that Rosa was the woman who had shot him? Why the heck had Slim relayed the sorry tale to her in the first place he now wondered gloomily.
He stood irresolute for a further minute before finally mooching across the street to the Sheriff’s Office. There was a light still burning and Jess guessed that Mort must have prisoners in the cells that needed guarding. Well, he could do that for a free bed for the night and with a sudden spring in his step he marched across the street and pushed open the office door.
Mort got up quickly from his desk grabbing his rifle, before sinking back down again when he saw who it was.
“You’re a tad jumpy ain’t you Mort?” Jess said coming over and straddling the chair opposite the Sheriff’s desk.
Mort threw him a rueful smile, “Well I guess you would be too if you’d got Jake Sykes to look after.”
Jess gave a low whistle, “He’s got a date with the hangman ain’t he Mort?”
“Yup over in Cheyenne, where he robbed the dang bank, killing the manager, and the sooner he goes off the happier I’ll be. They’re sending a couple of guards for him tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m watching him like a hawk.”
“Think there will be trouble then?”
“Nah, not really, he reckons that no account brother of his is going to spring him, but last I heard he was heading for the Mexican border, there just ain’t no loyalty amongst thieves any more Jess,” he said with a chuckle.
Jess smiled at the joke and then accepted a coffee from the sheriff.
“So, what are you doing in town at this hour?” Mort said after a while, “I thought Miss Daisy had you boys tucked up with yer cocoa by this time on a week night?”
When he didn’t receive the burst of laughter he expected in response, he said, “What’s up Jess, trouble?”
Jess sighed deeply, “You got any whiskey to liven this up Mort?” he asked proffering his cup.
Mort grinned at him, “That bad eh…don’t tell me…there’s a woman involved,” he said as he tipped a generous measure into Jess’s cup, from the bottle he kept in his desk drawer and a little less into his own.
Jess sighed again, “Got it in one.”
“Uh, it wouldn’t be a certain Latin beauty I saw getting on the Stage to go out to your place earlier would it…one Rosa Lopez? Pretty little thing she’s got with her too…lovely little girl,” Mort continued throwing Jess a speculative glance over the rim of his cup.
“You seem to know a lot about her,” Jess parried.
“Uh well only how the woman’s been pretty sick. She saw the Doc this morning and old Ma Braddock babysat the young ‘un while her Ma went visiting at the ranch…”
“So what’s Ma Braddock got to say about everything?” Jess asked, knowing the doc’s elderly housekeeper was a great source of information, although she preferred not to call it gossip.
“Uh, she was of the opinion that all wasn’t well with the child. She seemed kinda jumpy and tearful so she said to Molly in the café later.”
“Uh-huh and she told you when he brought the prisoner’s supper over right?”
“Yup, she said the young ‘un looked kinda pale and sad.”
“Well accordin’ to Rosa the kid lost her adoptive parents in a nasty accident not long since, hardly surprising iffen she’s kinda twitchy.”
“So what’s Rosa doing with her…is the young ‘un hers?”
Jess nodded, thinking they were getting onto kind of rocky ground now, as Mort’s eyes lit up with the zeal of one sniffing out a juicy scandal.
“So she had the child adopted then?”
“Looks like it yeah,” Jess muttered, suddenly unable to give Mort eye contact.
“I wonder who the Pa was,” Mort said thoughtfully. Then chuckling, “she probably don’t know, line of business she was in, could be any poor sucker I reckon, dontcha think?”
When Jess said nothing but merely stared into his coffee Mort suddenly became alert.
“So, do you know who the Pa is then Jess?”
When he still didn’t respond Mort said, “Jess?”
Jess finally looked him in the eye, his expression one of total bleakness…but he still said nothing.
Mort stared at him for a good minute, before the truth dawned and he shook his head, “Well I’ll be….so how the heck did that happen?”
“How do you damn well think?” Jess spat rolling his eyes.
“Uh-huh, yup I know how… I was wondering why?” Mort said.
“Oh come on Mort, these things happen, she said she couldn’t get pregnant and I damn well believed her.”
“And you’re sure she’s yours?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope, I ain’t even seen the kid yet, but that’s what she’s sayin’ and the dates fit…so…maybe.”
“So what are you going to do?”
Jess spread his hands out in a gesture of helplessness, “Nuthin’ right now, maybe have another coffee and bed down in one of the cells?”
Mort grinned at him, “Well sure buddy I’d be glad of the company, how about a drop more red eye and a hand of poker huh?”

It was late when the two men finally settled down for the night.
Seeing that Jess was kinda dozy after a slight overindulgence of whiskey laced coffee Mort took the first watch and then he roused Jess to take over at about four o’clock.
Jess struggled out of the cell cot and mooched over to the coffee pot and poured himself a strong brew to wake himself up before slouching down in Mort’s chair, rifle across his knees.
As dawn approached, he got up and paced about the office before deciding to get some fresh air.
The first rays of dawn light were just filtering through the clouds as he took a seat on Mort’s old rocker out on the boardwalk outside the office. He sank down breathing in the cool morning air, cradling the rifle, his gaze scanning the empty street before him.
Then just moments later a solitary rider made his way slowly down the street towards him, before reining in…
Jess looked up into the eyes of one Carl Sykes, brother of the notorious gunslinger Jake Sykes.
Jess never moved from where he sat, merely tipped his hat back the better to see the outlaw.
“Carl,” he said quietly, “come for Jake, have you?”
Carl nodded from where he still sat his grey mount, “I have Jess…so are you the law around here now?”
Jess shrugged, “Sometimes…I help out the Sheriff…like now yeah.”
“Uh, I weren’t thinkin’ on havin’ a shoot-out with you Jess, I figured it would just be some old hick town Sheriff and I’d down him and be on my way.”
“Yeah, well I’m sorry to disappoint ya Carl… but iffen you want your brother you’re gonna have to go through me first. Then if you do that I hafta tell ya that Mort Corey ain’t no old hick town Sheriff either, so I’d just quit while yer ahead if I were you.”
“He’s talking sense son, I’d listen to him if I were you,” came a voice from behind Jess as Mort emerged from the office, “plenty more back up in there too boy, so I should just give in gracefully huh?”
Carl had the look of a killer in his eyes as he dismounted… “Sorry to cross ya Sheriff, but I reckon me an’ Jess have a little business here. I’ll deal with you and your...er re-enforcements later huh?”
Mort came forwards his rifle still on Carl, “You don’t have to do this Jess,” he whispered.
Jess half turned back, knowing that Mort would be no match for the gunslinger, but not about to voice his concerns.
“I know that Mort,” he whispered back, “but I wanna, believe me…”
Then Carl backed off and Jess walked out onto the street after passing his rifle to Mort, and both men stood glaring at each other, just waiting….
Across the street in the first-floor front room of the hotel Chiquita awoke crying with a bad dream and Rosa quickly comforted her, before getting up to fetch the child a drink. That was when she heard the raised voices in the street below. Glancing out of the window she was shocked to see Jess backing off from another man, the Sheriff looking on with concern.
The quick intake of her breath and the, “Jess…no!” was enough to alert her daughter that all was not well and she jumped out of bed to see what was upsetting her.
“Ma is that Jess… my Pa?” the child asked inquisitively as she peered down into the street below.
Rosa dragged her eyes away from the unfolding drama in the street and wrapped a protective arm around the child, “Come away bebe,” she said quickly…but not quickly enough.
Just seconds later two shots rang out, both men falling… Carl Sykes from a bullet straight through his heart Jess from one that slammed into his shoulder, causing him to fall to his knees and then he slumped forwards buckling as Mort ran out to catch him.
That was how Rosa found him when she dashed out still in her night attire minutes later, Chiquita on her heels. The child stood there in confusion as her mother fell to her knees and put a hand out to his cheek, Jess still being cradled by the Sheriff, his eyes closed and his skin a terrible grey color.
“Jess mi amor, no mueras!” she cried in distress.
After a moment his eyes flickered open and he focused on her, “I...I ain’t gonna die Rosa, I’m fine,” he gasped.
Then turning to the Sheriff said, “Help me up will ya Mort?”
Once he was on his feet he looked down to the wide-eyed little girl and his heart missed a beat.
From her dark wavy hair falling around her shoulders, to her deep blue eyes and cute turned up nose she was the image of his little sister who had perished in the fire. Chiquita was older, but the resemblance was uncanny, even down to the dimple in her cheek…. and Jess was lost. Just the way he had been when he had first seen her Ma, Rosa. Although this time the love he felt was completely pure…that of a father for his baby girl and he could have wept for all the lost years.
He very gently reached out a hand to her and smiling down into her eyes said, “It’s alright now don’t be afraid sweetheart.”
She looked back up at him with those huge troubled eyes and looking to his blood-stained shirt said, “Does it hurt?”
He smiled down at her, “Nope, not so much,” he said softly.
Then mayhem broke out as folk ran over to see what all the shooting was about and doc Sam was called for as Jess was helped into the Sheriff’s office.
But Jess paused and looked back to where Rosa was staring after him her arms holding Chiquita close, “I’ll come find you as soon as I can,” he said and she nodded and steered the youngster back to the safely of the hotel, suddenly aware that they were still clad in their flimsy nightwear.
Once in the Sheriff’s office Sam unbuttoned Jess’s shirt and started work on cleaning the wound.
“You were lucky it went straight through, you’ll be on the mend pretty soon, if you behave that is,” the doc said firmly.
“Lucky, ha, he was dang foolish!” Mort interjected, “What were you thinking taking him on Jess I had him covered with my rifle there was no need.”
Jess sighed deeply, “There was every need Mort. If I hadn’t distracted him, he’d have shot ya down in cold blood. He could draw quicker than you could have decided to fire on him I reckon…See he’s got the morals of a coyote Mort, thinks nuthin’ of killing a man outright, with no warning…whereas you’d have hesitated just that moment too long and he knew it.”
Mort sank down at his desk looking thoughtful and quite shaken, “I reckon maybe you’re right Jess and I owe you an apology…so did you know he was that dang fast?”
Jess nodded, “Yup I knew we were pretty evenly matched, but I guess I’m a tad more accurate.”
“Well thank God for that,” Mort said fervently.
Then a moment later Sam cussed softly.
“What’s up Sam?” Jess said, surprised at the doctor’s uncharacteristic colorful language, before glancing down to where the blood was seeping through the newly applied bandage.
“This is a little worse than I thought Jess I’m afraid we’ll need to go over to the office, this needs a few stitches, and I’m going to have to put you out.”
“Aw Sam do ya hafta, you know that chloroform makes me chuck something fierce,” Jess said looking hard done by.
Sam just raised a censorious eyebrow, “That or bleed to death buddy…a slow and unpleasant way to go,” he said with the hint of a twinkle in his deep brown eyes.
Jess rolled his eyes and got unsteadily to his feet, “Come on then doc lets git it over with, I’ve got things to do.”
“Not for a while you haven’t,” Sam said firmly and casting Mort a long suffering glance helped his patient make his way shakily across to the office.
It was early evening when Carrie, the doc’s pretty daughter, who also acted as nurse, wiped Jess’s perspiring face with a cool cloth looking down at him with kindly compassionate eyes.
“You all done chucking now?” she asked with the hint of a smile, Jess being a good friend.
He took a deep breath looking up at the ceiling as though considering the matter and then rolled his head on the pillow and raised a quirky eyebrow, “I guess I am…sorry Carrie.”
She gave him a genuine smile then, “Well I can think of worse people to have to tend to,” she said giving him a gentle slap on the chest, “but not many that can cuss as good as you.”
He flushed up a little then, “Sorry,” he said again weakly.
“Well I don’t mind but Mrs Braddock wasn’t too impressed,” she said reprovingly.
“Aw Jeez, I didn’t cuss in front of Ma B did I?” he asked looking even more embarrassed.
“Nope, kiddin’ you!” she said her eyes twinkling in delight.
“Aw you…so can I get up I need to do …er stuff.”
“Um…well you’re not doing any ‘stuff’ tonight, on Pa’s orders. He’ll be in to see you directly,” she said getting up from the bedside chair.
Then she paused by the door and said, “Oh yes and the er …’stuff’ visited twice and Pa said she couldn’t see you until the morning, so you see you can just relax back and get a good night’s sleep, huh?”
“Did anyone ever tell you, you’re way too cheeky for your own good?” he said, laughing in spite of himself…
“Oh yes,” she said chuckling, “too many to count,” and she marched off to tell her Pa that Jess was back to his usual ornery self and so must be feeling better.
Sam entered a little while later and stood quietly contemplating Jess, who was dozing, before coming over to the bed.
Jess opened his eyes when he heard Sam approach and gave his friend a lazy smile, “Carrie says I’m confined to barracks until tomorrow.”
“Indeed, and longer still if I had my way,” Sam said as he took Jess’s wrist to check the pulse, before sinking down onto the bedside chair.
He shook his head and then said, “
You really need to start thinking of backing off a little buddy, you’re getting shot up way too often and the body can only stand so much you know.”
Jess sighed looking irritated, “I didn’t have no choice Sam iffen I hadn’t kept Carl occupied he might have gunned Mort down…he’s real unpredictable that way.”
“Uh, well not anymore he isn’t,” Sam said with a grim smile.
“Yeah well the world’s a better place without the likes of Carl Sykes in it,” Jess growled.
“Oh I don’t doubt it, but it’s you I’m worried about Jess.” Then casting him a rather uncomfortable glance said, “After all you’ve got responsibilities now haven’t you.”
Jess shot up in the bed, before groaning quietly and lying back down clutching his bandaged shoulder, “She told ya then?”
Sam nodded, “So it’s true?”
Jess shook his head in puzzlement, “I guess it has to be, Chiquita is the spitting image of my little sister…I didn’t think it could be true…but…”
Sam looked serious and then taking a deep breath said, “Look Jess there are things you need to know.”
“Uh…so what’s that then Sam…and iffen you’re gonna say she’s out to take me for a fool again you can forget it. Me and Rosa were through the minute she left me to work for that no-good pimp Jason Hugo and I ain’t never takin’ her back, daughter or no daughter. Plus, the little matter of the fact that I’m in love with my Millie. So, if she’s told you some sob story, to get you to speak up for her forget it, you’re wastin’ your breath. Sure, I’ll look out for the young ‘un, provide for her, that would be only right…but as to her Ma…well…”
“Jess will you hush and just listen to me… This is hard for me as I never discuss my patients as you know. But in this case Rosa has given me permission to share her medical history with you.”
“Oh yeah, like she lost her first baby and couldn’t have no more, well she sure got that one wrong,” Jess said bitterly.
Yes, little Chiquita had totally turned his life upside down. He felt a wave of love for her just at that first glimpse and he wanted to get to know her more than anything. But he still felt bitter towards Rosa for her betrayal all those years ago and now even more so for keeping the birth of his daughter from him.
“Jess just simmer down and listen to me, Rosa’s sick.”
Jess’s eyes narrowed, “How sick Sam?” he asked with foreboding.
Sam cast Jess a compassionate look, “She won’t get better from this buddy, I’m sorry. She has a malignant growth…a sort of cancer and she’s only got a short time left. That’s why she came here. She wanted to marry you and give the child a name before she dies.”
Jess who had sat up again and was listening intently threw himself back down onto the pillow and groaned again, “Goddamn it what a mess,” he whispered.
Then, “Is she in pain? “He asked.
“Some, it’s controllable right now, she’s on medication, but things will get worse for her, towards the end.”
Jess closed his eyes cussing under his breath, pity flooding through him. OK so maybe they didn’t get on now…but this?
“Look Jess, don’t go rushing into anything. You need to have absolute proof that you are the father and talk to the child too. From what Mrs Braddock has gleaned the youngster doesn’t know her Ma at all. She has lived all her life with these adoptive parents who she adored. Now they have perished it maybe they have relatives where she would be happier. I know she is missing her school friends and neighbors back in Denver badly.
“Poor little tyke,” Jess said softly, “sure I’ll find out what is best for her Sam…and thank you I appreciate you tellin’ me everything.”
A few minutes later there was a light tap on the door and Slim put his head round, “OK to visit Sam?” he asked, before flicking a concerned glance over to his pard.
“Sure, come in Slim, I think Jess could use a friend right now,” and with that he bowed out leaving the two together.
“Daisy and Mike were fretting when you didn’t get home for supper,” Slim said taking the vacated chair by the bed.
“I’m sorry Slim I needed some time to think it all through.”
“Thinking isn’t all you’ve been doing is it? Looks like it was lucky you were around to see Carl Sykes off...Mort appreciated your help I know. But it seems you’ve got quite a lot to think on too haven’t you Jess?” he said his eyes narrowing as he scrutinized his friend.
Jess flicked a glance up to him and then closed his eyes swallowing deeply, “You know dontcha?”
“Mort told me…he was worried about you, but why didn’t you tell me Jess. That’s why you went off isn’t it? She told you yesterday?”
He nodded, “I had to think it through Slim and I didn’t really believe her, until I saw Chiquita…then I knew she was telling the truth.”
“So what will you do?”
Jess shrugged, “You ain’t heard it all Slim… It’s Rosa she’s sick…real sick.”
Slim’ s head shot up and his mouth gaped in shock, “What…you mean so sick she might not get well?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. Sam thinks it’s only a matter of weeks.”
Slim bowed his head, “Oh God, I’m so very sorry, poor Rosa.”
Jess said nothing for a moment and then, “That’s why she came Slim. She wants me to up and marry her to give the child a name. Then take her on, look after her.”
Slim looked aghast… “And so will you?”
Jess shook his head, “It’s the right thing to do I know that…but hell Slim what about Millie? She’d never forgive me that, even if it was only a marriage of necessity not love…But if Chiquita is really mine…then morally I’m honor bound to I reckon?”
“Look Jess you’re hurting right now, not thinking straight, don’t do anything for the moment huh?”
Jess just sighed deeply, “That’s what Sam said.”
“Well he gives good advice and so does Daisy. She had a feeling Rosa was sick and she suggested she come stay in the bunkhouse. Said she’d look out for her…I think maybe we should do that huh?”
“I suppose it would be easier on the child if I was around when…when her Ma dies,” Jess said quietly.
“That’s all settled then I’ll go and take her out to an early supper, maybe meet your daughter too.”
“She’s as cute as a button,” Jess said proudly, the image of my kid sister Slim, you’ll love her.”
Slim punched his buddy gently on his good arm, “Well she wouldn’t be anything else would she,” he said with a grin. Then he sobered, “Will you be home tomorrow…sure you’ll be well enough?”
Jess nodded, “I’ll get the stage and bring them with me if you’re sure it’s OK with you and Daisy.”
Slim nodded, “It’s the right thing to do I think Jess...you just rest up and I’ll see you tomorrow and don’t worry about Trav I’ll take him home with me tonight.”
“Thanks, Slim.”
“Take it easy…Pa,” Slim chuckled before diving out of the door as Jess flapped a hand at him.
“Git out of here,” he called after his buddy smiling at the closing door.
But then the smile faded as he lay back on the pillows, what the hell was he gonna do?


Slim entered the hotel a little later and after being told Rosa’s room number he jogged quickly up to the first-floor front and tapped lightly on the door.
It was several minutes before it was pulled open a little and there stood the most beautiful child Slim could ever remember seeing. She was dressed in a Spanish style dress of bright red material and her long dark tresses framed her perfect oval face. She had large intelligent eyes of a stunning blue and Slim gave a little gasp of shock as he felt as though he was looking straight the familiar eyes of his pard.
“My Ma is resting right now sir, can I give her a message,” the child asked politely, her demeanor poised and very confident for a ten-year-old Slim thought admiringly.
He removed his hat and smiled down at the child, “Howdy Miss, I’m Slim Sherman, an old friend of your Ma and I wondered if you and your Ma would care to dine with me tonight?”
Her little face lit up and she said, “I know you, you’re from the Sherman ranch where my Pa works, Ma told me all about you.”
“Well that’s real good, so you tell your Ma I’ll be waiting in the lobby when she feels rested OK?”
“Oh yes Mr Sherman I will,” she said practically bouncing with excitement, “thank you…she’ll be getting up real soon.”
Then she frowned, “Is my Pa alright, he had blood on his nice shirt…I was scared, when the bad man shot him.”
“He’s just fine Chiquita, he’s resting right now, but he’ll see you and your Ma tomorrow.”
She clasped her hands together in delight and forgetting her demure act and said, “Oh goody,” before beaming at him and turning to wake her Ma Slim guessed. “We won’t be long,” she promised before closing the door softly.
Well I’ll be, Slim thought smiling to himself as he went back downstairs. Someone had done a dang good job in raising the young ‘un. Her manners were impeccable and her turn of speech mature and sensible. Plus, she sure was one heck of a lovely looking kid, she’d be breaking a few hearts in years to come Slim mused.
The evening went well and Rosa looked stunning when she entered the lobby with her daughter some half hour later and Slim almost forgot how gravely ill she was.
They had a pleasant meal together chatting lightly about this and that. Chiquita answered politely when spoken to, but did not dominate the conversation as some overexcited children might have done. In fact, Slim was almost sorry when Rosa said it was time for her daughter to go off up to bed, even though he really needed to speak to her mother alone.
Almost as though she had read his mind Rosa said, “I’ll just settle Chiquita down and then maybe we could have nightcap, I think we need to talk mi amigo.”
Once they were settled on a couch in a dim corner of the lounge Rosa took a sip of her brandy and then studied Slim over the rim of her glass.
“It has been a long time has it not mi amigo?”
Slim nodded, “Yes and a lot has changed since you were last here Rosa. We’ve moved on… all of us… Jess has a very special lady in his life now, me too.”
“And it would break his heart to have to leave her and do his duty by marrying me yes? Is that what you are saying Slim?”
He just gaped at her for a minute and then said, “Well yeah, I guess maybe I am saying that.”
“I think it is time to…how you say, er put our cards on the table no?”
When Slim didn’t reply she continued to speak.
“You know I am dying of course and…”
Slim opened his mouth to offer his sympathy, but she raised a hand to silence him.
“No please let me finish. I know Jess will have told you everything, I am dying and Chiquita is his little girl…just to look at her you can see that can you not?”
Slim just nodded, “Maybe, I suppose so,” he admitted cagily.
“Jess is a good man he will do what is right and I want you to promise not to try and stop him. I want him Slim and this time I will have him. Because you see it is my dying wish and what man could deny that?” She finished a look of triumph in her beautiful eyes.
Slim’ s eyes were now as hard as granite, “And what if Jess doesn’t want to wed you…doesn’t he get any say in the matter?”
“Jess loves me…oh he doesn’t realize it, but he will soon and he already loves the little one, I have seen it in his eyes, he will do it for her if not me.”
Seeing this old passionate side of Rosa, who would do anything to get what, or more like who she wanted made the alarm bells ring for Slim.But he’d promised Jess that she could stay at the ranch. Plus, if indeed Rosa was really dying then little Chiquita would need them all, especially Jess to help her through.
“Look I figure it’s down to you and Jess to sort all that out, but what I do know is that he…well all of us, would like you to stay at the ranch. Daisy is a trained nurse and she can look after you and we have renovated the old bunkhouse into really comfortable quarters…so how about it?”
Rosa who thought she was going to have to fight Slim every inch of the way was pleasantly surprised. Why last time she was here she had led him on and then thrown him over, not to mention shooting his pard and leaving him for dead.
“Why are you doing this for me?” she asked in amazement.
“Because you need it and Jess wants it… he’s my best buddy…so…”
She leaned over and kissed him passionately on the lips before withdrawing and looking deeply into his eyes, “Thank you mi amigo, I will not forget your kindness.”

Chapter 11

Rosa and Chiquita settled well into their new quarters in the ranch bunkhouse, with the youngster making instant friends with Mike and all his pets. But the one person she was practically inseparable from was Jess. Rosa encouraged the relationship thinking that once Jess was totally under little Chiquita’s spell then he would do exactly what Rosa wanted and marry her for the sake of their daughter.
It had been arranged for the child to start school with Mike the following week, but in the meantime she and Jess spent all their free time together, when Mike was away at his lessons, to get better acquainted.
It was one afternoon when Jess had taken her down to the creek beyond the home meadow that he felt he needed to sound her out about the future.
It was a beautiful Indian summer day in late fall and the creek bustled along briskly filled by the storm water of the previous week. As the child stood near the edge with her fishing line Jess said anxiously, “You can swim can’t you Chiquita? This old river runs mighty fast after the rain, stand back some huh.”
She turned and smiled at him, the dimple in her cheek in evidence, “Of course I can, my real Mama taught me in the swimming hole back home.”
“Your real Mama?”
“Yes sure, back in Denver we had a swimming hole on the ranch, I used to swim there all the time with my best friend Carla,” then her eyes filled with unshed tears and she came and sat down by Jess.
“I miss Mama and Papa so much,” she said softly, “Carla and Debbie too.”
“My best friends…and my pony Jimmy, Ma said I could have another pony, but it’s just not the same is it Papa Jess?”
“No sweetheart I guess it ain’t,” Jess said throwing a comforting arm around her shoulders.
He was silent for a moment as the child cuddled up to him, noticing that she called him Papa Jess and Rosa Ma…but her real parents, as she thought of them, were Mama and Papa, Jack and Pauline Myers. They had sat up nights with her when she was sick, seen her first steps, first tooth, first day at school. Dadgum it, he had to admit it, they were her real folks and she loved and missed dreadfully, of course she did.
“I’m so sorry you lost them Chiquita, but I’ll do my best to care for ya, you know that don’t you?”
She nodded vigorously, “I know and I love you Papa Jess, really I do. Maybe you can come and visit when I go home again huh?”
Jess raised a puzzled eyebrow, “But honey you won’t be going home, your Mama and Papa had that bad accident, you remember? They’re in Heaven now.”
“No, they’re not,” she said firmly. “I’d just know if they were dead and anyway Papa is a real good driver, he wouldn’t have crashed the buggy that way. They’ve just had to stay out of town longer than they thought…but they’ll send for me soon I guess.”
Jess just didn’t know what to say, the kid was obviously in denial and it was doubtless a coping mechanism, because she just couldn’t face the truth. It was clear she hadn’t attended the funeral and he figured Rosa thought it would be too stressful for her. But he decided he’d sound Rosa out later. In the meantime, he just changed the subject and then he caught a fish and she seemed to cheer up some.
It was later that he had a chance to talk to Rosa alone. It was a warm night, the unseasonable weather persisting and Jess and Slim had partaken of their coffee out on the porch. After a while Slim stretched saying he was dead beat and was having an early night.
Jess sat on having poured another coffee, watching the moonlight on the distant snowy range and enjoying the peace.
Then Rosa emerged from the bunkhouse and took Slim’ s recently vacated seat, but refused a coffee.
She looked very beautiful in the moonlight, dressed in a dark red, low-cut dress with a black lace shawl around her bare shoulders. Then Jess looked more closely and saw how exquisite her beauty was…her face slender and pale, the eyes huge and her figure so slender as to look almost fragile.
Then he noted that her hand was clutching her abdomen and he felt suddenly fearful.
“Are you in pain sweetheart?” he asked.
“Si, a little,” she nodded.
“Can I do anything?”
She shook her head, “No it will pass…maybe if we walk a little?”
He took her hand and helped her up and they strolled across the yard to the large corral and stood there, leaning on the fence and staring off to the beauty of the moonlit mountain range.
“Chiquita was talking about her adoptive parents today…she don’t seem to think they’re dead Rosa, did she not attend the funeral?” he asked eventually.
Rosa looked startled, but recovered quickly.
“No the accident happened out at Boulder, so the inquest was held there,” she said, “and so the funeral was delayed. I thought it better to take the child away and give her a fresh start.”
“So, what were they doing out there anyway?” Jess persisted, “Why wasn’t Chiquita with them?”
“They were attending a family funeral, Mrs Myers sister. They thought the child too young to attend and so their neighbors looked after her that day.”
“So what were you doing there?” Jess asked looking suspicious.
She sighed, “Were you always this mistrusting?” she asked crossly.
He shrugged, “I just wondered why Chiquita doesn’t believe they’re dead and then you suddenly come along by chance just at the right time?”
“I didn’t, I’d been there a few weeks but they refused to let me visit with her. They said I had given her up and I’d upset and confuse her suddenly coming back into her life. I told them it was because I was so sick… that I needed to see her while I still could, but they didn’t believe me.”
“I see,” he said quietly.
“It’s true Jess. When word came through of the accident, I saw the Sheriff, explained everything and once he’d seen the Birth certificate, he accompanied me to the neighbors and insisted I had custody.”
“You’ve got a birth certificate?” Jess said in astonishment, “I’m registered as her Pa right?”
“Of course you are, who else?”
“Well can I see it then huh?”
Before she could answer she grabbed her stomach again and gave a little groan…
Jess held her close, “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I didn’t mean to doubt you…”
She took a deep breath and then looked up into his concerned gaze, “That is alright mi amor.”
For once Jess didn’t object to the endearment as he was still feeling pretty bad for cross questioning her that way when she was clearly in a lot of pain.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, “so dang sorry about everything. For walking out on you that way…maybe if I’d stayed, we could have raised her together made a go of things back then. Hell I’d never have left iffen I’d known.”
She looked up at him, her eyes suddenly burning with passion, “Mi amor,” she whispered again, before reaching up and kissing him ardently.
It was several minutes before he finally pushed her gently away.
“I’m talkin’ about back then Rosa…things are different now. Sure, I’ll look after her after…when… you ain’t here no more…but I can’t Wed you when I love someone else…that wouldn’t be right surely you can see that?”
“I know you are her father, I have the proof…and surely the right thing is to give your child your name is it not? Do you not owe her that at least?”
Then she ran a finger seductively down his chest, coming to a stop at his belt buckle, “What is more I still love you, mi amor…and you love me, but you are too stubborn to admit it,” and with that she turned and walked slowly back to the bunkhouse. Then turning back, she paused at the door to throw him an intimate look, before going inside and closing the door quietly behind her.
Jess just stood in the moonlight, his mind in turmoil…he loved Millie…but he also loved his daughter…and he knew where his duty lay…but was he strong enough to do the right thing?

It was Slim who first became suspicious of Rosa’s motives when he heard Chiquita and Mike chatting in the barn. It was a Sunday and the children were at home. He had heard their childish treble voices as he entered…but then something made him stop in his tracks and really listen.
“Heck no we aren’t rich Chiquita, why did you think that?” Mike asked in bewilderment.
“Well Ma told me and showed me this old newspaper that said a Jade ornament had been sold for thousands of dollars and the folk at the Sherman ranch were millionaires!”
Mike giggled at the idea, “I guess I’d know if we were! Nope that was when Grandpa James sold Green Jack…this little man out of the Christmas decorations box. Grandpa, that is Reverend Harrison, had half of the money to help build a special hospital back in New York. Slim and Jess paid off the Mortgage thingy with their half. They bought a parcel of land too. Then they saved the rest, but I guess it ain’t too much. Not a million dollars anyways! Your Ma wants to talk to Jess, he says the newspapers print darn right lies half the time and the editor should be strung up and the only good use of the newspaper is the outhouse,” and the children collapsed in helpless laughter at the notion.
So Rosa is of the opinion they were rich eh, well maybe that had something to do with her landing there…she was as much of a gold digger as ever. But he figured she just wanted the best for Chiquita and maybe he couldn’t blame her too much for that? But there again, had she merely sited Jess as the father because she thought he was rich? No that was impossible, little Chiquita was way too much like Jess for there to be any mistake…wasn’t she?
Then he gave a little cough and entered, “You two OK…I think Aunt Daisy has some milk and cookies for you when your chores are all done,” he said cheerfully.
Once the children had finished feeding and watering Mike’s pony Sunny, they ran off to the house and moments later Jess strode into the barn.
“Hey what are you doing out here?” Slim asked looking surprised, “Daisy’s got the coffee on you know.”
Jess just shrugged and entering Traveller’ s stall started grooming him.
“I’ll give it a miss,” he said gruffly, concentrating on the job in hand.
Slim’ s head shot up, “Huh? Why what’s wrong…you sick?” he asked with a broad grin, knowing the early morning coffee was usually as essential to Jess as the air he breathed.
“Rosa’s in there,” he muttered.
“Well is that so bad…she is staying here you know.”
Jess just muttered something unintelligible and continued with his task.
“Jess talk to me will you, what’s the matter? You were tossing and turning all night long and we couldn’t get a civil word out of you over breakfast…so what’s up?
Jess sighed deeply, and putting the brushes down made his way out of the stall to face Slim and then told himof the events of the night before.
After a charged silence Slim said quietly, “So is she right Jess…do you still love her?”
Jess’s head shot up and he scowled at his pard, “What the hell do you think?”
He shrugged, “She’s a very beautiful woman and can be real persuasive pard, once she sets her mind on something…we both know that to our cost Jess.”
“And what about Millie… hell it’s her I love Slim. God I wish she was here,” he muttered slouching down on a straw bale. “I just need to talk it all through with her.”
“Do you think Millie would go along with it if it was just a marriage of convenience? You know not consummated? You and Rosa could just go through the Service to give young Chiquita your name?”
Jess shook his head looking tormented, “No Slim it would kill Millie…and what would folk think? Anyway, I doubt if Josh would marry us under those circumstances. Goddammit Slim, how did I get in this dang mess?”
Slim just shrugged and tried to hide a smile, “I guess we both know that. The thing is how are you going to get out of it?”
Jess just shook his head, “It weren’t so bad before, a little part of me still thought maybe I wasn’t her Pa. But now Rosa says she’s got the birth certificate…well I guess that’s it.”
“She’s got a birth certificate?” Slim said in shock, “Well I reckon that clinches it buddy. So Rosa wasn’t just here for the money that Chiquita might inherit, it was genuine then he thought.
“Have you seen it?”
“Have you seen the birth certificate Jess?”
“Oh no she said she’d put it in the bank vault in Laramie for safe keeping, along with her Will and some other stuff, I’ll go check it out next time I go in,” he said.
Then Mike came running in, “Aunt Daisy says the coffee’s getting cold you comin’ in?”
“Sure we’ll be right there,” Slim said and the child ran off again.
“Come on Jess, you’ve got to face her sometime, just take it easy huh and we’ll talk it through tonight OK?”
However, neither of them were prepared for what happened later that day.
The four adults were eating the midday meal alone as the children were out for the day playing at a local ranch with some of Mike’s friends. As Chiquita was starting at the school the following morning Daisy thought it would help if the child had already made some friends and Rosa had agreed with alacrity.
It was after the meal was over that Rosa clutched her stomach doubling up in pain.
“Oh my dear what is it?” Daisy asked anxiously. She knew that Rosa’s condition would start to bother her as the days wore on, but currently she was hardly troubled with any discomfort. Daisy had already administered a pain soothing medicine before the meal so how could she be in such agony?
“I’m alright Daisy really, if Jess could just see me back to the bunkhouse, I will rest a little.”
Jess helped her up and supported her as she leaned heavily on him, giving a little cry of pain before smiling bravely and saying she was alright, really.
Slim who had leapt up to open the door for them returned to his seat looking anxious, “So what do you make of that Daisy, do you think I should ride for Doc Sam?”
To his surprise Daisy was just looking thoughtful, but not too worried.
“No dear I don’t think that will be necessary at this stage. I’ll go over and examine her in a minute and we shall see.”
“Huh, see what Daisy?” then his eyes opened wide in surprise, “Heck you think she’s faking it don’t you.”
“Um, faking it? No not as such dear. The poor girl is terminally ill, of that there is no doubt…but this sudden pain…um I wonder. You see I have nursed many women through this particular malignancy and severe pain like Rosa appeared to be experiencing is very unusual at this stage. Plus, it comes on gradually, ever increasing over several hours. But this morning she said she felt well enough to help prepare the meal and she seemed in good spirits and absolutely no pain. In fact, I nearly didn’t administer the mild pain medicine as I didn’t think it was needed at the moment.”
All the time she had been speaking Slim had looked more and more surprised, “So why was she acting that way then…and she sure is a good actor if you’re right,” he said.
“Why do you think my dear, to get to Jess of course. What better way to make him feel guilty and give in to her wishes… um?”
Meanwhile back in the bunkhouse Rosa was milking it for all she was worth, lying back on her bed groaning softly and insisting on holding Jess’s hand tightly.
“I’ll fetch Daisy,” he said for the second time really wanting out.
“No please do not leave me, it is you I need. Daisy has administered my medicine there is no more she can do,” she gasped theatrically.
Jess who was so caught up in the moment, didn’t realize that he was being played for a fool yet again.
“Well I’ll ride for the doc then?”
“No mi amor, please all I want is for you to hold me close that will help to ease the pain I am sure.”
Jess sat on the edge of the cot and took her in his arms her head resting on his chest as he held her closely, stroking her hair and trying to calm her.
After a little while she said, “Jess we need to talk.”
“Oh, talk about what?” he asked warily.
“You know my darling, what I want, what I have always wanted…my last wish is that we can become man and wife. Please Jess I am begging you,” and she gave a little sob. Please before it is too late…”
He bent down and kissed the top of her head very tenderly, “Rosa…I….”
Then at that moment there was a brisk knock on the door and it flew open admitting Daisy and Jess quickly backed off.
If Daisy needed any more proof it was the look of fury in Rosa’s eyes and the relief in Jess’s.
“I’ve just come to check you over my dear,” Daisy said cheerfully, ignoring the fact that if looks could kill she would be stone dead.
“There really is no need,” Rosa replied sharply, but she had met her match in Daisy.
“Oh I think there is every need dear,” she said in her no nonsense nurses voice.
Then turning to Jess said, “Slim has some coffee for you out on the porch dear, just give me a little space to check Rosa out would you.”
Jess needed no second telling and was off out the door with a hasty, “See you later,” before he made for the porch at speed.
As he sipped his coffee Slim filled him in on Daisy’s theory and the more he thought about it the more sense it made.
“So she asked you to wed her again?” Slim said shaking his head in disbelief, “She sure is tenacious I’ll say that for her.”
Jess just sank his head into his hands…before looking up and saying, “Typical Rosa ain’t it…using blackmail to snap me back into line.” Then he sighed deeply, “But whatever way you look at it Slim, she’s still dyin’ and it’s still right I should give Chiquita a name…no matter how may tricks she pulls.”
Slim leaned across and slapped him gently on the shoulder, “So what are you going to do then Jess huh?”
He sighed deeply, “I’m takin’ the kids in to school tomorrow Miss Charmers needs an adult to sign Chiquita up according to Mike. So I’ll go check out the birth certificate at the bank afterwards and then maybe have a word with Josh, see what the Church has to say about sham marriages he,” said bitterly.
A little while later Daisy joined them on the porch.
“Well?” asked Jess and Slim in unison.
Daisy threw Jess a compassionate glance, “I’m sorry dear but I really think she was trying it on. Her heart rate, respiration and temperature were all normal. There was no sign of sweating or agitation, her pupils were normal… and her temper robust,” she said with a tiny smile. “I think we can assume that she is not currently suffering any pain, except that of acute embarrassment of being caught out.”
Jess just shook his head feeling every kind of a fool himself, “Jeez I should have known it,” he cussed.
“Hey don’t beat yourself up Hotshot, don’t forget we’re dealing with a pro here, the number of times she’s had us both fooled over the years.”
Then he turned to Daisy, “What did you say to her Daisy?”
The good lady just tapped her nose and smiled benignly, “That’s best kept between us women,” she said quietly before going off to wash the dishes.
“Thank God for Daisy huh?” Slim said with feeling.
“I’ll second that,” Jess agreed fervently.

Chapter 12

The following morning when Chiquita came over from the bunkhouse for breakfast, she said her Ma was feeling tired and having a lie in and would skip breakfast.
Slim and Jess exchanged a knowing look, but said nothing.
“Alright my dear I’ll take her something over later,” Daisy said kindly. “Now let’s have a look at you…”
The child was clean and tidy and wearing a neat pinafore dress and polished boots. Her dark hair was gleaming and her bright intelligent eyes dancing with excitement.
“You look lovely dear,” Daisy declared.
“You sure do, you’ll knock ‘em dead in school,” Jess declared proudly.
“Cos we’re almost the same age you’ll be in my class Mike,” said happily and I’ll show ya the ropes.
“You certainly are a grown-up young lady,” Daisy enthused. Then thoughtfully, “You know I do believe I have a length of red ribbon in my room would you like it for your hair?”
The child’s eyes lit up with delight, “Yes please!” she enthused and the two went off to fix the youngster’s hair.
Slim looked after them smiling, “She sure is a little sweetheart,” he said to Jess.
Then looking over saw his pard looking decidedly misty eyed and grinned even more broadly. Jess a Pa who’d have thought it…and a rightly proud one too.
Once they arrived in town Jess hitched up the buckboard and entered the school with Mike and Chiquita. All ready to sign the necessary forms to admit the child into the Laramie School.
“Good morning Mister Harper how are you today?” smiled the pretty young School Ma’am.
“Good thanks Miss Charmers, I believe you need me to sign up a new pupil, this is Chiquita Myers,” he said proudly presenting the pretty child, “she’s staying with us right now.”
“Hello my dear, I’ve heard so much about you from Mike,” she said flicking a glance to where Mike was looking on eagerly.
“Uh, would you like to ring the bell this morning Mike dear?” She asked beaming at him. Just give me five minutes with your guardian to sort out this paperwork and then you can ring it, alright?”
“Gee thanks Ma’am,” Mike said excitedly.
“See ya in class Chiquita,” and he ran off happily to the yard with the large hand bell.
“Do come this way,” said Miss Charmers leading them over to her desk at the front of the spacious room and gesturing for them to sit on a pair of diminutive chairs.
Jess opted to stand but Chiquita sat down demurely looking on with interest.
“So my dear, can I have your full name?”
“Chiquita Maria Myers,” she said quickly.
Miss Charmers flashed Jess a quick look, “The adoptive parent’s name I take it?” She said having already been told of their tragic death in a letter from Daisy.
Jess just nodded not particularly wanting to tackle the knotty problem of Chiquita’s lineage right then.
But Miss Charmers merely smiled at him and then turning back to the girl said, “And your age my dear?”
There was the fraction of a second’s pause before Chiquita looked down and said, “I’m ten years old ma’am.”
Miss Johnson’s head shot up and she smiled again, “Goodness you are a big girl for ten…so may I have your exact date of birth, Chiquita?”
“December first 1865,” she said off pat.
After a moment Miss Charmers raised a puzzled eyebrow, “Um, don’t you mean 1867 dear?”
“No Miss Charmers it’s…” and then she gave a little gasp, a hand rushing to her mouth and she blushed scarlet.
“Why whatever is the matter dear? I think you must be mistaken if you were born in 1865 that would make you twelve years old.”
“Yes Ma’am.”
Miss Charmers hid a sigh, goodness the children would be here any moment, “So which is it dear?”
“December first 1865,” she said quietly…I am twelve Miss Johnson. I fibbed, I’m sorry,” she said her eyes searching Jess’s for anger.
But all she saw was puzzlement, “Why did you say that sweetheart?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Ma was most insistent I say it. She said I would fit in better and Mike would like me more if I was of the same age,” she said hesitantly.
Then Jess suddenly felt like he’d been hit in the guts by a herd of buffalo…and he gasped as the full implication hit him.
“Mister Harper are you quite alright?” asked Miss Charmers, in concern as she saw the color drain from the rancher’s handsome face.
“You look a little …er peaky?”
“No, I’m fine Ma’am,” he said trying desperately to take a breath so the room would stop spinning.
Miss Charmers merely raised a confused eyebrow before bending to her task once more.
“There we are,” she said smiling up at him, “if you could just sign at the bottom, “and she waltzed off to show Chiquita her seat up near the front by Mike’s.
Then there was the sound of a distant bell ringing and the noise of lively youngsters making their way in and Jess quickly took his leave, giving Mike and Chiquita a wave as he left.
Once outside he almost collapsed against the hitching rail and took several deep breaths as he finally processed the information, he had just learned… Chiquita had been born two years before he and Rosa got together, so no way could he be her pa. He closed his eyes tightly trying to determine if he was relieved or distressed by the news.
Then moments later he felt a light tap on his shoulder and found himself looking into the kind eyes of Mrs Braddock, Doc Sam’s housekeeper.
“Are you quite alright Mr Harper dear?” She asked concern in her kind old eyes.
“Uh, yes ma’am,” he said quickly, “been on the go since first thing. I guess it just caught up with me,” he improvised.
“Well you don’t look yourself at all. You look proper pale and drawn. Now why don’t you come back home with me? I was just about to make the Doctor a nice cup of coffee, he’s been out to a confinement and was in need of a good strong brew on his return,” she said smiling. “So I just popped out for some of Arbuckle’s best…come along then dear.”
The way Jess was feeling it was easier to capitulate than argue, so he merely thanked her and taking her elbow he escorted her down the street to the doc’s office.
Once inside she tapped on the parlor door and opening it said, “A visitor for you Doctor and he looks in the need of a good strong coffee too,” she said as she showed Jess in and bustled off to the kitchen.
“Jess my boy, come along in and take a seat,” said Sam, noting Jess’s pale countenance and slightly dazed look.
“Is it Rosa, has she taken a turn for the worse?” He asked.
Jess shook his head and said bitterly, “Nope but that’s what she’d have us believe…but there again truth and decency have never been Rosa’s strong points.”
Once Jess had slumped down in the armchair opposite Sam, he explained the events of the day before. How Rosa had pretended to be in terrible pain to coerce Jess into feeling bad so he’d give in and wed her, as he put it, rather bluntly.
Sam shook his head, “She does seem pretty devious, although I do feel sorry for her too. Terminal illness can change people drastically you know Jess…”
Jess just looked down not wishing to go into all the dark times he and Slim had experienced with Rosa…her scheming and lying that broke friendships and ruined lives.
He just looked over at Sam and said, “She lied to me Sam, about young Chiquita, she ain’t mine after all.”
Sam’s head shot up and he was speechless for a moment before gathering himself.
“My dear chap, are you sure…the likeness is uncanny.”
Jess just nodded, “Yup I’m sure, she was born in ’65 and me and Rosa didn’t get together until ’67, so it’s impossible.”
“So how do you feel about that Jess?”
The dark-haired cowboy looked down for so long Sam thought he wouldn’t answer…or maybe just couldn’t speak right then...but eventually he looked back up at Sam, his eyes very bright.
“I guess if I’m honest a little part of me is relieved, that I don’t have to do the right thing by marrying’ her ma. I just couldn’t see how me and Millie could come back from that,” and he shook his head and sighed lustily. “Even if it were a marriage in name only and I was widowed soon after…well I guess no woman would stand for that. Not even my Millie and God knows she’s the most patient, understanding girl a man could hope for. So yeah, I’m kinda relieved.”
Then he sucked in a deep breath before continuing. The strain clearly visible on his lean face, “But part of me is hurtin’ Sam…hurtin’ somethin’ fierce. She’s a great kid and any man would be proud to be her pa,” and he ran a hand over his face as his emotions threatened to overwhelm him. It felt like he’d been given a precious gift, only to have it snatched away again.
Luckily at that moment Ma Braddock hurried in with the coffee and by the time she’d finished fussing with cream and sugar, not to mention a plate of freshly baked cookies, Jess had once more regained his composure.
When the housekeeper had left them in peace Sam turned back to Jess. “What will you do?” He asked peering at Jess over the rim of his cup, his eyes full of compassion.
“Find out who the father is. According to Rosa the birth certificate is lodged at the bank, if you can believe anything she says,” he added bitterly. “Then I guess I’ll go home and confront her…”
Sam nodded. “Look Jess I can see how terribly upset you are by all this and…”
“Upset! Dang it Sam that don’t go anywhere near it! You don’t know the half of it! She’s played me and Slim for fools more than once. Jeez I should have woken up to her when she got two friends killed trying to rob a saloon to keep her in jewels and purty clothes. Then another buddy killed himself because of her meddling. But did I learn?” he asked angrily…and shook his head. “But I’ve learnt now Sam, I’ve learnt real good and she ain’t upsettin’ me and Slim no more.”
“So you’re going to throw her out?”
Jess looked down and eventually calmed down a little, “No I guess not.”
“Look Jess this is none of my business, but she is my patient and terminally ill to boot. Please just simmer down before you go saying things you might regret… Not now maybe, but later when she’s passed over. Words can’t be taken back and you can’t reconcile things with dead people.”
Jess bowed his head, “Yeah I guess you’re right,” he muttered.
Sometime later he made his way purposefully down Main Street to the Laramie Bank. It was still quite early in the day and he got an appointment with George Cole the Manager right away.
“Why Mr Harper, how good to see you,” the rotund little man said as Jess was ushered into his office. “Please take a seat, now what can I do for you this morning?” he asked beaming and nodding obsequiously.
Jess hid a smile, what a difference a few hundred bucks in the black made compared to just a few bucks in the red he mused. Yup old George Cole had been fawning all over them ever since the check had come through from the proceeds of the sale. Green Jack, the antique Jade figure, had changed hands for an eye watering amount of cash. Even now with the stock replenished, more prime grazing land bought and the Mortgage paid off, they were still relatively well-off.
After declining a cigar Jess came straight to the point.
“I believe you have some documents belonging to Miss Rosa Lopez stashed in your Safe and I really need to see them Mr Cole.”
The bank manager tried to hide his disappointment that a transaction was not in the offing and took on a slightly cagey look.
“Uh well I don’t know Mr Harper, this is most irregular, I mean it wouldn’t be permitted by any of my usual customers,” and he sighed deeply as though making a momentous decision, before relenting and smiling once more.
“However, you being one of our greatly valued clients I think I can make an exception,” and he rang the bell on his desk to call a lackey to fetch the papers.
“That’s mighty big of you,” Jess said smiling politely, the sarcasm completely lost on the self-important little man.
When the documents arrived a few minutes later Cole removed them from the folder and said, “What information is it you require sir?”
Then almost as an afterthought, “I’m assuming you do have Miss Lopez’s permission to view the files?”
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Jess said with an innocent smile. “It’s the Birth Certificate I need to see. Miss Lopez’s daughter started school today and there was some mix up over her date of birth…the school need it for their records ‘tis all.”
“Of course, I see,” said Mr Cole looking a little uncomfortable that Miss Lopez was an unmarried mother, and mentally shook his head, but said nothing, merely slid the document across the desk for Jess to check.
George Cole was used to Harper’s somewhat volatile temper. In fact, he had unfortunately been on the receiving end more than once when funds had not been made available due to lack of cash in his account. However, nothing prepared him for the look on the young cowboy’s face as he perused the document before him.
He looked deeply shocked, his face suddenly drained of colour and he cussed softly under his breath, before shaking his head and cussing again more loudly. His expression now stricken…
Jess just stared at the name of the father and couldn’t believe his eyes…how could this be so?
He was shaking and could feel cold sweat running down his back…
His mouth was so dry he could barely speak and he croaked,” Birth Certificates, they can’t be messed with, changed...they’re a legal document, right?”
“Indeed sir, and any incorrect information can lead to a lengthy jail sentence or fine,” he said seriously.
“I thought so,” he growled before getting up quickly and heading for the door. Then he finally paused remembering his manners.
“Er thank you Mr Cole, I appreciate it,” and with that was gone.
“You’re welcome Mr Harper, please do call again,” Mr Cole said, but the door had already closed behind Jess.

Jess stormed into the ranch house sometime later to find Slim, Daisy and Rosa sitting around the table in the parlour enjoying a mid-morning coffee.
Daisy looked up smiling, “Did you settle her into school alright Jess?” She asked before rising to fetch another cup. Then something in his demeanour made her stop in her tracks.
Jess was glaring at Rosa his eyes black with fury.
“Why,” he almost whispered, then more loudly, “why did you lie to me Rosa?”
She visibly blanched and said, “What are you talking about mi amor, I no lie to you, I wouldn’t do that.”
“The hell you wouldn’t,” Jess bellowed, “why did you tell me I was her Pa when you knew dang well I wasn’t…have you any idea how that feels Rosa…have you?”
She just gaped at him and in the pregnant pause that followed Daisy glanced at Slim and then back to Jess, “Maybe we should leave you two together to talk in private dear?”
Jess’s eyes never left Rosa’s face but he said quietly, “No don’t go I want you both to hear what she’s done.”
“So come on then Rosa, let’s hear it, why?”
She looked away unable to bear the pain that was now in his dark blue eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she finally whispered. “We need you. I can think of no other who could be such a good papa to her.”
“What?” Jess asked scathingly, “Not even my brother? Dontcha think Wade would be good as a Pa huh? Or did he just up and leave ya? Typical Wade, the going gets tough so he runs for the hills, just like he did after the fire,” he said bitterly.
Then his eyes narrowed, “But I thought Wade died at Shiloh and that was back in ’62…so he couldn’t be her pa, any more than I could because she was born in ’65 wasn’t she Rosa?”
When Rosa said nothing just looked stunned, Jess said, “Yup I saw her Birth Certificate this morning, with her date of birth and the name of her pa… so were you lyin’ about that too?”
“No!” She cried.” You do not understand Jess he did not die at Shiloh, he was badly injured and was sent home to recover…back to the Panhandle. I was back there too, my aunt had died and I inherited her house…we met and fell in love and the result was Chiquita.”
Jess just shook his head trying to absorb all this new information and finally said, “If that’s true why didn’t he marry you, give his child a name?”
“He didn’t know about her. He was eventually well enough to return to the war, but he did not want to leave me, it was towards the end of the war that the military came for him and he had to return to battle…the very following week I found out Iwas pregnant.”
“That still don’t answer my question,” Jess spat angrily, “where is he now, why ain’t he carin’ for you both if he weren’t killed?”
She bowed her head and whispered, “He was killed just weeks before the end of the war…I never saw him again.”
Jess sighed deeply, the anger draining from him and he slumped down into a chair at the table opposite her.
“You could have just told me about it all,” he said, in a defeated tone. “God knows you had the chance. That night we camped out when we were waiting for Skeet and Cole to meet up with us. We talked about Wade then...you even pretended you didn’t know he was dead.”
She shrugged, “I needed to know if he had ever told you about me and him. I thought if he had you would have nothing to do with your brother’s ex-lover…and I wanted you for myself. I even thought I might get Chiquita back from the Myers if we Wed. When I knew I was pregnant and Wade was dead I moved up to be with my friends in Denver, the Johnston’s and they supported me and even introduced me to Mr and Mrs Myers and they took my baby,” she said sadly…a tear rolling down her cheek.
Then Jess looked enraged yet again.
“Hell Rosa, why didn’t ya tell me? I would have taken her in…my brother’s child. Of course, I would. You know dang well how important kin are to me. I’d planned to go to Denver, you know that…but you chose to go and work for that bastard Jason Hugo instead,” and he just shook his head words failing him for once.
Rosa clearly had no answer to that and merely said, “I am tired mi amigo, I must rest,” and quickly rose and left the room.
Once the door closed behind her Slim put out a comforting hand and squeezed Jess’s shoulder, “Oh pard, I’m so dang sorry,” he whispered.
Daisy took out her hanky and blew her nose words failing her. What sort of mother gave her baby away and then when the chance came to possibly reclaim her, went to work in a house of ill repute instead? It was just unimaginable to her.
Pulling herself together she fetched a cup for Jess and poured him a strong coffee
He gave her a brief smile of thanks and took a welcome sip.
“So what will you do dear, it will be very hard for you having Rosa stay here after this and what of poor little Chiquita?”
“I guess we can’t throw Rosa out with her bein’ so sick and all. But I’m keeping out of her way,” he said bitterly. “As for Chiquita she’s still kin Daisy, even if I ain’t her pa…I’m her uncle and it’s my place to look out for her.”
Daisy gave a little sigh of relief. “I’m glad, she’s like a breath of fresh air and I’m just totally amazed at her resilience. To lose what she thinks of as her parents and then to have her birth Mother so ill must be a terrible strain and yet she is just so cheerful and brave.”
“Uh, that’s because she don’t believe her folks are dead Daisy, just can’t face it I reckon. As to Rosa she ain’t told the kid how ill she is. She said she couldn’t bear to do it,” he said gruffly, “so I guess that’s down to me.”
An uneasy truce was declared between Jess and Rosa and he did his level best to stay out of her way. But what he couldn’t avoid was telling Chiquita the truth about their relationship, the fact that he was her uncle and not her pa.
He had taken her off down to the creek fishing, even though the weather had turned decidedly cooler and there was a nasty little wind blowing up with the promise of stormy weather approaching. However, they had found a sheltered place in which to sit and fish in the lea of a huge rock near the water’s edge and were settled down in companionable silence.
When it came to it and Jess disclosed the fact that he was her uncle and not her real pa, she took the news extraordinarily well, showing a maturity beyond her years.
Her large deep blue eyes looked earnestly into Jess’s, “It really doesn’t matter what I call you Uncle Jess,” she said, “you are kin and I love you and that’s all that matters.”
Jess felt hugely relieved, “I guess that’s right.”
She nodded, “I know and anyway I have a papa and I really wasn’t in need of another, because he’ll be here to fetch me home soon.”
Then thinking she might have hurt his feelings she said, “But I do love it here really I do and I’ll come back and visit lots. But you see mama and papa only have me, and you have Mike and Aunt Daisy and Slim, you do see?”
Jess just nodded, “Sure I do honey...but if your pa didn’t come…you know, couldn’t… then you can stay here for as long as you want OK?”
She beamed at him, “Thank you Uncle Jess…and my other Ma too? I think she might be lonely when I go home?”
“Sure, and Ma too,” he said softly. He was just about to say that her Ma was pretty sick and might not always be around, but then had second thoughts. The kid had enough to cope with without anything else he figured…maybe when Rosa got worse would be time enough to explain.
It was a few days later when Mort Cory rode in to see them.
Rosa was resting in bed, the children at school and Daisy off visiting a friend so it was just Slim and Jess around.
He called out as he tethered his old buckskin by the horse trough and made his way over towards the porch, but Slim poked his head out from the barn, “In here Mort.”
The Sheriff mooched over and grinned at Slim. But when he saw Jess in the back of the barn mending harness, he sobered some.
“Slim. Jess I need a word.”
“Uh, you’re looking mighty serious Mort, what’s my pard been up to now?” Slim said only half jesting as he had seen the way Mort had glanced at his buddy.
“Well I’ve a feeling Jess here ain’t gonna be too happy about what I’ve got to tell you,” Mort said, slumping down on a straw bale and removing his hat.
“What’s up Mort?” Jess asked, looking suspicious.
Mort studied the rim of his hat for a moment as though it held all the answers to his problems, before finally focusing on Jess’s puzzled face.
“The young ‘un…Chiquita…”
“Yes what about her?” Jess said leaping up from where he sat on another bale, “She’s at school. Then he paled, “there ain’t been an accident has there, Mort?”
“Nope,” Mort said quickly, “she’s just fine don’t fret son.”
“So what is it?” He asked in exasperation.
Mort glanced over to Slim and then back to Jess, “Well it seems she was abducted from her home in Denver a few weeks ago and…”
“What!” Jess exploded, “What do ya mean abducted? Her adoptive parents were killed in an accident in their wagon and her Ma took her on as next of kin, all legal and above board.”
Mort shook his head, “No they weren’t killed Jess, that’s a bunch of lies.”
Then he looked down before sighing deeply. “I have to ask you Jess, did you have anything to do with taking her?”
“What…are you crazy? No of course I didn’t. Hell Mort, I didn’t even know she existed until Rosa landed here a couple of weeks ago!”
“OK, OK simmer down buddy, I had to ask. So where is Miss Lopez now?”
“She’s resting Mort, she’s real sick you know ...it’s only a matter of time,” Slim said.
Mort sucked in a deep breath, “I’d heard she was pretty sick?”
Slim just nodded, “A malignancy, Sam says she’s got weeks rather than months now.”
Mort shook his head sadly, “I’ll need to interview her. But maybe the Myers will go easy on her, not press charges if they know she’s terminally ill.”
“I just don’t get it though Mort. Chiquita said her ma and pa were at a family funeral and she was staying at a neighbor's house for a few days, why did they let the kid go with Rosa?”
“It seems our Rosa is pretty dang devious,” Mort said, “but then we knew that didn’t we?
Jess just said something very rude under his breath and Mort continued.
“Well, she’d paid a guy to go over to Boulder and send a wire to the Sheriff in Denver saying the Myers had been killed in a fatal accident. The Denver Sheriff was out of town and a newly appointed deputy in his place and pretty useless too, reading between the lines now. Seems our Rosa was staying in Denver with some old friends of hers, trying to get the Myers to let her see Chiquita but they’d refused. So she got up real close and personal with this wet behind the ears deputy, as only Rosa can.”
Jess cussed again and Mort raised an eyebrow, “You wanna hear this?”
“Sorry Mort, go on,” Jess said looking slightly abashed.
“When the wire came through saying Jack and Pauline Myers were dead the deputy was happy enough to back up Rosa and told these neighbors that it was all legit and as Rosa was the real mother, by right of birth, she was legally allowed to take the child.” Jess just shook his head in disbelief, “But why Mort? The kid was happy and settled, why’d she do that?”
“This young deputy, Brett Owens, wrote me all about it. I guess he was feeling pretty bad at being duped by her. Seems she heard about your little er…windfall from selling Green Jack and she thought you’d be able to offer the kid more than Jack and Pauline Myers ever could.”
“My God, she really doesn’t change, does she?” Slim gasped, “you always said she was a gold-digger Jess.”
Jess agreed, then asked, “How did they find out she was here?”
“It seems the stupid woman sent a letter to her friend in Denver…with a Laramie post mark. Well this old friend, Annie Johnston, was more of a friend to the Myers I guess, because she went and told them…The upshot is they’re on their way here, should land at the rail head noon tomorrow.”
It was Jess who broke the news to Chiquita later that day, and at first she took everything in her stride. “I told you Uncle Jess! I said Pa would be back to fetch me didn’t I?” Then she threw her arms around him and for the first time burst into tears.
“Hey honey, what is it?”
“I feel so strange…I’m so happy I could burst…but I’m sad to be leaving here. I’ll miss you so much Uncle Jess, Aunt Daisy, Slim and Mike too!”
But no mention of her other Ma Jess noticed.
Mort had visited with Rosa and told her the game was up and as Jess had predicted she broke down in floods of tears, getting almost hysterical.
“Can you not understand the depth of a mother’s love Sheriff?” she wept.
However, her histrionics cut no ice with Mort.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but I don’t see any motherly love here. You just tried to exchange the loving relationship that little ‘un had with her adoptive parents for the money you thought she’d inherit if you got Jess onside, that’s the truth of things isn’t it, huh?”
Then she started groaning and carrying on and saying she needed to rest and he gave up, his parting shot, “Abduction is a serious crime ma’am, let’s just hope the Myers are able to show you some mercy.Otherwise I’m afraid we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other, sick or not,” he said dryly before he turned on his heel and left.
Daisy spent a good hour trying to calm her down. But she was practically frantic, saying she had to see Jess and eventually Daisy gave in and said she would ask him to visit her for a few minutes.
“I can’t Daisy, I’ll only end up sayin’ stuff that’ll make things worse,” he said. Remembering doc Sam’s sage words, ‘you can’t reconcile things with the dead and words can’t be taken back.’
“Please dear just for a few minutes, she’s working herself up to fever pitch. She really can’t see young Chiquita in this state and she needs to say goodbye. Mort has arranged for her to go back with her parents tomorrow.”
Jess rolled his eyes, “OK, but just a few minutes and then send Chiquita over to say her farewells.”
As soon as he entered the bunk house Rosa sat up in bed looking surprisingly well Jess thought. Even though she had been distraught, according to Daisy, she seemed to have managed to apply her makeup and brush her long dark hair. Yup even though she was now desperately thin, she was still a looker.
“You came my love,” she said her eyes burning with passion as though this was some lover’s triste rather than an awkward meeting where one of the two parties really didn’t want to be there.
“You wanted to see me?” he said briskly.
She pouted a little at that and patted the bedside chair, “Why so serious mi amor?”
Jess sank down in the chair and raised an eyebrow, “You really have to ask?”
“I do not understand,” she said looking perplexed.
Jess sighed deeply, “Hood winking me into believing Chiquita was mine, then not telling me she was actually my brothers…not to mention the little matter of lyin’ to the kid that her parents were dead and then abducting her…that’s enough ain’t it?”
She looked hard done by then…not an iota of remorse Jess noticed, and said, “But mi amor I did it all for us do you not see?”
“Huh,” he asked looking astounded, “so how do ya work that one out?”
“I thought we could be a family. We still could if Chiquita would come away with us. You have money Jess we could leave here start a new life….”
“Are you crazy?” he yelled looking as mad as all get out. “You’re facing a possible jail sentence for what you’ve done and you’re talking of going on the run and taking me and the kid with you?”
“Why yes,” and she leaned over and caressed his face tenderly, “We were good together Jess, so good and we could be again…I know with you at my side I could fight this illness, get well again, I know I could. It is all about you Jess…it has always been about you...”
At the mention of her illness his anger died and he bowed his head, taking a deep breath. When he looked back up at her his eyes were full of compassion.
“I’m sorry sweetheart, but that ain’t so and you know it don’t you. You’re too sick to ever get well again…and sure you can stay here like I promised and we’ll all see you through this. But Chiquita has to go home, you know that dontcha? She’s missed her ma and pa something fierce. Yes, her real ma and pa Rosa, those people that brought her up…that love her and she has to go home to them.”
Just then there was a gentle tap on the door and Chiquita was there, running over to the bed.
“How are you tonight Ma?” She asked politely.
“Very well mi bebe, and look at you, so grown up and lovely.”
The child smiled down at her ma, “Aunt Daisy gave me the pretty red ribbon and Uncle Jess treated me to a new dress,” she said with a little twirl, showing off the brightly coloured checkered pinafore dress. It’s for best of course. Sundays and I shall wear it when I see mama and papa tomorrow,” she said excitedly.
“Beautiful,” Rosa whispered, “you look so beautiful my angel.”
“Jess explained to me all about how you made a mistake and they weren’t killed in a crash after all,” the child continued cheerfully. Not an ounce of recrimination in her tone Jess noticed, just joy at her imminent reunion with her beloved folks. Jeez was there no end to this kid’s strength of character, taking everything in her stride, it really was a miracle she was so resilient he thought, or maybe just the way she’d been brought up?
“Of course, you must look your best,” Rosa agreed, ignoring the comment about the crash. Then Jess noticed she was looking emotional and figured that maybe the visit should be curtailed. Preferably before Rosa started getting real upset again and in turn distressing Chiquita he thought.
“I guess your ma’s kinda tired Chiquita,” Jess said quietly and the child took the hint.
She leaned forwards and kissed Rosa on the cheek, before looking concerned, “You will not miss me too much?”
“I’ll try not too, my darling child and maybe when I am better, I will come and visit yes?”
“Oh yes,” the child said clapping her hands in delight, “that would be wonderful. Uncle Jess can bring you when he visits.”
“Right that’s settled then,” Jess said quickly taking her elbow and steering her towards the door.
“Good-bye sweet angel,” Rosa called out.
“Good-bye Ma and I’ll see you real soon,” Chiquita replied as she skipped off towards the house.
But Rosa called Jess back and he took his place once more on the seat by the bed, “Huh?”
“Can you please tell Daisy I will rest tomorrow, please not to disturb with the breakfast…I am exhausted from…everything, you understand?”
Jess nodded, “Sure I’ll tell her.”
Then she said softly, “Kiss me goodnight?”
Jess paused by the bed, looking wary…
“Please mi amor, one last kiss?”
He leaned over and she kissed him…oh so passionately…so tenderly.
When he pulled back her eyes were huge and brimming with tears, “Good night mi amor…”
He stood up, his heart pounding as he went slowly over to the door and paused, ‘’Night Rosa,” he said, his eyes conveying so much compassion that her tears finally spilled over and ran unheeded down her cheeks.
“Good-bye, be happy Jess,” she said softly and he left closing the door quietly behind him.

The following morning all was hustle and bustle as they packed Chiquita’s belongings up and were finally on the way to town in the buckboard by mid-morning. The girl had said goodbye to Mike earlier and promised to write and agreed that he must come and visit her in the school holidays.
Now Chiquita was sitting between Jess and Slim, rattling on cheerfully about her beloved pony, parents and friends. Her little face was shining with delight at being reunited with them all. It took them longer than usual to make it to town however as there had been a storm in the night and the torrential rain had turned the road to a mud bath.
They had arranged to meet up with her parents at the rail head and they were booked to return home on the next train out and just made it in time.
However, when the time came for her to say goodbye to Jess, she had burst into tears, much to the distress of her mama and papa, who looked on helplessly.
“Hey sweetheart, I’ll come visit, Mike too, I promise,” he said softly, giving her a final hug.
Then Jack Myers was pumping his hand, “Thank you for looking after my little girl so well.”
“I’m just so dang sorry we didn’t know the truth of it all sooner,” Jess said, “and its real understanding of you not to press charges against Rosa.”
Pauline Myers shook her head sadly, “By all accounts Miss Lopez is a troubled soul and maybe it is partly our fault for refusing to let her see Chiquita, but we didn’t want her upsetting the child.”
“I guess we’d feel the same, if it was Mike,” Slim said earnestly, “and at least it’s all resolved now.”
Shortly afterwards the conductor called, ‘all aboard ‘and in a flurry of final hugs and kisses they were gone.
Jess stood looking down the track until the rail car disappeared from view, all that remained its melancholy whistle on the wind.
Slim who had been standing patiently by, saw the stricken look in Jess’s eyes and slapped him warmly on the back. Then with an arm slung around his shoulders, he marched him from the rail head. “Come on pard you look like a man sorely in need of a drink,” Slim said quietly.
Once they were settled at a table with a beer apiece Slim said, “What happened between you and Rosa last night? I sure hope you didn’t lose your temper Jess. I guess the poor woman’s gotten enough on her plate what with Chiquita going and you not in the running anymore…she must be really down, huh?”
Jess took a pull of his beer before he replied, “I guess so, and no I didn’t lay into her…well not too much,” he said glancing up and throwing his buddy a wry smile. “But no I couldn’t stay mad with her for too long…after all she is dyin’ and I figure it won’t be too long now either.”
“Well she ain’t got nuthin’ left to live for has she? She said she wanted…” and he sighed, grimacing.
“Uh, wanted what Jess?”
“Oh some damn fool notion about me, her and Chiquita goin’ off and startin’ a new life together. She reckoned she could get over this sickness if I went with her.”
“That’s crazy talk, she’s so sick now there’s no coming back from it, Sam said.”
“I know….”
“Jess please don’t tell me you’re feeling sorry for her after all she’s done,” Slim said looking incredulous.
Jess just shrugged and took another slug of beer.
Then moments later Tom, the barkeep wandered over.
“I clean forgot to tell you Jess. Millie wired me. She’ll be home next week, said I was to tell you special. Wants to meet up next Friday she said.”
Jess’s eyebrows arched in question, “That all…no other message for me?”
“Nope, just to be sure to be there, she needs to talk with you real urgent she said,” then he marched off to serve a querulous customer, wanting attention that very minute.
Jess sank his head in his hands and groaned.
“What’s up,” asked Slim looking surprised, “you’re pleased she’s coming home, aren’t you?”
Jess looked up at him, “Of course I am yeah…but maybe I shouldn’t have wrote her….”
“You’ve written to her…what about?” Then light dawned in his eyes, “Oh no Jess don’t say you told her you were thinking of making an honest woman of Rosa for Chiquita’s sake?”
“Uh…well not in so many words no. But…well I did kinda tell her what was happening yeah.”
Slim shook his head, “Oh boy…don’t you think it would have been more diplomatic to wait until she was home to discuss it?”
“Tactful, considerate Jess…I mean you know the way you phrase things in a letter, she might have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick, misunderstood your motives, you know?”
“I didn’t have no dang motives, was just tryin’ to do the honorable thing…”
“Yes, I know that and so do you, but Millie might not see it quite that way.”
Jess downed his beer and got up to fetch them both another, muttering, “Women. I just can’t figure ‘em…thought I was doin’ right tellin’ her what was happenin’.”
It was getting on for noon when they arrived back at the ranch and they over took the Stage on the way in, just beating Mose into the ranch yard.
He grinned down as the men jumped down from the buckboard.
“Well that was a dang close-run thing,” he said cheerfully, “Nearly had to change the critters all on my lonesome.”
“Would we do that to you?” Jess said with a smile as he went off to collect the fresh horses.
“Are you coming in for coffee?” Slim asked as the men worked.
“Nope, thank you kindly, gotta head out, I’m running a tad late as it is…the roads are so dang dirty after that storm last night, ruts a foot deep and the horses don’t like it one little bit, slows ‘em down you know.”
Once he had headed out Slim threw Jess a concerned glance, “I figure the creek will be rising we should really go and check the home pasture fences after dinner Jess. We sure don’t want any of the critters getting in the river like last year.”
“Jeez no, that’s for sure,” Jess agreed, “and it’ll be full to bursting after all that rain last night too,” he said as the men made for the house and their midday meal.
They threw their hats on the pegs by the door and Jess marched over to the kitchen to check out how the meal was progressing, whilst Slim went off to their room to wash up.
Jess lifted a rattling pan lid and sniffed before grinning across at Daisy, “Chicken and dumplings my favorite,” he said with a cheeky grin.
“Well I thought you might be in need of cheering up dear, what with that sweet child going home today.”
Jess looked down for a moment, “You’re right there I’ll sure miss her.”
“Oh me too dear, so she got off alright?”
“Yup and her folks were real nice too, not pressing charges, so Rosa’s in the clear.”
“Oh thank goodness, she really didn’t need that on top of being so ill.”
“How is she?” Jess asked looking anxious.
“I’m not sure dear. I left her this morning as she requested and then I looked in about an hour or so ago. I just peeked in from the door, but she appeared to be sleeping soundly. It’s not like her, she’s usually up and about by now, I fear she’s may be getting weaker.”
Then she looked thoughtful, “She should be awake by now though. Would you mind popping over and just checking, she might like some food if she’s feeling better after her rest.”
Jess felt a little reluctant at going over after the heightened emotions and kiss of the night before, but he couldn’t escape it.
“Go along dear, this will be ready in a minute,” she chivvied.
When Jess hadn’t returned after a few minutes she started dishing up and called out from the kitchen, “Slim dear could you just see what’s holding Jess up. I want to know if Rosa is dining with us.”
Slim entered the bunkhouse and saw Jess sanding by Rosa’s empty bed a note in his hand and he strode across.
“Where is she?” he asked, before he saw Jess’s anguished expression.
He held the note out, his hand shaking. “She’s gone,” he said.
“What do you mean gone? She didn’t catch the Stage and she’s in no shape to ride, or walk too far either,” Slim said looking baffled.
“Read the Goddamn note Slim,” Jess barked.

‘Mi Amor, I can take no more. I have lost everything, your love, my daughter and soon my dignity and my life. My darling Chiquita told me of you fishing together at the creek…there is a special rock where you talked and laughed together…you will find me there…and there I shall dwell forever. It is hard to die when those you love go on…but please remember how you and I once were and try not to think too badly of me, adios mi amor,

Both men stared at each other for a moment before bolting for the barn and their mounts.
Even as they galloped the short distance across the home pasture to the creek, they could hear it. The noise of the flood waters rushing through the narrow gorge, before it opened out into a wide tributary of the Laramie River.
The men had ridden bare back not waiting to saddle up and Jess arrived first throwing himself down from Traveller’s back and leaving him to graze as he tore on down the slippery bank towards the large riverside rock that they always used as a fishing platform…and then he froze.
Slim tearing down behind cannoned into his buddy, nearly tipping them both into the swirling cauldron of icy water just feet below them.
“What the hell?” The usually mild mannered Slim cussed…and then he saw what his pard was staring at. The black Spanish lace shawl Rosa always wore was snagged on a tree branch beside the fishing rock.
After a moment Jess jumped down and pulled it free, holding it close, her usual heady perfume emanating from it, sending his senses reeling, as his eyes scanned the river below them.
“Goddamn it she’s jumped, she’s done killed herself Slim,” he cried in despair.
But before Slim could react Jess turned and pushed past him making his way back to where the horses were quietly grazing.
Slim turned and followed him, “Where do you think you’re going?” he yelled against the deafening noise of the foaming waters below them.
“See if I can find her of course. She can’t have been in long…Daisy checked on her just a little while ago.”
“Are you crazy Jess, nobody could survive in that for more than a few minutes never mind an hour or more…she’s gone pard, just accept it.”
“I can’t do that Slim, dang it, this is my fault…I should have realized she was feeling so bad.”
“Jess stop it…none of this is down to you.”
Then Slim looked thoughtful.
“Do you think it could be one of her little scams to really put the wind up you? We know how she can be. Maybe she planted that shawl hoping you’d assume she’d drowned. Then when she turns up alive and well, you’ll be so relieved you’ll suddenly realize how much you care and you’ll up and marry her, like she wants. In her dreams that is,” he added bitterly.
“Hell Slim, she’s devious…but this?”
“Look why don’t we go back to the ranch and tell Daisy what’s happening and see if she’s turned up. If not, we can saddle up properly and bring some rope back…just in case we can find her huh?”
Jess merely shook his head stubbornly. “I can’t leave Slim she might be hanging on to a branch or somethin’…maybe even managed to get out…”
“If she was ever in,” Slim muttered skeptically.
When it became clear that Jess wouldn’t budge Slim opted to ride back and check and also fill Daisy in on what was happening.
“I’ll meet you at Hanson’s Creek in about an hour,” Slim said referring to a wide bend in the river with a sandy shore and a bluff with a small grove of pines. “You can see for miles up and downstream from there, I’ll bring the field glasses,” and with that he rode off.
Slim finally returned with ropes, field glasses and a spare blanket, at the insistence of Daisy, just in case they found Rosa alive.
He rode up the hill overlooking the creek and leaving Alamo to graze advanced upon the small group of tall pines at the top of the rise.
At first he didn’t see Jess and then he heard Traveller give a little whinny of welcome and Alamo reply, so knew his pard must be around someplace.
He called out and wandered over towards the trees and then after a moment finally saw Jess sitting slumped down, his back against the tree and head bowed.
Slim quickly walked over, “Hey Jess I’ve been yelling... didn’t you hear me?”
Then he stopped in his tracks as Jess raised his head, the look in his eyes one of utter defeat.
Slim hunkered down beside him and put out a gentle hand, “Dang it buddy you’re soaking.”
Jess’s clothes were sodden, his hair dripping and water running down his face.
He ran a sleeve across his wet face and swallowed hard, but said nothing.
“Jeez you’ve been in haven’t you… are you mad?” Slim cried as realization hit him.
Then he looked down and saw the scrap of scarlet material clutched in his buddy’s hand.
It was the same color as Rosa’s favorite dress.
Jess shook his head and said quietly, “I guess it weren’t one of her little scams Slim.”
Slim took in a deep breath, “You found her…the body?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope just this…no sign of her yet.”
“Yet…what do you mean Jess she’s gone. You’re not going to keep looking surely.You’re soaking wet and it’s a fool’s errand, we might never find her,” Slim said.
Jess stood up shakily and said, “You do what you damn well please Slim, but I ain’t going home without her.”
It was growing dark and they had been riding along the river bank for a good while when Slim spotted something in the tangle of branches of a fallen tree by the edge of the river. He took out the field glasses and focused them before cussing and passing them to Jess…
“Over there a few feet from that big rock, where the tree’s down,” he said.
Jess took the glasses and after a few moments slowly lowered them, “Dear God no,” he whispered before spurring Traveller on to the grim discovery.
They wrapped her in the blanket and Jess insisted on laying the body across Traveller and he walked all the way back, leading his mount slowly on through the encircling gloom of the chilly fall evening.
When they got back to the ranch Daisy ran out and then gave a little cry of dismay as she saw the weary men, Jess leading his mount with the distressing burden.
Slim slipped down from the saddle and ran over to her, holding her close for a minute, before steering her gently back into the house, emerging again a few minutes later.
Meanwhile Jess had walked Traveller over to the bunkhouse and carried Rosa inside placing her almost reverently on her bed and he stood staring down at her deathly white, but still strikingly beautiful, face.
Slim came in and stood close to him, saying nothing both men overwhelmed by the events of the afternoon.
When Jess final spoke, it was with bitter resignation, “This was all my fault Slim I should have realized last night…you know what her `last words to me were?”
Slim just looked at his buddy and waited…
It was a few minutes before Jess could speak and when he did his deep gravelly voice was thick with emotion, “She said ‘goodbye be happy Jess.’ I should have realized what she meant,” he said his eyes tortured.
Slim gave him a gentle slap on the back, “You couldn’t have known pard, none of us could.”
Jess sank down on the bedside chair…the place he had sat just a few short hours ago and remembered how she had asked him for one last kiss and he could bear it no longer as he bowed his head, tears threatening to engulf him.
Slim put out a hesitant hand to Jess’s shoulder, “Come on in Jess you’re soaking wet and freezing, come and get warmed up huh?”
Jess gave a little nod, “In a minute pard, just give me some time alone will ya?” He asked his eyes now fixed on her face as white and still as though carved from marble.
Slim nodded and turning made his way to put up the horses and then fetch Daisy.
Daisy came in ten minutes or so later and Jess was still sitting beside Rosa’s body, head bowed as though in silent prayer. Then she saw him look up and stare at her beautiful face with such terrible sadness in his dark eyes.
Daisy stood on the threshold watching for a few minutes, her old heart bleeding for him, before she finally made her way over to the bed.
Placing a gentle hand on his shoulder she said kindly, but firmly, “You must go in now dear, Slim has heated some water for the tub and you need to go and warm up, you’re shaking with cold.”
Jess tore his gaze away from Rosa and peered up at Daisy as though he didn’t know her, his expression dazed, until he came to his senses.
“OK,” he said quietly, but made no move to get up.
“Come along now Jess, I need to do a last kindness for poor dear Rosa, you understand don’t you?”
Daisy had laid out many a poor patient in her nursing days and yes, he knew exactly what she was alluding to.
That finally stirred him and he arose slowly like he was an old man and leaning in held Daisy close for a moment, “Thank you,” he whispered before making his way slowly out of the bunkhouse and across the yard.
Slim took charge and guided his buddy into their shared room where he’d placed the tub full of hot soapy water but Jess just slumped down on his bed.
Slim eventually helped him strip off and found clean underwear and an old robe of Andy’s for when he got out and dried off.
Jess finally looked at Slim as he tied the cord around the robe and gave his partner the ghost of a smile. “Remember that massive crush young Andy had on her when she came to visit last time?”
“Don’t I just,” Slim said, his eyes twinkling, “that was the first time he shaved and I figure we both realized he was growing up, not a little kid anymore.”
Jess sucked in a breath, “Heck Slim, where’s Mike does he know?”
“Nope, he was abed when we got in, it’s real late you know Jess, nearly eleven. Daisy just told him we’d had to go out on business and he assumed Rosa was resting.”
Jess sighed with relief, “That’s good…but I guess we’ll have to tell him tomorrow…and then take her into town, make the arrangements.”
Slim nodded looking equally upset. The mention of her last visit had brought back memories of the night of passion he had spent with her all those years ago. Yes she had betrayed him, used him abominably, but part of him still had feelings for her. Glancing over at Jess he wondered if he felt the same or his wretchedness was born of guilt maybe.
“You really couldn’t have stopped her you know Jess. And if you’re thinking that if you’d done as she wanted and taken off for a new life with her and Chiquita…well that wouldn’t have worked either, you know that don’t you? She really couldn’t come back from that illness; her days were numbered.”
Jess nodded, “Sure, but it don’t make me feel any better Slim. She was one hell of a difficult woman, devious and garldarn wanton, we both know that. But I still wouldn’t have wanted to see her end it this way…”
“No…no I guess not buddy,” Slim said softly.

In the end it was Daisy who broke the news to Mike and although he was deeply saddened, he was more upset for his new friend.
“It must be awful to find your Ma and then lose her again so quickly,” he said thoughtfully.
Daisy nodded, secretly thinking that it was Pauline Myers who had been the real ma to the child and decided she would be the best one to break the news. I’ll write to her directly after breakfast she thought, before getting on with preparing the repast.
It was a subdued meal, with little conversation and Jess merely pushed his food around the plate before giving up and just drinking several cups of coffee.
Once the meal was over and Mike departed for school, they could put Rosa’s last journey off no longer and they carefully placed her in the buckboard and set off for town.
The arrangements were made with the Undertaker, for a simple private service later in the week and then Jess made his way to the Bank to collect her papers.
He met up with Slim in Mort’s office a little later where his pard had reported the sudden death to the Sheriff.
“Nasty business,” Mort said sitting back in his chair and tipping his hat back. “Jeez I can’t help but feel kinda guilty about this. I was…well less than sympathetic with her the other day.”
“Join the club,” said Slim, casting his buddy a sideways glance, where he was perched on the edge of Mort’s desk. “Hotshot here blames himself too.”
Mort shrugged, “I guess it goes with the territory when a suicide occurs, such a sad waste of a life and we all feel we should have been able to prevent it some way,” he said shaking his head sadly.
It was doc Sam who finally managed to put their minds at rest, to some degree.
He had been out on a call when they arrived in town earlier and Mrs Braddock had said he needed to go to the Undertakers and confirm a death.
Now he wandered into the office with the death certificate and joined the other men.
“A sad business,” he said shaking his head to decline a coffee as Jess gestured to the pot.
“I had a feeling she might do something of the sort,” he said honestly, “we discussed it.”
“Well why didn’t you blame well tell us Sam!” Jess said angrily.
“I figured it was her decision Jess. She had asked me to give her some pills and I refused of course. After all it is my mission to save life, not snuff it out.”
“So…why’d you keep it a secret then?” Jess said belligerently.
Sam sighed, “I suppose I may have made an error of judgement. You see she promised that she wouldn’t take her life while she was at the ranch. Said she didn’t want to upset the children or yourselves either. She said her plan was to go back down to Texas and spend her last days there. She had got it all organized so she said.”
“News to us,” said Slim. Then he looked thoughtful,” she must have changed her mind after Chiquita was reclaimed.”
Jess just shook his head, “I figure she really thought I’d cave in and go back home to Texas with her and the young ‘un.”
Sam nodded, “Maybe so. But what I can say is that her dying that way was probably a blessed relief for her. I know she was sore afraid of the illness and indeed she would have had a very distressing end, so maybe this is the best outcome we can hope for?”
Slim nodded, “They do say that if someone is hell bound to commit suicide than nothing or nobody will stop them.”
“Indeed,” said Sam softly.
Jess still looked slightly unconvinced, but then there was nothing he could do now and so he just had to try and put it all behind him and move on… but it was hard real hard.
It was later at the ranch that the two men, along with Daisy, read Rosa’s Will and saw that everything had been left to young Chiquita, such as her personal effects were. Mostly clothing and of course the jewellery that had been lavished on her by various men over the years. The one exception to the bequeaths was that Jess should have the little silver locket that she always wore.
“I’ll fetch it,” Daisy said, who had already parceled up all Rosa’s things and cleaned and tidied the bunkhouse. “It’s so pretty,” she said as she passed it over to Jess.
“I wonder why she wanted you to have it?” Slim said, admiring the sparkling oval locket.
Jess looked sadly at the little piece, in the palm of his hand for a minute before saying quietly, “Because it were me that gave it to her.”
Slim looked astonished, “That must have cost you a pretty penny Jess.”
He just nodded, “Yup sure did…but I guess I thought she was worth it back then. It was when we first got together,” and he sighed at the memory.
Then he flipped it open and passed it back to Daisy to see the picture within.
“Oh my, she was so very beautiful Jess…and you, why you look so very young and handsome.”
She passed it back to Slim and he looked at it and then handed it back to Jess. “She looks stunning, I can see why you first fell for her…why I did too,” he said softly.
Daisy looked up in surprise, but decided maybe now wasn’t the time to start probing into Slim’s past romances…especially not if they involved Rosa.
“Where was it taken dear?”
“At a traveling fair back in Colorado Springs, we were happy, real happy, or so I thought. That was until she threw me over to go work for that bas…er that Jason Hugo,” he said bitterly.
“That was the biggest mistake of her life you know dear,” Daisy said earnestly.
“Huh, what do you know about it Daisy?” Jess asked raising a questioning eyebrow.
“Just what she told me dear, that she was lured into that world of acting as a hostess because she thought it to be glamorous. Said she was just bowled over by Jason’s promises of the high life and the prospect of being wined and dined by all the bigwigs in town. And she was honest Jess, she said she just craved the attention and the power she had over them all. Able to give or take away her favors on a whim…Until it all turned sour and she realized she was just a prisoner in a seedy demoralizing business, no better than a slave.”
Jess looked shocked, “She said all that?”
Daisy nodded, “Oh yes, she has really poured out her heart to me these past few days. In fact, I think she really wanted me to appeal to you on her behalf…but I would never do that. I know your heart lies with Millie and I tried to explain she was wasting her time…But she was just so insistent that she could win you over it was impossible to change her mind. That’s why she always wore the pendant,” Daisy said again looking down at the picture, “she said she needed to feel you close.”
Jess shook his head and looked down, “It would never have worked Daisy, she always wanted more than I could ever give her… more than any one man could I guess.”
“I know she truly regretted walking out on you…all her life,” Daisy said softly.
Jess just stared at her and then he remembered the last time he had sat with Rosa and her words came back to haunt him… “we were good together Jess, so good and we could be again…I know with you at my side I could fight this illness, get well again, I know I could. It is all about you Jess…it has always been about you...” and he could have wept…too late, it was all too late.

The funeral went by without incident and Jess and Slim tried to regain their peace of mind, but it was so very hard, the death of Rosa constantly with them.
Then the following Friday Millie was due home, but Jess was viewing her arrival with mixed feelings. Sure he had missed her something fierce and all he could think of was holding her in his arms…but…. Why oh why had he written that dang letter?
Maybe it was because he was worried that some worthy widow woman would hear of Rosa’s presence at the ranch and feel it her duty to write and inform Millie. Or maybe he was just missing her friendship and sensible no nonsense advice that was the reason he’d told her of his dilemma. Whatever the motive he had written and now he just wished fervently that he had kept his own council.
Jess entered the saloon mid-afternoon. Knowing the place would be pretty much deserted save for a few diehard bar flies sipping their whiskey.
He stood in the shadows by the entrance for a moment, seeing her behind the bar polishing glasses and sharing a joke with Lily.
He was quite unprepared for the way his heart jerked, practically jumping out of his chest at the sight of her, his stomach doing a neat flip and his mouth suddenly dry. Jeez he could use a beer…But he had the feeling that a garldarn gallon of ale wouldn’t make him feel any better. He had to face the music and just hope and pray his girl would be understanding. Hell, why had he sent that letter he thought again, amazed at how dang gullible he’d been believing everything that Rosa had told him. How Chiquita was his daughter. How he’d considered doing the honorable thing…and damn it after all that the child was his brothers…
Nope it was no good he just had to throw himself at Millie’s mercy and if she wanted to finish with him over it, then he’d just have to fight for her.
He advanced towards the bar like a man to the gallows, swallowing deeply before saying, “Howdy Millie.”
She spun around from where she’d been chatting to Lily and as soon as she saw him her face was a picture of delight…but then it clouded.
“Why Jess Harper I’m surprised you’ve got the nerve to show your face here after what you’ve done!” She cried looking real put out.
He flinched and took a step backwards, “Gee sweetheart I’m real sorry…”
“Don’t you sweetheart me!” She yelled really getting into her stride now.
“Look I can explain, it was all so dang difficult and I….”
“Difficult? Difficult! Alright Jess I know you didn’t get too much schooling, but that really is no excuse!”
“For not writing of course…I’m away nearly a month and no letter, not one…heck I didn’t expect poetry or even a love letter, but you might have written me.”
Jess stood still trying to process this new turn of events, she was mad because he hadn’t written?
“But…but I did,” he finally managed.
“And where did you send it?” She asked a look of disbelief in her dark brown eyes.
“Where ya told me, to 160 Vine Street Boston Ma, right?”
Millie sighed deeply, “Sixty Jess it was sixty Vine Street.”
“Well that ain’t too far away, didn’t they pass it on?”
“No, they didn’t it’s a big city Jess, folk don’t hardly know their next-door neighbor never mind folk several blocks away.”
Then it suddenly hit Jess, she hadn’t got the letter…she hadn’t got the letter thank the Lord, he was in the clear.
“Well I’m real sorry Millie, but maybe I can make it up to you now huh…show just how much I have missed ya?” He asked with his sweetest smile.
Millie’s heart was lost.
“Lily, will you cover for me,” she asked, “if Jess and I just go up to my room for a little while and …er… catch up on the news?”
It was only the Friday night rush that occasioned Tom to ask Lily to get Millie down to help serve. Heck he was as big a believer in romance as the next man…but right then he needed all hands on deck.
So it was that Jess spent the evening propping up the bar drinking and spending as much time with his girl that her work allowed. Maybe that was why he was somewhat less than circumspect later that night, the drink having a slightly tongue loosening effect.
They had gone back up to her room and made love again and now they were sitting in front of a blazing fire enjoying some supper before turning in. After a while Jess put his plate down and said, “What was so urgent? You said in your wire to Tom that you needed to talk to me urgently?”
“Oh yes she said looking excited, it’s Tad and Mathilda, they had a little boy you know …did I say?”
Jess rolled his eyes, “Only about twenty times.”
“Ah…sorry, well anyway, the good news is that they are coming to live over in Cheyenne. It’s what Tad has always wanted a spread like Pa’s back on the Panhandle. He’s saved hard and got the deposit on a little place just to the north of town.”
“Well that’s swell I bet your Ma’s pleased?”
“Oh she really is, she’s missed the ‘baby’ of the family,” she giggled.
Then she sobered, “Anyway Tad said especially to ask you if you’ll be the Godfather when the baby is baptized. They’re holding it over until they move next month…so will you Jess?”
He looked kind of shocked so Millie thought and she grabbed his hand.
“It’s OK, I know you’ve no idea what it feels like to be a father, but you don’t need that experience really. You just have to promise to look out for him, help him when he needs it and make sure he knows his Bible you can do that huh?”
Jess looked stunned and then delighted, “Sure, sure I can do that…and actually I do kinda know what it must feel like to be a Pa…”
“You do…how so?” Millie asked looking puzzled.
“I think there’s something you should know Millie….”


Jess never regretted telling her the truth about Rosa and in some strange way sharing the burden of guilt he still felt, helped to eventually dissipate it. Especially when he knew Millie understood everything that had happened.
Yes, Millie was upset and hurt at first. But gradually she began to comprehend his predicament. Then apart from being indignant on his behalf at Rosa’s scheming ways, she was wonderfully understanding and that brought them even closer together.
He never forgot Rosa and always wondered what would have happened if things had been different. But he knew really in his heart that it could never have worked…
However, he kept in contact with his niece, visiting her often, and was a great friend and mentor in her growing up, as he was with Tad’s son young Charlie.
Chiquita kept in touch with her Uncle Jess, even when she went back east to train as a Cancer Nurse and she was one of the leading nurses in this field throughout her working life. She married quite late, but had two boys who were a great source of comfort to her, the elder boy Daniel being the spit image of Jess and definitely had the Harper family genes.
Now whenever Slim and Jess looked back to that time it was with sadness. They remembered a beautiful woman who was, as Pauline Myers had believed, a troubled soul.
“She was always craving attention and seeking the love she had never received as a child.” As Daisy said sagely one evening when the subject of Rosa came up again.
“There are some people who seek the unobtainable all their life and I think dear Rosa was one of those people Jess. She wanted the security and love you could offer her, but also the glamour and excitement of being a hostess…and no man could have accepted that, least of all you my dear.”
Jess had nodded, “I just wish she could rest in peace,” he said softly.
“I’m sure she is dear,” Daisy had said kindly, before going off to replenish the coffee pot.
But Jess knew better.
Sometimes on a lazy summer afternoon if he was down at the creek fishing alone, he felt her presence close by.
He heard a soft whisper in the reeds, “Jess, mi amor…mi amor….”
Sensed the musky perfume she always wore, on the breeze….
Was it just the wind in the water reeds and the perfume from the wildflowers in the meadow?
But whatever it was, the memory of Rosa lingered, and would for all time, just as she had said in her last note. “There is a special rock where you and Chiquita talked and laughed together…you will find me there…and there I shall dwell forever.”
And in his heart Jess knew that was the truth of it. Rosa would remain there forever, finally achieving the closeness she had so craved in life…in her death.
The End
Thank you for reading.

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